Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Movie Club: Week 2

A couple of weeks ago I decided to start a movie club at work.  I figured that the other assistants must feel the same way I sometimes do, which is that we elected to work in the movie business for a reason, and that reason probably wasn't to answer phones and handle correspondence and filing for the rest of our lives.  Most of us have graduate or post-graduate degrees in film and/or critical theory, so why not take a few hours every couple of weeks to flex those muscles?  We decided that we should all watch the AFI top 100 films, discussing one every two weeks at lunch time.

So far, it's a slow burn.  I'm hoping more people want to participate, but I'm not sure how to really foster participation.  Two weeks ago, two of my coworkers and I met up to discuss Citizen Kane.  We struggled a bit because when we'd watched it as film students, we had tons to talk about, but when watching it for a second time in a more casual environment, it seemed awkward to sit around the lunch table discussing deep focus.  Also, with a movie like Citizen Kane (and indeed, like many movies on the list), it can be difficult to discuss the film with fresh eyes, since everything has been referenced so many times since in pop culture.  I pulled a few discussion questions off the internet, but mostly we talked about how what we liked about the movie the first time around differed from what we liked about it - or how much we liked it - a few years later.

Today, two different coworkers and I discussed The Godfather.  We had toyed with the idea of discussing it along with The Godfather Part II, which is #32 on the list.  In the end, I didn't make enough time to rewatch the second installment.  The Godfather was easier to discuss, but still, three people working on a freeform "So...what did you think about The Godfather?" type of discussion can be a bit awkward.  I love The Godfather so much, but I haven't discovered whether the tone of these discussions should be like "Oh man that scene is so cool!" or "The lensing techniques used are really reminiscent of blah blah film scholar doucheyness."

Has anyone ever started or participated in a book/movie club, and if so, do you have any tips?  In two weeks, I'd love for some of my coworkers and I to discuss Casablanca, but it seems difficult to drum up interest.  It's for our own personal edification that we should watch these movies, but until I figure out how to be a more competent discussion leader, maybe this is an exercise more in watching great movies than talking about them.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

James Gunn's "Super"

This post originally appeared online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

In James Gunn’s twisted take on the superhero genre, Super, Dwight Schrute repeatedly bludgeons strangers in the head with a pipe wrench, Juno commits rape, and Kevin Bacon has a gold tooth.  Inevitably drawing comparisons to last year’s Kick Ass, Gunn’s film tackles the genre with an unrelentingly brutal take on how tragic it would actually be if normal people decided to fight crime as costumed avengers.  Rainn Wilson takes a completely different approach to sadsackery than what we’ve seen from him on The Office or Six Feet Under, and the results are confronting, outrageous, and hilarious if you’ve got the stomach for hyperreal violence.
After a lifetime of never being respected, Frank ( Wilson) reaches his breaking point when his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for the seedy leader of a small crime ring, Jock (Bacon).  Desperate and alone, Frank has a vision of God telling him to become a vigilante and stand up against the evil in society.  While researching how to do this, Frank meets comic book salesgirl Libby (Ellen Page), who becomes his only ally, and eventually his sidekick Boltie, in his journey as The Crimson Bolt.  After viciously beating a number of random criminals – drug dealers, pedophiles, and even someone who butts in line at the movies – The Crimson Bolt and Boltie eventually prepare themselves for a showdown at Jock’s crime headquarters to try to save Sarah, who has backslid into drug addiction and become victimized by Jock and his associates.
Wilson’s portrayal of a man so trod upon by life lacks all vanity, and it is simultaneously relatable, depressing, and hilarious when Frank watches himself weep in front of a mirror, while his voice over explains how stupid people look when they cry.  Where Frank is a gentle, well-meaning man, The Crimson Bolt is arguably insane, with a tenuous grasp of what can be considered appropriate justice.  Wilson believably embodies both in a way that makes sense in the not-too-unrealistic world of the film.  Page also does an excellent job of portraying mental instability in a context that could blend in to society, with her obsessions and manic tendencies leading her to find ecstasy as Boltie, after a lifetime of boredom as Libby.  Even as a masked ‘kid sidekick,’ this character is definitely more Hayley from Hard Candy than Kitty Pryde from X-Men: The Last Stand.  Bacon’s role is small, but he is a pleasant surprise cast in a role that could have gone to an unknown.  The same goes for Liv Tyler, whose sad face as a relapsed addict is heartbreaking.  Nathan Fillion channels Captain Hammer in a small cameo as The Holy Avenger, a character from Christian local television.

The film has a very low budget, which it rations for a few impressive effects, from some very James Gunn-signature hallucinations, to a spectacularly violent climactic showdown.  The pared-down directing and technical work is complemented by the well-chosen sets, which keep everything feeling so real that when the less believable story elements come out, it’s not offensively jarring.  Kudos to Gunn for writing enough backstory to give Frank sufficient motivation for the actions of The Crimson Bolt, especially in regards to understanding the gravity of Sarah’s situation.  He also keeps Frank rooted in a world that does not blithely accept The Crimson Bolt’s vigilantism, and metes out some consequences.  Mary Matthews’ costume design also effectively grounds the movie in the real world, with amateur stitching and an awkward fit being such glaring missing elements from most superhero origin stories.

The film’s biggest structural flaw is that it tries very hard to have the best of both worlds, often aspiring to be so grittily realistic that it is startling how unlike any other movie Super is, but also leaving too many questions unanswered or providing no resolution for certain story beats in an effort to allow for the fantastical elements of the plot.  In the end, this is an unsatisfying turn for a film that doesn’t seem to be able to commit fully to the outcomes that it sets up.  It could have really raised the stakes and demanded more of the audience, which could have made for a more impressively told story, but instead it comes off more as the low-budget superhero movie answer to Enchanted.  There are also some very uncomfortable scenes revolving around Libby/Boltie’s sexuality, and it is important to warn viewers that a (potentially debatable) rape scene takes place.  I have a hard-line about sexual assault played gratuitously for comedy, but in Super, I believe that it is used with purpose in the context of the characters’ personalities.  Most importantly, it is not glorified, though some viewers may be uncomfortable with how the action is excused.

Super is frequently very funny, but is smart enough to rise above broad comedy, even when bloody violence accounts for most of the laughs.  This is a movie that may have a hard time finding the right audience, as it will likely be too offensive for moviegoers who know only who’s cast and that it’s a superhero movie.  It’s also critical enough of the pathology of superheroism that it will probably alienate some comic book fans while delighting others.  Fans of Kick Ass, Shoot ‘Em Up, and Bad Santa will likely find this movie to hit the right combination of violence and dark comedy.  While I consider myself in that category, I’d say I appreciated the actors’ talents and the film’s fresh elements more than the sum of its parts.  If only Super had been able to reconcile its competing intentions, it could have transcended to a more impressive level.

6.5/10 – Liked, Didn’t Love

Friday, March 11, 2011

Take Me Home Tonight

This post originally appeared online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

This weekend’s underperforming opener, Michael Dowse’s Take Me Home Tonight, is, at the very least, a successful follow-up to That ‘70s Show after the letdown of the short-lived That ‘80s Show.  Where That ‘70s Show succeeded (quite like Freaks and Geeks, another nostalgic series about teenagers) was that it could have been a show about modern high school, just contextualized by historical references to the time.  While That ‘80s Show was mostly a series of old=lol jokes, Take Me Home Tonight much more successfully puts story before conceit.  It is an ‘80s-set romantic comedy made in the style of actual 1980s romantic comedies.  Experiments like this one don’t always work (Down With Love), and even though this time it does, it means is that sometimes the pacing and storytelling feel dated in a bad way.
Take Me Home Tonight follows one night in the life of Matt Franklin (Topher Grace, as Executive Producer and with a writing credit), an ambitionless MIT graduate given the opportunity to reconnect with his high school crush Tori Fredreking (Teresa Palmer, Australia’s answer to Kristen Stewart, but with personality).  Joining him are his twin sister Wendy (Anna Faris) and his best friend Barry Nathan (Dan Fogler, channeling Curtis Armstrong).  In order to impress Tori, Matt hides the fact that he is killing time working at Suncoast video, and spends the evening pretending to be an investment banker at Goldman Sachs.  A high school reunion party, a stolen car, a wild prank, and more than a few hijinks later, Matt inevitably has to confront his lie.

The chemistry between Grace and Palmer is believable, both that he would be the awkward nerd from high school, and that she would give him a chance after all this time.  Together they attend a wild house party, move on to a swanky party for Drexel bankers (before the firm’s collapse into bankruptcy), and find some private time on a trampoline in an empty backyard.  The film manages to speak to the theme of post-graduate ennui present in movies like Less Than Zero or St. Elmo’s Fire, but in an upbeat tone that somewhat answers what might have happened to Brat Pack romances four years after high school.  Topher Grace has that look, too…like John Cusack, good-looking, but probably not the handsomest man in the casting office.  Teresa Palmer has that attainable beauty.  Obviously she’s the most gorgeous woman that the protagonist has ever seen, but she’s real, and you might see that girl at the mall and fall in love with her.  Like a blonde, bubbly Phoebe Cates. 

Dan Fogler’s performance as a just-fired car salesman doing cocaine for the first time is hilarious as he has alternately the best and worst night of his life.  He fulfills the sidekick role of the ‘80s movie perfectly, exposing himself and us to naked MILF breasts, getting into a crazy dance-battle, and building up Matt’s confidence when needed.  Anna Faris plays Matt’s twin sister with enough depth to sell the notion that they love each other enough to tell the other one what they’re doing wrong.  Chris Pratt plays her onscreen boyfriend with all the energy he hadn’t yet been able to manifest on Parks and Recreation (the film was shot in 2007, and Faris and Pratt have since gotten married), and his overacted bawling is an extended high point.  Michael Ian Black and Demetri Martin own the scenes they’re featured in, and Lucy Punch stands out as that drunk girl who keeps popping up in party scenes in teen movies.

Surely an unexpected benefit to the movie being set in the ‘80s is that its shelving for four years didn’t awkwardly date it with references to Anna Nicole Smith and the final book in the Harry Potter series.  The 1980s setting was well played with things like a sushi bar to indicate that a party is fancy (Valley Girl), and Topher Grace’s ill-fitting jeans, and only a few things struck me as off-kilter – mostly that none of the women seemed to be wearing pantyhose.  Most of the recent ‘what a wild night’ comedies seem to be more over-the-top and manic than similar movies were in the ‘80s, and while that may just be my perception, it meant that the John Hughes-y quality of Take Me Home Tonight made the movie feel a little slow-paced at times.  The story’s dramatic high points don’t feel as high-stakes as they could, but I loved the scene where Matt and Barry are confronted by the police and tearfully admit to everything that’s happened in the story until that point.  As the daughter of two law enforcement officers (really), I definitely identified with how that scene would have gone down.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

This post originally appeared online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau, based on Philip K. Dick’s short story The Adjustment Team, is a bit of an awkward thriller.  At times it veers toward the comic, is occasionally sweepingly romantic, and probably aspires to be a cerebral suspense film, but never quite rallies for any of the various genres it hints at.  In the movie, Matt Damon plays Senate hopeful David Norris, who meets the woman of his dreams, but is kept from her by a mysterious group of metaphysical beings who swear him to secrecy about the whole situation, and demand that he never see this amazing woman again.
The advertising makes it seem as though it is David’s encounters with Elise (Emily Blunt) that steer him off the course of normal life, but instead it is a chance glitch in the Matrix (or whatever this movie wants to call it) that allows him to see the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Adjustment Bureau, dapper men who adjust the course of fate for humans.  Having witnessed the Bureau at work, David is offered an ultimatum: keep their existence a secret, and don’t try to interfere with their plans, or face a de facto lobotomy.  It’s a wild premise that David accepts nearly instantly, perhaps signaling to the audience that we should be quiet and just accept it too, which doesn’t quite do it for me.

When David meets Elise, she initially comes off as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, providing a quirky, romantic counterpart to David’s role as a highly choreographed politician.  Mercifully, the situation reveals itself to be a bit more complicated than that, as David does in fact have a history of acting impulsively (a common trait of the MPDG), and Elise herself is a dancer, and her talents and ambitions become central to the stakes of a decision David must make about whether or not to pursue her.  She comes into his life and offers herself as the chance to define his future, but he plays the same role in hers.  It’s a refreshing change, and I admit that one of the most exciting things about the movie was seeing the roles reversed, where it is the man who must choose between greatness and love.

Matt Damon’s performance makes it clear that no one should be surprised when he decides to run for office in earnest one day.  (On an unrelated note, he looks about 15 years younger than he did in Hereafter.)  Emily Blunt is underused in a role that probably could have been well-served by any number of actresses out there.  I could have sworn that Terence Stamp was Frank Langella for some reason, and Anthony Mackie does well in an against-type role.  John Slattery, on the other hand, should probably talk to his agent about getting typecast as a handsome man who wears a suit well.  Speaking of suits, there is a great moment when a hat flies off in the midst of a chase, and the characters urgently stop to chase the hat before carrying on.  The reasoning for this is explained later in the film, but it made me laugh out loud when it happened.

The Adjustment Bureau deals with seriously heavy philosophy without really giving it enough time to sink in.  The being in charge of the Bureau is called The Chairman, but humans “use many other names,” so we can conclude that this is a universe in which a monotheistic deity rules, and occasionally chooses to let human beings have free will.  But despite all of this control, the deity is often powerless to “pure chance,” and seems to suffer from a lot of institutional flaws getting in the way of things.  I guess I shouldn’t really be expecting a big theology examination from this movie, but a lot of issues are just dropped on us without really being examined, which irked.  The romance between David and Elise is enjoyable to watch, and the rainy scenery of New York is beautiful, but otherwise the movie awkwardly struggles to balance plot points and genres, which is a bit of a letdown.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Barney's Version

Last week I saw Barney's Version, Richard J. Lewis' adaptation of Mordecai Richler's novel of the same name.  Perhaps it should tell you a little bit about my enthusiasm for the movie that it took me a week to write about it.  I definitely was expecting more of a dark comedy, but instead discovered it to be a rather dreary story about a pretty miserable guy.

At first, even the usually wonderful Paul Giamatti comes off like a caricature, but I think that may have been the fault of a couple of poorly directed scenes.  By the time his character meets Miriam, his third wife-to-be (at his wedding to his second wife, no less), Giamatti has settled into the role of middle-aged Barney comfortably enough for me to want to hate the actor himself.

This is a story that suffers from the all-too-common trope of the complete loser of a guy who can't help but draw numerous amazing women to himself, whom he could take or leave.  Barney's first wife Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) openly hates him while she struggles with her own serious mental health issues, but his second wife (played by Minnie Driver) seems to start off with actually almost as much affection for Barney as for his decent position as a TV producer.  When he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike), he is transfixed by her (and who wouldn't be?), and spends years pursuing her.  She, inexplicably, relents to his affections in a scene that is so difficult to believe that it sets the entire film off-kilter.  I ask you, would you say yes to a man who spent his entire marriage pursuing you, was recently a suspect in his best friend's suspicious disappearance, and who showed up for your date completely wasted?

Barney and Miriam remain married for decades, producing two children.  Barney's debilitating alcoholism, which has surprisingly few negative consequences except for the way it burdens those who love him, his anger issues, and his slovenly behavior seem to be no barrier to affection from Miriam over the years.  She gets upset when he marginalizes her interests or friends, but otherwise remains ever faithful.  Not so for Barney.  After their divorce, Barney begins suffering from the effects of early-onset Alzheimer's, and Miriam, now remarried, along with their adult children, must care for him.  The final scenes of the film definitely make it clear that Barney is a character to be pitied and cheered for, which was just too much to ask after watching the decades of his adult life unfold.

The acting was wonderful, and Rosamund Pike did a lot with very small gestures and expressions to really make me fall in love with her.  Dustin Hoffman, as Barney's incorrigible father, was vibrant and funny, and his son Jake did well playing Barney's son Michael.  The Academy Award nominated makeup was absolutely impressive, especially given what I've read was a rather small makeup budget.  Characters age believably over the course of about thirty years, so the movie does boast an impressive collaboration between performances, makeup, costume, and set design.

Finally, there is the conceit of the title, which is that events may not have happened quite as depicted, but that this is Barney's version of things, colored both by his arrogance, lies of omission, and the effects of the Alzheimer's.  I thought this was interesting, but I suspect that it was more successful in the novel than in the film.  There was also a real eye-roller of a plot point regarding the disappearance of Barney's best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman, hot even when playing a junkie), which was ripped unimaginatively from urban legends of years past.  Somehow it worked in Magnolia, but certainly not in Barney's Version.

Of Gods and Men

Last night I saw Of Gods and Men, or Des Hommes et des Dieux, Xavier Beauvois' film about the monks of Tibhirine which recently won the French César Award for Best Film.  The film relays events surrounding the true story of French Trappist monks in 1996 during the Algerian Civil War.  After coexisting peacefully for years with their Muslim neighbors, the monks find themselves in the crossfire between the Algerian army and groups of Islamic extremists.  I am never sure what my policy should be on spoiling true events, but you can check out the Wikipedia entry of the real-life monks here.

The film begins with a very sweet and rather lighthearted look into the role of the monastery in its neighboring Muslim village.  Brother Luc is a kindly doctor, seeing 100 patients a day for illnesses and life advice.  The monastery's leader, Brother Christian, helps villagers with paperwork, brings wares to the marketplace, and oversees Mass for his brothers.  Neighbors help them with gardening and other assistance, and it's made clear that over the years, the monastery has acted as a backbone to the community.

Once the terrorist threat is established, after a nearby group of Croatian workers is killed by the Armed Islamic Group and the monks are asked to leave the region for their own safety, the main drama among the characters is whether or not the monks should abandon their post.  The brothers explore fear, discuss martyrdom, kinship to their community, and faith in times of crisis.  While there are a number of scenes that do drag on, without providing much benefit to the story, there is a wonderful sequence in which the monks listen to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, enjoy some wine, and wordlessly express fear, contentedness, and love in their wonderful (and wonderfully framed) facial expressions.

Faith and brotherhood are the most important themes to the characters, and it is often beautiful how much love is shown among them.  When Brother Christophe struggles with fear and a shaken resolve, tender old Brother Amédée rubs his shoulders.  Asthmatic and aged Brother Luc is helped by Brother Christian, who turns his light off as he snores, and Brother Célestin who reads the newspaper to him when he is ill.  The actors' performances were very impressive, mimicking years of love for each other, and rivaling any impressive portrayal of family.

Brother Christian is, like many monks, an academic, and his study of the Koran both enriches his spiritual knowledge and helps him connect with his neighbors. Even one of the terrorist leaders acknowledges some respect for the monks when he realizes they revere Jesus, who is honored as a prophet in Islam. I don't really know enough about Algerian political history to discuss the context of this film, so I was left with some questions at the end. Given the well-known French Islamophobia and the long-standing antagonism between France and Algeria, I am curious what better educated viewers' reactions were to the film.