Friday, December 31, 2010

One Minute Review (Maybe More like FIve Minutes) - The Blind Side

The Blind Side is the damnedest shame: a movie you so desperately want to like but one that ruins any chance at good faith around almost every corner. It's a film about serious issues and a powerful story that gets buried in golly-gosh-gee-shucks bubblegum sentimentality. If it didn't have so much white guilt it may have passed as a Tyler Perry vehicle.

The film is, of course, well made and well acted (although certainly not to any degree of justified awards recognition) and yet it's always either too lazy or far too simple-minded to get to the real heart of the story. This isn't so much the story of a black man who is given an amazing chance; it's the story of the white family who gives it to him. It's sad that, at what was then the beginning of 2010, Hollywood still can't tell a deeply felt, intelligent black story without the assistance of a white character to push things along.

Let's put it in context: would this film have been so easily made and widely distributed if it's hero Michael Oher was taken in by a black family? Would anyone care about the story if he was a white man in the same circumstances? The film never quite establishes (maybe it never quite figures out) whether we should cheer on Michael's success as a football player or pat the Touhy family on the back for doing such a good job by letting this man into their life. There's a scene in which Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock) shows Michael to his new bedroom and he says he's never had one before. His own bedroom, she asks? "A bed" is his response. Then the film sneaks in one extra shot as Leigh Anne goes into her room and sits down for a brief second to contemplate this. The scene becomes less about the inherent sadness of this statement and more about how wonderful this woman is for giving this man a place to stay.

But what would happen, realistically, if Michael, not an idiot, but none too good at school when he is taken in, had sparked romance with the Touhy's teenage daughter Collins? Would they have allowed a romance to blossom? Would they have given their daughter away willing for marriage to this large black man? One suspects that the simplified, Leave it to Beaver, rich white existence that the family leads isn't as simple as this film plays it out as (is it ever?). George Orwell, as the legend goes, may have ridden the train car with the lowly proletariat, but drink of their water bottle he would not.

But now I've gotten out of context and diverted away from the fact that, outside of any social reservations, The Blind Side just isn't any good as serious drama. Like it's hero it's too wide-eyed and cutesy, like a love sick puppy, to ever offer up the serious payoffs that such material sound naturally gravitate towards. When Michael plays his first football game the team starts off by getting pounded by their rivals. When Michael finally comes to he drives his mouthy white opponent all the way to the end of the field and pushes him over the barricade. Where was he going asks the coach. "To the Bus," Michael replies. "That guy had to go." They both share a big smile. Aho ho, what a card. God bless white southern affluence.

And then there's the son, SJ, played by Jae Head, a kid too precious for his own good, who is blond, has a face full of freckles, crooked kid teeth and can call upon funny faces whenever the script requires it. After a serious car accident involving Michael and the kid, Leigh Anne rushes to the scene, finds Michael on the curb, head clutched in regret. She spots the stretcher and sees blood stains on the kid's clothes until the camera shows SJ looking up and joking about whether the blood stains will come out of his clothes. Good thing too, director John Lee Hancock almost let a serious emotion creep into the film.

And then it ends with a voice-over from Sandra Bullock who tells of a newspaper report of a black kid who was killed on his 21st birthday due to gang violence. All the papers focused on how good an athlete he was and how much potential he would have had if he had just gotten out. "That could have been anyone," says Bullock. "Even my son Michael." Yes it could have. Unfortunately not every black kid in the South has a rich white family to take them in and pay for all their dreams to come true. And I'd bet my last dollar that we'll never get a movie about that other kid.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lest we Forget

For no discernible reason, John McTiernan's 2003 military thriller Basic popped into my head the other day. What was strange was that I had to stop whatever I was doing at the moment and place all of my concentration on pondering whether or not I had seen it. I knew that it was one of those movies that came out while I was in grade 12, a year in which I saw upwards of 10 new movies. It was a strange year for me. I had my regular 5 classes during that semester one of which was the drama production class so Romeo and Juliet ate up all of my spare time (I was Mercutio if you care to know) plus I was also doing an English class through correspondence because my high school had guidance counsellors whose last priority was providing guidance and so I was otherwise one credit short of graduating. Needless to say, watching new movies was not high on my priority list.

And then summer hit and for three straight months while University was still a distant concern, I played catch up. I had a girlfriend at the time who would tape me movies off of TMN (Canada's answer to HBO) which she had and I did not and so I juggled watching those while renting everything else to fill in the gaps. I also made a promise to myself that summer that I would rent everything new that came out on DVD that week as opposed to just the ones I had wanted to see as was standard procedure up until then. The greatest fear of any movie fanatic is to be asked questions about new movies and not having seen a one of them. I never wanted to be in that situation again.

Getting back on track, I finally decided that one of those films that had been taped for me and that I had watched was Basic. The thing was: I didn't remember a single thing about the movie. I'm generally pretty good in terms of long term memory and can usually walk away with something to remember almost every movie by even though I watch between 400 and 500 each year for the first time. However, nothing could bring back any memory of Basic. I knew it had John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and was directed by McTiernan and I remember seeing ads for it on TV and especially an image of a darkened Jackson looming in a doorway (am I making this up?) and that I hated it, but what the movie was about, what happened and how everything was revolved in the end eluded me entirely.

There's been other movies since that I have mostly forgotten, which led me to ponder, just like if a tree falls in the forest for no one to hear, if you don't remember anything about a movie, have you actually seen it? Consuming so many movies, surely not all of them will be remembered, some rightfully so while others maybe not, and if a movie doesn't leave a lasting impression is that not more it's fault than ours? Of course, as is the case with the scenario above, sometimes I watch movies just to catch up, to say I've seen them and to increase my filmic vocabulary as much as possible. Maybe it all stems from that one fateful year where I decieded that, whenever someone asks about about a movie, no matter how great or insipid, I want to be able to say I have seen it.

But here's the problem, and the question I pose to everyone for debate (I haven't done one if these in far too long): should I have even wasted my time with Basic? Sure, I've seen it, and in the unlikely event that anyone ever brings it up, I'll be able to say "Oh yeah, I saw that a long time ago," but have I really gained anything other than to know that the movie was bad? It seems all I have is a blackout in my memory. It gets me one step closer to having seen McTiernan's entire body of work (and if nothing else I am a film history buff and therefore a director completest by association) but now I've given two hours of my life to a film that could have been spent with a better one; one I will remember. But then again, if I didn't see it, how would I know I'd one day forget it completely?

So what do you think. Is film completeism healthy or should we only base our time on consuming movies that appeal to us (I certainly had no interest is seeing Basic other than that I felt I should just to have seen it)? What do you do in situations like this? Are you the same way as me or do you think all this is insanity and a waste of time? Let me know.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

One Minute Review- Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass is a dumb and ugly movie. It starts as a promising satire about teenagers and superheroes and why there are none in real life. A brilliant film seems to be blooming until it gets bored with being insightful and moves into violent and reprehensible territory. This is a film that plays like the younger, less enlightened cousin of the great Watchmen adaptation. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Call me unhip, square, not with it, whatever, but the problem with Kick-Ass is not that it features teenaged superheroes (one an 11 year old girl) but that people actually die; in graphic detail no less. These kids are not superheroes, they are murderers out for vigilante justice. There’s something morally wrong about all this.

Maybe this is a perfectly accurate interpretation of what the comics the film is based on are like. I don’t know. But that director Matthew Vaugh thinks that this material is hip and funny is a complete miscalculation. Here Vaugh is hiding behind satire: as if, as long as the movie is laughing at itself, it can justify anything. That Vaugh does the best to make this all bright and hyper-stylized (too hyper-stylized at times) is credit to his talent and I hope one day a great action movie falls in his lap.

In reality then, Kick-Ass becomes just the thing the material should ultimately want to deviate from: a superhero movie. Except these superheroes kill and steal and are really no better than the criminals they put down. If the movie had actually been about Kick-Ass and his life as an amateur teenage superhero wannabe, well that could have been brilliant, sparkling satire. My vote is for Judd Apatow to helm the reboot a couple years down the line. As it stands it’s just a dumb, action film, filled with characters not developed enough to care much about, with the sad misfortune that most of them are also under the age of 16.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Black Swan + The Celebrity Connection: Natalie Portman

The story of Swan Lake: A princess is turned into a swan. True love is the only thing that can break the curse but her love is tricked and falls instead for her evil twin the Black Swan. The princess, who cannot live with the curse and cannot live without love frees herself through death. In a sense, this is the story that director Daron Aronofsky has been working his entire career towards telling. The film may revolve around the trails of a ballerina but Black Swan is no more about ballet than Requiem for a Dream was about drug abuse: it’s about a character chasing an impossible dream outside of their human grasp. That’s what all of Aronofsky’s films have been about.

One of Aronofsky’s great attributes is that he isn’t afraid to follow his characters unapologetically into their own oblivion and thus Black Swan isn’t so much a film as a memorizing thought piece constructed of ideas, fears, hopes and despair that doesn’t so much tell a story as ram headfirst right through a character’s psychological state as it dissipates under mounting pressure. Rarely has self-destruction been so hauntingly beautiful.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina, the naive, precious ballerina who lives with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hersey) who gave up her own career and now lives vicariously through her daughter. Nina, having dedicated herself entirely to the perfection of her art, wants nothing more than to be cast in Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) newest rendition of Swan Lake. Leroy, a fierce, sexual, genius, knows that Nina can play the White Swan, but believes her to be too rigid in her perfection to play the Black Swan, who’s technique needs to be lose and seductive. 

The toying Leroy, maybe out of French masochism and maybe because he sees a buried sexual frustration, casts Nina in the part regardless. She is thrilled but practice is torture as she can’t quite nail the part. She is too frigid, too pristine and too desexualized for the Black Swan. Also along to torment her is the new girl Lily (Mila Kunis) who isn’t half the dancer that Nina is but is promiscuous and dangerous and has the dark allure of the Black Swan, a temptress driving Nina slowly towards the brink. There is also Beth (Winona Ryder), Leroy’s former star who has now been forced into retirement and is hospitalized after a (intentional?) car accident as well as Nina’s mother who shelters the girl like a child, keeps her away from all other outside pressure (sex, drugs, life) and gruelingly pushes her towards the perfection she never achieved.

Slowly all of the outside pressures begin to eat away at Nina, destroying her sanity as Leroy abusing her, molesting her, degrading her in order to bring out her inner Black Swam, pushes her, along with Lily, towards discovering her dark side. She is consumed by fear and hatred and sex and even murder as she begins having hallucinations of her being transformed into the Black Swan.

On the surface Black Swan appears to be about the way an artist’s ego will slowly lead them into oblivion as they strive to find perfection and meaning in their art. That was, in a very different way, more or less what Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was about as well. However, by conveying Black Swan’s plot and by trapping it into a defined thematic explanation is to subvert away from the hectic, driving, narrative free fall that the film is. Like Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan is more experience than story (this is filmmaking as state-of-mind at its most forceful and, at times, unbearably painful), and is thus more a meditation of how we are slowly driven insane by reaching desperately to achieve the things that are least important in life: fame, money, recognition, perfection ect.

Aronofsky, throughout his career, has always chosen the perfect mediums from which to explore these concepts: math, drugs, cancer, professional wrestling and now ballet: all areas that place value on superficial endeavours and distract from life's essentials: love, friendship, happiness. These are the arts of self-destruction. He makes films about people who are exposed to a plane of their existence that is foreign to them, sending them spiralling into an obsessive state until they have cut themselves off from anything that could provide them solace.

What Nina finds is that to split a personality down and limit it to the influence of either black (Leroy and Lily) or white (her mother) is to create a weak emotional state in which, when one is introduced over top of the other, it will ultimately consume and destroy it’s counterpart. In Black Swan, Nina is ultimately on a quest to find perfection at any cost just to discover that perfection can only be achieved through a sacrifice more grand than anyone should normally be willing to make: a complete and utter sacrifice of the self.

And so Black Swan cannot simply be spoken about in terms of aesthetics, technique, acting, writing: the general pieces that comprise a film, which I have not done here, because it is more than film. It is emotion, expression, ideology and, above all else it is violent, unapologetic rapture. This is one of the year’s best films.

An now a related Celerity Connection:

Could Natalie Portman really be Dakota Fanning in Disguise?
You Decide.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Love and Other Drugs

One of Chef Gordon Ramsay’s most fundamental rules is that simplicity is key to creating a great dish. That’s kind of what goes wrong with Love and Other Drugs: it tries too hard to be too many things. It’s a good movie lost amidst a sea of variables that all go several different directions of nowhere. The biggest problem is that Maggie (Anne Hathaway) the lead female character has a disease and there is only one reason for any character to ever have a disease in the movies. If you can think of another you’re already way ahead of Love and Other Drugs.

Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a hotshot youngster. He’s the son of affluent parents, has a rich entrepreneur brother, and is an expert salesman, selling cheap knockoff electronics where he divides his time between getting commission and getting the manager’s girl in the back room. Out of work he decides to pursue a career in the only entry level job in America that pays over 100K in the first year: the sale of pharmaceutical drugs.

It seems like a perfect fit for Jamie so he’s shipped off to Ohio to prove himself. The key is to go in to the doctor’s office, woo the receptionists and nurses, get your drug samples on the back shelf and charm the doctor into prescribing your Zoloft instead of the competition’s Prozac. If you’re good you attain the dream of getting shipped off to sell in Chicago.

Then, pretending to be an intern at one of the offices, he meets Maggie who has all kinds of problems, which right now includes a weird mark on her chest. She’s the kind of girl who’s young, too smart, too beautiful, talks like a second rate Woody Allen movie and has the first stage of Parkinson’s. Too bad for her. Too bad for the movie too. She’s mad after she exposes herself in the examination room only to find out he’s a drug rep not an intern. He asks her out. She rejects. He charms the nurse into her number and she accepts. A word of advice to all movie characters: if you meet a girl on a first date in a coffee shop that plays Dylan in the background, she’s probably got baggage. This leads to a scene in which she psychoanalyzes him to his face as if she knows every trick is his con book. But so do we, trapping Hathaway in a scene that talks like it's smart but walks like it's just treading water.

She doesn’t want a relationship because she’s, of all coincidences, already had her heart broken by another drug rep who just so happens to be Jamie’s biggest competition. Sure. He’s also emotionally reclusive because to him girls are sex not love. So they have sex, which works for both of them, many times, until Jamie decides he loves her and she decides, against her better judgement to reciprocate. This changes the movie from light comedy to romance until she visits a Parkinson’s rally and realizes there are others just like her. This is around the same time that he realizes the worst is yet to come and if he ever wants to make Chicago (a strong likelihood after he gets the chance to start selling Viagra) he’ll need to ditch her or cure her, and the movie switches hats again into melodrama.

I’m pretty sure, if you know anything about the politics of screenwriting, despite all the shifts in tone, you can tell exactly what twist the story will take before arriving at its inevitable conclusion. What you may not anticipate is a pre-third act breather in which Jamie and his recently kicked out of the house brother, transported in from another movie altogether, are invited to a pyjama party by Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria) and his oversized libido. The one demand: they bring the Viagra samples.

Of all the sidetracks Love and Other Drugs takes this one is the worst. For a movie that feels long at two hours, a midway pajama party that ends in the hospital after a Viagra side effect takes hold, kills the tone, changes the mood to slapstick before materializing back into sap and achieves really nothing of any narrative significance. Did Zwick, a considerable talent, hold the scene so close to his heart that he simply threw it up in the air to see where it would land? There always seems to be at least one bad scene in even the best Zwick movies. He outdid himself this time.

That’s basically the entire movie, which runs back and forth and up and down the emotional spectrum until it arrives at it's end having achieved nothing much except filling 2 hours. A movie about a drug salesman could be good. So could one about a girl in the beginning stages of an incurable disease and sure enough both Gyllanhaal and Hathaway make a likable pair. They are cute and funny and believable together and left to swim on their own in an open sea of muted comedy and tired melodrama. There's nothing to prescribe that could have cured a movie like this, but like most prescription drugs that need sales reps, another round of rewrites and one more trip through the editing room may have eased the pain a little.