Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Black Swan

Black Swan
Grade: No rating
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Director: Darren Aronofsky

The Criterion version of the classic 1953 musical The Band Wagon includes a brilliant lost dance number by Cyd Charisse called Two-Faced Woman.

The lanky Texan with the French married name performs a delirious routine in a sleek black outfit. For all the Technicolor appeal, the outtakes reveal something you don’t expect. You get to see Charisse screw up. There are moments in the creation of all that magic when her body (and her five-inch heels) let her down.

Charisse could dance as the elegant priss, the prim damsel fantasy. But ask her to play a devilish seductress and she would cut loose, a beauty fully aware of her beauty and confident in her sexuality. Watching Charisse dance isn’t just watching someone execute steps. It’s to assume she is good in bed.

This duality is the torment of Nina, played by a resurgent Natalie Portman, in Darren Aronofsky’s erotic ballet psychodrama Black Swan. She has plenty of the steps but none of the seduction. She’s the sort of young woman still asked if she is a virgin. Even at 28, she lives in a pink room, locked inside her overbearing mother’s creepy cryogenic chamber of adolescence. Her window sill has fluffy stuffed animals serving as prison guards to prevent her escape.

As her ballet troupe casts Swan Lake, the gifted, fragile dancer is seen as a natural for the lead role of the angelic White Swan. But to get the role, she also must dance the seductive Black Swan. Can she also dance the Black Swan? The head of the dance troupe (a sharp Vincent Cassel) isn’t so sure. What he needs is for her to seduce the audience like the naturally flirtatious new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis). He needs Nina to lose herself in the performance. But losing yourself sometimes means just that – losing your self.

From the category of fortunate accidents – I recently viewed Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. For all the clear references to The Red Shoes and All About Eve, Repulsion and Black Swan seem like companion pieces that share several elements – a frail female sinking into paranoid fantasy, a libidinous sister figure, and even a freaky-gory scene with fingernails and oozing blood (eek!). Both films have the same basic purpose – to re-cast a woman’s paranoid inner life and frosty sexuality as a horror story.

This brand of film always leads me to ask (suspiciously): are these insights recognizable (not necessarily realistic, but recognizable) to women? Or is this the received wisdom of men about women, derived from movie formula rather than insight? It’s possible that I lost the authority to answer this question nine months before my birth, when I lost the grand zygote lottery in the birth canal.

Perhaps I need to watch the film less literally and more emotionally. Dance and dance films are often about the transformative power of emotion. The power of the musical is the feeling that our emotions can transform the real world into the emotional realms of imagination.

Dancers become the physical embodiment of the emotion of the audience. They become the physical embodiment of emotional ideals. Their bodies are sacrificial, objects of beauty whose frailty is the impediment to the unachievable. A dancer strives for perfection at the expense of physical (and mental) breakdown.

Black Swan labors on the stress with ample attention to physical exertion and deterioration. It showers attention on broken nails, dislocated joints, mystery rashes, and bulging arm veins. A wound adorned in feathers resembles a bleeding vagina. Nina’s physical and mental ordeal in the pursuit of the ideal suggests – like Mickey Rourke in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler – a sense of martyrdom.

In the end, Black Swan doesn’t take its own creative advice. It never gets lost in the performance. For all the talk of a crazy descent-into-madness finale, it feels more controlled and studied (even cliché) than unstable. The movie screams for the dark anti-Fred-and-Cyd dance number to send all dance numbers to hell. It even tries. But it never shakes loose enough to get there.


Grade: A
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson
Director: Tony Scott

I loved Unstoppable.

I loved every improbable, electric minute of Tony Scott’s runaway train movie. I loved its ludicrous start. I loved its “Why didn’t they do that in the first place? Because then we wouldn’t have a movie” ending. Most of all, I love the fact that it’s red meat for the Great Tony Scott debate – is he a cinematic genius or a cinematic vandal?

First and foremost, Unstoppable returns Scott to his best action instincts with appealing simplicity. A runaway train loaded with toxic chemicals cruises through rural Pennsylvania toward a certain derailment among thousands of people. Denzel Washington, all relaxed and authoritative, and Chris Pine are the veteran-rookie conductor team who chase down the “missile the size of the Chrysler building.” The chase includes relentless pace, a dead-man’s curve, and a spectacular attempt to drop a Marine onto the bullet train from a helicopter.

Yet Unstoppable isn’t really a movie about a runaway train. It’s a movie about a runaway society. Like Domino, it portrays a rapidly changing America struggling with disintegrating institutions and identities. It’s set in fossilizing towns of blue-collar Pennsylvania, focusing on a rusting railway industry that once signified American industrial power. Now it seems like a leftover of the past.

Within its high-speed antics, Mark Bombeck’s script quietly ties in almost every social anxiety ailing our country in recent years – failing elites, corporate malfeasance, cronyism, unionized incompetence, downsizing, the devaluation of age and experience, cost-benefit anti-morality, creaky crisis management systems exposed by the test of reality, and that lingering suspicion that we’re going to turn on the television any day and watch thousands die. I’m sorry, friends of The Social Network. That was the decade I just lived.

With the institutional rot and breakdown, it naturally falls to a pair of workaday palookas to save the day. The problem is that they don’t trust each other. Frank Barnes the engineer is a veteran being forced into retirement. Young conductors like Will Colson are snatching their jobs through connections and favoritism. Needless to say, it’s not a happy cabin, and Pine chose the wrong day for a first day of work. Like the passengers of United Flight 93, they are ordinary people deputized by fate to stop a disaster.

Their chase takes place underneath the pestilent eye of modern communication – the railway sensors, the two-way radios, the news choppers attracted to the possibility of death. Everyone knows a little. The audience knows some. Corporate busybodies know something else. The control room (headed by a strong Rosario Dawson) knows a little more. Evaporating the space among them is Scott’s filtered, fast-edit, multi-camera ping-pong style, a frequent target of criticism. However, the style simulates a world of multiple isolated viewpoints, built from pieces, lingering in fracture and distortion.

For all the larger social forces acting upon the train chase, Scott evinces a remarkable belief in the individual. As the corporate figures falsely present their evil calculations as certainties, Scott places an enormous amount of faith in hunches and experience. When Washington and Pine finally catch the train they even use ancient railworkers’ hand signals. They’re like ancient mariners communicating in a dead code. It is part of a story that shows faith in the regenerative powers of all things human.


Grade: B
Cast: Mandy Moore (voice), Zachary Levi (voice)
Director: Nathan Greno, Byron Howard

Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair ….

Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen ….

As a friend of mine noted, we are entering an age of collective amnesia. We no longer have to remember anything anymore. There are no long debates over beers about factual details. If there’s a disagreement, the conversation ends and someone pulls up Wikipedia.

For example as I get older, I no longer remember the storylines of fairy tales, and I want to know, can I trust Wikipedia? If Wiki is wrong, is it possible to tell the wrong story, impart the wrong meaning, and mis-teach a child?

Getting it right might be especially important with Rapunzel. As fairy-tale sexual metaphors go, the story of a certain hairy girl rides to the top of a very phallic tower. A witch traps a young woman with extremely long, rich hair in said phallic tower. A young prince climbs the tower using Rapunzel’s long hair, planning to marry the young woman. When the witch discovers the ruse, in some versions due to a growing belly, she confronts and blinds the prince. If children don’t get the story straight, then how will we prepare young boys for overbearing mother-in-laws? They need all the time they can get.

Disney's animated Tangled is a modern update that follows the Grimm story in many ways and departs in many others. Rapunzel goes from the daughter of paupers to a lost princess with magic hair that can replenish youth. Her selfish stage mother refuses to share her secret with the outside world. The prince is transformed into a sly rogue thief, who stumbles on the startled tower dweller, meeting the flat side of her frying pan. Rapunzel forces the thief into a date outside the tower, traveling to watch distant flying lanterns that are released each year on the lost princess’ birthday. Good morning Starshine ….

By and large, Rapunzel’s hairy adventure is not a letdown. The visually striking Tangled is vivid in both its colors and its details. The 3-D is more than a gimmick and adds depth of field.

So yes, give me a head with hair.

Morning Glory

Morning Glory
Grade: C
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum
Director: Roger Michell

What’s wrong with being happy?

Contrary to the evidence presented in adult-focused movies, you might never know there are happy people out there. It’s true. I’ve ignored them at parties. But I never see them onscreen.

In Morning Glory, Rachel McAdams plays a lemons-to-lemonade go-getter named Becky Fuller, with all the spritely dewiness that such a wide-eyed name conjures. Addicted to work and hapless in love, she lands her dream job as a producer on a last place network morning show. Her overenthusiastic job interview leads her boss (Jeff Goldblum) to ask, “Are you going to sing?” She seems less like a news producer and more like an auditioner for Glee.

McAdams’ unicorn attitude meets her non-match in Mike Pomeroy, IBS’ former nightly news anchor and resident black cloud. Having grumbled his way out of the network’s anchor job, he acquiesces to Fuller’s request to join the morning show. Cooking demonstrations and light banter with Diane Keaton really aren’t his thing, at least not on camera. A spiritual battle of wills ensues between McAdams’ girly bangs and Ford’s gravel-bed voice for the integrity of the show.

The infinitely up-with-life McAdams will draw comparisons to Holly Hunter in Broadcast News (and Melanie Griffith in Working Girl). However Hunter’s energetic producer was trying to preserve the integrity of the newsroom. She would have regarded McAdams’ sweetie-pie infotainment whippersnapper as the face of evil. McAdams doesn’t win her battles because she’s right. She wins because she’s so darn likable. Lowering your standards isn’t just a survival strategy; it’s good for you! Good Night, and Good Luck, this is not.

Morning Glory seems like it should be better, like the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The script, by The Devil Wears Prada scribe Aline Brosh McKenna, feels smart – or perhaps just educated – but predictable. When Ford cooks up a frittata in front of McAdams at his apartment, everyone knows it’s destined to show up at an important moment later in the film. (Everyone except the producer, strangely, who’s on the lookout for any soft news contribution that he might make to the program.) The occasional comedy breakthroughs point out how much fun you’re not having the rest of the time.

McAdams is a perky natural at the one speed that the script and director Roger Michell has to offer her, but sometimes she leaves footprints of “acting.” Ford is a real treat, dispensing one-line wisdom from his cold, dead tongue. That said, I never quite settled into their relationship, as it has less to do with reality than script manipulation.

Like its irrepressible lead, Morning Glory is trying too hard to please. I like what it is trying to do more than what it has done.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Due Date

Due Date
Grade: B
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx
Director: Todd Phillips

Lately in movies there has been an epidemic of obvious music choices.

For example, the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” ends The Social Network. In Due Date, a Motown song about getting back to my baby opens the film as expected father Robert Downey Jr. prepares for a cross-country flight home to his very pregnant wife. It doesn’t end there. Is there a more obvious choice for a drug scene than Pink Floyd? If you have a touchy scene involving a dead father, what better way to spice it up than Neil Young’s “Old Man,” one of three songs known to make grown men cry.

Yet Due Date, Todd Phillips’ follow-up to the mysteriously popular The Hangover, makes the obvious choices work consistently. It takes an obvious two mismatched-strangers-on-a-road-trip movie premise (Robert Downey plays Steve Martin. Zach Galifianakis plays John Candy) and makes it funny and occasionally moving.

Much of what works has to do with the chemistry between its leads. Downey is not just a natural as an uptight professional with a deadpan wit. He’s also a very good supporting actor who sharpens the performers around him. He sharpens Galifianakis, and the two have great fun playing off of one another (at least once, you can see Downey starting to crack up in the background). The comedian is helped by an emotional undercurrent of missing fathers, giving him a chance to do a little more emotion and a little less random chaos generation. A little less.

Due Date draws the cannonball dynamics of male friendship competently. It’s not as strong in this area as Sideways or The Big Lebowski, but it’s better than many films. Downey’s character swings between irritation and a fatherly desire to guide and comfort Galifianakis’ man-child.

Things that Due Date does right: it’s quite funny and doesn’t waste its comic premises, such as the everpresent coffee can with the surprising contents that becomes a recurring third character. The comedy style relies more on clever observation than vulgar disgust. Even the obligatory vomit projection has a touch of tenderness. (One last thing: in two films, Philllps and cinematographer Lawrence Sher have shown a real talent for shooting desert vistas.)

There are a few times that it goes too far, asks us to believe too much. A single comic car crash is one thing. Two comic car crashes is hard to take. And when was the last time you saw an entire crew of attractive stewardesses on a domestic airline flight like it was still 1975? Seriously, whatever happened to attractive stewardesses? Perhaps they should retitle this Planes, Trains and Time Machines.

Whatever mistakes Due Date makes are done with enthusiasm more than cynicism. Either that, or I’m getting old and soft. Take your choice.

Inside Job

Inside Job
Grade: B
Cast: Matt Damon (voice)
Director: Charles Ferguson

As I write this review, the Federal Reserve is embarking on a near trillion-dollar program that it hopes will stimulate the economy. Quantitative Easing amounts to Helicopter Ben Bernanke printing money in order to horse-whip capital off the sidelines and into circulation.

You might think this is the best thing to do. Or you might think it's a last-ditch backdoor stimulus and taxation without representation (by devaluing the money that you have sitting in the bank). You might even be looking at wheelbarrow investments and polishing your father’s 1975 vintage Whip Inflation Now button.

If you think this is another handout to a politically-connected banking industry, you might be interested in Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. The much-praised documentary takes a biting, long-term look at the institutional corruption that fed the financial crisis we’re still trying to escape. The film’s big achievement is boiling down the truth without dumbing down the truth.

This damning view of the US financial system starts with the major players in their roles during the Savings and Loan crisis of the late 80s, proceeds through the 90s boom and the Internet Bust, and finally plows through detail after detail of the subprime mortgage fiasco that resulted in the Great Recession of 2008. Ferguson points to consolidation and rapid growth of the banking industry as the main culprit, fueling riskier and riskier investments. Ultimately, perverse incentives led risk-taker bankers to make billions of dollars in housing loans for which they had no good reason to expect repayment.

That’s not where it ends. Ferguson goes through painful detail of the political-financial inbreeding that enabled the housing crisis. Figures from both worlds bounce from Wall Street to Pennsylvania Ave. doing what’s best for the big banks. Neither Republican nor Democrat is spared. Those who should be blowing the whistle fail to do so. Those that do are ignored. The best moments are when participants are cornered over their roles in rubber-stamping the subprime crisis, then shown to have survived with reputations and power intact.

I don’t agree with all of the premises. For instance, the movie shows a graph of the proportion of recent tax cuts the very rich received. But it doesn’t show the amount that the very rich pay. And it doesn’t show the amount that that revenue might have generated through circulation in the economy. Also the film doesn’t draw much of a line between sinister intentions and honest mistakes. What appears like corruption is, I would guess, sometimes incompetence.

If you want a cynical, snappy explanation of the bank bailout, here’s one. They stole your grandchildren’s money so that bankers could still pay for their cocaine and call girls. There is a whole, whole, whole lot more to it, but it's a shocking little sentence that does a nice job summing up the risk, dissolution, corruption, and narcissism. And if this little documentary doesn’t get you fired up about macro-economics, nothing will.

127 Hours

127 Hours
Grade: C
Cast: James Franco, Clemence Poesy, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn
Director: Danny Boyle

In movies, nothing good ever happens on a mountain. Unless you’re Julie Andrews, and good things happen to you everywhere.

There’s Kevin MacDonald’s documentary Touching the Void, about a mountain-climbing expedition shot to hell. And what was that mountain disaster movie that at first advertised its cannibalism but later changed to a “triumph of the human spirit” angle?

I‘m not sure if 127 Hours is technically a mountain movie, but it’s close enough to invoke the rule. Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire trails a rugged young outdoorsman, Aron Ralston, who finds his arm pinned beneath a boulder. In a crevice. In a desert national park. Cut off from civilization. Running out of water. With only a small knife to keep him company.

No matter how you slice it, 127 Hours is a movie that builds up to and away from its one big moment. The good news is that it has one big moment to build up to and away from. The bad news is that if you know what’s coming, and most viewers will, it sometimes leaves you wanting to cut to the chase. Somewhere around the 41-hour mark, I wanted the film to be chopped down and retitled 67 Hours.

Nevertheless, most viewers will be entranced by the story’s grotesque circumstances. They will like James Franco’s performance as the hiker, whose experience leaves him both more of and less of a man.

Being an arty project, we know there has to be meaning derived from the moment. Boyle chooses to ruminate on the nature of human connection in the face of terrifying isolation. We enter the film through shuffling images of random crowds, images in search of a grand point. The images of human connection stand as a counterpoint to the isolation of nature and Ralston’s Lone Wolf personality.

Stuck in a rut, slices of Ralston’s life flash before his eyes. He imagines his loved ones, whom he keeps at arm’s length, and the only woman that ever really mattered. It’s a little like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (except without the eye-rubbing, head-shaking, and one critic’s prayers for divine relief). There is also a tinge of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.

For a while, Franco has been a star-in-the-making that Hollywood couldn’t quite figure out what to do with. It appears the answer is, stick him in a hole. Ralston is a role that takes an actor out on a limb, because it is a lot of doing not much, and it’s all about you. For the most part, his performance never snaps a branch.

The arthouse loves a good grotesque rural survival story. It’s a way to enjoy a good horror film free of a feeling of slumming and guilt. Why just this year, there’s Kelly Reichardt’s forthcoming Meek’s Cutoff, and we’ve already seen Winter’s Bone. Whereas Cutoff and Bone would appear to be traditional indies, 127 Hours contains an element of horror, as well. So come, enjoy the terror, and feel fine about it.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Grade: D
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Karl Urban, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss
Director: Robert Schwentke

“Roger that.”

They were trying to sneak that one past me. The first Bowen Rule of the Cinema: There has never been a good movie that contains the phrase “Copy that.” But what if they say, “Roger that,” instead? What then? Does the rule apply?

Let’s face it – from the first spunkless assault-team cliche amid Bruce Willis’ suburban Christmas decorations, Red had “copy that” written all over it. But it took awhile for the inevitable to happen. After an hour of wondering if I would need a Synonym Corollary, the movie finally coughed up the “copy that” that we could all see coming. You’ve heard that the criminal wants to confess? So it goes.

It’s not that “copy that” is a cause of a bad movie, nor some linguistic leprechaun that plants a bad film at the end of the rainbow. Rather “copy that” strikes me as a leftover of lazy screenwriting, a symptom of less than 100 percent effort. It means that in all the time from script to screen, no one bothered to imagine a better thing for the character to say.

Laziness is something that I want to talk about in relation to Red, a languishing DC Comics adaptation about retired CIA assassins fighting against people who want them in permanent retirement. I want to talk about it in terms of this proposition: Irony in action movies is dead.

It used to be, particularly in nineties indie cinema, that you could take a stock movie situation, remove the serious character, introduce a quirky character in that place, and voila, you have satire. As a famous example, there’s Harvey Keitel’s “cleaner” character in Pulp Fiction, a play on the dead-serious cleaner in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita.

Once upon a time, that sort of flip ironic detachment counted as hip and satirical. But after so many times, irony has come to hide lazy screenwriting and characters we don’t care about. When a film sells itself with the calculated oddness of 65-year-old Helen Mirren firing a machine gun, the familiarity of the irony reflex means it has lost the satirical charge. It’s just lazy and flat and dead. To misquote Bruce Willis … Red’s dead, baby. Red’s dead.

Take a look at the successful action movies this year, stuff like Inception and The Town. There are romantic strands in both films. Some would label these strands cliche or melodramatic. To say that is to miss the point: these romantic strands are intensely sincere. The successful action films of late share that sincerity. The unsuccessful ones (like Red or Knight and Day) are void of sincerity. They float in the comic-geek netherworld of unreality. Even the explosions don’t really mean it.


Grade: B
Cast: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher
Director: Tony Goldwyn

Why are so few people talking about Conviction?

Is it boring to talk about Hilary Swank being very strong in a quintessentially awards-style role? Over-awarded or not, it shouldn’t stop talk of how real and involving she is as Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts waitress who saves her imprisoned brother by becoming a lawyer and absolving him of murder.

Swank is sturdy as the accidental lawyers and Sam Rockwell lights it up as the convicted murderer, Kenny Waters. Swank’s great advantage is that she fits so easily as a normal person, with perfectly measured emotional range. Rockwell plays a barfight scene in a totally new way, teetering between violence and comedy. Swank may be the backbone of Conviction, but Rockwell is the heart.

Conviction is a type of film rarely made about women – movies about obsession. Usually female film obsessions are about age, looks, and men in that All About Eve sort of way. Far fewer are films, particularly obsession films, about women at work, as with Conviction. The movie plays like a female counterpart to David Fincher’s Zodiac, a film about male obsession surrounding a real-life unsolved murder mystery.

For all the talk about Conviction being conventional (traditional might be a better word), it rarely goes for the expected payoff to a scene. Even a courtroom scene that offers plenty of chance for riotous jubilation gets an admirably underplayed treatment by director Tony Goldwyn. (The director of Diane Lane’s A Walk on the Moon gets two great female performances from Swank and Minnie Driver.) This crowd-rousing film always goes for something more quiet and more fulfilling. This is a movie that gives traditional a good name.


Grade: C
Cast: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Baker, Dylan Walsh, AJ Michalka
Director: Robert Schwentke

Poor Sham.

In 1973, the magnificent chocolate stallion ran the second fastest time in the history of the Kentucky Derby. His mark remains to this day. He probably had the talent to win horse racing’s Triple Crown. Instead, he has gone down as the forgotten rival to a horse whose only real competition was the limits of reality.

There is a very good movie to be made about Sham, an artsy, angsty Sisyphean drama about the horse that never quite could. Needless to say, that film won’t be made by Walt Disney Studios. Instead, the Mouse House has made an inspirational sports film about Sham’s great rival, Secretariat.

The 1973 winner of horse racing’s Triple Crown, the first horse to achieve that cherished feat in 25 years, became a national sensation. Like a great performer, he saved his best for last. He won the final leg, the Belmont Stakes, by an unbelievable 31 lengths. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest performances in the history of modern sports.

That’s a heck of a story, and we get why Disney wants to bring it to a new generation. However, the tale doesn’t follow the established Disney sports film formula, which wears its heart for the underdogs above all else. So it looks past the horse to find an underdog in Penny Chenery (rendered by the very able Diane Lane), the Denver housewife who inherited the superhorse from her father. It’s fair to say Secretariat is the story of a woman cheating on her family with a horse.

Like a good lover, the horse brings her joy in good times and support during bad times. Secretariat allows the sheltered housewife to become the cutthroat businesswoman that she always wanted to be, as she tries to keep the family horse farm afloat. Her life away from washing clothes becomes a source of empowerment in an era of rising feminism. With a female lead operating in a male world, Secretariat carries a politely feminist tact.

That isn’t a theme you would expect Disney to do well. At times, it doesn’t. Secretariat runs wild with cartoon chauvinism. Take Sham’s owner, who comes across as the Don King of the Battle of the Sexes. The real-life social tension caused by a housewife abandoning her traditional place in the family led to a real life divorce. Here it is only an obstacle to overcome for a moment of uplift. That said, the film pays attention to the balance between family and business that women face, giving the audience a heroine who is easy to cheer for.

Disney sports films are known for never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Secretariat’s corny script (from Miracle scribe Mike Rich) is no exception. It should be hard to ignore the fact that the Meadow Stable won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont the year before Secretariat (with Riva Ridge), but somehow it happens. It’s also left unsaid that this particular Denver housewife went to an Ivy League business school and wasn’t quite the pony circuit beginner that the film portrays. Also, real life 1973 would beckon Ang Lee to turn Secretariat into The Ice Storm 2, but such unpleasantness doesn’t dare intrude (arguably for the better). The Tweedy children are only faux hippies long enough to clean up for a grand ball like the guests at a Very Special Von Trapp Christmas.

If the facts are wrong, the story isn’t. Director Randall Wallace and cinematographer Dean Semler deliver a mostly rousing entertainer due to its charismatic horse, fun race scenes, and Diane Lane’s refusal to let the film sink to the hokey level always tempting an inspirational sports movie. She plays Chenery as a woman whose bite is worse that her maternal bark. She dominates John Malkovich’s eccentric trainer, a rough-and-ready jockey, and two corporate men played by faceless actors named Dylan (Walsh and Baker). She flavors the role with a degree of seriousness that pays off against the odds. This easy backstretch of a movie doesn’t wring out all the drama in the story, but it works for what it is.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman
Grade: A
Cast: Documentary
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Free admission granted

I don’t like to pull out the phrases “important movie” and “This is the one movie you should see.” But if I had to describe a movie as important, and had to say there is one movie you should see, it’s Waiting for Superman.

That’s not to say it’s my number one film for the year. And that doesn’t mean it’s a future classic. In 30 years, this film isn’t going to matter. Our education system then will teach our children for the world of that time. Whether that’s producing graduates prepared to compete in the global economy, or imparting the nuances of prairie dog hunting to survive winter on the freezing plains, we will get the education we deserve.

If there is one thing that left and right have agreed on all my life, it is the public education system stinks. In a democracy, in theory, such a consensus ought to mean that the public demands and receives successful reform. Yet in 30 plus years we’ve barely seen a squirt of it, as the world gets more competitive and our test scores flatline. Davis Guggenheim, the director of the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, explains why.

Past documentaries about children and “inner city life” – even very good films like Hoop Dreams or Mad Hot Ballroom – have emphasized the desire for escape. As such, they present their child subjects as exceptions with the skills or luck to escape tough realities. Underlying these stories is an assumption of fatalism about their situations, that tough lives are unavoidable and a permanent reality for children in these places. Guggenheim’s withering assessment stares right at this belief and refuses to let us buy it.

Waiting for Superman introduces two myth-busting challenges to perception. The first is that bad schools are the products of bad families and bad neighborhoods. Guggenheim points to evidence that the opposite might be true, that neighborhoods might well fail because their schools fail. The second is that we don’t know how to improve the education of these children and that perhaps there is no way to do it. Guggenheim asserts – and it makes the situation all the more damning – that 20 years of charter schooling have given us the solutions, but that entrenched powers dedicated to protecting bad teachers prevent our society from putting them in place.

And that’s the thing, right? We can do something about this. Maybe not everything. Maybe not perfectly. But something. But we won’t. Narrating his own film, Guggenheim examines the success of some charter schools, public schools that operate independently from the rules governing the rest of the system. We visit places like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the KIPP schools that use innovative techniques to routinely produce top-level students. More importantly, these schools do not seem to be the products of a single terrific staff. They reproduce their results in numerous cities across the country.

These schools have been founded by teachers and administrators who were fed up with the failing system. One is Geoffrey Canada, a Harvard-educated reformer operating a charter school in the Bronx, whose childhood fantasies inspire the title. A second is Michelle Rhee. The driven chancellor has fired underperformers and introduced charter school techniques to the horrendous Washington D.C. school system. In real life, she is about to be fired despite her successes. Some writers, particularly on the Washington Post website, suggest Rhee is better at public relations than reforming schools. Whatever her performance, what she says makes sense. When she says we’re sacrificing the lives of children to preserve harmony among the adults, we all know that’s true.

We see the impact on lives by spending time with several inner city children (and one suburban girl – that’s a third myth busted here, that suburban schools are immune). These students are hoping to escape the “dropout factories” of the public school system and attend charter schools. We watch them walk to school, play with dogs, and dream of becoming veterinarians. We listen to the parents speak their fears of their neighborhood schools and their hopes for their children. These aren’t original scenes, but they are necessary scenes. By the end, we feel a stake in the bouncing-ball lotteries that determine which of the hundreds of children will fill the 30ish spots offered by the charter schools.

At first you’re sad because most of these children will miss out on a quality education. Next, you realize the absurdity of having futures determined by the bounce of a plastic ball. Finally you’re angry, because you know that as each child loses his or her future, our society loses something by refusing to give the best available education to the most promising among us. All because a stupid plastic ball didn’t bounce right. And all because we’ve abdicated our responsibility to a stupid plastic ball to make these decisions for us.

Everyone knows who the villains are, bad teachers and those who protect them. Over the past few decades, the teachers unions – the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association – have stifled reform and created employment contracts that make it nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Unions might have been great back when factory workers were being forced to work 73-hour days in between dodging bullets from Pinkerton agents. Nowadays, we know – heck, we even joke about – what happens when unions make ridiculous demands debilitating to the success of an organization. We’ve seen General Motors. In fact, nowadays we own half of it. But unlike car companies, public education systems don’t have to come begging to Congress when they fail; they just raise your taxes. Think of this country’s education system as one slow-motion legalized bailout.

Superman has a gentle delivery, even occasionally humorous, but it is made out of a cool anger. It’s a good anger. It’s the type of anger that gets something done. You know that stiff drink that people in movies take to steel their nerves before they deliver a baby on a plane, or otherwise fight the odds? Waiting for Superman is a cinematic shot of gin for a difficult but absolutely necessary task. Because yeah, our future depends on it.

The Social Network

The Social Network
Grade: B
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Rooney Mara
Director: David Fincher
Free admission granted

I know I’m supposed to get out and help push.

The fight for great cinema is on, and I’m expected to throw it into neutral, hop out, and chug-chug-chug with my hands on the door. We all have to get behind The Social Network and push the crowds to every mall across the country to see this, The Movie of a Generation.

Can I tap the brakes just a little, just a little, without people saying that I didn’t like it? I did. Very much. However, I remember when Baby Boomers chose Reality Bites as the movie of my generation. So I always hesitate to declare one for the next generation. We like to think we are forever advancing as people, and that makes it flattering to pick a film set on the Internet cutting edge. But the rural meth-topia of Winter’s Bone or the collapse of the public education system in Waiting for Superman is every bit as current and relevant.

Still, it’s reasonable that David Fincher’s sharply made, widely praised film is a good candidate. So let’s take the time to celebrate The Social Network for what it is – a very, very good origin story about how the founders of Facebook brought us all closer to our lifetime friends while destroying their own friendships in the process.

You can’t turn around without finding a review that compares The Social Network to Citizen Kane. Critics such as IndieWire’s Todd McCarthy and Salon’s Andrew O’Heir note or dismiss the similarities in the rise of fictional Charles Foster Kane and the portrayal of real-life Facebook genius Mark Zuckerberg.

Is that an accurate comparison? I say, who cares if it’s accurate? It’s such a fertile comparison that accuracy is beyond the point.

Both pictures come from the tradition of American stories in which self-made rich men end up with everything and nothing. Both Kane and Zuckerberg are lonely figures whose drive for success has slowly erased their human relationships. We want to admire our millionaires, because they represent what we deep down desire. We want to feel we can have the American Dream without having the cost be too much to our soul. These stories reflect the deep hesitation we feel toward our sometimes conflicting values.

Kane and Zuckerberg are also privileged young men who fashion themselves as outsiders. They build their empires by imagining bonds with the common man, in alliance against idle and unfeeling privilege. For Kane, this means muckraking newspapers going after the political bosses of the day. For Zuckerberg, this means taking aim at old money Harvard classmates like the impossibly entitled Winklevoss twins (each played by Armie Hammer, who makes it seem like Brendan Fraser is part of a set of triplets). They are rebelling against the power that they know personally. However, these men might be as much a part of what they hate as they are opponents to it.

The big difference, I would say, is motivation. Kane doesn’t shackle its man with a motivation so much as insinuate his motivation. Rosebud is not just a sled or a symbol of lost innocence. It is the manifestation of the one ineffable thing that Kane chases that he can never regain. The Social Network tries to do the same in the form of a lost girlfriend (Rooney Mara). That seems like a stretch. It’s weak in comparison to the accomplishments. But maybe the flaw isn’t failing to find the motivation. Maybe the flaw is looking for it in the first place. Maybe the flaw is not recognizing that some people are just driven because they are.

Written by The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network has a full set of lively characters and performances centered around the living-on-credit decadence of our recent past. Eisenberg comes into his own as Zuckerberg, portrayed as a lonely sadist but also admirably ambitious. Some see him as a monster, but I never reached the point of disliking him. I just thought he was willing to do what it took and it couldn’t always be nice. Some have taken his mistreatment of best friend/original partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) as a hideous betrayal. I thought it reached a point where Saverin was out of his depth. Having been impressed by him in Black Snake Moan, count me as unsurprised by Justin Timberlake as the party boy entrepreneur Sean Parker. Frankly, I’m a little surprised he isn’t a bigger movie star by now.

Fincher’s direction is sharp, typically meticulous and professional. It achieves the level of precision that has characterized his career. That said, The Social Network seems like a collection of good to great moments without a wowser scene. Zodiac has a number of wowser scenes. Kane has a dozen wowser scenes forever enshrined in our collective filmgoing mind. That doesn’t make The Social Network bad. It’s just makes it a little less. It’s just a happy matter of degrees of good.

Let Me In

Let Me In
Grade: C
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Grace Moretz, Elias Koteas, Richard Jenkins
Director: Matt Reeves
Free admission granted

Life is unfair to middle children and remakes.

If Matt Reeves’ vampire coming-of-age story Let Me In had been made before the Swedish original, Tomas Alfredsson’s Let the Right One In, would we automatically think it was the better of the two?

It didn’t work that way, and we’ll never know. What I can say: Let Me In, written and directed by Cloverfield’s Reeves, underlines and capitalizes so much of what was wonderfully understated about the original. Still, this creepy vampire flick, set in 1983 small town New Mexico, is better than most horror films that Hollywood will release anytime soon.

Alfredsson’s 2008 original (you know, the good ol’ days) has a real genius for holding sick or horrifying scenes and daring you to laugh. A great example: a sweet dog stumbles onto a private moment in the woods. The killer is draining blood from a victim, and the fluffy white critter comes and sits, as if he is waiting for a ball to be thrown. In comparison, the same scene in Let Me In is shot strictly for its shock value, effective but one-dimensional. Reeves also misses what I assumed about the original, that the child vampire (Chloe Grace Moretz from Kick-Ass) is a psychological projection of the disturbed 12-year-old boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that enables his Carrie-like vengeance on the bullies around him.

I disliked the first half of this one, when I only noticed what was missing. Then something happened. It suddenly got good. Reeves does a better job at crafting touching moments, and the film is high on creepiness that’s generated fairly – through character and place and the fears of growing up. Will loving a girl free you, or change you, or enslave you? No boy going through puberty knows.

What I do like about the new one is the efficiency. The Swedish version had a subplot about aging hippies with an ending that didn’t pay off for the limping along. It disappears. The cinematography and production design are more elaborate, all darkness and halos of light, spooky and memorable. Reeves and his crew show a real talent for transforming a closed door into more than a closed door.

A couple of pet peeves: Why choose Los Alamos, New Mexico? If you’re interested in small-town metaphors (rather than aimless Cold War metaphors), why choose the home of the National Laboratory and one of the most educated small towns in the country? When the boy tells the girl that no one ever moves there, it’s pretty funny. Everyone who lives there moves there. Unless Los Alamos High School has an unusually great program in nuclear science.

The second pet peeve: You know those painfully over-researched 18th Century period pieces where everything is too much like a painting? Where the dresses are too clean and too perfect and everyone has nice teeth? Let Me In is that to the eighties. It’s loudly full of Ms. Pac-Mans and Now and Laters. And the music? Eleven-year-olds in New Mexico in 1983 didn’t listen to Freur. You were lucky if you had Oingo Boingo. Let’s all take a breath and admit that all they played was Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam.

But I call them pet peeves for a reason. They’re pet peeves, not deal-breakers. In the end, you won’t find a better October horror film this year. Happy Halloween!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go
Grade: B
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, Sally Hawkins, Kate Bowes Renna, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Mark Romanek
Free Admission Granted

Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go is the Harry Potter film for a modern dystopia. It nails much of what I dislike about Hogwarts Academy – the conformity, the noble-minded authoritarianism, the obedient little drone who achieves heroism through destiny rather than sacrifice. Created by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, the Hailsham students of Never Let Me Go are chosen by birthright to save people, as well. They won’t be celebrated, and it will come at great unspoken cost.

Then again, Never Let Me Go is like Blade Runner, isn’t it? Anchored around the lives of characters who are designed to use and dispose. Sacrificial beings for the betterment of others. One film calls death “retirement.” The other “completion.” Each reasons if the characters are worthy of the rights and protections of souls. In style, the film follows in the line of English science fiction like Children of Men as a reaction to this enormously influential forbear. Rather than an eye-catchingly dystopian future, these films strive for oppressive anti-spectacle in a recognizable modern world.

And it’s a little like Inglourious Basterds, right? Each takes place in an alternative history, where it’s certain in one and possible in the other that World War II didn’t end the same way. Nazis, or at least Nazi medical ethics, might have prevailed, with a genteel totalitarianism setting in. The story gives life to that unpleasant little Nietzsche observation that all forms of higher culture are based on cruelty.

And it is a little like the book and film of that other towering contemporary English novel, Atonement. They each follow a love triangle around lives of psychological oppression, lingering on an impressively interior performance by Carey Mulligan. She gets great mileage out of short sentences. They mark monumental discoveries that are really short and simple wisdom.

And maybe Never Let Me Go is like a Pink Floyd song. The famous Dark Side of the Moon track "Time." You truly feel the line “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” And they share that feeling of a whole life being felt in one moment. The time is gone. The song is over. Thought I‘d something more to say.

I’m uncomfortable with things. I’m not sure that Andrew Garfield adds enough magnetism to carry the role of the doomed love interest (Charlotte Rampling, in two scenes, does). As for themes, I’m not sure it’s treading new ground so much as nicely re-treading sown ground.

I didn’t love it. I didn’t connect to it. Yet I reserve the right to. I suspect it is a film that will keep a hold on me for a while. Indeed, never let me go.

Easy A

Easy A
Grade: Pass
Cast: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Aly Michalska, Dan Byrd, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell
Director: Will Gluck
Free Admission Granted

The Easy A might well be for a class in astronomy. This is supposed to be the movie in which the redhead It Girl Emma Stone (Superbad, Zombieland) is born as a star.

If dying stars turn into black holes, sucking everything around them into eternal darkness, then movie stardom defies the laws of physics. Stone absorbs the surrounding creative matter, burns it into a ray of light and shoots it across space and time. If this were a political science class, I would say she transforms each scene – and eventually the whole movie – into a referendum upon her. And that is how a star is born.

Astronomy aside, Easy A thinks of itself as an English class. This teenage sex comedy studies at the school of filmmaking that snatches classic high school literature and resets it in high school. For better or worse, that’s how Shakespeare becomes 10 Things I Hate About You, all so the kids “can relate.” Director Will Gluck and writer Bert V. Royal choose that all-too-mandatory Nathaniel Hawthorne novel The Scarlett Letter. The smart-girl-gone-wild Stone even stitches the letter A on her suddenly spicy wardrobe.

That takes us to drama class. The invisible understudy Olive Prenderghast (Stone) rises to the role of school floozy after a false rumor spreads around school. She becomes the lead actress, creating the illusion of a convention-challenging sex life that doesn’t exist. Like any great thespian she lures other students into her performance, pretending to have sex with school outcasts – such as her gay friend (Dan Byrd) – so they can win social acceptance. Hester Prynne-like, she accepts shame so that others can live freely.

As in many schools, there’s the risk of plagiarism, but really it’s more allusion and talking about your favorites. Royal’s script mentions John Hughes by name, and Gluck throws in an energetic musical number referencing Matthew Broderick’s famous singalong in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Otherwise, the verbose snark, at times, reminds of Diablo Cody’s Juno. A snotty Christian student (Amanda Bynes) brings a bit of Mean Girls or Heathers.

It might be more sensible to grade Easy A with a pass-fail system. It is very attentive one minute and looking out the window the next. Why create delicate differences in rating its success? Everybody gets what they expect, and everybody gets the point.

The Virginity Hit

The Virginity Hit
Grade: D
Cast: Matt Bennett, Zack Pearlman, Nicole Weaver
Director: Andrew Gurland and Hunt Botko
Free Admission Granted

The Internet was born out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Military planners were confronted with the question of how to maintain command and control during a nuclear war. A decentralized method of electronic communication was proposed, leading to a communications system that could transport information long distances almost instantaneously.

All of that danger. All of that ingenuity. All of that technology. All so that a foursome of buttfucks could film the end of their friend’s virginity for Youtube.

And when I say buttfucks, I really do mean buttfucks about the unsympathetic characters in The Virginity Hit. Sometimes we let young people off the hook too easily, hoping they will grow out of their childish impulses and one day transform into productive clockmakers. Not on my watch. When you secretly film and record sex with your girlfriend – or worse, when you don’t have the balls to tell your friends not to record it – you deserve your teenage virginal tragedy.

This intentionally obnoxious comedy, produced by Will Ferrell and his frequent collaborator Adam McKay, takes inspiration in the casual sadism of the teenage years. Its boorishness passes with little reflection or commentary, accepting the world of digestible Internet voyeurism.

The voyerism is perpetuated through a fake documentary style familiar to its co-directors, Andrew Gurland and Hunt Botko (The Last Exorcism). The film uses unknown actors, shoots on handheld cameras, and imitates a Youtube video. In films like The Blair Witch Project, this style conjures a heightened state of reality. In films like This Is Spinal Tap, it serves as an ironic framing device for the absurdity. This one has too many implausible moments to be the former, and too few laughs to effectively do the latter.

I was reading a John Hughes quote the other day about teenage life. He described it as the period of time when each person takes life most seriously. It’s true that Hughes made his share of hormonally charged movies, but his characters often possessed serious and vulnerable sides rarely spotted in today’s teen movies. Watching The Virginity Hit, I wondered, do these kids have thoughts? Do they talk about life? Or is every minute consumed with sex, drugs and Youtube?

Going the Distance

Going the Distance
Grade: C
Cast: Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, Christina Applegate, Other people who are just happy to be in a movie.
Director: Didn’t this thing just direct itself?
Free Admission Granted

One of the great things about useless romantic comedies is how easily they break down into question and answer form. Observe the Drew Barrymore-Justin Long long-distance get-together Going the Distance.

Q: Is it funny?
A: Eh, not bad. The leads dish out their easygoing dirty-mouthed patter with bland precision, and there is a bottom-barrel Zach Galiwhatever guy-talk character. In the end, it doesn’t ask you to remember a single gag or line, so you can use that space in the memory bank for more important mental pursuits.

Q: Do you want the couple to get together?
A: Yes. If the script or the star pairing makes it seem like they’re forcing the couple together, then you have a disaster (or at least Slumdog Millionaire) on your hands. Fortunately, Drew Barrymore is at the top of her rom-com game here. (Don’t read me in that tone of voice.) Actually, one might say she’s above her usual rom-com game, as we actually like her and wish for good things to happen for her.

Q: Does it have anything to do or say? Or does the whole thing hinge on getting the couple together?
A: Nope, nothing to say whatsoever. The whole thing hinges on getting the couple together. If you are looking for any grand insight into relationships, or even minimally original insight into having a long-distance relationship, Going the Distance is not the film for you.

Q: Does it make you feel like an idiot?
A: No. And wow, was that a new experience!

Q: Should you go?
A: Is your girlfriend asking? Then of course, sweetheart.

The American

The American
Grade: A
Cast: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacetti, Thekla Reuten
Director: Anton Corbijn
Free Admission Granted

It’s time to submit a definition of the George Clooney hero.

He’s an aging professional who has grown smarter than the system to which he has indentured himself. The distance between his intelligence and the system’s need for myopy breeds cynicism and alienation. Finding himself the villain of his own story, he is sinking into a crisis in which his soul suddenly wants more than the system can give him.

Since at least Out of Sight, and most effectively in the tremendously underrated Michael Clayton, Clooney has explored iteration after iteration of this role, in the way Tom Cruise used to play the young hot shot needing mature guidance. Being a smart star, Clooney has chosen a character (or a character has chosen him) that is indelible to this modern time and place. It has made Clooney a star worth investing in.

The American sees Clooney as a darker shade of this hero, an underworld weapons expert forever on the move. He arrives in a picturesque Italian villa to slowly custom-build a high-powered weapon for a sexy female assassin (Thekla Reuten). His instinct is to keep a low profile, to stay professional, to submit to the system, even though he feels it closing in. A recent tragedy finds this taciturn wanderer slowly opening to human connection. He befriends a priest (Paolo Bonacetti) who knows a sinner when he sees one. He succumbs to the beauty of a gorgeous prostitute (Violante Placido) who views an American as a path to another life.

It’s too bad Grahame Greene has already used the title The Quiet American. It fits this film’s hushed European style, the alienation it gathers out of chilly imagery. As a young photographer, director Anton Corbijn (Control), matched moody images to the moody music of Joy Division. The American shares that same icy visual mystery. The town’s narrow stone corridors seep with paranoia. Clooney’s attraction to a gorgeous spot of countryside serves as an antidote of liberating beauty.

Clooney’s charm and charisma usually soften films with the Clooney hero. They are stories of alienation without feeling like stories of alienation, missing that cold Antonioni thing of watching characters come apart in the emptiness. Not so The American. For one picture, Clooney scrubs down the charm and hides it in a shell. The film relates his character to a butterfly, but really, he’s stuck in a cocoon, a permanent state of transformation, unable to fly away.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Plaza Classic Film Fest #3: The Last Picture Show

(The Last Picture Show, 1971, d. Peter Bogdanovich)

Black and white is the actor’s friend.

So said Peter Bogdanovich, during his onstage appearance at the Plaza Classic Film Festival Aug. 14, before a screening of his 1971 masterpiece, The Last Picture Show.

Bogdanovich was quoting his friend, Orson Welles, who was occasionally known to bum around the director’s home during his residential wanderings. We can only have fun imaging the two directors exchanging this little nugget as Cybill Shepard washed their underwear. Whatever its origins, this explains the nostalgic black-and-white look of this 1950s coming-of-age story, set in a slowly dying Texas town.

If black and white is the actor’s friend, then Bogdanovich was graciously paid back by a largely unknown cast. This really is an actor’s film. While only Jeff Bridges would go on to measure up to The Godfather graduates, the rest of the young cast (Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepard, Randy Quaid, Sam Bottoms) would dot the great films of the 1970s.

Bogdanovich gives each actor one big speech or scene. Often, the camera starts as if it is a character hidden in the room. Then it slowly, auspiciously closes in on the actors’ faces, as if closing in on their souls. Breaths freeze. Time holds. The characters dig for a thought or moment buried deep within. Then the camera slowly fades back, releases the tension, and allows time to resume its normal speed. We see this technique again and again, most effectively as Ben Johnson reminisces at a fishing hole shortly before his death.

It is generally thought that the Oscar winner Johnson stole the show, letting the withered miles of his face serve as the town’s soul. But I’ll take Ellyn Burstyn. Her aging beauty possesses the callousness to draw blood and the tenderness to be wounded in equal measure. Could an actress have a breakout performance at age 39 nowadays? You could in 1971. Her subsequent five-year career run is a treasure of the seventies’ New Hollywood films.

Perhaps the biggest star is the town itself. And this leads to a mystery … how did a New York boy so acutely capture the rhythms of a small Texas town? Arnene, Texas, is a place of perpetual dying – a small brick speed bump for the northern winds rushing down the plains. The town no longer lives, but it never quite vanishes.

While the film is based on a Larry McMurtry novel, there is something vaguely Faulkneresque about the location and story. I see a loose similarity to the Compson clan of The Sound and the Fury. The girl runs off to the fast life, Dallas or Hollywood. One young man leaves town for a perch of psychological distance. And one young man remains to mind the farm and preside over the decline. In Picture Show, it is the sweet Sonny left to watch Arnene slide further into dust.

All this leads to that fantastic ending, a small table, a lovers’ conversation, an ending that becomes a beginning. Sonny still has Ruth (Cloris Leachman), his older lover, but their prospects are dim. Their final wounded conversation is a thing of sadness, generosity, and a humane uncertainty. It’s a film moment that I can never shake. That’s why I love the movies.


Grade: D
Cast: Madeline Carroll, Callan McAuliffe, Rebecca DeMornay, Anthony Edwards, John Mahoney, Penelope Ann Miller, Aidan Quinn.
Director: Rob Reiner
free admission granted

Is this all that I have to look forward to?

Three or four decades of looking back to the good old days? While I remain at an age when I can effectively deny the presence of gray hairs, I’m still displeased with this future. When I’m 60, will I look back or will I look forward? Rob Reiner’s Flipped doesn’t help.

This 1960s puppy love story plays as if someone hacked all the locks on the cages holding the lost episodes of The Wonder Years. Now they’re scurrying around the Boomer Porn laboratory. Hopefully, someone can stop them before they reproduce.

It would be one thing if Flipped were an act of sunny but genuine nostalgia. But there are enough out of place references to seem like somebody else’s nostalgia. For instance, no one commonly used terms like “visually challenged,” or anything challenged, until the 1980s at the earliest. Is this real nostalgia? Or false nostalgia? Calculated nostalgia? Marketable nostalgia?

From the first shoo-bop 50s moment that little girl Julie (Madeline Carroll) falls in love with little neighbor boy Bryce (Callan McAuliffe), we know we’re in for a lot “I’m never talking to him again” tween drama.

It balances the beam a little better while telling Julie’s story. She’s freaky but spunky, climbing trees to keep them from being cut down. John Mahoney, best known as the father on Frasier, pitches in a nice supporting role as the young boy’s grandfather who takes a shine to the female neighbor. That said, Bryce really is a spineless little corporate nobody in training.

Romance of a lifetime? I seriously doubt this one’s surviving the sixties. He’s headed for a cubicle or a car lot. She’s headed for the free love commune in Easy Rider. But that’s for parents to know and kids to find out later.

I suspect Flipped will provide a harmless, even modestly pleasing departure for fans of the Wendelin Van Draanen children’s novel upon which it is based. It sells the basic tropes of pre-teen sensibility and teaches a few valuable lessons. But it never departs much from the expected.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Plaza Classic Film Fest #2, The Godfather

(Film Critic Kevin Bowen is visiting his hometown - El Paso, Texas - and attending the third annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. The festival, running from Aug. 5 to Aug. 15 features 70 classic films. Bowen will write sporadic reports on the classic films that he watches at the festival.)

The Godfather (1972, d. Francis Ford Coppola)

My Godfather observation on my recent viewing: Fredo is gay. And Moe Greene is his lover. And this is the rarest, deepest and most vital secret of The Godfather saga.

No, this isn't a gaydar thing: I'm not picking on Fredo because he is the effeminate son of Mafia Don Vito Corleone. And when I say gay, I don't mean nebulous literary homoeroticism that otherwise arises in parts of the series. I mean they are literally homosexual lovers, and if true, it is a critical piece of the story.

Now there are hints of each man's possible homosexuality (or bisexuality) throughout the saga. For instance, Greene takes a bullet while receiving a massage from a male masseuse. True, real-life straight guys do that everyday. But real-life straight guys do not have a writer/director trying to convey significant detail to an audience.

The question of sexual orientation counts most strongly in the scene with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) arrives in Las Vegas, where Fredo has been sent for protection under Greene's watch. The newly minted head of the Corleone crime family plans to move the family westward. He is there to forcibly buy out Greene's interest in the casino/hotel.

How do they do business in Vegas? Not like the traditional Sicilian way back east. Michael meets Fredo with Johnny Fontaine, the ladies man pop singer, and a room full of bimbos assembled for the men's pleasure. At first, the bawdy party plans seem to establish Fredo's playboy status. But consider an alternative. Is it possible that the excessive public promotion of his heterosexuality, particularly to family, is suggestive of a closeted gay man?

When Greene arrives, Michael makes an offer that Greene can't refuse. The discussion turns into a shouting match. Michael threateningly chides Greene about an unseen past incident in which he slapped around Fredo in public. Greene responds that Fredo has been picking up too many chicks at the gambling tables, preventing the real gamblers from playing and losing.

More evidence of heterosexuality, right? He might as well say he slapped Fredo for watching too much Man Vs. Wild. Hold on. Look at what Greene said. It's a weird thing to say. Can one womanizing drunk really cost that much money to a big casino? Or does Greene sound more like a jealous lover rationalizing his violence?

If there is a relationship, then it forms an unusual, unspoken dynamic. It creates a scene in which what is being said is less than what is actually going on. Michael may well know about his brother's orientation, or at least suspect, but he cannot say it. Fredo must suspect that Michael knows, but he must put on a show, just in case. And Michael may well understand that the his brother is putting on a show. Everyone plays along, because putting on a show and playing along is a universal practice in The Godfather. It may be the point of The Godfather.

If my theory is correct, watch what it does: it creates a parallel story between Fredo and the Corleone sister Connie (Talia Shire), who receives regular beatings from her womanizing husband Carlo. Each one is abused by his or her lover. Each one defends their abusive lovers to the head of the family (Connie to Sonny, Fredo to Michael). And each conflict leads to an assassination attempt on the head of the family.

Double Lives

Fredo is leading a double-life. But he isn't the only one leading a double life. Almost every Godfather character leads one life internally and one life for public and family consumption. This is most effectively and importantly seen with Michael.

When we meet Michael, we learn that he is the family's baby brother and golden boy. He is characterized repeatedly as Mr. Clean, a college kid and war hero, destined for things outside of Mafia life. Don Vito expects him to lead the family into acceptance, legitimacy, and respectability in America. The young Michael we meet is still at least residually invested in this vision of him. He has gone to college, fought in the war, dates the pretty WASP girl, etc.

Deep down, I don't think this was ever the real Michael. Maybe as a teenager he might have been the type to stop the car and help a stranded sea turtle cross the highway. However, he is cold from the minute we meet him, in uniform, at the opening wedding. When he protects his father from assassination at the hospital, a point is made that his hand never shakes as the assassins drive by. At a minimum, the war made Michael Corleone a cold killer outside of family view. More likely, he was always this way. He chose to play the role of the good son in order to please his father. The Godfather is usually interpreted as Michael's transformation from the goody-two-shoes son to a cold muderous mafia don. However, I do not think this is a transformation. I think it is a revelation.

For all the mob warfare onscreen, The Godfather is really the story of a marriage. It begins with the wedding of Carlo and Connie. It ends with Michael ordering Carlo's death, Connie storming into Michael's office to scream about killing her lowlife husband, and Michael falsely denying responsibility to his wife Kay (Diane Keaton).

Ultimately, this is the double life of the story itself. The wedding introduces the Corleones as a family based on love and loyalty. Over three hours, The Godfather erodes this facade and exposes the Corleone family as a fraud. Family members play their roles and pretend not to notice the big picture. The family is not held together by love and loyalty. It is held together by power and deception.

Plaza Classic Film Festival, No. 1

(Film Critic Kevin Bowen is visiting his hometown - El Paso, Texas - and attending the third annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. The festival, running from Aug. 5 to Aug. 15 features 70 classic films. Bowen will write sporadic reports on the classic films that he watches at the festival.)

Yojimbo (1961, d. Akira Kurosawa) The value of re-watching old films is to reach new conclusions that reflect growth and experience. Everyone has those films they saw in high school that they were too young to fully appreciate. As a high schooler, I never suspected Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo is actually a samurai dark comedy.

And when I say dark, I mean dark. Dark, dark. Like "Michael Haneke called to say 'Turn that frown upside down'" dark. This is a movie bathing in the worst instinct in human nature. In the late 19th Century, two rival gangs hold violent sway over an isolated Japanese town, turning it into an undertaker's delight. The only thing preventing an evil bloodbath is that both sides are too cowardly for an all-out fight to the death. Playing both sides, Toshiro Mifune's romaing master samurai tries to lure them into a mutually assured massacre, partly for his own twisted amusement. Later, his primary act of nobility gets punished with torture and near-death. That's dark.

This is a bleak vision of the world made at the peak of the Cold War in 1961. Now think about it ... two rival sides ... always backing away from the brink of all-out conflict ... facing the introduction of a new weapon of mass destruction (a pistol) ... a town with a compliant Japanese mayor .... has anyone pointed to this film being a Cold War allegory? This film reminds me as much of Dr. Strangelove as it does Kurosawa's other epics.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962, d. Agnes Varda)
There is an astounding visual sequence early in Cleo from 5 to 7 by Agnes Varda, the First Lady of the French New Wave. We see Cleo through a Paris shop window as she samples chapeaux. The camera strolls smoothly along the storefront, capturing the busy street life in the reflection, blending the indoor and outdoor images. We then cut inside to a circling closeup of Cleo trying on hats. The rotating camera captures her images fractured in the store mirrors, creating disorientation out of the mundane.

I don't know how Varda even conceived of this shot, much less executed it. But the former photographer and her second film give deep consideration to the power of the camera. Take a moment later when two people on a park bench are shot at three different distances. Each has a different feel - close and intimate; medium and removed; long, isolated and part of the surrounding environment.

Or take another photographic idea - the power of observing versus the power of being observed, of being an object. In the latter, others watch us. We attract their attention. We become an influential part of their world. But we become slaves to their distorted image. We deny ourselves to gain that power. Then we watch others. We become unimportant, anonymous to them. We lose the ability to influence but gain the ability to find and fulfill ourselves.

This polarity seems at work in Cleo. As a drama queen pop singer waiting on the results of a cancer test, Cleo at first chooses to be an object. She uses her pending illness to attract attention and sympathy. She maintains this diva posture. Then something changes. She feels horrified when an ass-kissing pair of songwriters presents a new song inspired by her struggle. The song flatters her, worships her, but the dirge does not grasp her real struggle.

At this point, Cleo performs the most meaningful tearing off of a wig in screen history, thereby rejecting her status as a famous object. Naturally coiffed, she descends into the streets into a position of observation and anonymity. She converses with a nude sculpture model in a similar position. She meets a soldier with a real reason to fear death. By the end of the film, she finds new possibilities rooted in her real self.

There are so many small things to talk about in this film of subsections. Notice the integration of the soundtrack with the ambient street noise. At one moment, Cleo passes a child playing a few notes on a piano in the street. Those notes are picked up by the score as she walks. Later, the music abruptly ends amid the flutter of street pigeons. Also note the radical shifts in emotional tone during long takes. Brilliant. The first time that I saw Cleo, I was impressed by it. The second time I fell in love with it.

Easy Rider (1969, d. Dennis Hopper)
What is more amazing about Easy Rider? That this film was ever made (by a major studio, Columbia, no less)? Or that such a wild country ever existed which could produce such a wild film?

No other significant American film is so precisely moored to its moment in time, an epic freewheeling travelogue through late-sixties America. The only way to make it more sixties would be a special guest appearance by Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm Commune. (Wavy Gravy's not in the film, right?)

Easy Rider is a little hamstrung by Dennis Hopper's limits as a director. While the highway-apocalypse finale is brilliantly put together, there are a few too many loose scenes and underwhelming New Wave mimickry. More disconcerting is Jack Nicholson's star-turn-at-all-costs role as a tagalong small-town lawyer, a noisy performance in a film of understated authenticity. Do we know for sure that the rambling band of rednecks beat him for hanging out with no-good longhairs? Or are they just sick of him chewing scenery?

Easy Rider has suffered its own Odyssey, from the heaven of cultural myth to the Hell of cultural mockery. Isn't it time to remove it from the Cinematic Underworld and start seeing it again for what it is - an eager paean to the best virtues that came out of the America of its time? This time-capsule treasure has plenty that is timeless - kindness, cruelty, innocence, sadness, freedom, death.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim Versus the World
Grade: B
Cast: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzmann
Director: Edgar Wright
free admission granted

Stephen Stills? His name is Stephen Stills? ... And he lives in Canada? ... and he's the singer in a band? .... Do the kids know Stephen Stills nowadays? ... Are the kids thinking "There's somthing happening here and what it is ain't exactly clear" .... I guess his roommate is Neil Young, right .... Ha no! Young Neil .... Isn't that joke a little too hip for the room? .... and hey, hey-hey, hey-hey-hey-hey, these guys can play ....

So Michael Cera, Scott Pilgrim .... Nice guy bass player extaordinnaire ....Tragically Canadian .... dating a high school girl .... A little old for that, no? .... But Scott Pilgrim, such a nice guy, can't bring himself to .... And now we're running through a door in the middle of a snowy nowhere .... and through surreal scene to surreal scene like we're in a dream .... A dream .... A dream .... Are we in a dream? .... Are we in a dream? .... But who would dream of Toronto? ... Do even people from Toronto dream of Toronto? ....

Oh, hey, look, there's a skater girl with dyed purple hair, skating around a cactus in the desert .... And now she's in the library, flesh and blood and tempting, wounded eyes .... and now she's at that party .... And has she heard that story about why Pac-Man was called Pac-Man? .... And are you going to dump girl for girl? .... The nice guy code forbids dating two girls at once .... And how do you write about Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World? .... The adaptation of the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley .... Is there a normal way to do it? .... Can you accurately convey the feeling of a film with such a short attention span but so long on humor and just being itself ....

Wait! Wait, wait, wait ....

Now we're at the battle of the bands .... And stop children, what's that sound? Everybody look what's goin' down .... And Scott has to fight him .... And him ..., and him and him and him .... her seven evil ex-boyfriends .... Nooooo, seven evil exes .... Defeat each one .... to win Ramona's affections .... How romantic .... How bone-jarring .... And that's why she moved to Toronto .... Because love is a battlefield and Canada is for deserters .... and isn't that the dude from Superman .... And he has vegan superpowers? .... And he plays bass, too .... And now her hair's blue .... And now her hair's green .... And now everybody is kung-fu fighting .... And everybody is fast as lightning ....

And .... And it's like a video game .... so like a video game .... director Edgar Wright (of the lovable Hot Fuzz) embracing video game aesthetics with as much gusto as a movie based on a video game .... And how do you write about Scott Pilgrim .... How do you write about a film that is so aggressively its own unique self? .... Even if it has absolutely nothing to say .... You know what this film is like? .... It's like that entertaining house guest who's a blast for an hour then slowly gets just a little bit on your nerves ... Just a little bit on your nerves .... Because he goes to the same well once too often .... And twice too often ... And maybe thrice too often .... But even if you quit laughing hard, you never quit smiling .... you never quit smiling ....

Get Low

Get Low
Grade: C
Cast: Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, Gerlad McRaney
Director: Aaron Schneider
free admission granted

This is the thing about a movie with a deep dark secret. The payoff should be about equal to or greater than the buildup. It certainly shouldn’t feel like a letdown or a cop out. It should not be a way to get off the hook a likable character with a checkered past. No matter how tenderly Robert Duvall tries to sell the revelation in Get Low, it never quite burns off the rubbery smell of a soft landing.

As Felix Bush, Duvall hits a sweet spot as the Boo Radley of a Tennessee town in the thirties. Living as a hermit on his farmstead with only a mule for company, children make a game of running up to his property and throwing pebbles at him. Bush answers their rock-throwing with shotgun fire, which is roughly his answer to everyone. There are rumors and fears about the things he has done.

With death approaching, Bush wants to “get low” before God and seek forgiveness. With the help of the local funeral home, the shaggy old man decides to hold a funeral … while he’s still alive… to make amends. He invites the town to come and tell the stories they have heard about him. He plans to tell a story, as well.

Director Aaron Schneider’s smartest stroke is casting Bill Murray as the town’s mordant mortician. Placing Murray into this setting seems so antithetical to his screen persona. Yet it’s perfect, because we have all met people in small places that make us wonder how they got there. Murray delivers perfectly playing a mirror to Duvall; they are both men in whom it is too easy to believe the worst, only to be surprised by the generosity that emerges.

Most of Schneider’s career has been spent as a cinematographer, and that is evident. The film sparkles with a beautiful candlelit tone. A magical haze that makes it feel like the town might disappear, like Brigadoon, once the rainbow disappears. Some will inhale this mythical feel; some may see it as too much movie magic. I felt both ways at times.

Get Low has a fairly singular quality, it manages to be unique without being quite daring. While its emotions never feel fraudulent, at times they feel a little forced. It does many things right, leaves a memorable and amiable feeling. But it does not stamp itself on your mind.

Dinner for Schmucks

Dinner for Schmucks
Grade: F
Cast: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, Bruce Greenwood, Stephanie Szostek, Jermaine Clement
Director: Jay Roach
free admission granted

How bad is Dinner For Schmucks?

It is so bad that I wish there were a bunch of other movies featuring dead mice in dioramas, just so I could say, “This is the stupidest movie with dead mice in dioramas that I’ve ever seen. “

Paul Rudd is a financial analyst aiming for a promotion. To land the job, he must impress his boss at a dinner attended by the company executives. At this dinner, each person invites the strangest person that they can find, so the group can make fun of them. Mind reader. Animal psychic. Blind swordsman. It is a little like the Gong Show.

Rudd runs into Steve Carell with a car, because in movies that is the only way people meet these days. Anyway, Carell collects dead mice, dyes their hair, makes little mice clothes, and inserts them into re-enactments of famous paintings. Rudd sees him as the ticket to the big time. But he doesn’t count on Carell destroying his relationships in the process.

The “annoying buddy ruins my life” genre has been done a million times. In about 999,999 of those times, it’s been done better. Rudd does his comic everyman routine to no discernible end. Carell places an unusual and unwise amount of faith in the comic potential of dumb windbreakers and overbites. He appears to be under the impression that he is in a Jerry Lewis movie. Perhaps the French will dig it.

At one point, the movie’s phony artist (Jermaine Clement) observes that a goat will eat anything. That is a telling moment, because Dinner for Schmucks seems to be a Hollywood test just to see how low they can go and still get you to eat. If you choose to go to this particular dinner party, then the laugh is probably on you.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Grade: A
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine
Director: Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s dashing mindbender Inception is doomed to wide and inaccurate comparisons to Stanley Kubrick.

I say this because every challenging English-language film that critics cannot immediately box draws comparisons to Kubrick. True, there is a mind-blowing zero-gravity fight scene with the weightlessness of 2001. Then again it could be Fred Astaire, dancing on the ceiling of the HAL 9000. Inception creates some odd visual marriages among its overspill of film references.

So is it wrong of me to say that too many observers are betting on the wrong psychedelic space-station mind trip? I think a more productive point of entry for Inception is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. What would it look like if Andrei Tarkovsky directed a James Bond movie? Inception would seem to be the answer.

Each film – Solaris and Inception – examines the relationships of dreams and art, ideas and memory and filmmaking, psychology and reality. The films suggest that artistic endeavor comes from public exposure of the subconscious mind; art is therefore both sparked and troubled by subjectivity, affected by the deficit between reality and our personal perception of it.

Their plots center on dead wives and dead realities, imperfectly rebuilt from the troubled psyches of guilty men. These copies can be brought to life, indeed, but never made whole and real. Time diminishes memory. Reality can never be known entirely or remembered perfectly. We can only see through our lens of love and hate, memory and desire, and most of all guilt. If there’s one word in this review to underline and remember, it’s “guilt.”

If there is a flaw with Inception it’s this – Tarkovsky was willing to lose himself in his own personal dream logic. Nolan remains cold and clinical, approaching the subconscious mind as an investigator. The English director keeps a precise, rational, drumbeat structure (the rational structure of a magic trick, a collective deception agreed to by a performer and an audience). Inception feels like an ego making a movie about the Id.

Now if you are not a Russian film scholar, or if you would rather watch an action movie than sit through three hours of ten-minute car rides and Russian poetry, then that’s understandable. More people will see Inception this weekend than have ever seen a Tarkovsky film. Those masses are unlikely to be disappointed. Tarkovsky directing a James Bond movie would still be a James Bond movie, after all.

The film takes place in dreams, and dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams. One dream might have a deadly struggle in a hotel suite; at the same time, the next dream might have an Arctic snow battle removed from The Spy Who Loved Me. During a ski chase, you are left waiting for the Union Jack parachute to open.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is an extractor, an agent who steals secrets from people’s dreams. Like many pros during a life crisis, his home life has started to harm his work. The manufactured dreams in which he operates are being compromised by the vengeful presence of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard).

To clear his name and return to his children, Cobb makes a deal with a Japanese tycoon (Ken Watanabe). Rather than steal an idea, he must do the impossible – successfully plant an idea in the mind of a powerful businessman (Cillian Murphy). His dream team includes an architect to build the dreams (Ellen Page); a sidekick thief (the quite great Joseph Gordon-Levitt); a forger (Tom Eames) and a sedation expert (Dileep Rao). Like The Dark Knight, Inception’s final 40 minutes shoot forward with the authority of a freight train, powered by the conviction of its own greatness.

We could chat about the high quality of Wally Pfister’s cinematography or Hans Zimmer’s score. We could talk about the film’s openness to interpretation, how it feels like another audience on the other side of the screen might be watching the same events, the same characters, but ultimately not the same movie. There are questions left to ask and answer, ranging from “What the hell was that?” to “Is Inception a modern way of saying Genesis?” As a critic I do not pretend to have the answers. OK, I do pretend to have the answers. But ultimately I only hope to direct you to the right questions.

Despicable Me

Despicable Me
Grade: B
Cast: (voice) Steve Carrell, Jason Segal, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Julie Andrews.
Director: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud

It’s wonderful when movies serendipitously converge with current events. But how often do current events play prelude to a coming cartoon?

Successful animation hasn’t been the calling card of the current do-nothing batch of Russian secret agents, milking Mother Russia for an American lifestyle. But successful animation is something achieved by Despicable Me.

Our Russian super-villain, Gru, is a sharp-snouted cross between Boris Badanov and the Grinch. He lives the typical suburban lifestyle of a gifted evildoer. He has a normal neighborhood home, if you happen to live in the Munsters’ neighborhood. Gru’s idea of interior decor comes from the Tower of London, circa 1670.

Gru has only one goal in his dark little heart – stealing the moon out of the sky, using a homemade rocket and a shrink-wrap ray-gun. He is missing a mouse and a squirrel; for a rival he only has a nerd called Vector. Helping him along is a slave race of little yellow overgrown Mike-and-Ikes, called “Minions.” When he adopts a threesome of cute little orphan girls to further his devious plan, can it be long before they capture his heart, as well? Gag.

Despicable Me is a referendum on the concept of “cute.” Is cute a good thing? In puppy dogs, sure. Is it a cinematic virtue? Well, it worked for ET. How about in family entertainment? The answer to that question depends on your tolerance for saccharine.

Fortunately, Despicable Me has more than sugar to spread on its cereal. The Universal release boasts a scoop of cleverness, too, as well as sunny visuals and a very good score by the great Hans Zimmer. Scattering humorous references for all ages, some of it will fly over younger children’s heads, such as a visual reference to The Godfather’s horse’s head scene. But for the most part, it works as a weekend baby-sitter.

The Kids Are Alright

The Kids Are Alright
Grade: C
Cast: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
Director: Lisa Cholodenko

Does the American family need a good dick at its center?

A comedy focusing on a lesbian-headed family, The Kids Are Alright asks that question, whether writer-director Lisa Cholodenko knows it or not. And it seems to say so, before it changes its mind and says no. I don’t know, and I’m not sure the film does, either.

Joni (Alice in Wonderland star Mia Wasikowska) and Lazer (Josh Hutcherson)are the teenage children of a lesbian couple. They decide to secretly track down the sperm donor who gave them life. From behind door number three steps the amiable Paul (Mark Ruffalo). He is a motorcycle rider, a cool dude, and a little too talented at bedding women. The athletic brother and brainy sister worry he might be weird, but it turns out he’s a nice, welcoming man.

As the children spend time with their new father, it places stress on the relationship of the lesbian pair. They are already on the border of love and staleness, with low sex-drive, kitchen table bickering and three-drink alcoholism. The domineering physician (Annette Bening) finds him threatening. The more moon-beamy one (Julianne Moore) finds him intriguing. “Intriguing” might be a code word for something else.

Do the kids need a father figure? They certainly seem thirsty for a male presence. Lazer takes quickly to shooting hoops with him, and the teen responds to fatherly guidance with obedience. While the sheltered super-brain Joni has a girl-next-door personality, some of her behavior falls squarely within the stereotype of “the girl who grew up without a father.” One mother wonders, “Are we not enough?” For a while it seems like the answer is no, not entirely. That admission stands slightly at odds with the desire to put forth an overwhelmingly positive vision of a lesbian family unit.

As a remedy, the film gently turns the nice guy into a nice villain. It later apologizes and grants him a touch of unlikely redemption. One might look at this as generosity on Cholodenko’s part. I’m sure that’s how it is intended. But it feels more like she really doesn’t know where to go. Ultimately, that’s a fair description of The Kids Are Alright as a whole.

I’ll take a stab and assume The Kids Are Alright will be hailed as a groundbreaking and politely controversial film, a warm comedy placing before the American public a different kind of American family. That’s fair, but it is still undeniably a sitcom. Clever sitcom, funny sitcom, but sitcom nonetheless. And while you enjoy spending time with these people, their personalities are burned down to their tics, and their lives are burned down to the plot.

It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It will make you wonder, “Where are The Who?” Then you will scratch your head and leave the theater.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Twilight: Eclipse

Twilight: Eclipse
Grade: C
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Ashley Greene, Kellan Lutz, Nikki Reed
Director: David Slade
Free Admission Granted

Loving a vampire really is forever. When the minister says Til Death Do You Part, it comes with a distant expiration date. Facing sex, marriage, and permanent transformation into a creature of the night, Twilight: Eclipse finds Bella and Edward exploring the neuroses of eternal love.

Should Bella Swan say sayonara to her human friends to be with vampire Edward Cullen for eternity? Shouldn’t Bella graduate high school before making eternal decisions? Will this puppy-dog romance ever bark its last breath? Twilight: Eclipse is the first in the popular vampire-romance series to see that love has a downside.

Take a look at the side stories: the film is haunted by images of eternal love distorted into something else. One vampire’s back story ends in revenge on an ex-lover while dressed in a wedding gown. “I was much more theatrical in those days,” she says. Then consider the motives of the widow Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) – raising an army of newborn vampires to avenge the death of her lover. The red-headed villain is motivated by love and loss, the permanence of affection and the impermanence of existence.

Still, Twilight is selling the mythologies of youthful love and youthful perfection. As such, the film plays up romance’s appeal and glosses over the problems in its werewolf-vampire-cockteaser triangle. Robert Pattinson’s steely cool softens Edward’s gentlemanly detachment. Taylor Lautner’s genial personality and burly physique deflect the fact that Jacob is kind of a manipulative asshole. And does Bella really love both men? Or does she love the fact that they love her? Twilight insists that it is driven by the purity of teen-age love, but in reality it is driven by the blindness of teen-age narcissism.

Perhaps I wouldn’t feel this way if not every thought revolved around Ms. Swan. Shouldn’t young men talk baseball? Instead they talk Bella. Yet we never feel why she’s so special, why so much is risked for her sake. Perhaps we would feel more if Kristen Stewart were improving alongside the rest of the cast, rather than being outdone by the help. Instead, Stewart seems lost, or stuck, or generally apart from the proceedings.

Directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night), Eclipse is the most normal of the Twilight movies. Catherine Hardwicke’s hormonal original rode the line between swoony and corny .New Moon’s Chris Weitz, oft criticized, brought a greater cinematic sense to the series. As his contribution, Slade turns the series to both horror and coming of age. While I appreciate its willingness to treat its characters as blossoming adults, very little of this film lasts. Will this ever-popular series ever produce a true winner? It’s losing daylight.

Winter's Bone

Winter’s Bone
Grade: A
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes
Director: Debra Granik
Free Admission Granted

As a reporter long ago, I worked a story involving illegal trash dumping in Georgia. After locating a popular illegal dump, I headed up the walkway to the nearest door. I was met by a shadow, a man I never quite saw, asking suspiciously about my business there. I identified myself. He told me to leave, with serious intent in his voice.

Walking down that driveway is the only time in my life when I’ve been convinced that a shotgun was leveled at my head. I didn’t see it. I couldn’t prove it. But I won’t forget it.

That unnerving feeling arose again as I watched the cavalcade of backwoods characters – meth dealers and hostile faces – in Winter’s Bone. Every conversation hides a lurking danger, but you have a hard time getting a handle on the smoky nature of the peril.

The 2010 Sundance Grand Jury winner shares with the year’s other great film, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, the formula of mystery deaths and amateur sleuths in over their heads. The Ghost Writer’s elite characters and Cape Cod setting are a socio-economic mega-leap away from this film’s Methamphetamine America.

That amateur sleuth is Ree Dolly, a resourceful teenager barely making it, encamped in an Ozark cabin coated by winter’s chill. I would call her poorer than dirt, but dirt has asked not to be associated with her lifestyle. She cares for a little brother and sister, surviving off the scraps of a neighbor. Her mother has been struck deaf and dumb by too much of something – drugs, death, life.

Her absent father, a legendary meth cook, has jumped bail, leaving the family home on the brink of foreclosure. Ree has one week to track him down for his court date. Smart but naïve, brave but vulnerable, Ree pushes into the business of the locals, all distant cousins, as she investigates her father’s disappearance. Her unstoppable search places her further and further into danger and grotesque secrets.

Winter’s Bone gets at something I’ve seen in person but never on film. Small towns are usually shown as either racist Hickvilles or as wholesome antidotes to city life. That is to say rural America is a constructed otherness that inverses attitudes toward city life at any one time. Yet, films only occasionally reveal rural America for its own sake.

Winter’s Bone presents a side of modern rural America rarely seen – one where addiction is replacing tradition and where criminal ties are replacing family ties. These wildly conflicting trends inform and destroy each other. The conflict is most wholly centered in the person of Ree’s uncle Teardrop (slyly played by John Hawkes), who must steer between rival codes of behavior.

Equal to this rough environment is its fringe-dwelling Nancy Drew, as well as the young actress who plays her, Jennifer Lawrence. Sometimes you wonder if it is the actress or the role that makes a great character. I have no doubt that Ree Jessup is a great character on the page, but Lawrence is such a natural steel wildflower. You might be shocked to find out that, yes, she is only a teenager.
If Lawrence becomes a star, it won’t be the first such launch for director Debra Granik, whose last film Down to the Bone brought Vera Farmiga into prominence. Granik mines the same “fringes of American LIfe” territory as Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop or Kelly Reichart’s Wendy and Lucy. Reichart’s film has definitely grown on me with time and reflection. However, there’s something in Granik’s film that seems less theoretical, less like a sociology experiment and more like a living story. The result is a wonder.