Monday, August 23, 2010

To the window, to the wall...

Did you really think I was going to be able to review Aaron Schneider's Get Low without referencing Lil' Jon? Come on.

Robert Duvall stars as Felix Bush, a feisty man who's relegated himself to a life of rural solitude for the last 40 years in 1930s Tennessee. Recognizing that before too long, his life will be over and he will not have settled his affairs, he asks the preacher in the nearby town to arrange a funeral for him. His request is denied because, despite the preacher's insistence, Bush will not atone to God for his sins. Overhearing this, Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black) tells his boss at the funeral home, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), that they have to potential to earn Bush's 40 years' worth of savings if they can provide him the type of service he desires. The catch being that Bush wants to host the funeral party while he is still alive, so that he can attend and hear all the fables that have been invented about him. What follows is both a quirky journey of Robinson and Quinn trying to acquiesce to all of Bush's unusual requests, and an upwelling of secrets from his past that get revealed in interactions with his former girlfriend Mattie (Sissy Spacek) and old friend Reverend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs).

Knowing very little going into the movie, I admit I expected a more comic journey, with Duvall and Murray perfectly poised as actors to portray old salts competing in levels of crotchetiness. Instead it was mostly a "watch Robert Duvall do a great job at acting" experience, which people have been able to do for some 50-odd years now. The story is fairly simple by the time the first act is out of the way. The final exposition of what secrets are hidden in Bush's past is neither surprising nor very spectacular, except perhaps to Bush, Mattie, and Charlie.

While Get Low is a fine film, I have to admit that it is a bit underwhelming upon reflection. The acting is great, but the story is neither compelling enough nor treated with enough flair to be that memorable. With a different director or writer involved, I am sure that the tale of a hermit's living funeral party with this same impressive cast could be more interesting and endearing than it ends up in the actual iteration. Good intentions, with a decently enjoyable outcome, but one that is lacking, in the end.

Just pure trash. (It's great.)

So, I've been trying to figure something out for a while. Last month, I was convinced to attend a "guerrilla wrestling" event with my boyfriend and some friends. I have never once watched fake wrestling in any context other than as dramatized in The Wrestler (meta), so I figured it would be boring and that I could just lol at the number of neckbeards in the audience. While I did count dozens of pairs of jhorts on the people in attendance (the event was held at an American Legion in Reseda, btw), when the actual "wrestling" began, my expectations were jolted. I was pretty instantly disgusted by the display, and shortly had to avert my eyes from the hijinks on the canvas. By the end of the hours-long event, I had to remove myself from the spectacle, as I thought I might be sick. I was caught in the midst of a dignity vacuum with no escape.

I couldn't figure out what exactly was so offensive to me about it. I'm not squeamish, nor do I have an ideological aversion to violence. I quite enjoy watching fight sports, such as boxing or MMA, both live and onscreen (though I admit I hate to see bone get snapped). There was something in the intentions, perhaps, that bothered me. When watching two highly-trained fighters compete, I am eager to see them use their skills to better the other. It's a legitimate and respectable competition. At the "wrestling," I was confused. Everyone knew that the personae and feuds were manufactured, and the combat choreographed. The way that the performers (including the "referee") would slap the canvas in order to fake the sound of a huge collision, was so transparent. So I thought, "why are these people so invested in the outcome of this fake thing?" But then, when the performers brought out techniques that could actually inflict serious injury - falls from great heights, metal folding chairs and wooden tables - the crowd was whipped into a frenzy. "They know it's fake, but they really go wild when they think it's approaching reality?" I was caught in a thought circle pertaining to simulacra and Baudrillard's hyperreal.

When I tried to boil it down to a more detailed analysis (so acute was my disgust that I really had to spend a lot of time figuring out how people I respect could be interested in something I found to be so disgraceful and abhorrent), I got even more confused by my own feelings. This intersection of simulacra and Schadenfreude is a part of so much of pop culture. The manufactured dramas of (mostly scripted) reality television suck in millions, and sell magazines. We trick ourselves into caring about the problems that people have in public, whether it's celebrities with drug addictions, or poor people on midday talk/court shows, all in an effort to feel better about ourselves.

As for the actual "combat" element, it occurs to me that "professional wrestling" is no different than a live stage-show version of choreographed fight scenes in movies and television. How can I judge someone for wanting to see a fake luchador hit a fake...whatever over the head with a folding chair, when I want to see Tony Jaa's characters defeat the baddies in movies like Ong-Bak? I know that the feuds are equally scripted; I even know that the stuntmen Jaa is kneeing in the head are probably getting injured worse than the "wrestlers" (and paid less).

I thought about this conflict after watching The Expendables last week. I had been pumped about this movie for a long time (I love silly action movies; Shoot 'Em Up is a favorite), especially after attending the relevant panel at Comic Con. Stallone, Statham, Lundgren, Li, Rourke, Willis, Crews, Schwarzenegger. Even Couture (MMA) and Austin (WWE). The poster says it all - no tagline needed. Obviously the omission of Van Damme, and even Seagal, was unfortunate, but that was their loss.

Ostensibly I set out to review the movie in this post, but I don't really know what you want me to say. There's a lot of gunpower. People get shot and their body parts explode in dramatic ways, with blood spatters evocative of the computer generated ones in 2003's Zatoichi. Stallone cuts off a dude's head with a single swipe of the blade, like cutting through butter. Crews throws a rocket at a helicopter and Stallone shoots it until it explodes. Etc. It's fun, it's stupid, and it's trashy. And even though it is physically uncomfortable to look at Sylvester Stallone (much less Mickey Rourke), it was so much fun to see them all onscreen together.

Seriously though, Stallone looks like a burst sausage casing. My going theory is that he died a few years ago, and now someone is wearing his corpse like a suit, à la Vincent d'Onofrio in Men in Black. And if you thought his eyebrows and lips were rough, his saggy 'roid hands are just terrifying.

So, given my understanding of the love we can all have for escapist trashy cinema, I have to acknowledge that people should be free to enjoy "professional wrestling" without judgment. While surely that particular channel of entertainment is not for me, it would be hypocritical of me to consider myself superior to its fans. Am I turning a new leaf, folks? I mean, I really love being judgmental, and here I am being forgiving? What's next, taking furries seriously? Let's hope not.

Taxi Driver

My latest essay for A Bright Wall in a Dark Room kicks off Martin Scorsese week. Click the link below to read:


Scott Pilgrim vs. The Girls

So, while I am a newcomer to the world of comic books / graphic novels, it is a medium that I have really enjoyed getting to know a little bit about, and that I am eager to spend more time acquainting myself with. I have never read an issue of Bryan Lee O'Malley's Canadian nerd saga, so I went into the Edgar Wright film adaptation with no expectations. I cannot really review the movie in the context of whether or not it was a good adaptation, but watching the movie definitely raised some questions about the series.

I'd like to first say that I really liked the casting choices - for all of the supporting characters. Mary Elizabeth Winstead was completely believable as the gorgeous and supercool mystery girl Ramona that guys fall in love with after just seeing her across the room. Kieran Culkin, Alsion Pill, Anna Kendrick, and Aubrey Plaza made a great team as Scott's long-suffering friends, and were entertaining whenever onscreen. Ellen Wong was adorable, annoying, and impossible to hate as Scott's scorned teenage girlfriend Knives Chau. And finally, all of Ramona's seven evil exes (well, the ones who had lines, anyway) fleshed out their caricatures well - Brandon Routh was a particularly nice surprise.

Arturo R. García wrote about the film's portrayal of Asian-descent characters on Racialicious, and I will quote the following as it pertains to Ramona's other evil exes:

"...other characters fare a lot worse ... the first of Ramona’s League of Evil Exes, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) gets turned into a Bollywood joke during his fight sequence ... and the Katayanagi Twins (Shora and Keita Saito) go from being tech-savvy villains in the comic (they lure Scott into battle by kidnapping yet another ex of his) to their own QAS Daft Punk pastiche, complete with (ugh) dragons shooting out of their turntables."

Anyway, Jason Schwartzman will always have a place in my heart (did I tell you that I totally shook his hand once? It was awesome), Chris Evans was a well-played parody, and it was awesome to see Mae Whitman battle her former flame from Arrested Development.

Which brings me to Michael Cera. I guess he was well-cast? I don't know, you tell me. My friends who've read the comics did say that so much had to be condensed into the film, but I'd like to know if Scott Pilgrim is as devoid of personality in the source material as he is in the movie. Yes yes, Cera plays the same role in every movie. We loved it about him in AD and Superbad, and then immediately got tired of it. Wasn't he quitting acting or something? Whatever. I miss George Michael (not the singer-songwriter).

I guess if you strip away the flashy and cool fight sequences and just look at the story presented in the movie, it makes more sense. Boring unemployed 22-year-old in a band who lives across the street from his parents is believably edgy enough to impress a 17-year-old overprotected schoolgirl. And rightfully should incur the derision that it does from all of his friends. And while it's difficult to imagine that Ramona would want anything to do with this loser, I guess given the high drama of her past relationships, someone with absolutely nothing going on in their life might appeal. I'm just over the trope of an average-looking dude with very little to offer being the main obsession of multiple women who have a lot of promise.

Anyway, the fight scenes were exciting to watch, even for my parents and I who have extremely limited experience with video games and comics, where most of the stylized inspiration seemed to come from. I felt engaged throughout the movie with its frills that were surely culled from the pages of the comics. That said, Winstead and Wong were on a "Girls Who Kick Ass" panel at Comic Con, and given that they basically learned a limited amount of fight choreography for one movie, I do not think that title should necessarily be applied to those actresses.

So, the movie was enough. I would like to read the comics to see if there is more material there to be entertained by. Also I want Brandon Routh and Chris Evans to have a douchey buddy comedy, please.

Scorsese week at A Bright Wall in a Dark Room

Hi, friends!

Just a heads up that this week is Martin Scorsese week over at A Bright Wall in a Dark Room. I will be cross-posting my contribution later on, but for now, enjoy this teaser:

The original 1976 motion picture trailer for Taxi Driver.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

This Summer, Angelina Jolie is...Salt. Lol!

(spoilers, guys)

Tonight I had the great pleasure of watching one of summer's best comedies, Salt, with Angelina Jolie (Gone in 60 Seconds, Cyborg 2) in the starring role of this enduring farce of the spy genre. Not since Leslie Neilsen has an actor turned in such a pitch-perfect role in this oeuvre. Jolie takes a risky step in her career, tackling the comedy world with a verve she hasn't mustered since 2002's Life or Something Like it (and the blonde hair too!).

The story kicks off with a Russian defector approaching Salt, and her partner Winter (the always-sexy Liev Schreiber), and breaking the news that Salt is a known Russian spy (!), trained from childhood to become a sleeper agent in the CIA! Agent Peabody (the also-sexy Chiwetel Ejiofor) tries to pursue her, but she makes her escape from a locked interrogation room while no one is watching, and heads to New York City to assassinate the visiting Russian President! Because that is a thing that a Russian spy would definitely do.

For the next act or so, Salt does so much stuff! She rides on the tops of trucks that are speeding down the highway, uses a maxi pad to dress a bullet wound, shoots a church pipe organ during the Vice President's funeral (what?), injects spider venom into a bullet to make it a paralytic bullet, gets arrested, and then escapes the police car she is being transported in! Wanna know how she does that? She (while handcuffed) tazes the driver of the car, and then re-tazes him every time she wants his foot to slam on the gas pedal. Laugh a minute, folks.

She ends up getting herself to the barge where all the bigshot Russian spies hang out, wearing her fur hat and poncho ensemble from Beyond Borders. There she sees that the Russians, who all have really thick Russian accents for some reason despite having been raised speaking American English so as to blend in perfectly as Americans, just like Salt, who doesn't have a Russian accent at all, have kidnapped her fake German husband who she married because the CIA told her to but she ended up loving him anyway even though he kind of looks like a poor man's Peter Sarsgaard bred with a poor man's James McAvoy, and also with a chin beard, and then the Russians kill him to test Salt's allegiance. Because she might like, assassinate a Head of State because they told her to but then totally flip her shit when her arachnologist (sure) husband dies. And then they're all holding glasses of vodka all of a sudden even though they were just standing there holding guns like a second ago? Na zdorovje!

So then that part of the movie is over, and we move on to the next one, because why not? Salt is now reunited with another Russian-child-spy with a thick Russian accent, even though he was raised to be passable as an American, but has been stationed in the Czech Republic, so maybe he's supposed to be Czech? But he doesn't have a Czech accent, it's definitely Russian. Anyway. And they totally spent like, all this time and money to create a flashback exposition scene for Salt to remember that one time she knew a kid with a scar on his face, and this dude has one too!

Anyway so they have to break into the bunker that's eight floors underneath the White House, in disguise as Czech NATO envoys, to steal the Chamber of Secrets Book of Secrets assassinate the US President and also deploy nuclear weapons to the middle east, enraging the Muslim world who would then destroy America (only the spies of Soviet Russia, still upset about the Cold War, could come up with such a convenient, efficient plan). Now some of you may know that the title role of this movie was originally written for Tom Cruise, but was recast when his career and likability jumped the couch. In a subtle wink to this, Salt has to dress up as a man! But don't worry, it's a really convincing disguise (actual still from the set of the film Salt). So, if you ever wanted to see Angelina Jolie, in drag, parkour her way down an elevator shaft, this is your moment. [An associate suggests that the reason her character has to dress as a man for this scene is because the only parkour double they could find wasn't passable as a woman.]

So now a bunch of stuff happens and the President is like "we need to arm the nukes" because [pick any line of dialogue from Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb], and then OMG! (major spoilers) Winter is actually the bad guy! Remember him? The CIA guy from the beginning who has absolutely no purpose being in the bunker with the President because he's CIA, not Secret Service, which the movie reminds us of twice? Yeah so he kills lots of people and then tries to send the nukes but while that program or whatever is loading on the President's nukes-laptop, Salt is like 'whoa I never knew you were also a Russian-child-spy sent to become a double agent in the CIA,' and Winter literally says, "My loneliness was my only friend." Oh man. In Soviet Russia, dialogue writes you! So they Russian at each other for a while, and then they fight, because maybe Angelina Jolie is a good guy? It's really unclear who she's working for at this point, if anyone. My guess is Germany. Or North Korea. Oh, did I mention that the movie opens with Salt being tortured in a NoKo prison for some reason? It does.

So I guess then Salt gets arrested, but she is given the world's longest handcuffs, so she jumps off a balcony, using Winter's neck as a fulcrum of sorts, and choking him to death, miraculously doing so without dislocating her shoulders. Peabody is back, and they're in a helicopter now, and Salt kinda wryly hints that maybe she's a good guy, after all, so then he detaches her handcuffs from the helicopter and helps her jump out of the helicopter to the safe waters of the Potomac River, in winter, many thousands of feet below. Because surely that wouldn't kill her. Also her dude wig has stayed on this entire time, which is great. And then the movie ends.

In conclusion, lol, and also, stay tuned for Salt 2: Die Saltier, coming in 2013, and Salt 3: The Saltening, also coming in 2013.

More Accountability

Argh! Cyrus and I am Love are both coming to the 2nd run / indie theater near my work this Friday! This makes things more interesting.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Show Me

Debra Granik's adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's novel Winter's Bone, is a film noir set in the modern-day Ozark mountains of Missouri. The story follows 17-year-old Ree, de facto caretaker of her 12- and 6-year-old brother and sister, and their mentally ill mother, as she tries to track down their deadbeat father Jessup, who's on the lam after his latest arrest for cooking meth. Jessup had placed the family's house and property up for his bail bond, and if Ree can't track him down before his court date, she'll still be looking after her family herself, but without a place to live. This quest takes her to all the most dangerous members of her extended family, all embroiled in the drug world, all telling her to stop asking questions.

The most fascinating thing, for me, about Winter's Bone, is the linear path Ree finds herself on. Her situation in act one is as bleak as her muted surroundings, and as the story progresses, I never really wished for the dramatic change in circumstances that you might expect from a story that begins with a plucky, hard-on-her-luck gal. Just from seeing the kind of world she inhabits, you know not to expect that she'll win some contest, or uncover the massive inheritance no one knew about, or sell her hair to the highest bidder or anything. All you want for her, in the end, is to be able to raise her siblings, and look after her mother, without the fear of their home being taken away. They'll still have to eat squirrel, and accept donated venison from the neighbors, but you can take it as a happy ending.

Along the way, Ree does endure some majorly harrowing events, and she introduces us to a type of character not often seen outside of HBO. John Hawkes (who somehow looks like the lovechild of Adrien Brody and Harry Dean Stanton), as Ree's uncle Teardrop, portrays a character perfectly balancing sadness, anger, and compassion. He is terrifying in one scene, a welcome savior in others. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Ree, does an excellent job playing her strong character, but much more is asked of Hughes, and he meets the challenge well. These performances sit perfectly against the crushing realism of the setting, with blackened husks of exploded meth labs, smooth faces of teenage moms, and lofty aspirations of joining the army as the tapestry of life in the Ozarks.

As far as the noir-esque qualities of the film, I would definitely classify it as such, despite the complete lack of "slickness" so often present in the genre. Ree is a victim of circumstance who goes on a search, and each person she meets is more hard-nosed than the last. Style-wise, there is only one sequence, when Ree is running through the holding pens at a livestock auction, that captures the kind of chiaroscuro that noir films tend to borrow from German Expressionism. Unlike Brick or Veronica Mars, this movie is not neo-noir, as it lacks the self-referential winks of other modern films like that. There is no Kristen Bell voiceover about dames (XOXO). This paragraph basically served as my excuse to exercise my film student muscle, which I get to do surprisingly rarely working in Hollywood.

If there is a screening of Winter's Bone near you, I would advise checking it out. I look forward to seeing Lawrence and Hawkes in more performances, too. I can't picture her as the young Mystique in the upcoming X-Men: First Class just yet, but I'd imagine the blue makeup does a lot for changing how you see certain actresses (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos-O'Connell, for instance). Incidentally, I like supporting female filmmakers when they put out a good product, and the critics and Sundance jury seem to agree about this one.

*Note: an associate reminded me last night that film noir is a style, not a genre. She's right, but I'm not going to edit this whole thing.

Hold me accountable!

There are so many movies I want to see! Here's my tentative schedule of free screenings and normal I-will-pay-to-see-this movies for the next three weeks. Let's see what I can make it to!

Tuesday, August 3: Winter's Bone - $7 at the Culver Plaza
Wednesday, August 4: Salt - free screening at work
Friday, August 6: The Kids are Alright - $11.75 at the Pacific Culver Stadium
Wednesday, August 11: The Other Guys - free screening at work
Thursday, August 12: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work - $5 at the Culver Plaza
Friday, August 13: The Expendables - $11.75 at the Pacific Culver Stadium
Wednesday, August 18: Eat Pray Love - free screening at work
Wednesday, August 25: Inception - free screening at work

Now, a few notes: I have no interest in seeing Eat Pray Love, and only middling interest in Salt and The Other Guys, but it's hard to turn down a free movie that's convenient to get to. I have no idea if I'll make it to a couple of these, or the dates might change, but dangit I'm gonna try. Also this is leaving out Get Low, I am Love, and Cyrus, but I'll get to those if/when I can.