Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I’d been told that this movie was one of the best of 2014. It didn’t live up to that assessment, but it was fairly entertaining. It opens with a little boy, Peter Quill, sitting outside of a hospital room. He’s summoned inside where his mother is dying. As she goes, she asks him to hold her hand. She’s bald, pale, doubtless a shadow of her former self. He shrinks away and doesn’t give her his hand. Then, she dies and he’s seized with sorrow and regret, crying out to her. We next see him outside, still in mourning. All he has is his cassette player to keep him company. It is playing seventies tunes. That is when he, an earthling, is swept up by some space vehicle and flown away.

Forward 20 years later and we see a man walking through rubble, listening to his cassette player. The same Peter Quill. He seems to be some kind of bounty hunter. He steals valuable objects for money. When caught, he tries to impress those who hold him by telling them that he is the “Star Lord.” Never heard of them. They scoff, uninitiated and continue to threaten him.
He gets away, but is then held captive by his own employer, Yondu. This is the man who kidnapped him from earth. He’s always held a soft spot for the kid. We learn that he was actually paid by the boy’s father (identity unknown) to take him years ago, but he never delivered the boy. Instead, Yondu kept Peter for himself, sending him out to steal things, like a modern day Oliver Twist. The problem is, Peter has a habit of double-crossing Yondu and not returning with the goods he has been ordered to take. Yondu’s other minions are tired of Peter getting special treatment. They pressure Yondu to make an example of Peter and kill him. Yondu is about to do it, but he just received an impossible job order to retrieve a powerful orb. It’s a daunting mission, sure to fail and he decides to spare Peter’s life if he can bring back the orb. Peter’s off to find it, but he’s not the only one.

Thanos, one of the last eternals on the moon of Titan wants the orb as well. He has given Ronan control of his daughters, Gamora and Nebula and he tells Ronan if he doesn’t get the orb, he will be destroyed. Ronan decides to send one of the daughters after the orb. His first choice is Nebula, but Gamora begs to go instead. She says she will do whatever it takes to win back her freedom and please her father. Gamora is Thanos’ favorite daughter and spirited, so Ronan agrees to send her. But if she fails, she’ll pay with her life.
So, Peter and Gamora are both off on the same mission. They inevitably run into each other and Gamora tries to kill Peter. They run into two conmen, a talking raccoon and his sidekick, a tall tree trunk who’s only words are “I am groot.” The lot of them cause chaos in the public square and are arrested. The raccoon, Rocket, soon proves himself the most entertaining of the cast, making wry observations about the others and their mishaps. Groot receives the brunt of Rocket’s insults, but it’s clear the two have been together a long time and have developed a camaraderie. Rocket can even interpret the many nuances of Groot’s single phrase, “I am Groot,” to express the tree’s various thoughts.

In prison, they encounter a muscle man, Drax, who is out for revenge against Ronan, the man who killed his wife and child. Drax sets out to murder Gamora because she is Ronan’s emissary, but Peter stops him. This surprises Drax, since Gamora herself assaulted Peter, but Peter says he’s used to that happening. Many women want him dead.

Gamora lets it be known that she is not family to Ronan or Thanos. Thanos kidnapped her from her real father and she harbors nothing but hatred for him. She has been sent to find an orb and it is worth a fortune, that they can split 4 ways, if they help each other. The four form an uneasy truce. Drax is revealed to have a large, but literal vocabulary. Jokes often elude him because he’s so focused on the official meaning of the word that he can’t appreciate turns of phrase. He often lobs insults at the others, but it’s as much because he is incapable of euphemisms as it is that he intends to offend. Courtesy, as a principle, is foreign to him. This makes his exchanges with the wise-cracking Raccoon and thick-headed tree, especially amusing.

With the crafty Rocket as their mastermind, the four devise a way to get out of jail. They get the orb and take it to The Collector who will pay billions for it. He hoards valuable objects, even human beings. When The Collector starts opening the orb, they realize how powerful it is and how destructive to the world it could become in the wrong hands. It’s up to them to guard the galaxy and make sure the orb’s power isn’t abused. When it blows up the Collector’s haven, they know that Ronan or Thanos will use it to end civilizations. Peter tries to convince Gamora to take it to Yondu instead. Yondu’s the lesser of two evils.

Gamora doesn’t trust Peter, but finds herself attracted. As the quartet survives one escape after the other together, they all develop a bond. To everyone’s surprise, Peter risks his life to save Gamora and he’s the first to crown himself a hero. But when Peter is left behind, Rocket, Groot and Drax save him as well, even though their plan to do so is guaranteed suicide. I’m not sure I buy how quickly they became a unit, “all for one and one for all.” Rather than having grown affection that easily, I think it’s loneliness that motivates them. Drax has lost his family. Peter was taken from his, as was Gamora and the sister she has left despises her. We don’t know Rocket and Groot’s background. The two only have each other, but why that is is not clear. But being on a team seems to suit each of them, having been used to depend only on themselves.

In all the flames and hoopla, Peter just doesn’t sacrifice himself for his friends, but for his cassette player as well. He’d rather lose the orb than lose that. He almost dies and when Gamora calls out to him “take my hand” he automatically does. He didn’t take his mother’s once and he’s not going to hesitate again, not going to wait too late to show his love, not going to risk loss because of fear.

The cassette is all he had when he was taken, except for a gift from his mother. He finally opens it. Maybe it was too painful for him to deal with before. Maybe he didn’t want to read her goodbye. But to his delight he finds another cassette mixed tape. It’s the hits of the seventies, Volume 2, a follow up to the first one she made for him, her Star Lord.

When Ronan and Thanos catch up to them, even Gamora’s sister Nebula, consumed with jealousy, wants them dead. As they escape, they are falling to the ground in flames, but Groot grows out his branches to cradle them all and protect them from the fire. Rocket is horrified. Groot will die. Why is he doing this? “WE are Groot,” the tree answers.

When they hit the ground, the tree is lifeless, just a scattered woodpile. Their enemies are upon them. Peter sings, dances, distracts Ronan, so that Drax is able to kill him with a cannon that Raccoon made for them. They use the orb to make Ronan implode. Proudly, they realize they aren’t bad as guardians after all and they take off to find another job. Raccoon is still in morning for the lost Groot, but he picks up a sprig and plants it and we see that the baby tree is already come to life. It should be a full grown Groot again before we know it. In the melee they realize that Peter is not human. Maybe that’s why he was able to hold the orb without it destroying him. His mother called him “Star Lord” and that seems to have been more than a nickname. He doesn’t know who his father is and doesn’t yet realize that Yondu may have that answer.

I am reminded of the movie StarMan with Jeff Bridges. I believe it ended with him, an alien, having impregnated the human who sheltered him. Peter Quill’s story could be a sequel to that one. This was a fun movie, quite light fare compared to the darker super hero films that have been popular lately. I liked the fact that, for now, none of them really have magical, omnipotent power. So, you don’t get endless scenes of indestructible beings clashing. In fact, with Raccoon on board to act as their engineer, they mostly evade their enemies through makeshift MacGyver inventions, Home Alone stunts, not force. I like it when humor and interaction are as integral as action.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Boyhood (2014)

The film that moves at the speed of life. The detractors have said that there is nothing exceptional about this movie, except that it took 12 years to complete, allowing us to watch the characters actually age through time, as the actors do in real life. Some see this as a gimmick – if so, it’s a novel one that has not been as well utilized since the Up series back in 1964. Thus, the concept is anything but hackneyed.

True, the story would not have been as effective if characters had been aged by cosmetics and latex, rather than nature. But it wouldn’t have worked as just a time lapse video either. It was by synchronizing the passage of time with the pulse of real life that Linklater created magic. Since the process was center front, Linklater gave himself permission to focus less on plot which turned out to be a GOOD thing. It’s a story of quiet reflection that proves slow does not equal dull, making drama for its own sake look cheap and expedient by comparison.

Boyhood lacks twists and turns, but at 2:05 hours, I was never bored. In fact, when action threatened to rear its dramatic head, I resisted. Would the roommate abuse Samantha? Would the older woman seduce Mason? Would the stepfather hit the boy? Would the jilted teen lose it? When the characters veered towards danger or pain, I found myself praying, “Don’t spoil it. Don’t make this movie about that. I don’t need to see another, assault or death.” That would be the EASY path, because trauma creates instant empathy. Building audience investment via mundane moments takes time. Simplicity is hard.

Adding to the understatement, Boyhood flies without a tear track. In comedy, laugh tracks (hopefully) trigger a like response from the audience. Likewise, when we see emotional characters onscreen, we tend to follow suit. Here, in most cases, the characters do not react, leaving us to assess an event independently, rather than being informed or coached by their responses. This feels organic, because the story deals with children who often only understand the impact of developments in retrospect. When something occurs that will change your life, you realize it after the change happens, not upon the occurrence.

Additionally, some of the movie’s impassivity comes from the Mom’s (Patricia Arquette’s) parenting style. Even though the story began in 2000, it somehow had a seventies vibe for me. Like MAD MEN it highlights shifts between past and current attitudes subtly, by serving slices of domestic life without comment. In MAD MEN, people smoke incessantly, let their children frolic in plastic bags (free of warning labels) and nonchalantly yell at their neighbors’ kids, activities which are now taboo.

Similarly, Arquette, like many single working mothers, doesn’t have the luxury of placing her kids on pedestals and planning her life around their play dates. They are her priority, without being the center of her universe. When she moves, they are dragged along. She doesn’t/can’t take time to seek their permission first. This was normal decades ago, but we live in a more conscientious society that analyzes the long term effects of child-rearing choices, perhaps to a fault, but certainly more than Arquette’s character did. The movie doesn’t judge her, but we must. The father (Ethan Hawke) receives a healthy dose of censure in the dialogue, while the script is silent on assessing Olivia, the mother. But that’s life. In the real world, we don’t get regular report cards. Instead, you do the best that you can -- or you fail to do everything that you can -- and life goes on any way. People grow, graduate and move on, regardless. Boyhood observes the quiet tiny ticks by which time proceeds, rather than studying the Great Bell chimes, reminding us that they’re equally potent.

We’re first introduced to young Mason. He’s about 7 years old. Inquisitive and quick, but too busy daydreaming to concentrate in class. His mother picks him up from school, appreciating and encouraging his sense of wonder, more than scolding it. But she moves in a flurry, with more errands than time to run them.

Later Mason is playing outside with his friend, Tommy, spray painting an aqueduct wall. His sister Sam rides by and orders him to come home at Olivia’s command. Sam obviously revels in the power that being 2 years older than her sibling bestows. His friend takes more notice of the girl than Mason does and I wonder if we are seeing a budding crush.
At home, Mason is watching tv and hardly looks up when Olivia’s boyfriend enters and tosses him a greeting. Hard to say whether Mason dislikes the man or is so used to various boyfriends that he hardly gives any particular notice. That night, he hears the couple arguing. The boyfriend is complaining because Olivia doesn’t want to leave her kids and go out on the town with him. He says she’s using the kids as an excuse. She responds that it’s not an excuse, it’s her world. She loves them, but had her kids too young. She’d LOVE to be single, unshackled, coming and going as she pleases, but she can’t. The boyfriend storms out and it’s hard to say whether she is relieved or regretful. One can’t say that Mason is eavesdropping on the two exactly, because they aren’t bothering to keep their voices low. His face is blank. He’s heard arguments like this before. Do they hurt him? Make him feel unwanted? We don’t know.

In their shared bedroom, Sam is annoying Mason with her gyrating Britney Spears impression. Oops, I did it again. “I’m not that innocent!” Although, she is taunting her brother, who is minding his own business, when Olivia bursts in on the two of them, Sam bursts out crying, pretending that Mason has victimized her and Olivia yells at him. Mason objects and the mother doesn’t care who’s right or wrong, she just wants them both to shut up. She tells them they will be moving back to Houston. They’ll be closer to Grandma.

Sam makes a “my life is ruined” fuss, but it’s more designed to irritate her mother than a display of true emotion about leaving. Mason says nothing, but when his mother tells them to paint the walls so she can get back all of her security deposit back, his eyes linger on the children’s height chart, as it’s wiped away by the paint roller. He’s the only one who seems to notice.

As they pack up and drive away, Mason sees his young Tommy riding his bike, waving goodbye. I think, it’s a movie, we’ll see that boy again. They’ll reunite. But they never do. And that’s how it is. People have important places in our lives for a finite period of time. When you’re with them, you don’t know that it will end. But then it does, not with a bang or a whimper, but most likely with a small wave that you may recall years later – but probably won’t. Movies make these partings poignant, in life perhaps they should be, but aren’t. You’re lucky to remember Tommy, much less the last time you saw him.

In Houston, Sam continues to excel in school, while Mason is apathetic. The things that do interest him, like drawing, don’t get much attention, quickly over-shadowed by Sam’s achievements. But she’s not mean. She’s just a sibling. As they grow, she evolves from bratty and pushy, to subdued, but supportive.

In Houston, their dad makes contact, turning up like a bad penny. Olivia arranges to have him pick them up and drop them back off at Grandma’s so she doesn’t have to see him. The grandmother welcomes him coolly, emphasizing how hard her daughter has to work to support her kids. Alone.

Dad is energetic and happy to see them, but vague about where he’s been or if he’s planning to stay around. At bedtime, Mason wistfully seeks confirmation from his father that there’s no real magic in the world. Dad tries to assure him that nature harbors just as many mysteries and wonders as any fairy tale. For instance, the majestic whale is magical, right? But elves, Mason presses. They aren’t real. Dad has to admit that they aren’t. Knowing there’s no Santa Claus is one thing, but having to accept whales in place of wizards is another. Childhood drops another veil.

After their visit, Dad insists that he wants to take them back home, rather than using Grandma as an intermediary. It’s annoying to have this interloper demanding facetime with Arquette’s character, after having left her alone to raise their children. He shouldn’t get to dictate their interaction. The kids look from a window as their parents talk. Will this exchange lead to a fight, a brief reunion? They’ve seen both before and possibly don’t care which comes now, knowing it won’t last, either way. They seem beyond the Parent Trap dream of having mom and dad reunite. Impassive, as always. It’s not like they’ve been scarred so badly in the past, that they’ve become numb. Instead, they’ve seen the same patterns repeat themselves so often that they now take them for granted. They watch, like the audience.

One night, Olivia takes Mason to school with her. He meets her professor who is charming to Mason and clearly charmed by his parent. Before we know it, they’re married. He has two children of his own, a boy and girl. All four kids await the couple’s return from their honeymoon eagerly. It’s like the Brady Bunch. The step-siblings are friends, not rivals. The stepfather elevates Mason’s clan into the middle class. All the kids have clothes, bikes, video games, their own cell phones. Of course, it’s too good to be true. The father is controlling, but masks his temper behind a pleasant demeanor. He also masks his drinking, hiding liquor in the garage. Soon he’s berating the kids for failing to do their chores. Sneering at Samantha, but also belittling his own son, becoming a drill sergeant, telling his wife that the children lacks discipline and deriving pleasure from his intimidation tactics.

Olivia has qualms about his behavior but, as too often happens IRL, does not speak up, choosing the security that her husband brings over her kids’ psychological well-being. She’s away studying when the stepfather gives Mason a buzz cut against his will. If the worse thing that any child endures is an unwanted haircut, this world would be a happy place. Still, it’s clear that the stepfather meant to humiliate, to quash Mason’s will and individuality, make him feel helpless. That “I’m the boss and there’s nothing you can do about it” power trip causes harm, no matter what the context. Rape of the Lock is satire and compared to forced intercourse, the Baron’s snipping of Belinda’s curl is a laughable matter, but judged on its own terms, it IS quite a violation. Thus, so Mason’s shearing. Olivia is sympathetic to Mason’s misery, but I can’t help thinking she should have left her husband then and there. Of course, we don’t even know if she could afford to leave at that time, but that’s how it is. We seldom need to know someone’s whole story to decide that they should have acted differently, could have done more and have lapsed in not doing so.

The kids still visit with their dad. They no longer scramble for his attention, but are older, reserved. He’s fed up. When he asks about school, he doesn’t want a non-committal, monosyllabic answer. He wants DETAILS. Fine they say, but it’s a two-way street. It’s not like he tells them all about HIS life either. Touché. I wonder if they’ll tell their father about the stepfather’s darker side. They don’t and I suppose that would have been a cliché, the two men getting into a territorial fight over the kids. Their father has a steady place. He has a roommate, who is a member of some band. Mason and dad sleep on the sofa and they give Samantha the bedroom. She slides on her earphones and isolates herself from the world. I worry that the roommate will come in upon her. Thankfully, nothing untoward happens.
And maybe that’s another way this film is like life, where you constantly worry that bad things will happen and 9 times out of 10 they never do.

Life goes on at the house. One day the kids come home to find Olivia, crying on the floor of the garage. She’s been knocked down, probably because she found her husband’s stash of liquor and objected. But she tries to hide all of this from the children. At dinner, the stepfather dares anyone to challenge. It’s his house. He’ll do what he wants. He picks a fight with the children, particularly Mason, wanting him to cower and throwing a glass at him. It doesn’t hit the boy, but it’s frightening. The stepkids suggest that he’s had drunken outbursts before, but they’ve never been this bad. The audience begins to fear what might come next.

On another day, Olivia is missing and StepDad wants to know who has heard from her. Who knows where she is. The kids all deny having had contact with her. He sits them down and one by one demands to see their cell phones, so he can review the call log and find out who’s lying. It’s tense. The boys both pass his test. They have no phone calls to or from Olivia. Stepdad decides he can trust his daughter, his favorite, and doesn’t look at her phone, but then he comes to Samantha … my heart beats along with hers. There’s a call from her mother registered. She insists that she has not lied. After all, she didn’t hear from her mother. She just listened to a phone message. In the voicemail, Olivia told them she had to go for awhile and they should stay in their room. That’s all.

I’m expecting the irate StepDad to hit Samantha any minute. He doesn’t. He checks his bank accounts and sees that his wife has cleared them out. He takes the boys to a liquor store and has them get a check cashed for him, by store clerk who trusts him, still thinks of the Stepdad as a good customer, upstanding citizen.

Back at home, eventually, Olivia bursts into the house and tells her kids to get in the car immediately. Mason and Samantha try to get pass him, but he blocks the door. No one is leaving. But Olivia has brought a friend with her. A witness, ready to call 911. Stepdad backs down and lets the children pass. They jump in the car and drive off, leaving their step sister and brother looking on. Mason and family bunk at the friend’s cramped house. Samantha complains. They have no clothes. Nothing. The mother yells back that she’d rather be alone with nothing than living in oppression. She doesn’t care if Samantha has to go to school in the same clothes. She’s tired of the griping.

The kids wonder what will happen to the 2 children they left behind. I wonder too. Olivia was a surrogate parent to the stepchildren for years. Does she have any guilt about leaving them? We don’t see into her head, really, but she doesn’t seem that reflective or caring. She’s more every man for himself. She is responsible for her own kids, not the world’s. She assures her two that she has called Child Protective Services on the stepdad though and the four children can keep in touch with each other through social media and phone. We don’t know that they ever do. We don’t ever hear any more about the stepkids.

Olivia gets her degree and they can afford a home of their own. Olivia becomes a professor and likes to host parties where they have philosophical discussions with their deviled eggs. She writes the checks. She makes the household decisions. She is no longer the single mom who had to marry a professor for stability. Now, she’s the professor. Mason is tall now, a deeper voice. A young man. One of his mother’s friends looks at him appreciatively. He hangs out with high school boys. They brag about sex they’ve never had and taunt one another. At one point when kids get aggressive with Mason in the bathroom, I wonder if he will be the object of bullying, but that passes. Taking all of the coming of age steps, he gets a job as a dishwasher, works on his photography whenever he can get time in the school’s dark room, he makes out with a girl in the back seat of a friend’s car, smokes weed, comes back home a little high. His mother notices and is shocked, but reacts with a shrug, not threats. Her little boy is grown.

A student of Olivia’s chats with Mason, tells him what a swell, open-minded instructor Olivia is and I suppose this makes the audience (and Mason) see her in a more multi-faceted light. She’s just Mom at home. She’s a talented, inspiring person in the eyes of others. There’s one ex-vet who catches Olivia’s eye. He’s younger, a free and deep thinker. He gets along well with Mason. They marry. But it’s not long before things go downhill. The husband starts brooding, is angry. Drinks. Mason comes home and he questions him harshly. He towers over the slight teen and we think he may take a swing. He doesn’t. As he turns away, we see that while what he was wearing looked like a military uniform, it is really the clothes of security guard. In that one shot, we grasp the frustrations in his life. This time the mother doesn’t have to put up with it as long. She’s the homeowner now. She can just toss him out. She doesn’t have to tolerate abuse from anyone –except her son who doesn’t like to put his own plate in the dishwasher because he complains that he washes too many dishes at work.

Meanwhile, the dad has married a nice younger woman from a conservative family. She has a baby. A half-brother for Samantha and Mason. Old animosities gone, Olivia gets along with Mason Sr.’s new bride and baby. Sam and Mason visit their stepmom’s parents, good bible-thumping people who are thrilled to give Mason a shotgun for his birthday. They practice shooting out back and go to church in their Sunday best the next day. Mason’s dad doesn’t embrace his in-law’s lifestyle, but doesn’t reject it either. He goes with the flow, having settled down now and given up his dream of being – who knows what he wanted to be. He allows himself to mock the old folks a bit and his wife calls from the distance, “I can hear you.” Caught, Mason, Sr. laughs it off, completely domesticated. He seems like he will give the new baby the father Mason and Samantha never knew. Pop has turned his old sports car in for a van. Mason is taken aback. The father had promised that car to him. For once, we see Mason angry, hurt. The father doesn’t remember making such a promise. It was 10 years ago and may have meant something to Mason, but was just talk to the dad. He tells Mason to get his own car and maybe he can be cool, “like I used to be.”

Mason sulks a bit and it’s interesting that of all the small disappointments in his life, this is the one where they show us the sting. Parents, especially THIS Dad, constantly let their kids down and are seldom as sorry about it as they should be. For Mason, this is far from the only time he’s been disappointed, but maybe it’s the slight that’s easiest to articulate. As broken promises go, it’s a concrete one. Usually, our relationship obligations are nebulous and breach gradually, rather than in a clean fracture, so the breaks are harder to identify, to rebuke, to stop. Every day a little death … in the buttons in the bread. Every day a little sting. In the heart and in the head. Every move and every breath (and you hardly feel a thing). Brings a perfect little death.

Mason learned not to expect much from his father, who always left everything open-ended. But this car was a specific pledge and Mason seems to have allowed himself to build a few hopes around it. The dad brushes off his son’s sullenness over the car and, instead, presents him with a mixed tape he made himself. The stepmom laughs at how much time the father spent making it. For him, it was a compilation of his youth so doubtless he put more effort into it than most other things in his life.

At school, Mason has met someone special. Sheena thinks him weird, but likes listening to his musings on life. He feels that she “gets” him. They plan to go off to college together. They visit Samantha at the University. They tell their parents they’re staying with friends, but actually plan to sleep together in Sam’s dorm room. They hang out with Sam and her boyfriend. Then linger at a café until it’s late enough to return to the dorm and claim a bunk bed. They absorb campus life and the bohemian vibe, the unique characters, that surround them. This will be a place that welcomes freedom of expression.

When they get back to the dorm room, make out and fall asleep, they are awakened by Sam’s roommate coming home unexpectedly. You must be Mason. I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s awkward for all 3. She doesn’t kick them out but stammers and says she’ll return later, as if SHE’s the intruder. Once she’s gone Sheena and Mason collapse in giggles. But it is not to be.

Sheena falls for a college guy and dumps Mason. She is still prepared to go with the prom with him, since he already had the tickets, but he rejects the offer. She told her friends they were broken up. He doesn’t want to be her pity date. He sees no need to talk to her any more. She tells him to grow up. Lashes out. She says she was tired of being around him anyway, always brooding and profound, rather than just having fun. But aside from her defensiveness and guilt, her anger seems to indicate a little hurt, as if she still has a bit of feeling for him and wishes they could have continued as friends.

I fear that Mason will become her stalker, but he’s just said. He submits photographs he took of Sheena into a contest and wins one of the prizes, although his photography teacher once yelled at him for being lazy. The money will help towards his tuition. He hangs out with his dad as they listen to his father’s old roommate’s band rehearse. Seeing Mason mope the father says he’s sick and tired of hearing about Sheena and declares she wasn’t good enough for Mason anyway. It’s a show of support I think Mason appreciates. From their position on the balcony over the stage they hear the dad’s friend acknowledge them. He wants to dedicate a song to Mason. Someone he’s known since he was a boy and whom he can’t believe has grown so fast. Where did the time go?

Olivia throws a graduation party for Mason. His father shows up and congratulates Olivia on the nice spread she put out. He says he’ll give her some money to pay for the food later. Of course, she doesn’t believe it. He tells Olivia what a good job she did raising the two kids. He sees Olivia’s mother, his old nemesis and recalls what a crone he thinks she was. Although, she really only disapproved of him for abandoning his responsibilities. He still doesn’t realize or acknowledge that she had cause. He’s gotten older, but hasn’t grown.

Mason’s mother’s friend hits on him. There are toasts. Everyone’s proud, even Mason’s boss at the restaurant who has chewed him out, is there to say Mason’s a good kid. Mason accepts their well wishes, but his head is facing towards the future and he’s more focused on moving forward than remembering how far he’s come.

When he heads off to school, Olivia begins to cry. At first you think she’s going to say how much she’ll miss him, but instead she makes it all about her, declaring that she went from being a daughter to a mother and hardly had a life in between and now all her good years are gone. If I’d been on the fence before, this little diatribe seals my dislike of Olivia, but I saw a Patricia Arquette interview where she pointed out it’s a moment in time. An hour later Olivia will be a caring Mom. This rant doesn’t define who she is as a parent, any more than the mistakes she’s made along the way do. It’s all part of a bigger whole. And although the adult should take the high road, selfishness in the mother and child relationship runs both ways.

Olivia takes them the kids out for a last meal together before the semester starts and tells them she’s selling the house. They’re more worried about where they will go to do their laundry now, than they are about her empty nest emotions. As they finish their meal at the restaurant, Linklater has a misfire when a kid comes up to Olivia’s table and informs her she changed his life by telling him to go to school a few years ago. Now, if he had been a student of hers, I could see him appearing and declaring what an influence she’d been. But we were introduced to this guy when he came to the house to work on Olivia’s pipes (no that’s not a euphemism). All he did was tell her that the pipe she had was weak and the replacement one he had was strong (he stood on it to demonstrate). I'm no plumber, but I could have told her that. But she was impressed by this diagnosis and responded to him, "You're smart. You should go to school." And those passing words caused him to turn his life around? That's not exactly life-changing or personal. I guess if she’d said to a cashier, “I like your sweater. The color looks good on you,” the girl would have credited Olivia with prompting her to go to design school. Now, this plumber … if Olivia had shown him how to apply for a grant, ok. If she’d said, "I went back to school and it was hard, but I made it work and you can do it too," that might give him cause to think. But just saying "go to school" isn't enough to change anyone's life.

Still, we’re told that because of her he went back to school, learned English and is now the manager of the restaurant. If they wanted to show her, her kids and the audience that she made a difference in this world and is even a hero, to some, they could have given us a more powerful example than that.

Mason goes off to college and when he arrives at his room immediately makes friends with his dorm mate. The guy is going rock-climbing with his girlfriend and her roommate, would Mason like to join? Mason does and as he sits on a ridge, chatting with the new girl, he finds they have things in common. If he’d feared that he’d never again experience what anything as good as he’d found with Sheena, we see him learning that that’s far from the case. Hearts break. Hearts heal. Rinse and repeat.

Boyhood tells a big story, in a small way. It’s like water that smoothes and shapes a rock, in little waves and ripples over time. Sometimes, you can’t even notice the change, but then 12 years pass and there it is.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In The Good Old Summertime (1949)

I’d heard about this movie, but had no idea that it was a variation on The Little Shop Around the Corner (revisited in You’ve Got Mail and, to a lesser extent Pillow Talk).

It’s quite entertaining, although more so in the first 80 minutes than the last 20. Otto runs a music store and Van Johnson plays his top salesman Andrew. We meet Judy Garland (Veronica) sauntering down the street on her way to a job interview. She and Andrew collide. It’s not mutual hate at first sight. Veronica is immediately perturbed, but Andrew is pleasant. Their bump dislodges her feathered cap. He reaches to retrieve it for her, placing it on her head, only to find that he’s caught a feathered BIRD and is launching that at her instead. Veronica is more put out than ever and scurries briskly away.

At the shop, when Andrew realizes that she’s there for a job, he feels threatened and tries to discourage her. Otto, who is in love with his bookkeeper and assistant, Nellie, is charmed by Veronica, but is content to follow Andrew’s lead in the decision NOT to hire her, when a customer walks in and is instantly wooed by Veronica. She sings, she flatters, she makes the sale. Otto hires her on the spot, much to Andrew’s dismay. He and Veronica bait and banter and this sparring comprises the film’s best moments.

Eventually, the competition is more important than the customer. They vie to sell a cheap copy of sheet music as hard as if a valuable piano is at stake. Of course, Andrew is outmatched. He can sing, but after a male customer has been vamped and cajoled by a sultry Veronica, he’s in no mood for Andrew’s song and dance. Veronica preens, Andrew glowers. I actually like the fact that they are peers. Although Andrew reminds Veronica that he’s her supervisor and uses the title as an excuse to critique her attire, Veronica responds in kind and rebukes his tie. She doesn’t play second fiddle, because she’s a woman and Andrew doesn’t bicker with her because she’s a woman (at least not ostensibly), but because she’s a rival as good at the job as he is. That’s refreshing for 1949.

What they don’t realize is that they are pen pals. They write each other constantly and anonymously. Retrieving the mail is the high point of each of their days. And their correspondence is growing increasingly romantic. Veronica thinks her pen pal is the smartest man alive and Andrew esteems his pen pal so much that he has no interest in the violinist who lives across the hall from him and seems as if she would eagerly welcome any advances he cared to send his way.

Correspondents Veronica and Andrew plan to finally meet each other and each anticipates the moment with great excitement. Unfortunately, Otto and Nellie have had a spat. She insinuates that she is dating someone to taunt him. He decides that all of the employees will have to work late, in a sly effort to keep her from going out that evening. That means that Veronica and Andrew can’t meet their beloved pen pals. Both are distressed by this and grumpier with each other than ever.

Meanwhile, Otto and Nellie reconcile. Although we are told that they are in love at the outset of the movie, we don’t know why they haven’t married already. Apparently, they’ve worked with each other for decades. When Otto is assured that Nellie doesn’t have a date with another man, he lets his staff go home. Veronica and Andrew rush to meet their pen pal. But Veronica gets their first. Andrew and his co-worker have a chance to see her take her seat at the restaurant and they surmise that it’s HER! Veronica is Andrew’s pen pal. Andrew seems ambivalent about this turn of events. He doesn’t reject the idea of Veronica as his love interest automatically, but his feelings about her don’t become ardent immediately either. After talking to his co-worker, he goes over to Veronica at the restaurant, without revealing that he is the pen pal. Veronica is annoyed by his present and lets him know how much finer a person her pen pal is than Andrew can ever be. He’s someone flattered by her feelings. Veronica thinks she has been stood up and goes home despondent.

The next day, Andrew dresses with care, making it a point not to wear the tie Veronica despises. When she calls in sick, he is disappointed. He goes to her house to look in on her. She is babysitting. Her aunt is a seamstress and the baby belongs to one of her customers. To her surprise, Andrew is good with babies. He has a sister with children and has had experience. Veronica’s feelings for him seem to change when he sees him with toddler on knee. Again, for 1949, I’m glad to see that the sight of a man who will be a hands on father is a turn on for Veronica.

Andrew plants the seed that the reason her pen pal didn’t show up at dinner was that he saw her with Andrew and was afraid to approach. Veronica agrees with this theory. When a letter arrives from the pen pal himself, it confirms her suspicions. He still loves her, but was intimidated by the presence of a man as, according to the pen pal, handsome and appealing as Andrew is.

Unfortunately, the movie loses its luster at this point, just when we want to spend time with Veronica and Andrew, blinders about each other removed, we’re swept away on a sub plot that seems to have no other purpose than to fill time.

Otto and Nellie become engaged. They throw a party with live music. Otto inexplicably asks Andrew to take his prized violin home for safe keeping, so that it can be played at the celebration. Andrew carries the violin home, but when his neighbor sees it, she assumes that he has brought it for her to play at competition, since she asked him to borrow an instrument for her at the music store. Andrew lacks the heart to tell her that the violin is not for her. He lets her take it to the competition, but hovers over her, to make sure it’s not damaged. When Veronica sees Andrew with his neighbor, she mistakenly thinks he’s dating the neighbor and becomes depressed.

Little does she know that Andrew is thinking of settling down and as soon as he gets a raise and has enough money to support a family, he is looking to start one.

At the engagement party, Otto needs to stall for time waiting for Andrew to show up with the violin, so he has Veronica perform for the crowd. Veronica turns into Judy Garland and does some rousing numbers. The movie announcer tells us that the movie was originally a vehicle for June Allison and if they’d known it would star Garland they would have put in more music. I’m glad they didn’t.
When Veronica can’t stall anymore, Andrew has to confess that he let someone else use Otto’s priceless guitar. Otto is appalled and fires Andrew.

Back at the store, all of the employees are sad to see Andrew go, especially Veronica. She’s choked up and seems to want to say something to Andrew, but back down. Never fear, with Nellie’s gentle intervention and Otto’s realization that his violin was in good hands, because Andrew’s neighbor was a very talented musician, Otto changes his mind and hires Andrew back with a bonus.

Delighted that he will now have enough money to support a family, Andrew seeks Veronica out and teases her. He says he saw her pen pal and he’s sure she will be very happy with him, even though he’s old, short and bald. Veronica tries to pretend that looks don’t matter to her, but is having the wind knocked harder out of her sails each time that Andrew reveals yet another flaw in her intended. Andrew capitalizes on her flustered state and leans in for passionate kisses, as he casually explains that he is, in fact, the penpal. By that time, Veronica is so into their kiss that she hardly cares who he is or was any longer. That reveal should have been the fun high point of the movie, not an anti-climatic aside. So, that was disappointing. Whether her reaction was one of shock, pleasure or anger, it should have been a moment that was played up, not down.

Epilogue: We see Andrew and Veronica walking merrily down a summer lane in parasol and seer sucker as their daughter (a 2 year old Liza Minelli making her movie debut) is held lovingly between them, as the movie ends.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Little Women (1933)

I watched this movie while visiting my family over the holidays. When it started, my mother immediately complained because it wasn’t the 1949 version of the book she loved so much with Elizabeth Taylor. I told her that seeing as how Elizabeth was only a year old in 1933, you could hardly expect America to wait 16 more years for her to come of age, before seeing their most beloved children’s book come to life in “the talkies.”

It would be easy to call the movie dated, but I think the biggest problem is Katharine Hepburn’s scenery chewing histrionics. I’m a Hepburn fan, but she definitely improved with age. Maybe she never learned to stop shrieking in staccato, but at least she reduced the self-aware posing, over time. Of course, the character she played, Jo March, was melodramatic, but I think she was also organic. That’s what made her unique. Jo didn’t engage in the affected modesty and prim sensibilities that women of her era commonly practiced. She ran, she fought, she yelled. She followed her spontaneous heart, for better or worse. She was called a “tom boy” but the truth is she was just exuberant and real, in a way that women of her time were not allowed to be. When I think of Jo, I think of what all of us might be in our natural state, before society imposes constraints. Hepburn's approach to the character was unnatural. Indeed, in her own way, she was more pretentious than her famously vain little sister Amy.

That was another problem, Joan Bennett’s Amy was not nearly as shallow and selfish as the character in the book. This gave her less room to grow, to arc as a character and less conflict with Jo. Their friction was at the heart of Little Women, so removing most of it was a huge plot mistake. We lost the angst of Amy destroying Jo’s precious manuscript. In this version, Amy was infatuated with pretty things, but she wasn’t vengeful and wildly impulsive. No vehemence surfaced between the sisters. We didn’t grapple with love/hate feelings for the youngest March. Amy was watered down and no polar match for Hepburn’s extreme Jo. Without a fiery, frivolous Amy, everything that happens to Jo in contrast (cutting her hair, for example) is minimized.

Of course, this results in the eventual rapprochement between Amy, Laurie and Jo being less effective. Their estrangement is not as deep. Consequently, we feel less emotion and joy when it’s healed. Laurie is quite passionate in reacting to Jo’s rejection, but he is a peripheral character and his path is not our focus, Jo’s is. She is more torn that Aunt March is taking Amy to Europe than she is about Laurie and Amy.

If Amy was less interesting, then Meg and Beth were almost invisible. At one point, when Beth rose from her deathbed, I turned to my mother disappointed and exclaimed, “You mean she doesn’t die in this one?” Mom answered, “I think she dies. She’s just taking her time.” That she did, making the book’s most heart-wrenching passage rather anti-climatic. In fact, I laughed rather than cried. When Jo, ensconced in the Plumfield Estate School with Professor Friedrich, learns that Beth’s death is imminent, she sends her a letter which is so poetic about life’s end that it’s almost as if she’s hoping her sister kicks the bucket a bit faster. Believe me, it’s a missive that no ailing recipient would welcome.

I did find the movie evocative when Jo is at home, on vacation from school, and sees her sisters married off and happy. She doesn’t begrudge them contentment, but she does feel alone, unpartnered. She and Laurie were once soulmates. Now, having outgrown the play she shared with him, with whom can she share her unconventional spark now? Are the traits that make her special destined to be the traits that make her lonely? Of course, Professor Friedrich soon knocks on her door, answering that question with an resounding “No.” Still, as Jo lounged in her old haven, secluded amid the bustle of family, it was a quiet, wistful moment that I enjoyed.

In all, the movie seemed more focused on silly action than interaction. So, we get prolonged scenes of sword play between Laurie and Jo, awkwardly interrupted by the entrance of Grandpa Laurence or visit the amateur play the sisters put on well after it becomes tedious. In all George Cukor was more interested in recreating scenes from the book than telling its full story.

Still, it was charming to watch if for no other reason than to compare it to the original and all the retellings that have come since. Plus, even a bad Katharine Hepburn performance is still delightful in its own way.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Austenland (2013)

This trifle is neither funny, romantic nor engaging enough to recommend, but at least it's not the most painful way to spend 97 minutes.

Jane Hayes is a "Jane Austen" fanatic. The more losers she dates, the more firmly enmeshed in Fitzwilliam Darcy fantasies she becomes. Her apartment is chock full of Edwardian collectibles, dolls, dollhouses, china, costumes and, to top it all off, countless likenesses of Darcy, including a life-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth in the role.

Her obsession culminates in the decision to trade in her Toyota Tercel and spend her entire life savings on an Austenland package, where she will travel to England and live in a recreation of Austen's world, peopled by actors who play period characters. All patrons are promised a romance at the end of the trip.

Her friend, Molly, tries to talk her out of the expenditure, but to no avail. They make a bet, however. If the trip ends up in disaster, Jane promises to de-Austenize her abode, because the fanaticism is getting out of hand. Jane agrees, but I'm left puzzled because Molly never specifies what Jane will win if the trip turns out to be a success.

I'm not sure whether Jane is more keen on Austen or the dream of idealistic love. Idolizing the former is certainly less destructive than continually longing for the latter.

Once Jane's journey begin, it's at the UK airport that we learn that she only had enough money to pay for the low level package. She quickly meets another patron, the incorrigible and overblown Lizzie (played by Jennifer Coolidge), who seems to have never read a book, much less one of Austen's. But she has plenty of money to spend and has purchased the platinum package, which gives her all the pride, prejudice and frills that money can buy. I'm not sure why they didn't' make the lead character "Lizzie" and have the frivolous, man-hungry Coolidge serve as "Lydia." Surely it cannot be because they didn't want to be too obvious, because this movie is nothing if not that.

When Jane and Lizzie meet the Austenland owners, the Wattlesbrooks, the class discrimination becomes sharp. Lizzie, Miss Moneybags, receives the most deferential treatment, the best wardrobe, best service and best living quarters. Lizzie is transported in a carriage and Jane must ride on the outside jump seat. Since Lizzie seems to have a good heart, it is unclear why she doesn't defend her new friend more. If she advocated on Jane's behalf (as another customer, Amelia, later does), Jane would certainly receive more respect from Wattlesbrook, but then I suppose the plot -- such as it is -- would end summarily.
Jane's room is in the poor tower, miles away from Lizzie's and requiring a trek through the servant's corners to get there. In fact, one of the rare funny lines in the movie came when a sympathetic Lizzie reassures Jane that "I'm just around the corner" and remembers that, actually, she's not and that Jane sleeps in such a far, deserted place that it gives Lizzie nightmares to think of her there.

Jane does not even get to select her own fantasy surname. While the high-paying customers are "Charming" and "Heartwright," Jane is called "Jane Erstwhile."

At the big house (modeled after Darcy's Pemberly), Jane meets the male actors who play the Edwardian suitors, Wattlesbrook's nephew Henry Nobley and Colonel Andrews. At the first group dinner, Wattlesbrook unceremoniously reveals that Jane (the real woman, not just the fictional character she is playing) has had a disappointing love life. Why Wattlesbrook would be in possession of this information about a paying customer is unclear. But it gives some of the other group members cause to pity (or in Henry's case empathize with) Jane, while others, Amelia who is modeled after Austen's Lady Catherine de Bourgh use the information as reason to scorn her.

Later a largely shirtless Captain East also enters the scene to vie for the female attention, but since he is so far removed from anything resembling an Austen character, his presence is jarring. It is not effective to divert so wildly from the film's construct. It would be fine to have a Captain East in the story, who acted less like a Chippendale's dancer, especially when Wattlesbrook lectures her guests at the beginning that no out of character or risqué behavior would be allowed.

As Pride and Prejudice dictates, the snobby Henry and Jane dislike each other initially. But when he breaks character, we learn that Henry is a history professor who was dumped by his girlfriend. From the beginning, he has felt himself more like Jane than not. His banter with her is a way to protect his feelings, not a sign of condescension.

The problem is that I don't feel Jane experiencing the grudging attraction and stings of humiliation and self-consciousness that Elizabeth Bennett always had in Darcy's presence. Yes, Henry does seem awestruck by Jane from afar. Clearly, his cool retorts are defensive rather than antagonistic and the story might be better told from his perspective.

Jane quickly tires of the Austen actors and gravitates towards groomsman Martin. He dresses like a stablehand and servant, but whenever he and Jane are alone together, he breaks character and scoffs at those playing the charade. He may hate the Wattlesbrook pretending, but he loves the animals that he tends and when Jane sees him assist in the birth of a foal, she begins to feel that she wants to be part of his "real" world much more than she wants to continue in the Austen fantasy one that she's purchased. She escapes all Wattlesbrook-organized events that she can, to spend all of her time with Martin.

On one occasion, when her horse stalls, Martin leaves to get her another, when Jane is caught in a downpour. Henry comes along and insists that she get on his horse, so that they can ride to shelter. She says she can only ride sidesaddle in her dress and, disregarding her objections, he rips open the skirt and slings her astride his saddle. As he holds her, soaked, against him she nervously acts if he has her and he assures her that she does. It is actually an endearing moment and maybe I would have liked more between those two, but Jane actually spends more time canoodling with Martin and enjoying it quite a bit, so I have no particular rooting interest for Henry. A triangle may have worked in Bridget Jones Diary, but this Austen derivation would have worked better if only Henry and Jane remained at the heart of the story.

When Martin sees Jane laughing with Captain East (he doesn't even become jealous of Henry), he gives her the cold shoulder and says she would much rather socialize with the actors than with him. Soon after, Henry saves her from the lecherous Mr. Wattlesbrook and she becomes friendly with him, but even when he walks her to her room and urgently kisses her hand before reluctantly parting, their exchanges seem far from passionate.

Jane finds the needlework, promenades and musical performances the women must engage in to stay in character tedious. When Wattlesbrook insists that Jane take her turn at the piano, Jane plays "it's getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes..." by Nelly. Maybe that would have been funny if I'd seen the movie in theater, but as it is, I'm left cold. Of course, they repeat this performance for the closing credits, because it's just so funny to have people dressed in Edwardian garb sprouting lines like, "give that man what he askin for, cuz I feel like bustin loose and I feel like touchin you," right? Maybe if Dame Maggie Smith was doing it, I'd chuckle. But Keri Russell? Not so much.

Jane smuggled her cell phone into her room so she could keep in touch with her friend, Molly, back home. When Mrs. Wattlesbrook finds it, she leaps at the chance to throw Jane out of the trip. But another customer, Amelia, intervenes and says that the phone was actually hers, not Jane's. Since Amelia is a wealthy and valued customer, Wattlesbrook quickly forgets that possession of the phone was a breach of the rules and tells everyone the incident should never be spoken of again. Jane gets to stay, but leaving would not have been a devastating turn of events in her mind, at this point.

The group then puts on an amateur play, written by Wattlesbrook which is supposed to be comical in its awfulness, but is simply awful. They are to pair up. Amelia asks Jane to help her spend time alone with Captain East and, beholden to Amelia for the cell phone cover up, Jane chooses Henry as her partner for the play, against her will and to his pleasant surprise. They play a pair of lovebirds in the enactment and laugh over the many glitches they experience. They find that they enjoy each other's company.

At the ball Wattlesbrook has staged to cap off the vacation, Jane has promised the first two dances to Henry. Martin sulks at being shunned and Jane seems interested in resuming their romance. Later, Henry proposes to Jane, in a scene similar to Darcy's second proposal to Elizabeth. Jane says that she didn't expect to feel that way when it actually happened. Actually, her feelings are so ambiguous that you can take this statement two ways: 1. She didn't expect to have really feelings when she received the stage proposal, or 2. She didn't expect to feel nothing when she finally received the Darcy proposal she'd always dreamed of. At any rate, she doesn't except Henry's offer.

Jane is anxious to reunite with Martin. When they are alone, she says that when Austenland ends, she can change her flight out of London and spend more time with Martin, in the "real" world together. He agrees.

But after Jane has packed up and is ready to leave, she has an angry encounter with Mrs. Wattlesbrook. She mentions having, to her surprise, been paired up with Henry in the end. Since she had the low level package, she hadn't expected to be romanced by one of the premium actors. Wattlesbrook scoffs that Henry was never meant for Jane. Martin was the actor she was supposed to end up with. Jane is shocked. She didn't know Martin was an actor at all. Everything he said to her was a pretense, part of the skit. Angrily she tells Mrs. Wattlesbrook that she is going to report Austenland for sexual harassment, because she is sure that she is not the first patron that Mr. Wattlesbrook has assaulted (as Henry himself acknowledged when he rescued her). Since Jane did not seem to think twice about the Wattlesbrook incident after it happened, this seems like a rather petty and plot-stretching threat on her part.

She storms off to the airport. Afraid of the business repercussions, Mrs. Wattlesbrook quickly calls Martin and tells him to meet Jane at the airport and make nice, to smooth things over. Martin is with his colleagues when he gets the call and is smug that his services are needed. He says that he's surprised that Jane didn't fall for Henry, since she seemed up for grabs for any man that came along. Henry is ready to fight Martin for disparaging Jane's honor.

They both run to the airport where Jane is getting ready to board the plane in her street clothes. She is unmoved by Martin and realizes that even his accent was fake. As for Henry, she thanks him for the adventure, even if she knows it wasn't real. Well, it wasn't really clear during the rest of the movie that she cherished her time with Henry over her time with Martin, so the "happy ending" we're being spoonfed seems especially arbitrary.

Back at home, Jane keeps up her end of the bet and immediately begins uncluttering her apartment by removing all of the Austen props. Even the Darcy cardboard cut-out is headed for the trash. I suspected that Martin was a phony all along, but then another part of me thought that maybe the story was about Jane learning to be realistic and to choose a real man over a dream date. So, I thought if she turned away from Henry to pick Martin, she would be growing up, giving up the unattainable for substance and concrete. But, nah, that turns out not to be the point of the story.

The doorbell rings and Jane expects that it's her friend, welcoming her back home, but it's actually Henry. He followed her from London because ... she forgot her scrapbook. Jane says, "you could have mailed it." Yes, he could have, he admits. If he came all this way just to ensure she wouldn't sue Mrs. Wattlesbrook, she promises him she won't. No, that's not why he's there. He wanted to tell her that nothing he said to her was a lie. He was not an actor. He's a history professor. Wattlesbrook is really his aunt and, disillusioned with life, he decided to try one of her Austen fantasies. It was his first time, just like it was Jane's. She said that she wanted to live in the "real world" and he is real. They embrace and were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons, er, travel agent, who, by bringing her to [Austenland], had been the means of uniting them.

Wait. Does this means that Jane won the bet with Molly after all?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Maleficent (2014)

As with Wicked, to fully appreciate this retelling, you have to be familiar with the original source material. The real story lies in the contrast. Once again, we deconstruct a notorious "villain" and learn the truth behind their evil reputation.

Maleficent is the witch who sentenced the King's daughter, Aurora, to eternal sleep. We meet her as a lighthearted child, which begs the question: why was she christened Maleficent. As a cross between "malevolent" and "magnificent" the girl certainly grows into the name, but before she became the most feared creature in the forest, that moniker seems misplaced. It would have made more sense, if she started out as Millicent and then rebranded herself as Maleficent, when she set out on the road to revenge.

At any rate, Maleficent is born in a world where two lands exist. One is inhabited by self-aggrandizing, warmongering humans, ruled by an arrogant king who tramples over the rights of others to get what he wants. The other is a land of fairies. They have no ruler, but live together peacefully, in harmony with the beautiful animals, vegetation and nature that surround them. Young Maleficent flies around happily, giggling at the hijinks of her fairy friends, sorting out their trivial disputes and engaging in the occasional mudfight herself. She is graced with sparkling green eyes, sharp cheekbones, a mane of brown hair and large powerful wings that allow her to sweep through her world with unparalleled speed and power. She's not only stronger than everyone else, but wiser. The three other fairies we meet (Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit) are as flighty as they are tiny and spend more time bickering among themselves than getting any work done. It is no wonder that Maleficent emerges as a natural leader in essence, if not in name.

One day they find an intruder in fairyland. It's a boy, Stefan. Maleficent tells him he has to leave and to return the pretty stone she knows he's stolen from them. He grudgingly hands it over and she tosses it into the sea. He says he wouldn't have given it to her, if he'd known she'd just throw it away. She said she didn't throw it away, but returned it to the water where it belonged. The point is, it wasn't his or hers to keep. While this fact may have been lost on Stefan, he manages to impress Maleficent when, he shakes her hand and his ring scorches her skin. She explains to him that iron burns fairies and, without a second thought, he casts the ring aside. He had so little, but was willing to give up what he did have to avoid harming her. I thought it was foreshadowing about a sacrifice Stefan would make later, but sadly, it just served to expose Maleficent's weakness to Stefan.

Although she had initially warned him never to return to Fairyland, she soon recants that rule. When he asks if she will be there when he comes back, she offers a coy "maybe." He visits often. They become fast friends and then a romance blooms as they grow up. But eventually Stefan stops coming. We're told that he's off seeking his fortune. It's not clear if the reason for his absence has been explained to Maleficent.

One day the king from Stefan's world invades Fairyland and, seeing Maleficent as the lone person protecting it, he wages war with her. Suddenly, the trees and animals come to life and with Maleficent, at the head, they form an army that sends the king running back home with his tail between his legs. Humiliated and ailing, he promises his daughter's hand and his kingdom to anyone who slays Maleficent for him.

After being away for years, Stefan returns to Fairyland. Maleficent tries to give him cool greeting, but that soon melts away and as they talk, it's as if the years had never passed and they are as close as ever. He pulls out a flask and offers Maleficent a drink. She slakes her thirst and soon becomes drowsy, resting against Stefan. When she is unconscious he takes out his knife to kill her, but he can't bring himself to do it. Instead, he cuts off her wings, an amputation that seems more cruel and gruesome than a stab to the heart would have been. When Maleficent wakes and finds her wings gone, her despair rings across the land. She still has arms and legs, but nonetheless she's been crippled.

I sit through the rest of the film knowing that however things end, because this is a Disney movie the brutality of Stefan's act can never be avenged to my satisfaction. He takes the trophy wings back to the King and says that he has killed her. It's not a lie. He killed her emotionally.

She hobbles weakly, broken, her shoulders sunk. Her heart broken. When she learns that Stefan has been made king of the humans, she realizes that he mutilated her, so he could gain his fortune. Her anger and pain forge a transformation. She declares herself Queen of Fairyland. Gone is her innocence. She emerges sleek and icy, with a magnificent wardrobe, a head wrap that covers her hair and any girlish vulnerability she once possessed and a command of magic that intimidates all, bending them to her will.

She sees a crow, Diaval, caught in a net and, because she needs his wings, she turns him into a man, her right hand man. Because she has saved his life, he pledges his loyalty to her. He flies to and fro bringing her information from the other land, acting as her eyes and ears, if not her confidante. As with everyone else, she keeps Diaval at arms length.

When Diaval brings news that Stefan and his Queen have had a baby, Aurora, Maleficent plans a visit. Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit have already flown over to give Aurora their blessings of beauty and joy. Stefan hesitantly accepts their bounty. I suppose he's right to be wary. My friend also wondered why the three fairies are so eager to be of service to Stefan, knowing that he cut off another fairy's wings.

Well, maybe they just like innocent babies and they aren't trying to honor Stefan, but the child for her own sake. On the other hand, maybe they don't know what Stefan did. Although animals, trees and plants are all alive in Fairyland, they didn't witness what Stefan did firsthand or otherwise they would have made their presence known when it was happening. So, we have to assume that Maleficent told them. She withdrew into herself into the attack so much, that I just don't see her having that conversation with them.

They know her wings are gone, but they may not know why or at whose hands. They live with the result, not the reason. Maleficent has become cruel and demanding. They cower in her presence. They are not in regular contact with Stefan and if they've heard of his tyranny, they don't live with it. On their nearsighted scale of bad, Maleficent probably ranks higher than the king does. And, of course, it's the plight of any tragic heroine to be misunderstood. Like Elphaba before her, people recognized her as vengeful, while forgetting that that means she must have had something to avenge in the first place. They know her crime, but not their cause.

Why wouldn't she explain herself? Hurt because people automatically assume the worst and she won't stoop to defend herself, won't beg for their understanding. Pride. A sense of shame and blame. She feels she never should have trusted Stefan in the first place. Perhaps, she thinks she "let" it happen. For whatever reason, we don't see Maleficent communicate with the other three fairies directly. So, we don't know why they aid her enemy's child. If they do it feeling that the babe should not suffer for her father's sin, it would be nice if they mentioned that, because I think that would be a good plot point.

Anyway, after the 3 fairies bless Aurora, Maleficent storms in on a cloud of darkness and terrorizes everyone gathered. Stefan has guards, but Maleficent has something stronger: words. She says she wants to bless the baby too. Afraid, Stefan begs her to stop. He falls to his knee. Maleficent gleams and gloats, "I like you begging; do it again." Angelina Jolie delivers the line with delicious menace.

As everyone listens fearfully, Maleficent wishes Aurora all good things. Dare the crowd breathe a sigh of relief? Not yet. As her blessing reaches its breathless end, Maleficent says that on her 16th birthday the child shall prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep from which she will never awake. Stefan pleads, so Maleficent pretends to soften the curse by saying Aurora can awaken, if and only if she is touched by true love's kiss. Both Stefan and Maleficent bitterly know there is no such thing as true love, so at 16, the kid will be just as good as dead!

Stefan immediately has all the spinning wheels in the kingdom removed. One wonders why the original writer of this tale had the witch specify the instrument of Aurora's downfall. Or the exact date on which it will happen. Isn't that a bit convenient. Of course, Maleficent probably thinks this will make their torture worse. They think that knowing will help them protect themselves, but Maleficent has said that her curse is binding and cannot be revoked by anyone. It is inevitable and the hope that it might be avoided, the dread that it won't be, must compound Stefan's suffering. Knowing that he will have Aurora, destined to be the most delightful child on earth through the blessings she will receive, for 16 years, only to have her taken, is worse than if Maleficent had smote the child on the spot.

Stefan sends the baby away with the three fairies, ordering them to hide the infant and not to return her until after her 16th birthday. Again, since he's been given a roadmap, there's really no reason to hide her for 16 years. Let her run free for 15 and then let the fairies abscond with her in the last months leading up the big day. But who expects logic from a fairy tale.

The three fairies take Aurora to a dilapidated cottage and promptly begin to neglect her. They mean well, but are so inept that it's a wonder the child doesn't perish immediately under their care. One wonders why Stefan chose them as guardians. He's not from Fairyland, from whence the threat he is facing comes. From what we can see, he barely knows Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistletwit. Why not have humans protect his child in an undisclosed location? I suppose he figures that since the 3 have magical powers, they can combat Maleficent while mortals cannot.

Although the fairies think no one will ever find their little cottage, Maleficent has been on to them from the start. She watches Aurora grow, marveling at how grotesque the "beastie" is and occasionally popping out to scowl at the little one, when she is unattended. No matter how she glowers, Aurora only responds to Maleficent with cooing and smiles. Maleficent can only maintain her outward contempt for the girl with a struggle. Although, Diaval doesn't realize it, the audience sees her intervening to protect Aurora throughout her childhood, feeding her when the absent-minded fairies don't, keeping her from crawling off of a cliff and generally overseeing her life.

When Aurora nears 16, Maleficent puts her in a trance and floats her away from the 3 fairies who don't even notice the girl is gone. At first, Maleficent plans to observe the girl from afar, but Aurora senses her presence and bids her to show herself. "Don't be afraid," she beckons. Maleficent smirks that if she comes out, it is Aurora who will be afraid, but Aurora disagrees. Maleficent reveals herself and Aurora says that she is not afraid. She has known Maleficent was there her entire life. She has observed Maleficent's shadow with her, at every step she has taken. She has concluded that Maleficent is her fairy godmother.

Maleficent does not know how to respond, but it is not with the scorn she had hoped to muster. She watches Maleficent play in Fairyland and engage in mud fights with the woodland animals and it reminds her of her own childhood there. All the other fairies have wings, why doesn't Maleficent, Aurora wonders. Maleficent says she did and they were grand, but won't tell Aurora what became of them. When Aurora asks if she can come and live there when she turns 16, Maleficent says Aurora doesn't have to wait that long. She can come and live with Maleficent now. Ecstatic, Aurora plans to tell the 3 fairies, her aunties, she will be leaving them.

Maleficent watches the girl sleep, pulling the blankets closer around her and revoking the curse she has placed on the child, but then she hears the echo of her own words from almost 16 years ago, telling her that the curse cannot be undone. No one can change Aurora's dire fate. Maleficent is frantic with despair and regret.

Diaval tells her if only Aurora can find true love, the curse will be undone, so Maleficent shouldn't worry. Maleficent scoffs that there is no such thing as true love. Even when a handy young prince shows up and is instantly attracted to Aurora, Maleficent discounts his presence. He can't save her victim.

Meanwhile, in his kingdom, Stefan is moping over the same realization. Hanging in his chambers we see Maleficent's wings that he has hung like a prize. He may have shown some remorse when he initially maimed her, but in keeping those wings, he is boasting of his act. It's little solace to me that he has gone mad. He talks to the wings as if they are Maleficent themselves. He knows they are plotting against him. He is so delusional that even when his aides tell him his wife is dying and calling him to her bedside, he just keeps muttering to an absent Maleficent. Is it guilt that has maddened him or, if his child had not been cursed, would he be enjoying his position without qualms? It hardly matters, whatever his suffering, it cannot be enough.

In Fairyland, when Aurora tells her auntie's she will be leaving them they are enraged. After all of the sacrifices they have made for her in the last 16 years, they fume. Besides, they let slip that she can't live until the curse has expired. Curse? An angry Aurora confronts Maleficent and wants to know who cursed her. Then, by Maleficent's silence Aurora divines that it was Maleficent, her "godmother" who did this evil thing. Maleficent does not try to explain. Learning that her father is king of the human and seeing a palace, her palace in the distance, Aurora runs away from the fairy who betrayed her and heads "home."

At the palace, Stefan barely takes pleasure in meeting Aurora, just panics that she is not safe until after her 16th birthday and puts her under guard. But tragedy makes its own path and finds a way to occur, no matter what precautions are taken against it. Somehow, Maleficent's spell develops a life of its own and weaves its way through the castle. Her finger pulsing and yearning, all obstacles are swept aside as she's drawn to a forgotten room as if in a trance. The door opens to reveal piles of spinning wheels. Why Stefan didn't have them all burned, I don't know. In the original tale, they were all destroyed, but one, the evil witch's remained. In this movie, there are gazillions of them, just waiting to prick a princess. But most are charred and deteriorating. Only one shines, calls to Aurora like a siren. Her finger touches the spindle, as magnet meeting steel.

She swoons into a deep slumber, the effect of which is felt throughout the kingdom. Miles away, as Maleficent is speeding towards the castle to try to protect Aurora, she knows she is too late. Even from a distance, she feels it when the girl is lost and she is inconsolable. But she and Diaval have brought the prince with them and Maleficent is willing to use him as a last ditch effort to awake Aurora.

When they arrive at the bed where Aurora sleeps, the prince is reluctant. After all, he has only met her once. He feels funny about kissing her. I think this is highly practical, but then he disappoints me by kissing her on the lips after all. As long as they were turning the story on its head and making it contemporary, I'd just as soon they'd have decided against having a sleeping teen kissed by someone she hardly knows altogether.

The kiss doesn't awaken Aurora. In keeping with recent (Frozen) Disney films, the knight in shining armor doesn't rescue the princess, which is great. But in reality, there's no need for a knight in shining armor at all-- at least not in this film where he has nothing to offer the story but his pucker. We don't get to know him.

But I suppose the first step in teaching us that a prince is not obligatory is to show us that he doesn't have to be the one to save the day.

Her worst fears confirmed, Maleficent has now seen it proven that there is no true love and nothing to bring Aurora back to her. Griefstricken, she kisses Aurora on the forehead to say goodbye. As she is turning away, Aurora awakens with a loving, "hello fairy Godmother." Well, even though she was unconscious, does Aurora know that it was Maleficent who awakened her? I guess so, otherwise, she should still be blaming Maleficent for cursing her in the first place.

Frankly, I wanted Aurora to be told why Maleficent acted as she did onscreen. I didn't want to fill in the blanks. I wanted the satisfaction of having Stefan's daughter turn against him. I wanted her to come upon Maleficent's encased wings and understand everything, in a wave of horror. My wish was only half granted.

Once Stefan learns that Maleficent is in the castle, he sets his guards upon her and ensnares her in iron chains, knowing from long ago that iron burns her.

Maleficent turns Diaval into a dragon (all Game of Thrones like) but even flying and breathing fire, he can't free her. Aurora runs into Stefan's chambers and sees the wings. They develop a life of their own and start breaking free of their case (um, why didn't they do that when she first got to the castle? Why wait around), rising with shattering glass and flying to their own. The wings attach themselves to Maleficent and she reigns triumphant again. She soon subdues all of Stefan's men and is preparing to imprison him in the castle tower, but he won't succumb. As if he is the one who has been wronged, he rages at her. Lunges. As he does so, he plunges to his death. I was hoping that Maleficent would just murder him with her bare hands, actually.

Of course, children will see this movie and we can't send a message of vigilante justice. Moreover, Maleficent has learned the folly of letting hate consume your life and causing you to commit acts you cannot take back. Her irrevocable spell almost cost her Aurora and she doesn't want to be controlled by anger again This lesson is fine for young audiences, but sometimes I wish the high road was the one not taken.

Back in Fairyland, Maleficent takes off her crown and bestows it on Aurora. With Stefan dead, Aurora is made Queen of both kingdoms and their lands are united, not through battle but through love.

Diaval stands by Maleficent's side now, in manly form, not as her servant, but as her peer. And as the happy fairies and animals play, the prince joins the merry crowd, earning a warm smile from Aurora. She's only 16 and I don't know that we need to be reminded that love was in her future. If the movie had ended with no reappearance from the prince, I don't think anyone would have gotten the idea that dear Aurora was going to die a lonely and bitter spinster, with no romance on the horizon. But as fractured fairytales go, this one has already been altered enough. We'll have to change princess expectations in baby steps.

I liked this movie so much as an adult that I believe most of its value will be lost on young children. Despite the 3 flighty fairies and occasional with from Diaval, humor was kept at a minimum, as was true action.

Because the movie was quieter, I found its darkness more thoughtful and the lead was Angelina Jolie, not the youthful Fanning. This was the tale of a woman's pain and recovery, not a girl's dreams. As such, I definitely think it should be seen by the young, but I'm not sure it can be fully appreciated by them. Yet.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hitchcock (2012)

It's another tour de force for Anthony Hopkins. He completely envelopes himself in this role and no resemblance to the actor is left. I suspect that little resemblance to the actual Alfred Hitchcock remains either.

This movie is more whimsical than biological. While Hopkins could easily have rendered whatever portrayal of the famous director was necessary, the director has him play Hitchcock as the delightfully dour character who introduced his weekly television series, rather than as an actual human being. It's akin to modeling a Rod Serling biography after his enigmatic introduction to Twilight Zone episodes.

We meet Hitchcock hot off of the success of North by Northwest. You'd think his career would be at its peak, but it seems the lucrative television deal he just signed (Alfred Hitchcock Presents) has lessened his reputation in the film industry. Furthermore, he's 60 years old. The industry thinks he's lost his touch.

He and his wife Alma Reville actually possess a healthier, happier marriage than either realizes. She was working as a film editor before Hitchcock even began his career in movies. She recalls that he reported to her in those early days. Today, she is his partner. She may not stand behind the camera with him at the studio, but all of his scripts and screen shots pass through her hands and are stamped with her input before they ever make it to the screen. As played by Helen Mirren, she is confident as his working equal, even if most people at the studio don't give her due respect. The people who matter know and that's what she cares about.

However, the fact that her husband is openly infatuated with young, beautiful film actresses does unnerve him. He may not actually sleep with them, but he obsesses over his leading ladies and doesn't bother to hide it, even in Alma's presence. He doesn't seem to notice that she minds. Doesn't see her move away or excuse herself when he flirts and flatters other women, inches away from her and she never confronts him. Her anger and hurt simmer, but not in a hostile way for the most part. She and Hitch are very supportive and companionable most of the time.

For his next picture, everyone expects Hitch will do another romantic mystery, with a debonair lead and classic beauty. But that's too easy, too predictable. He's more interested in a gritty horror novel, Psycho, written by Robert Bloch based on a real life serial killer Ed Gein. The more people tell him that the novel is too lurid and cheap to make a respectable film, the more adamant he is about doing it.

Paramount wants nothing to do with the film and won't provide the needed financing, so Hitchcock decides to invest his own money to produce it. He's risking the family fortune, including the Hitchcock home to do it. While Alma isn't eager to give up her lucrative lifestyle, she also supports her husband's goals. Does she have faith in Psycho? No. But does she have faith in him? Absolutely, she tells him. She'll risk it all, not happily, but without complaint and without even much reluctance. They tighten corners at home. No pool man, no gardener, no imported foods. She oversees Hitch's strict diet and puts him to work in the yard. He grumbles, but obeys her orders, at least until she's not looking. Alma continues to splurge secretly though, buying herself a chic swimsuit, still seeking an elusive compliment from her husband.

With a spouse like that, you'd think Hitch, at least, would feel secure in his marriage, but he doesn't. When he fishes for a compliment from her, asking if he's outdated, she only says of course he is and he's corpulent too! Even though an affectionate kiss accompanies her light remark, you can tell it stings him. It's unclear whether she knows this or cares. In turn, when she finishes dressing and asks his opinion he says that she is decidedly "presentable." That smarts. She wanted to hear beautiful, even if it was a lie. Of course, the jealous way he sat in the tub watching her dress, spying at her in their bathroom mirror as she did -- while she knew he was looking -- should tell her how much he cares. What husband of several decades still watches his wife dress, especially one who was as plain as the real Alma was? But despite her intelligence in all other things, Alma may not grasp how important she is to Alfred personally, not just professionally.

At work, he peers at Janet Leigh and Vera Miles dressing through a hole in their dressing room wall, not unlike Norman Bates does. Vera has already experienced Hitch at his worse. Angered when she became pregnant just before he was going to cast her as the star in his next movie, he punishes her by giving her only a small part in Psycho, while he still has her under contract. Leigh, on the other hand, is able to maintain a friendly relationship with Hitch and doesn't have to suffer his wrath.

He and Alma decide to cast Tony Perkins because they know he's gay and must be used to hiding his true self, as Norman Bates does. The deal is sealed when Hitchcock interviews Perkins and finds he had problems with his mother in real life. I think this rationale, for Perkins' success in the role is actually a disservice to the actor's talent, but James D'Arcy is very good in the role.

In a strange subplot Alfred fantasizes about talking to the serial killer Ed Gein. He hears Ed Gein when he directs the shower scene in Psycho. With Gein's voice ringing in his ear, Hitchcock himself slashes at a frightened Janet Leigh. These exchanges are distracting and incongruent. It would have been better to actually show us Hitchcock's dark side within the realistic confines of the script, without resorting to fantasy. That would have given the character depth. Although, it's a bit superficial to say that Hitchcock is a great director of murder mysteries because he is fascinated with true crime or that Perkins played an incestuous serial killer convincingly, because he had problems himself. Such direct personality causes and effects only exist in the movies and a movie that employs them heavy-handedly is not a very believable one. Make this movie about a man, not a double-chinned bobble head.

Alma has begun working on a script with writer Whitfield Cook. He flirts with Alma in a manner so obvious that it's phony. At least she doesn't appear to take it seriously. Her response to him is more friendly than infatuated and she is a pal to his wife Elizabeth. It's not clear whether she knows how jealous Hitchcock is of Cook. But her vengeful intent is clear, when she enters Hitch's office and finds a stack of beautiful actress head shots on his desk, she leaves her earring on the pile, as proof to him that she was there, then suddenly accepts Cook's offer to meet him on the beach for a meeting.

AT the beach, when she enters Whit's cottage and finds a bed dominating the room, she tells him she's afraid he got the wrong idea. So, that assures me she wasn't planning on having sex with him, but one wonders how long she wouldn't have planned it. They work on a script together. When she comes home after hours Hitch feigns sleep, but reads the script behind her back and then petulantly tells her how horrible it is at breakfast.

Stressed about Whit and Alma, Hitch passes out at work. He is ordered home for 3 days bed rest and Alma takes over for him at the studio, brushing aside Paramount's offer to bring in a replacement director for Hitch. Paramount wants to shoot the film down. It's low budget fare with which the studio does not want to be associated. Clearly, Hitchcock is failing them. The execs (president Barney Balaban chief among them) will have to pin all of their hopes on Jerry Lewis' Cinderfella to uphold their reputation! The censors threaten to slap an X rating on the film, so that it won't be released in any decent theater. They are so sneering and dismissive that the audience is just rooting for Psycho to succeed, awaiting the moment when they will have to eat crow. Of course, they never do. They take credit for the movie's success as if it was all their own idea in the end, but there is satisfaction in knowing how wrong they will ultimately be proven.

Confined at home, Hitch does some sleuthing and finds sand in the bathroom. He deducts that Alma has been on the beach with Whit and confronts her. She angrily tells him that her work with Whit takes nothing away from him and let's him know he's not talking to one of his starlets. He's talking to Alma Reville, the person partly responsible for the success he enjoys. He has no retort.

He returns to the studio and grimly accepts the fact that the movie he has sunk his money and reputation into is looking like a flop. Alma returns to the beach and finds Whit in flagrante delicto with an anonymous woman. As she leaves, Whit begs her not to say anything. Of course, she won't tell his wife Alma responds. That's not what Whit is worried about. He doesn't want her to tell Hitch. He doesn't want this discovery to ruin his chances of having Hitch adapt one of his scripts into a movie. Upon hearing this, Alma realizes how she has been used as Whit's means to get closer to Hitch and drives off. I wonder what would have happened if Whit had been alone when she arrived. Would Alma have succumbed to his advances or initiated some of her own, to get back at her husband.

Deflated, she tells Hitch he was right about Whit's poor script and admits that he could never hold a candle to Hitch. He is mollified and, for his part, tells her that Psycho is a flop. Not yet it isn't, Alma informs him. After all, she hasn't put her finishing touches on it yet.

She goes in with scissors, editing the best cuts of the movie together and adding (the infamous) slash music, over Hitchcock's objections to it. They promote the movie by telling the world how terrifying and scary it will be, priming audiences to be horrified. At the premiere, Hitch doesn't sit with the moviegoers. He waits outside, anticipating their reactions, directing their screams like an orchestra conductor. They shriek in all of the right places and he knows it's a hit. He's been redeemed.

Afterwards, he and Alma revel in their success. Their joint triumph. He tells her she is more beautiful than any of his starring ladies. Touched, she says she's been waiting 30 years to hear those words. That's why they call him the master of suspense, he answers.

So, the Hitchcock's get to keep their house and remain in the lap of luxury. In the end, Hitchcock stands on his front yard, but it's more like the forefront of a set from Alfred Hitchcock presents. He tells the audience he doesn't know what his next movie will be. Maybe an idea will come to him. Just then a large black bird lands on his shoulder. Quite amusing. And in the end that's what the movie is, more amusing than substantive. For that reason, even the see-saw in Alma and Alfred's relationship was more pleasant than intriguing to watch. Good acting, charming script. Fun, but fluffy.