Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Only one of many successes onscreen in The Kids Are All Right is the portrayal of a Hispanic gardener. In even the most highbrow of family dramas, a three-scene throwaway supporting character like Luis might all too easily get left in the realm of the underwritten. This is not to say that Luis, who is accused of having a drug problem after an allergy-induced sneeze, is not a stereotype: in fact, all of the characters here are stereotypes. What writer-director Lisa Cholodenko carries out is the neat trick of imbuing them with a refreshing self-awareness. Luis chuckles at his fate and comes out cleaner than most of the major characters. He just likes the flowers.

Luis is contracted by Jules (Julianne Moore) to assist in her fledgling landscape design business. As half of a middle-aged lesbian couple with two kids, Jules is starting to feel restless after 18 years of motherhood without anything approaching a career. Her partner Nic (Annette Bening) is a doctor, and the one who pays for their lovely house and all the expensive wine they drink.

This feeling of housewife-neglect is just one facet of the couple's simmering malaise: as their two kids struggle with adolescence, a craving for 'normalcy' has eroded the family's foundation. They have an 18-year-old perfect-angel daughter who's just graduated as valedictorian of her high school and a 15-year-old son who needs a father figure. In turn, the two kids go behind their moms' backs to seek out the man whose sperm donation brought them into existence.

The donor is Paul, a naïve man's man with a touch of gray played by Mark Ruffalo. Before getting contacted by the children he didn't know he had, Paul was coasting through life as a successful restaurateur and purveyor of organic produce. He has a lot of casual sex and leaves several buttons undone. If he sounds like a cocksure stereotype of effortless sexuality and a predestined 'no-man-is-an-island' growth arc, he is. His son, upon meeting him, refers to his new father as "kinda into himself."

Jules is a "depressed, middle-aged lesbian", her son Laser (namesake never explained) is a "sensitive jock type", Joni (named after Mitchell) "got all A's and got into every school", Nic is a "control freak" and Paul is a "doer, not a learner". They're all familiar characters. Paul's entrance forces the foursome to reassess their already-fragile union, and what's so fun is watching the awkward friction and identity crises between these five strangers who all want to be a family together.

The movie works through two simple, distinct qualities: the script is tight and funny, full of forward momentum, and the actors are all dynamite. Whenever it seems like Ruffalo is starting to steal the show—Paul's role is to be distractingly charismatic—Cholodenko carefully assigns equal screentime to the other four. It's an ensemble piece where when characters bicker, it's impossible to take sides. We want them to get along.

And then this is where the movie starts surprising. As Paul, despite his own and everyone else's better intentions, starts taking up the mantle of fatherhood—he imparts social advice for his kids and parenting advice for the moms—it becomes clear that these characters have painted themselves into a corner. The inciting incident was born of Laser's desire for paternal normalcy and quickly this idea festers inside the other characters. But there isn't room for three parents in a 'normal' family and somebody is going to have to lose.

It's not long before an overwhelming sadness takes over. Even as the movie is consistently hilarious, mining laughs from awkward discussions of sexuality and from the minutiae of home life, all five gradually become aware that they will be victims of their own desires for self-actualization. The characters win you over by being funny and warm and then screw you by being human. At one point, a character loses control and goes off on a rant about self-absorbed, eco-friendly, organic food-eating stereotypes, even as she orders another bottle of a specific favored wine. There is another winking moment where one of the moms describes lesbian porn as fallacious, because it usually involves two straight actresses faking it.

It's a self-aware picture about self-aware characters going out of their way to fit their circular selves into square spaces. Ultimately moving and incisive in its glances into both middle age and adolescence, The Kids Are All Right is an exquisite, eloquent drama that's as true to itself as it is to its audience. It's an increasingly rare commodity in our self-important arthouse multiplexes — you get the impression everyone on screen would love this movie. The film is an exercise in honesty, and a pure delight.

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

Monday, July 26, 2010

James Cameron: A Cinema of CAPS LOCK + A Second Take: Avatar

Since publishing my original review of its theatrical release, my opinion of Avatar has become informed by two lengthy conversations about the film with friends who didn't like it. I will do my best to represent their viewpoints here.

"It's really just an excuse to do pterodactyls versus helicopters." - James Cameron

The New Yorker ran a profile of James Cameron by Dana Goodyear a few months before Avatar's release last year. A friend named Trevor pulled a quote from this article on my previous review's comment board as telling of Avatar's being a failure, in particular, as an 'anti-war' movie: "I suppose you could say I believe in peace through superior firepower."

I told Trevor at the time that what he should've quoted was Cameron's lengthy discussion of the science and story behind one of the film's battle scenes, which he sums up with: "It's really just an excuse to do pterodactyls versus helicopters."

This is a problem with the film, and it's one that is likely shared in most of Cameron's work: he's such a creative filmmaker—his stories so imaginative—that the 'wow' factor tends to overshadow the more important elements like the story and the characters. This extent to which this is happening on the set or in the teenaged heads of his audience varies from film to film, but it's too bad that even in a movie as thematically complex as Aliens we tend to focus on the badassery and the bloodletting.

Cameron makes really cool movies (or at least, he used to, before he grew a big soft one and started making romances: “Of course, the whole movie ends up being about women, how guys relate to their lovers, mothers—there’s a large female presence [...] I try to do my testosterone movie and it’s a chick flick.”), and a great deal of Avatar's success, even amidst today's jaded, self-aware moviegoing populace, was due to its gimmickry. Photorealistic aliens! Three hours on a planet that feels real! Digital 3D like you've never seen it! Sexy cat people! All the plants and animals have Latin names and the Na'vi speak a real language that he hired some guy to make up!

Like Titanic before it, Avatar was an event movie (already faded from the spotlight—and that much too fast) that people talked about just because everyone else was talking about it. But with the hype machine interested only the gimmicks, it's increasingly difficult to remind ourselves exactly what it was Cameron was trying to do.

See, Cameron's been making and remaking the same Vietnam War movie since the beginning of his career. It was when I stumbled across an archival press interview from the release of Aliens that I realized this. Cameron discussed that his main intention with the sequel was to tell a parable about Vietnam, in which a squad of overqualified, over-armed, over-mechanized soldiers goes into a jungle and gets their collective ass kicked by an allegedly dumb, primitive race that they should've easily pwned onto the next planet. Now, for me, Aliens was always about maternity (and it's about both of these), but it's easy to see that this is the same movie he's been making ever since. Cameron's story is always about man vs. machine or nature vs. human design. The fancy pulse rifle with grenade launcher vs. the Aliens. The humans versus the terminators. The Na'vi archers versus the giant bombers. The Titanic versus the laws of physics.

What's inconsistent throughout his oeuvre, then, is the confusing notion of the 'we'. In that man vs. machine battle that Cameron has extrapolated from the demons of Vietnam, his different films take different sides (possibly because, as an American, Cameron's 'we' was the American military machine). Cameron actually examines this directly in Avatar, as over the course of three hours we witness a gradually shifting allegiance from the protagonist, Jake Sully. From the beginning he is torn between his duty as a marine and his new position as a science officer, and eventually he finds himself at the wrong end of evil Col. Quaritch's clumsy one-liners like "I'd say diplomacy has failed!" and "How's it feel to betray your own race?"

In Avatar, Sully's transformation from human to Na'vi is as much a matter of his 'soul' as it is his physical appearance; by the end of the second act he's already turned down the long-desired reparation of his paralyzed human form. And with the hero's allegiance so turns the audience's, which is one of the more interesting facets of Avatar's story. As heavy-handed as it may be, Cameron holds nothing back in making the human race into the bad guys.

And this is what's fun to trace throughout Cameron's work: in returning to the well of the darker sides of human nature, he seems to waiver back and forth in regards to whether or not he believes there's any hope for us. Says Ripley, upon learning of Burke's deception: "I don't know which species is worse. You don't see [the aliens] fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage." As a species, we may or may not be any better than this race of venomous, acid-blooded killers, and we are absolutely a bunch of assholes when compared to the ethically and environmentally pure Na'vi. In Titanic, our ambition to bend the laws of nature kill more than 1,500 of us. In The Terminator, our technological ambitions take us even further, killing off most of the human race.

Yet, the lesson of that film's sequel turns out to be one of hope, as is also the case in The Abyss. Both Terminator 2 and The Abyss end unequivocally with saccharine messages of hope for our future; from our darkest wars we will emerge cleansed and prepared for a new age of prosperity.

Only with Avatar, though, has Cameron finally given up on humanity—likely the result of the Bush administration further informing his anti-imperialist beliefs already clung to decades after the Vietnam War. Even as the Na'vi shelter the few humans righteous enough to side with them, those are the humble sky-people that studied the alien race, learned their ways, and actually became (in Sully's case, literally) part of them.

But this is not the only way to read Avatar. To quote Kelly from that previous discussion board, "the important thing is that we can pretend we understand them through a billion dollar, 3-hour movie where we literally murder our own guilt with a roomful of other cheering white people."

In a non-internet-based, real-life extrapolation of her argument, Kelly told me that she understood what Cameron was trying to do, and actually was able to get behind it, were it not for Cameron's failure to follow through on his point in the end. To hear Kelly tell it, the way Avatar should've ended is with the humans winning, the Na'vi completely slaughtered and Pandora ravaged for precious unobtanium. Now, here's an ending that would likely have been more difficult for Trevor to deny as being 'anti-war'.

Kelly's idea is potent, and in many ways, she's right. Even though Cameron has shrugged off responsibility for human actions by siding with the aliens, that doesn't absolve humanity of its power or its history, and as clever as the Na'vi are in besting the human military machine, it's still pretty absurd that they don't all get crushed (but again, that's how it went down in Vietnam). This, by the way, was exactly what Cameron was going on about when he started waxing adolescent about helicopters and pterodactyls:
"The idea is that Pandora has such a hot, humid climate, with incredibly powerful magnetic fields, that they can’t use sophisticated energy weapons. A lot of the equipment is retrofitted, from their perspective, because it works on Pandora. So you’ve got vehicles that are more consistent with twentieth-century warfare.” His face was flushed and happy. “It’s all just an excuse to do helicopters versus pterodactyls,” he said.

Whatever, dude. Here's the thing: if you want to be an environmentalist filmmaker and actually stir people into action (a laughable premise, right away), you're giving up way too easily when you let the humans of Avatar give up way too easily. As Kelly puts it, the ending of Avatar is far too easily construed as an apology and an absolution for our long, storied history of military imperialism and murder.

So where does this leave me as I attempt to wrap up my restrospective on the films of James Cameron? Do I believe his visceral, kinetic filmmaking tends to overshadow his ideas? Probably much of the time, though I'm not convinced that's a bad thing. It's definitely not bad in theory, and in the practice of Cameron's films it's probably better this way, as we know all too well what happens when he doesn't shut his characters up and put guns in their hands.

I have to revisit the incidents of the teenagers in the theater during Avatar, shouting "Yeah, get some!" at the screen during the extended battle royale. Though the onus of coaxing an audience out of passivity into analytical thought can never be put solely on the shoulders of the filmmaker, it's a shame that in Cameron's case he so often gets caught up playing with his toys. Avatar becomes, rather than an anti-war treatise, a story of helicopters and pterodactyls. Even as he smacks you over the head with his allegory, it's easy to view the whole thing as an extended playtime.

And yet, when I was a little boy, it was the nuclear detonation from Terminator 2 that gave me recurring nightmares, and I still think of it whenever the topic of nuclear weapons is raised. Where T2 was a hugely successful summer blockbuster with one-liners and set pieces, its staying power for me was a (simple and obvious, but nonetheless true and important) message of peace. Nuclear war is bad. Humans are good, but we created nuclear war. We have to reconcile this with ourselves.

Is there a similar message to be found in Avatar for the boys who went out for it to cheer on the soldiers? Yes, certainly. There's a purity to Cameron's ideas, even as obvious as they always are, that sticks with you and works in concert with the awesomeness of his action. Taken even as dumb action movies, his work sticks with us as we grow up. Perhaps this isn't anywhere more clear than in Titanic, as mawkishly sincere a story of love triumphant as we can hope for and the movie of the decade for so many heartsick middle-schoolers, whether they deny it now or not.

Of course, Cameron's not done yet. There are allegedly two Avatar sequels on the way, and it's always possible that the man with the biggest head in the business can get his head back in the game. Some of his best work so far has been sequel: with the setup out of the way, Cameron's proven he can hit the ground running. And regardless, even mediocre Cameron is thrilling, exciting, ripe for discussion, worthy of our time and money. I'll be there at midnight on opening day.

Friday, July 23, 2010


I know it's lazy of me, but this really won't make any sense unless you've seen Inception. Sorry!

There are two ways to read Christopher Nolan's Inception. One is to take the characters on their somewhat-confusing, often-garbled literal word. In this case, the film is the story of a band of extractors carrying off an elegant reverse-heist and winning their leader's passage back onto his homeland.

The other examination of the film, one suggested at several points throughout the runtime (most obviously by the not-really-ambiguous-at-all ambiguous ending) is that the entire film is a dream, orchestrated for the benefit and/or deception of Leonardo DiCaprio's bereaved Dominick Cobb.

With each of these possibilities comes a devastating array of flaws. For as cool as the movie can be in sporadic spurts, it doesn't hold up to any serious investigation.

If the movie is to be taken literally, it is so full of plot-holes, garrulous exposition and spatial incoherence from the micro- to the macro- that it can be described as nothing less than a mess. For example: if a van plowing off a bridge can upset a twice-removed dreamworld with an avalanche (which, by the way, hurts nothing and nobody and in no way sets back our heroes' plot), why does it not distort the gravity of that dream-level in any other continuous way as the van continues its plummet? This can be called nitpicking, but the film is rife with such gaps in logic.

Here is a two-and-a-half-hour movie in which approximately forty-five minutes (a generous estimation) is dedicated to the supremely nifty set-pieces promised by the trailer and by Nolan's previous work1. The remaining 1:45 is entirely backstory and set-up. Probably the entire first hour of the movie is mired in exposition2, which only makes the eventual descent into the dreamworld an ultimately relieving incident. You can hear Millhouse asking: "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?"

But even with all this set-up, for every tidbit of diegetic logic underlined and set forth as a 'rule', there is a lazy smudge of hokum we are asked to swallow simply because in two-and-a-half-hours Nolan couldn't come up with anything better. If extraction is a profession with so many fascinating rules and how-to's, couldn't we be supplied with a reason or method behind Eames' ability to seamlessly transform into other people within the dreamworld (and he can do this for the sake of both the aware and the unaware). Oh, and Yusuf concocted a sedative that doesn't affect the inner ear? That's all you've got? But it doesn't wake you up if you're rolling down a hill in a big clunky van? Give me a break.

Finally, from a narrative point of view3, the rules that the film does go to such lengths setting up are all instantly expendable. We are presented with several exciting ticking clocks and increasingly dire stakes, but they are all reset at the behest of a poorly-plotted third act. Initially, they have to complete the inception before the van goes off the bridge, otherwise they'll miss the "kick" and they won't wake up. But when they miss this opportunity, Cobb announces that they now have until the van hits the water a good 30 dreamworld-minutes later.

After Saito is shot in level one, we are told that they have to finish the job before he dies or he'll be irretrievably lost in sub-conscious limbo that will destroy his conscious self when they wake up in Los Angeles; later, after Saito 'dies', Cobb simply finds him and rescues him.

We are told over and over how the feeling of falling will wrest you from the next level down, but only in the sub-subconscious dystopia of Cobb's failed marriage will a fall from within the dream wake you up from the level you're in.

Now, in the course of the film, five characters are seen descending into that messy fourth-level state: Cobb and Mal in their flashback, Saito and Fischer when they die in the third level, and Ariadne, with Cobb again, going down to rescue Saito and Fischer. Of these five, only Mal is unable to recover from the shock of regained youth after forty years in the soup. Cobb tells us this is due to his own inception rather than her mind turning to mush.

Saito and Fischer have been sent here by death one level up, and we might fear that to rescue them will only result in that hypothesized insanity once they wake up to reality. Ariadne is, of course an amateur (on the surface) and handles the improvised descent into a stranger's deep subconscious like a professional4, hopping right back out once her task is done.

If we are to accept any stakes at all from the meat of the film's story (that is: the carrying-out of the eponymous inception), we have to dread that death in the dream will result in a vegetative coma once woken. Yet we see time and again that this was an idle threat.

And why, by the way, do all five end up in Cobb's limbo world? This is where we come to the second reading of the film:

Every frame of Inception, with the possible exception of the Mal flashbacks5, takes place within the head of a character we never see awake6. The clues all point to this, from Cobb's refusal to look at his children's faces to the wise old (ethnic!) sage in Yusuf's basement suggesting that the dream-sharers partake in their addiction not to sleep but to be woken up. Who is Cobb to suggest a difference between reality and dreams?

From the repeated suggestions of a dream-sharer's inevitably tenuous grasp on reality to the explicit inability of Cobb to ever actually spin his top (he's always dropping it or pocketing it because he doesn't want to get caught losing his grasp), Inception consistently points to the idea that this whole thing is a dream. If we decide we want to view the film this way, what actually works is that all these plot-holes and all this illogic can be instantly forgiven: it's all a dream, and there are no rules in dreams, no matter how often it might be suggested that there are.

The problem becomes that the film is about something entirely different than the 'first level' story of corporate inception with which we're presented. And lest I sound as though I'm against subtext, let me underline that what sucks is that [one] Nolan is entirely obvious and heavy-handed in regards to this being a story about Cobb losing his wife and, subsequently, his mind, and [two] that story, as it's told here, is derivative and shallow.

Nolan has proved his abilities as a plotter and storyteller, and no matter how much a misstep we might deem Inception to be, I simply can't write it off as the mediocre heist drama it is on the surface. We have to give Nolan at least a little credit: there has to be something more to this movie than meets the eye, and that's why I'm positive that Nolan's 'prestige' here is the not-quite-explicit idea that the entire thing takes place in Cobb's head.

I think Inception is about a man (Cobb) who has lost his mind for one reason or another (probably 40-odd dream-years inside his own subconscious) and who has become—we are never shown this—the vegetable we're warned might be the fate for Saito or Fischer or anybody else. In his comatose nightmare, Cobb longs to be reunited with his family, but because he blames himself for his predicament, he won't let it happen on any level of his reality.

We see this in Cobb's refusal to look at his children, even as they pop up around corners as often as the projection of his demonic wife. And by the way, they do make an appearance once in the film's purported reality: early in the film, Cobb's children call him in his hotel room in Kyoto. How on earth could they find him there but through the twisted logic of a dream?

So Cobb is a sad tomato7, and this is where Michael Caine comes in. It's not coincidental that the last human expression seen in the film is Caine's knowing smirk as the camera tilts downward to a cut-to-black off Cobb's spinning totem. Caine's Miles is the man behind the actual inception of this story's title. He partners with Ariadne (and the rest of the ensemble may be projections of Cobb's subconscious or members of Miles' team) to bring the vegetative Cobb some happiness within his eternal dream state. This is why every character, four levels down, shares the dreamworld Cobb created.

You know what? This is kind of a nice idea. Unfortunately, Nolan bogs himself down in endless retellings of Mal's fate and a lot of sci-fi gobbledy-gook that serves only to clash with any actual pathos at the heart of the thing. It reminds me of another big-budget project from a director that didn’t really know where to go after the biggest success of his career.

My prediction is that Inception will go down as Christopher Nolan's Vanilla Sky: a star-filled oddity of premise that goes over or under most heads and runs on a difficult-to-swallow mixture of sentiment and hardcore sci-fi world-building. Despite its flaws, it will earn a devoted following for whom either the emotions or the ideas (occasionally both) work on a personal level, and that cult will hold it up as one of their favorite movies. Ever.

See, I suppose I don't have a problem with liking Inception so much as I have a problem with the idea that it's anywhere near as mindlessly fun or exciting as it purports to be. I like Vanilla Sky and would be like a bully lashing out if I mocked anyone for it. But what I can admit about Vanilla Sky is this: it's hokey and it's over-the-top, it's a good half-hour too long and I can understand why you might end up chuckling at it.

Inception, which is essentially the same story (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy loses mind, boy goes on dramatic twist-ending nightmare-bender to convince his sleeping mind that he still has her), is easily (from the score alone) twice as self-important as Vanilla Sky, as over-long as Shutter Island, as convoluted as Mullholland Drive, as knowingly-slick as anything Nolan has ever done. For many it's going to strike a chord.

Everyone else will chuckle.

1) And by the way, for as cool as these forty-five cumulative minutes can be, they really only leave more to be desired in-and-of-themselves. Nolan's team constructed an entire rotating hallway in order to depict Joseph Gordon-Levitt leaping from wall to ceiling amidst fisticuffs with subconscious henchmen, and he uses this practical effect in exactly one uncut shot that lasts long enough to register. Mere seconds. Unforgivable. Anybody who ever wants to show a hero doing battle with henchmen in an enclosed space needs to go watch Oldboy. [back]

2) Ellen Page's performance is awful enough to deserve more than a footnote, but I don't really want to bother. It's bad enough that Ariadne is so clumsily-written and contrived an audience surrogate, all "What does this do?" and "How does that work?". But to give this flimsy, hollow role to an actress of Page's meager caliber is just infuriating, especially when she's next to powerhouses like Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. [back]

3.) If A.A. Dowd is reading this he might as well give up here and post his comment about how I am a "slave to narrative". [back]

4.) Or rather, she handles it like a bemused starlet confronted with a series of wildly ridiculous interactions and paper-thin 'wow' moments: a "human network", if you will? [back]

5.) The flashbacks, now; not Cobb's memory-based reconstructions or subconscious projections. Obviously, in a film like this it isn't always possible to tell the difference. [back]

6.) This is DiCaprio's Cobb, but since we never see him and the world takes place in his dream, it would be pointless to label him as the same character, with the same appearance and personality. [back]

7.) In New York Magazine, David Edelstein derisively mocked the character's name, referring to Dom Cobb as "dummkopf", which, incidentally, means "stupidhead." Several characters here have winkingly relevant namesakes, the most cloying of which has to be Ariadne, the girl who bestowed Theseus with a ball of yarn to help him navigate the minotaur's labyrinth. Despite being played by the unparalleled Cillian Murphy, Fischer might as well have been called "Cipher". [back]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Runaways

Perhaps the reason it’s taken me so long to admit my true feelings for Kristen Stewart is a lingering affection for Panic Room. As soon as that film’s mop-headed tomboy grew up and actually began sexualizing herself, I was rooting for her. I’ve been giving her the benefit of the doubt for years now. After The Runaways, the time has come for me to admit that I just don’t like her.

Retreating into her androgynous shell in an attempt at casual lesbianism, Stewart trades the pained nihilism of a young punk rocker for what just comes off as bored and possibly sleepy. In the course of a decade, she’s been seen awakening the sexualities of Jamie Bell, Adam Brody, Jesse Eisenberg, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner and now Dakota Fanning all by awkwardly futzing with her hair and never looking up from the floor. Whatever her appeal is, I don’t see it and I’m finally ready to write her off.

Stewart and Fanning, both making me nervous in their underwear (and not in the good way), are here being modeled into a girl group by wacko record producer Kim Fowley. Fowley is played in various stages of glam makeup by Michael Shannon, who would be fun to watch if at least there were some scenery for him to chew up, but even when he starts in on his monologues about the girls needing to think with their cocks, the drama is so limp and placid there’s nothing for him to work with.

So Fowley is a record producer who gets the idea from teenager Joan Jett that an all-jailbait punk band would be a sure win. In one of several ridiculous scenes, Joan approaches the famous producer outside a club on the Sunset Strip to tell him she plays guitar and the deal is made five minutes later; Fowley even remarks that producers don’t go around handing record deals to teenagers outside clubs seconds before he hooks the girl up with a drummer and starts making the band. He assembles the five girls based on their image instead of their talent (fitting that Joan spray paints a homemade Sex Pistols t-shirt) and susses out future hit single “Cherry Bomb” to the tune of Joan hitting the same chord over and over again.

Fanning plays Cherie Currie, who stumbles into the position of front-woman after lying about being able to sing. When we’re introduced to her vocal stylings, she’s lip-syncing a David Bowie song at her high school talent show because she can’t manage more than a feeble whisper into the microphone. When she shows up to audition with Peggy Lee’s “Fever”, she’s booed out of the trailer until Fowley gives her the lyrics to “Cherry Bomb” and makes her suddenly an able vocalist (kind of).

From the way the film plays it, I half expected Shannon’s Fowley to turn out to be a drifter posing as a mogul just to rip the girls off. He sets up rehearsal space for them in a dingy trailer surrounded by animal feces and sends them on a club tour in a big station wagon with a boy who introduces himself as “the roadie”.

And in the same way I don’t buy Fowley as a legitimate record producer, I don’t buy The Runaways of The Runaways as a legitimate rock band. They’re presented here as talentless stereotypes – directionless girls who hang out under the Hollywood Sign drinking booze stolen from their parents’ liquor cabinets. Maybe this is what punk rock was supposed to be, but any credibility therein is shot down by the girls’ repeated desires to play huge stadiums and make lots of money.

Writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s lazy style favors montage over scripted scenes in the furthering of the story, resulting in a film ostensibly about the life of a band that recorded five albums but shows them in the studio exactly once. That scene is the one where they break up, of course. The film inadvertently implies that the whole project was a stillborn predecessor to Jett’s later success with “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Bad Reputation,” which get turned up for the end credits.

There are pills that lead to overdose and booze that leads to girl-on-girl make out sessions; there is out-of-focus photography for the drugs and mood lighting for the sex. There are families left behind back home for screaming teenagers outside the club. There’s an argument over Curie’s ‘undeserved’ spotlight as the band’s lead singer – as though none of these girls had ever seen a rock band before (and maybe they hadn’t). This scene particularly recalls the hilarious/heartbreaking Stillwater dissolve in Almost Famous, a dangerous association to draw when your film is little more than a collection of rock ‘n’ roll movie clichés banked on renewing a decades-old scandal of teenaged girls being hot. I’d like to report that this is in some way uniquely or interestingly bad, but like Stewart’s sexless emoting it’s just a lot of boring stuff we’ve been bored by plenty of times in the past.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [Män som hatar kvinnor]

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the kind of adaptation that treats its source material as gospel and strays only when absolutely necessary. This is inherently a bad thing: a copy is never as crisp as the original. What keeps the movie coasting is that its source, Stieg Larsson’s runaway bestseller novel, is plotted so tightly in concert with its thematic density that the complexities of the book squeak through into the relatively graceless cinematic exercise.

The convoluted plot of the 600+ page, two-and-a-half-hour story is difficult to summarize, especially when attempting to limit oneself to a paragraph or two. There are two protagonists: Mikael Blomkvist (celebrity journalist) and Lisbeth Salander (reclusive hacker). The latter is the tattooed eponym, though its worth noting that the Swedish title, Män som hatar kvinnor, translates literally as “Men who hate women.” I suppose this would’ve been more difficult to market, although it’s inarguably the better title given that [one] it’s awesome and [two] Lisbeth’s tattoo is only marginally important in the book and relegated to one or two shots in the film. Men who hate women are what this thing is about.

The two heroes are an unlikely odd couple teamed up in the 21st century to solve the mystery of a teenaged girl who disappeared in 1966. Harriet Vanger vanished from her family’s expansive island estate and was assumed murdered; dragging the river and combing the forest turned up no clues at all. Her uncle finally recruits Blomqvist to solve the case for him; Blomqvist is a reputable sleuth whose legal troubles have left him with a bit of free time. Salander comes along for the ride because — like Harriet — she is a victim of sexual assault and has a mean penchant for revenge.

Don’t cross Lisbeth Salander. This girl takes back the night like a fish takes a bicycle — desperately, with purpose. Several characters — major and minor, all men — attempt to gain influence or control over her throughout the course of the film and they all end up bloodied. She’s fascinating to watch (and to read): antisocial yet insatiably curious, sexually repressed yet sexually voracious, fucked up but fun.

Director Niels Arden Oplev, working with a pair of cinematographers (Jens Fischer and Eric Kress), turns the Swedish countryside into a snowy anti-noir that is as oppressive in its open expanses as Let The Right One In was in its dark forests and unlit corners. He simply doesn’t give himself room to breathe in these gorgeous, rural outcroppings of civilization. It’s the plot that drives the thing, and the first two hours fly by. It’s slick in the way Jason Reitman wishes he could be slick, even through clumsy, poorly constructed montages of clue-hunting.

The doe-eyed innocent nestled in the gnarled branches of a family tree filled with greed, abuse, religious zealotry and Nazism, Harriet Vanger cast a pall over the lifetimes of her entire clan by disappearing. Even the Vangers that wanted to forget never could, thanks to the relentless obsession of Uncle Henrik, bent on avenging the death of his only worthy kin. Salander, only tenuously connected to the investigation, clearly feels a similar kinship with Harriet. Both girls are responsible for the carrying of baggage across generations and for the furthering of demons that must be put to rest before anybody might achieve peace.

Even with the predictable twist, the procedural mystery is a fun ride. All the trappings are here: road-tripping to the police stations of remote hamlets, motion sensing security cameras, a supporting ensemble in which everyone is a suspect, searches on both Google and microfilm.

Where the film finally bogs itself down is in its extended dénouement. Notions and ideas best left implied get explained outright and minor subplots get meticulously tied up just because they were major in the book. It’s amazing how a twenty-minute slog to the end credits can kill a movie.

The thorniness of the ending ultimately reveals not that the thing is too long, but rather that it’s too short; all of the minor elements deserve more than they get, especially Lisbeth’s shady shaky past and Mikael’s legal malaise. This is the kind of novel that deserves, if not a miniseries, at the least the three-hour David Fincher treatment. And since that master is allegedly going to helm the American remake, perhaps Larsson’s stories will soon get the cinematic treatment they’ve earned.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Blog Notes 7/1/10: I Am Love [Io sono l'amore]

Aw, crap. We're halfway through 2010 already? With a weary sigh, here are some items of note and some promises and predictions for those few avid followers of My Favorite Gum Commercial:

First up, click over to Venus Zine to read my review of Luca Guadagnino's frustrating I Am Love [Io sono l'amore]. And while we're delving into the "arthouse" summer releases, I might as well link back to my review of the brilliant Dogtooth [Kynodontas], which is finally getting a limited theatrical run after playing the festival circuit for so long.

I swear there is one last post regarding James Cameron coming up around the corner. This will be a combined second take on Avatar and a final wrap-up of the CINEMA OF CAPS LOCK project. That Cameron project has taken much, much longer than I ever intended it to, due mostly to my own procrastination and tendency toward distraction. Regardless, I intend to follow it up with another long-form, open-ended Retrospecticus, to be officially announced as soon as the last Cameron post goes live. I will attempt to structure and schedule this one more rigidly so it doesn't take me until 2011 to finish it.

Speaking of open-ended, it's never too late to vote on the first entry of the Dude, Counter-Dude series, in which I spar over Million Dollar Baby with brother-in-arms A.A. Dowd. As of this writing the score is neck-and-neck: four for myself and three for Alex. I think I speak for both of us when I say we encourage you to vote not based on whether or not you liked the movie but on who made the more successful argument.

Finally, go see Toy Story 3. I've had some harsh lessons about hyperbole in film criticism (last year I wrote that the opening of Star Trek would be the best ten minutes of any film in 2009, only to discover the landmark prologue of Up a mere three weeks later), but I honestly don't know that I've ever been floored by a movie quite like this. Part of my reaction is a fifteen-year-deep connection to the characters, but I imagine it takes a special kind of curmudgeon to go unmoved by the third act of the Pixar trilogy's third act. Good stuff. I may have to revisit it at some point under a Severe Spoiler Warning to tackle that ending. Also, if we're lucky, at some point I'm going to have finish this lengthy piece on WALL•E that's been sitting in the drafts since 2009.

Stay tuned!