Wednesday, August 29, 2012


What a sweet movie!  Sweet but still totally scary.  I actually jumped a couple of times. 

I saw the panel for ParaNorman at Comic-Con this year and got really excited about seeing the film.  In a slightly tangential side note, have you noticed the kids movies coming out (ParaNorman, Hotel Transylvania, and Frankenweenie) all have supernatural slants to them? Nifty.  Anywhoodle, ParaNorman has been getting great reviews but not doing incredibly well at the box office.  It got a respectable $14 mil its opening weekend but kids' movies usually do better.  I wonder if the subject matter is keeping them home.  It's a shame because subject matter (aka zombies) aside, it's a story that all kids should see.

Speaking of story, ParaNorman's is this:  Norman is an 11-year old outcast who sees ghosts and is made fun of by everyone, even his sister.  He's misunderstood by his father who just wishes Norman could be more normal.  Norman's gift of seeing and conversing with the dead comes in handy because it's his turn to keep the town's witch at bay.  On the anniversary of her death a story must be read at the place where she was buried to keep her quiet until next year and to keep the puritanical zombies in their graves.  Unfortunately Norman isn't given all the pertinent information and the story doesn't get read in time. Norman, who knows that spirits stuck on earth have unfinished business, decides to get to the witch's real problem.  Why does she keep bugging them? Norman, his sister, his friend, Neil, Neil's brother, and school bully Alvin band together to rid the town of its zombie problem.   
Those puritanical zombies are the lesson here.  Norman's town of Blithe Hollow is repeating history until he steps up and tries to fix things.  Since the beginning of time people fear what they don't understand and often punish or bully a person for their differences.  That's a lesson enough right there but ParaNorman goes a step further and admonishes the bullied person for taking revenge on stupid people who don't know how to deal with their fears. Seeking revenge through violence is never the answer and this film does a great job discussing that.

There was plenty of humor and lots for the adults who usually escort kids to these things.  Not me, though.  I'm that creepy, old broad in the back corner of the theater with no kids anywhere near her.  Actually I went with my mom so we were two creepy, old broads in the theater without any kids.  One thing I got a kick out of was hearing what made the kids laugh and what made the adults laugh.  The scene that made me laugh out loud was the reaction the puritanical zombies had when seeing what the world is like now:

I was impressed not only with the story but with the film making involved in this stop-motion animated film.  I have little to no patience. I try to muster some for old people and little kids but beyond that I think things should be done (correctly) and quickly.  I would be the worst stop-motion animator ever.  I am truly amazed at what they do.  If you've seen Coraline then you know how absolutely beautiful it can be when it's done well.  And thanks to the good folks at Laika (who gave us Coraline and ParaNorman) we get to experience some truly amazing artistry on screen.
Pictured above is Laika president and animator, Travis Knight.  And in his hands is a wee Norman figure.  Travis was Comic-Con and I found myself wanting to get to know him, uh, a bit better.  He's funny and tall and incredibly talented at what he does.  Also, it turns out his dad is Phil Knight of Nike fame.  Not that that's an important piece of information but it does explain why Nike was doing a ParaNorman shoe tie-in.  I've totally lost where I was going with this paragraph.  Well I will say that I am massively impressed by Laika's films to date and can't wait to see what they come up with next.  But with how long each film must take I guess it'll be a few years.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Into the Abyss: 30% Review, 70% Love Letter to Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog. I want that name to appear in the title of this review, because knowing that Herzog is involved will tell you a lot about the form, and a bit about the content, of Into the Abyss. In his documentaries and features, the German auteur/existential nihilist/madman does not blink. His unrelenting contemplation, demonstrated through shots that linger several beats too long, forces his audience to contemplate too. There's nowhere to hide when you're watching Herzog.

Into the Abyss takes as its subject the death penalty. Sort of. It's also about a triple homicide in a tiny town in Texas (oh, how I like to imagine Herzog ordering breakfast at a diner in Conroe), the nature of grief, and the haphazardness of life. It's always difficult to make a convicted murderer the subject of a documentary or film and not, intentionally or un, elide the victims. There is an empathetic impulse inherent in centering art on a human being, whether the treatment of the prisoner is sympathetic (like in the Paradise Lost trilogy) or not. Dead Man Walking, based on a true story, tried to address this imbalance by cinematically resurrecting the teenaged victims of Matthew Poncelet as silent witnesses to his execution. Paradise Lost consistently returns to footage and photographs of the three murdered boys' mutilated bodies.

Herzog, perhaps unsurprisingly considering his well-documented musings on the omnipresence and omnipotence of death, takes as a given the absence of the three victims and instead immerses himself in the families and friends they left behind. His unambiguously stated opposition to the death penalty is secondary to his interest in how people continue living after such traumatic and violent loss. And, in the course of this investigation, for no other reason I can reckon besides that he's Werner Herzog, he captures on film a group consisting of who must be the most fascinating and strange people in East Texas.

And that minor miracle is what really struck me about this film. Into the Abyss is important and interesting because of what it has to say about law and order (ka-chung!), but even more so, it reminded me of what I love so dearly about Herzog. Because it's not a miracle, actually, that the people associated with this crime and the Texas penal system are fascinating. Actually, what Herzog reminds us, is that all people are fascinating and strange, if you let them be. Herzog doesn't look away and he doesn't go anywhere during his interviews, and so we get the moment where the death row chaplain breaks down after recalling what an encounter with two squirrels and a golf cart taught him about the preciousness of life. We get Michael Perry, the death row inmate, relating an Outward Bound experience where he thought he would be killed by alligators. We get an acquaintance of one of the convicts, in the course of telling his story, reveal how he became literate--a personal detail that has nothing to do with the film's ostensible subject, but that Herzog pounces upon with delight and admiration.

And that's the minor miracle of Herzog. Despite his commitment to not denying the abyss, and despite his articulated philosophy of the futility of existence, his subject is always, as he titles the sixth section of this film, the urgency of life.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Expendables 2

Ridiculous is really the only word that comes to mind.  There aren't enough words in the English language to accurately describe how truly ridiculous The Expendables 2 is.  However, if you're a fan of massive death and destruction then this is your movie.  In the first few minutes of the movie they must kill at least 100 men.  Nevermind the scenes later in the movie when they wax poetic about the loss of life of their friends or the people they're trying to protect.  They're ready to make random thugs' heads explode.  And explode they do.  Random thugs in this movie don't just get shot and fall down.  No, Random thug gets shot, a bucket of blood spews from his chest or his head literally explodes, and then he falls down.  It was excessive and gross and sure to make grown men cheer just as loudly as their 13 year old sons. 

I guess you could say there's a story but it doesn't matter.  What matters is how many people can they kill in extreme ways? Also, how many more action stars can we get into this movie?  Actually that's the only part that kind of works.  The idea of putting the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Van Damme (who looks ROUGH-see below), Statham, Li, Lundgren, and Norris into one film is slightly genius.  There were lots of little "in" jokes where these guys were quoting each others' famous lines from their biggest movies.  That got old but it was more in the right direction.  Keep it tongue-in-cheek and don't get all serious on us and the movie would have been so much better.  Speaking of, I'd like to take this opportunity to request that Sylvester Stallone not deliver the eulogy at my funeral.  Oy.  No one, and I mean NO ONE, needs to hear him trying to sound serious about life and death and who dies young and who lives on and on and on.

It was still better than Conan, which isn't saying much.  The best acting nod would have to go to Chinese actress Nan Yu.  Ms. Yu's character, Maggie, had this inexplicable crush on Stallone's character, Barney.  Wait, no, it's totally explicable...Stallone wrote the movie. Don't worry, he let her down easy and maybe she'll be back for The Expendables 3.

Anywhoodle, it was still fun and filled with tons of action so I don't want to be harsh.  I wouldn't pay big bucks to see it but I do think it works better on a big screen than on a home television.  I mean, you need to get the full effect of just how lovely exploding heads can be.  Plus, where else would you get to see this?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cinematic Comfort Food: On the indulgent pleasure of the rewatch

I have seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy approximately three dozen and a half times. The half? I'm watching it again right now, as I type and probably as you read, because I don't know if you've heard, but it's sort of long. After I finish this post, I'll probably spend the rest of the day doing some light grading, making some food, and dicking around on the Internet. And I won't pause the film(s) while I do it. So I guess a purist would accuse me of not actually "watching" the movie, and they'd have a point. I'm not going to witness every scene. I'm not going to hear every line. But I really don't need to.

I've seen these films so many times that their cinematic rhythms are as familiar to me as breathing. And what do all the yogis, from David Lynch to Rodney Yee, tell you to do in order to be more calm and mindful? Pay attention to your breathing. I know when my favorite moments are coming--Strider's first appearance through a haze of pipe smoke, Gandalf's expulsion of Saruman from King Theoden, Faramir's doomed assault on occupied Osgiliath--so I look up, I recite my favorite lines, I smile, and I get back to work.

These films also belong to me precisely because I've rewatched them for, ouch, going on ten years now. The scenes are thick, speaking not only of themselves, but where I've been when I've watched them. Frodo being chased to Buckleberry Ferry by a Black Rider will always remind me of moving to Columbia to go to graduate school, and watching Fellowship with my dad in a living room filled with boxes that all toppled over at that very tension-filled moment, scaring the hell out of both of us. The disorienting opening scene of Return of the King takes me back to the midnight showing I attended with Nat, my partner-in-crime, for which I made her show up a good six hours early.

And I'm always reminded of the many times I've returned to these films when I craved a bit of comfort. When things out here are a bit confusing or new and exciting but unfamiliar, things in Middle Earth are reliably stable. Saruman will always make the mistake of "RRRipping" all the trees down, Gandalf will always return at first light on the fifth day, and Sam will always make it there and back again. Lord of the Rings is my macaroni and cheese. It's my warm bath. It's my illuminated living room window on a dark night. There are movies like that. There are people like that. And when you find them, there is no more fulfilling and sweeter pleasure than welcoming them into your life again and again.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Chain Reaction: Destroying Worlds and Building Bridges

When I explained to friends, family, and the guy at the gas station that I was going to the New York International Fringe Festival to see a comedy about the creation of the atom bomb, the most common response was, “oh, that seems real funny.” And it’s true—Jonathan Alexandratos’s historical satire doesn’t tackle a subject that, shall we say, immediately brings to mind madcap hilarity. But that very description of Chain Reaction, through slamming together in your head the contradistinct concepts of humor and weapons of mass destruction, already begins to do the work of the text. Chain Reaction is a play that takes warring concepts—creation and destruction, collaboration and rivalry, connection and alienation, history and fiction—and not so much obliterates the distinctions between them, but rather exposes the abiding links that were there all along.

The action of the play follows the major figures of the Manhattan Project—J. Robert Oppenheimer (Paul Corning Jr.), General Leslie Groves (Dustye Winniford), Edward Teller (Jim Nugent), Niels Bohr (Michael Selkirk), and his son Aage (Gary G. Howell)—beginning with the bomb’s construction in the 1940s and following as they cope with the, ahem, fallout both geopolitical and personal that resulted from their overwhelming scientific and military success. The lives of these men are persistently and drastically influenced by a pair of Agents (Gregory Kostal and Mary Catherine Wilson) whose deadpan embodiment of government bureaucracy are scene-stealingly funny. All the characters both are and aren’t uncomplicated stand-ins for their historical counterparts, and both are and aren’t caricatures of the social and political transformations that were shaping the world during and after World War II. That is, the writing is deeply respectful of and interested in how these men were shaped by and are understood through their monumental place in history, but it is even more concerned with how their humanity is reflected through and refracted by the bomb.

Oppenheimer’s conflict over the implications of his research is played out through the fits and starts of his extramarital affair with the play’s only major female character, Jean Tatlock (Sandy Oppedisano). His reluctance to open himself to her, to match physical intimacy with emotional vulnerability, results in a scene of destruction that pales in scale to Hiroshima, but is still devastating in its staging. Oppenheimer’s jaunty humor and wry confidence is never completely bridged by Tatlock’s increasingly desperate attempts to access not just his body, but also his increasing ambivalence concerning his work.

Niels Bohr, who fled Denmark hours before the Nazi invasion, is another catalyst for exploring interpersonal instability in the play. Edward Teller’s one-sided rivalry with the Nobel laureate is a potent reminder of how human pettiness can reverberate historically, with Teller’s jealousy prompting not only a cleverly staged volatile squabble during the mimed construction of the bomb itself, but also the late scene of Oppenheimer’s HUAC-esque interrogation as the action of the play moves into the 1960s.

The most moving pairing, though, is the play’s treatment of the delicate rapprochement between Niels and his son Aage. The dialogue between the two concisely and resonantly recalls a history of paternal absence and frustrated filial worship. As the two tentatively learn to speak to each other, work together, and express real affection and respect for one another, the audience is reminded that destruction cannot exist without creation. That even as these men were destroying worlds, they were also creating a space for a brave new one. This thematic impulse is powerfully realized through the directorial choice of foregrounding the breaking down and building up of each scene’s set from the same handful of simple objects, and through General Groves’s delight at returning to his pre-war career—building bridges.

Chain Reaction experiments with the traditional boundaries of a history play resulting in a structure that productively mirrors the instability and surprise of scientific experimentation. The characters are funnier and the interactions more stylized than they most likely were in “real life,” but that choice in no way detracts from the truth of the narrative. I am usually skeptical of deconstructive impulses in treatments of history, especially concerning an event as traumatic as the dropping of the A-bomb, because I fear that fictionalizing the past runs the risk of diminishing the real suffering of thousands of human bodies. I was thrilled for that skepticism to be utterly dismantled by this play. Chain Reaction insists upon confronting the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through a compelling closing scene that both acknowledges and refutes any impulse from the audience to disassociate themselves from the reality of these men and this act because it’s “just a play.” Additionally, and even more remarkably, Alexandratos’s script does what all successful and compassionate historical accounts should do—remind us that we are all terrifying and beautifully and irrevocably accountable to each other. As Bohr notes, “experiments never fail . . . they just teach us unexpected things.” Chain Reaction succeeds by and through offering such surprising and unanticipated insights.

Chain Reaction is currently playing at the Kraine Theatre at 85 East 4th Street through Sunday, August 26th. Grab a drink upstairs at the KGB Bar after.

Full disclosure: I have a personal relationship with the playwright of Chain Reaction.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bourne Legacy aka What's up with Edward Norton's hair?

Unfortunately there isn’t much motivation for me to write this review.  Sometimes I see a movie and I can’t wait to get home and put my thoughts on paper.  And I’m not talking about the great ones.  I can’t wait to write about the bad ones too.  Bourne Legacy (heretofore Bourne 4) was neither, which is why it took me so long to sit down and write something.

Bourne 4 was good but it didn’t have that thing the other Bourne movies had.  Ok, yes, it didn’t have Matt Damon and, as much as I love Jeremy Renner (it’s a lot, btw), I think the lack of Jason Bourne was a problem.  Damon’s Bourne was confused and lost and determined to figure out who he is and why so many people are shooting at him.  Then he just wanted it all to end and we the audience kept thinking, “Why don’t they just leave him alone?”  Bourne Legacy begins during the events of the third film, Bourne Ultimatum.  We get to see the cleanup happening while Jason is in NYC trying to expose the CIA for Treadstone and Blackbriar and whatever else they've been up to.  While all that’s going on, Edward Norton’s character, Eric Byer (an ex-USAF Colonel to whom the CIA is inexplicably accountable), is scrambling to end the various programs in operation in case someone starts to ask about the trail of dead left by Jason Bourne and the CIA.  Operatives from Outcome, the black ops program after Bourne’s Treadstone, are slowly being picked off one by one.  The problem is that they miss one and, obviously, it's Aaron Cross.  So Cross spends the rest of the film trying to not get blown up and get to the meds to keep him stable.  I’m guessing these meds help keep the headaches Bourne had away. 

My friend Charlene liked his greying hair.  I was confused by both the color and style of it.
The inevitable comparisons must be made.  A difference between Cross and Bourne (but not Renner and Damon) is that Cross was pretty pissy all the time.  Bourne was confused first and then pissy later, which gave us someone to care about and root for.  Cross starts out pissy and stays there so it’s hard to cheer for a guy whose sole motivation is to get drugs   Bourne was just as impressed as we were at his physical and mental abilities.  We meet Cross at the peak of his abilities.  He’s able-bodied (yeah he is!) and great at reading people (even other operatives) and situations.  But who will he be without his meds (or chems as they’re called in the movie)?  Well he’s not willing to find out so he kidnaps a lovely scientist played by Rachel Weisz.  Of all the beautiful women who have played scientists in movies, I think she’s one of the most believable. 

As far as the film goes it was fine.  The acting was solid due to a solid cast.  Corey Stoll (call me!), who played Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, was there in a supporting role.  He’s another one I keep hoping will have a bigger career.  It looks like it’ll happen for Renner so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Stoll too.  Joan Allen (who should work more) and David Strathairn show up to link us more directly to the Bourne films.  The action was good and lots of people get beat up.  My usual complaint applies with this movie too.  It was shot too tight and with a hand-held camera, which made me happy to be in the back of the theater. Other than that, director Tony Gilroy (who was the screenwriter for the first three) did a fine job.

So go see it or don’t.  It’s not at all a bad film but it’s not something anyone needs to rush out and see.  I’m just hoping it does well enough that they let Renner do a Hawkeye movie.

Dude! I almost forgot.  There's this whole thing with a wolf that was TOTALLY unnecessary.  I don't want to spoil it for anyone who goes to see Bourne 4 but it was really not needed.  They could have totally handled Cross and his situation differently and not involved wolves.  I guess they were trying to prove what a stud he is but it totally rubbed me (and the wolf) the wrong way.  But aside from that it was ok.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Casting Couch: 50 Shades...

...Of Rubbish!

My disclaimer (that I’m guaranteed not stick to):  
This is not a review of the book.
Though I will say, the psychology of it isn’t 100% accurate.  See, I already contradicted myself!   

My open note to author E.L James:
No one in the states (who didn’t originally come from the UK or who has spent less than 6 months there) says “Laters.”  No one.  “Later” maybe but not “Laters.” That is strictly British slang.   I have so many other things I'd like to say to you but this will have to suffice.  For now.

Oh, and for all you readers out there…imagine if Chuck Pahlaniuk had written 50 Shades.  Now that would have been a good book. Now that I'm thinking of it, is there potential for the screenwriter of this to actually make the material better?!?! 

This review on Goodreads perfectly mirrors my feelings toward the book; however my feelings use a lot less blue language.  Seriously, she uses every offensive word there is.  Forewarned is forearmed, people.  And also, Katrina, you are fabulous!

I was perusing EW the other day and saw that Emma Watson had to publicly deny rumors that she was circling the female lead in the movie adaptation of the novel.  Good for her.  She's busy and I'm sure has much better things to do than star in this poorly-written drivel.  But then I realized that casting discussions have been floating around the interwebs for long enough and I wanted to throw in my 2 cents.

Ok, let’s get to the casting couch part of this post.  We'll start in the most logical of places: the character descriptions.  I don’t actually own the books (thanks for the loaners, Bobbi Jo!) so I’m getting these off the 50 Shades wiki.

Christian Grey*:
The 50 Shades wiki does not have a paragraph on Mr. Grey's appearance so I got this information somewhere else.

“wickedly handsome, with gray eyes and copper-colored hair (a lot of gorgeous, copper-colored hair). He's tall, he's well dressed and his moods are mercurial.”

Mercurial is putting it lightly.  Dude should be on mood stabilizing drugs.  Also, they’re forgetting: jealous, petty, controlling, and icky.

Christian, as seen by the fans:
(if you are opposed to clicking on links the list is as follows: #1 Ian Somerhalder; #2 Chris Pine; #3 Henry Cavill; #4 Matt Bomer; #5 Kellan Lutz: and so on)

Somerhalder has been lobbying hard for this role.  I see it.  He’s not tall enough or young enough but when has Hollywood paid attention to character descriptions?   I can't stop laughing at Somerhalder saying (in the link provided) he wants Angelina Jolie for the role of Ana.  Like that would happen.  I can totally see Bret Easton Ellis adapting this though. This is right up his alley.

My vote is for Matt Bomer.  He is the most beautiful man on television, plus he can act.  If you’ve seen White Collar (and you should, it’s a thoroughly entertaining program) you know he could play Christian in his sleep.  He is due for a breakout movie role and this could be it. 

Anastasia Steele*:
The wiki did have a paragraph on Ms. Steele and I had to clean up some typos.  That’s a commentary on the fans right there but I’m going to resist putting it into words since I admittedly read all three books.  

“Ana describes herself as the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face. She is insecure about herself being skinny, pale, and scruffy. She has thin lips and often blushes.”   

I actually don’t remember the thin lips part.  All I remember about her lips is that she bit them a lot.  Also they’re forgetting: clueless, annoying, low self-esteem, etc.

Ana, as seen by the fans:
(Again, for those who are link-phobic [I hear that’s a thing], the list is as follows: #1 Emmy Rossum; #2 Emma Stone; #3 Amanda Seyfried; #4 Shailene Woodley; #5 Alexis Bledel; etc.)

Oddly, I care a lot less about the casting of Ana.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t care much about the character.  Not that I cared about Christian, but at least he had a story and did something with his life.  Ana literally fell into her life of a rich boyfriend and fancy publishing job.  There I go on a tangent again.  Ok, so looking at the list most of them are too old and have better things to do with their time.  I have no real opinions about Emmy Rossum and wouldn’t care one way or the other if they cast her. 

My vote would be for Shailene Woodley.  She looks the part and is closer in description to Ana.  Plus she can act.  No, I’m not talking about that scripted teen pregnancy show she can’t seem to get away from.  She was great in The Descendants but then she had a great director, which makes a difference.  Who knows who they’ll get to direct this thing.  But Shailene would get the immediate response this film needs and that's the creepy factor.  If Ana is a recent college grad in a relationship with an older executive, why not cast a girl who looks the part and gives the audience the creepy feelings those of us who read the books felt?

Emma Watson could have pulled it off but I really like her and I hope she stays way too busy to come anywhere near this project.  I just had a funny idea. I wonder if Lindsay Lohan is trying to get this part.  I wouldn’t put it past her.  And once upon a time I could have totally seen it.

So yes, I have a real distaste for the books.  Of course I’ll probably still go see the movies but I would be doing it for you guys.  I’m a giver.  Back when they announced it was being made into a movie, my friend Ann R. (Hi Ann!) mentioned she thought it would have made a better series on HBO or Showtime.  I have to agree with her.  I guess studios still think there’s more money to be made in the theaters but it would have translated very well into a television series on one of the over-sexed cable channels.  Ew, then it might have been a panel at Comic-Con.  Nevermind. 

*Honestly, did EL James throw first and last names from various Harlequin romance novels into a hat?  The names are soooo derivative.  Then again the entire book reeks of unoriginality.  Heh, there I go reviewing the book again. 

Total Recall - Maybe they could help me with my memory problem

The beginning of this post would be a good place to compare the current Total Recall to the Total Recall from 1990.  Except there’s a problem…I can’t remember much about the original.  I guess I need Rekall Inc. to help me remember the movies I’ve seen.  That’d be cool.  I do remember the original being comically over-the-top.  I remember faces changing or melting or something.  And of course I remember the lady with the 3 boobs.  But that’s about it.  I’m a purist by nature and feel Hollywood should leave well-enough alone.  The only reason to remake a film, when one gets right down to it, is money.  There was no reason to remake Psycho but they did and they blew it.  There was no reason to remake Karate Kid but they did and they actually didn’t blow it (though the title is wrong since he learns kung-fu but I’m splitting hairs).  There was no reason to remake any number of movies but it won’t stop so quit your whining.  (I’m speaking to myself here too.)  I understand wanting to leave movies alone, even if they’re goofy, sci-fi classics.  But I also kinda understand wanting to offer up a different version of something, especially if it was a goofy sci-fi classic.  I’ll tell you my rule of thumb…never see a remake without seeing the original first.

So what I do know about the original is that it was directed by Paul Verhoeven and starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone.  Mr. Verhoeven is known for such cinematic genius as Showgirls and Starship Troopers.  Ok, the director of the current Total Recall, Len Wiseman (aka Mr. Kate Beckinsale), isn’t much better (two Underworld movies and Die Hard 4) so we can’t really compare the directors.  I will say that I liked the world that Wiseman created better.  I also appreciate that he took a movie that was goofy and tried to give it some gravity.  I’ve read the Phillip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” on which the original is based and the Schwarzenegger version is closest to that source material because of one thing…Mars. But that's all I'm gonna say about that.
So what did we end up with in this version of Total Recall?  Well first off the effects were way better.  And as I mentioned earlier, the world created for this film was pretty cool looking.  It was dark and dismal and I can see why Colin Farrell’s character, Doug Quaid, longed for something more.  Speaking of, the story is this: Doug Quaid, factory worker and husband to Kate Beckinsale’s Lori, dreams of escaping his boring life. Doug finds himself at Rekall, the place that implants memories of a bigger, more interesting life.  The only problem is, Doug had a bigger, more interesting life or did he?  No, he did.  So he spends the rest of the film trying to figure out who he was and why his wife is trying to kill him. Jessica Biel and Bryan Cranston are in it too and both try to pull Doug to their side of the scuffle.

If it were a better movie it would have gone into the whole 'struggling with identity' thing but it wasn’t so they didn’t.  I guess they didn’t have enough time, what, with all the shooting and running and stuff.  The acting was what you’d expect from an action film.  I do so love Farrell and will never hold these types of movies against him when I’ve seen things like Ondine and In Bruges.  Biel I can take or leave.  She just doesn’t do it for me.  Beckinsale is fine and really the best thing about her and, honestly, the best thing about this film was her hair.  She has the best freaking hair!  Plus it flew around all slo-mo style as she’s chasing Farrell down.  I covet her hair.
If it were a better movie they may have addressed some of the logical issues, like how the un-breathable air stays away from the inhabitable part of the city.  But it’s not a better movie.  It’s a fun, action flick perfect for summers.  So go, enjoy Kate Beckinsale’s hair on the big screen and try telling me I’m wrong about it being the best part of the film.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

In the Land of Blood and Honey: A War Movie that Remembers the Women

If you're anything like me, you know far less than you should about the Bosnian War in the mid-90s. Angelina Jolie is here to change all that. The plot of In the Land of Blood and Honey, which Jolie wrote, directed, and produced, is pretty much given away in the title. There's going to be horrific violence and there's going to be moments of sweetness made all the more perverse by the carnage that surrounds and produces them.

The film opens with a very successful date between Danijel, a Serb, and Ajla, a Bosnian Muslim. Their flirtatious dancing is blown apart by a bombing, and they find each other again at a detainment camp where Danijel is a commander and Ajla a prisoner about to be raped. He saves her, and they begin a relationship that lasts the duration of the war. It's complicated doesn't begin to cover it.

The two are clearly metaphors for the way war both imposes and exposes the fictionality of nationalist and ethnic boundaries between people. Though the two actors are excellent, I'm not sure the film itself knows how to play their relationship. The tentativeness of the love story is preferable, though, to the clunkiness of the exposition. Jolie knows she's dealing with an audience that is probably under-informed about the conflict, but the expository speeches and conveniently placed radio news reports is not the most elegant way to keep us apprised of the intricacies of the war.

What does not only work in the film, but makes it desperately important, is the unflinching way it details how women's bodies are literally and figuratively used as battlefields and human shields in warfare. This is a reality which most war movies literally and figurative do flinch away from exploring. The closing text reveals that Bosnia marked the first time sexual violence in and of itself was prosecuted as a war crime, and presents us with some truly staggering statistics about the number of women who were raped during the conflict. Jolie's war movie recovers the experience of women in war--how they're used, how they're wounded, and how they manage to survive--scenes that too often get left on the cutting room floor.

Monday, August 6, 2012

"Reprise" (Angel 2.15): Why You Shouldn't Booty Call an Ex During an Existential Crisis

Remember the earlier prefixed "Re" episodes form this season? "Reunion"? "Redefinition"? They were all a bit Darla-centric, yes? Well, this episode is called "Reprise" for a reason. As Jenn puts it, there's only one big "DON'T" in this ep, and I referenced it in the title of the post. But before we get there, quite a few RElationship hazards are REhearsed in this Angel guide to getting your heart broken fifty ways from Sunday.

DON'T nurse a crush on a vengeful vamp. Poor Lindsey. Poor, poor Lindsey. He's still carrying a flame for Darla, though she's just using him for a place to crash, regrow her skin, and drink all the free blood he provides for her. In some ways, Lindsey the Whipped is making the same mistake as Angel--believing Darla can be REdeemed.

She's rolling her eyes at his despair. It's fairly hilarious.

Jenn also points out how this episode reminds us that Lindsey really struggles with his evil responsibilities at W&H. Whereas it comes as natural as breathing to Lilah, angsty Lindz has to shower after work everyday. And this seems a good place to note how much I look forward to when he sings at Lorne's.

DON'T fall for a girl who can't handle the heat. Poor Wesley. His rich and hot ginger gf Virginia gets out gets out of the kitchen in this episode. Wes's recent gunshot wound from the weak sauce zombie cops makes her realize that she can't love someone whom she very well might lose.

Your loss, Ginny.

DON'T be snookered by a dead man. The climax of this episode is, for me, both very cool and a bit of a cheat. Angel goes to some trouble to REtrieve a magical glove to defeat an embodied blah blah blah; what he wants is to visit the "home office" of Wolfram & Hart. And who shows up to guide him? None other than Holland Manners!

Death becomes you, big guy!

As they take a long elevator ride down (natch), accompanied with a cheeky instrumental, HM gives Angel the standard "we're the embodiment of evil" speech. It would have been nice if he quoted his soulmate and deflated the diatribe as Buff did to the First in "Amends": "All right, I get it, you're evil. Do we have to chat about it all day?"

The big REveal is that the home office is . . . Earth itself! Everyone's unredeemable and fallen! Angel's quest is doomed! And while I like the shock of the elevator opening to the same street scene they left, I think Angel's walk through L.A., hearing people fight and whatnot, isn't quite enough to sell the idea that everyone is crap. I mean, hasn't he seen enough of love and sacrifice at this point to look for and believe in the best in people? People with souls? But the main point is his REsponse--getting laid.

DON'T, well, see title. My freshman year in college, my friend Dana told me that the two words I should get comfortable with using were "fuck" and "it." Angel responds in a similar manner to his newfound existential despair.

And by "it," I mean Darla.

He figures that if we're all screwed (pun intended), well, why not just be Angelus already?

I don't mean to be glib (much). It's a huge moment in the series and in Angel's psychic development. And just in case anyone isn't familiar with the REpercussions of this little assignation I won't reproduce the chain of events Jenn details, but trust me, it ain't good.

Gross case in awkward point.

Oh, and Kate might have killed herself and Cordy is heading to her certain doom. It was a rough week.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Marina Abramovic The Artist Is Present: I have a new girl crush

I'm still reeling from watching HBO's documentary on "the grandmother of performance artists" Marina Abramovic (on HBO Go(d) of course--thanks Nat!). The only thing I knew about her going in was her legendary piece at MoMA in 2010, which also gives the doc its title, in which, during every hour the museum was open for three months, she sat in a straight-backed wooden chair and gazed at any museumgoer who cared to sit, for however long they cared to sit.

I'm the definition of an introvert and hate to be watched if not teaching, but I would give anything to have done this.
After spending an hour and forty minutes with her last night, she's one of my new icons.

Abramovic has been performing since the early 70s, and her interest in gender, the body, pain, and love are expressed through radical and, at times, self-destructive pieces. She has cut herself with knives, accidentally and on purpose; passed out from smoke inhalation after leaping into a burning pentagram; run headlong into a wall; and sat for six hours surrounded by various weapons and invited the audience to use them on her. And she did most of this naked. Her 2010 MoMA retrospective, which prompted the titular piece, included young artists re-enacting or re-performing her most famous works. At first this idea made me a little uncomfortable--isn't part of the point of performance art its ephemerality and resistance to reiteration? But then, when I was reading some more about Abramovic (told you--girl crush), I learned that one of her pieces involved her taping herself and then attempting to immediately recreate her movements and mistakes (this is one of the ones with knives--she plays the Russian game where you stab quick and rhythmically between your fingers). So I guess inviting others to reinhabit her body and art is very much in keeping with Abramovic's interest in repetition, as well as in supporting and promoting young performance artists.

Before the film documents "The Artist Is Present," it spends a good deal of time investigating the decade-long relationship between Abramovic and another performance artist, Ulay. The two were clearly soulmates, making art together and traveling around Europe in a van for five years to give them more time and energy to create. One of their most notorious pieces involved the two of them standing naked in a doorway, close enough that the audience has to physically touch both of their bodies to pass. It's a pretty ballsy (so to speak) challenge to the traditional divide between spectator and spectacle, audience and artist. Ulay and Marina split up in the late 80s amid mutual charges of infidelity, but they clearly are still deeply connected to each other, and their reunion prompts one of the most moving moments of the documentary.

***Spoiler alerts and fair warning. I usually don't worry too much about spoiling documentaries since they chronicle events that, you know, already happened in the world, but a great deal of the pleasure of watching The Artist Is Present comes from discovering how people respond to Abramovic's gaze during "The Artist Is Present".***

The last third of the film is dedicated to chronicling the emotional and physical demands and rewards of "The Artist Is Present." Abramovic trained for months to acquire the muscular strength and mental discipline to sit silently for nearly seven hundred and and forty hours. Maybe it's just the power inherent in the act, but the artist's face and eyes, kind and accepting, bring forth all sorts of reactions in the spectators. The piece itself neatly flips the hierarchy of the aesthetic gaze: rather than being looked at, Abramovic is unflinchingly looking upon her audience. Between each participant she stares down at her hands, and only establishes eye contact when her partner is seated. That means she doesn't realize that Ulay is one of her first sitters, and her own response to seeing his face is breathtakingly moving. As the months go by, Abramovic becomes more interactive with her partners, mirroring their movements, crying at their pain, and smiling at their happiness. It's heart-swellingly beautiful. And then, of course, fucking Franco shows up. But his pseudo-intellectual post-sit analysis is somewhat tempered by his interlocutor acting him if he's an actor. It's awesome.

Get your hands on this documentary, or at least Google Marina Abramovic. This woman is a legend, and attention should be paid!

"I Was Made to Love You" (Buffy 5.15): How set up one of the greatest episodes in TV history

It makes sense that I would open the post that discusses the fifteenth episode of the fifth season with mention of the sixteenth. Up next is "The Body," one of the most critically acclaimed episodes not just in the Buffyverse, but in broadcast television history. Because "The Body" is such a monumental achievement, "I Was Made to Love You" often gets overlooked. But this Jane Espenson-penned show knows exactly where it's taking its characters--to the kind of grief and loss that cannot be slayed. My thinking about this episode was profoundly altered by an essay I read while researching some other topic years ago, and now I can't find it or recall the name. So if this rings any bells, thanks to the author and pass me the link! But in the meantime, please accept my apologies for this unintentionally stolen Buffy guide to setting us up for a gut punch.

DO change your tune about Buffy's love life. But it would be nice if you admitted as much, Xander. Both Jenn and I noted his rather abrupt turnaround. For example:
  • Xander Quote from "IWMTLY": "The problem is not you."
  • Xander Quote from "Into the Woods": "But you missed the point. You shut down, Buffy. And you've been treating Riley like the rebound guy."

[In response to Buffy's fear that she's too self-involved]
  • Xander Quote from "IWMTLY": "I don't think you're like that." 
  • Xander Quote from "Into the Woods": I think you took it for granted [Riley] was going to show up when you wanted him to, and take off when you didn't."
Maybe the puffy sumo suit blunts some of that self-righteousness.

Okay, now that's out of my system.

DON'T think love is something you can control. This episode concerns itself with a robot named April who has been created by some dude named Warren to be his perfect girlfriend, except, of course, when he meets the right girl, he abandons her. She comes to Sunnydale looking for him, and wreaks some havoc at some sort of luau-themed party at The Bronze.

Havoc-wreaking here takes the form of throwing Spike through a window.

Which begs the subsidiary question, why is everyone, including Ben, ostensibly a grown man with a job, hanging out at an all-ages club packed with highschoolers? [**Update**: Jenn has just informed me that this party doesn't take place at The Bronze, but rather at UC Sunnydale. Oops. Though it's still strange that Ben's there, yes? And the question below still stands.]

And why is Willow wearing a turtleneck to a luau?

But no mind. The primary question is, how can you protect yourself from losing love? Warren's interested, Spike's interested, and next week Buffy's going to learn the answer: You can't.

DON'T make my mistake. And assume this episode is in any way a throwaway. Not only does the poignancy of watching April's batteries die as Buffy sits with her guide us into a much more devastating and personal loss in "The Body,"

Makes sense she's on a swing set, since these are the last moments of her childhood.

but Warren and a robot that looks like a chick

As well as Spike's continued failure to heed the Do's and Don't's of this episode as well as "Crush."

 are both going to have serious and wide-ranging implications for the rest of this season and the next.

Next week: The pain is brought.
Jenn calls attention to April's last words, which also will be resonating for quite some time. Here's her take. April: "It's getting dark. It's so early to be getting dark." --> I could not help but read this line in terms of how the episode ends. Somehow I don't think we're meant to. She is so prophetic even if she's a robot because of Joyce, Glory, and "The Gift." It would definitely explain why she dies before she can finish the cliche about it getting darkest before it gets better because it won't. From here until Season 7 it is just one long 30 episode descent into darkness.

And of course, the word that April doesn't say to finish that cliche is "Dawn." This re-watch is really reminding me of how crucial Little Bit's appearance is in the show as a whole.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

We Need to Talk About We Need to Talk About Kevin

So this is the second time in recent memory that I went into a movie expecting a sociological investigation of character and motivation and got a horror flick. We Need to Talk About Kevin takes as its subject the unspeakable nightmare of a mass killing at a high school, and tries for about 50% of the movie to delve into the question it's almost impossible not to ask: Where were the parents? The other 50%? Straight-up The Bad Seed.

Because the film jumbles the chronology of the life of the main character, Tilda Swinton's Eva, Kevin's mother, it gestures towards replicating the psychological upset of trauma. This is one of the hyper-stylized directorial choices that work. Many do not. I was not a fan, for example, of the filmstrip-esque rendering of Kevin's unplanned conception, on a cellular level, or of the hackneyed and obvious trope of Eva washing her hands of red substances--tomato sauce, paint, hamster blood. We get it. She feels responsible for the deaths. However, I didn't feel the film's argument about Eva's complicity in Kevin's crime was completely earned, or completely baked. Blaming the mother is a slippery slope, especially if her frustration with her newborn over interrupting a life of bohemian travel and New York City fabulousness is represented as both selfish and unavoidable.

In fact, several explanations are put forward to "explain" Kevin's behavior along with Eva's verbal  and physical expression of her resentment: undiagnosed autism and pure sociopathy. Did Kevin kill his classmates and brag about it because his mother never bonded with him? Because she physically abused him? Or are some people just born bad? The movie seems more interested in a screechy soundtrack and playing hide and seek with the audience than seriously investigating this question.

And the thing is, it's an important question. I know that every perpetrator of a massacre is different: It is naive and ignorant to equate Charles Whitman with Seung-Hui Cho with Jared Lee Loughner with James Holmes. But asking serious questions, and positing serious answers, about what contributes to this type of psychopathology through fiction can, ideally and hopefully, give us a way to interrupt its development. We do need to talk about Kevin, just not in a sensational or lazy way.

Amelie vs. Black Swan: Steel Cage Match

Two pixies enter the arena: only one can exit. Black Swan bumped Amelie from the latest edition of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Natalie and I weigh in on the justice of this decision. Check out our discussion over at Docs on Films.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Tiny Furniture: A Little Lena Dunham Goes a Long Way

Once Natalie bestowed HBO Go(d) upon me, for some reason I didn't hit up the latest season of Game of Thrones or finally catch up on Deadwood. Instead, I was drawn to Girls, billed as a latter-day Sex in the City but with a more realistic depiction of both New York City and the (sex) lives of young women. I've watched the entire season one and a half times, and though it isn't as groundbreaking or edgy as a) it's marketed to be or b) it sort of wants to be, it hits me where I live. So while waiting for season 2 (which according to Twitter will feature Christopher Noth perhaps as Mr. Big! Meta!), I turned to writer-director Lena Dunham's equally autobiographical first movie, Tiny Furniture, as Girls methadone. And it was about as satisfying.

Let me begin by saying I have a lot of admiration for Lena Dunham. Though plenty have spoken about the advantage, unfair or otherwise, that Dunham and her costars share in the industry, she did write and direct a feature film at twenty-five. And for my money, she does a better job translating the Apatovian trope of perpetual adolescence to a female sensibility than Bridesmaids. She is also a fearless physical actress, and I find Girls compulsively watchable.

Though several Girls regulars show up in Tiny Furniture--including Alex Karpovsky, who plays one of my favorite characters and Jemima Kirke who plays essentially the same free-spirited and irresistibly charming narcissist she does on the show--there's something about the film that wasn't as appealing to me as the series. Which is surprising, as the film is much more ambitious. Rather than focus entirely on Lena Dunham's avatar (a wry, insecure, not as charming narcissist) and her friends and boyfriends, Tiny Furniture is equally, if not more, concerned with Aura's relationship with her mother and sister (played by Dunham's real-life family). As Aura languishes in her artist mother's fabulous apartment after college graduation and halfheartedly tries to find a job and full-heartedly tries to find a boyfriend, she reads through her mother's journals from the 70s, when she was also in her 20s. The conversation the two have at the end of the film, when Aura finally gets the invitation to share her mom's bed that she's been angling for the whole movie, is both a moving representation of how mothers and daughters begin to become friends, and also a fairly unsettling indication of how little Aura has grown.

I think the reason Tiny Furniture left me a little cold and a little annoyed was that Girls reminds me less of Sex and the City and more of Seinfeld. The four girlfriends share the same casual and witty self-involvement of Jerry and Co. that lead them to solipsistic statements and actions that would be staggeringly obtuse at best and borderline sociopathic at worst if they weren't so sincere about it all. Girls is nowhere near as funny as Seinfeld, but I think it shares a similar ethos--and similar limitations. Thirty minute situations highlight these character types to their greatest effect. Tiny Furniture, with its hour-and-forty-minute run-time, gives you a bit too much opportunity to get frustrated and bored with the characters making the same mistakes and the same justifications. So unless you really want to hear "sweat the bed" used in a sentence, I'd stick with the series.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom!

Wes Anderson’s movies aren’t for everyone.  Maybe that’s why I like them so much.  I’m a huge fan of quirky, off-beat, occasionally hapless but always hopeful, and sometimes downright odd.  I get his humor and I have since I fell in love with Bottle Rocket in college.  I’ve tried to get others to love it too but to no avail.  There have only been a couple of times that I feel like Anderson may have missed the mark ever so slightly (Life Aquatic, which pains me to say, didn’t do it for me) but it’s such a personal opinion that I can’t fault the guy.  And actually, that’s kind of his deal.  His movies are well-written, his characters are fully formed (in Anderson’s mind if not in their lives), and his movies are well-made.  There’s no denying that the guy can write and direct.  But sometimes his films fall flat with even his biggest fans.

This is not the case with his latest offering, Moonrise Kingdom.  This movie is special.  It’s special in that way that you want to ask it out on a date, take it to a nice dinner, and love it for the rest of your life.  Imagine Romeo and Juliet meets The Great Escape with a dash of Rushmore and a hint of Blue Lagoon while somehow still managing to be completely original.  

The story is: there are these 12-year olds (a boy called Sam and a girl called Suzy) who fall in love and attempt an escape from their lives apart in order to be together.  Sam and Suzy have problems in their separate lives but together they make sense. A search for Sam and Suzy ensues bringing together most of the fictional New England island of New Penzance where Suzy lives and Sam is camping with his troop of Khaki Scouts..  Searching for Sam are his fellow Khaki scouts, none of whom actually like Sam but live by a ‘no man left behind’ way of life and are led by Khaki Scoutmaster Ward.  They go after him, hilariously armed to the teeth, and have to be reminded by Scoutmaster Ward this is a rescue mission and they are not to harm him.  Searching for Suzy are her parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, who have multiple problems of their own. Searching for both kids is the slightly dumb but very sweet island police captain played by Bruce Willis.

One thing that really worked for Mr. Anderson this time around is spicing up the folks with whom he works.  Often, as some directors do, he’d work with the Wilson brothers, Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, etc.  This time around he used some new folks and it was just what the film needed.  Edward Norton was fabulous in the role of Scoutmaster Ward that, once upon a time, probably would have gone to Owen Wilson.  Frances McDormand was excellent in a role that could have been handed to Angelica Huston.  Wilson and Huston would have been great in the roles but at this point in Anderson’s career, would have been expected.  I’m so glad he chose to branch out and work with these folks.  In fact they fit in with his material so well that I’m surprised they haven’t worked together before.

Joining a completely astounding cast including the aforementioned Murray, McDormand, Willis, and Norton are folks like Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, and newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, the latter two as Suzy and Sam respectively.  Both Hayward and Gilman were fantastic and played the star-crossed lovers with such panache. 

The film itself was lovely.  There was always something to look at and I adore Anderson’s aesthetic.  He borders on incredibly kooky but somehow is able to reign it back in before he goes overboard.  I feel like I’m rambling but I can’t say enough about this film.  I’m so glad I got to finally see it and I can’t wait to buy it on DVD.  Then I’ll be counting the days until Criterion gets their hands on it and releases it in their collection.

Sleeping Beauty: More Like Magic Mike Than You Might Think

As someone who writes on gender and the body, I practically *had* to see Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty, being, as it is, about a woman who agrees to be heavily sedated in a room alone with paying customers. What I expected was an extended version of the bizarro masked ball/orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. What I got was a pretty clear-eyed examination of how bodies, beautiful or no, get consensually commodified.

The film follows Lucy (Emily Browning, who you might remember from Sucker Punch, aka, the movie I kinda liked that the rest of universe hated), a university student putting herself through school with the help of several odd jobs and without the help of her alcoholic and thieving mother. Early on, she demonstrates a detached relationship to her own sexuality. One scene has her deciding which stranger to sleep with in a bar and when based on a coin toss. Therefore, when she answers an ad in the student paper (!) for a job in the sex industry that involves a full-body inspection and a threat about the consequences of indiscretion, she's not too thrown.

Lucy begins her new job by wearing lingerie at dinner parties and serving wine and brandy to tuxedoed old men, and is eventually "promoted" to the role referenced by the title--she drinks a tea spiked with the mother of all sleeping pills and lies naked in a room where clients are ushered in, admonished not "to penetrate or leave marks," and left alone with her for unspecified amounts of time. If this sounds at all erotic, I'm not explaining it right. We see what a selection of the men do (it ranges from the poignantly mundane to the pathetically, and ominously, dominant), but Lucy remembers nothing, and earns enough for a sweet penthouse apartment.

And here's where the comparisons to Magic Mike come in--Lucy, baffingly, despite making major bank, does not quit her other jobs as a waitress, copy girl, or university research subject. (The latter requires her to be, ahem, orally penetrated by some sort of esophageal balloon.) The reason, I think, is a not-quite subtle indication to the audience to realize the work is basically the same. All of it requires Lucy to disassociate herself from her body because the jobs are so soul-crushingly repetitive (and/or physically unpleasant) and to disassociate herself from her mind because she doesn't need a brain to do any of it. Herbert Marcuse, with his theory of surplus repression, would have a field day with this movie. The late great Frankfurt school philosopher argued that the modern world had to repress the body over and above what was necessary for social development because if it didn't, we would all go freaking crazy over how unsatisfying and unappealing our jobs are. To translate this argument into the sphere of erotic freelance work, which is supposed to be about pleasure, is actually pretty interesting.

Also, much like Channing Tatum, it matters that Emily Browning has a beautiful body, and the camera does not refrain from lingering over it, naked and clothed, for a good 30% of the movie (ballpark). Which, of course, implicates the audience in her objectification, and possibly her exploitation. Though Claire, the icy madam, promises her clients they are "safe" in the room with Lucy because "no one can see," of course we can. But Lucy can't. Her inability to connect with the experience in any way begins to drive her mad, indicating that the less literal iterations of alienating work will have a similar outcome. Sleeping Beauty is a pretty clever and cutting economic critique in an erotic fantasy's lingerie.