Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Kids Are All Right - and Eating Well Too

(To avoid any sort of SPOILER, skip the first paragraph and proceed.)

We’ve seen this before. The wife or husband suspects that spouse has been unfaithful. That dawning realization comes as a sock in the belly. It’s no different for Nic, a female doctor, when she realizes that her female partner has been sleeping with someone else. This is the film’s most masterful moment. Close up on Nic (Annette Bening). Motion slows. Sound fades. She scrutinizes her partner, Jules (Julianne Moore). She is alienated by what has happened, trapped in a small space in hell, and you can practically hear her anguished thoughts.

In The Kids Are All Right, the depiction of a family that has two Moms and two children, each child conceived by means of artificial insemination by one of the Moms, this moment transcends differences and shows us how hard it is to be a parent and spouse, no matter your sex, no matter the sex of your partner. It is a universal moment. And there are other universal moments like that from other points of view. The amazingly talented Mia Wasikowska plays Joni, an 18-year-old girl poised between high school and college, and she is that character in body posture and facial expressions during every second of her time on screen. In one brilliantly touching shot, her lower lip trembling so convincingly, she watches Moms and brother, Laser, (Josh Hutcherson) drive away after dropping her off at college, and we can see her poised between her childhood and a new phase in her life.

Throughout the film, director Lisa Cholodenko nearly always gets the best out of her five key performers – and they work to present slices of life that portray the warmth, confusion, and hurt of parenthood, love, growing up, and establishing your identity. Wasikowska stands out in her depiction of a budding young woman’s anxieties about identity and sexuality, while Moore does a remarkable job of delineating the character of Jules, the more sensitive partner who has had trouble finding herself and establishing a career. Bening’s performance has some stilted, off-key moments, but she does an admirable job of investing herself in the character of Nic, the backbone of the family, driven to make sure the kids, and her partner, are all right.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reflections on Inception

I’ll never forget the dream sequence in Vertigo. As brief as it is, as cartoonish as it is in the light of what CGI can do today, it never fails to chill me, and when we consider the ordeal Scottie has endured prior to his nightmare, it packs an emotional punch, and the tense romantic relationship Hitchcock has so artfully developed has brought us to that punch. Recently, when it comes to films which present a dream world or a world inside someone’s mind, I can still recall the disturbing grotesqueries of The Cell (2000), created by CGI and amazing costume design, and the vivid, stunning images of the storyworld imagined by the crippled stuntman in The Fall (2008), images created by breathtaking shots of real settings. But after my first viewing of Inception, Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction thriller about “extractors” who use a technology called Inception to enter a man’s dreams and plant the seed of an idea from which they will benefit, I expected some punch-delivering imagery, but I couldn't think of an image that beckoned me to go back and see it again.

I also found myself thinking of Vertigo early on in the movie when Hans Zimmer's rather repetitious score seems to echo the main theme that accompanies Hitchcock's classic depiction of the haunting, forbidden, unreal yearning that grows between Scottie (Stewart) and Madeleine (Novack). Similarly, in Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory, in seemingly real form, of his deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who beckons him back to a passionate but painful relationship that is totally unreal and as dreadful as death.

But watching Inception I was having trouble connecting with it on the kind of emotionally gripping level that Hitchcock creates in his classic thriller. As much as I was intrigued by the premise and the journey into three dream levels, I felt there was too much information to take in. I was too busy listening - and Watannabe and Hardy's accents didn't help the situation. There seemed to be no time to connect emotionally with a story that I objectively found fascinating. My initial response - to echo a key word in the story - was "disappointed," disappointed by the film's lack of impact though I had been moderately entertained by its ideas, psychological themes, and sci-fi storyline.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"There is no hunting like the hunting of man..." - Predators

Adrien Brody, as a survive-at-all-costs mercenary mysteriously dropped on an alien planet with other militant characters chosen to serve as game for Predators, supplies backbone to Predators, a rather standard aliens versus humans science-fiction full of gore – which is de rigueur for movies about Predators who just love hunting humans and ripping their spinal columns out of their backs as trophies. Not as silly and out of place as he was in his role in Splice, Brody plays a convincingly tough, self-centered survivor. His eyes hold a hardness I haven't seen before, and he gets to quote Hemingway, that shtick we've heard before, "There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter."

But much too much time is spent establishing the motley crew of characters and the direness of their situation before the action starts. Proof of a whole new side to alien abduction, the humans are one minute engaged in some sort of violence on Earth, the next minute plummeting to the surface of an alien world. Royce (Adrien Brody), some sort of black-ops honcho immediately clicks into survival mode. “We have to find the high ground.” Alice Braga plays Isabella, a touch, macha sniper who sees the value of sticking together.

The rest of the big men with big guns, or big cojones, or both, include Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), a Russian from the killing fields of Chechnya; Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), a Mexican drug cartel enforcer, Stans (Walton Goggins), a murderer from death row; Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a guerrilla fighter from Sierra Leone, and Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a Yakuza hit man, armed with a puny .45 until he finds an old samurai sword and engages in the film’s best scene – a blade-against-blade duel with a Predator in a field of tall grass – a thrilling tribute to the samurai movie genre. Laurence Fishburne is fun as a lone survivalist who forts up in a wrecked spacecraft and scavenges the leavings of previous quarry. Odd man out in the group is Edwin, a mild-mannered doctor, played by Topher Grace, who provides comic relief. He seems to be a strange choice for the Predators’ game preserve until his knowledge of neurotoxin-exuding plants suggests that he’s hiding a dark secret.

Once the Predators send in the hunting “hounds” – ugly little buggers bristling with horns – and the characters we’ve finally straightened out in our minds start dying off, the pace picks up and there are thrills to be had. Additional tension is provided by the fact that the Predators have also landed cages that must have held creatures from other planets. The film establishes a hot and sticky atmosphere employing Hawaiian jungle locations, and it is earnest about its presentation of the “classic” Predators of previous films – those clever heavily-armed, camouflaged alien samurai who are ugly as sin and love to hunt and do battle. Just too bad for me that I’m not that impressed by Predators as formidable foe though I really enjoyed their interaction with the brave human expedition guide (Alexa Woods) in AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004). Here, the eerie music reminds us of that fun, much more action-packed, expeditiously edited film, and some of its notes echo Alien. Thus my disappointment when it turns out that one of those cages has not introduced a good old slime-oozing, acid-bleeding, pointy-tailed Alien into the mix. Now, that’s what this film needed to punch it up a much-needed half dozen notches or so. Predators don’t quite cut it for me, but Aliens… now that’s what I call entertainment!

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and The Last Airbender

(This is the last in a series of four posts that review five movies I saw over a period of six days last week.)

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse the latest chapter in the perils and dilemmas of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), is the best of the lot so far – a well-acted, expeditiously-directed love story full of suspense, and, oh, yeah, vampires and werewolves. There's some nifty cinematography as well, especially in the opening scene when a drifter gets slashed by a vampire (is it Victoria?) and ends up writhing in pain in a driving downpour.

David Slade employs bountiful close-ups to elicit an intimacy and a sincerity from the performers that has been somewhat lacking in the previous films – and this helps carry us through Bella’s silly dilemma between Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) – when we know all along that Edward is the one. Somehow, Bella’s big dark eyes are more expressive of her mopey indecision, Jacob’s passion for Bella comes off as quite powerful, and even Edward gets a chance to crack a smile.

In addition, there’s more of a story here. It’s not just Bella torn between – or being tugged between Jacob and Edward. We get the evil, vengeful Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) raising a pack of newborn vamps (who are especially blood-thirsty in the first months after being transformed) to destroy the Cullens and kill Bella. Ashley Greene, as Alice, is especially engaging, buttering up Bella’s dad with a little flirtation, and showing her awesome speed during a training session in preparation for the big battle.

Meanwhile, Rosalie (Nikki Reed) gets to tell her compelling backstory – an early 1900s set piece involving a fiancé who turns into a cad. In his backstory, Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) takes us back to Civil War era Texas where he has a run-in with vampire seductresses. Ya-hoo! Ride ‘em, Johnny Reb! I enjoyed the flashbacks as interesting contrasts to the rainy, snowy woods of the Forks area.

The action is fun; I love how vampires are so fast and so strong. But the werewolves are like CGI rejects from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and I wish they’d wear name tags because there’s no way to tell them apart when the buff, shirtless Native American guys shift into werewolf mode.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

Considered “one of the most blistering and uncompromising novels” after its publication in 1952, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me was made into a movie in 1976, and its grim story narrated by Lou Ford, a psychotic Texas sheriff turned killer, compelled directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Andrew Dominick to try to adapt the novel again, casting performers such as Marlon Brando, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Lou Ford, and Marilyn Monroe, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the role of Joyce Lakeland, the attractive prostitute whom Lou abuses and uses to pin a murder on the son of an oil tycoon and make off with bribe money.

“Blood will have blood,” as the Bard wisely put it. It’s the age-old sordid story, and in The Killer Inside Me, written by John Curran and directed by Michael Winterbottom, that’s the fix Sheriff Ford (Casey Affleck) finds himself in after beating Joyce (Jessica Alba) to a pulp and making it look like she shot Elmer Conway (Jay R. Ferguson), son of oil man Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), the man Lou blames for the death of his older brother. Just like Macbeth, Lou Ford will have to kill again… and again.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

True Grit - Winter’s Bone

Throughout the history of the American frontier – whether that frontier was the mountains of Western Massachusetts, the Kentucky backwoods, or Great Plains sod homesteads – there have always been isolated outposts of insular, clannish kith and kin living together, often in ignorance and poverty, distrusting outsiders, and dealing harshly with anyone who might betray a very strict code of fidelity. We readily think of the James gang or stories set in Appalachia. We picture shabby shacks with junk-filled yards, bedraggled men hunting squirrels and possum, teenage mothers, and smoke-filled taverns full of stolid, hard men.

That this kind of place so much a part of America’s past is still a part of its present is a fascinating side of Debra Granik’s film Winter’s Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell (author of Woe to Live On, the basis of Ang Lee’s film Ride with the Devil). That this setting is so finely depicted is one of the many strengths of this superb film. Opening with simple images of a junk-filled yard, two children playing on a trampoline outside a gray cabin, and bare trees along a desolate road, the film employs a minimalist grittiness that always feels real.

Here in the Missouri Ozarks, Ree Dolly, played by Jennifer Lawrence, whose soft tones guard an indomitable determination in the face of adversity, takes care of her mentally ill mother and her little brother and sister on a dirt-poor plot of land where supper is fried squirrel meat or the fixings for “a good stew” donated by a kind neighbor.

Woody Goes to Shawshank - Toy Story 3

Once it gets past the requisite jokes and puns on toys started by the first two films, Toy Story 3 becomes an intelligent, imaginative movie. It is also a very serious movie about the bittersweet nature of growing up and the abandonment of toys to oblivion. I mean, how do toys feel when they get forgotten and thrown out or stashed in the attic? Woody (Tom Hanks) and friends definitely feel hopeless when they end up in Sunnyside, the ironically named day care center from hell. At first, they get relegated to the playroom with kids who abuse the toys in a ghastly frenzy – one of the most frightening scenes in one heck of a scary kids movie. We are told this is the room where the littler kids play, while the older kids play tranquilly in the next room. But the roomful of “littler kids” sure looked to me like the segregation of a bunch of kids with ADHD, so I found the scene unsettling if not distasteful.

The fright goes on as the movie reconstructs classic elements of the prison genre with meticulous, clever detail. Think Woody goes to Shawshank! Ned Beatty voices a soft and cuddly but sinister strawberry-scented bear called Lotso who employs a very frightening cymbal-clanging monkey for surveillance and beats up a toy phone for spilling the beans to Woody and his friends. Every detail is here – the lock-down; the spotlights; the guards; the perilous escape – and the violence, too. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) provides comic relief when his mechanics go haywire and he courts Jessie (Joan Cusack) like a Spanish flamenco dancer, but this is hardly enough to lighten up the tension and seriousness of the prison sequences.

Along with the frights, Toy Story 3 is a very deeply touching movie that richly establishes the bond between our motley crew of toys we have gotten to know in two previous movies. The film climaxes with a gut-wrenching, tear-inducing scene in which the toys slide toward fiery obliteration – a scene that’s so seriously evoked you might find yourself thinking of something as grave as the Holocaust. The film’s happy/sad resolution, in which college-bound Andy leaves his toys with a toy-loving little girl named Bonnie, is one of the best-staged scenes in any film I’ve viewed this year. Who says CGI characters aren’t real? Pixar’s computer-drawn characters work some real magic here.