Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Ugly Carrot

Okay, so I've been in a haze of Tylenol and Sudafed for the past three and a half days, so I only have the energy and mental stamina for a very brief review.  This weekend I saw Bridesmaids, directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, and written by star Kristen Wiig and her writing partner Annie Mumolo.  Even though I found the trailers and commercials to be less than promising, Bridesmaids was eagerly awaited by myself and most of my friends, hoping to prove to observers that not only do women watch comedies, but they can carry them too.

While I enjoyed Bridesmaids, it was not as funny as comedies such as Dodgeball or Zoolander, but it was sweeter and smarter than both.  My mom called it "deeper" than she expected, as the story was certainly more about a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and about female friendships, than it was a broad hijinks-vehicle.  Jon Hamm was excellent in a small role as a douchebag, basically a modern Don Draper if he were honest about being a jerk.  Chris O'Dowd as Wiig's love interest was very sweet and likeable, and he and Wiig played against each other well.  Melissa McCarthy was the highlight of the movie, playing both the bawdy scenes and the endearing scenes with a loveable honesty.  Her olive branch of friendship to Annie (Wiig) was more touching than any history between Wiig and Rudolph's characters.  Also, her flirtation with a character played by her real-life husband Ben Falcone was funnier to me than many of the other comedic set pieces.  Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey were underused.

You should see Bridesmaids.  It's a little too long but it's definitely worth watching.  I don't think it will crush institutionalized sexism in Hollywood.  The First Wives Club made nearly $200K in 1996, and here we are 15 years later hoping that another rare female comedy will change everything, while reviewers are criticizing the movie based on the attractiveness of its stars.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Trailer Tuesday

Non-shocker: there are a ton of movies coming out that I am excited to see.  I'm not talking about "I'll Netflix that one," but actually ones I am looking forward to seeing in theaters!  It's going to be a good summer, I think!

X-Men: First Class (June 3)
It's the X-Men, so...

Super 8 (June 10)
J.J. Abrams, Coach Taylor, Steven Spielberg, aliens and explosions?  I'm there.

Captain America (July 22)
To be honest, my favorite thing about this trailer is how funny tiny Chris Evans looks.  But also I love America and superheroes and WWII movies so this will hopefully be awesome.

Cowboys and Aliens (July 29)
They had me at Harrison Ford, but Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig fighting aliens in the Old West?  Thank you, I'll take two!

The Help (August 12)
I'm reading the book right now and while I am enjoying it, and the movie looks dandy, I am a little fatigued by how POC stories always have to be told by white people.  Also, Viola Davis is amazing.

The Debt (August 31)
While watching the trailer for this in theaters my dad and I simultaneously gave each other a 'thumbs up.'  I am hungry for this movie.

Colombiana (September 2)
Well, I strongly disliked Taken, which was written by the same people as wrote this, but a hot spy + Michael Vartan is a pretty good formula, so I'll check it out.

Warrior (September 9)
Inspirational sports movies are my favorite, and this time it's about MMA, a sport I actually watch and enjoy, unlike football, which every other inspirational sports movie is about. 

Anonymous (September 30)
I was a lit major and also this looks gorgeous.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Do not mistake my appetite for apathy!

First of all, Wikipedia, Thor cannot be classified as a superhero because Thor is a god, not a superhero.  I don't know why stuff like that bugs me so much.  Anyway, the whole cast and premise of this movie seemed very weird to me until I realized that Kenneth Branagh was the director, which is also weird, but impressive.  At first it seemed like this movie was actually taking itself completely seriously, and during an interminable scene of Asgardian warriors visiting the realm of the Frost Giants, I considered taking an extended break to visit the snack bar.  Things pick up once Thor is exiled to Earth, where Chris Hemsworth and occasionally Kat Dennings bring charm and humor.  Natalie Portman's acting and her character were both weird and out of place, though it was a nice surprise to have the female love interest completely clothed throughout while the man spends some time shirtless.  Not enough time, though.  Hemsworth is best when playing the charmer, not the angry fighter.  Winking at Sir Anthony Hopkins, demanding a horse from a pet store, and smashing his coffee mug against the ground.  The movie is basically constructed using plot holes as a building material, but it was enjoyably fun overall.  The visuals of Asgard were impressive, drawing into stark contrast how crappy the effects in The Green Lantern's trailer look.  I'd worried that Hemsworth would be a graduate of the Sam Worthington school of covering up one's Australian accent (school motto: "Don't."), but was relieved to see that he stuck to the "ancient people have English accents except for that one Asian guy" rule instead.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Visible Minorities

This weekend I attended a screening at the 27th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, where I saw Jeff Chiba Stearns' documentary One Big Hapa Family and Patricio Ginelsa's short The Journey.  Issues of multicultural identification have always been very compelling to me, and especially after seeing Kip Fulbeck's exhibits on the issue at the Japanese American National Museum, I was eager to see what looked like a warmhearted look at one Japanese-Canadian family's history with intermarriage.

Chiba Stearns looked around at his family reunion and realized that after his grandparents' generation, no one had married within the same race.  Consequently, all of his siblings, cousins, and their children, are of mixed Japanese and Caucasian heritage.  His documentary explores the questions of why his parents' generation married outside their race, what impact that had, and what his hapa relatives have to say about identity.  At the screening, we only saw the abbreviated 45 minute cut, but the DVD includes the full-length feature, which goes further with interviewing his young cousins about their hapa identity.

One Big Hapa Family does not cover any new ground that Kip Fulbeck hasn't explored before, but his documentary could be a good introduction for people curious about issues of multiethnic identity.  It's appropriate for all ages, and its innovative uses of animation integrated with footage would entertain children as well as adults.  It also taught me about parallels between Japanese-Canadian and Japanese-American history, which was interesting.  For those interested, you can find more information at Chiba Stearns' website, where DVDs are on sale for $20.  Proceeds go to fund the documentary he is currently making about the need for multiracial bone marrow donors.

My personal thoughts on multiethnic identity as an American with multiple cultural identifiers are...numerous.  For now I'll just shill One Big Hapa Family.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Who's the woman in a gay relationship?

Last night's episode of Modern Family addressed the fact that in a homosexual relationship, heteronormative society still expects one partner to fill the masculine role and the other to fill the feminine one.  Cam felt hurt, offended, and marginalized when he was treated as an "honorary mom" on Mother's Day.  Because Mitchell goes to work while Cam stays home with their daughter Lily, he is regarded as the "mother."  When Mitchell brings him breakfast in bed, it's hurtful enough for Cam that his partner views him "as the woman" in their relationship.  Later at Lily's play group's Mother's Day picnic, all the other childrens' parents refer to him in the same way.

Modern Family may include a gay partnership and an inter-ethnic/trans-generational second marriage among its characters, but in all three of the nuclear families portrayed, one partner stays home to parent full-time while the other works outside the home.  In the two straight partnerships portrayed, the stay-at-home parents are women.  This episode did very little to challenge the strictly enforced rules that women are the nurturers, the ones who parent instead of working, the ones who like the color pink.  None of the other families at Lily's play group seemed to have a stay-at-home dad, two parents who share work/home duties, or outside child care help while both parents work.  Being a stay-at-home dad made Cam "the woman," and it was roundly accepted by all but him.

These rules are so hard-wired into our society that people expect for homosexual couples to adhere to the same binary.  I'll tell you right now: when two men are in a relationship, neither one of them is the woman.  And when two women are in a relationship, both are!  When a man and a woman are in a relationship, and the woman works while the father stays home to look after the children, the woman is still the woman and the man is still the man.  I'm reminded of a blog entry I once read by a new mother who was tired of constantly being asked, "Who's watching the baby?" or, "Is your husband babysitting tonight?" whenever she was out somewhere alone.  It was presumed that the mother and the baby would never be apart, and when the father was caring for their child, it was referred to as "babysitting."  This is demeaning both to women who cannot be allowed to carry on with their daily lives without being harangued as to why they are not with their kids, and to men who are viewed as incapable oafs unable to keep their children alive.

This is all part of a bigger problem (isn't it always?).  Being viewed as feminine or womanly is a bad thing.  While it is fair for Cam to be incensed that he is being incorrectly defined against his will, it is made very clear that to be "the woman" in the relationship is to be inferior, to be weaker.  He even directly tries to counter this assertion by stating how physically he is much bigger and stronger than Mitchell.  When women dress in men's clothing, it is acceptable, fashionable, even sexy.  When men dress in women's clothing, it is laughable, or demeaning.  If a man throws "like a girl," it implies that he is weak.  "Be a man," they are told, meaning, "be big, be strong, be better."  Women are the "fairer, gentler, weaker" sex.  Society continues to reinforce the binary, that a couple must have a man and a woman, and the man is superior over the woman.  The sooner we can equalize our expectations of both genders, the better off we'll all be.

(For the record, I believe gender performance is partially socially constructed, but that there are inherent gender traits we all have.  Some men are more masculine/feminine, and the same with some women.  I don't think we should all forgo gender definition and live in some sort of Barbie-crotched world of neutrals.  But I think if we let people define their own identities a little more freely instead of immediately putting our babies in worlds of pink OR blue - never both! - we'd stop judging people so harshly when they don't conform.  Next thing you know, they'll be giving women the vote!)

'Hanna Rennt' at MediaBlvd

My review about Joe Wright's Hanna has been posted online at MediaBlvd Magazine. Check it out!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

While Kirby Dick rolls his eyes...

This post also appears online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

Somehow I had managed not to see anything by Morgan Spurlock until last week when I went to a screening of his latest documentary, POM Wonderful presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a look into the world of product placement (a.k.a. "embedded marketing") in film and television.  Even having missed his debut, Super Size Me, I think I can understand critics who say that the premise negates the necessity of the movie in this new documentary as in that one.  Of course eating at McDonalds for every meal for a month will take its toll, and of course using sponsors to finance a film about embedded marketing will shed light on the not-secret fact that advertising is used to offset the cost of filmmaking in a time when revenue is way, way down for the movie business.  While Greatest Movie does provide a few interesting things to think about, it feels as though Spurlock is going through the motions, holding back from being fully along for the ride that the journey could take him on.

It is funny to see Spurlock wink at the camera for over an hour, pitching product integration ideas to potential investors, then cutting to a scene in which the exact idea is carried out, or saying multiple times, "this scene right now is in the movie."  A few times, he does make mention of the fact that by signing contracts with his sponsors, he is not sure he can remain an objective documentarian.  I wish he had investigated this further.  What does "selling out" do to the integrity of the filmmaker?  How would this process impact any future films he makes?  I couldn't help but think of Kirby Dick's wonderfully meta look into the MPAA, This Film is Not Yet Rated, which provides layer upon layer of insight into what goes into rating and releasing a movie, illustrating the process itself.  Compared to that favorite of mine, Greatest Movie comes up short.

There are a few attempts to show how product placement has gone farther than we all realize, such as when Spurlock discovers that public schools are selling advertising space on athletic fields, CCTV, and school buses.  He even goes to Sao Paolo, Brazil, a city that has banned advertising on public buildings, but neither vignette goes far enough.  He interviews Sao Paoloan business owners to see how the advertising ban has affected business, but I did not get a sense of the real toll it has taken on the economy.  The representatives of the Florida school district where Spurlock buys advertisements for his movie talk about their schools' need for money, but do not really say what impact they think the advertising has on the students.

Though I'm being critical, because I think that Spurlock could have provided us with a more well-rounded look at the long-term impact of sponsorship, I did enjoy watching Greatest Movie.  When he interviews members of OK Go to ask them if they'll participate by writing the movie's theme song, I could not stop laughing at the OK Go product placement so blatantly shown onscreen.  It was amusing to see how Spurlock had to stay true to his promises to the sponsors by conducting interviews at Sheetz convenience stores, or by including full 30-second commercials in the film.  Nothing will top what he does to shill Mane 'n Tail shampoo.

But when all is said and done, I felt I had learned very little.  I learned what it was like for a documentarian to secure corporate sponsorship to finance his movie.  But I wish I'd learned a bit more about how product placement in movies and television shows has affected the economy of the industry.  What was the outcome of Spurlock's experiment - could he consider himself an objective documentarian, or has he just gone through the motions of financing his film?  Altogether, it's an enjoyable movie to watch, but I didn't feel that it really served its intended purpose.

Hanna Rennt

This post also appears online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

This weekend I finally saw Joe Wright's thriller Hanna, starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role, and reuniting her with her director from Atonement.  Hanna is a girl raised deep in the forest by her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana), who has trained her to be an intelligent, skilled, fighter and survivalist.  He has raised her with the knowledge that they have one true enemy, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), who killed her mother and who will stop at nothing to end Hanna's life.  At sixteen, Hanna has learned all that Erik can teach her, and is ready to go out into civilization.  She wants to hear music, see the world, and make a friend.  With this, she knows the battle with Wiegler will come.

Whether or not Erik has been telling Hanna the truth her whole life is very slowly revealed over the course of the film, as is the reasoning behind why Marissa Wiegler could be viewed as a threat.  I didn't know whether to be impressed by Hanna or feel bad for her, or whether she was actually fighting for a good cause or not.  Wright, cinematographer Alwin Kuchler, and editor Paul Tothill do a good job of contributing to the cloaked mysteries by obscuring the high-energy action scenes with usage of handheld camera, optical illusion editing, and some mind-bending camera angles.  In particular, the scene where Hanna is being held in a CIA compound takes on a surreal vibe, when 360-degree camera tracking combines with a motif of circular cameras, tunnels, and windows.

This unsettling feeling of never quite knowing what's what is accompanied by The Chemical Brothers' frenetic score.  I don't know whether it was the music, the augmented reality, or the hyperactive storytelling flourishes, but I got a very 1990s vibe throughout the film.  Unlike Wright's Atonement and Pride and Prejudice (both adaptations), Hanna displays more of his background in music videos, feeling at home alongside films by David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Baz Luhrmann, or Michel Gondry.  Scenes when Hanna struggles to understand the sensory overload of unfamiliar technology in a Moroccan hotel room, or when she later visits a demented storybook house complete with cartoon statuary, contribute to the otherworldliness of the story.  Sometimes it feels a bit over-the-top, such as when Wiegler visits an associate at a German sex club, and the dialogue is written to provoke without contributing in any way to the plot or characters.  Wright does keep his signature tracking shots in top form, but they don't beat the one from Atonement.

Bana's performance is merely fine, but he doesn't really have that much to do, compared to Ronan and Blanchett.  The young star's performance is physically demanding, and she does a good job punctuating her warrior coldness with a love of learning and a genuine fondness for the new friend she makes in English tourist Sophie (Jessica Barden).  Barden was a pleasant surprise, turning what at first seems like a caricature of an annoying teenage brat into a surprisingly multifaceted girl longing to be interesting.  Blanchett plays a villain straight from the pages of a comic strip, with her severe hairstyle, heavy Southern accent, and fixation on dental hygiene.  Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng contribute enjoyable performances as Sophie's hippie parents.

I considered Hanna to be an art film from its first, atypical hunting sequence, which helped me to overlook flawed story elements that would have been more bothersome if the form of the movie weren't so compelling.  We are, eventually, given just enough backstory to tie up most of the loose ends the story introduces, and the action satisfies enough that the "Why?" is unimportant.  That said, it is never explained how Heller manages to swim across the Baltic Sea in wintertime in a pair of capri pants, but that is a point of contention best left for my dad and I to joke about, as it doesn't really have any bearing on the story.