Friday, January 29, 2010

True Lies (1994)

True Lies is the odd one out in Cameron's filmography in several ways, not the least of which is its mediocrity. Excepting his sequels, it's his only film that's not original material: it's a remake, allegedly, of La totale!, a French comedy thriller from '91 that, so far as I can tell, is unavailable in the States. (Even Facets and Odd Obsession were stumped.)

True Lies
feels poised on the brink of obscurity. At least for being a Cameron film, at the time the most expensive movie ever made, and by all accounts a financial success, there has been no home video release since the non-enhanced DVD of '99, which sports nothing in the way of behind-the-curtain info. Even Wikipedia and IMDb are lacking in True Lies' raison d'etre.

One interesting trivia on both those sites is the mention of a sequel that was written but shelved after 9/11. Watching the film for (probably) the first time since then, it's easy to see why nobody wanted to revisit it, even if that only meant recording a commentary track.

Upon release, the film was protested by several groups, inlcuding the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. If you think the good v. evil dynamics in Avatar are insubstantial, you should take a look at the bumbling terrorist darkies on display in True Lies. It's a funny thing about Cameron that it takes a towering allegory that verges on laughable for him to say something relevant about the state of our world; when he makes something in a real world setting (another trait that makes Lies unique within his oeuvre) he falls flat on his face.

But the biggest problem with True Lies may be the farcical nature of the story. Cameron just doesn't know how to direct comedy. His already-thin characterizations swerve headlong into stereotypes and you end up with a product that is fiercely misogynist and anti-Arab. I certainly wish I could get my hands on a copy of La totale! so that I might discern what in True Lies was Cameron's own invention.

Compare the catfight between Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere) inside a runaway limo on a bridge in the Florida Keys to the climactic battle between Ripley and the Queen in Aliens, arguably the best girl-on-girl showdown in film history. Granted, Ellen Ripley was not Cameron's own creation, but her maternalism sure was1 ; Cameron poses two mothers fighting over the same baby (again, that's how pathos works). In True Lies however, it's just two seventh-graders slapping at each other and shrieking over what might as well have been which one of them gets to dance with the cute boy. When Ripley calls the Queen a bitch, it cuts. It becomes iconic, quotable. Something for clip shows from now until the rest of time. When Juno calls Helen a bitch, it's because that's how bitches talk, and it's only the precursor to a lot more shrieking.

Later it's Schwarzenegger's Harry, not Helen, who will fight for their daughter. Helen is, of course, just a housewife. But if the arc of the film is about the healing of their soured marriage via the excitement of danger, then perhaps she deserves a moment or two of her own. The coda indeed reveals that they have become married spies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, yet the only evidence we've seen of Helen's abilities in this arena are knocking out Juno Skinner and accidentally killing about twenty terrorists by dropping an uzi down a flight of stairs. Why not actually have her secret spy husband teach her some things and then let Helen save the day? That would've been at least slightly progressive.

Instead, True Lies is a decayed paean to the kind of machismo antics that give action movies a bad name. An ill-conceived jihad farce and his only film to cast Schwarzenegger as a regular American with a grasp of the English language, I really do wonder what Cameron was going for here. I think the answer must lie in the shot of Harry and Helen sharing a kiss as one of the nukes detonates.

That enduring image - maybe the only one in the film2 - is some kind of genius. For all the sweaty terrorists tripping over themselves, you wonder if Cameron is actually grasping at some kind of statement about the power of love and family over war and destruction. The Taskers' daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku, age 14!) is awkwardly roped into the plot for the final showdown between Harry and the big bad boss, who has discovered the existence of a daughter to kidnap and leverage. Ironically, Dana does more to save America than her mom does in swiping the ignition key while Aziz is trying record another one of his righteous monologues, and she does so without a second thought and at the first opportunity she gets. This family is knitted close by the nuclear threat to their safety, a loveless marriage made Rockwellian from the proximity to danger, romantic in its goofiness even as I roll my eyes.

1.) Ripley was originally conceived as genderless. In fact, all the characters in Dan O'Bannon's screenplay for Alien were cast without reference to gender. Tom Skerritt had come out to audition first for the character that went to Sigourney Weaver. [back]

2.) Somewhat disturbing - though not surprising, I suppose - is the number of photoshop collages cobbled together from Curtis' striptease available just by doing a Google image search for "true lies". [back]

This is the second part of an open-ended series in which I intend to revisit the work of James Cameron. Click here to read my review of AVATAR.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) & The Unnamed

Over at Attic Salt, I compare the two books I just read: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. The two novels are surprisingly similar thematically, but vastly different in terms of their respective authors' abilities to wield the written word. Click through for the literary smackdown, exclusively at Attic Salt.

The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger & The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris

Attic Salt: A Literary Blog

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Crazy Heart

In the first minutes of Crazy Heart, a charismatic old troubadour pulls off the highway, stops his truck in a sleepy bowling alley parking lot and emerges holding a jug containing about a gallon of urine, which he empties onto the asphalt. Perhaps the deep golden color is intended as foreshadowing: that's the piss of an alcoholic. I simply thought it was a hilarious way to open a movie.

Unfortunately, that's about where the film's accidental sense of humor runs out of steam.

Crazy Heart is the story of a washed up singer-songwriter who descends into alcoholism then descends some more and finally descends some more. The Wrestler-style pathetic helplessness of Bad Blake (not his given name) is so relentless that by the time the film gets around to redemption it's not the third act but the fifth or the sixth. The film runs just shy of two hours, into which are crammed pants-less vomiting, a drunken car wreck, a lost child, a desperate one-night-stand, squirm-inducing surrogate parenthood and more bottles of whiskey than I care to count.

Jeff Bridges is the man behind Bad, and like Clooney in Up in the Air, his star-power (charisma, celebrity, raw talent, what have you) is the only reason there's any conversation to be had about the film at all. Crazy Heart does have some good music (courtesy of T-Bone Burnett and a cast of collaborators) and Bridges has implied that it was the opportunity to shred his acoustic axe that hooked him to the role in the first place. But the film framing all the singing is meandering and overlong, the product of a first-time writer-director who hasn’t learned too much about editing or structure.

Leave it to Bridges to shoulder the hot mess like a champion. He shows up with all his guns blazing, disappearing behind several pounds of beer gut and a lot of messy gray hair, issuing his slurred charm in every direction. You can see why Maggie Gyllenhaal's Jean likes him so much.

Jean and Bad end up spending more than a little time together. Bridges is thirty years Gyllenhaal's senior and he looks it; their relationship is built on an Electra complex that is certainly creepy and the film never manages to conjure any hint of faith in their ability to unite as adults can, either through love or merely for the sake of her kid.

For Jean, Bad becomes some kind of last best hope that her son might have a man in his life. To Bad, however, she’s a rare fan who shows interest in him professionally (she’s a journalist) as opposed to sexually. Bad has grown tired of the lifer fans throwing themselves at him in dive bars and bowling alleys; Jean doesn’t air a vested interest in Bad’s singer-songwriter notoriety. The first time she meets him, she asks him his real name. In the hands of two good actors, it’s an interesting relationship for a beat or two.

Of course, Bad belongs on the road, even with a beat-up truck and a busted leg. In another almost-interesting setup, Bad must get back to shadowing the tour of Tommy Sweet, a younger, sexier singer who learned the trade from Bad and has made millions of dollars recording and performing Bad’s songs. Bad talks about Sweet like a foil that will be his undoing, but when he finally shows up, the most affecting thing about him is the actor cast in the role (not giving up that one in case anybody’s lucky enough to be in the dark).

I suppose alcoholics and outsiders can be tedious and so we might as well call it a halfway-honest portrait. Of course, the point where Bad bottoms out and makes his crucial decision to sober up is about as blurrily defined as his syntax. The parade of bad decisions is so poorly put together and episodic in construction that when he finally wakes up in his underwear and submits to rehabilitation it seems to come out of nowhere. It’s a reversal especially lazy in construction for being a supposed crux in the story.

If the Golden Globe and the SAG Award are any indication, Kate Winslet will be handing Bridges an Oscar in a little over a month. This Academy Award will be of the 'unofficial lifetime achievement' variety, bestowed upon beloved sexagenarians that have been nominated four times already without a win. As Bridges himself quipped in his acceptance speech at the Globes, "You're really screwing up my under-appreciated status, here." As for successful Oscar campaigns that earn fallacious merit, I suppose there are far worse things that can happen on Oscar Night than to recognize Jeff Bridges.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

2009 Wrap-Up

the lists

I've had it suggested that it's a professional imperative to issue some kind of list denoting my favorite films of 2009. This is probably true, despite the fact that there's at least one definition of "professional" that has nothing to do with what I'm doing here.

List-making is arbitrary. But then, so is most of the Gum Commercial. Similarly, I believe firmly in the notion that opinions, like people, can and will always change. (I'm inspired by Walter Chaw's project to re-imagine his annual Top Ten lists from the past decade.) With all this in mind, here are my Top Ten Movies of 2009, as of Saturday, January 23, 2010. This list is subject to reconsideration at whim.


10. The Informant!
9. I Love You, Man
8. Avatar
7. The Brothers Bloom
6. Sugar
5. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
4. Humpday
3. Inglourious Basterds
2. Up
1. Where The Wild Things Are

Honorable Mentions (alphabetically):
The Class, Coraline, Crank: High Voltage, Duplicity, The Girlfriend Experience, The Hurt Locker, In The Loop, Me and Orson Welles, Observe and Report, Paranormal Activity, Star Trek, State of Play, Thirst, The White Ribbon

There are five frontrunners for the "Notably Missed" category: 35 Shots of Rum, Anti-Christ, Summer Hours, Tokyo Sonata and Two Lovers. Everything I hear about these suggests they'd have a place on one of those two lists.

this one other movie

I don't feel I've earned my place to get all Jonathan Rosenbaum on you and fill up my list with barely-released festival and niche-market films (and I'm terrible at getting out to see those regardless), but I ought to devote at least a paragraph or two to one of the best films I saw all year: La Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman), a devious psychological thriller from Argentinian auteur Lucretia Martel.

I failed to write about this when I caught it at the Siskel, mostly because I hadn't (and still haven't) wrapped my head around it. Possibly an examination of a Dickensian class schism, definitely a Repulsion-style internalized guilt trip, the film spirals downward with an upper-class heroine reeling from her did-she-or-didn't-she? hit-and-run murder of a local boy.

Nothing is spelled out in Mujer. Not only are there no easy answers, there are frustratingly few questions. It's difficult to be sure a crime was ever committed, which I think might be the point of the film, as the protagonist's social stature seems to defy any responsibility that might be applied to her. But with no responisibility comes no agency, and her life devolves into a series of inane encounters and gardening expeditions, all imbued, somehow, with a sense of dread.

I don't know when or where I'll get the opportunity to sit through this again and study its tricks and clues, but I eagerly anticipate the second and third viewing. Amazon offers a Region 4 disc through the Marketplace.

the wrap-up

This wasn't a bad year for movies; rather, it was a bad year for me getting out to them (ironic that 2009 also saw my return to writing). But looking over this list I've hastily compiled reminds me of some great entertainments, a few devastating comedies, a lot of heartbreak and loss and plenty of treasure to be mined from further viewings.

In searching for something to connect the films I've chosen as my favorites, I'm interested in the delightful amount of subversion on display in the mainstream (arguably one of the more conventional films on my list, the immigration drama Sugar, is also probably the second-least seen, after Humpday). From the masterly prologue in Up to the consistent melancholy of Where The Wild Things Are, both films frame their adventures as quests for family and connection in the face of loss and emptiness. Both films startle and unsettle in their challenging setups and their lack of easy solutions. Soderbergh's Informant! one-ups the director's own Erin Brockovich with a tried-and-true formula of corporate whistle-blowing that quickly unravels in parallel to the mind and life of its hero. Similarly, The Brothers Bloom and Bad Lieutenant spin wild, untamed yarns of psychopathy and sacrifice in what might've first appeared to be standard genre entries.

But one of my favorite new trends in cinema is this weird 'bromance' sub-genre, which really has been around as long as the 'buddy comedy' but with the new Entertainment Weekly-approved buzzword is now confronted head on. There are two of these in my ten, and a third in the HMs if you count Star Trek, which you absolutely should.

There are few greater friendships than that between Kirk and Spock, honestly, and it's the cosmic geekiness of their mythology that must inform true platonic love between two men. The couples at the centers of I Love You, Man and Humpday are all men confronting their masculinity in first-level ways that, though sometimes lacking in precious subtext, are sorely lacking in the mainstream. The mumblecore of Humpday's emotions is incisive and honest, and what really got me about I Love You, Man is the seemingly-obvious idea to structure the story of friendship exactly like a generic romantic comedy. Sometimes the most simple alteration to a formula can be the most affecting.

but maybe it should've been Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds
challenges us - in a way I think Haneke would dig - to consider what we expect and what we want from our movies. Where the first and second slots on the list went easily to the two films that moved me and struck me personally, I must begrudgingly admit that Tarantino's efforts here have turned in a true masterpiece of the form that works on several different levels. As an action/adventure, it's thrilling and suspenseful. As historical fiction, its daring revisionism dares us to step back and consider why we root for who we root for. As cinema, the film is a shot-by-shot, choice-by-choice, balls-out masterpiece, hubristic and hilarious at parts and quietly touching when it counts.

More remarkable still, considering how well it works as a whole, is that Tarantino has structured the thing more like an album than a film. You could boil it down to an anthology of eight or nine scenes that, taken separately, work as splendid, tidy little dramas. The writer-director's ability to upend convention, throw anachronisms around like pies in your face and have it all work together is relentlessly frustrating. His messes are beautiful, his fuck-ups still fun. As any aspiring creator might attest, seeing so brazen an asshole consistently ad-lib brilliance with barely a misstep is just annoying. I almost hate to love the man.

UPDATE: (1/31/10)

35 Shots of Rum finally came to Chicago and I caught it today. The film will require more than a couple hours of processing; in the meantime I'll throw it up on my list at, oh, say number 8. This relegates The Informant! into the Honorable Mentions. But really, who gives a good damn?

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien
June 1, 2009 - January 22, 2010

Dear Internet,

I'm not worried about Conan O'Brien. He and his staff will come out of this "fracas" with a hefty severance and a better gig at a vertebrate network.

The big tragedy is that - at least until Jay Leno's second tenure ends - I feel I can never watch The Tonight Show again. It sounds a bit hyperbolic, but at this moment it's how I feel.

The late night talk show circuit has never consistently been appointment television. You tune in when you want some white noise to fall asleep to or when there's a guest you want to see or when there's a big media story (like a presidential election or a host-swapping nightmare). For most of my lifetime, when I did sit down to watch network talk shows at 11:30, the choice was easy: Letterman, then Conan. Late Show, then Late Night.

But if I'm watching the talk shows and Leno has the more interesting guest or the better band playing, I'd switch over. Generally, Leno's Tonight Show fell somewhere between middling and cringe-inducing. There was no irksome pain quite like watching Leno interview an artist whose work I admire and treating them like a tabloid punchline or a sounding board for his lame, lame jokes. I'd still tune in, every once in a while.

The Tonight Show, even with Jay Leno as host, was still a sacred institution. For all the reasons that Conan outlined in his initial rejoinder to NBC's proposed time slot shift, it was a cultural benchmark, a rock-steady franchise, a lighthouse. A rare relic of a time long past that remained relevant almost in spite of itself.

Where I formerly would've occasionally sat through the sourness of Leno's style for the sake of the guest, I don't think I'll be able to anymore. Furthermore, with the astounding celebrity support Conan has been receiving, I wonder if Leno will even be able to get guests worth tuning in for (especially once The Conan O'Brien Show begins airing on Fox in October).

I'm not interested in getting into the conversation about why Jay Leno is so terrible - there are smarter and funnier pundits who have already said all that needs to be said. What's done is done. The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, which whenever I watched it (and I might've watched more often if I'd known) consistently delivered the snarky, silly spectacle we've all come to expect, is dead. And with it, even as O'Brien tried to save it, dies the franchise. The Tonight Show will be back on the air in March, but I can never watch it.

Farewell, Coco. We'll see you when we see you.

As for the zombified Tonight Show with Jay Leno: I will wait patiently for the Big Jaw to get replaced again and put down for good so I can allow that program and its legacy back into my heart.

Monday, January 18, 2010

67th Golden Globe Awards

Because everyone involved seemed to have caught on finally that this perennial charade is a meaningless popularity contest bought and sold by politicians, campaign managers and financiers, the 2010 Golden Globe Awards struck me as one of the best award shows in recent memory. It might've been the digs at NBC, it might've been a realization that playing second fiddle to the Academy Awards is a lame pedestal, or perhaps it was merely that I'm growing up a bit and starting to let go of my futile, juvenile dream, year after year, that somebody deserving might win an award someday. Either way, the theme of the night seemed to be: "Fuck it, have another drink."

The evening began with a Supporting Actress Award for Mo'nique. At the time, I settled into my couch, fearing a landslide of awards for Precious, a film with myriad supporters who I can't believe have actually sat through the thing. However, that barrage of white guilt never came and if the movie had to win something, I can admit that I'm glad it went to one of the least intolerable of Precious' assets. And if there needed to be a "token" black winner, I'm glad they got it out of the way first thing.

The awards quickly took a backseat to wanton buffoonery, as Ricky Gervais took stabs at NBC, Jennifer Aniston and Mel Gibson that bordered on mean-spirited in just the right way, as all were completely accurate and justified. Gervais also made explicit reference to the drinking that seemed to be even more excessive here than in years past.

Another winner was lost to the bathrooms, Felicity Huffman botched her lines, and Meryl Streep and Drew Barrymore both revealed themselves to be "talkers". On top of this, the camera crew and technical director all seemed to have been on the sauce as well, showing us Leo when they should've been showing us George, accidentally going live with half of a second of John Krasinski's hair, and cutting to a reaction shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger during Michael Haneke's acceptance speech for no apparent reason ... except perhaps that they are both Austrian? Should've shown us Jennifer Hudson during Mo'nique's speech, boys.

But wait a second - Michael Haneke? What the heck?

Yes, amidst all the drinking, something truly bizarre happened: there were more than a few deserving winners. When I use the adjective "deserving", I don't mean necessarily to imply that these were the "best" (even of those nominated) in the category but that the sight of them holding an award doesn't make me want to scratch my eyes out. Seriously: The White Ribbon for Foreign Language Film, Michael Giacchino for Up? Christoph Waltz and Jeff Bridges? Mad Men?

And then, holy shit: The Hangover and Avatar. The announcer certainly saw it coming, but I didn't: Cameron managed a remarkable feat by taking all the good will leftover from Titanic and slowly squandering over more than a decade so that when his blue cat people first showed up in press stills, his movie became an underdog. Two consecutive billion-dollar successes risen from the ashes of terrible buzz and snickering cultural pundits? Phew.

But The Hangover may be the biggest surprise of the night. Any one person's opinion of the film is irrelevant: that's decidedly not an award movie, even in the Globes' unique "Musical/Comedy" ghetto. How did it slip through? It seems that as fewer and fewer take the Globes seriously, a startling degree of honesty has weaned its way into the voting. In a circle-jerk that annually reminds me that the award shows I looked forward to as a child were watched with affection and excitement only through the addled, simplistic perspective of a twelve-year-old, I hate to stumble upon silver linings or rays of sunshine. I want to cast this whole thing off and ignore it as the claptrap it is. But just when you think you're out...

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Blind Side

I confided yesterday to a friend that my write-up of The Blind Side had spiraled out of control. I had too much to say on the film and the book it's based on; I couldn't rein it in.

"Just abandon it," he told me. This is sound advice, as I've been working on the piece for a couple weeks now and have already a thousand words and no coherent thesis. I don't want to spend any more time on a movie like this if it's not going to go anywhere. At the same time, however, I have already put so much thought into it, the possibility of letting the movie go unremarked upon really irks me.

Somehow, The Blind Side got under my skin.

It began, as it so often does, at the bar. The incredible popularity of the new Sandra Bullock movie came up, and either I or someone at the table used the word "racism". My friend Josh asked, "How can a true story be racist?"

Josh brings up an interesting point, and in doing so he inadvertently challenged me to go see the film. How can The Blind Side be a racist film if it's based on a true story? Let's start at the beginning and see if I can get this out.

Here's that story, in a nutshell: Once upon a time, Michael Oher was a very poor, often homeless kid in the worst part of Memphis. Through a series of fortunate events, Oher ended up the adopted son of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. The Tuohys fed, clothed and sheltered Oher through two years at the Briarcrest Christian School before sending him off to their Alma Mater, Ole Miss to become a football star. Oher now plays right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.

His fame and fortune Oher would never have achieved were it not for the charity and kindness of the Tuohys. His story is of an impoverished youth being hoisted back up through the cracks.

Truth for truth, the film manages to match the source material almost line for line, Michael Lewis' journalistic account of the events The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. At least, it does so until the third act of the film, wherein writer-director John Lee Hancock does to the story what I'm always begging for more of in fictional adaptations of true-life events. He dramatizes the story.

The turning point from truth to drama takes place during a scene where Oher, having run away from the Tuohys, shows up in his old neighborhood. The point of the scene would have to be to give Oher (the character) some badly needed agency in a film that has, to this point, been mostly a PSA on how to be a good Christian with spokeswoman Sandra Bullock.

Hancock positions Oher's return to Memphis' Hurt Village as, essentially, the boy making a choice between his two lives - rich or poor, east or west, black or white. In this racially charged scene, the blinged-up, gold-crowned gangsta who runs the streets hands Oher a forty and asks him about his new white family. Things get tense, and when he suggests that Oher's new white mother would probably be a decent sexual partner (my words, not his), Oher goes all Bruce Banner on him, tossing him into a shelf and destroying the room.

The double-entendre of Lewis' title is so important to the telling of Michael Oher's story. The racial backgrounds of Sean and Leigh Anne, un-touched in the film, are spelled out and presented as evidence as to why this was the Christian family that finally started acting Christian. Sean grew up poor and made his name playing basketball; he is described in the book as "not knowing his own color". Leigh Anne, on the other hand, is the daughter of a U.S. Marshal who "raised her to fear and loathe blacks as much as he did." At the sight of Sean's former teammates in the crowd at their wedding, Leigh Anne's father asked, "Why are all these niggers here?"

Now there's an anecdote that didn't make the film. This is because while Lewis presents Oher's story as the complicated story of race that it is, in which a family is formed through exception to each other's colors, the film confuses the notion of "the blind side" as the first Hollywood exemplification of the Obama-era fallacy that as a country, we have moved beyond race. That every single character in the film is a stereotype of his or her class, religion and race (the exception, in all things, being Leigh Anne) becomes moot. These are issues, says Hancock, from a more primitive time.

Following his bust-up in the 'hood, Michael goes home to finally confess to Leigh Anne about his troubled past. Except, he doesn't. Hancock invents a truly remarkable device for his hero: Michael tells Leigh Anne about how, when something in his past is bothering him, he closes his eyes, counts to ten and it all goes away. Leigh Anne tries this as the film comes to a close fifteen minutes later; the final shot of the film is Sandra Bullock's smiling face, eyes shut in wonder, washing away 230 years of racial tension in America.

Problem is, a lot of what I've just written could be excerpted or quoted and might make me sound like I think this is a great movie. This is why I'm struggling with it so much. In spite of its casual, seemingly harmless Hollywood trappings - the country-singer turned actor (Tim McGraw, actually pretty good), the precocious, freckled youngster (Jae Head, unbearably obnoxious), the gloss and glitter, the triumph of the big game - The Blind Side is a dangerous, frightening movie that white washes issues of racial tension in the name of heartstring tugging.

Perhaps "racist" is the wrong word. To call the film that would be to simplify its crimes in much the same way it simplifies the life of Michael Oher. That it's a true story becomes irrelevant, because the perspectives chosen for the telling are, rather than "blind," consciously selective in which angles to present. Innocuously working its way through our popular mainstream, The Blind Side exhausts me, worries me and terrifies me. If this is our popular entertainment, we're all doomed.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Youth In Revolt

So far as I can tell, Youth In Revolt marks the first time Michael Cera has played anything but a variation on the George Michael Bluth theme. Granted, it comes in a film with two Cera performances, one of which is in fact that same ol' lovably awkward Cera schtick, but it still feels somehow historic.

Cera plays a dangerous sociopath named Nick Twisp who destroys two vehicles and most of a sidewalk with the aid of a couple jugs of gasoline and some downhill momentum. He does this in the name of getting laid, which justifies it, I guess (good thing nobody got hurt). To Nick the explosion and resulting fire was an accident - the actual perpetrator was François Dillinger, a self-invented "supplementary personality", played also by Michael Cera but with a cigarette and mustache.

François is many things to Nick Twisp. He's a sorely needed id, a companion and mentor, but also the manifestation of a psychotic break. The invention of François, in response to the stated desires of his crush, Sheeni, is a much darker device for exploring the lengths to which emo kids go for unattainable women than we normally find in sex comedies these days. Nick creates him consciously but quickly loses control, with often hilarious results.

There's a lot to like about the film, which features plenty of zaniness unseen in the trailers and a supporting ensemble performing well above what's expected of Indiewood Quirk. The film frequently operates as a subsersive send-up of the reference-heavy teenagers of Juno and its ilk. My favorite moment in the film comes when Nick refers to the director of Tokyo Story as Mizoguchi and Sheeni corrects him, to which Nick replies, "Well, really, what's the difference?" Lolz.

François himself is little more than a mocking reaction to Sheeni's desire to live inside a French New Wave film. When Sheeni goes on and on about wanting to live in Paris, it's almost word-for-word the speech we heard recently in An Education, only here the naked naivete of that adolescent desire is intentionally played for a laugh. As it should be.

Where the film fails is in not taking a stand on the question of Nick's reliance upon François. In the end, Nick VOs that he believes Sheeni loves him as Nick and not as François, despite the latter having been solely responsible for everything that has earned her attentions and affections. And while there are negative consequences for Nick to François' misadventures, his ability to stifle the alter ego after getting the girl and remain his own protagonist is decidely convenient and ultimately unsatisfying.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Single Man

A Single Man arrives courtesy of Tom Ford, allegedly a fashion designer. I looked him up and found that his only previous accomplishment that I'd heard of was being that guy on the cover of Vanity Fair with a naked Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson. Tough act to follow.

Ford is the co-writer and director of the film, and he spends the entire running time trying to upstage a terrific cast. The story and performances, full of understated quiet, are juxtaposed against a schizophrenic combination of saturated visuals and staccato editing with a sub-Philip Glass score that throws harsh, repeating strings at your ears until you think you're watching a sequel to The Hours (and there's Julianne Moore to make the resemblance even more uncanny). Perhaps the disorienting miasma of nonsensical stylistic choices is meant to somehow capture the directionless loss of the film’s hero, but I think more likely Ford just doesn't know what he's doing. It feels a bit like watching an artist throw a bunch of paint on a wall to see what sticks. There are those that would call this art and pass out awards.

That hero is George, a gay British professor of English in Los Angeles (poor guy) grappling with the accidental death of his partner of sixteen years. It's 1962 and America is caught up in the Cuban Missile Crisis, though whether this is meant to lend gravity to George's forthcoming suicide or render it meaningless I have no idea (I doubt Ford has, either). The film follows George over the course of a single day, during which he goes to class, cleans out his office and bank account, ties up loose ends, buys a box of bullets and encounters several different people - men and women - who would like to have sex with him. Whether any of these consorts will inadvertently convince George not to pull the trigger I might as well leave unspoiled, but rest assured the ending the film decides for him is preposterous.

Played by Colin Firth, George is full of an intense emptiness. It’s easy to feel Firth’s sorrow, but then so much time is spent extolling the dignified pain of a man with nothing to live for, you begin to wonder what it is you’re watching the movie for. Dying is easy, man.

Three major encounters color George’s day. First, there is a student nursing a nasty crush on his professor that’s probably mutual. Then, on his way home from school George finds himself maybe accepting the services of a Spanish prostitute who wants to be James Dean and lingers outside a liquor store. Finally, George must say goodbye to his longtime beard, a fellow Brit named Charlotte, played by Julianne Moore with her trademark stinging desperation.

Ford allows each of these pairings a spare moment in which we are briefly concerned with the drama unfolding and the hint of a spark between two maybe-lovers. These moments only become frustrating for what they might’ve added up to in the hands of a director who doesn’t feel the need to suddenly ruin them by draining the color palette, cuing the violinist and smash-cutting to a close-up of somebody’s eyebrow.

The episode in the liquor store parking lot, essentially a fifteen-minute flirtation, is framed by a giant advertisement for Psycho made up of a blue-tinted tight shot of Janet Leigh’s eyes, widened in terror. As a subtle nod to The Great Gatsby, this might’ve been pretty cool, especially given that our protagonist is an English teacher. Here, it’s just meaningless decoration. Psycho came out two years before the events of the film: set the thing up high and weather it, Mr. Ford.

The film is a series of like missed opportunities.

As we slog from one scene to the next, it’s tough to discern any kind of structure - kind of remarkable given that Ford at least had the sense to contain the film within a single day. With each passing dialogue, any message or meaning is muddled into nothingness. Between film to audience or character to character, there really doesn’t seem to be a point. George lives in a glass house but it turns out his lover was an architect or something. An admittedly well-though-out first act monologue about “invisible minorities” is rendered meaningless by the fact that everybody George interacts with seems to be not only aware of his homosexuality but also perfectly fine with it. The only concrete thing we’re left with is that losing the person you love really sucks, which is hardly justification for all the weighty texts referenced in the film (Kafka, Huxley’s After Many a Summer). In adaptation, the film fails to find any drama from the page and becomes a feature-length vignette about a saddo who starts sad, stays sad and finishes sad. This strikes me as boring, but I imagine the Oscars will feel otherwise.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!