June 30, 2011

Foxy Brown

Foxy Brown (1974) was part of the blaxploitation genre, a movement that was always morally ambiguous. The genre glorifies revenge, but it also portrays strong, fearless black role models who aren't addicted to drugs. One of the few redeeming qualities of this genre is that it exhibited the destruction the drug culture heaped on black families (not to mention the patronizing, dehumanizing treatment by white figureheads).   

As a piece of narrative, Foxy Brown is surprisingly dull. It's full of badly staged fight scenes that elicit tepid laughter if anything. Even the motivations of the characters seem watered down, because the actors don't appear to believe any of the lines they're saying. The director is Jack Hill, who obviously slapped this movie together as quickly as possible to turn a buck. It lacks the storytelling power that made Pam Grier such a force to be reckoned with in Jackie Brown, which, more than 20 years after she acquired a sort of cult status for her revenge pictures, elicited more fire and power from her than just about anything she'd done before that.

Grier is undeniably beautiful and strong, and an appealing lead. But the director would rather show off her body than her bravery most of the time, and because the fight scenes are poorly done, you never really believe she's as tough as she's supposed to be. She bungles things, and seems too single-minded to be a truly remarkable heroine. And the violence is so inhuman--on both sides--that it's hard to root for anyone. It's sordid and sleazy, and it brings us all down without even the satisfaction of having a good time.

The villain is played without much finesse by Kathryn Loder, and her sleazy accomplice is played by Peter Brown. She screams at the end, "Go ahead! Shoot! I don't wanna live anymore!" Foxy replies, "Death is too easy for you, bitch. I want you to suffer." Hilariously bad dialogue permeates the movie. And these strong words are delivered with precious little conviction from a woman who has suffered, presumably a lot. And yet, she never shows it. She loses the love of her life (Terry Carter) and her two-timing brother (Antonio Fargas), and doesn't seem to feel anything. The movie confuses coldness with strength. Or perhaps she's taken it on the chin so much she bottles up her emotions. Maybe it's her only option. If the movie were made with any feeling or care or cleverness, perhaps that might have gotten through. All that is there onscreen is dumb, thoughtless revenge.

Shutter Island

Somehow I missed seeing Shutter Island in theaters, where it must have been all the more exciting to experience. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a marshal who journeys, by ferry, to a foreboding island off the New England coast, called Shutter Island. On it is an ominous facility that functions as a lunatic asylum, run by the calm, collected, and creepy Dr. Cawley (played with stiff, serene menace by Ben Kingsley). DiCaprio, along with his partner (Mark Ruffalo), has come to help locate an escaped patient. The people on Shutter Island are totally deranged, so it's a dangerous situation. Director Martin Scorsese is intent on keeping you on edge from start to finish. However, I found myself almost completely relaxed. I enjoyed the plot and how it unraveled, and there were suspenseful moments, but there wasn't the unbearable tension and anticipation you might expect from a movie like this. At least, I didn't feel it.

Perhaps it's because from the word go I was expecting some kind of bizarre, shocking plot twist. We've--audiences--been conditioned to expect such things. I think modern audiences can look back to The Sixth Sense as the moment we were so embarrassingly (or pleasurably?) fooled by a movie. Of course, it's been done dozens of times before, but in recent movie memory that is the movie that stands out for sheer tom-foolery. Hitchcock did it with Psycho. More recently than that, Jonathan Demme did it at the end of The Silence of the Lambs.

Audiences these days seem to fancy themselves uber-sophisticated when it comes to figuring thrillers out before they reveal themselves to us, yet desperately in need of the kind of movie that takes us along for the ride and completely dupes us. Thrillers, in that sense, deliver the most visceral and exciting experience that we get from movies. We love stories because we love watching them unfold, and the suspense makes the work of an audience member akin to the work of a detective, fetching clues and trying to make guesses about the outcomes, the motivations, and the mysteries, of movies. This must offer at least a partial explanation for how well horror movies--even dumb ones--do at the box office.

A thriller is almost a sure thing as far as making money is concerned, especially if you can get Leonardo DiCaprio to star and Martin Scorsese to direct. Scorsese piles on the atmosphere here, and yet the movie has stark, rich colors to it, colors you don't typically find in a dark and eerie suspense yarn. He goes against that film noir dark-alley quality. Even the scenes in usually dimly lit places are disturbingly well-lit. DiCaprio lights a match that might as well be a spotlight. It never seems to burn out, either.

The opening shot looks obviously computer-generated, though, and that's one of the things modern movies struggle to fight. Filmmakers may save a lot of money to construct the scene virtually, but there's often a phoniness to the scene that floats to the surface, and you wonder how the actors can really trick themselves into believing they're on a real boat and a real ocean. But, for all that, the opening shot also retains a noirish quality, thanks mainly to the costumes. DiCaprio and Ruffalo wearing their hats and their trenchcoats look like two separate Dana Andrews in Laura. They're bound and determined to figure out the mystery that confronts them, but then the movie takes on a sort of Key Largo turn: a magnificent storm disarms the asylum's security system and the inmates start wandering about. All of them are homicidal maniacs (or very close), we're told.

If Shutter Island doesn't blow anyone out of the water, at least it's refreshing to see Scorsese making a movie that's just out to entertain you. He's not trying to do something important and Oscar-worthy like that awful mess The Aviator, or even The Departed, which finally got him what many considered a long-overdue Academy Award. The movie is a hallucinatory mess of a good time, nowhere near as bloated as the misfired Christopher Nolan movie Inception. It's just a crackling, old-fashioned thriller. From the novel by Dennis Lehane. The supporting cast is appropriately nightmarish: Max Von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, and John Carroll Lynch.

June 25, 2011

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's latest, The Tree of Life, is like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Wonder Years on acid. I left the theater with mixed emotions. It was a haunting movie with the kind of breathtaking visual lyricism you expect from a Malick film. He is known for his visual patchworks like Days of Heaven (1978), for which cinematographer Nestor Almendros won an Oscar. But Days of Heaven had problems. Malick emphasized the imagery over the story, which was a love triangle set in the turn-of-the-century wheatfields of Texas. The film was shot in 1976 in Alberta, Canada, and when the actors (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, and Linda Manz) finally saw the movie in 1978, they were shocked at how unrecognizable it seemed. Malick had cut whole scenes of dialogue and what was left was a visual pastiche, beautiful, yes, but also vacant, almost muted. Pauline Kael quipped that it was "an empty Christmas tree" on which "you can hang all your dumb metaphors."  More importantly, Kael observed that "what is unspoken in this picture weighs heavily upon us, but we're not quite sure what it is." Most of the other New York and California critics were more adoring of the movie. However, Malick disappeared from movie-making for twenty years, returning to direct a remake of The Thin Red Line, released in 1998, and then the Christopher Columbus opus, The New World, released in 2005.

I found moments of The Tree of Life completely in sync with Pauline Kael's observations of Days of Heaven. On the other hand, having seen Days of Heaven several times, I was able to compare the two. Malick latched onto a story somewhat more dexterously in The Tree of Life than he did in Days of Heaven. He's always been something of a poetic director, and I think you can only appreciate the kind of image-saturated heaviness he does on a large screen. Watching this or Days of Heaven on your TV will probably kill the movie experience altogether. He's also got a need to be pretentiously philosophical, and show-offy, the way Kubrick was in 2001. The only difference is that Malick's pretentiousness is more out of reverence for the beauty of nature (or perhaps reverence for his appreciation of the beauty of nature) and in 2001 Kubrick seemed to be daring us to be bored/in awe of his technical achievements. He was turning film into opera and demanding that we applaud with reverential deference. Malick might be doing the same thing with nature. Sometimes you think you're watching a National Geographic documentary sans narrator.

But then, about thirty or forty minutes into the movie, Malick calmed down with all the floaty, emotionally manipulative nature imagery (it's beautiful, yes, but it does go on and on) and the visually maneuvered philosophical pontificating about the beginning of the universe and the dawn of life. He zooms in on this middle class, 1950's Texas family headed by the stern, hard-ass dad played by Brad Pitt. He's a proud, stiff-upper-lipped father of three boys. Their mother (played by Jessica Chastain) is all elegance and passivity. She's beautiful and mysterious and genuinely loving, but her spirit is mastered by her rigid husband. He's not without love or kindness, but he seems so afraid of losing his family that he resorts to being a control freak to avoid loss. And so, he alienates them with his domineering temperament. It made you understand all fathers in a fresh way: all at once trying to be brave and tough, tender and buoyant, never really sure of themselves. The boys are trying to figure things out themselves, and the oldest one (Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult) experiences a loss of innocence that comes with growing up. He learns what death is, he learns the fluid give-and-take of faith when he's told about God and then experiences tragedy for the first time.

Malick can't resist himself though, and he goes back to being cuckoo at the end. By then, though, we're more willing to accept his directorial idiosyncrasies. Besides that, I appreciated the movie's attempt to tell the story visually, relying less on dialogue. And while this technique brings the movie into sometimes new and strange ground, it also made The Tree of Life refreshingly lyrical and offbeat. Sean Penn's presence is virtually a cameo as the oldest son, grown up, trying to make sense of life in the New York business world. He's mourning the loss of his youth, and there's also a heartbreaking story about one of his brothers.

Maybe it's triter than we think. Perhaps The Tree of Life might just be a gag on the audience, trying to whip us up into an ecstatic frenzy. I can hear the pretentious film-goers praising the movie's more esoteric moments as something only the enlightened could understand. I don't think even the director knew what was going on in some of those parts. This would have probably made more sense during the era of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. It's a good film and a bad film, moment-by-moment.

Bad Teacher

Note: Since I panned Bad Teacher four years ago, I have done a complete 180. I think it's a smart and hilarious movie, and I actually have watched several times since first seeing it in theaters four years ago. The fact that I was so wrong about this movie has been weighing on me, so for the reader who may happen across this review, please know that I now feel very warmly toward Bad Teacher. Cameron Diaz is one of the funniest actors working today, and this movie is one more reason she's always worth watching.


In Bad Teacher, Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz) wants to marry a wealthy man she can glom onto for financial security. Her fiance dumps her, and in order to pay for a boob job so she can attract a new man, she goes back to teaching middle school English. She doesn't exactly teach, though. She mainly pops in a movie like Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds (movies about teachers who change students' lives) to wile away the time. Unlike the teachers in the movies she shows to her students, however, Elizabeth typically spends the school day hung over, sleeping on her desk like one of the teenagers she's supposed to be teaching.

This movie might be a spoof of that ridiculous genre of teachers-as-world-changers films. It has moments where it tries to do that. But the writers (the screenplay is credited to Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky) didn't really think it through that far. They apparently had one thing in mind: having Cameron Diaz say and do things that no teacher could get away with in real life. While this is funny, it also wears thin when you realize that the movie isn't going in any particularly clear or interesting direction.

She meets a potential new mate in Scott (Justin Timberlake), a fresh-faced new substitute who hails from a wealthy family. (They have a wristwatch dynasty.) Scott seems too good to be true, but his character never develops to the point where we understand what his deal is. He starts dating rival teacher Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch), who makes all teachers look bad (not to mention irritating, over-zealous, deluded, and out-of-touch) and arouses Elizabeth's competitive spirit. Meanwhile, Elizabeth balks at the advances of the friendly gym teacher (Jason Segel), who may be kind of a slob but is at his core a pretty good guy.

That's pretty much the story. Bad Teacher runs out of direction before it begins, and you enjoy some of the comic set-ups that unfold, but the whole time you wish for a better movie. You wish the writing were more structured because it could give the cast the chance to fly comically. As it is, they merely carry the dead weight of an unimaginative script. Cameron Diaz has always possessed a strong ability to relate to the audience, but she's marginalized by her own character in Bad Teacher. When she rolls her eyes at some inanity that's happening to her, we're rolling ours too. When she reacts with hostility to the stupidity of her students' papers, we're totally with her. But the movie hasn't developed her character, her relationship with the students, or the students' characters, enough for that aspect of the story to really work. The movie juggles several different loosely connected plot lines and then mashes them together in an attempt to bring continuity and coherence. There's also no force in Bad Teacher. It doesn't build up the way it should, and you can sense that it's going nowhere fast pretty early early on. The lack of comic suspense makes every scene feel like a sitcom sketch with no payoff (the writers work on The Office).

As a comedy, it's funny but in a dumb way. You'll feel like a jackass for laughing, or maybe a vulgarian, but you'll probably laugh anyway. Just not as much or has hard as you laugh in Bridesmaids, which is a movie that, despite its predictable plot, is one of the funniest comedies of the year. Bridesmaids had a cast that was allowed to bring the comic scenes to a full-on boil. Here, things only simmer if they ever get heated up at all. 

It's not enough for a movie to be dirty or for it to revel in badness. There needs to be some reason to root for the protagonist, even if she's on the level of an anti-hero. This is the problem of The Hangover and Sideways. You couldn't really be on the side of the main characters because they were self-centered pricks. The boys who wrote Bad Teacher have constructed a woman after their own heart in some ways. She's mean and crude and calculating but she's also lazy and disinterested, to the point that you wonder how she motivates herself to stoop even to the level of whoring herself out for a husband. It's like a combination of some Victorian marriage comedy and Sex and the City, without the witty dialogue or the prudish morality. Bad Teacher is too deflated to resonate the way it should have. Cameron Diaz carries it the movie, or maybe drags it, but I kept wanting more from her, and I knew she was capable of giving more if the makers had known what they were doing. I wanted them to use the smart side of Cameron Diaz. She was so good in In Her Shoes, where she played a similarly dysfunctional person. She pulls off the snarky bitchy thing well, but you keep wondering why her character has such low-brow ambitions in life. We're never given enough to justify or understand this.

And don't even think about seeing Bad Teacher if you want some kind of a morality tale. It's not out to instruct. That was probably the only consistent thing about the movie. While Elizabeth violates a lot of ethics rules with a shocking level of impunity, to punish her would have shown a lack of conviction. I guess they figured, hell, if you're gonna do it, do it. If this movie is about anything, it's about rooting for the heels of society who cut corners and don't give a crap about how they affect others. To give Elizabeth some kind of miraculous change of heart at the end would have been a fraud. Elizabeth is the disingenuous type. She's not about to have that blinded-by-the-light moment where everything turns around for good.

The makers of Bad Teacher certainly don't care about Elizabeth being respected or good at her job. She's really just an outlet for anyone who was ever been a teacher (or maybe just anyone who ever hated his job) to do all the wrong things and not get caught.

Directed by Jake Kasdan. With John Michael Higgins, Phyllis Smith, Eric Stonestreet, Thomas Lennon, and Molly Shannon.

June 23, 2011


Readers familiar with Christopher Guest's mock documentary A Mighty Wind (2003) will find a kindred spirit in Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), a sort of character mosaic of Nashville life. It has more guts and honesty than A Mighty Wind, though. It's ironic and funny, but it also treats its subjects with a much deeper care for the  tragic futility of their pursuits. Altman depicts the city as an eclectic--or maybe just eccentric--mixture of a countrified Hollywood and a evangelicized D.C. It's the kind of place where its celebrities exercise their vices on Saturday and sing solos in church on Sunday. The cast, which is gargantuan, reportedly did a lot of its own musical material, lending an improvisational quality to the movie. But it goes on forever.

The movie doesn't wallow in the despair of its characters, all of whom are pretty depressed (subconsciously if not openly), it just forces us to watch as they collapse in front of fans or put on a happy face to make it through another performance or interview or party, or whatever the occasion is. Nashville might not feel as relevant to today's reality TV audience. The has-been celebrities with their narcissism on constant display make complete buffoons of themselves on a regular basis. In Nashville, no one is trying to look foolish. Everyone's hanging on to their dignity like it's a tattered old coat, the only one they have left.

You do feel for some of the characters, and when you're not feeling very involved, which is about half of the time. (The movie is 160 minutes), there's always the music to pull you back in. Somehow, the music makes the movie make sense. One of Altman's earlier films, The Long Goodbye, had a wonderfully distant, decayed mood to it, but it also seemed rambling and at times uninvolving. It captured the sort of ugly truth of 1940's film noir, which may have been cynical, but carried a sort of mythology about it that being a private eye was glamorous. Altman got through to audiences the reality of the job, via Elliott Gould's deadpan, madly dogged Phillip Marlowe.

Gould shows up here in a cameo as himself, schmoozing with a country music star named Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who's like a much shorter combination of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. He's absolutely ridiculous, and yet he's worshiped by his devoted fans as though he's the King of Nashville. His wife (played well by Barbara Baxley) is a shriveled up booze-bag with a booming, wailing, siren of a voice. She's hysterically funny. She's so obsessed with the Kennedys that she goes to mass on Sundays, and her boozing seems to be rooted in a sense of loss for the "Camelot" dynasty.

Nashville was highly praised when it came out in 1975, and perhaps the exciting promise of the actors involved with it, and the hipness that was associated with liking Robert Altman's films, contributed to its success with critics. As a musical--much of the film features original country songs performed by many of the actors playing musicians--it's one of the most authentic of its genre. In fact, this might be the truest sense of what a musical is, realistically. The realism of the music business is a picture of diminishing ideals and increasing profits.

I think Altman comes close to importing into the 1970s the mood that F. Scott Fitzgerald created about the 1920s. Fitzgerald wrote about how the American Dream was really something corrupt, decayed, and desperate. This is a movie about trying to please the world in the midst of corruption, decay, and death. Physical death to be sure, but also a kind of inner personal destruction. Ronee Blakley comes off very well as Barbara Jean, a beautiful country singer, genuinely in love with her fans, who's losing it and can't accept the reality. She keeps having mysterious health scares in public, and Altman paints her as a tragic figure. She's absolutely beautiful when she sings.

Another character, a reporter for the BBC named Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), is truly voyeuristic in her fascination with America (she's apparently doing research for a documentary on Nashville's music scene). Opal makes a frighteningly funny observation about a car crash that happens early in the movie: that crash, she says, is inherently American. It's fast, violent, brutal, and deadening. Altman underlines this later with a scene of the reporter talking into a recorder while she wanders about a demolition center. The cars are mangled and in some cases unrecognizable, and she even compares the reddening rust to dried blood stains.

Lily Tomlin also makes an impression as a mild-mannered housewife who sings in the choir of a black church. Tomlin has such a wonderful comic energy. When she laughs, it seems to erupt out of her and fill up the room. We see this in a movie she did several years later called The Late Show. It's here too, but mitigated by her character's sense of unhappiness. There's a wonderful scene where she watches Keith Carradine's character perform the song, "I'm Easy." Paul Lohmann's camera closes in on her sad face, which seems torn between the guilt of following her desires and the guilt of letting them slip away for morality's sake. Quite a wonderful paradox of inner-conflict. Tomlin was nominated for an Oscar.

The music is admittedly wonderful--even though I'm not crazy about country music. It's very much alive, and I guess that's why Nashville was so celebrated. It's surely a movie about that seemingly brief, magical moment of vitality in a person's sad march toward unhappiness, corruption, and death. It may be the most readily accessible theme in Altman's work as a director, too. As an epic, it's much more honest and heartfelt than a Gone With the Wind or a Giant. As a character study, the movie is pulled in so many different directions you feel at a loss to identify with many of them. It's a testament to the acting and the editing (credited to Dennis Hill and Sidney Levin) that the characters do come through most of the time.

With Ned Beatty, David Arkin, Timothy Brown, Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, David Hayward, Michael Murphy, Allan Nichols, Dave Peel, Gwen Welles,

June 21, 2011

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is a re-imagining of the 1956 cult classic directed by Don Seigel. In the 1950's version, people read into it a social commentary on the communist scare that seemed to be gripping the nation. Ultimately, it was a fear of becoming un-American. Identity was so wrapped up in nationalism that to lose your Americanism might have felt like the ultimate displacement. It was set within the banal landscape of suburban America, where everyone was already a conformist anyway. The aliens, unseen except in the form of seemingly harmless pods with little flowers on them, are making duplicates of the townspeople so that they can take over their world.

Twenty years later, Philip Kaufman retells this weird story (originally conceived by Jack Finney in his novel, The Body Snatchers) in San Francisco, hardly a foe to the non-conformist. The movie uses its racially and ethnically diverse, politically liberal and liberated city as a wonderfully ironic backdrop: besides the fact that it's a crowded city, it's a modern, hip city, and so how can you really tell that people are suddenly acting out of the ordinary? There is no ordinary there.

Brooke Adams plays Elizabeth, a lab analyst for the public health department. Her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle) wakes up acting rather different from his usual demeanor, and it starts to freak her out. When she tells her colleague and confidant Matthew (Donald Sutherland), he suggests a consultation with his shrink-friend Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). The movie mocks our increasing reliance on therapy as a panacea for unhappiness and discontentment, and in Body Snatchers, Dr. Kibner is proffered up as some kind of 20th century Messiah. We meet him at a book signing, where he's being inundated with fans/readers in need of counseling. His calm, emotionless persona (which probably served him well as Dr. Spock in the Star Trek movies) is already so much like one of those pod people that you're immediately suspicious of him. He seems to care about finding solutions, and yet he doesn't seem to listen to people. He's condescending, as though he's aware of some supreme joke that his needy patients couldn't possibly get.

Matthew's friends, Jack and Nancy Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright), have their own pod person encounter when something that looks like a duplicate of Jack begins growing in their massage parlor. Jack notes how the features resemble his, but that the thing is unformed, lacking such recognizably human features as fingerprints or respiration. As the pods progress throughout the city, Elizabeth, Matthew, Jack, and Nancy become increasingly alienated in their conviction that something is terribly awry in their world.

There has yet to be a better version of this story. Kaufman injects into it a really kooky atmosphere. The cinematography, by Michael Chapman, is first-rate. He uses lots of off-kilter angles to give the movie a distorted look (this, coupled with the setting of hilly, already distorted looking San Francisco, makes you feel like nothing is very grounded or "sane" to begin with). The music by Denny Zeitlin is at times like something from John Williams, but then he infuses it with pulsating synthesizers that zing at just the right moments, reminding you of the corny period of movie-making from which this movie hails, the 1950s. It was an era obsessed with half-human monsters and apocalyptic alien invasions. The 1970s, up until the tail-end of the decade, was much more interested in lighter space fare. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) was about the beauty and mystery and mutual admiration of an alien encounter. And then there was Star Wars, which wasn't really about alien encounters, but certainly took away the anxiety about them that people have so often worked out in movies.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 joins the ranks of the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the decade, from Klute to The Conversation to All the President's Men. It channels the vibe going through a country that was freaked out and frustrated by the government, politicians, public leaders in general, institutions, crime. I kept thinking about David Fincher's 2007 movie Zodiac, which is about the Zodiac Killer who terrorized San Francisco in the early 70s. Invasion of the Body Snatchers puts the city into an altogether different state of panic, but the fear of losing one's identity is a fear that can be transmuted to serve the needs of any genre, be it science fiction, horror, drama, or documentary. The pod people are soulless drones like George Romero's zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1979), or the brain-dead Barbie doll women in The Stepford Wives (1975). The only difference is that in Body Snatchers, the pod people are masterful survivalists. They're adapting to our world and our human forms. The drones in Dawn of the Dead are just reanimated corpses, and the drones in The Stepford Wives are robots. They're not surviving.

As for the performances, Brooke Adams gives probably her best, most believable one. She has a natural likeability that is so often hampered by the material of the movies she's in, or maybe the directors haven't had the ability to draw it out of her. She shines in this, as does Veronica Cartwright, who's sizzling with energy. Ridley Scott apparently wanted her to put a lid on that in Alien, but in Body Snatchers Kaufman lets her run wild. She's the ultimate eccentric in the land of eccentrics. Almost all of the actors in this movie have done notable work in the genre before or after Body Snatchers, with the possible exception of Donald Sutherland, who carries the film rather well. It was scripted by W.D. Richter.

June 17, 2011

The Beaver

In The Beaver, which is directed by and co-starring the wonderful Jodie Foster, we watch Mel Gibson suffer some kind of nervous breakdown onscreen, and Foster, as his devoted wife, somehow doesn't crack, too much, under all the pressure. Gibson plays Walter Black, the executive of a toy manufacturer who suddenly just stops functioning. Something clicks inside him, something inexplicable, and he's no longer the Walter that his employees, his colleague (played by the elegant Cherry Jones), his wife, or his two sons (Anton Yelchin and Riley Thomas Stewart) knew.

As an eccentric form of coping, Walter adorns a beaver puppet on his hand, and from that point on speaks "through" the puppet (using his Australian accent for the beaver). This brings back to life the old Walter in a new way, but on the other hand, the puppet is weird, and Walter's wife wonders how long this "therapy" will continue.

Meanwhile, Walter's teenage son Porter doesn't get on well with his dad. He didn't before the beaver thing started, and he certainly doesn't now. Porter supplements his income by writing papers for other high schoolers (and charging 200 dollars a pop). He's desperately trying to keep track of all his father's weird habits so he can teach himself to eschew them. With all the money he's saving, he can try and travel in an effort to separate himself from his painful memories.

But what is the true source of the pain? The movie is sort of vague in that department. Obviously Walter changed dramatically and this affected everyone in his life. But why did he change? And how do you classify the change? And how do you fix the change? The Beaver lets these merciless questions linger in the air as its story unfolds, and gradually you stop asking why and accept the realities. I think that's what Jodie Foster and the screenwriter, Kyle Killen, were trying to get across from the start: that most of the time explanations are elusive, and in the end they don't change much anyway.

The movie dances between abject horror and dark comedy at all times. You may be on the verge of tears as The Beaver tugs ruthlessly at your heartstrings, milking you the way certain movies do (soft music swells, and a touching image conjures up memories of your own inner-pain). But the movie, I think, critiques our tendency to be taken in by overly sentimental movies just as much as it tries to take us in, to elicit tears and sympathy from us like an old woman who knows how to look pathetic in order to garner pity.

It seems like some wryly funny comic wind buffets the lowest moments of the characters, whether it's Walter or his wife or his teenage son. When Walter is trying to commit suicide, he bungles it badly, and we've really no choice but to laugh at this poor, pathetic man, who's so screwed up he can't even hang himself correctly.

I liked The Beaver a lot, and I wasn't sure I would. It seemed so eccentric. But Jodie Foster has helped create something worthwhile in this movie. It doesn't seek to answer the problems of life for us, but instead, it has the tenacity to demonstrate how truly disturbed our worlds can become, and then reminds us not to expect too many answers too soon, if ever.

Also starring Jennifer Lawrence. Playing exclusively at 5 Pointes Theatre.

June 16, 2011

Jane Eyre

A compact adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's semi-gothic romance, directed by Cary Fukunaga and written by Moira Buffini. It's hard to fathom the skill involved in telling Jane Eyre under two hours without missing the subtle, deliberately paced story elements which have made the book such an enduring tale. What the movie lacks as far as development it makes up for in visual energy and pace. It captures the grimness of the plight of women--particularly lower-class women--and yet there's an ethereal lightness that Adriano Goldman captures in his camera work. He brings a breathtaking sense of vitality to the new Jane Eyre.

The casting is spot on. As Jane, Mia Wasikowska knows how to convey the turbulent spirit of her character. Her passion refuses to be quelled by social conventions. And yet she refuses to disrespect herself or her sense of right and wrong. As Rochester, Michael Fassbender has the right mixture of rugged incisiveness and vulnerability. I think Charlotte Bronte would agree that Rochester is a dick, but Jane somehow sees past the irritating aspects of his personality to the good inside him, the tortured soul.

During the fateful wedding scene (I'll avoid spoilers for those of you who haven't read the novel or seen any of the other film adaptations), I laughed because it seems one of the fixations of Victorian literature has been the tortured hero, the man with a deep, dark secret. It's always such a shock to everyone else, or at least to the heroine, who's so innocent, so unspoiled, that she could never imagine some other kind of life for her darling husband-to-be. Men have the remarkable quality of being both earnestly guilty for our actions and ravenously hungry for more. Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll/Hyde character is perhaps one of the best embodiments of this in all of pop literature. Bronte's Rochester is another. He's pure appetite.

Jane makes it plain in the movie that she might be just like him if she could. The constraints put on women at the time forbid this, of course, and the movie is a testament to how wretched was the condition of most women. They were taught propaganda by cruel, hard Calvinists without a speck of compassion in their veins. Jane refuses to believe the propaganda, and Mia Wasikowska somehow manages to convey all the complex emotions of the character with very little dialogue to put her feelings into words. She's a woman who thinks and feels so much more than she can say, and the movie itself is the same way. There's so much tacit emotion within the frames, so much that cannot be contained by the frames. You feel that the makers could have done something even more spectacular with an original work. Adapting Victorian novels seems almost like an obstacle, except that it allows us to experience a kind of oppression (and repression) we might not otherwise understand.

I don't want to spend too much time comparing Jane Eyre the movie to Jane Eyre the book. I think that's an unfair way to look at the latest incarnation of the Bronte story, because I think we should evaluate the movie for what it is, rather than what it isn't. We can't fault the filmmakers for not making a direct translation. What would be the point of making the movie, then? What we can be glad for is a literate, passionate yet controlled movie that isn't bogged down in exposition, and somehow manages to capture a magnetic sense of lyricism. There's not really any romanticism about the past. There's the picture of two souls who feel lost without each other. They're spiritually connected. Near the end, St. John (pronounced Sin Jin) lightly mocks Jane for speaking to Rochester even though he's nowhere nearby. St. John asks incredulously, "why are you talking to the air?" Jane feels a connection to him, an urgent calling. St. John, a devout minister and missionary, whole-heartedly believes in spiritual connections, but not that kind. He's unable or unwilling to consider the possibility. Jane, on the other hand, is willing. She doesn't shut life out, as much as life has tried to shut her out.

Judi Dench plays the head housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax; Jamie Bell plays the devout preacher St. John; Imogen Poots is Rochester's vapid flirt, Blanche Ingram; Sally Hawkins plays Jane's unfeeling Aunt Reed; and Romy Settbon plays Adele, Rochester's ward.

Playing exclusively at 5 Pointes Theatre thru June 23!

June 15, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen has always approached the fantastic without feeling a need to explain it or unravel its mystery. He's dealt with the collision course of the real and the unreal in such films as The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), where a movie character leaves the screen and enters the life of a Depression-era waitress played by Mia Farrow; and, more recently, in Sleuth (2006), which was a wonderfully witty mystery yarn where we witnessed the murdered victim's journey down the river Styx, where she expresses her frustration over the events that lead to her death.

In Midnight in Paris, Allen takes us to the City of Light and layers it with the mysterious undercurrents of time travel. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a would-be novelist who's bored and dissatisfied with the success he's had as a self-proclaimed hack screenwriter. He's lost his sense of enchantment with movies, turning instead toward literary pursuits. He dreams of living in Paris in the 20s, when all the expatriates were there on seemingly never-ending holidays, drinking and dancing and having deep, sophisticated conversations into the night; and falling in and out love; and realizing the vision of their art.

Instead, Gil is visiting Paris with his fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams), who's not very enchanted by Paris, at least, not at first. Gil's hoping for stormy weather so he can stroll through the city in the rain. She's perplexed by this, views it as eccentric. Her parents are with them (they're played by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), and they don't connect with their future son-in-law at all. It's as if the city exposes all the differences between Gil's and Inez's personalities for the first time, or perhaps it just illuminates them on a grander scale, and suddenly her lack of romanticism is driving him up the wall. Plus, they unexpectedly meet an old friend of Inez (Michael Sheen) and his wife (Nina Arianda). He's a professor of art, and his knowledge impresses Inez, who admits that she had a crush on him in college.

The stage is set for reality to take an unexpected backseat in Gil's life. He is transported back to 1920's Paris. He meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his loopy wife Zelda (Alison Pill), and Cole Porter Yves Heck), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial De Fonzo Bo), and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), to name a handful. It's the most delightful moment if you go into this movie with absolutely no knowledge of what's going to take place. And especially if you have any interest in the artists and writers of the 1920s, it's like a wonderful dream. Gil finds himself being drawn into this other-worldly encounter every night at midnight, and he begins to develop a romantic interest with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a muse/lover of Hemingway and Picasso.

Allen's movies of the last few years have had a strangely ineffectual slightness to them when you get beneath their witty, refreshing premises. Midnight in Paris isn't any different in that sense. Beyond the surprisingly fun idea, is a movie that sort of meanders along without anything much to say. Gil learns that you have to live in the moment, rather than dreaming about the past, idolizing it to the point where an era becomes a fantasyland that never really existed. There are moments, however, that make Midnight in Paris a joy. It's the movie's wonderfully intoxicating love of the past that plays with your head even when the "message" is trying to tell you not to worship the past too much. It can be dangerous, after all.  Plus, you'll find that in every era there were people who felt they were missing out for being born in the wrong moment of history.

Allen, who has done quite a few nostalgia pieces, might very well be writing a cautionary tale to himself. Indeed, Gil's character seemed perfect for Allen if this were 1975. Diane Keaton could have been Inez. In 2011, Wilson and McAdams make an acceptable pairing, but I've always found Owen Wilson to be slightly uninteresting. He seems to be totally lacking in intrigue. McAdams has a wonderfully likeable quality, but that is squelched here by a character who's a complete drag. And she's off having a wonderful time with the snooty college professor while her husband is having bizarre experiences that might have been the result of a bad LSD trip.

June 13, 2011

Please Give

Please Give is a movie about the tragedy of existence. If that sounds like hell, that's because it is. Nicole Holofcener, who wrote and directed the movie, is keenly aware that her subject matter is grim and unappealing. She laces each scene with comic undercurrents. They're not throwaways--they're more like hilariously grim reminders that there isn't much value in taking things too seriously, whether it's age, work, or social relationships.

It's set in New York City, a place that seems ideal for capturing the feeling of a lost soul wandering through a sea of other lost souls, invisible in the noise and the quiet desperation. Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), a husband and wife who buy furniture from the children of dead people, are waiting for their 91-year-old neighbor Andra (Ann Guilbert) to die so they can expand their apartment into hers (which they've already purchased). Andra has two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet). While Rebecca masks her disdain for her grandmother by taking care of her like a dutiful grandchild, Mary is openly hostile toward her grandmother. Andra doesn't give a shit about anything. She's too old to care about maintaining relationships, and her body parts are failing, rapidly decaying her quality of life.

Rebecca is a radiologist who specializes in mammograms. She deals with the beginning of death, the initial shock of bad news. Andra stands (or rather, hobbles) at the thresh-hold of death, waiting to go just as everyone else is waiting for her so they can move on with their lives. Kate works in the aftermath of death. She's got a bleeding heart but can't seem to find a way to deal with it. She keeps giving money to homeless people. And she tries assuaging the guilt she feels (for being some kind of Antiques Roadshow Grim Reaper) by helping the less fortunate, or at least thinking about helping them. She tries visiting with the elderly, then the mentally disabled, but she's all jelly inside and gets overcome by her own sympathy. It's like the sympathy she feels--as well as the correlating sense of helplessness--is the only thing that gives her life meaning. Kate wants to stop feeling guilt, but she isn't willing to really change the things that make her feel guilty (or think about why they do). Moreover, she's unwilling to face the bleak realities of her marriage and her relationship with her daughter, played by Sarah Steele.

Keener's character is just irritating. The things she doesn't seem to be aware of are matched only by her disgustingly patronizing good intentions. Peet's performance is wonderfully vivid as Andra's beautiful elder grandchild, who feels like a loser despite her beautiful features. She's having an affair with Alex for some untenable reason. Her callousness is made to be a point of comic release for us. It's like she says what we're thinking. She vents the inner frustrations of her nicer, shell shocked sister.

The performances make Please Give worth seeing. It has a slightness about it though, as though we will forget what we've seen. The humor--which is deep at the heart of the movie--lets us laugh at the characters' sense of self-seriousness, drawing something much more real out of them. But watching Please Give is also like catching a little glimpse into the lives of real people. Holofcener explored similar stories of frustrated women in Friends With Money. She's making good movies that aren't getting seen by very many people, but you can check out Please Give via netflix's instant streaming feature.

June 09, 2011

Super 8

E.T. meets Stand By Me meets The Goonies meets Alien. J.J. Abrams is trying to be the new Spielberg. He's introducing popcorn movies with heart for the youtube age, such as Cloverfield, which was shot in documentary style, entirely from the point-of-view of a handheld camera. Super 8 further develops the director's love of movies without the obnoxious shaking camera. Abrams, who wrote the script, is much more interested in the relationship between five middle school age boys (and one girl), who are trying to make a zombie movie and submit it to a local student film festival. The film is set in a small Ohio town in 1979, and the bossy, self-proclaimed director of the movie has just seen Dawn of the Dead and wants to replicate its success. His bedroom is decked out in movie posters and memorabilia--a wonderful blender-room of popular culture of the late 1970s.

However, a train collision, which the kids manage to capture on film, changes everything. The military arrives to retrieve the train's mysterious cargo, and afterward they descend upon the town without telling the public why. Meanwhile, the kids start trying to piece together the mystery for themselves. But the less you know about the plot of Super 8 the better, because Abrams reveals things slowly (he's of the old school where you show as little of the monster as possible to build up audience anticipation). He makes the kids fun and engaging. Their stories are unique, their ambitions are sincere, and their attempt to look and act like adults is charmingly funny.

The performances are quite good. The lead part of Joe Lamb is played by Joel Courtney, who does a remarkable job carrying the movie, the way Henry Thomas did in E.T. (when E.T. himself wasn't stealing the show). His father is played by Kyle Chandler, a local deputy, who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Stuart Whitman. Elle Fanning plays the girl Joe is in love with (she's also the ingenue for the zombie movie). The rest of the kids are played by Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Riley Griffiths, and Gabriel Basso.

Super 8 works because of the humor and because J.J. Abrams has such masterful control of the cinematic conventions he's apparently been soaking up all his life. While the alien plot doesn't score points for originality, it's wonderfully simple, and the movie doesn't feel as fetishistic about explosions as the rest of the crap that's coming out this summer. It becomes a bit booming at the end, but Abrams has done the work of winning us over long before he pulls out the eye candy. Yes, a good story is still enthralling (much more so than special effects and explosions), and you will find one in Super 8.

June 05, 2011

X-Men: First Class

A friend of mine accused me of being out of sync with popular culture because I expressed a lack of desire to see Thor. I had an equally strong feeling of malaise when it came to the new X-Men movie, particularly because I remember seeing X2 a number of years ago and being bored out of my mind. X-Men: First Class was better than I expected, but not by much. The characters were fairly interesting, but the movie suppressed any of the humorous aspects of its plot. Every time it let loose for a moment to be light and let you laugh at the weirdness of its characters, it seemed like the director was pulling on the reins, reminding everyone that this is a serious freaking superhero movie, people.

The dialogue was rather mechanical. But most of the audience seemed conditioned to it, so hardly anyone laughed at how ludicrous some of it was. More ludicrous still was the movie's attempt to engage with recent political history, inserting X-Men into the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. (Who knew it was mutants that averted World War III?)

Meanwhile, the coming attractions were ominous and depressing: nothing but wretched apocalyptic superhero movies all summer, as though turning off your brain is the only option at the movies between May and September. It's so unfortunate that the good movies are shoved into one tiny part of the calendar. There are always surprises, but they are the exceptions. X-Men: First Class was okay for what it was, but after a while it's all the same, and you keep wondering why people are still paying to see this stuff over and over again? The 2009 Star Trek was much better.

Popular culture includes, but is not limited to, mindless superhero fodder. Unfortunately, it seems like the only thing studios are willing to risk any money on during the summer. We're at the mercy of people who care about money much more than they care about the movies. It's like we're supposed to feel lucky X-Men was mediocre. But should we be content to settle for mediocrity and elevate it to a status of greatness simply because it's not quite as bad as the rest of the drivel out there?

Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till, Caleb Jones. Directed by Matthew Vaughn.