Wednesday, December 22, 2010

“Right on! I love lesbians.”

The Kids Are All Right (Cholodenko, 2010)

The Kids Are All Right touches on themes common to a Sam Mendes movie—a family struggling to be normal that ultimately leaves us questioning what a “normal” family looks like or whether it can exist—without being egotistical and overstylized. And, unlike a Mendes movie, it has enough humor to ensure that our entrapment in the small domestic space of the film isn’t utterly painful.

Even as the family at the center of the story—lesbian moms Nic (Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore), their children Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and their sperm donor “dad” Paul (Mark Ruffalo)—teeters on the brink of dysfunction and potential disaster, director Lisa Cholodenko provides us moments of comedic respite. Indeed, the tone of the film as a whole is surprisingly funny given the many conflicts that threaten to tear the family apart.

Nic and Jules are one of the most believable and well-rounded lesbian couples I’ve seen on film, and that’s because the film isn’t trying to be a “lesbian movie.” That is, unlike movies marketed expressly as LGBT films, The Kids Are All Right doesn’t rely solely on the novelty of having a homosexual couple at the center to carry the film. This is not a niche movie for lesbians. Nor does it try to deploy lesbianism as just a quirk to make the story more unique. There is a key point at which the film could have gone seriously awry and become just another heterosexist rom-com with lesbianism as an obstacle to be overcome. Fortunately, it avoids the pitfall of this cliché. Instead, Cholodenko gives us characters that are relatable, likable, flawed, and utterly believable.

If I’m focusing a bit too much on the joys of seeing a non-clichéd lesbian couple on screen, that’s because it truly is a rare occurrence and quite a remarkable achievement. The Kids Are All Right not only doesn’t get it wrong, but also gets some small details just right. Joni has an Uh Huh Her poster hanging on her bedroom wall, and a song by Uh Huh Her appears on the soundtrack. I could just be overly geeked about this otherwise inconsequential detail, but the oblique reference to The L Word (Uh Huh Her features Leisha Hailey, who plays Alice in the series) feels like a way of filling out the cultural world the characters inhabit.

Whether or not you come to the film desperate to see a decent portrayal of queer characters on screen, The Kids Are All Right is a moving and funny film about marriage, family, and growing up featuring outstanding performances and smart writing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

“Perfection is not just about control; it is also about letting go.”

Black Swan (Aronofsky, 2010)

I’m not even sure how to begin writing about Black Swan at this point, as I’m still pretty much incapable of doing anything but gushing. I’ll have to watch it at least once more before I can do more than string together a series of vague adjectives. But for the time being, if only for the sake of maintaining my efforts to write semi-consistently, here goes…

Black Swan is an incredibly ambitious film, despite its fairly simple plot. Hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to let you know that this film about a ballerina is also a retelling of Swan Lake, the ballet in which Nina (Natalie Portman) is playing the lead. Swan Lake, as summarized within the film, is about a girl who is turned into a swan and, in true fairytale fashion, can only be restored to her original form by the transformative power of love. Alas, because Swan Lake is not a Disney movie, her prince falls in love with another swan, and she kills herself.

Aronofsky sets out not only to retell the story of Swan Lake through the interpersonal dramas that occur within the ballet company that is performing it, but also to showcase the intrapersonal dramas and conflicts of a person seeking perfection at any cost. A movie that is, in part, about ambition, Black Swan is itself quite ambitious. There are a number of tonal shifts throughout the film, and a fairly drastic one leading into its final act; if the rest of the film had not sufficiently prepared us for these shifts, they could have come across as comical. (I gather that this is exactly how some audiences received them, which is unfortunate.) Aronofsky’s grand stylistic choices, however, set the stage for these shifts nicely—making the transitions from the relatively straightforward plot to the magical realism of Nina’s imagined reality quite seamless.

Although (or perhaps because) much of the film is quite dark, the lighting choices stand out quite a bit. There are many exquisitely composed shots that are arresting for their stylistic components and their sheer power. As in The Wrestler (Aronofsky, 2008), Aronofsky uses sound exceedingly well to simultaneously unite and differentiate the character’s mental space from his/her physical environment. The film is technically brilliant, and I would have been captivated by the stylistic choices even if the plot and performances were not strong enough to back them up. Fortunately, solid performances—especially from Portman and Barbara Hershey as Erica, her overbearing mother—that make Black Swan a truly memorable film.

Exquisitely shot and edited, beautiful, and haunting, Black Swan may already be a frontrunner for my best of the year list. Aronofsky claimed that spot in 2008 with The Wrestler—a film that was praised as a solid but unambitious character study. Like The Wrestler, Black Swan offers a detailed and provocative study of a fairly small world—an entertainment industry that is particularly grueling, both physically and psychologically. Indeed, in some ways, Black Swan seems to be Aronofsky’s answer to the criticism of the earlier film—a visceral and powerful film that proves character studies don’t have to be small, unambitious films.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

"I had no guts and I complained until I met a man who had no heart—the most important part"

Please Give (Holofcener, 2010)

Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give is a simple yet well-made character study centering on a family of New Yorkers—Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) and their 15-year-old daughter Abby (Sarah Steele). Kate and Alex run a vintage furniture shop, where they sell furniture they purchase fairly cheaply from people who have recently inherited it from a deceased relative. They have also purchased the apartment next door in anticipation that their neighbor—91-year-old Andra (Ann Guilbert)—will soon kick the bucket and they’ll be able to expand their domicile. This being public knowledge, they have a rather awkward relationship with Andra’s granddaughters—Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who takes care of Andra, and Mary (Amanda Peet), who has already written the old lady off and can’t be bothered to deal with her.

In summary, Please Give sounds like your typical contrived indie film that is quirky for the sake of being quirky. What saves it from that fate, however, is its smart reflection on the ways that capitalism underpins and undercuts our relationships with others. Kate has a predilection for giving money to every homeless person she encounters—a habit that annoys her teenage daughter, who is angling for a pair of $200 jeans. Feeling guilty about the way she makes a living, and no longer satisfied giving only money, Kate seeks out ways to give back to others. But her efforts to volunteer fail miserably because she can feel nothing but pity for others and the emotion overwhelms her: “It’s just so sad.”

Kate’s failures to connect to others in ways not grounded in monetary exchange highlight the pity and disgust inherent in the notion of charity. Though her family members are perplexed by what they see as Kate’s humanitarian efforts (“She wants to save the world!”), the film makes clear that her altruism is tainted by repulsion. She is disgusted by the people she sees on the street—not by the social and economic circumstances that lead to the epidemic of homelessness, for example.

Interestingly, the dirty, deformed, or simply imperfect body emerges as a marker of humanity that the fairly wealthy characters at the center of the film largely try to erase. Abby, like many teenagers, is plagued by acne and tries to overcome it with fancy spa treatments and facials. Alex comments on one of Kate’s toes that is so bent it is “almost horizontal” and tells the toe to “go the other way! It’s not too late!” Mary maintains a perfect tan by going to tanning beds, but doesn’t want anyone to know that her color is artificial. And the film opens with a montage of mammograms (Rebecca is a radiology technician). We see close-up shots of breasts (or, as Rebecca thinks of them, “tubes of potential danger”) while listening to “No Shoes” by The Roches—a song about people with missing body parts: “…I had no butt and I complained about it all and then I met a man who had no balls.”

At the heart of Please Give—and, despite its sharp criticism of the characters, this is a film with heart—is an examination of what it means to be human in a world governed by commodity exchange.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I Think I Need a New Heart

Never Let Me Go (Romanek, 2010)

For a movie with such a gut-wrenching premise, I expected this film to be more visceral. Admittedly, I have never read any of Kazuo Ishiguro’s books (despite having been assigned one in a grad school seminar), but for some reason I had the preconception that his writing style was lyrical and that this lyricism would be translated into a very visually powerful film. This assumption was, no doubt, largely responsible for my initial feeling that Never Let Me Go was lacking something stylistically.

At first, the mise-en-scène struck me as overly sparse—a failure to fully utilize the medium and an over-reliance on narrative. Certainly, there are vivid, beautiful moments in the film that are hauntingly powerful. They are, however, relatively few and far between. And that, of course, is the point. Everything about the world the characters inhabit is sparse and controlled. The muted tones and minimalist mise-en-scène perfectly convey the characters’ entrapment in a world that offers precious few opportunities for genuine emotional experiences. The film’s style also works to keep viewers at an emotional distance preventing it from turning into pure melodrama. Surely, we feel for the characters, but our emotional attachment to them is limited by the rules that govern their world and by the fact that their own capacities for emotion are so stunted.

Tommy (Andrew Garfield) is bullied as a child in part because the only way he can find to express emotion is through fits of rage—a phase he doesn’t ever outgrow. Indeed, the two moments in which Kathy (Carey Mulligan) attempts to comfort him during one of his outbursts demonstrate how little changes for these characters over the course of their lives. I found Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Tommy and Kathy’s friend Ruth annoying at worst and forgettable at best, though that may be due more to a lack of character development than to any failure on her part. Carey Mulligan’s performance makes me even sadder that I haven’t seen An Education (Scherfig, 2009) yet. She is absolutely mesmerizing. Throughout the film, she maintains a quiet power that both draws us to her and holds us at a distance.

The visual style, which initially struck me as surprisingly restrained, is perhaps best described as repressed. Everything about the film is working to limit our cathexis, to alienate us from the characters—perhaps so we are better able to contemplate their own experience of alienation from the world, from each other, and from themselves. While this may be frustrating for viewers (as I gather it has been for some reviewers), I don’t think it constitutes a failure on the film’s part; on the contrary, Never Let Me Go is utterly successful at rendering its world of alienation and detachment.

One of my tests of a good movie is that I have been so absorbed in the world of the film that I leave the theater feeling displaced and unsure how to be in the world as it is. In that regard, Never Let Me Go is a resounding success. I left one world of dystopian alienation and repression and emerged into the over-stimulating mise-en-scène of a suburban mall feeling even more lost.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


I am typically a big fan of the Showtime series formula: center the show around a character that does really bad things, but has some sort of moral center or at least some likable qualities. A drug-dealing widow, a pill-popping nurse, a serial killer who tries to correct the flaws in the justice system—these are, apparently, the anti-heroes for our times. I love them all. So why hasn’t Californication, the series about an oversexed writer drowning in “a sea of pointless pussy”, captured my attention? Hard to say at this point, since I’m only halfway through the first season, but here goes…

For starters, I find the motivation for Hank’s compulsive string of meaningless affairs trite at best and infuriating at worst. He throws himself at women, we have been led to believe so far, because he thinks his ex “wife” of sorts cheated on him; now, unable to trust women, he embarks on a campaign to sleep with unavailable women in a series of misguided revenge fucks. This would be compelling enough as a flaw, I think, if it were better explained. The notion that Hank has become such a sex-a-holic because Karen cheated on him is rather cliché. He can’t help chasing pussy all the time—her infidelity pushed him to it! I realize this explanation of his behavior is somewhat of a stretch even within the show: it’s essentially Hank’s explanation and so not necessarily reliable. Nonetheless, the introduction of Karen’s possible infidelity so early on has really colored my view of the character and of the show. I think Hank would be a much more interesting character if his predilection for casual sex were explained in some other way: a philosophical aversion to monogamy, for example.

I realize I’m most likely in the minority here, but his constant efforts to win Karen back and settle into family life also annoy me. I think one of my favorite aspects of the Showtime series referred to above is that they highlight the flaws, imperfections, and impossibilities in our collective vision of “normal” life. The deviant behavior is in some sense celebrated with normalcy either serving as a cover (as in the case of Dexter), a desirable piece of one’s lifestyle but not necessarily the ultimate goal (as in Nurse Jackie), or a fragile state supported that requires a bit of subversion to maintain (Weeds). Thus far, at least, Californication seems to hold up the norm as the goal: Hank would like nothing more than to marry Karen, settle down with her to raise their daughter, and resume a productive career as a writer. It’s only the superficial and chaotic atmosphere of Los Angeles, not to mention Karen’s unwillingness to take him back, that prevent him from attaining the coveted trifecta of American normalcy—marriage, children, work.

In short, the deviance in this series strikes me as more contrived than in other Showtime series and as present primarily for shock value. It doesn’t seem quite as subversive as some of the other shows, and I think it’s that implicit critique of society’s view of what’s “normal” that the show is lacking for me thus far.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

If no one's in the kitchen, who's to see?

Julie & Julia (Ephron, 2009)

Nearly every review I’ve read of this movie has had the same primary criticism: the story and acting are uneven, and the Meryl Streep half of the movie is markedly better. This is fair enough, I suppose. Streep, as usual, throws herself into the role, and her jouissance is contagious. While I initially thought her rendition of Julia Child’s characteristic speech patterns would grow annoying fast, I found myself delighting in her playful interpretation on the iconic chef.

I take issue, however, with reviewers who lambast the Amy Adams portions of the film. Not because I thought Adams brought as much to her role as Streep did—I’m not yet a convert to the charms of Adams, who many in the blogosphere seem to have decided is The Next Big Thing. Rather, the criticisms I’ve seen regarding those sections of the movie focused on the character of Julie Powell, dismissing her as irritatingly narcissistic. This view seems to stem from two main points of criticism: that the project itself (Julie’s endeavor to cook all of the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year) involves a certain degree of egomania and that Julie becomes so swept up in it that she (a) neglects her husband and (b) becomes desperate for attention from her blog readers. I’ll admit that my view of the Julie Powell the film character may be colored by my view of Julie Powell the author, as I read her book before seeing the movie. The book, of course, provides a much fuller account of the circumstances that led Powell to begin the project (working a dead-end secretarial job for a government agency in charge of designing the building that would replace the World Trade Center). Additionally, when I read the book/watched the movie, I was also in the throes of professional ennui. Perhaps this made me even more sympathetic to Powell’s character. At any rate, I didn’t find the character as portrayed by Adams annoyingly self-centered in the least. Furthermore, I’m a bit disturbed by the tendency of reviewers to criticize Powell herself rather than Adams’ performance or the way her scenes are filmed. What exactly is so narcissistic about a woman who is unhappy with her life searching for a project to spark her creativity and passion? It seems that Powell has been deemed solipsistic simply for taking up a hobby. But wait… it’s a hobby that doesn’t revolve around her job, her husband, or having children. Shame on you, Julie, for doing something just for yourself. Narcissist, indeed.

My rant about these unfair criticisms aside, Julie & Julia is far from a great film. It is rather shallow in nearly every way imaginable: the characters are mostly caricatures presented amidst a flat and uninteresting mise-en-scene. Nevertheless, it was a good bit of simple fun.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

To Do List

I have woefully neglected this blog for quite some time now, as I've been busy studying and haven't been to the theaters all summer, with the exception of a midnight showing of Harry Potter. To remind myself of all the things I need to get around to seeing, here's a partial list of the films released in 2009 that I still haven't seen. Whew. Better get to work.

Observe and Report
The Soloist
Star Trek
Drag Me to Hell
Two Lovers
The Girlfriend Experience
Away We Go
Public Enemies
It Might Get Loud
Paper Heart
(500) Days of Summer
The Hurt Locker
District 9
Sin Nombre
Julie and Julia