Friday, November 18, 2011

Breaking Dawn, Part I: Twilight Saga (2011)

Well, the drawing point for this installment in the famous Twilight Saga series was the marriage and honeymoon of Bella and Edward. Those scenes didn't disappoint. They were visually beautiful and the emotion was truly touching.

Overall, I have no real complaints about the film, except that if I hadn't read the books and lived thousands of pages with these characters, I don't think these movies would actually make me feel anything. No action movie lover would gravitate towards these films. The fights, especially one confrontation that involves talking CGI wolves, are downright laughable. The only reason to watch is for the relationships and the screenplay only gives you a sketchy outline of those, compared to what you get in four volumes of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. Pattinson, Lautner and Stewart are not the actors to bring unspoken subtext to their portrayals either.

You've heard of scratching the surface, but the crippling guilt that Edward feels at having impregnated Bella (perhaps fatally) is barely a smudge in the movie, much less a sccratch. Edward has an angry scene with Bella, where he blames her for choosing not to end the pregnancy and leaving him, but his abject sorrow and self-blame is not apparent. His fear of hurting her during the honeymoon is not obvious either. Yes, there is dialogue when he sees her bruises, apologizes and decides not to risk hurting her by sleeping with her again, but it's just words and movement, not real PAIN. That's what the movie lacks: angst, fear, hurt. The books are far from classics, but they do give you enough substance to let your imagination create real pathos throughout the stories. By contrast, the movies leave your imagination hungry for more emotional depth.

Still, there's a nice moment in the sex scene where Bella says to Edward only, "it's okay," which explains a lot about how his unspoken fear is tempered by the firmness and assurance in her voice. On rare occasions, a few frames can convey what it could take a book pages to describe.

On the other hand, sometimes the froth and brevity in the movies make it easier to tolerate some of the books more annoying plots. Lautner's Jacob is somewhat less annoying that Meyer's. One still wishes that Bella didn't have a secondary romance going on with the wolf, rather undercuts the main love story. Although the book references Wuthering Heights, it doesn't realize that the reason Heathcliff and Catherine's doom cut through our hearts, is because Heathcliff was Catherine's only love. Cathy never told Heathcliff, "I love Edgar, but I love you more." Romeo and Juliet belonged only to each other. Juliet didn't think that both Paris and Romeo were her soulmates. I would have preferred an exclusive duo like that rather than the threesome Meyer's gave us.

If the movies do anything worthwhile, it's to mitigate a bit of the Edward/Jacob/Bella triangle. When Bella fingers the bracelet Jacob gave her on the eve of her wedding, it's easier to pretend that her feelings for the wolf are strictly platonic in the theater, while the book, unfortunately, insisted that they weren't. On the other hand, the movie does make us suffer through her post-wedding dance with Jacob, while his mouth rests on her bare shoulder and he openly agonizes about Bella and Edward consummating their marriage and Bella hurts for him. Wonder how it feels for the groom to witness this (in Jacob's mind, if not with his own eyes). Honestly, Edward usually seems like an also-ran in Bella's heart and mind.

Life in America was certainly violent 100 years ago. In Eclipse we learned that when Carlisle turned her into a vampire to save her life, it was because she'd been gang raped by her fiance (an upstanding banker) and his cronies and left for dead. This go round, Edward recalls how decades ago, before he'd sworn off blood, he'd drunk from an assailant who was about to attack a woman in a movie theater. While Rosalie's flashback was in the book, Edward's wasn't. Obviously, there's always been crime but I don't think it was as blatant at the turn of the century as this story would have you believe.

It's not hard to believe that Rosalie would be raped by her fiance. Knowing that "unchaste" women would be social outcasts, men raped them to ruin them in the eyes of society and make sure no one else would want them. It was a means of both physical and cultural domination. But would the fiance actually gather his colleagues (other respectable businessmen) to join in the rape? Women could be ruined via rape, but back then, honor was a two way street. Poor women were helpless and expendable, but because Rosalie came from a wealthy family herself, she would be avenged. If caught, the men who attacked her would have been put to death by their very own neighbors, if not by the authorities. So, I don't think you'd really get five honorable citizens waylaying a debutante, especially not on the good side of town. But back to the present day . . .

Much has been made about the movie's birth scene. Compared to what you can see on tv these days, they aren't too graphic. It is a little irritating that Edward has to leave Bella dying on the operating table to go fight with wolves. That never happened in the books. Besides, the film ignores the fact that vampire venom kills wolves, so one hairy bite and any real fight between the two would be over very quickly. But the director's propensity to inject violence where it never existed in the novels, portends poorly for Breaking Dawn II. I think Stephenie was sending a message when she plotted a non-violent finale. Movie producers will never be content to sound such a peaceful bell.

As for Jacob and Renesmee, It was interesting that Jacob and Leah said that (wolf)people who have imprinted on their soulmate have only been deceived by their genes into thinking that they are happy. The books did leave me feeling that if you are chemically drawn to someone and feel like you "never had a choice" but to be with them, it's someone less romantic than love born of free will. Although, it won't mean anything in the plot, I was surprised that the movie dialogue touched upon this perspective.

When the baby is born and Edward holds her, the CGI effects that create her wide eyes are genuinely impressive. She truly is an entrancing infant, without looking alien or artificial. Indeed, her eyes look more realistic than the adult vampires' do. When Jacob imprints on her, a voiceover tells us that he will be everything she needs, friend, brother, protector. He doesn't mention that wolves usually hook up with the people they imprint on, making his infatuation with the child somewhat less creepy.

The movie ends right after the converted Bella opens her eyes. I was hoping the conclusion would involve a more meaningful moment. Those last seconds, when Bella's eyes flash open with preternatural speed -- cut to black -- were more fitted to a sci fi flick (even an It's Alive horror story) than a love story. But that's why it's called "Part 1" after all. The first installment was satisfying enough to leave me looking forward to (if not exactly bloodthirsty) for the second.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Ides of March (2011)

When a film is adapted from a screenplay, you expect it to be talkie, static and stilted. You don't expect it to be soulless. Since a playwright can't rely on gestures and subtlety to inform his audience, the characters themselves are generally more expressive.

That's not the case in Ides, a screenplay based on the 2008 play Farragut North. The characters talk, but we know less about who they are when the movie ends than we did 10 minutes in. That could be a good thing, if it meant that their deceptions surprised and alienated us, revealing them to be frauds. But the problem with Ides is that very little is revealed, good or bad.

When a plot twists and contorts in ways that bend the imagination or the dialogue is razor ready, as so often happens with a David Mamet creation, it hardly matters if the characters lack personality. But this film is no Glengarry Glen Ross.

George Clooney plays Mike Morris, a governor running for the presidential office. He's fighting to win Democratic primaries to gain his party's nomination. His words are stirring and idealistic, both onstage and when he speaks privately when the cameras are off. His conviction seems genuine.

We are led to believe that's why Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the second in command in Morris' campaign, is drawn to him. Meyers works under campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the two seem to complement each other, with respective strengths that contrast and balance. Meyers says that Paul will do anything to win an election while he, Stephen, would do anything for what he believes in. What he, ostensibly, believes in is Morris and his commitment to building a better America for the lower and middle classes. Stephen seems to concede that he'll take moral short cuts, but only if it serves the greater good.

When Stephen is asked to meet with a rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the fact that he takes the meeting but doesn't tell anyone doesn't seem disloyal, because he hardly seems tempted by Duffy's offer to switch over to the opposing candidate's side. Moreover, he's skeptical of the information that Duffy is giving him about Morris' failing chances. As soon as one of Duffy's disclosures pans out, Meyers tells Paul and Morris that Duffy offered him a job immediately. So, they all appear to be working on the same side.

All of the characters, including Ida, a smiling, but coatthroat reporter played by Marisa Tomei are well acted, but not well defined. None of them are even as cold as Rahm Emanuel, but they aren't human either. We don't see them at home. The warmest moment we get is between Morris and his wife, in the backseat of a limo, as he explains to her that he won't make a deal that would win him the election if it means putting an unscrupulous Senator into a cabinet position. Morris' tone with her is affectionate, but that's the only glimpse of the personal the movie really offers. If the film was about politics, rather than people, the lack of character insight would be irrelevant. But this isn't a clever political drama. On that level, it's much less original and sharp than a single episode of The West Wing.

As he worries about Morris' poll numbers, Molly, a campaign volunteer flirts with Stephen. They take two tumbles in bed. Then he intercepts one of her phone calls from Mike Morris. When he demands to know why Morris is calling her at 2:30 a.m. in the morning, Molly haltingly says, "I'm in trouble." She says she slept with Morris in such oblique terms that I think I've stumbled into Advise and Consent or some other Allen Drury based film made 50 years ago when The Hays Code still had Hollywood in its censorious grip. When's the last time a woman ever said, "I'm in trouble" rather than, "I'm pregnant?" Molly goes further and reveals that Morris was returning her phone call because she'd contacted him to ask for $900. Why does she need 9 big ones from Morris. "Because I can't go to my father. We're Catholic." Huh?

This exchange reminded me of watching a 1930s film called Men in White with Clark Gable. We never saw anything romantic pass between Gable (a doctor) and his nurse. We just saw the nurse take off her white cap and gently place it on the sofa. From that we were supposed to know they slept together. Then, she died during a botched medical procedure. Because the staff kept wondering who the man involved was, we knew that that mysterious procedure had to be an abortion. Social decorum required you to be a genius back in those days to even have a hint of what the plot was about. For some reason, even though Molly was far from modest when she met Stephen and told him she wanted intercourse (in terms far less polite), when discussing her need for an abortion, she suddenly becomes very quaint and cryptic.

We met her as a forward person, who easily saw through Stephen's bluffs and took charge. As the daughter of a high-ranking Democratic official, she was not someone easily intimidated by Stephen, Morris or anyone else she considered as mere employees of her father. I'm not sure how she morphed into a quavering mass of passivity as soon as Stephen found out her relationship with Morris. It's like the character was written by two different, and unacquainted, people.

We don't know if Stephen is shocked by Molly's revelation or disappointed in Morris. Does Stephen think the man is less qualified to be president now that he's knocked up a 20year old volunteer? Gosling's intense, but impassive expression does not tell us and Stephen's words certainly never let on to what's going on inside of his head. He scrounges up $900 for Molly with amazing difficulty. Since Molly is the daughter of the head of the Democratic National Convention, you'd think she'd have rich friends who spend more than $900 on a pair of shoes that could help her out. It's not clear why Stephen, the guy she just propositioned a few days ago, is suddenly her only lifeline. But there he is driving her to the abortion clinic and making arrangements to pick her up after it's over.

Meanwhile, Meyers is unexpectedly fired by Paul, who says he knew as soon as Meyers met with Duffy that he couldn't trust him any longer. Meyers then runs to Duffy for a job. He's ready to throw Morris under the bus and Molly along with him. He promises Duffy that if Duffy hires him, he will give him massive dirt on Morris that will seal the campaign for Duffy's nominee. If I thought that Meyers was only turning on Morris because he now believed the man lacked the integrity to run the country anyway, the fact that he was about to expose Molly to scandal just to discredit Morris established that Meyer's actions had nothing to do with balancing judgment or ethics at all. He just wanted to get ahead, which is fine. Ruthless politicians are perfectly acceptable. The problem here is that the movie's point of view, to the extent that it has one, continues to treat Meyers with casual respect. He hasn't taken an evil turn, nor has he been revealed to have been a culprit all along. He's just a guy moving indifferently through a plot that has no compass at all, moral or otherwise.

Duffy resists Meyers pleas and won't hire him. He guesses that Morris has fired Meyers and now sees him as damaged goods. Meyers is the most brilliant campaign strategist out there, but Duffy doesn't need him, as long as he has ensured that the opponent won't have him either. Meyers realizes that Duffy has led him into a trap, knowing all along that Paul would fire Meyers as soon as he learned he and Duffy had spoken -- which Duffy also knew Meyers would disclose. Like any good con artist Duffy has predicted his opinions' every move with unrealistic precision. But the con is rather predestrian and unambitious. It's more Monopoly than House of Games. Meyers is so distraught over the fact he's now unemployed (though he could still find a consultant job that paid him $750,000) that he neglects to pick up Molly from the abortion clinic.

She takes herself home and learns from a colleague that Meyers has been fired and threatened to take Morris down on his way out. Fearing that the beans about her abortion will be spilled, she promptly commits suicide. Once again a shockingly dated twist that suggests the writers (one of whom was Clooney) knew more about dusty Peyton Place scripts than they did of Monica Lewinsky's life and times. Meyers gets to Molly's hotel room in time to see her corpse.

Angry and vengeful -- or not really either -- Meyers meets Morris in a darkened restaurant. For a moment he stands silhouetted in the doorway, ready for a High Noon showdown. He blackmails, Morris into firing Paul, making Meyers the head campaign manager and appointing a dirty Senator as Secretary of State if they win the election. So, power corrupts yet again. But that lesson is only entertaining if the corruption is unique or the corrupted are interesting.

Ides presents apathetic drivers navigating a too familiar road. We don't discover how far men will fall to climb up the ladder, because we don't know what convictions they held dear in the first place. Similarly, Molly was introduced as confident and cynical, too knowing to be undone by the threat of her abortion becoming public and shrewd enough to understand that her death would not spare her father embarassment. Indeed, as a staunch Catholic, her suicide would be as unacceptable to him as abortion was. So, we're not sure why she did what she did. We'd have to know more about her conscience to assume she was motivated by guilt or shame.

For me, the best line in the movie comes when Meyers tells treacherous reporter Ida, "you're my best friend." She probably thinks the words are sarcastic, but we know they're the truth. Meyers has no friends, but we don't know if that's cause for regret, irony or humor. The movie gives us no gauge with which to measure character losses, gains or even status quo. There's no need to beware the Ides of March, but you won't be wowed by it either.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Help (2011)

Comparatively speaking, on an entertainment level, The Help succeeds handily. It's only to the extent that it aspires to loftier levels of social conscience that it fails to hit the mark.

Skeeter, a budding writer has just graduated from Old Miss. She returns to her home town in Mississippi to find that she doesn't fit in with her old friends, all young junior league wives who are more concerned with their hemline and social status than in sincere interaction. To them appearance is everything and rightly so, because very little seems to lie beneath it. We don't know exactly who Skeeter was before heading off to college. She has girlhood pictures of herself with these other women still on display in her room. She must have prized their company at one time. But today, she is a sharp contrast to them, even on the outside, in her simple clothes, and fresh, uncovered freckles standing out under a mass of untamed curls.

Skeeter's mother, Charlotte, weakened by cancer along with the social clique chicks are both eager to bring Skeeter in line and to buff away her unconventional edges by marrying her off to the nearest eligible bachelor. Charlotte's motive is probably just to see to ensure Skeeter's security before she dies. But Skeeter's peers probably feel threatened by her independence, as people like that don't just fear challenge, they're afraid of contrast. They don't feel safe in their own shoes unless everyone else has a pair. Their beliefs aren't stable unless they see them reflected and amplified in everything and everyone around them.

All of the women have domestic help. These black workers are not slaves, but they're still treated very much like property. They're paid. Aibileen, for example, makes $182 a month to clean Elizabeth Leefolt's house, cook her meals and care for her child. But it's not an employer/employee relationship. Complete deference is required. As maid, Aibileen's job description requires that she either be ignored or demoralized by her employers. There's little in between.

Of course, Skeeter's relationship with "the help" is different. She relates to them as friends, acknowledging not only their presence, but every service they bestow with quick appreciation, much to the annoyance of her peers.

At a luncheon, Skeeter notices how dismissively the maids are treated and decides to write a book from their perspective. Though Skeeter may never have been like the women she grew up with, she's known them all of her life. As an inquisitive, intelligent person, she certainly must have grown up with an awareness of racism and developed views against it in her 20-some years, but that's not apparent at the start of the movie.

When she crosses the heavily marked social lines, she seems surprised that everyone seems to mind. In fact, she is so oblivious as to what a difficult situation she is placing Aibileen in when she repeatedly seeks her out for information that I began to be irritated with her. Skeeter was not only compromising Aibileen's livelihood, but perhaps her life. Skeeter does not seem to fully realize that just being seen in the kitchen chatting with Aibileen sparks disapproval from everyone around (white and black, actually), let alone when she seeks her out on public streets.

Thirty minutes into the movie, Skeeter finally does some research and learns there are laws on the Mississippi books about races intermingling. Not only are they not suppose to socialize or use the same facilities, they can't even use the same books. Even inanimate objects must be segregated. Books that have been used by black students can never be passed on to whites and vice versa. After Skeeter finds this out, she becomes a little less discreet in contacting Aibileen, but having grown up in that society all of her life, it's not clear that this was something she had to learn.

In several cliched scenes we learn that Skeeter had a beloved maid of her own. Constantine raised her. Casting Cicely Tyson in this predictable role served only to pile on the hackneyed. She automatically brings all the pathos of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman into the story with her and more, because real time has taken the place of the make up needed to age her for that movie. We see a flashback where Constantine, face worn and elegant like fine-carved wood, comforts and counsels an awkward young Skeeter and gives her faith in herself when no one else understands. In college, Skeeter is told that Constantine left the Phelan family to go live in Chicago with her daughter. Once home, Skeeter quickly figures out this is a lie, but everyone withholds the truth about Constantine's disappearance. Being an intrepid reporter who loved Constantine dearly, you'd think she'd probe further and demand to know what happened to the woman, but meeting avoidance, she inexplicably drops her questions, 'til the movie's convenient conclusion.

At the outset of the film, the maid characterizations were so broad and their employers nastiness, so over-the-top that I felt only a comedy could survive such unrealistic handling. But as consequences became more serious, it felt more like the real world, as Skeeter and the maids eventually seemed more human and less caricature.

The movie places an uneven focus on matters I felt were mere stunts. Clearly, it would have been a deeper story, if Bryce Howard had been given a less "Mean Girls" role to play. There were comic book aspects which would have been fine -- if I'd thought them intended. But I don't believe they were. The creators probably feel they have a more substantive product on their hands than they actually presented. There's a way to weave humor into serious subject matter without making it petty and The Help does not completely succeed in finding it. Still, I was ultimately sucked in.

For one thing, when Viola Davis cried, so did I. Davis is about 20 years younger than Aibileen is said to be, but that does not detract from the performance. Initially, Aibileen is the only maid willing to speak with Skeeter, then her best friend Minnie starts to contribute to the book as well. But no one else comes forward.

Desperate for tuition money to send her twin sons to college, a fellow maid steals a ring from Hilly. Hilly has her arrested and, when the woman struggles, she is beaten by the police in front of her neighborhood. Later, Skeeter is at a soda shop and the black attendant whispers to her that she should get over to Aibileen's home immediately. When Skeeter opens Aibileen's door she is greeted by a room full of black women, all having put their personal fear aside to speak out, make a difference and protest in the least risky way they can find. The emotion of that door opening gave me chills.

I realize the movie was about working as a Southern maid in that era, not about the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. I understand why we had to stay in the characters' homes and I really didn't want to leave the homes, the small world of their lives, anyway. Still, I think the film attempts to mix apples and raisins. I related more when the characters reacted to social injustice on the broader scale (like being afraid they'd be targeted after Medgar Evers' murder) than I could when they were all upset because Minnie couldn't use her employer's toilet.

Of course, if a maid raises your child, cooks your food and cleans every inch of your home, she should be able to use your bathroom, but in the great scheme of things . . . I care about segregation in schools and restaurants and park water fountains, the bathroom at Woolworth's not the one in Mrs. Holbrook's home.

Of course, it was more than Minnie not being able to use the bathroom, it was the humiliating way that the subject was raised in the maids' presence, as if they were non-entities. We can all react to the hurt they endured, verbally disparaged on a daily basis. The forced silence, repressed anger and pain that must cut deeper, because it is unacknowledged and unexpressed. But I think the movie spotlighted the trivial once too often. There's a running gag about "the terrible awful" sin Minnie committed to avenge herself against Hilly that goes on so long that instead of offering us refreshing levity, it lowers the movie's overall tone. In related vein, a charity auction devolves into slapstick. It might be fun to see Hilly get her comeuppance, but not at the expense of believability.

For the climax, we finally learn what really happened to Constantine. Why Skeeter couldn't have tried to contact her beloved maid, her family or -- better yet, simply asked her good friend Aibileen to uncover the truth, I'll never know. But as she finishes up her book, she leaves the family and goes to her own mother for the final story. It turns out that Charlotte was being honored by a lady's circle, given an accolade she'd been seeking for years. As she serves them a celebratory dinner at her home, she is frustrated by how slow and clumsy Constantine has become with age. There's a knock at the front door and Constantine's daughter Rachael has returned home after a long absence, eager to see her mother. Embarassed by the interruption in the presence of her disapproving social set, Charlotte rebuffs Rachael, tells her to enter by the service entrance and wait in the kitchen and closes the door in her face. Rachael angrily slams open the door, enters the room and insists that she will speak to her mother now.

Constantine tries to calm Rachael and remain respectful. It's not that Charlotte deserved that respect. What's more important is that the scene was more painful for Constantine than it was embarassing for Charlotte. Standing up to the uppity women was fine, but distressing her elderly and gentle mother was unforgivable. Charlotte takes a stand and orders Rachael out. Rachael says if she leaves she's taking Constantine with her. Charlotte replies by ordering them both out of her house. Constantine is devastated. Rachael pulls her away, as she tries to hold on, her arthritic fingers scratching at the closed screen door, but Charlotte turns away from them. It's as manipulative as it is heartbreaking.

We see Constantine packing her clothes, stopping to finger the closet door where she's charted Skeeter's growth in pencil from year to year. Each line gets higher until the tall Skeeter was over Constantine's head and she has to reach up to touch the last mark. It's the only goodbye she and Skeeter will ever have. Charlotte reveals that when she sent Skeeter's brother to look for Constantine at Rachael's home in Chicago they found she had died. Of sadness, no doubt.

Like it or not, Charlotte Phelan and her children were as much a part of Constantine's family as Rachael was. We don't know anything about Rachael and can only speculate as to what made her do that? Was it jealousy? The movie starts by asking Aibileen what it was like raising other people's children when she couldn't be home with her own? Who was combing Rachael's hair when Constantine was at work lovingly brushing Skeeter's? Did a sense of rejection spur Rachael? If so, it might have been Charlotte's rejection, as much as Constantine's. Skeeter points out that she knows Charlotte loved Rachael and can't understand why she acted as she did.
Rachael must have felt spurned by the woman she'd known all of her life. She was used to racism, but it packs the most punch when it comes at you unexpectedly. It's not open bigotry that surprises most. The kind that lurks and hides causes the most damage, because it's less easily defended.

Whatever prompted Rachael, she placed her pride over her mother's well-being. I gasped at her betrayal, along with Charlotte's.

With Constantine's chapter concluded, Skeeter publishes her book, to great acclaim. Even though it is written by "anonymous" every one in town quickly deduces who the author is and identifies each thinly disguised person lambasted in its pages.

Skeeter shares her royalties with the maids. Sub-plots are tied up, some happily, some not. Aibileen is fired, not by Leefolt, her own employer, but by Hilly, Leefolt's friend and dictator. Having lost her own son, it's wrenching for Aibileen to be separated from the Leefolt's young daughter. Everything she'd worked for for decades was taken away in 10 minutes. Yet walking away from the Leefolt home, her step quickens, the tears dry and her head is filled with thought, not mourning. She knows: everyone has a story.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Horrible Bosses (2011)

Had to make a choice between seeing this movie and The Change-Up, but in the end how much difference does it make? Jason Bateman is in both -- and seemingly in five other movies currently out now.

As far as raunchy guy comedies go, I found Horrible Bosses more amusing and coherent than The Hangover. That's probably because at least half of the humor is derived from smart dialogue and its delivery rather than crazy sight gags.

Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis play men who have been friends since high school, who all find themselves saddled with unbearable bosses at the same time. While Bateman and Sudeikis make credible friends, it seems incredible that they would still hang out on an almost daily basis with Day's (Dale). Dale starts off as sweet and mild-mannered, but then becomes increasingly dumb and aggressive in perpetuating his stupidity. It's not that the movie was ever realistic from the beginning, but as Dale becomes less of a character and more of a plot driver, the story does suffer some. However, Bateman's straight-faced, unresponsive demeanor heightens almost every scene. Each deadpan line and expression enhance the other characters' funny turns.

The movie is much more fun to listen to than most of the Apatow-inspired fare out there. It was the most extraneous comments (as in a slightly contemptuous reference to Ethan Hawke, followed by Kurt defensively denying familiarity with Snow Falling on Cedars) that had me chuckling hardest.

Bosses also brims with entertaining cameos, Jamie Foxx, Donald Sutherland, Bob Newhart and supporting performances by Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey as two of the three "horrible bosses," but the star turn that most surprised me was Colin Farrell as accountant Kurt (Sudeikis') boss. With a potbelly and greasy combover, even though he was in several scenes, I did not realize that it was Farrell in the role until the very end credits. Amazing transformation.

Most of the ridiculous stunts left me cold, but I did find enjoyment in the small exchanges, as when Bateman tries to explain away his speeding away from a crime by telling the police he was drag-racing. In a Prius. The more disbelieving the cops are, the more placid indifference Bateman displays. Having someone underacting when every one else is over the top gives the action more punch. Perhaps this was Bateman's speciality on Arrested Development. I never watched the popular show and now I'm interested in doing so.

In the end, this movie was not a masterpiece, but it provided more genuine fun than most of the comedy box office hits that have been released lately.

I was left with one burning story question: Why did Dale think a classified ad for "wet work" was really offering hit man services? I've never known "wet work" to be a euphemism for assassination. Ah well, the confusion is resolved in a manner that's not quite as uproarious as the movie thinks. It's also much funnier when the disillusioned leads learn their would be assassin still uses a Sidekick telephone than when they get high vacuuming a cloud of fallen cocaine from the floor.
Still, overall the punchlines delivered more hits than misses.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows #2 (2011)

In the end it all comes down to the acting. Not the battles, not the flying creatures, not the magical effects and certainly not the 3D! No, it's the compassion and fire in Maggie Smith's watery eyes, the way Helena Bonham Carter distinguishes the wacky Bellatrix from Hermione's impersonation of same. it's Alan Rickman bringing seven years of nuanced villainy to a truly touching climax. It's our years of familiarity with these characters that brings meaning and memories to every undeveloped moment and leads you to the inexorable conclusion that yes: this finale does live up to its promise.

Even having read all the books and seen each movie, the specifics of Hallows II's plot was still impossible to follow. So, overlook the details and just concentrate on the general showdown between good and evil, Voldemort and our heroes.
If you're looking to relive the drama of subplots in the book, fergeddaboutit. Details have largely been ditched. We don't linger on Fred's death, Albus' youth or the riddle of Riddle. Action drives the movie and we're left to relate to our trio's feelings, without truly sharing the experiences that invoked them.

The first 20 movie minutes sailed past without much involvement on my part. Harry, Hermione and Ron breaking into Bellatrix's vault provides the most extended bits of humor in the film. The rest is dark, but more substantive. It's when the story returns to Hogwarts that the emotion ratchets up.

The battle for control of the wizard world becomes centered at the great school, as students, teachers and warriors from both sides fight for dominance. Voldemort and his Death Eaters have put a price on Harry's head and tell the other students that if they turn Potter in, they will escape torture and destruction themselves. One by one, people sacrifice their own life, not only to save Harry but to save the principles they believe in, choosing to die for good rather than to live under rules that are evil, unethical and cruel.

It was when Professor Minerva McGonagall threw herself in front of Harry and showed that you don't have to carry a "big" stick, if it wielded with wisdom, experience and strength of character, that I felt myself first bubbling over. After that, the tissues were out until the closing credits.

In truth, with my HP history, I brought more to the movie than the script brought out of it. For instance, when we see the mighty Hagrid in chains, then watch him carry a "dead" Harry back to his friends, I project all the pain into such scenes that the film would gloss over.

Yet, I think Harry's struggle is adequately conveyed. His guilt so heavy and so long-suffered that he doesn't bother expressing it any longer. It's something he always wears, just like his spectacles. He walks through the ruins of Hogwarts, past the dead and those who mourn them, without tears, just the weariness of one who's learned that being sorry never changes anything.

If he were only thinking of himself, he would have been glad to let Voldemort kill him long ago. He's fought this long, not because he believes his own press or thinks he alone has the power to defeat the Death Eaters. It's because after all this time, he's realized that sometimes accepting help is the best way to give it. In many ways, being a lone gun is the most selfish choice of all, when there are those whose lot is intertwined with yours, when you've become as much a movement, as a man. In that situation, if you die so others may live, you just might be betraying them in the worst way possible. That is the main reason why Harry put off a suicide trip to Voldemort for as long as he did. But the question "how many people have to lose their life protecting mine?" was always with him.

The white light minutes that Harry spends at King's Cross following his "fight to the death" with Voldemort seems a bit corny and cliched. Once he returns to Hogwarts and the final showdown plays out (Harry vs. Voldemort, while Ron and Hermione square off separately with Nagini, the deadly snake who holds the last piece of Voledmort's soul), it feels less triumphant than expected. But the fact that the characters themselves seem to feel the same is actually thought-provoking. Once Voldemort is dead, there is no rejoicing. Harry walks through the ruined school without exchanging calls of victory with his fellow students. They all thought him dead just a bit earlier, but aren't celebrating his his resurrection. Unlike in the past, this time no one lauds him as a hero and he's never had the bearing of a conqueror. Tired, bruised, all are as cognizant of what they've lost as of what has been preserved. Wordlessly, Harry keeps walking, even past his beloved Ginny and we don't know what he's looking for until Hermione and Ron appear. Hermione is smiling shyly, but the three don't share a reunion. Instead, they simply regroup, as one body that's never really separated in the first place.

The epilogue is not as compelling as the book's. Perhaps, because one is too focused on the cosmetic "aging" of Ron, Hermione and Harry than on the years and adventures that made them adults and parents. Though, I am touched when Harry gives a pep talk to his son, who is named after both Dumbledore and Snape, with the latter being recalled as the bravest man Harry has known. Brave? I'd say selfless. Indeed, if I could choose only one moment in the movie to keep with me, it was when a dying Severus demanded that Harry look at him. "You have her eyes." Yes, there's love after death, even (or especially) for those who never loved us back.

So, we leave the new generation of Potters and Weasley/Graingers after seven books and eight movies. The highest compliment I can give the franchise is that it left me longing for more. Rowling's lessons of love, loss, friendship and loyalty cast a spell, as enchanting and enduring as any wand's.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011)

I was pleased to find that, unlike this review (SPOILER ALERT) the trailers for the movie did not give away it's most charming aspects. Going in, I thought it would be a simple romantic comedy, with Owen Wilson cheating in Paris. It was much more whimsical than that and the unexpected fantasy made the movie for me.

Writer Gil is visiting Gay Paree with his petulant fiance Inez and her parents. He's charmed and inspired by their surroundings and they are perenially unimpressed, complaining so much that you'd think they were vacationing in the slums of North Paris, rather than eating, shopping and relaxing in the city's most expensive, exclusive environs. For Inez and her folks, the only thing french worth noting is ennui.

It's not unusual to wonder how a couple ever got together in a movie, but usually as the pairing dissolves, one of the partner's evolves and outgrows the relationship before your eyes. For instance, Captain Von Trapp was snooty and rigid himself. When we first meet him, he and The Baroness aren't actually that ill-suited. Maria changes father and children alike, creating the widening chasm between him and his intended, as we watch. Here, Gil doesn't change or grow much. He's a fairly reasonable person to begin with and is never unaware that Inez and is never unaware of the conflict between him and Inez's social set. He's just too indifferent about the clash to see any reason not to spend the rest of his life with them.

He needles and insults her right wing father and takes occasional pleasure in contradicting her know-it-all friend Paul, but ultimately seems content to have his life ruled and ridiculed by people who neither like nor respect him, just to preserve his engagement to Inez, which he never seems all that passionate about. He's the one with the money, so he's not with her for fortune or status. He finds her sexy, but surely he could find an attractive woman more in tune with his personality, if he cared enough to bother. The fact that he doesn't makes it hard for the audience to care. If he finds his own happiness a negligible commodity, I'm certainly not going to root for him find it.

During their trip, Inez runs into friends Paul and Carol who are as eager to disdain Gil as she and her parents are. They spend their at wine-tastings and museums, making Gil's flaws and Paul's superiority the chief subject of their conversations. Gil is a hack Hollywood writer, who's become rich penning mindless comedies, but longs to produce something of literary value, walking the historic streets of Paris only inspire him more.

Inez finds his aspirations foolish. She can imagine nothing more worthless than a great, but non-commercial, author and can't wait to return home to start shopping for a new home in Malibu. She's not unintelligent, just uninterested.

Over Gil's objections, Inez insists on discussing the plot of Gil's nascent novel with her friends. It's about a guy who runs a nostalgia shop. Nostalgia? Paul scoffs. People who love nostalgia are only trying to escape their present day inadequacies. They delude themselves into thinking that the Golden Era was better only because they have trouble coping in today's world. Inez promptly agrees with Paul's condescending assessment of both Gil's book and his interests, happy she's found someone as erudite as Paul to join in her dismissal of Gil's dreams.

Had Gil and Inez been married, the way she mocks and patronizes him in front of others would be grounds for divorce. Yet, her scathing manner never causes Gil to question the relationship. Had he been intimidated or insecure, perhaps we would see his complacency as a form of fear and self-doubt. But though malleable, Gil is not particularly meek or uncertain. Apparently, he stays with Inez and her gang just because he's lazy. Still, even sloth has its strong points.

One evening out with Inez, Paul and Carol, Gil declares himself too tired and tipsy to go dancing with them. He stays behind and attempts to stumble his way back to the hotel on foot. As he rests against a stoop, a vintage Peugeot turns in front of him and beckons him to get in. As the car hurtles down the street, I find myself wishing that it would carry Gil right into the past that he so often dreams about -- to my surprise, that's exactly what happens.

As Gil's new, lively friends pull him into a whirlwind party they're attending, we soon discover that they are none other than Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. That cool piano player who somehow knows all of the forgotten verses to Let's Do It turns out to be none other than Cole Porter himself. As he meets one legend after the other, Gil is mesmerized, but he's not just thrilled to be mingling with the great. These people embrace him with an effortless acceptance that he's never received from present day peers. It's not long before, buddy Ernest Hemingway is offering to have Gertrude Stein read and critique Gil's novel for him.

When a heady Gil stumples back into his own life, he's anxious to have Inez meet his new friends. He concludes that the place where he hopped aboard the Peugeot is a time portal and takes Inez there the following evening. When nothing happens, Inez grows impatient and leaves. As the Paris clock strikes midnight, Gil realizes that, as in all fairy tales, that's the hour when magic happens. Now that he knows the trick of getting there, Gil returns regularly, night after night, rubbing elbows with Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, T. S. Eliot and finally falling for Adriana, a young model who is chased by Picasso and Hemingway but is herself enchanted by Gil.

Reading between the lines of his novel, Gertrude Stein uncovers a truth that has been eluding Gil: the Inez character in his book is having an obvious affair with the pedantic professor (Paul's counterpart). Eureka! Upon making this discovery, Gil is even more eager to pursue Adriana.

As Gil and Adriana explore their romance and enjoy a night on the town in the roaring twenties, a horse and carriage trundles towards them, beckoning. Once they climb in, they are whisked off into Paris in the gay nineties. By this time, the voyage back is passe for Gil and he wants to spend more time talking to Adriana than watching original Moulin Rouge performances. But she's awestruck and declares she wants to stay in the past. That's when life was wonderful, the 1890s -- even though the people they meet from that era declare it to be a disappointing generation. Gil is also unenthused. He insists that the 1920s, Adriana's time, was the true renaissance. Adriana finds this view absurd. The 20s are positively dull and uninspiring. She tells Gil she refuses to return to them. In that case . . . they bid adieu.

Gil comes to the realization that Paul was right. People fantasize about the past and project their own desires onto it to compensate for their unhappiness in the present. Having faced this realization, Gil returns to his own time, determined to fulfill his dreams there, not chasing the past. A new man, he breaks it off with Inez, a move that comes too late and for the wrong reasons. If he needed time travel to realize that they were incompatible, then he's too much of a dunce for me to have just wasted 100 minutes with him.

In the end, I loved the film's flights of fancy. Whenever I am in a historic setting, I always have this secret wish that I can close my eyes and awake in the past. Any movie that touches upon this fantasy will capture me today, just as Cinderella's ball gown did when I was small. Dreams that come true at midnight are as fun now as spells that end at the stroke of midnight once were. But a glance at Aesop's work will tell you there was nothing particularly original about Allen's script.

I found it fairly light on wit and it's whimsy, though lovely, could not entirely make up for the unabsorbing characters -- or character types -- the movie presented. Gil was the least unpleasant, but not the least frustrating. Moreover, I don't agree with the premise that we chase the past because we're unhappy with the present. Gil never expressed an unhealthy obsession with the past. Rather he expressed curiousity stemming from an appreciation of literature. By setting his own novel in a nostalgia shop, he in no way hinted at a single-minded infatuation with dead generations. He was not a man out of touch with reality and, therefore, Paul's diagnosis of Gil's innocent interest seemed mere folderol, not a viewpoint that Woody's narrative, and Gil himself, would eventually adopt as their own.

I think the past shapes, informs and haunts the present. When we investigate it, we study ourselves and give the present deeper meaning. It would be unwise to get lost in the past. Yet, we're lost without it. Those who have no interest in what came before are, like Inez, bringing little to the future. While the love Gil had for Adriana may have been illusion or delusion, his kinship with the artists of yore was real -- or should have been.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Whatever Works (2009)

Why is that when comic writers (i.e. David and Ricky Gervais) appear in someone else's work, the result is always so much less inspiring than their own creations? I suppose the lesson is that while they can write for others, they shouldn't try to act for others. As a performer, Woody Allen possesses a whimsy and stature that give a gentle edge to even his most pointed barbs. David, on the other hand, specializes in a callous perspective that only works so well because his favorite subject matter is quite frothy (golf balls in whale blowholes, for instance). When dealing with more realistic events, David's bluster can be more brittle than amusing.

The first 15 minutes of this movie were almost unbearable, playing more like a stale stage production than a film. I was convinced it was yet another Larry David take on The Producers' scheme to make an intentionally awful Broadway production.

We're awkwardly introduced to the crochety Boris a middle-aged divorcee whose only pleasure in life is to remind everyone of his superior intellect, while decrying their stupidity. His day is spent berating his juvenile chess students and then insulting their parents who complain. As neurotic as he is disdainful, Boris constantly frets about his health, even after an unsuccessful attempt to end the life he works so hard to preserve.

The movie fails as an allegory when its fantasy plot neglects to convey anything meaningful, funny or original. Boris is such a cliched, literal "type" that his tale isn't really worthy of whimsical telling.

As the simple, Southern runaway that Boris takes in, Evan Rachel Wood's Melody is lovely, but never layered. You know as much about the character 5 seconds after she appears onscreen as you'll learn in the next 90 minutes. We're told that she's drawn to Boris because he's smart. Yet, she seemed just as impressed with him when she believed him to be a baseball player, as when she learns of his purported genius. Maybe, like Marilyn Monroe, she's drawn to both geniuses and baseball players. We never learn enough about her or her needs to find out.

For these reasons, the movie feels slow-going at first, but picks up considerably when Patricia Clarkson arrives as Melody's mother. At that point, Boris becomes more of an observer than a lead character and the movie is, thankfully, transformed into a conventional (albeit mild) comedy.

Watching Melody's parents lose their southern baptist inhibitions is pleasant, but makes no real commentary on the life they led or the amoral one they find in the Big City. Their sexual awakenings are never as wry or wacky as one could hope and feel more like a subplot on 30 Rock than a Woody Allen script.

In the end, when Melody finds a young lover and leaves Boris, he heaps more insults on her than usual and she takes that as a sign he is hurt. He treated his first wife in the same fashion and he's the one who left her. Ironically, he married the first wife because she was smart. We can theorize that Boris, who never realized his full potential, was attempting to validate his own intellect, by hitching himself to the first wife's academic star and then ultimately finding himself superior to her. In a similar way Melody may have tried vicariously to overcome her own limited upbringing, by attaching herself to Boris who had experienced more of the world than she and rejected it all, only to finally be the one rejected.

Of course, the movie never made me feel that Boris' pessimism and scorn were really masking vulnerability. His insensitivity would have had more depth, played as a defense, rather than a mere personality trait.

In the clumsily wrapped loose endings, the movie tells us that you should take love however and from whomever you can get it: whatever works. But the plot really wasn't about love, or luck, fate or coincidence. It was a sketch that should have been more fully drawn. Better than Melinda and Melinda, because the characters were more likable. Still, it contained nothing half as entertaining as an improvised episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Keep that day job, Larry.