Saturday, October 1, 2011


Warrior:  B+

Warrior, the new film by Gavin O'Connor, is all the more impressive because it reheats leftovers (to name a few - sibling rivalry, broken families, underdog fighters), but sells it as fine dining.  Starring two relatively new actors to most American audiences (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton), O'Connor's film allows each of them an emotional journey that feels hackneyed at times, but it ultimately delivers upon its premise in a manner earned through a series of smaller scenes focused around familial conflicts and the jolting, genuinely thrilling fight scenes.  You'll walk out of the theater satisfied at this rousing, unexpectedly emotional throwback.

Hardy plays Tommy Reardon, an ex-Marine who returns to his father's home in Pittsburgh for the first time in years.  His father, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), is an alcoholic approaching 1000 days of sobriety.  We learn that Tommy and his mother fled Paddy after she'd suffered too many years of abuse.  After her death, Tommy joined the Marines, and the film slowly fills in the details of Tommy's time in the military. His reunion with his father is strictly business.  Tommy, once a state wrestling champion, decides to enter a Mixed Martial Arts competition called Sparta; he wants his father to coach him.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

Across the state in Philadelphia, Brendan Conlon (Edgerton) is a physics teacher married to his high school sweetheart, Tess (Jennifer Morrison).  Together, they have two young daughters and a house they can no longer afford.  Looking for a way to earn enough money to make the payments, Brendan, an ex-UFC fighter, starts to get into some low-rent MMA fights against the better wishes of his wife.  His plan backfires when he shows up to school looking like he'd participated in a fight club; the school district suspends him without pay.  With no other viable options and plenty of time on his hands, Brendan begins readying for an opportunity to fight in Sparta with his old trainer, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo).

Only those who have never watched a single film in their lives would not predict we're heading for a showdown between the two brothers.  And the film doesn't disappoint on a visceral level; superbly filmed and edited, the fight scenes don't even attempt some hyperbolic attempt at poeticism.  The fights are brutal; some shockingly quick, while others (mostly Brendan's) display a grim resilience to take a beating.  Nonetheless, these scenes are thrilling, and they incite a worthy sense of viewer conflict because you don't wish to see either brother lose.

Still, the fights just provide some of the scaffolding.  The dominant architectural structure revolves around family, and story excels here.  O'Connor displays a tremendous respect for his characters, their strengths, their flaws, their humanity.  Brendan's remark that "we're not going backwards" when his wife mentions giving up the house speaks of a larger profundity for his characters: the need for forward progress in order to remove oneself from the past's shackles.  For Brendan, this means severing himself and his family from Paddy in order to become the type of father and husband Paddy never could be.  For Tommy, it means exorcising his demons by confronting his past head on.  Like Paddy says, "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't."  The accumulation of various intimate moments (Tommy calling an a Marine buddy's wife in El Paso, Frank expressing wariness for Brendan's comeback, Tess's incessant checking of her cell phone while waiting for word of Brendan's victory/defeat) and the subdued respect it demonstrates for working-class individuals allows for the viewer to be swept along by the film's mechanized plot.  This is a film that actually cares for its characters; instead of the characters existing for fights, the fights exist for the characters.

In the end, as The National's "About Today" mournfully plays, a simple declaration uttered from one brother to the other cements the film's rugged, but traditional, sense of storytelling.  And in this day and age, it's nice to know that emotional truisms unencumbered by fancy stylistic tricks or meta-significance or ironic hipster detachment can still pack a punch. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Better Life

A Better Life:  B

 I see this movie, and I think of all the students and the families I've been fortunate to work beside these past nine years.  I think of all the kids I know who aren't in this country with papers or those students who were born in this country, but whose parents were not.  I think of the time I used the expression "illegal alien" during my first year of teaching in Lynwood, CA, and I was coolly informed by a (white) teacher that many of his family members were these "aliens."  I think of students worried about going to college because of their citizenship status, about families living in converted garages because they cannot afford anything better, about the intoxicating allure of gangs, about mothers who work for unfair wages.

In other words, I think about myself when it comes to immigration, and I myopically view events at first glance through a self-reflexive lens.  Which really is pure narcissism, the kind that reeks of hitting a situational lottery.  Because I don't have to hide my identity, I don't have to worry about deportation, I don't have to worry about losing everything during a simple traffic stop, the way Carlos (Damian Bechir) worries when driving around in the pick-up truck he purchased to provide a livelihood for him and his son, Luis (Jose Julian).  A Better Life, directed by Chris Weitz, tells a simple, universal story of a father's love for his son, but it carries it around on the back of a more compelling, frustrating, and terrifying figure: our country's immigration policies.  Weitz and Eric Eason, the screenwriter, do an admirable job of letting the milieu provide a strong backbone for their treatise, and the situations concocted (Carlos has his truck stolen, so he and Luis embark on a journey around (mostly) East LA to recover it) whisper rather than scream their message about the unfair conditions under which so many undocumented laborers toil.

However, the strongest support is provided by Belchir.  I've never seen the man in any other roles, but the highest compliment I can pay him is I now want to see more of what he's done and I look forward to his future projects.  Belchir's handsome face, creased with years of experience, his eyes expressive pools of constant worry, tells the story as well as any of the dialogue.  I often wished the film had less conversational pieces, since the moments where Belchir is simply allowed to be (a shot of him planting shrubbery at an ocean-front mansion lingers) provide the most power.  He's working on another level than Julian and the other adolescent actors, who often recite their dialogue like just that:  actors.  They don't embody their characters the same as Belchir, and I often found myself vexed by their artificial performances.  If you want to see tremendous naturalistic performances by teenagers, rent Raising Victor Vargas.  

The dilemmas presented in A Better Life call attention to the very real lives of the millions of undocumented workers currently living here in the United States as well as the untold numbers preparing to make the journey North (as well as from other countries).  Unfair wages, educational inequity, inhumane working/living conditions, and more corrode any kind of moral high ground the US stakes claim to.  The entire thematic topic of immigration deserves a kind of Wire-like treatment since it encompasses so many strands of the American fabric:  education, economics, culture, language, politics, religion, and more.  A Better Life does not delve much into these systemic quagmires; it's position is more simplistic, but no less powerful: to humanize those men and women who work quietly in the shadows desiring nothing more than a better life for themselves and their families.  These people don't deserve our pity or our hatred; they deserve basic human rights.  They deserve justice.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Video Review: A Single Man

A Single Man: A-

I spent the evening with A Single Man, and I found it to be maddening and hypnotic, not to mention wonderfully sad in a way that I adored.  After letting the film stir in my consciousness for a while, I have realized it to be a potent little film with nothing and everything to share with people.  And it shares it in a way that might prove frustrating for some, but I thought (in hindsight) it did an excellent job of projecting the main character's interior and exterior state of being.

Based on a novel I've never heard of and directed by fashion designer, Tom Ford, the movie tells the story of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a professor at an unnamed college in Los Angeles in 1962.  While news of the Cuban Missile Crisis is mentioned throughout the course of the film, George has other, more personal issues on his mind such as committing suicide.  As George goes about his mundane daily rituals, from dressing to teaching to spending time with a friend, Charly (Julianne Moore), George also prepares for his death.  He buys bullets for the gun he'll use to shoot himself, leaves money for the maid who will inevitably find his body, lays out a dapper suit for his burial; George does all of this with the precision and single-mindedness of man who knows exactly what he wants and does not want.  Why does George wish to kill himself?  His lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), has died in a car accident.  "My heart has been broken," George declares in voiceover.

At first, I believed the simplicity of the tale to be sabotaged by Ford's film making.  His liberal manipulation of space and time become irritating as he utilizes jump cuts, cross cutting between the past and present, dream sequences, close ups, non-diagetic sound; these vexing stylistic tics became less and less frequent as the film progressed, and they also began to coalesce into more of a formal representation of the main character's fractured state and perpetual dislocation.  I slowly came around to admiring the cumulative effect of these devices, helped in no small part by a number of beautiful performances.

 First and foremost, Firth is deserving of the Academy Award nomination he received for this role, but I can see why he won for The King’s Speech and not here.  The role of George is mirthless for the most part, and it doesn’t project the kind of vanity often displayed by actors when they play historical figures nor the flashy quirks often used for shorthand to portray personality.  Instead, Firth is given the unenviable task of a repressed man struggling to control the flood of emotions he’s drowning in, unable to call for help and (for the most part) unwilling to accept it even if offered.   Despite the inherent obstacles presented by his character, Firth is able to express George’s grief for his lost love, his disgust with society’s lack of acceptance, his attraction to a couple of younger men, and more, all through a carefully calibrated performance built around what isn’t said as often as what is stated outright.  An early scene, where George learns of Jim’s death and he’s told not to attend the funeral services, expertly captures the delicacies of the performance; Firth’s vocal intonation, the quiver of his lips, the slackness of his body as if suddenly the bones have been removed all present the layers of a man suffering not so much a soul-crushing loss, but of the one’s spirit being extracted.  A later, luminous scene (George and one of his students swimming in the Pacific Ocean) further opens up the character in ways that no dialogue would do justice, but continues to add layers to the character.

Firth is supported by a trio of terrific performances from Hoult, Goode, and Jon Kortajarena, but his best accomplice remains Ford.  What could have simply been a series of artful images with no real dramatic heft instead evolves into an emotional collage that presents a portion of a man’s life at his most vulnerable moments.  Ford captures each snapshot into George’s life as a singular, crystalline vision; while the content presented is by no means definitive of George’s life, it succeeds at depicting him during very specific times in order to capture his mood.  And while I have no doubt some might not find such melancholy bearable, I happened to revel in it.  A Single Man reminded me of those memories you have that might be painful in reminiscence, but that have shaped and continue to shape your perspective of the world.  Memories wrapped up in pain and sadness, sure, but also memories so vivid in an emotional language that they speak to you in ways you wish all of life could articulate.  They are the moments that define you and the world you’ve created.  As such, they become life itself.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Oscars: A Follow-Up - Part 2 (The Fighter)

The Fighter (A-)

Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride:  Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams)
Tied the Knot!  Oscar and Melissa Leo (Best Supporting Actress), Oscar and Christian Bale (Best Supporting Actor)

One of the best films of the year and an important film since Amy Adams sheds her cute girl image faster than Rajon Rondo sheds defenders.  After being the sweet, uninteresting wallpaper in films like Leap Year, Sunshine Cleaning, and Julie and Julia, Adams is provided the opportunity in The Fighter to throw down, verbally and physically, and she does so with much sneaky aplomb.  She plays Charlene, the girlfriend/confidante of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a working-class boxer from blue collar Lowell, MA living in the shadow of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale).  Adams nails the simple complexity of a woman who finds her shadow in Mickey.  She recognizes she needs to not only help Mickey conquer his demons (his family, first and foremost), but her own: the inability to act on the persistent failure that's smothered the dormant potential residing within soul.  For her and for Mickey, their symbiotic relationship allows for each to bring out the most authentic version of each other, but not without severe struggle, which is made emotionally resonant via the boxing metaphor.  Watching Adams in this film provides a sigh of relief for the actress herself because she sheds the baggage of unfulfilled potential she's been carrying since her exquisite turn in Junebug.  

The Fighter plays out in predictable fashion, but that doesn’t make the characters predictable or their predicaments any less gripping.  If anything, the film grounds Ward’s journey in a verisimilitude that provides the audience the ability to identify with his heroic everyman archetype.   We want Ward to succeed because we want the same kind of success.  You know the kind – the kind that rewards hard work, gritty determination, perseverance, and the often brutal pain (physical/emotional/social/economical/spiritual/you name it) people suffer through in order to achieve that success.  Early in the film, Ward loses a fight he never should have taken part in; later, he takes Charlene out of Lowell for their first date to see the French film Belle de Jour.  He falls as asleep during the movie.  Why? she asks.  Why did you drive me 30 minutes out of town to see a film you couldn't care less about much less pronounce?  He finally admits shame, wounded pride, the simple fact he's lost face in the eyes of his daughter (from a previous relationship) and the people who know him around Lowell.  This scene tenderly captures the real and perceived tendencies people have to judge others and judge oneself.  Whether founded or unfounded, Ward's admission of his pain and embarrassment to Charlene feels like it's tethered to a universal weight people carry around when trying to measure up to expectations, both other people's, but also their own.  

Sometimes, this verisimilitude might veer towards the garish: Ward’s family appears straight out of some stereotypically twisted white-trash, urban hillbilly The Hills Have Eyes freak fest.  Besides ex-professional boxer turned crack addict Dicky (Bale plays him as a garish ball of energy as if his body is plugged into some off-screen electrical outlet that’s constantly shocking his system until he’s all spastic limbs, head bobs, bugged-out eyes), there's Micky’s seven hideous sisters and one mama bear, played by Melissa Leo.  Both Leo and Bale give mannered performances that provide the film a hefty dose of entertainment bravura (especially Bale's), but neither should have won the Oscar for supporting actress and actor (Adams should have won for supporting actress and John Hawkes for supporting actor).  Thankfully, director David O.Russell balances the more histrionic performances with subdued, but effective turns by not only Adams, but star Wahlberg  1.  This guy got no recognition during the awards season; instead, critics fawned over Bale and Leo.  But his performance provides the ballast for the other performances.  Wahlberg gives Ward a reticence and integrity that allows for the viewer to understand the difficulty he faces when dealing with his family and struggling to move on to another plateau in his life.

Best picture of the year?  No.  One of the top ten?  Absolutely.  Even those who don't love the sport of boxing should discover that boxing is just the architecture The Fighter uses to construct an engrossing, well-told tale.

1 - I do hope David O. Russell goes back to writing original material after The Fighter.  He's an inventive, exiting storyteller, and I'd like to hear more of his voice.  Three Kings is still one of my all-time favorite films; an astoundingly amazing blend of tremendous visuals, deft satire, wicked action, and intelligent geopolitical polemic.  If you have not watched it, shame on you!  It never feels dated, and only feels more relevant today. Frankly, that movie is ripe for a sequel right now what with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Check out this great trailer:  Three Kings


Monday, February 28, 2011

The Oscars: A Follow-Up

I've been slacking when it comes to sitting down at the computer and actually writing about film.  All the guilty parties have been present and accounted for: a steady workload, family, travel, lethargy, exhaustion, torpidity, lack of films to write about.  But I'm forcing myself to sit and write some mini-reviews because the Oscars went down yesterday, and in spite of the parochial perspective focused around 5-10 films (you'd think The King's Speech, Black Swan, The Social Network, True Grit, and a few more were the only worthwhile films released this year) and my indifference towards James Franco (whom I admire) and Anne Hathaway as hosts, I still blocked off time on my calendar to sit down and spend the evening watching the awards.  It's been a tradition ever since I can remember.  Sure, the loved ones I watch the Oscars with have changed (I watched with my wife in California instead of my parents/siblings in Boston) and the hosts were different (I grew up watching Billy Crystal although Steve Martin might be my favorite).  More importantly, my cinematic sensibility has shifted directions.  Until I entered high school, I had never seen most of the films the Oscars honored.  Instead, I used to be a sucker for blood-soaked action flicks; some of my fondest cinematic memories consist of seeing unedited versions of John Woo's Hong Kong blood ballets (Bullet in the Head, A Better Tomorrow 2, Hard Boiled) at the Brattle with my father.  I used to think Arnold Schwarzensger films were the shit and my idea of a great comedy was Dumb and Dumber.  I fell hook, line, and sinker for every arch, twisty crime thriller after I had seen Pulp Fiction seven times in the theater (and I wasn't the only one - just look at the glut of copycats that followed in its wake). At the same time, it was 1994 when I first began to get really invested in the Oscars because I actually began to watch many of the nominees/winners.

Now, well, I would never say my sensibility has evolved.  That word is all wrong and untrue; Dumb and Dumber is still one of my favorite comedies, I still love bathroom humor, and a twisty, violent, disgustingly bloody film with nothing more on its mind than splintered body parts still can work wonders.  But that kind of limited film vocabulary leaves one struggling to articulate a love for cinema, so I've deliberately expanded my choices; I'm a much bigger fan of documentaries these days and my top films for the year don't always feature violent content.  I'm more inclined to try foreign films that don't feature Chow Yun Fat firing away with two pistols in slow motion.  Comedies don't have to feature fart jokes to make me laugh out loud; one reason (it has many) that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World functioned so well at comedy was because its actors delivered performances that sweetly mocked and honored a generation addicted to social networking and gamesmanship better than The Social Network.  All in all, I think I've become better versed in past and present cinematic trends and techniques, and I'm better off for doing so.  

But no matter what, I still come back to the Oscars to watch and absorb.  And truth be told, I saw all ten (ugh!) of the Best Picture nominees in the theater and many of them are worthwhile films (I've offered complete reviews of several of them on this site:  Inception, Winter's Bone, The Kids are All Right, 127 Hours, True Grit).  So I want to offer my brief point of view into the other Best Picture nominees/winners as well as some other issues at hand.  Every day I will post a brief review of a film/performance that was nominated and/or won.  And I welcome any and all dialogue regarding your own opinions about the films/performances mentioned here on Bread Whore.   

Black Swan (D)

Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride:  Best Picture/Best Director/Best Cinematography
Tied the Knot! Oscar and Natalie Portman, Best Actress Winner

I love Darren Aronofsky as a director; the man has a gift for making me visually intoxicated.  He's not simply an empty stylist; his visual theatrics carry weight.  Requiem for a Dream was one of the greatest movie experiences of my life.  In Requiem, he didn't just get a great performance out of Ellen Burstyn, but he coaxed career-defining acts from Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto, and Marlon Wayans (yes, you read that last name correctly).  So when I say Black Swan is a hysterical piece of hysteria, unfortunately, I don't mean that in a kind way.  Everything about this movie is hideously exaggerated from the camera work to the writing to the performances; Natalie Portman, you did not deserve an Oscar!  To be fair, a lot of the technical aspects of the film (editing, sound design, etc) do well to mirror the psychotic fragmentation going on in the mind of the main character (Portman).  That doesn't make the film good.  Smear lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig.  And no amount of dress-up can compensate for the fact that this tale of a ballerina's mental/physical disintegration is cheap, engineered animal product.  Take away Aronofsky's name and the talented thesps (Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey), and Black Swan goes straight to video.  Instead, those names fooled people into believing they were getting a cut of grade-A, organic, healthy cinema rather than this cinematic mutation that's been pumped so full of artificial hormones it bursts from the pressure of its perversions.  In other words, it's not worth your time, money, or health.  Stay away.           

1 - Let's be honest:  Arnold made some great action films back when Hollywood still made balls-to-the-walls R-rated, visceral epics.  Go back and watch Total Recall, Predator, Terminator 1 and 2, True Lies, Red Heat.

2 - Good "Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery":  Bound, Go, Amores Perros, Early Guy Ritchie - Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

True Grit

True Grit:  B+

Not on the same playing field as Coen brothers' classics like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, or (my personal favorite) Miller's Crossing, True Grit is still Triple A worthy with strong performances, some arch hilarity, and a couple of scenes of exquisitely morbid violence. Based on a novel I have never read and a remake of an old John Wayne film I've never seen, True Grit concerns itself with what some call vengeance and others justice, the likes of which Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield) seeks against Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who murdered her father.  She enlists the help of US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the unwanted help of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).  The hunt commences.  

The focus of the film remains on Mattie despite what previews might suggest; she bookends the film as a grown-up telling of a very precise time in her life.  She's the spiritual life of the film, a young woman who refuses to acquiesce to a man's world and who willingly, defiantly demands respect from the men who initially belittle and condescend to her.  Steinfield does an excellent job portraying the stubborn young woman whose iron-clad desire to see her father’s killer brought in, dead or alive, reflects her pragmatic belief in justice and her path towards feminist empowerment.  We never quite learn how she came to such conviction; the journey she takes during the course of the film only strengthens her, but she’d already shown a rich sense of empowerment when the film begins.  Early scenes where she challenges a local businessman for control of the money he owed her father lay the groundwork for the film’s sense of humor and Mattie’s rectitude.

Cogburn alternates between drunkard prone to fits of braggadocio (the scene where he attempts to shoot biscuits out of the air verges on overkill) and cunningly lethal lawman, such as a cabin shootout where he rescues LaBouef.  Bridges takes what could have been a complete caricature (portly, one-eyed alcoholic lawman) and turns him into an artful dodger with a weakness for the bottle and a burgeoning respect for his client.  Just as good a performance as last year’s Oscar-winning Crazy Heart, Bridges provides True Grit with its most unpredictable asset since you’re never quite sure what to make of Rooster; think of the Dude mixed with Dirty Harry and you have an idea of the direction Bridges takes Rooster.

Occasionally, the actors seem to choke on the mealy language and it plays like they have marbles stuck in their mouths.  Plus, the vernacular does take some getting use to - contractions are rarely uttered, and it was disconcerting to this 21st century viewer.  And after Mattie encounters Tom Chaney, the film becomes rushed and the quickened pace is slightly jarring after such a languid, methodical build-up.  However, the last two gripes I might just have to attribute to the source material.

No matter its failings, True Grit is a Coen Brothers film; you owe it to yourself to get to a theater and judge its merits.  

Thursday, December 30, 2010

How Do You Know

How Do You Know: F

I guess I should have known.  But I try to remain optimistic, and I felt enthused about the prospect of Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, and Jack Nicholson performing in a comedy/drama by the writer/director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets, Spanglish).  I thought it might maniputively pull at my heart strings, extrapolate a few shameless laughs, persuade me I'd made a good decision to spend $9.50 on a rainy San Diego day.  Shame on me because the new film How Do You Know is awful.  Jut awful.  Not awful in a way I'd recommend it, not so egregiously fucked that it earns some warped merit-badge of honor.  No, it's awful in a totally banal manner that slowly made me furious for sitting in the theater watching such a bloated bore of cinema.  I watched actors I've liked or loved in other films (Knocked Up, Diggers, Election, Freeway, The Royal Tenenbaums, Chinatown), and I felt initial disappointment give way to anger by the time the film dragged itself to the finish line, where it simply collapsed under the weight of its own hubris.  This film is another example of Hollywood pissing away millions of dollars on a worthless project.

Witherspoon stars as Lisa, a thirty-year old professional softball player who gets cut from the US national team.  Adrift in Arlington, Virginia, she begins a relationship with a Washington Nationals pitcher, Matty Cain (Wilson).  Cain is written as a type of vain, self-obsesesed playboy who sleeps around with various women.  He's got a drawer full of unopened toothbrushes for the ladies who spend the night as well as a closet full of new clothes in various sizes for them to wear so they don't have to shamefully leave the building in the same outfit they were wearing the previous night.   

The relationship between Matty and Lisa is complicated by George (Rudd), a businessman being investigated by the federal government for securities fraud.  He works for his father (Nicholson), a cantankerous business owner who you know will inevitably have something to do with George's troubles, since George is written as the nicest, most compassionate character who never says a bad thing, does a bad thing, thinks a bad thing.  It’s difficult to make Rudd boring, but Brooks has managed to do just that.  Eventually, George ends up on an awkward date with Lisa, and he soon realizes he's falling love with this woman.  However, she’s still trying to make her relationship with Matty work.

This film lacked a heart, it lacked a brain, it lacked a soul.  I could harp on the performances, but they were only following the direction of Brooks, so blame must fall on his shoulders, and/or studio hacks who meddled in the film's affairs.  Nothing of any consequence happened in this movie; no depth of character is developed, no intellectually engaging thematic elements are presented.  He took a common cinematic topic (relationships between couples) and zapped it of all consequence, humor, empathy, complexity; basically, he sucked all aspects of identifiable life from the picture.  I could go on, but it's not worth the time.  

One thing I do know: this film simply exists as a larger manifestation of Hollywood's intellectual and emotional retardation outside of a few select filmmakers when it comes to adult relationship issues.  Hollywood hacks sure do know how to greenlight bombastic, but entertaining, 100 million dollar would-be blockbusters and juvenile, sometimes admittedly humorous, comedies.  But the byzantine workings of grown-up affairs seem to be out of the mental grasp of big studio productions.   How Do You Know seems to be the perfect encapsulation of the infantalization of such grown-up issues; sex/nudity is never shown because God forbid we see two people grasping at catharsis or clarity through use of a specific sexual dynamic, and modern professional/personal difficulties are never addressed-in fact, only a couple of throw-away scenes even show the characters at work.  Do yourself a favor and rent George Washington instead; David Gordon Green's emotionally/socially resonant film featuring a cast of mostly nonprofessional child actors displays the intricate machinations of falling in love more perceptively than How Do You Know could ever hope to do.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Unstoppable: A-

So many critics hate on Tony Scott.  They criticize his ADHD film-making style as assaultive, frenzied, incoherent; they routinely pick on and belittle this aesthetic the way certain students might gang up on the kid who's a little bit "off".  They hone in on what they believe to be deficiencies instead of strengths, and they attack those characteristics mercilessly.  Basically, Tony Scott doesn't get much love.

That's a shame because to paraphrase Dennis Green, Tony Scott is exactly who we think he is.  And I love him for it.  I look forward to his oversaturation of film stock, his whip-pans, the fact the man never seems to want to use a stationary shot when the camera can just spin around or careen towards its subjects like the train at the heart of his newest film, Unstoppable.  One thing about Tony Scott:  his shit ain't boring.

Unstoppable is a terrific movie because it gleefully traffics in cliches (the grizzled veteran versus the privileged upstart; the amoral head honcho willing to sacrifice human lives rather than dollars; school children in grave danger).  However, it also subverts them by lending an aura of authenticity to the proceedings and it convincingly develops a deep empathy for the men and women involved in attempting to stop Train #777.  Based on a true story that occurred in Ohio ("The Crazy 8's"), the setting is now Pennsylvania and it concerns a runaway train with no one at the controls.  Several of the cargo cars are carrying Molten Phenol, a deadly chemical, and a host of other obstacles are placed in the path of a train studio suits vomited the hyperbolic title "unstoppable," although anyone with a few brain cells or knowledge of big-budget Denzel Washington pictures should know that if Denzel is in the mutha-fuckin house, he'll be the one person to stop it.  Molten Phenol be damned!

I'm not meaning to slam Denzel.  Like Tony Scott and Dennis Green, he is who we think he is.  He's never going to blend into an everyman role.  No movie star can do such a thing, no matter how talented, because the celebrity and the persona created by 24/7 infotainment has eviscerated the line between performance and person.  Remember - celebrities, they're just like us.  Shit, that reminds me I need to re-up my subscription to US Weekly.

And Denzel (as Frank Barnes) and Chris Pine (as Will Colson) do solid, natural work here; their characters are the two men who take it upon themselves to catch up to the runaway train and stop it.  Neither role is showy; the trains are the stars here, as they should be, and Scott wisely allows viewers the time to understand: a.) the complexity involved in the logistics of the railway system and b.) how Triple 7 was allowed to find itself hurtling at breakneck speeds.  Human innovation, intelligence, and ingenuity account for the first part functioning successfully, while human stupidity allows for the second.

This is a perfect film where content, context, and style merge to thrilling effect.  Scott's bag of visual flourishes keep the movie moving, but he restrains himself from CGI overload (with the exception of one egregious instance).  Scott does an admirable job of establishing the railway system, a system that rarely seems to earn any respect these days with the invention of some new technological wonder being trumpeted everyday (remember when the Segway was supposed to revolutionize travel?).

But the railway system helped announce the birth of narrative cinema aat the turn of the 20th century with The Great Train Robbery in 1903.  And despite the fact it might appear to be the older, uglier brother to its' airplane brethren, its' ruggedness has lasted centuries.  More importantly, its' historical mark cannot be underestimated.  Before planes or cars, the railway was the form of transportation both for people and economic goods.  Not to mention, the social economic issues that have accompanied railroads through the years from the Pullman porters (ex-slaves who were hired for work after the Civil War and allowed to unionize) to the various violent strikes over labor issues to regulation all the way up through today, where political battles rage over undocumented workers, many who come to this country aboard El Tren de la Muerte ("The Train of Death" - read Sonia Nazario's Enrique's Journey or watch the film Sin Nombre).  So despite the story told being inherently cinematic, the fringe details of the work portrayed allow the viewer a greater appreciation of the system and the men and women who work to operate it.  I'm not claiming it digs deep into the lives of these working-class employees (it doesn't have the time nor the vision nor the intent to be Season 2 of The Wire), but it doesn't neglect the lives lived around the tracks. When Barnes, an engineer, tells Colson he won't be able to fit their train into the siding off the main track and explains the math behind his reasoning, you see a man who's learned by doing.  Little scenes like this provide the film its emotional heft and Scott doesn't need nor use fancy visual acrobatics to sell it to the audience.  Unstoppable isn't merely superior entertainment; it's a love letter to the railway and the blue-collar workers who make the industry thrive.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Film Review: 127 Hours

127 Hours:  B+

Full disclosure:  I walked out during the climactic scene when the combination of electro-shock therapy sound effects and grimy, feverish camera movements almost made me faint.  When I got to the lobby, all I saw were black spots flashing everywhere.  I had to lean against the concession counter for a couple of minutes and focus on breathing before the nausea subsided and I could see clearly.   

For a film that climaxes with a man methodically sawing off his own arm, 127 Hours startles as much for its rich humanity as it does the grotesque nature of self-amputation.  Putting aside for now this act of horrific self-preservation, 127 Hours does nothing so much as emphasize the thrill of being alive, the little acts individuals embark upon to find a personal freedom, and the self-awareness that Maya Angela immortalized:  "That nobody, But nobody, Can make it out here alone."

Director Danny Boyle follows up his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire with an entirely different type of survival story.  He sacrifices the narrative expansiveness of his prior film and replaces it with a single-minded relentlessness that focuses on one major character: outdoorsman Aron Ralston (James Franco), who in 2003 found himself trapped by a boulder in a gorge and swallowed by the wild of Blue John Canyon, Utah.  The film's blunt title sums up nicely the length of time he remained trapped before he chose to become famous instead of dead.

While I haven't seen many of Boyle's earlier work in years, those films led him to this material if you're painting in rather broad strokes.  The sense of physical/spiritual confinement, the lethality of mental deterioration during stressful situations, the willingness to shun humanity, the human spirit's indomitable will to persevere - all are represented in various ways in Boyle's previous films whether it be David's retreat from reality in Shallow Grave to Renton's struggles in Trainspotting all the way through to Jamal and Latika's intense longing for the other in Slumdog.  Now, in 127 Hours, Boyle is able to focus on these various thematic elements while in the process he's whittled away extraneous baggage and sharpened his focus on a singular individual stuck for the majority of the film in one, solitary spot.

Fortunately, Boyle has always been director known for visual panache and he uses all of his considerable skills to keep the story from becoming lifeless.  He's aided by two talented cinematographers, Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak; a tremendous editor, Jon Harris; and a committed performance by James Franco.  You know you're in good hands when a film shows its' main character literally stuck in one place and yet your attention is held.  That's solid film-making.  Granted, Boyle does make judicious use of hallucinations and flashbacks, but the majority of screen time is devoted to Ralston's conflict in the canyon.

Franco doesn't overplay the role.  He lets you understand right at the beginning of the film that Ralston loves life, especially the thrill of escaping into the vast wilderness of Utah's peaks and canyons.  He's a personable, confident, and self-deprecating individual, evident when he meets two fellow, attractive hikers played by Amber Tamblin and Kate Mara.  But Ralston also prefers to be alone; he seems to enjoy the company of others, but he enjoys flying solo better.  This lack of connectivity to others coupled with his daredevilish exploits promptly lands him stuck with no one to count on.

What would you have done?  Could you severe your own arm with a dull blade?  Could you snap your own bones to provide even the opportunity to saw it off?  Could you slash through tendons while covered in your own blood?  It's a remarkable story, and prior to this scene, Boyle and Franco allow us to understand Ralston's resiliency and thoughtfulness; he may be foolish, but he's not stupid, and it's a testament to the storytellers that when Ralston makes his remarkable decision, you understand even if you cannot comprehend.

By the story's end, you're also left with the spine-tingling joy of witnessing something truly amazing.  127 Hours is rooted, like Ralston, in simple, true joie de vivre.  But it also tempers it's love by making it clear the world is too large, too wonderful, and too unpredictable to go it alone.  What would have happened if Ralston had simply told his mother where he was going instead of ignoring her calls?  What if he'd stayed with the two hikers he'd met and shared his love and knowledge of the outdoors with them for the day instead of carrying on by himself?  The opening montage plays to Free Blood's "Never Hear Surf Music Again" and Boyle uses it to juxtapose the rat race and Ralston energetically preparing for his trek to the wilderness; sure, we don't want to just be drones shuttling from one place to another, indentured servants to the economics of world's work force and blind to the beauties inherent in the world.  But, Boyle seems to suggest, we don't want to be spastically bouncing from one wonder to the next without  the sort of communal transference that can lead to a sense of enlightened transcendence.  To not share in the beauty the world has to offer, to want it only for ourselves to hoard, demonstrates not only selfishness, but a hubris that is bound to leave one spiritually adrift and alone.  Ralston learned his lesson the hard way.  May others be more fortunate.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Darjeeling Limited with nods to Rushmore and the Royal Tenenbaums

The Darjeeling Limited:  B+ (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums:  A+)

The 1-2 punch of Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums immediately placed Wes Anderson in the pantheon of directors I felt substantial admiration towards, a man who had just made two tentpole pictures that provided ballast for my cinematic sensibilities.  Granted, both films are smeared thick with nostalgia since I watched them during my days at Boston University.  I still remember the Rushmore bus pulling up outside the College of Communication during a typically overcast February day, where I spoke with Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman.  The film had come out of the Telluride Film Festival with a lot of good buzz especially concerning Bill Murray's career-reinventing performance as millionaire Herman Blume, rival to Schwarztman's Max Fischer for the affections of school teacher Rosemary Cross (played by the lovely, understated Olivia Williams).  Remember, back in 1998, the "serious" actor thing had bitten Murray, but he had not been infected yet (The Razor's Edge was 14 years in the rear view, while Lost in Translation was still 5 years away down the road).  Rushmore marked a turning point in a career that had stalled (deliberately or not, who knows). 

His performance deserved all the accolades bestowed upon it, but Anderson and co-writer Own Wilson deserve much of the credit.  They avoided the sophomore jinx following Bottle Rocket and (most impressively) they did what true craftsmen/artists should do:  they honed their craft, fine-tuning the delicate emotional baggage their characters often carry with an off-hand comedic sensibility that presents itself in Anderson's manicured images and the script's piercing dialogue.  The priceless shot of a disheveled Herman Blume, holding flowers and lighting up several cigarettes in a hospital elevator, being asked by Max,"Are you all right?"  The succinct response pregnant with pathos:  "I've been better."  Or the epiphany on Blume's face that Anderson captures when Max introduces his father at the barbershop: simple, sincere, heartbreaking.  Scenes like these encapsulated the whole tone of Anderson's film in a single scene:  utter compassion for its characters, laugh-out-loud visual acuity, and the dialogue that stirs the two together to create the perfect blend of melancholic euphoria.  I had never felt so high from being so low.
The Royal Tenenbaums continued Anderson's refinement of cinematic stylings whether it be his impeccable images or humanist eccentrics.   Some critics have carped about his methods (Stephanie Zacharek in Salon:  "The movie is so calculating that I could only imagine Anderson sitting in some darkened room somewhere, toting up the laughs and tears on a child's chalkboard."), but his careful consideration of what is/isn't shown and said in the mise-en-scene only accentuates the lives of his characters and what they desire:  love.  Love for what they want, but cannot have; love for the family unit and its sense of community/kinship; love for belonging somewhere, nowhere, anywhere.  Like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums lays out a world of deliberate artifice that walks a fine line between whimsical melancholy and contrived whimsy.  And while many critics accuse Wes Anderson of being too diaramic with his conceits and characters, sucking the life out of both because of a fanatical attention to detail that strangulates the proceedings, I don't buy it.

If anything, Anderson is one of the great humanists working in film-making today, a director who cares so much abut his characters and the worlds they inhabit that he wants to nail down every minute detail with microscopic precision in order to invite us into their world and invest us in their experiences.  In many ways, Anderson is the cinematic equivalent of John Irving:  someone who is adept at mixing the broad/subtle comedy of life with the physicality/emotionally violent conflagration of individuals exposed when human beings reveal themselves.  Unlike Irving, who has tackled thorny subject matter such as religion, gender politics, abortion, war, and whose plots sprawl and leap and gallop across lifetimes, Anderson has entrenched himself  on the familial battleground to lay bare the wounds of his creations, and his intense love for the characters that populate his stories presents itself in the sum of a film's parts:  art direction, costume, cinematography, editing, location scouting, and musical choice.  Watch as Margot Tenenbaum steps off the bus to the glorious strain of Nico's lamentation, "These Days," and she sees Richie; Anderson's switch to slow motion precisely implicates us in Richie's universe, an emotional tsunami where you're holding your breath under water while trying to climb to the surface.   Watch as Richie stares blankly at himself in the mirror and announces,"I'm going to kill myself," while Elliot Smith warbles "Needle in the Hay"; Anderson's use of blue/green gels dowse the atmosphere in the character's emotional detachment, and the shock cuts slash up the sense of organization that's marked the film and characters' lives.  Outside of Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, nobody packs such a wallop with the juxtaposition of visual/aural accompaniments to infuse an audience with a total immersion into the world of film, while also providing the giddy, palpable thrill of discovery:  "This is a fucking movie!"
Next came The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  I have still only seen the film once.  It lacked the emotional glue that held Anderson's previous two films together.  I laughed little, and I cared nothing for the characters.  Maybe it was the departure of co-writer Owen Wilson (who starred) with new co-writer, Noah Baumbach.  Whatever the reason, I didn't like the world created.  I didn't believe the animation added anything of value to the movie; instead, it proved distracting by taking away from the father-son dynamic of Wilson and Bill Murray's characters.  Along with the odd burst of pirate violence, this film left me disappointed so much so I wasn't even in a real rush to see The Darjeeling Limited.  The danger with idol worship is when the curtain is pulled back, you're bound to be more than disappointed; more likely, you'll experience a sense of betrayal at the fact that such an individual would inflict such hurt.
Thank God I didn't listen to myself.  The Darjeeling Limited is not a great film like either of the two already discussed.  It's a modest film, more scaled down than Anderson's previous two films, and new ground is not shattered here story-wise.  But it does what Anderson does best:  family dysfunction punctuated with dry humor all sealed within his hermetic visual wonderland.

The film tells the story of three brothers:  Jack (Jason Shwartzman), Francis (Owen Wilson), and Peter (Adrien Brody).  They've all joined up on the Darjeeling Limited, a train that will take them on a trip throughout India as they attempt to reconnect at the point in their lives where all of them are crippled at an emotional level none of them can quite articulate.  Most of the film, they simply discuss their current predicaments, while they alternately bicker with each other and deny the admittance of authentic feeling.

Much of the film is structured to have an obvious literal/figurative duality that Anderson presents without much artfulness, but he does it in such a manner that it never becomes too heavy-handed.  From the outset, we know the brothers are embarking on a journey in a foreign country while also undertaking a journey to find their mother while also journeying within themselves to address their personal crises.  This most clearly shines through in Anderson's technical approach.  He often shoots the three main actors so they're looking directly into the camera, but he will pan away, an external reflection of each brother's inability to be direct or straight about the baggage (again, literal and figurative) they lug around, never being able to open up with one another.  Each brother erodes a sense of integrity with the others as they compile a mound of half truths and white lies, while they believe such calculated works of fiction will prevent any harm from happening. 

India stands in as the film's fourth major character, a place overflowing with wonders, secrets, and beauty.  This change in scenery doesn't open up Anderson's diligent, refined approach to filmmaking and storytelling so much as it beautifully complements the myriad ways in which a person/country appear to others.  The eventual destination for the brothers (and viewers) is unimportant, and the cliche "It's the journey and not the destination" is fully embraced by Anderson.  Indeed, the destination leads the three brothers to their mother, and many of their problems stem from mother/woman issues (Peter's inability to confront his wife in the face of impending fatherhood; Jack''s longing for the comforts of his recent ex-girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman in the short film Hotel Chevalier).  Anderson's bluntness when trafficking in metaphors might strike some as heavy-handed, but he's developed such a wonderfully cinematic shorthand that allows for this viewer to forgive him his tendency to be blindingly obvious with some narrative decisions.  A number of sequences highlight this talent, while furthering the themes of isolation and disconnectedness (A beautifully compartmentalized series of snapshots into the lives of the train's travelers; Peter overtaking Bill Murray's character in a race toward the train set to The Kinks "This Time Tomorrow"; a funeral involving the death of a local village boy).
After The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited was a nice reminder of Anderson's skill as both writer and director.  It might not have been as exquisitely special as Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, but I felt relieved to see Anderson continue to mine the complexities of relationships that exist between people, and his broken-heart-on-a-sleeve approach serves him and us well in ultimately delivering a sincerely felt film.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Video Review: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist:  A-

I feel like I'm rarely surprised by movies any more.  That's part of the problem when you love something; you become so passionate about your love, it becomes an obsession (and not always a healthy one).  You rarely allow yourself the opportunity to let your love just be.  You can't allow any room for breath, for a sense that something startling might happen because you've replaced wonder with suffocation.  You've replaced a certain sense of childish thrill with a depth of knowledge that you use to drill down in order to see and observe and attempt to understand all the minutiae and pedestrian pieces that make up your love.

I read every review (thanks Movie Review Query Engine!); I Google multiple articles about various directors and writers and actors; I peruse the weekly box office receipts and then I decide to review the previous 3-5 years as well; I scan Variety and Entertainment Weekly and other magazines ruining the element of surprise in film after film.  The Internet has only further exacerbated my intensity of interest.  I can check on banal film facts in a mere minute thanks to my trusty IPhone.  But what I can't do is be surprised.  I can't just feel that little pop in my eyes when someone shows up in a film unexpectedly.  I can't get the hairs on my forearms to stand at attention.  I can't get that little jolt that shimmies up from the belly and shocks the brain like when you close your eyes on a swing and lean way back, feeling the rush go to your head.  It just doesn't happen.

But I felt Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.  I felt it deep in my organs like when you sit beside the fire place feeling the warmness of the fire seep into your skin and deeper after you have shuddered through the wicked Northeast winds that whip across your body and lash you on a violent January evening.  Now, a week later, I still feel it.  It's not a vivid memory; it's a bit too fuzzy and indistinct in certain areas.  It's more the mood of a dreamscape that you can't shake and find yourself pondering in a hazy, grinning reverie, sharp images and language fused with a loose and nimble euphoria.
It's a movie about the soul's awakening to possibility; about the joy of discovery, and the selfish altruism you exhibit when you bestow your discovery on others; about love and holding hands and bonding over music like your life depended upon it, the verses and the chords medicinal, fighting to keep the personal sickness at bay, each new discovered track another immunization against life's relentless relentlessness as it tries to steamroll you on its way to the next person.  It's about finding Fluffy, the elusive band the film's characters try to track down during their all night trek around New York City.  But the mysterious Fluffy is nothing more than the MacGuffin that leads everyone (including the audience) down the rabbit hole and it's no coincidence the band's white rabbit symbol evokes Lewis Carroll's classic tale; it works to propel the film's sense of squandered possibility when individuals embark on an odyssey and they do all they can to ignore or deny the existence of something magical.   "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" the rabbit intones and I cannot imagine there isn't a viewer out there who hasn't felt the galvanizing anxiety that life is swiftly passing by until it is too late:  all windows of opportunity have been slammed shut and locked, whether due to mental barriers, personal foibles, physical impediments.  So while Nick and Norah might be a blast of pure high fructose cinematic corn syrup, it amazingly refrains from a sickening sweetness due to its purity of spirit that practically calls out for everyone to just go for it:  follow your heart and make your dreams come true.  Simplistic idea to the core yet it retains a strong kernel of truth because while the directions might be easily understood, it doesn't mean the road won't be bumpy as all hell (is that a mixed metaphor or what?).

Michael Cera portrays Nick, a broken-hearted suburbanite from Hoboken pining for his ex, Tris.  I've never been a huge fan of Cera's, but I'm no hater either, and he does a great job here.  Rather than make Nick some whiny, pathetic, emasculated loser who might as well be a eunuch, Nick is a self-conscious indy music geek who plays bass in a band with his gay best friends.  I wouldn't mention the sexuality of the friends if it wasn't such a delight to see the sexual orientation of the two defined in such an off-hand manner that bespeaks of the great empathy both demonstrate towards their straight friend as they work to help Nick realize just how much he has to offer others, while protecting him from his own worst impulses (the worst of which is getting back together with his cheating ex girlfriend).  As they tell Norah, "Nicky is definitely worth the underwire."
The plot gets set in motion when the three of them play a show in Manhattan, where Nick meets Norah, who has already been introduced to us at the private school she attends with Tris and Caroline, her best friend.  We know Norah and Nick are made for each other since Norah snatches out of the trash the elaborately decorated and dramatically titled mix CDs Nick makes in a vain attempt to win back Tris.  The character of Norah is a bit of a writer's fantasy; the cool outcast who's rich (her father is some big-time music man) and gorgeous (but no one seems to notice), and in real life she wouldn't exist in such a manner.  But actress Kat Deelings

Not the most elaborate of dress to hang a movie upon, but the film isn't about plot, but mood and frequency.  And for whatever reason, I was tuned in to the right channel when I watched everything play out on screen.  For nearly the entire time I felt that sweet sensation of discovery like when you hear a song for the first time and every single note, every single lyric, every single second of mellifluous magic builds and builds towards an emotional/physical/spiritual deluge that bursts out and washes over you and sloughs off the old you.  It happened just last weekend when I heard Ray Lamontagne sing live "Joleen" and "Let It Be Me" underneath the stars or when Band of Horses played "No One's Gonna Love You" as the San Diego sun decided to go to lay down to sleep.  Transformative:  that's the feeling, and while Nick and Norah didn't equal those experiences, it touched upon them nonetheless.  And in this day and age of cinematic overload, that's meaningful to me.
Bits and choice pieces continue to simmer in my mind.  Andy Samberg, doing his best  "Saturday Night Live Mark Wahlberg  impersonation", makes a hilarious cameo as a deranged homeless man who encounters Nick ("You're like a little canary in skinny jeans, huh . . . Hey, let me ask you a question.  You ever hook up with a dog?  Don't.  It's not worth it.  I like you so much.").  A running joke involves Nick's yellow Hugo, which at one point gets mistaken as a cab by a drunk man and woman who proceed to furiously make-out in the tiny back seat while Nick and Norah try to manage an honest conversation (Seth Myers plays the man:  "I love you so much it's retarded.")   Nick telling his friends he doesn't want to go into the city to play a gig:  "I don't want to go.  I'm taking a mental health day."  Norah's best friend, the trashed Caroline, telling a male train attendant, "I was kidnapped tonight.  Seriously.  And this band with these guys talking about going 'balls deep.'  Sounds like fun, right?  Not always."  Other minute facial expressions and modest gesticulations and voice modulations pile up, but I'll let you watch the film and make your own decisions regarding your enjoyment.

The film isn't perfect by any means, but its flaws only amplify what it does so right versus wrong.  And what it does right is spark into existence the simplest, and yet most meaningful, of life's pleasures:  holding hands with the one you love, taking a leap into the void, and making something from nothing.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Film Review: Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom:  C

Another victim of the hype machine, David Michod's Animal Kingdom is just a boilerplate cinematic recyclable that does nothing to make itself stand out from the pack nor does it re-contextualize its' proceedings in such a way as to make it worthwhile.  This Australian crime drama details the Cody family, a criminal unit tied into the armed robbery bracket in Melbourne.  Four brothers (mentally unstable Pope, drugged-out Craig, forward-thinking Baz, and malleable Darren) make up the amoral gang, but this testosterone-packed clan is overseen by its matriarch, Smurf.  As played by Jackie Weaver, Smurf is a petite, bottle-blond with pancaked, garish make-up who as the film progresses increasingly demonstrates a maternal love for her children that hinges on the sociopathic.  She's also the most engaging character in the film because of her warped love for family and her artful manipulation of those around her.

At the beginning of the film, the brothers begin to see the writing on the wall for their way of life due to the local law enforcement's decision to fight such illicit proceedings with swift, brutal, and decisive violence.  Into this close-knit clique comes the teenage Joshua "J" Cody, the nephew of the four outlaws, who has grown up outside the murderous world of his uncles and grandma because his mother had a falling out with the family.  The film opens with J sitting impassively beside his mother, who moments later we learn is dead from an overdose.  With seemingly no one else to call, he telephones Grandma Smurf, who picks him up and takes him under her wing.  Soon, J is plugged into a network of criminality both familial and police.

A huge fault within Animal Kingdom exists with the character of J.  Viewed as a sponge of sorts who absorbs all of the schemes and internecine conflicts that coalesce between cops and criminals (often one in the same), the character as written and portrayed is a banal, introspective man-child who must navigate the murky waters of right and wrong without ever quite revealing his desire to stay above water.  Only J's voice-over reveals his character as someone who has a deeper understanding of his surroundings and its inhabitants than he demonstrates.  The problem with this particular approach is Michod has written J as a conduit for the audience yet he lacks any real magnetism to draw us into into this particular animal kingdom.  J's common expression is blankness, a tabula rasa of sorts, which makes sense and makes J the character you least want to spend screen time on.

As the noose methodically tightens around the Cody family, Animal Kingdom does an extremely slow burn.  Very few scenes exhibit any sense of tension, which saps all potential energy from the film until it fizzles out.  A couple blasts of violence (the finest being a shockingly early one involving the bloody death of a someone believed to be a major character) attempt to jump start the film, but most of the movie remains lifeless.  Michod shows real restraint at avoiding gratuitously sordid situations, but I'll avoid the term "admirable" because I would have liked a little bit more shock and awe to add some pop to the film's proceedings.  The whole film feels rudimentary from its characters, a series of stock types, to the mechanics of the plot to its' central thematic concept spelled out in the film's title.  I don't know if critics are fawning over this film because they're enchanted by the Australian accents, but this film is simply another carcass littering the highway of cinematic crime dramas.  Go rent The Proposition for another Australian film detailing an outlaw family and the weight of morality, or lack thereof, that burdens the choices individuals make in order to stay alive.    


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Video Reviews: Descent versus Hostel 2

Descent:   C
Hostel 2:  D
Note:  The picture above is not the exact photo shown on the DVD cover.

The DVD cover shot intrigued me. A picture of a (seemingly) naked Rosario Dawson, her dark features engulfed by the darkness of her hair, flipped upside down; the photo merging with the title, like she was slowly submerging herself into the cover art; and, finally, the plug from The New York Times comparing Dawson's performance to those of Robert DeNiro and Hillary Swank in Taxi Driver and Boys Don't Cry, respectively. The back of the DVD featured all sorts of hyperbole like "Shocking" (Entertainment Weekly) and "A Masterpiece of Shock Cinema" ( If only Descent lived up to the sordid expectations I projected upon it. Unfortunately, the film itself is a brutally dull psychological slog that only achieves a visceral reaction during its’ two sequences of violence; until then, it's a straightforward, yet pretentiously abstract, excursion into the psyche of a rape victim that never garners the fist-clenching fury of the two films previously mentioned.

Dawson stars as Maya, a nineteen year old college student at what appears to be a predominantly lily-white college ( I think they mentioned Claremont). The film starts slowly enough during the winter time, teasing out Dawson's character more through her body language and facial expressions than dialogue. The director and co-writer, Talia Lugacy, realizes what a fantastic actress she has to work with, and she wisely does more with less in terms of establishing the character's reservedness, but also the power of her femininity. When the Maya meets Jared at a house party, his initial conversation with her hits all the right notes in that it feels forced, authentic, and superficial all at the same time, but it makes for a banal film-making experience. Maya, however, isn't a simple one-note character. One of the nice things about her construction and Dawson's portrayal is that Maya projects a vivid sexuality that makes it easy to see why someone like Jared would find her so attractive, yet she also presents the viewer a vision of an intelligent, prudent woman aware of herself and others. When Jared ends up raping her, a third of the way into the film, the scene is difficult because Lugacy refuses to cut away for most of its' running time; instead, she keeps the camera in a two-shot close-up, a long take of Jared and Maya making out for the first time that feels ominous, but sensual, until the sexual excitement is replaced by blunt power, as Jared uses his strength to force himself on Maya despite her attempts both verbal and physical to stop him. Jared (played with meatheaded gusto by Chad Faust) amplifies the abuse when he lets loose a series of racial/ethnic/sexist epithets, which jacks up the didacticism. Now the film has bluntly called attention to the power dynamics that exist in a white, male dominated world that for centuries has used force to overpower women and, more specifically, the feminine ethnic "other".

This scene, along with the final scene, is the rubber-necking experience I had been expecting, where you want to look away, but find yourself drawn into the degradation. Unfortunately, the middle section, entitled "Spring" is a tedious muddle. An overt, heavy-handed symbolic reference to rebirth, this section is visually presented in Dawson's physical appearance, which now consists of a short bob (more deliberately masculine, but still allowing the feminine sexuality) and her one facial expression (glum, bordering on catatonic). Maya invests herself in her work at a retail store, while falling into an after-hours routine of dance clubs, drugs, sexual exploration, and a strange friendship with Adrian, a muscular, tattooed DJ. Lugacy even provides Dawson with her own "You talkin' to me?" scene when Maya stares at herself in a mirror while uttering the confessional "Yeah, you are" repeatedly. Like Travis Bickle, Maya really is the only one there, a figure who's withdrawn herself into herself and who seeks to disappear in a world of sex and drug use in order to mask her own emotional stuntedness. And like Bickle, she will not take it anymore and she seeks release to wash the personal scum in her life off the campus green.

Part of the problem with this middle third is the presentation. Lugacy favors using long tracking shots, periods of no dialogue, blackouts, voiceover, and garish red lighting to suggest the hellish underworld that Maya descends into in order to rediscover or reinvent or simply numb herself. Much of it feels hazily realized, intentionally so in order to depict Maya's semi-conscious state of mind. At times, these techniques work to create a feeling of dread and fear. A static shot of Maya dressing/undressing a mannequin at her job does a better job than any in the film at subtly suggesting how woman are treated as window dressing, something to be made-up and redone and presented in such a fashion as to be visually, rather than intellectually, appealing. However, much of Maya's journey is simply a bore and the psychological underpinning never feels fully explored. The film feels made by an academic rather than a dramatist. Her relationship with Adrian never feels fleshed out and her reclamation of sexual power (evident in the section's final scene, where Maya makes out with a woman while getting eaten out by a man) seems strained, rather than earned because the filmmaker hasn't provided strong enough evidence to make this seem plausible.

The final section ("Fall" - again, heavy-handed title card) seems shorter and turns Maya into an avenging angel.  I don't want to spoil too much, but the final scene, shot with implication rather than explicitness, is primal in its power.  It also subverts the initial rape scene and demonstrates an alternative reality where the (ethnic/racial/sexual/linguistic) abuse that has historically been aimed towards women and minorities is righted old testament style.  Much like the climax of Taxi Driver, this scene confronts viewers. It forces us to take into account our own personal and moral beliefs, and makes us consider whether our own primal desires trump our highfalutin "black and white" belief system when the theoretical becomes reality.

It will be interesting to see more from Lugacy. Descent is her first full-length feature, and she has a command of visual/aural relationships used to provoke an atmosphere of a world coming unhinged. I hope her storytelling steps up to become leaner and meaner, more interested in dramatically juicing her stories so they don’t become so narcoleptic. Because when all is said and done, Descent is ultimately a grindhouse revenge thriller disguised as feminist post-traumatic rape treatise.

With that being said, the director of Hostel 2, Eli Roth, could learn a thing or two from Talia Lugacy. I never meant for the two to be viewed as companion films, but it just so happened I rented them on the same night and watched them back to back. As a matter of fact, I think Hostel 2 would have been much improved if Lugacy had left her textbooks at home and directed this trash.

Hostel 2 is a replica of the first film, where a bunch of backpacking college kids end up in Slovakia for good times only to end up kidnapped and sold to the highest bidder invested in a “murder for sale” business known as Elite Hunting. The only difference this time around is the sequel replaces the callous boys of the original with a trio of young women. This is probably Roth’s idea of female empowerment. Anyways, if you have seen the original, you’ve seen the sequel by default. If you enjoy seeing a naked woman hung upside down while another woman slices her open to bathe in the girl’s blood while seemingly masturbate, this film is for you.

What really struck me is the idea of Lugacy making this kind of trash. Roth has no intention nor desire to generate the threat of violence or humiliation or intimidation through a strategic manipulation of image and sound; he wants to get to the good stuff and wallow there. The problem with this approach is no real menace, no real fear is generated as the story unfolds-instead, the viewer is subjected to recurrent scenes of disembowelment, cannibalism, and the climactic money shot, a castration shown in full where a cock gets devoured by Dobermans jonesing for some real meat. Lugacy could have shot the lights out of this film and provoked some real tension, some real atmospheric dread, and most importantly, some genuine scares. She has a great understanding that less actually can be more, and her instincts would have left Hostel 2 a more horrific film rather than the tired piece of shit it becomes.

I didn’t hate Hostel 2. It’s not repulsive enough to hate. It’s just not scary. The original Hostel, despite any objections to content, contained some real chills. Now that the cat’s out of the bag concerning the protagonists’ fates, Roth would have been wise to go in the other direction. Less focus on gore (much of which is more comedic than frightening—not deliberately, I believe), more on sustaining a mood. Because it’s not in the knowing, but in the telling, and in Hostel 2, Roth simply tells us the story in the same exact way. If I’d known this to be the case, I would have rented Hostel again.