Monday, September 27, 2010

Easy A (dir. Will Gluck)

Seriously...never underestimate what a good cast and a likable lead can do for you. Never say that script, or even direction, is the be all and end all in pictures. Though, as we learn here, lacking in either department will hinder the hell out of it.

Because Easy A would be almost worthless if not for a lot of people. Especially if not for Emma Stone, about whom it's tempting to simply say "Emma Stone is awesome!" for five paragraphs and call it a day. I'm not going to say I've been aching for Stone to get a shot like this - I liked her well enough in Superbad and Zombieland, but she never really made a huge impression. Her work here, however, is the makings of a true movie star. It's a smartly-written role, to be sure, as good as the well-adjusted, clever, insightful, beyond-her-years teen role gets, but there's little question that Stone owns it in a way only a movie star can. She's well supported, especially by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci - who play her parents - and the fact that they steal every scene they're in is a testament not only to how talented they are, but to Stone's ability to hold her own as an equal.

And there is a movie worthy of her command buried in here. As sloppy and unmotivated as the film is (every second of Lisa Kudrow's character should have been cut, for starters), as many emotional shortcuts as it takes, it still manages to tackle relevant issues in a smart way. Olive (Stone) gains a certain amount of popularity for the sexual activity she's believed to have taken part in, but when she carries the lie too far, the school starts to turn on her. Granted, this happens to an almost ridiculous degree - rumors seem to have hit everyone at the school within an hour, and the other kids actually make protest signs to demean her - but the concerns are legitimate and relevant for young people today. How much sex is too much sex? Any? And with how many people? Where's the line between keeping your sex life private and engaging in modern discourse?

I attended Catholic high school, and one of the less promiscuous ones at that. I never knew a world where teenage sex was a normal part of the landscape. Nevertheless, you'd hear stories told in whispered tones far from adult ears. They never included anyone you were terribly close with. Football players and cheerleaders, as stereotypical as that may seem, were too often the subject, though for all I know they were telling stories of my fellow drama nerds I couldn't imagine. They were typically outlandish, exciting, and all too often a little gross. But they always seemed to be happening outside of my experience. Somewhere over there.

It's interesting then to think about these conversations happening in high schools across the country, and I know they do. We are perhaps a richer society for heightened sexual awareness, but there is still a societal battle between our puritanical roots and the eventuality of some sort of enlightenment (or acceptance, as you prefer). This film represents one of the markers of the state of this battle, though it makes no bones about casting religious conservatives in a tone not only unfair, but also dramatically flat.

For young people, sex represents an exciting, but dangerous, step into adulthood. Like any similar milestone, it is exciting only in the process preceding, during, and immediately following crossing into it. And although no sex actually occurs in this film - the grand conceit is that all of these matters are addressed with nary a thrust - Olive's journey is an outward expression of something very personal and relevant: the publication of something private.

That Olive embraces, wholeheartedly, her newfound popularity as "one of the sexed" is no surprise, and neither is her belief of "more is better." I've heard criticism that someone as smart and well-adjusted as Olive would never do anything as deeply stupid as the decisions that drive this narrative - which begins with lying about losing her virginity, becomes lying about having sex with the school's outcasts, and blossoms into being the school's resident sex bomb - but they simply forget, or possibly never experienced, the drug of popularity. It is nearly impossible at that or any age to turn away from something that gets you noticed.

And this is why I really liked this movie in spite of itself. There are ideas, themes, and a relevant message at the beating heart of this movie, so when all else fails, you still have a lot worth clinging onto. Well, that and Emma Stone is frickin' amazing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Railin' Around Town

That is the WORST title for a blog post ever.

That said, there are no less than two (TWO!) blogathons going on right now, and I'm participating in...the two to which I refer.

First, Jeremy over at Moon in the Gutter is hosting the excellent Paul Thomas Anderson blogathon, so I contributed a piece I wrote...over a year ago at this point. So if you weren't reading me then, read it now! I'm exceptionally proud of it.

Next, Fletch of the Blog Cabins is putting on a 30 Days of Crazy blogathon, which gave me the opportunity to finally - finally! - do that Barton Fink piece I've always wanted to write. Which is to say, me writing anything about Barton Fink, far and away my favorite Coen Brothers film. I really didn't expect to write what I did, but hey, there you have it.

Fresh content soon, I promise. My work schedule went from me barely being there to me being there all the time, but I saw two new movies this weekend and I'm on vacation next weekend, which means plenty of airport-and-plane writing time.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Anyone who says old movies don't have the pace and excitement of modern films owe it to themselves to watch this sequence, the final showdown of Howard Hawks' Red River. It's the best testament to how exciting classic framing and cutting can be that I can imagine.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Diversion (But What a Diversion!)

I've been rewatching The Red Shoes over the last couple of days (not like on repeat, mind you, just here and there as time allows), having seen it only the once (and now owning the magnificent Criterion Blu-Ray). I've already gone on record about how magnificent it is, and it is one of the highest regarded films, like, of all time, so there's really no call for this other than pure celebration of those rare movies that are absolutely perfect. There is, quite literally, nothing wrong with this film. Everything I ache for at the movies - purity of expression, honesty of emotion, and no concessions - is present here. God, this is magnificent.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Limits The American's Control

I've written in the past (about another George Clooney film, in fact) how delicate a balance is required in order to maintain mood and tone in the cinema. All the good one sets out to accomplish can be so easily undone with the slightest nudge.

The American is a film all about mood and tone, and for it to be successful, it needs to take an extraordinarily measured approach in shot composition and editing. As Martin Scorsese said, "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out," and the director of a film such as The American must have absolute command over this principle. Keeping in mind such antecedents as Antonioni's The Passenger, Melville's Le Samourai, and Jarmusch's The Limits of Control would be advised, though not strictly necessary. Any Antonioni or Jarmusch will do.

And when I say The American falls short of those films' achievements, I mean that neither as a backhanded compliment nor as a negative reaction. After all, I don't even really like The Limits of Control all that much. But it without a doubt sets a specific tone and maintains it absolutely for its running time. With The American, director Anton Corbijn establishes a certain mood but hasn't the full courage of his convictions. His tempo is measured and calm for much of the film, fitting his protagonist's manner, and Clooney is well up to the task of turning his natural instincts way down. The Clooney charm can't help but peak through from time to time, but this is otherwise a side of Clooney we've not yet seen. It's not just his calm (we've seen that in Solaris) - it's his control. Like Clooney, Corbijn can't quite maintain absolute control. Too often he buckles, allowing the music to flourish when quiet would be best, or removing us from our protagonist's point of view, to which we have otherwise been tethered.

Yet that simply makes The American an imperfect film, though thankfully not fatally so. One wants to praise this to the heavens in the midst of all the "it's too slow!" remarks burdening the Internets, but one must still be honest. It is still a wondeful, rapturous film, full of the tension that comes about only in quiet. The introspection of watching a man absolutely in his element (in constructing a rifle or working out) and completely out of it (the film's final moments in particular). The limits, that is, of his own control.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Going the Distance (dir. Nanette Burstein)

Never underestimate what can be done with a great cast and likeable protagonists.

Going the Distance is far from a perfect film or even a very good one. It tells a much longer story than really works when you're trying to bring it in under two hours, without really acknowledging this essential problem. The movie takes place over the course of a year or so, but this is one of those films where not a lot seems to happen between the moments they choose to show us from this time. A lot of the jokes fall flat, and the supporting characters are pretty stock. The romance central to the film is built almost entirely via montage.

But it does work in a way these sort of stock films so often don't, and a lot of credit goes to the cast. Justin Long and Drew Barrymore play Garrett and Erin, who fall in love before Erin has to move away and try to make a go of it in a long-distance relationship. These are two fairly polarizing performers, and the worst things you can say about them are because of these sorts of roles, where they have to be relatable and likeable but simply come off as bland.

Luckily, writer Geoff LaTulippe has a character that seems tailor-made for Barrymore, giving us her usual ditz five or ten years down the line as a 31-year-old intern trying to make up for the follies of youth. Both she and Long are given actual characters with wants and desires totally outside of what they're looking for in each other, and their struggles are driven by what real people struggle with in their situation - trying to wed professional aims with a relationship that works really well. They don't fight over stupid, shallow things. They don't take petty measures to "get back" at the other person. They're just normal people trying to make the best of a bad situation. It seems simple, and yet this is the exception.

What really makes this film rev is the supporting cast. Erin lives with her sister's family, and Christina Applegate and Jim Gaffigan are just as good as you'd expect. Applegate is hindered by playing what could commonly be defined as the Leslie Mann in Knocked Up role, which is an irritating, never funny character, but she pushes through all right in some key moments. Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis play Garrett's friends; Day is playing a more likeable version of his It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia madman, which will cause someone to say he "can only do that one thing," but...c'mon. Assuming that is true - I'm not familiar with the guy enough to know if that's all he has - any actor would kill to do one thing as well as Day does his thing, and any scene with him and Sudeikis is gold.

Sudeikis and Gaffigan ended up being the stand-outs in the cast for me. They're doing something you have a hard time coming across in mainstream comedies - the earnestly performed, ego-free supporting performance. There's no way to put it other than that they play the role they're given, and they play it very well. Better than either of the leads, and better than most leads in most films. Like a lot of things about this film, their performances are the kind of thing we should be able to take for granted. As we can't, they're almost worth seeing the film for all on their own.

I'm dying for some film to save the mainstream romantic comedy, that most despised of genres that too often earns its hate but which I do actually kind of love. This isn't it, but it's helping. It's sweet, and it tries to get at some real issues, and it does have a handful of very, very funny moments, but ultimately comes up a little short in some key areas.

Piranha 3D (dir. Alexandre Aja)

After the movies have enjoyed over one hundred years as the nation's (and perhaps the world's) preeminent artistic entertainment, it can be difficult for a modern artist to find new images with which to populate his or her film.

I can say with no uncertainty that Piranha 3D contains many images I've never seen. Mostly ones I'd never thought I'd see. Not only is it one of the most ferociously three-dimensional pictures to date (it quickly dispels with the notion that subtlety is best), the audacity of even showing us half of the things we are shown is insane. What else is one to make of a woman pulled out of the water to reveal she's missing her lower half? Or another whose face is removed when her hair becomes too entangled in a motor blade? Never mind everything that happens to Derrick, the mastermind behind a Girls Gone Wild-esque empire whose fate is so outrageous and prolonged that I dare not spoil it here.

There reaches a point when the piranha attack goes full tilt that you really cannot believe they can top each new gag, and yet somehow they do. It should become a parody of itself, and perhaps to some it is, but I instead saw a filmmaker who took his chance to make a piranha movie and became dead set on giving us the best piranha movie he could possibly give. And boy does he. Every single scene involving piranha is invariably awesome. From the opening scene, which utilizes comic book aesthetics as well as any direct comic adaptation to depict the demise of an old man (who may be familiar to you), to the last (which I'll leave for you to discover), this is go-for-broke, give-them-what-they-came-for, old fashioned entertainment spectacle. And it's glorious.

And then you get this underwater photography that, in 3-D, is stunning. There are shots as intoxicating as some of the imagery Avatar provided, if more...forward about their intent. Let's just say it - two attractive members of the fairer sex get completely naked and swim around. When underwater, director Alexandre Aja smartly pulls the frame back to keep their entire bodies in frame and pushes them as far forward as current 3-D technology will permit him, resulting people just floating in the middle of the theater. And naked, clothed, underwater, in space, whatever - this is exactly what I've been hoping for from 3-D. I'm sick of this nonsense that the only good 3-D is the kind you don't notice. If you can make people fly through the air right in front of me, that's sure as hell worth the extra $3.50. That's true spectacle. I dream of seeing things that only 3-D will permit, of an auditorium totally enveloped in the environment. Believe it or not, Piranha 3D gets us a little closer to this reality.

Machete (dir. Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis)

On May 5th of this year (i.e. Cinco de Mayo), Robert Rodriguez debuted a trailer for Machete that presented the film as a reaction to increasingly tight control over illegal immigration. This was just days, as I recall, after Arizona passed their unheard-of measures to tighten their border, and Danny Trejo's introduction provides no room for misinterpretation. And yet, two weeks later, Robert Rodriguez showed up to clear some things up. The immigration angle isn't all that important to the film. He just cut the trailer that way as a reaction to what was going on in Arizona. Isn't it fun what you can do to change the tone of a film through editing?

But now I have to wonder if someone put him up to it, because Machete is all about the state of immigration, and more specifically the debate about immigration, in this country. It's pretty much the entire thrust of the narrative. There are more than a couple instances where the film stops dead for a character to tout the virtues of keeping the borders quasi-open. Those against illegal immigration are portrayed as either naive, misinformed, or completely and totally evil. And even though anyone who says this is calling for a race riot is probably a little nuts, there is sort of a rallying cry thing happening here.

And whatever your feelings may be about the issue, it makes for a fascinating, if not totally successful, piece of filmmaking. It's an overstuffed film, for starters - too much plot that doesn't pay off or matter at all. It's one thing to say we're really just going to see Machete (Danny Trejo) hack his enemies to tiny pieces, but the film clearly demonstrates that it shares our interests. The opening scene, which details how Machete arrived at his current predicament, is really phenomenal, and the straightest take on the grindhouse aesthetic in the whole film. The execution of this scene will provide the template for all similar scenes to follow - when your protagonist uses a giant knife as his key weapon, the action should be up close and blunt. And so it is.

Rodriguez and Maniquis aren't shy about the show they're putting on here. At one point two nurses with uniforms ending just under their crotch step out of a van and grab semi-automatic rifles, and we get the big two-shot of them standing side-by-side blasting the hell out of everything. There are many, many low-angle hero shots of people holding gigantic weapons. Everything you think Machete is will absolutely prove to be true. Whether or not that's a good thing is totally up to your own taste. As super-violent macho men movies go, though, on a pure craftsmanship level, this was head-and-shoulders above The Expendables.

Even if it does get too caught up in its own storytelling, following too many threads to unsatisfying, unnecessary conclusions (huge aspects of Michelle Rodriguez's role could have been covered in one scene), when Machete does get rolling, it really gets rolling. As for the lefty preaching, I guess if that sort of thing bothers you, then you're out of luck. I've never much minded a film preaching politics opposite my own (as in The Dark Knight). It's just a little rough when they upset the narrative flow, which can be the case here. But hey, at least it's interesting for a film to have a strong, polarizing point of view for once.

Friday, September 3, 2010