Thursday, November 05, 2009

Away We Go: Loving you is easy cuz you're beautiful.

This is the kind of film to watch when you're warm and cozy inside several blankets, and rain comes down outside. It's a film about finding comfort in a world where dysfunction is inherent in the process of trying to wade through a world such as that. It's about the simplicity and strength of love, and how when things get awful, we can turn in toward that love and find warmth. Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski play an unmarried but long-term couple who become pregnant, and must take a good long look at all the bits of their lives before they can create a home for their soon-to-be-family. And it's clear that this is the kind of couple that has most of the right priorities in mind. We learn that they left Chicago for the woods of Colorado to be near Burt's (Krasinki) parents. We see that Verona (Rudolph) is ill at ease, but basically loves Burt, and Burt, while a little frantic, seems to have his family's best interests in mind. They would probably raise a child just fine without the journey they undergo.

So why does this story take place? Well it isn't really a film about a baby. Unlike Knocked Up or Baby Boom, Away We Go takes only a passing interest in how the details of the pregnancy affects the couple. It seems more as a catalyst for them to take the aforementioned good long look. They travel to different cities to reconnect with various friends and family members (I expected the issue of money to be a bigger concern, but it's as passing as the pregnancy), and watch as ever-healthier, though always-complicated family lives play out before them, allowing to them to decide, not just what kinds of parents, but what kinds of adults they'd like to be.

Sam Mendes' open thoughtful composition works beautifully for Away We Go, and it's the most mature I've seen him. I know he likes to hide behind his "subtle" British pomposity, but he basically makes broad, nearly cartooney choices for the looks of his films, and while in 2000 that was breathtaking and original, like waking up or being born, these days it seems as obvious as using a camera. That he can make a film with clutter and life and layers of energy (rather than just layers of color) is a great thing.

Many of the choices seem mature here. I guess people called the couple boring, or the film a tour of banality or some such rude thing, but I just found it to be about good people staring wide-eyed at the world around them, and the lives they've wandered into, and making strong choices about the future. That's such a statement about life today, that adding some dark drama would have seemed panderous. Is that a word? The quality of pandering? What the fuck ever, I don't care. The point is this film was really good.

Can I say a bad thing about it? Hmmm. It certainly had a formula. The chapters of the story were announced at the beginning like an index, and we watched it go through them. But if you accept that it isn't a weakness. The overall flow was really nice and the conclusion, while predictable, felt right.

Oh and Maya Rudolph is gorgeous. She has officially made it onto my list of acceptable cheats. Nat that she's be interested. Or that I'm in a relationship. Just saying. What were we talking about? Some film? Pixar's Up. Good stuff, man. Up, Up, and Away We Go. Nice.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Wrestler: please tell me that NES game is real...

It's always very powerful to play audio of something in a person's head over an otherwise bland scene. When Mickey Roarke walks thorugh the grocery store warehouse toward the deli, and we follow behind him listening to the roar of the crowds that we know to be from his many hundreds of wrestling matches, there's a heroism in him that we can connect to, and that he has to work here, and can't spend the rest of his life being a hero to thousands, is really very sad.

Or can he? Live as a wrestler and so die as a wrestler? We spend a lot of this film following him as if he were on his way out to the ring, even though he's just heading to his landlord's, or shopping for supplies, or jogging through the lonely woods. It seems that when he's alone, he is perpetually in his hulking persona. It's only when he's with his lovely daughter (Evan Rachel Wood looks very different with dark hair), or his beautiful near-girlfriend (Marisa Tomei is so beautiful all the time!) that we see that he isn't always the taught-muscled Ram, because he has a connection to these people that's so brittle it could snap at any second. I often think about that idea: what is it like for a badass warrior to be tender with those he loves? Does he accidentally hurt them sometimes? How do they reconcile that? The Wrestler doesn't deal with that completely dead-on, but it works a little with such questions. And what it does is very... freeing to watch. I almost feel like the movie poster for this film could have been that shot in Disney's Beauty and the Beast where the tiny hand of Belle is held by the gargantuan paw of The Beast. Not really, but ya know.

The Outlaw Josey Wales: they lie horses down and hide behind them, don't they?

Clint Eastwood is obviously a really sweet man. Watching this excellent film (finally!) I kept expecting a dark ending, like the great Jeremiah Johnson or Eastwood's latest (and arguably greatest) Gran Torino. And sorry to semi-spoil all three for you, but this one ends on a good note. As much as I appreciate the poignant bittersweet final thoughts, I'm still a person who likes joy, so whenever things got tense in Josie Wales' gritty world, I found myself tensing along with it, thinking "please, please, please don't turn to shit...". You just cheer for the wounded-and-so-altruistic hero, and you want him to finally have a happy life after toiling for two hours. And Clint certainly is altruistic. Everything I've seen of his tackles issues of human darkness and decency. His films peel back the obvious and talk, instead, about the real issue. They insist that all people are good, at some level, and that things will be okay if we can show some restraint and actually pay attention to one another--even if we all look and act weird, from our own perspectives. That's not a groundbreaking message, but when it is told so purely and wisely (not smashing us over the head, but also not being embarrassed by it, either), it feels really good. And from such an angry, squinting, sneering leather-faced badass... it somehow rings even more true.

And can we hear it for Chief Dan George? I love this man. He's basically playing the same character as in Little Big Man: finding the line between completely hilarious rambling and zen wisdom, and then dancing on that line to remind us that we shouldn't take zen wisdom more seriously than we need to. But there's nothing wrong with that. Micheal Cera always plays the same character, and I can't get enough of that guy. ...Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Buddy comedy starring Chief Dan George and Micheal Cera?! Oh wait he died in 1981. Woah, he died on September 23rd... that's in three days. Godspeed and rest in peace, Chief. You are a wonderful person.

I've really grown to love the shaggy-edged 70's western. The messy camera work, the cluttered composition, the oft-glacial pace. It feels like film. It's warm and fuzzy and blurry and soft. Like Abbey Road. The long hair and shaggy beards. The occasionally confusing action. It's something that turned me off as a little kid, because it was confusing compared to today's simplistic composition. Watch American Beauty and then watch Where the Buffalo Roam and the contrast couldn't be more alarming. I'm not dogging any one style--it's all choice--but it's interesting that as our society becomes more complicated and layered, our films grow closer to cartoons: clearly outlined, with strong colors, and nothing unnecessary left in-frame. It's nice to go the other way and feel bathed in the media of film. And the touchey-feely 70's vibe.

Extra points for Mat Clark as they bartender, which I was like "where have I seen him playing a bartender before...?" It was Back to the Future part III. Rad, right?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Adventureland: Prequel to Zombieland, obviously.

Temporarily removed due to my using of this as a writing sample.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Gran Torino: Shovin' it into overdrive.

I've had this film from Netflix for about a month now, maybe more, and I kept picking up the disc, considering putting it in, and then ultimately setting it back down, 'cause I figured it'd be pretty heavy. And I'm not always in the mood for that. You know how it is: sometimes you want Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and sometimes you want the Spongebob Squarepants Movie. I can't believe I just typed Spongebob Squarepants. But never you mind this little digression. The point is that I finally sat down to watch Gran Torino, and I was surprised. Maybe because I was ready for heavy, I didn't feel turned off by it's weight. But, no, because it's not weight that gives me pause, it's melodrama. It's a skill-less manipulation of emotion that totally pisses me off, even as it works.

But here, Clint Eastwood (the very name is mythic) just tells a story. He makes us feel welcome and communicates with us, and so when things turn dark, and they do, we don't feel manipulated at all. We feel like we were in the same place, witnessing the same events, and we were not so much taken to this point, as journeyed along next to everyone else. It's really pretty amazing how he does that.

I've only seen one other film by Eastwood (seriously, how can you type that without feeling like you're in Hoyo de Manzanares), but what was very clear to me in Gran Torino was how no-nonsense a filmmaker he is. Right from the start there's just no fat on the scenes. At first it seemed corny--having a kid act disrespectful in a church and then immediately cutting to Eastwood sneering and growling in displeasure--I figured I had the entire film's theme (that of youth culture not seeing eye-to-eye with the strong elderly figures of our past) all figured out within a few seconds, and I was all geared up to see the film as cool, but not good. But after a few more scenes I realized that subtlety isn't interesting to Eastwood in the same way as what I've come to expect from modern film making. He wants us to understand the scenes, and feel the arc of the story slowly building, and forget all that other shit. Not that he is technique-less, simply that Eastwood seems freed from many other filmmakers' need to stylistically innovate all the time. The style of the story itself, and the straightforwardness of all the actors allows the film to just be exposed in front of us. It reminded me of On The Waterfront in how it had a few honest characters in a small area saying honest things to one another. It was very simple. But, like any good fable, deeply complicated. Like the character he played, Eastwood's film is very open about being angry. And that's going to be boring to little kids, but profoundly captivating to most everyone else.

All of this made for the moment, when things turned dark later on in the film, where I was genuinely shocked and scared and hurt, and found myself, eyes stinging, shaking my head, and both Clint and I were murmuring "no, no, no...". And I'm sorry if that alone spoils anything, but I bring it up to illustrate just how absorbed I was by this relatively casual movie. That there were long sequences of genuinely nice things happening, and that those sequences were genuinely a lot of fun to watch, really speaks of how little one has to do when one has good material, and still make solid, powerful, classic art.

Apparently there were rumors that this was the last Dirty Harry movie, which I think is perfect. The setting and subject matter feels very much like the aging badass waned to take on a different kind of violence, in a different setting. Wanted to deal with things that to him seemed very modern. He still connects it very strongly to the past, and makes the violence simmer within the pasts and potentials of these people, but it does so in the suburbs, in middle-America. A place that most old men are used to being safe and simple. For Eastwood to deal so directly with something that's a lot harder to pinpoint than any of the Dirty Harry stories shows how much of a badass he really is.

Extra points for Norm Gunderson himself, John Carroll Lynch.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Royal Tenenbaums: immediately after writing this, Max realized it was true.

It's pretty classy that Gene Hackman didn't become a "Wes Anderson player" after this, what with his doing an amazing job. In a few years, Wes may digitally ad a ghostly image of Hackman into Darjeeling.

And meanwhile, Bill Murray is so low-key he's almost unrecognizable (Herman Bloom feels like Buster Keaton). Everything with Dudley is genius silent-comic timing, and Murray's silent pain for Margo simmers regally behind the scruff-beard. And of course Steve Zissou was a replicant.

This entire world is a royal family and their kingdom. Suitors try to marry into their family, and townspeople fantasize about being blood-related, even through it's deep disfunctions and continual strife. The king, of course, returns, and hilarity ensues. And one really can't say enough about Wes Anderson's subtle (and really not-at-all-subtle) humor. That it can be funny the way a person reacts to something that isn't funny at all, like say suicide, or that it's both hilarious and tragic that each character is so shut-off from one-another is a difficult thing to deal with. It's hard to realize that the audience is supposed to be horrified one moment and laughing the next, without ever letting go of the horror. It isn't just a comedy, and so the humor is much weightier. I laugh much harder.

I remember when I saw this in the theatre, and having seen (and fallen in love with) Rushmore, I was a pretty tough judge. I felt like with Rushmore, Anderson had set out to make a film that appealed to him, and his sense of teetering subtlety. Maybe there would be a group of people out there who got it, but oh well if not. And it seemed to me, then, that with his next film he had learned that there was indeed a market for his strange little universes, and so he turned up the volume. The subtlety is less, the abruptness is more, the control of his world is firmer, and I was felt like the guy who liked this band before they hit it big. I felt like he had already become a caricature of himself. But looking at Tenenbaums now, having seen it probably 20 times, I am more apt to see it as a film, all by itself, and not analyze it in the Great Anderson Continuum. As difficult as that can be.

Now I just love the beauty of the sequences, and boldness of the art design, the precious chemistry between those wonderful Wilson Brothers, the grace of each actor living in their own, selfish universe, and the genius of a story that can equip all those actors with so many pieces of each of their characters, and have them all hate each other because they are family, and love each other because they are family. Anderson is very emotionally manipulative, and can float a little on the "style before substance" side of things, but he is so in the best way, and the film is so lovely because of it.

But the last shot--Wes Anderson's trademark, slow-motion curtain call--is inferior to Rushmore's. So there.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ghost World: the sequal to Zombieland, I'll bet

There's a reason Ghost World didn't become more than a cult favorite and its this: a documentary filmmaker was tapped to direct. Yes, he knows comics, and yes, he knows reality, and those things are reflected here. In fact, one of my favorite elements of the film was the layer of unnecessary detail throughout the film. Beds creaked metallicly whenever anyone moved on them. A champagne cork loudly hit and bounced all over the floor. The streets looked dirty and boring. And the characters, of course, don't think anything of these things. Because to them this film is reality.

But those are moments between the events in the film. And the events were flat. I felt like I was watching an awkward student film, where the rehearsals where filmed and used. Characters can be awkward, that's fine, but actors shouldn't be. The performances made clear to me that Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansen (both of whom I like and would probably marry) have a single layer to what they can do. These people are not "all of America reflected in the meandering, jaded suburban youth" or whatever the comic (that the film is based on) probably conveyed. They are naive, self-aware, self-important brats who would sooner be cruel to alleviate their boredom than actually ask themselves who they are and why they aren't doing anything with their lives. Wait, I guess that is America. Shit. Well, still, the performances were really flat.

And so to were the "quirks" that made the characters so "different". Maybe it all seemed very fringe in the late nineties, but Ghost World seemed way to proud of Steve Buscemi's out-of-print, old-timey vinyl collection. That subculture really isn't very uncommon, and when Buscemi's character is just sort of blasé about his 1930's art and music collection, I couldn't keep my eyes from rolling. Not that Steve Buscemi didn't do an awesome job... I could watch him grocery shop. And the most interesting part of the film was when he's rebuked by Thora Birch's character, an we watch him try to reason out the logic of an emotional teenager. But then the resolution of the film was to have a mystery bus (oooo spooky!) pick Birch up and drive her on to her next stage in life. Wow, symbolism!

I don't know... its wasn't horrible, and it wasn't even forgettable, really. I guess it just seemed tacky. Or maybe the fandom for the film seems tacky. In another decade it'll just seem quaint.

Point, at least, for an uncredited Teri Garr. She should have hooked up with Steve Buscemi. Although I'd hate to do that to Bob Balaban... It's fun to say "Balaban". Go ahead, do it.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Link and Zelda's Infinite Replaylist

I'm not much of a videogame nerd, since they take up so damn much time, and I have a lot of other, seemingly more legitimate time-sinks. Studying film is certainly one of them, and writing these little entries here helps me with that. But when a certain game comes along, and it is rare, since I own no game systems made after, say, 2003, I find that I am obsessed with it. It owns me, this game. Our fates are inexorably mingled and the game seems unhappy when I'm away. Or... maybe that's just projection, I don't know. What is clear is that lately, I got all nostalgic about a game I played back in said aught three: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. This game came out right after Nintendo's under-rated system the Game Cube came out, and I played the heck out of it way back then. It was a lazy fun summer, filled with magic brownie-eating, festival attending, amazing girlfriend-having, and of course, the Zelda. I was immediately enamored with the visuals of the game--how cartoony and yet classy it felt. Friends were annoyed ("this just looks like a Homestar Runner cartoon!") both by the game and the asymmetrical Game Cube controller, but I loved it. It felt like a toy, int he classic kid's sense of the word. It was colorful, musical, fun, and slick. There was so much to do, and it was all so rewarding. I was all about it. I can recall being at work and seeing products that we sell that were representations of treasure chests (coin banks, pinatas, what have you), and just having the deepest need, in the base of my gut, like seeing a beautiful woman, to open those treasure chests and find out what was inside. I was in love with the game.

Well, the summer ended, my girlfriend got sick of me and moved to the midwest, and the Game Cube was returned to the guy who lent it to me. The full reality of life set in, and Wind Waker became a memory, more faded with each moment. Until recently. My friend Leslie and I were talking about how great the game was, and she said "I own it, do you want to borrow it?" and it was good. I said "hell yes, please!" and dove into it again. I was amazed by how much I didn't remember. Maybe it was all those magic brownies, but each new moment of the game was truly new. There were a few "ohhhhhh yeahhhhhh...." moments, the way a memory buried deep beneath piles of brain feels when it's tugged, and we feel almost humbled by the realization that we knew all along. But not as many as I expected. The game was somehow as distant as elementary school, and just as perfect.

What I love so much about Zelda games (they comprise a great deal of my "must play" list) is the world, and it's object-interaction. That you can journey across a vivid and varied land is always fun, but it seems so alive! I know that these places continue to exist and thrive when I'm not there to see them. And there's something so exciting and fun about the very-Zelda motif of a once-great civilization, now in ruins, grown over by weeds and indifferent creatures. The Metroid games do the same thing, but in a spookier way. Stumbling across a dead race that flourished before Human history began is pretty eerie. But in Zelda, the land of Hyrule, and it's people, the long-dead-though-still-watching-as-gods, the Hylians, are benevolent and ancestral. The hero of the games, Link, isn't discovering secrets so much as reuniting with his people. It's intriguing and mysterious in a much more fun and virtuous way. Just that image of a stone structure, half-buried, peeking out through tall wild grass, beneath the sun and winds of a beautiful day... it evokes more than a good story: that is childhood. That is exploration and curiosity and potential. That is humanity.

And the items Link collects! The boomerang, the bow, the bomb, the mirror, the ocarina, the grappling hook--these are the tools of true adventurers. There's a kind of high that comes over me when I've traveled half of Hyrule, and then am rewarded with some cool weird tool, like the Hook Shot, and I realize that I have seen, in my travels, lots of little places where I could have used that Hook Shot. Unlike the linear progression of most games, the Zelda world grows ever-outward, and with each new item or ability gained, comes dozens or hundreds of figurative doors that just opened.: "Wait, any wall with a big crack down it, can be bombed? ...I've seen hundreds of those! I have to go back! There's explorin' to do!"

And in the Wind Waker episode of this series, there are all kids of really bright combinations and tweaks on the by-now-expected ways of interacting with the objects of the world. At one point, an enemy attacks you that can only be harmed by a beam of intense light, but no such thing seems to present... You look up to see tapestries hanging on the walls, one of which has sunlight slipping through. The player must run to a good vantage point, equip the arrows, set one of them alight, and fire at the window-covering tapestry. Then watch in awe as it catches fire, falls from the wall, and gently floats, flaming, down into the room. Now the player can stand in the beam of light and use their Mirror Shield (how cool is that?!) to reflect the sunlight into the still-encroaching monster, and turn them to stone. How the player dispatches the stone-monster is another little puzzle.

And what of the aforementioned Hook Shot, and it's ability to latch on to distant targets and pull Link up to them? How much more complicated it becomes when a player realized that if Link puts on the heavy Stone Boots, that when the Hook Shot latches onto the targets, those targets will actually be pulled down to Link, as he's now too heavy to get brought up. When this dawns on a player, a host of opportunities throughout the many dungeons arise, and there's that high again.

Ya know when you watch a film and the characters do one crazy, cool thing, and they say "we went on a little adventure today"? One event is certainly a little adventure. But not so with the Zelda series. Link journeys through every conceivable landscape, fights a vast array of enemies, some recognizable, but others very alien, and finds all these hidden tricks, traps and puzzles. By the end of the game, so much has happened, that you feel in your bones that the term "adventure" has absolutely been earned. Exhausting but rewarding. Like that summer relationship back in '03.

Zelda means a lot of things to me. Implies, represents, insists on a lot of things. To have finally reached the end of The Wind Waker closed a chapter in my life that had been left open, and was now covered in dust. Oh, and the last boss fight was pretty bad-ass, too.