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Young Adult: When women refuse to grow up

19 Dec

Charlize Theron in "Young Adult."

Most of my friends are married with children. And I am happy for them.  I prefer not to be married with children.  At least so far.  And as I sat watching Young Adult, I couldn’t help but sickly identify with and enjoy the anti-heroine, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), who lived in her own narcissistic slightly delusional world and decided that to be happy, she would go back to her hometown and win back her old boyfriend who has just become a new father.  Diablo Cody who has written both Juno and Jennifer’s Body expertly creates a female character who is searching for happiness in all the wrong places, which is something most women tend to do, expertly.  Jason Reitman brings her words onto the screen seamlessly.  Perhaps that is because he directed Juno and produced Jennifer’s Body.  The previous collaboration illustrates what happens when writers and directors understand each other’s goals and intentions with films.

What is so appealing about this film is that Mavis Gary is unapologetically selfish, something women are never allowed to be.  She is saying and doing things most women fantasize about doing when they hit a point in their lives, usually between about 35-40 when they realize they haven’t ever been happy and they have no idea what happiness constitutes for them.  This is the story about a woman who has settled, even though she believed she had evaded settling.  The only difference between Mavis and the women from her hometown, besides her extraordinary drinking abilities, is that she settled in Minneapolis instead of her small town.  It takes  her experience in the small town to realize what she won’t settle for by the end of the film.

One of the most compelling aspects of Mavis’ character  is that she sees absolutely nothing wrong with destroying a happy marriage for her own pleasure.  Now yes, on the surface that sounds despicable and completely irredeemable, but there is something fascinating about watching a character do things most of us would find so wrong we could only fantasize about doing them.  And that is what Mavis is all about – living out her fantasy.  And that is a dangerous game to play.  Because she has done everything else she has wanted to do, had a successful career, that is now not so successful, had a marriage that was no so successful, and had her first romance that was not so successful.  Mavis wants to do something spectacular, and, honestly, to just keep herself busy and there is one way to keep yourself busy and put off your life and that is to create great drama in it.  The more drama you create, the less you have to actually live a purposeful life.  But sometimes, actually most times, to a character like Mavis, a purposeful life, one as a wife and a mother (which is how a purposeful life is illustrated in this film), seems like it would be no more fun than prison.

While there are many types of women in the world, there is one line that is silently drawn and that is the line between women who want children and women who don’t want children.  And it seems that there is always a question about what is wrong with these women, who go against nature and do not have children.  Who decide they prefer to live a life without caring for babies and that choice, first and foremost, it appears, makes these women seem selfish.  Is that my assessment of these women?  No.  Because loads of horrible selfish women become mothers.  Are these women more evolved than the women who still feel the need to breed?  Who knows.  But what I find compelling is that in this film, Mavis Gary is a neurotic, narcissist who has no problem attempting to destroy a happy home for her own selfishness.  What I find even more disturbing, however, is that her romantic rival invites her into her home, feeling that she is far superior as she is stable and evolved and really all Mavis needs is kindness and compassion – at least that’s her attitude on the surface.  She almost flaunts her condescending attitude toward Mavis who actually doesn’t really need or what kindness and compassion.  She just wants happiness but doesn’t know or understand what it is.

SPOILER ALERT:

This film illustrates figures of so many women, all not quite satisfied no matter where they are in life.  Mavis, you could argue, represents a composite of all of them.  She is the embodiment of unchecked emotion run amok.  She also represents a complicated figure for women in the movie and in real life:  she serves as both a warning to women who do not choose the traditional route to follow in life and inspiration for those women who are too afraid to choose any path.  In one of the most embarrassing scenes in the film, we watch Mavis as she hears what her old boyfriend really thinks of her and what her former friends think of her.  It’s disheartening enough for her end up in bed, having sex with the physical cripple, Matt (Patton Oswalt), in the film, a mirror to herself as an emotional cripple.  It isn’t the sex that f’ixes Mavis.  She doesn’t get fixed.  She does realize that she is missing something and feels like there is something wrong with her and she needs to change, although I’m hard-pressed to ever see her becoming a happy housewife and mother, she would end up killing herself like poor Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road.  No Mavis was never cut out to live in a small town and be a mom, which is really what she needs to hear from Matt’s sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe), in one of the most inspiring speeches I’ve heard in a long time.

No.  Mavis is still in her Young Adult phase.  The phase she excels writing about.  The phase she is most comfortable in, when we are at are most selfish in life.  Sandra, too, was also stuck in the same Young Adult phase and it a shining example that you don’t have to be a selfish narcissist to be in a regressive spot.  You just have to be scared of life and taking chances on your own.  What this film illustrates is that all the characters are still in a Young Adult phase and nobody completely grows out of it.  Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), might enjoy being a new dad but he doesn’t admit he likes all Mavis’ attention and won’t even acknowledge the drunken kiss they share on his doorstep, in front of the babysitter.  Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), his wife, was just as regressive really, playing in her fourth-rate girl band at the local bar/restaurant and dedicating the same high school song that represented love for Mavis, to her husband, which illustrates Buddy doesn’t have much of an imagination and simply substituted one girl for another.  If Mavis hadn’t had her miscarriage early on, she too could be a teacher of emotionally handicapped children and a loser drum player in a band in nowhere town.  Beth is so desperate for fun, she’s willing to let her rival take her husband home in order to party and be away from her marriage.  In some ways, Beth is an even more disturbing figure to me than Mavis, as she has her husband and child and although she claims to love them and be happy, she is letting a malevolent force into her life and throwing caution to the wind.  Any sane woman would not be insisting her husband invite his ex-girlfriend who obviously still loves him to their home, to her mini-concert and to the baby naming.  And to have her husband do it as well is just a little more disturbing.

Each character has visual tells about how they hold on to their young adulthood.  Beth has her drums, Matt has his dolls he creates and Mavis, she surrounds her life with juvenile things.  She writes young adult novels.  Actually ghost writes them which is an even bigger sign she’s not quite ready to put her name on her work and acknowledge herself as a writer, she wears Hello Kitty t-shirts, drives drunk, and toward the end of the film, starts driving her old car from high school.  She hangs out where she can hear teenage girls talk and adds their conversations into her novels.  When she’s upset she eats her ice cream and pigs out at the local KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut (honestly this concept of putting two or more fast food restaurants together at the same place is both appealing and somehow a horrific hybrid to me but I secretly love getting Long John Silvers and drinking A&W root beer) and orders from all menus.  And just when you think she is far too juvenile, she ‘dresses up’ and looks like an adult.  Until we witness her actions.  Mavis’ life to this point is essentially an elaborate masquerade that is starting to come apart at the seams.

All these characters are stuck.  Some think they are happy and other’s know they are miserable.  Only Mavis has a short epiphany that she needs to do something to change, but instead, she listens to Sandra who tells her she must stay greedy and selfish and serve as an inspiration to people like Sandra.  It will probably take Mavis a few more years to figure out that yes, she does have to change, but that would entail learning how to love someone other than herself and as the film ends, she is satisfied with that.

White Irish Drinkers: big whiny babies

1 Nov

Writer/Director John Gray (creator of The Ghost Whisperer) used his own $600,000, proceeds from the show, to make his independent film. The film, set in 1970s Brooklyn, follows two brothers, Danny, older, criminal, doomed (Geoffrey Wigdor) and Brian (Nick Thurston), younger, artistic, idealistic as they make a pact to rob the local theater Brian works for on the night of a Rolling Stones concert. This is not a caper movie so if that’s what you are expecting, you will never get the payoff. This is the movie about two brothers who are on different paths and stay on different paths.

SPOILER ALERT

Within the first ten minutes of the movie, I already knew what was going to happen. Danny was going to stay a criminal, try to do something decent in the end and then get killed, dying as a redeemed martyr. Brian was going to shun the life of crime Danny was trying to lead him into and follow his path as an artist, getting the girl and escaping his working class Brooklyn neighborhood. And that’s exactly what happens. I’m always sorely disappointed when I can predict the plot of a movie.  That said, I actually watched the whole thing.  This is one of those moments that had I gone into a movie theater and spent $13, I would have been angry.  This was simply one of my Netflix streaming choices.  For my monthly Netflix fee, I wasn’t actually disappointed.  I was even willing to give it three stars.

If you are curious about what it was like to live in a blue collar family (with an alcoholic abusive father) in the 1970s, and you want to see the career choices regular people made back then when there was still job security and things like benefits for most people, then this is the movie to watch.  This film is a glimpse into the insular working class world of the 1970s.  It’s also tragic in a way, to see how the two characters who are so excited they have jobs as a transit authority worker and a garbage man are making fun of their friend who goes to college and majors in “computers” since there is no future in that, according to them.  What most viewers probably won’t realize is that the mindset of a civil service job with benefits was a solid goal for people who only had their high school diplomas and back then, not everyone was expected to go to college.  In fact, trade schools made more sense to them.  All of that goes back to the way things worked in America for a very long time.  Really, since the 1940s.  So if nothing else, I’d argue this film is a solid look at a social class and the last decade or so it would exist in its safe benefits-filled and lifetime job security bliss.  Because by the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, job security was a thing of the past.

My strongest criticism of the characters are that they do not actually grow.  They stay the same.  And while I didn’t like watching that, I will be the first one to admit, that actually is a reflection of real life.  Most people don’t grow.  They stay the same for their entire lives.  But I already knew that.  I don’t necessarily want to watch a movie about average ordinary people.  Because even Brian with his artistic gift, still somehow feels average and ordinary.  And I guess, my biggest issue with the film is that I don’t want to watch average and ordinary.  I can see that when I walk outside every day.

Notes from New York Comic Con: Dark Shadows Panel

16 Oct

I believe Saturday afternoon, I might have found my inner-geek.  And while I would not dress up as a character from the show (although all I’d have to do is put on a late 1960s dress), I found myself enjoying the panel for Dark Shadows as a (sshhh!  please don’t let anyone else hear this) f-a-n.  Ok, a fan but unfortunately also a trained academic and unimpressed person who has worked in film.  But as fanlike as I can probably ever be in my life.  To appreciate this fandom… you must travel back with me to around 1974.  Yes.  I’m that old.  I was a little girl.  I hated school.  I mean HATED school (ironic that I would end up teaching university courses for so many years) and I discovered one day in the summer when it was too hot to leave the house that there was this GREAT soap opera on (obviously re-runs) called Dark Shadows.  I became addicted.  I watched religiously.  It was on in late afternoons.  I planned on coming home from school every day to watch.  After the first day of school, I practically ran home to discover… cartoons.  WTF???  What happened to my show?  I went nuts.  I made my mother buy the TV Guide and combed through it.  I discovered the ultimate betrayal:  they switched the time to 12:30 p.m. on weekdays.  I knew what I had to do.  I snuck out of school at lunch and ran home to watch Dark Shadows and somehow managed to make it back everyday without being late.  This went on for about two months until they pulled it.  Before the end of the show.  Thanks a lot channel 26.  I wouldn’t see the rest of the show until I was an adult.  But that show stayed with me.  Poor Barnabus Collins, the misunderstood vampire.  It wasn’t that Barnabus was in any way hot, but there was just something appealing about him.  The threat of violence?  The fatality of his love?  I don’t know.  I was a child but even though I got a bit creeped out and scared, I had to watch.  What other show on the air had storylines about parrallel time, flashbacks, vampires, werewolves, witches, and ghost children?  Oh yes, and an evil doctor, Dr. Hoffman, hopelessly in love with Barnabus Collins while he lusted after someone else.  Even better, someone dead (alive somewhere though in a parallel time, probably).  I might not get excited about sword fights and trolls and otherworldly creatures whose names I can’t pronounce when I’m reading but apparently, I do like the supernatural stuff.   I guess it is time to admit it to myself and accept it.  I am a secret geek.  Or not so secret if you ask any of my friends.

What does all this have to do with the Dark Shadows panel at NYCC?  Everything really.  Because that is why the panels exist.  For fans like me.  I was actually excited to finally see Kathryn Leigh Scott who played Maggie Evans and Josette DePrés.  Since this was more about the publisher, Hermes Press, trying to exploit their newest re-issue of Dark Shadows comic books, only Kathryn Leigh Scott was making a personal appearance.  Lara Parker (the evil Angelique who was a witch who was in love with Barnabus in 1795 and started off the entire vampire thing) appeared on Skype.  What I began to find more interesting as I watched this panel was the power dynamics going on between these two women.  It is abundantly clear that Kathryn Leigh Scott has managed to exploit her roles as Maggie Evans/Josette DePrés/Lady Kitty Hampshire/Rachel Drummond, and milk them for everything they’re worth.  That is in no way a criticism.  I was impressed how well she’s done it.  Books, personal appearances, audio books, etc. I also notice Scott is far more able to keep everything on track than Parker.  Her adeptness at handling crowds made me think she might consider a second career as a politician.  Seriously.

All of this also made me think of Galaxy Quest, one of my favorite films of all time.  And if you have not seen Galaxy Quest, you are missing out on quite a ride.  It’s a comedy/science fiction/adventure film and if you don’t like it, then I think you might have to have your head examined.  But the dynamics of the stars of the old TV show in Galaxy Quest eerily reminded me of what I witnessed yesterday on the panel.  Ok, just Kathryn Leigh Scott but listening to her description of the reactions of the original actors to the new Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film made me think about how some characters/roles become so much of an actor’s personality that it is difficult to let them go.  So I can understand the reluctance Kathryn Leigh Scott has at relinquishing her title as Maggie Evans/Josette DePrés.  Because after this film gets released, if it is any sort of hit, Kathryn Leigh Scott will from that point forward be known as ‘the original’ Maggie Evans/Josette DePrés and that is far different from being her (Maggie Evans and company).  Yes a few others have played the role but this time it’s different.  This time it’s a major Hollywood film and suddenly I felt very bad for Kathryn Leigh Scott who was promoting her new book about the shooting of the film that just may strip away part of her being for the rest of her existence.

If you are wondering why I’m not covering what was said, that was because nothing much was said.  The original cast went to do cameo appearances in the new film.  That’s about it.  They signed non-disclosure statements so they couldn’t talk about it.  Now, this is where I think Tim Burton and Warner Bros. made a mistake.  Uh, you have a built in fan base.  Couldn’t Tim or Johnny have made an appearance at NYCC for this film?  Them talking along with Kathryn Leigh Scott would have upped the ante significantly – a combination of old and new Dark Shadows.  I’m sure the audience would have eaten the trailer up.  I’m not entirely sure what Warner Bros. was thinking but their marketing people might want to get their heads out of their asses and exploit something that is already in place.  What a wasted opportunity.  Oh, and some promo stuff would have gone a long way.  Now that I’ve experienced a Comic Con for the first time in my life, I cannot believe how short-sighted Hollywood can be.  They aren’t exploiting enough film and television panels on the East Coast.  And just an FYI, almost every single TV panel I went to was standing room only, or close to it.  Word of mouth among geeks is worth a lot more than some wasted advertising, marketing people.  Just remember that.

As for Dark Shadows, I will be going to see it next May, it’s tentative release date, but I won’t forget Warner Bros. wasted a great opportunity.  Just for that, I’ll go at the matinee price.

Moonstruck and the romantic comedy

18 Aug

I love Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987). I don’t care who knows it. It’s one of those films I can watch over and over and never get sick of it. Why? Because, it’s happy. That’s the simple answer. It puts me in a good mood and gives me hope. Yes. That might sound cheesy but I honestly don’t care if it does.  Romantic Comedies have been around since the late 1950s/early 1960s, probably most famously characterized by Doris Day’s films of choice (with the exception of Midnight Lace):  Send Me No Flowers, Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back.  All Doris Day romanic comedy classics. It’s also worthy to note the romantic comedy as a genre began to popularize in the 1950s, after World War II ended and  men had entered back into women’s lives as a constant, and into the work force to replace them.  In most Doris Day comedies, she starts out as a career woman but finds love as a married woman.  Sometimes, and usually, in the end, becoming a mother.  No.  Romantic comedies haven’t changed that much but at least by the 1980s, the women could find love but that usually (but not always) meant they could retain their jobs if that was part of their identity.  While this is true for Working Girl, it’s not for Pretty Woman (but does any prostitute want do keep her day job?).

Moonstruck was made in the heyday of romantic comedies, the 1980s, 1987 to be exact, when they were still not too stale. Yes, by the time Moonstruck came along, they were starting to fill the theaters but they were still a new enough genre for the female audience to be a bit more forgivable. Not that I believe anyone has to be forgivable about this film. And when I claim there were new enough, I’m asserting they had evolved from the 1950s and 1960s.  Not a great deal, but somewhat.  For instance, Romancing the Stone wouldn’t have been made in the 1950s or 1960s, and Working Girl would have had a much different outcome.

The premise of Moonstruck is simple.  Loretta becomes engaged to Johnny.  This will be her second marriage.  Her first husband was hit by a bus and she believes she has bad luck.  Johnny only proposes to Loretta because he thinks his mother is dying in Sicily and he will be free to be married (it doesn’t seem to matter that he lives in Brooklyn).  After the two become engaged, Johnny flies off to see his mother die and begs Loretta to invite Ronny, his estranged brother to their wedding.  Loretta goes to meet Ronny.  Sparks fly.  They fall in love and Johnny returns.  Loretta is faced with a choice:  marry a steady man who she thinks she can count on or take a chance with someone she knows is a ‘wolf’.

So what makes this film work?  The characters.  You have two characters, Ronny (Nicholas Cage) and Loretta (Cher).  Neither one is actually likable on the outside but as the narrative unfolds, we see that while they at first seem disagreeable and disillusioned with life, they are actually secretly hopeful and longing to live and be happy.  And it’s the effect they have on each other that moves the narrative forward, in spite of Loretta’s misgivings and guilt over being attracted to her future brother-in-law.  Perhaps what I love about this movie most is the speech Ronny gives Loretta when they both know they should be together but she resists.  It’s really a speech that not only exposes the underpinnings of why the romantic comedy works as a genre, but affirms to female viewers that love doesn’t work at all how they were raised to expect it.  Ronny declares:  Loretta, I love you.  Not Like they told you love is.  And I didn’t know this either.  But love don’t make things nice.  It ruins everything.  It breaks your heart.  It makes things a mess.  We aren’t here to make things perfect…. We are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.  This speech goes along with one of the themes of the film:  betrayal.  Loretta and Ronny betray Johnny (Danny Aiello) while Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia)  betrays Rose (Olympia Dukakis) with Mona (Anita Gillette).  Rose in turn, has the opportunity to betray Cosmo with Perry (John Mahoney).  And we learn that while some betrayals must occur in order to service true love (Ronny and Loretta), others are misguided attempts to cheat death (Cosmo and Mona).

As the characters navigate their twists and turns toward understanding themselves and love, the narrative unfolds within the framework of the safety of the family; almost all of Loretta’s interactions are with family or friends or clients who are so close they might as well be family.  We see Ronny as the opposite, estranged from his entire family, living in the building that seems more like a prison, especially the ovens where he spends his days baking bread under the bakery.  It’s Loretta’s journey to reach outside her family safety net and try for a new life that ultimately brings Ronny into her family.  The entire narrative also consistently refers to Ronny’s favorite opera, La Boheme and its story of tragedy and loss of a love that wasn’t valued when it should have been.   So we are reminded that this story can go either way, depending on whether our characters can understand the importance of love in their relationships, hence why Ronny’s speech to Loretta is so important, just after they go to the opera on their only date.  To add to the mixture, the moon is considered a key ingredient in this almost magical love story that takes place over the course of a few days.  Honestly, it feels longer since by the end of the story, all characters have made life changing decisions, but perhaps that’s what’s so profound in this film.  You never know who you are going to meet and how the will change your life.  Oh, and cover up your gray hair if you’re under 60.  It ages you unnecessarily.  A key lesson for any female.  Or male, if you want the truth…

Revisiting Reservoir Dogs

13 Aug

Once in a while, I use a selection from Philip DeFranco‘s “Like Totally Awesome” Film Club to do a review.  Mostly because he offers three movies a week, all available for streaming on Netflix.  Sometimes these are films I’ve seen and loved.  Sometimes these are films I never bothered with.  Sometimes they’re films I hate.  And, at times like this, they are films I definitely liked but I had issues with.

Okay, I’m just going to say it.  I have issues with Quentin Tarantino.  I also have issues with other directors, probably Steven Spielberg, more so.   But I will not dissolve into a diatribe about why I dislike Spielberg’s directing in a post about Tarantino.  I will say this:  on the whole, I think Quentin Tarantino actually has some talent.  I say ‘some’ because he tends to let the fact that he’s a man get into the way of being a truly great director.  Some might say this is a harsh criticism.  I am simply saying, “Quentin, could you not be such a blatant sexist?  Especially in the opening of Reservoir Dogs?”  Because the scene in question, which I will discuss in a moment, I believe sets the tone of Tarantino’s arrogance in general.

This criticism, about being a blatant sexist probably would never have struck me so severely if if hadn’t been Tarantino’s character (played by Tarantino himself), Mr. Brown, saying the words.  It is powerful enough to have a character deliver your words, but when you as the write and director play that character and say those words, in the opening of your film, you’re delivering a message.  Maybe you don’t realize it but you are.  You’re saying, this sentiment is so important to me that I’m not letting another person say it.  I want to give the message to you, my audience.  Me!  So, I find it rather humorous (sad?  ironic?  just plain weird?) that this great message Tarantino decides to relay to us, his audience, is about the lyrics for Madonna’sLike A Virgin.”  Now the first time I listened to this opening, I was in my early 20s and didn’t pay much attention.  The subsequent times I’ve watched the film, it still didn’t strike me as anything, in fact, I almost tuned out their lyric discussion.  But this time, for the very first time, I actually listened to what he said.  All I could think was:  Is Quentin Tarantino an idiot?

In this particular scene, the opening scene, we are in a diner and a group of gangsters are finishing their meal, going through the final discussion of a heist and discussing songs.  They all have fake names, hence, Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino).  Mr. Brown talks on and on about what Madonna’s song really means.  Apparently, his astute analysis is that the woman in the song has had a lot of sex.  Okay, I agree with that assessment.  But here is where Mr. Tarantino and I diverge on our analysis of the song.  He claims that she feels like a virgin because her new love interest’s penis is so long that it hurts her, ‘like the first time’, hence, like a virgin.  Only there is no discussion of penis size or allusion to penises in the lyrics of the song.  Yes, I spent some time going through it.  The song is simply about a woman who is jaded who has actually fallen in love with someone and rediscovers what it is like to have feelings.  This makes me worried about Mr. Tarantino.  If he is so dense about feelings, can he not even properly interpret a simple song from the mid 1980s?  And if his ability to analyze something as straightforward as a Madonna song from her early years is impaired, what does that say about the messages he’s sending in his films?  Is he actually saying anything?  Or, is his thinking flawed?  I would say, in this instance, thank goodness this film isn’t a love story or I would have to walk out.  I know one thing, I’m going to have to re-watch True Romance now that I’ve made this discovery about his inability to understand females.  Maybe that’s why I’m always struck that the women in his films tend to be more masculine in their approach.  And no, it isn’t a bad thing if that’s the case, but I’m wondering if it is because he cannot relate to women — normally.  Or at all.  Just a thought.

Right after the lyrics debacle, one of the most famous scenes from the film appears:  the tipping of waitresses debate.  Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) doesn’t believe in tipping.  The rest of the guys yell at him that this is how waitresses make a living.  We suddenly get a lecture on uneducated women’s socio-economic status in the US.  I feel as if I’m being lectured at from an article in TIME magazine.  Now, suddenly, Tarantino ‘cares’ about women?  If they are in subserviant positions where they know their place and are dependent on men’s kindness?  Isn’t how they ended up in those waitress positions in the first place?  Either they or their mother’s made a bad choice?  Of course that’s not to say every waitress is from some uneducated background.  Plenty of women going to school or needing second jobs waitress.  But that isn’t the message that’s delivered in the film.  Which makes me think, before Tarantino decides to educate the audience, perhaps he needs a bit more of an education himself.

My other criticism of this film is that I don’t feel like there is anything redeeming about any of the characters.  Nothing.  And while that dislikability of characters became a somewhat popular trope with crime/violent films in the 1990s, especially the early 1990s (think The Last Seduction, 1994), I was less impressed than I felt I should have been with all the critical praise the film got at the time.  I remember going to the cinema in anticipation of greatness.  I was expecting a commercial Godard.  Instead, I just got a violent commercial with a good torture scene, some good music and, the one thing I will give Tarantino credit for, a new signature flashback/cicular narrative style.

The narrative of the film is straight forward.  There’s been a botched diamond heist.  The surviving members all suspect each other.  There are three main things that happen in the narrative after the diner scene:  Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is shot and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is trying to get a doctor but these are the days before cell phones.  Mr. Pink arrives at the warehouse and essentially tells Mr. White that Mr. Orange is a liability.  Mr. Pink shouts.  A lot.  Soon Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) arrives and he has a surprise, a cop he’s kidnapped during the robbery.  SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.

Mr. Blonde tells Mr. White and Mr. Pink to ditch their cars.  Mr. Blonde then proceeds to torture the rookie cop he’s kidnapped in a now famous scene to the Stealer’s Wheel song “Stuck In the Middle With You”.  It is a great scene and as far as torture goes, Tarantino builds up the tension between an alternation of long shots, medium shots, close ups of objects, like the razor that will cut off the cop’s ear, the radio that will play the music that is a counterpoint to the terrifying scene unfolding, and finally, the surprise end of the scene which I will not divulge.

While the present narrative plays out, it is intercut with flashbacks informing us how the members of the team met and revealing how the undercover cop got on the crew.  Tarantino’s use of flashbacks intercut with the present is perhaps the most clever part of his narrative trope.  Instead of a linear story, we start before the robbery, jump to the aftermath of the robbery, jump back to the past as the crew is formed, jump to the present, etc.  This jars the viewer which in turn places them in a position of slight confusion as to where they are in the story, what’s happening, and who is responsible for the narrative itself.  Perhaps it is because we get multiple POVs that we feel as alienated as some of the cons.

This alienation also plays a key role in the final scene, in the shootout involving Mr. White, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) and Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney).   I believe, what made this film such a sensation, besides the torture scene involving Mr. Blonde and the cop, is the fact that they all shoot each other and even our undercover cop is killed.  Usually someone survives.  In this case, from what we can tell, the obnoxious Mr. Pink is the sole survivor but he gets picked up by the police as he makes his escape (from what we hear offscreen).  So, in one sense, Mr. Orange has accomplished his goal.  All the bad guys are caught.  He just didn’t live to see it.  And herein lies my problem, I don’t actually feel bad that Mr. Orange has been killed.  Instead, the triple shooting death that comes as a result of Joe shooting Mr. Orange, trumps Mr. Orange’s death, as an individual.  But then again, this movie was about a dysfunctional group of gangsters working together and it ended  as a dysfunctional group of gangsters dying together.  I just believe the whole thing would have been more poignant if there had been some humanity.  Somewhere.  When I finish watching a film and don’t care that they all died, I start to question why.  And it goes back to character, or lack of character, in the film.  Yes, these characters were ‘characters’ but they weren’t human.  Tony Soprano is human.  That’s the difference between a great character and a bunch of mediocre ones that stand alone for shock value.

Watch my Vlog Review on YouTube.

Mysteries of Lisbon: one long movie… that was once a mini-series

12 Aug

Last weekend, I made the trek to the new Film Society Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center and paid my $17 on an extremely humid Sunday evening to watch the 4 hour and 32 minute Raul Ruiz tale, Mysteries of Lisbon.  Before I go any further, I think it is only fair to warn you that this film was originally a mini-series for European television.  Which would explain why I felt like I was watching Masterpiece Theater at Lincoln Center.   That is not an actual complaint for me, just an observation; although, the wealthy older man who complained to me in the concession stand line as I was waiting to buy a box of Goobers during the 20 minute intermission (I got hungry), would beg to differ.  You have to have patience for slow storytelling with this film, and if you are not one who has the fortitude to wait and see where the winding narrative will take you — well, you might just want to wait until you can watch this at home.  With much cheaper candy.  If however, you are tolerant and well-versed in the way foreign films unfold, then you will feel right at home.

This film is a tale of vying narratives, controlled by two vying masculine voices, that of our young protagonist, Pedro (João Luis Arrais), and his care taker, guardian, and teacher, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz) .   Pedro doesn’t know who his parents are and this mystery consumes him.  Apparently, it consumes the other children as well because at least one bully picks on him and calls him a bastard since he has no last name.  There is an altercation with a wooden ball and then Pedro ends up badly injured.  It is actually at this point that the true narratives in the film start, or at least start to take shape and make sense, as we experience, first through Pedro, then through Father Dinis, the story of how Pedro was born.  We meet his parents, his evil maternal grandfather, a servant of his grandfather’s that doubles as a paid assassin; and if that isn’t enough, we learn about Father Dinis and his origins and life before he took his vows (he plays three roles in the film which works very well, it isn’t as it might be in an old Disney film).  Once Pedro has become a man (played as an adult by Afonso Pimentel), we encounter the paid assassin as a constant in his life, along with a maligned countess and a string of nobility.  It’s almost like a combination of Charles Dickens and a Jane Austen novel.

I do not want to say too much as it is more fun to hear the story unfold as you watch it.  And if you are sitting there for hours, quite honestly, you need something to look forward to.  Raul Ruiz is a master storyteller.  He’s also a film professor and a Chilean exile who lives in France.  He’s had decades of experience, working for a good deal of that time in Europe, doing both television and film.

The lyrical feel of the mise-en-scène in the film is reinforced through the cinematography that evokes the setting of an unreal fairy tale unfolding before your eyes.  This particular fairy tale is masculine.  Most of the stories that are told belong to the male characters, with the exception of  two strong female voices that are heard, Pedro’s mother, Angela de Lima (Maria João Bastos) and his love interest as an adult, Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme).  Ironic that both these women are heard but Pedro never is able to contain either woman in his narrative.   Also the two actresses resemble each other enough to make Pedro’s love of Elisa as an adult more than a bit incestuous, especially since Elisa is so much older than Pedro.

One thing I will note, throughout the narrative, for our protagonist, Pedro, three items travel with him throughout his life:  a drawing an English tourist did of him at the beginning of the film that is framed for him, later, after he’s been hurt, a small theater tableau that he uses to comment on the story as it unfolds (it’s significant to notice when this theater appears as it tends to be at a key point in the narrative each time for Pedro), and finally, the wooden ball, that, got the narrative rolling, so to speak.  As these are constant symbols in the film, it is important you ask yourself, what exactly do they represent to the narrative, to Pedro, and to the ending of film.

Here is the trailer for the film.

Watch my Vlog Review on YouTube.

Cowboys & Aliens: A misplaced action hero in a mixed up genre

1 Aug

I liked the trailer for Cowboys & Aliens. Enough to make me go to the movie. The trailer was better than the film itself. I didn’t hate the movie. It was fine. But that’s the problem for me. It was just fine. And if Hollywood thinks they can pass one over on me by selling this as a mixed-genre action film that is new and exciting, they’re sorely mistaken.  There was Wild, Wild West which was a comedy in addition to the Science Fiction-Western hybrid but that movie felt a bit more – organic.  I never thought I’d say that but compared to Cowboys & Aliens, I’d watch it any day.

Jon Favreau (Iron Man) directs this misguided vehicle.  To be fair, I’m not convinced that anyone could tackle a Science Fiction-Western and come out shining.  Actually, I can’t believe I’m saying this because I have issues with him but Quentin Tarantino might pull it off.  Perhaps the issue with the movie that I find troubling is that Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) is technically a comic book action hero.  And while his role might have been consistent with the action hero genre, it feels like the rest of the cast was patched together for part alien/part western films to satisfy the plot devices.  In fact, it felt like they threw in the whole kitchen sink into the film.  It was simply too much.  Too many creepy aliens by the third act when the big showdown begins.  Too much western riding across the range, etc. and no science fiction action to equalize it.  Most importantly, I never felt that I had a grasp on why the aliens so desperately wanted to mine gold from earth.  It felt like a plot device because gold mining was a part of the old west.  And, if you are going to make such a big point about how important the gold is to the aliens, then seriously, explain it to all of us a bit better.  We deserve that much for contributing to your opening weekend with $11+ depending on where you are in the U.S. watching this film.

SPOILER ALERT FROM THIS POINT FORWARD.

While Jake Lonergan’s character was consistent for an action hero, that is, his character adhered to the rules of the genre for the most part, there were still issues that arose.  His character was one-dimensional.  This was the result of Lonergan having to react to his environment and the plot points rather than us being able to watch his character drive the story forward.  We must follow Jake on his journey to figure out who he is.  But I never truly believed he really cared who he was.  He seems to follow Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) because he suddenly cares about the same community that just allowed him to be arrested and shackled to go to New Mexico to stand trial for a host of crimes he doesn’t remember committing.  Yes, he has his mysterious bracelet/shackle on and it is the only defense against the aliens that suddenly fly into town but the whole thing seems – disingenuous.  Why bother attacking the earthlings?  They’ve already had a giant sampling of what makes earthlings weak.  They’ve decided they can kill them at any time.  Are these attacks pleasure-seeking behavior for the aliens?  Or… are they attacking because they have located some sort of beacon/homing device on Jake’s wrist (the shackle/bracelet we discover he stole in a very late flashback)?  Or, was it because he pissed off an alien and escaped with the wrist bracelet/shackle?  I know I wasn’t clear on that.  The writers certainly weren’t clear on that.  And therein lies the problem once again, with this film.  Things just randomly happen to  move the plot forward.  And –  if while everything that happens technically is touched off by Jake’s heist and stealing of the gold from the train robbery we never see but hear about, then guess what?  This film becomes noir as well.  Because in noir, your anti-hero’s action from the past, if it is a crime, will come back to haunt him and he is somehow doomed from before the film began.  That fits into noir guidelines.  So, now we have a noir/action hero/science fiction western.  I hope you can see why I would argue this film just doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Jake’s foil, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) is even more disappointing.  No, not because of Ford’s acting.  Because of the way it was written.  This is what happens when they have had 7 writers on a project (and those are just the writers that were credited after WGA arbitration).  Everyone associated with Ford’s storyline is such a cliche that I knew what would happen and how it would happen through the entire film.  When I am able to predict those things, I’m disappointed with the writing.  I want to be surprised.  I can think up a story myself, at home, for free.  In contrast, Jake’s love interest Ella (Olivia Wilde), was a small bright spot.  She gets killed by an alien in the second act but miraculously regenerates on a funeral pyre when the group is captured by Indians.  I didn’t see that coming.  Then we discover she’s an alien.  Now, a bold choice would have let her live happily ever after on the range with Lonergan.  But no, for once these writers don’t break the rules (which sometimes are meant to be broken) and Ella must leave (remember aliens have to leave), so she dies spectacularly, sacrificing herself to bring down the alien ship.  The moment she does this, she makes Lonergan a sissy.  Come on, this is the western, an action film and science fiction and we have just witnessed a woman doing ‘a man’s job.’ Now before anyone gets angry with me for asserting that, I’m simply saying that it would have been more interesting for him to die.  Or seemingly die.  Maybe with her.  Now that would have been a much more exciting ending.  Then, at the end, we are supposed to believe she revisits Lonergan as a hummingbird, or has the hummingbird let him know she’s ‘in a better place’ because at this point, I’m just not clear and hoping the movie will end.

Overall, for special effects, especially if you love to see things blown up and people killed (like a giant video game), then you’ll enjoy the third act of this film.  Because that was one of the longest drawn out battles between humans and aliens I’ve ever seen.  It did kind of feel like a B-movie where they were just recycling aliens at some points.  I started worry more about the horses falling over than the people on them.  By the time the humans (including the Indians who miraculously killed many aliens with their spears) defeat the aliens, it almost feels like an empty victory.

I’d like to recommend this movie.  I’d say, see it as a matinee or wait for Netflix.  Or cable.  Or, if you haven’t seen it yet, watch Starship Troopers or Galaxy Quest, two science fiction films that aren’t westerns or noirs but at least entertained me.  Better yet, go see Attack the Block.  A British film done for a fraction of the budget but a far superior film in every way (because I honestly don’t need special effects to make my film-going experience a good one).   I’ll be looking at Attack the Block next.

Watch my Vlog Review on YouTube.

Watch the Trailer:

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