Monday, December 30, 2013

SAFE HAVEN: The Growing Anti-Institutionalist Villainy of Nicholas Sparks

Ah, the sweet sting of being a fan of Nicholas Sparks adaptations. You know there's a formula. You YEARN for the formula, and yet, you can't help turning a critical eye on the way each film tweaks the essential Sparkiness of rain-drenched, Carolina-tinged romance. Such was the case with Safe Haven (McStreaming!). We've got the beachy setting, we've got the painfully obvious objective correlatives ("New Start" paint primer anyone?) and we've got the script-crossed lovers, but what has changed is the nature of the obstacle between the two Abercrombie and Fitched B-list paramours: the patented Sparks obstacle (Sparkstacle?) that threatens to interrupt and dismantle the happily-ever-after of the film. If you actually care about such things, spoilers follow.

Films based on Sparks' "novels" always feature a cosmically-tinged "bad guy"--a force that plays the villain of the melodrama. In silent films he was the easily recognizable stock villain. In the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, this trope would take the face of Snidely Whiplash, strapping the heroine to the railroad tracks of certain doom. And in most of the Sparks adaptations, this incarnation of evil was just as uncomplicated, and just as unstoppable as that train. Former films feature villains such as CANCER (A Walk to Remember, The Last Song), or ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE/DEMENTIA (The Notebook), or TOO MUCH WATER (Message in a Bottle, Nights in Rodanthe). But lately in Sparksland, the bad guy is much less random, and much more human.

Both The Lucky One (2012) and Safe Haven (2013) place villainy in the character of a police officer. The Lucky One pits Zac Efron (a, crucially *retired* Marine) against a local sheriff deputy who is the former husband of the film's female love interest, relatively unfamous Taylor Schilling. Safe Haven takes the idea of the somewhat ominous local cop and raises it to Sleeping with the Enemy levels, giving heroine Julianne Hough a not-quite-ex-husband who is an alcoholic and abusive Chicago P.D. detective framing her for murder and hunting her down after she escapes his clutches and finds herself in an idyllic oceanside North Carolina complete with Josh Duhamel healing powers.

On the one hand, I can see this development as positive. Though Sparks is undoubtedly, creepily, conservative, it might be progressive to read this new, more localized and embodied source of evil as a critique of the institutionalization of power. Both The Lucky One and Safe Haven show how dangerous men manipulate existing power structures (the justice system) to further their own toxic domination. The conservatism of the small towns Sparks lauds then becomes a corrective to modernist demonstrations of power, and calls for a (nostalgic) return to interpersonal values.

However, then I think more, probably more than anyone should ever think about a Nicholas Sparks film, and fear that making abusive ex-husbands the villain takes the power (and the blame) away from random fate, and places it squarely in the hands of the female heroines. Both Schilling and Hough chose these men, and are rescued from them by the new, better male heroes (Efron and Duhamel). Sparks has introduced human culpability into the equation, and situated it squarely on the woman's shoulders. It's like the damsel in distress refused to block Snidely Whiplash on Snapchat.

Though it's never acceptable, fair, or remotely logical to blame the victims of domestic abuse for the crimes of their partners, Sparks' replacement of random acts of nature with former romantic partners seems a particularly ominous turn. If anyone other than me can bear it, we'll see what happens with The Best of Me next year.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Gravity is Raymond Carver in Space

My advice to you: Don't take Gravity literally. Director Alfonso Cuaron is an extraordinarily writerly director whose films, from Children of Men to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban demand their audiences think symbolically. If you watch Gravity through the lens of a thriller set in space, it's predictable, prosaic, and a bit trite. But if you watch it through the lens of parable, it unfolds like a lotus flower.

The cast list and screenplay of the film are spare. Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Matt Kowalski are among the only faces you'll see and certainly the only ones you'll recognize (though you might also catch a clever intertextual bit of voice casting), and there are stretches where no one speaks at all. That might lead one to believe that the visuals are the real focus and contribution of the film, because they are masterful and startling. I am a firm anti-3D-ite, but this is one of the few films where it makes sense, not because of how far the scene extends towards the audience, but because of how far it recedes. The disorienting and infinite depth of space is crucial for exploring the film's primary concerrn: grief.

Ryan Stone's character has suffered a loss as devastating as it is random, and the catastrophic debris field that untethers her from her ship and sends her reeling into the abyss is an externalization of the way grief unmoors the human mind and heart. Understanding the film as a meditation on mourning makes every scientific fact about space becomes a way of literalizing the airless and groundless isolation of suffering. And also a way to think about returning to life.

Which is where Raymond Carver comes in. Stories like "A Small, Good Thing" and "Cathedral" suggest that our salvation and our healing comes from living in this world, with other human beings. That the things we make and the things we say have the power point towards a grace that is expressed materially but experienced interpersonally, in the space between one struggling soul and another. Though the scope of Gravity is vast in comparison to Carver's intimate bakery shops and dining room tables, the intimacy remains the same. I won't reveal the conclusion of Gravity, but I will say that, to paraphrase the opening title card, life is impossible in this space, and it is desperately important to find someone to tether yourself to, and to make it to a ship that will take you home.

It makes sense, then, that this is a movie that makes you want to talk. The subtlety and elusiveness of the subject provokes further articulation and investigation. Most of what is written above came out of a marathon post-mortem I had with contributor Jonathan Alexandratos, my favorite date to the movies. Gravity gives you room, and and an invitation, to fill the space between with language and thought and wonder.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men Is an Appalling and Disgusting Farce

Note: I have not read the David Foster Wallace collection on which this film is based. But even my admittedly beginner's knowledge of Wallace (his subtlety, his empathy, his unwillingness to rely on crude stereotype) leads me to believe that this "adaptation" took some very, um, hideous liberties. 

It is rare that I feel compelled to actually verbalize "Oh, fuck you" to a film I am watching. It is also rare that I think to myself, "John Gray [of Men are from Mars, Women are From Wherever "fame"] makes this movie seem sociologically complex." Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009) has the dubious honor of invoking both these responses.

A brief (pace director John Krasinski) primer on the film's wholly unironic categorization of desire:

Heterosexual Men: Disconnected from and terrified and ignorant of their own sexual needs, smug to the point of figurative auto-erotic asphyxiation, psychologically violent to themselves and women, emotionally handicapped, and weaponizers of intimacy.

Heterosexual Women: Mute and wounded.

Homosexual Men: Invisible.

Homosexual Women: Same.

Trans or Bi Men or Women: See above.

Oh! And nearly everyone is white.

This film, which assumes a self-satisfied and omniscient tone about heteronormative sexuality from minute one and, in its one and only admirable quality, consistency, doesn't drop it for the entirety of its 80-minute run-time, manages to import all the most noxious aspects of toxic masculinity and normalize them. Men and women are mutually suspicious of and aggressive towards each other, to the point that infidelity is figured as a moral high ground and rape a path to growth and enlightenment. Truly, this movie must be seen to be believed. (Author's Note: Don't ever see this movie.)

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men unbelievably stakes its ground on the argument that sexual, emotional, and psychological violence must be met with violence, and in fact, that such violence is the only path to empathy. The film takes the most clumsy and half-assed stereotypical "differences" between men and women and makes them the structural premise of the film. The movie revels in not only the objectification of women, and men, but the institutionalization of remarkably prejudicial and dangerous assumptions about the nature of gendered identity. I honestly can't believe it exists.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man Is Nonfiction Magical Realism

*NB: The film's promotional materials reveal a plot point that the movie's chronology withholds. If
you'd like to be surprised, read no further, but by all means, rent.

There are some documentaries that unsettle you to the deepest core of your being, putting you right off your brunch. I'm looking at you, Capturing the Friedmans. There are others that remind you that though the world can be a place fraught with suffering, it is also replete with miracles. Searching for Sugar Man is definitely in the latter category.

The 2012 film (and that year's Best Documentary Feature winner) chronicles the rise and fall and unexpected re-rise of a Mexican-American singer-songwriter with all of Bob Dylan's poetic lyricism and righteous anti-establishment rage and none of his success: Rodriguez. After a couple of years in the late 60s and early 70s playing gigs in places named thing like, unironically, The Sewer, Rodriguez returned to a job in construction and a brief flirtation with local politics, surrendering his hopes of a musical career. Haven't heard of him? You must be American.

What neither he, nor his producers, nor (probably) his record label knew was that while he was demolishing buildings and doing whatever one does with drywall, his music was fueling the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, and the artist himself had become a quasi-mythical figure around whom rumors of a spectacularly gruesome onstage suicide were as widely and ferociously traded as the bootleg copies of his two albums.

Because of the nature of a dictatorship, South Africans had very little unsanctioned information about the world outside their borders. But even though his fans (which, it seems important to note, seem to be largely white) didn't know who or where Rodriguez was, they did know that his lyrics criticizing unjust economic and social practices (inspired by his native Detroit) gave them a vocabulary with which to resist and begin to dismantle the cruelties and perversions of human dignity they were witnessing. And when a couple of musicians and writers try to hunt down the true biography of their poet and prophet, a pretty magical reunion takes place.

One of the journalists interviewed by the filmmaker describes this unlikely series of events as sounding like "a bad PR campaign" because it was so unlike how he understands the world to work, and Searching for Sugar Man feels like a myth while watching. Rodriguez remains an elusive figure throughout, even after he is rediscovered. He slides through different names and identities as purposefully and smoothly as he walks through the largely abandoned streets of the working-class neighborhood where he still lives in Detroit, and is clearly uncomfortable talking about his remarkable story. But it's a story that makes poets of his his fellow construction workers and family as they marvel at how their unassuming friend and father lives a dual life as a South African rock star. Though not quite reaching the heights of exuberant aesthetic grace achieved by Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man will make you believe in fairy tales.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Double Feature! Fast & Furious 6 and Now You See Me

Sooooo I'm moving clear across the country in a week.  WHOA!  A WEEK!  I need to pack.  Huh.  Anywhoodle, I managed to squeeze in two movies this past weekend but had totally forgotten to post about them.  Hey, I'm still better than Tracy and Jonathan who have been sitting on their Star Trek post for weeks.  Just kidding!  Love you guys!

So this will be quick and relatively painless because I have some packing to do.

Fast & Furious 6 was a good movie.  And not in the sense of how Fast 5 was good 'for a Fast and Furious movie' but actually good.  Sure, the large, overly muscled men grunted at each other a lot.  And yes, Michelle Rodriguez growled along with them.  And the stunts were beyond ridiculous.  The death toll was INSANELY high.  The damage was beyond comprehension.  BUT IT WAS STILL GOOD!  I think it helps that there's a big enough cast to distract you from any one person's performance.  Oh and we get to see Michelle Rodriguez brawl with one of my girl-crushes Gina Carano.  Oh and Luke Evans was the perfect villain.  He was Bond-level, which is a good thing for this kind of franchise.  So if F&F is your bag, you won't be disappointed.  Plus it was in London, how bad can it be?

And now for the #2 movie last weekend...Now You See Me.  Aside from the twisty end, which I still don't buy, I really enjoyed this film.  It was fun, funny, clever and exciting.  The magic was trippy, the acting was great, the story was interesting and the pacing was pretty good.  NYSM had a stellar cast (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrleson, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher [she's busy lately], Dave "the less obnoxious" Franco, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.  Woody had to be my favorite (he got the best lines) and Eisenberg my least favorite (I don't buy him as a cool guy).  It's the perfect summer movie.  So sit back, relax, munch on some popcorn and enjoy yourself.  You won't be sorry.  Just let me know if you think the ending/explanation was hinky.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Am I the only one watching Orphan Black?

I seriously hope not because I want to see a second season of it.  Orphan Black airs on BBC America here in the colonies and I am really digging this show.  But if you don't know anything about it, I don't want to spoil it for you.  Just give it a shot and see what you think.  Luckily for you, BBCA is doing a marathon on Saturday, leading up to the season finale.  So set those DVRs now.

The story is interesting (here's the IMDB description: "A streetwise hustler witnesses the suicide of a girl who looks just like her and falls headlong into a deadly mystery.") and moves along at a great pace.  My favorite part is the cast, led by Tatiana Maslany.  She's phenomenal.  I'm shocked I've not noticed her before because the girl can act. In the course of the series, she has to sort of take on other personalities and sometimes those personalities take on other personalites.  Ugh, I can't get into it without spoiling the show for you but just trust me.  Maslany is phenomenal at mastering the slightest difference in character.  Now that I'm writing this, I'm thinking of another show that asked something similar of it's female lead...Dollhouse.  Listen, I love me some Faith and I think Eliza Dushku is wonderful.  However, Maslany is much better at subtlety. 

Anywhoodle, I got sucked in by the end of the second episode and have enjoyed almost every minute of it.  There's mystery, science, science fiction and one dude even has a tail!  And MAX FREAKING HEADROOM is in it!  What more do you need?

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Office - series finale

And that's how you do a finale. 

I had my issues with The Office and gave up watching 2 seasons ago but there was no way I was going to miss the finale.  I'm so glad I didn't.  I think what I liked most about it was that even though some situations had changed, the characters still stayed true to themselves. The finale was sweet, funny and awkward just as the show had always been.  Plus the final episode had just the right amount of nostalgia, while also giving us an idea of where these beloved characters were headed.  I laughed, I cried, I wanted to go back and see what I had missed in the past 2 years.

Well done, folks.  And thank you!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Hello.  My name is Alisa and I'm a Baz-aholic.  I've spent countless hours watching his films and reveling in the opulence, splendor, romance and heartbreak.  I got on the wagon with Australia (I only vaguely remember a half-naked Hugh Jackman and have blocked the rest) but found myself back off with The Great Gatsby.

So in all bloggy truly have to be a fan of Mr. Luhrman's to enjoy Gatsby.  And it would help to also be a fan of Moulin Rouge since, as Buzzfeed pointed out, they're basically the same movie*.  If you're looking for a faithful adaptation of Gatsby then I'm pretty sure you need to look elsewhere.  Here's another admission of mine...I've not read F. Scott Fitzgerald's story in (GULP) 23 years!  Yikes.  That makes me feel old.  Anywhoodle, I will not be comparing the film to the novel.

So as a fan of pure aesthetic and as someone who can be distracted from a lackluster story ("Ooo, shiny!"), I will say that my biggest complaint was a lack of love between the titular Gatsby and the love of his life, Daisy.  I just don't think enough screen time was spent with them TOGETHER.  We got a lot of pining from Gatsby and really only a little bit from Daisy.  Gatsby seems to be in love with the idea of a Daisy he knew years ago.  Daisy is in love with idea of his wealth and the attention she'd be sure to get from him.  Beyond that...meh. 

The acting was pretty solid except that I still just don't get Tobey Maguire.  He was fine, I guess, but I was not impressed.  Leonardo DiCaprio continues to be great, even as Gatsby, and  Carey Mulligan was a good Daisy.  As expected, a number of Australia's finest turned out and gave good performances.  They would include: Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, and Adelaide Clemmons (aka Michelle Williams, Jr.). However, I was probably most impressed with newcomer, Elizabeth Debicki, who played Jordan Baker.  I'm expecting that we'll see more of her in the future.

The story and plot were so-so and actually served as more of a distraction from the visuals (costumes, sets, etc.).  Oh the visuals.  So pretty.  Just so sparkly, fast and fun: 

I wanted the music to work because I think it did in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge but most of the songs just felt detached from what was going on in the film.  Maybe I just don't like Jay Z in period movies.

Overall I did enjoy the movie and think it's worth seeing on the big screen...BUT ONLY IF YOU REALLY LIKE BAZ LUHRMAN FILMS.  

*Also supplied by Buzzfeed are reasons why Baz sucks and why he rules

Monday, May 6, 2013

Iron Man 3 (even in 3D) was a darn good time

Did you go see it this weekend?  Everybody else did.  Now don't you feel left out?  No?  Good, you shouldn't.  You'll have plenty of time to catch Iron Man 3 in theaters considering how well it's doing both domestically and abroad.  I will say, avoid spoilers at all costs.  There a pretty cool little twist that happens that, had I known about it, would have ruined the movie for me.  I still had some nitpicky issues overall but they'd spoil other parts of the movie for you so I won't discuss them here.  Other than those, this was so much better than Iron Man 2 and maybe even more enjoyable than Iron Man Original Sauce.  Maybe.

Iron Man 3 landed in the very capable hands of director Shane Black, leaving the franchise's former director Jon Favreau only on set to reprise his role as Happy the driver/security guard.  Black and Robert Downey Jr. work so well together (please see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang if you haven't already) and it showed in this film as well.  The supporting cast, made up of superb actors such as Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce and the (specifically fantastic in this) Ben Kingsley, were all pretty great but then that's expected.  Oh and Gwyneth Paltrow was there too. 

I guess I don't have much to say about it.  And as I said before, my complaints would spoil the movie so I won't go there.  Honestly, pretty much everything worked.  The action was great, the jokes all landed, the acting was solid, the story moved along and I was pretty darn pleased with it.  And really, stay through the credits.   There were only about 8 of us who stayed 'til the bitter end and it was worth it.

I did want to share one thing about my experience and that was the 3D aspect.  This looked relatively good and I wasn't sorry that I saw it in 3D, especially because I got to use a gift card.  I arrived at the theater nice and early (11:40 for a 12:15 2D showing) but that one was sold out.  Instead we had to decide between waiting around for the next 2D show at 1pm or go into the noon 3D show, WHICH WAS BASICALLY EMPTY.  I'm pretty sure the only reason our showing had a half-full audience was because we were all hoping to get into the 2D show and could not.  This just confirms my suspicions that most people still really prefer 2D.


Am I the only one watching The Bletchley Circle?

I suspect I might be. And that's a shame. This series was originally produced for ITV, which is, to the
best of my Wikipedia, the British version of PBS. It's been airing on PBS (motto: "The British version of everything is better") in three parts, the third of which aired last night.*

The premise is thus: Four women who worked as codebreakers at Bletchley Park (like Downton Abbey but much, much smaller and wartorn) during WWII team up nine years later to solve a series of brutal murders in London, using the very mathematical and logical skills that they employed during the war. These women have been largely reabsorbed into civilian (i.e., domestic; i.e., patriarchal) life since the '40s, and additionally, they are unable to tell anyone, including their husbands, about their wartime service. Susan, the ringleader and pattern-finder, has a husband who thinks she's merely "the devil at the cryptogram." The other members of the "Circle" consist of Lucy, an ingenue with a photographic memory, who has married an abusive troglodyte; Jean, the former supervisor whose work as a librarian speaks to her uncanny ability to get information; and Millie, a progressive proto-feminist whose economic circumstances caused her to curtail her world travels and work as a waitress. The series manages to riff on post-war "getting the gang back together" movies, detective fiction, and procedural dramas, all with a feminist twist.

The serial killer is chilling, but what I find most compelling about this series is the way it argues for the pervasiveness of all sorts of emotional and physical threats against women in the post-war world. In addition to the domestic battery that Lucy endures, Millie is sexually harassed and Susan's aspirations to think are kindly, but firmly, dismissed by her husband. The Bletchley Circle argues that disregarding women in small ways creates a climate where it is more likely, if never excusable, that a sick man views women not as humans at all, but rather as playthings he can torture and violate while calmly smoking a cigarette.

In addition to the smart gender stuff, the clothes are fabulous. If you've missed this little bit of British methadone to the heroin of Downton Abbey, it's available on DVD!

* And I have NOT watched yet, so if I'm wrong and everyone on the planet has been watching this series, please spoil not.