Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Solid "Network"

I wrote a long review for The Social Network, but the internet connection went down in the middle, meaning that none of the work I was doing in the two hour span was actually saving. But I've gone far too long without saying anything about it already, so let me sum up:

Love. Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher craft a surprisingly sophisticated film out of seemingly superficial material. I mean, the founding of Facebook? Really? Yet they've found not just the intimate story of a friendship betrayed, but a universal one of a people looking to fit in. Acceptance, inclusion, snobbery, class structures: they're all apart of a social network and The Social Network. Everybody's part of something exclusive, whether it be Sean Parker in Silicon Valley, the Winklevoss twins in the Harvard Clubs, or Larry Summers and his secretary in Ivy League Administration. Laray Mayfield does a masterful job of gathering a fine ensemble of actors in roles great and small, each with a story of their own. Jesse Eisenberg is effortless as Mark Zuckerberg, the best Sorkin actor since Richard Schiff on The West Wing. Andrew Garfield is Eduardo Saverin, whose inexperience and shortsightedness lead to his own separation from the company, almost walks away with the film. In only three scenes, Rooney Mara crafts an affectionate, frustrated, intelligent young woman; I look forward to her work in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Trent Reznor and Atticus Wall's electronic score fits, rarely distracts. The origin of the Relationship Status is handled clumsily, but that's fifteen seconds out of a two hour movie; I think we can afford it.

It's straight A's from me. The Social Network is one for the ages.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Two weeks ago, I took in a chick flick double feature: You Again and Morning Glory. Both are notable for their veteran cast members (Sigourney, Jamie Lee, Betty White in the former; Diane and Harrison Ford in the latter), their spunky starlets (Kristen Bell, Rachel McAdams), and the fact that neither is a rom-com. No, they're chick flicks that address relationships among females and women as professionals. Both look promising. Only one of them lives up to it.

You Again is about a former high school outcast turned attractive Public Relations go getter (Kristen Bell) finding out that her brother is marrying her high school nemesis (Odette Yustman). Mom (Jamie Lee Curtis) tells her not to worry, until she learns Odette's aunt/guardian is none other than her high school frenemy (Sigourney Weaver). Hilarity allegedly ensues. Oh, okay, there are a few laughs here and there, Betty White is much better here (and more wisely used) than in The Proposal and Sigourney Weaver is giving an honest-to-God, deeply-felt, layered performance. But why is she trying? Jamie Lee has decided to play ZANY and little else: big reactions, dropped jaw, that weird frozen smile she does when something takes her characters off guard. I love her to death, but this was not her finest hour. Poor Bell excels at the deadpan, but she's grating when she's playing it at 11...and the director has layered a strange incestuous feeling between her and her brother. Jame Wolk plays the brother like Bradley Cooper's Wedding Crashers character during the seal story...only we're supposed to like it this time. And Odette, no, no, no, no.

I can't blame writer Moe Jelline, if only because there are so many inconsistencies concerning plot, characters, and tone, it's impossible that one person wrote it. This has to have been extensively rewritten by people who were only mailed certain pages out of context. One minute, there's a moment of reconciliation...the next, they're fighting again. With nothing in between. Or vice versa. Yustman's character is supposed to have forgotten high school because she regrets being a bitch back then (she's now a volunteer and suicide hotline operator and a saint)...but why, when Bell confronts her, does she put her hands on her hips and sneer, "Who do you think your brother's going to believe?" Wait, why doesn't Bell believe her brother would believe her over a girl he's just known for a year? Why isn't the connection between Sigourney and Bell's characters explored? How come the women have to learn how to listen, but the men frequently interrupt the females when they're trying to explain themselves? And why didn't anyone cut out that stupid romantic subplot?

Fickman, though...if Fickman had better control over the tone, this might go down better. Yeah, it's a comedy, but it's not so zany that everyone has to scream all their lines at each other. Everyone is playing it OTT, looking damn exhausted, hoping everyone will see WHAT A GREAT TIME WE'RE HAVING OMIGOD AREN'T COMEDIES FUN??? Not like this, they aren't. The only people who look relaxed are White, Weaver and Kristen Chenoweth: no wonder they turn in the best performances!

Morning Glory is more confident, better-written, better-acted, slicker. Young go-getter Becky (Rachel McAdams) exec produces a failing morning show and decides the best way to shake things up is to get a recently-fired though well-respected journalist (Harrison Ford) to co-host with Diane Keaton. And it's a lot of fun! The laughs are genuine, and the stars aren't the only ones given great characters. Even the unnamed Producers are fun to watch, like "Pink Shirt Glasses Guy"! There's believable back-and-forth between the characters, Ford looks like he's having the time of his life, and Aline Brosh McKenna has written a male character who actually understands the female protagonist and doesn't crucify her for her decisions!

McAdams and Ford are the film's strength. They work well together, the film wisely focusing on their relationship for much of the running time. Indeed, there was a long stretch where they didn't interact at all, and this, I realized, was when my interest started to wane. It's not that the rest of it is awful, but nothing is as interesting as their storyline. Diane Keaton is fun and all, but there's not much to her role (it doesn't help that she gets the film's clunkiest dialogue). And who wouldn't prefer a character/plot-developing interaction between Ford and McAdams over a montage?

Much as I adore Ford and McAdams, though, there are a few things about the movie that had me wincing. An oppressive soundtrack that never let up, for one. The aforementioned montage that goes on forever. Keaton's dialogue. And, perhaps worst of all, the main thrust of it. My good friend Andrew Syder said it "celebrates the death of serious journalism at the hands of ratings-oriented fluff TV" (direct quote from his Twitter), and to be honest, it does. Becky even says something along the lines of how entertainment vs. news has been debated for decades, and Ford's side (actual, serious journalism) lost; the people have spoken. What a chilling, horrifying moment that was, and for a moment I hoped Ford would turn around and slam her upside her head with that bottle of Scotch, or at least be vindicated by the end. Yeah, it's adorable to see Ford be warm and cuddly, but the message that it's sending is disturbing.

I'd recommend Morning Glory, though. It's cute, it's fun, it's well put-together. I don't agree with the agendas of every movie I like (The Birth of a Nation, for example), and if you can get past that, you'll have a good time. You Again, though? Never again.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Darling, Hold Me...

Spoilers herein

One should not ignore one's subconscious. The first thought we have when we awake should always be taken into consideration; since it comes before we are awake, it must be pressing, must have some sort of higher importance than we initially credit it with. Thus it was that upon awaking this morning, I knew I had to review Never Let Me Go today. Waking up with the titular Jane Monheit song playing on repeat in my head reminded me that the film still haunted me, almost two weeks after I'd seen it. The realization surprised me, since I don't recall being in total head-over-heels make-out love with the film...but then, not every love has to be the dangerous, passionate kind, does it?

Like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the characters in Never Let Me Go are more aware of the inevitably of death than most of us, since there is a ticking clock. Naturally, questions of "What's it all about" and "Is there ever enough time" are raised and raised again throughout the narrative (again, like Benjamin Button), but except for a closing monologue, it's never bluntly. Indeed, one thing that impressed me about Never Let Me Go was how much credit director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland gave to their audience. Things aren't over-explained, and it's not to be murky or purposefully oblique. Rather, they expect you to keep up, to form thoughts on your own, to not have everything spoon-fed to you. Romanek's light touch, cinematographer Adam Kimmel's effective composition and Garland's subtle writing result in an adult drama that is beautiful, touching, and all too real.

The story revolves around three friends - quiet Kathy (Carey Mulligan), beautiful Ruth (Keira Knightley) and big-hearted Tommy - all classmates at Hailsham School, a place where clones are educated and raised in the years prior to their being compelled to "donate" their vital organs. Sally Hawkins has a too-brief role as the new teacher who feels compelled to tell the children the implications of what is being asked of them. Charlotte Rampling is stern and formidable as the headmistress who believes in the Future, in breeding perfection from anonymous, possibly lower-class, "originals". It is simple, really: Rampling believes in their destiny as clones, while Hawkins yearns for their destiny as human beings. Interesting, then, that while the protagonists also yearn for the latter, they submit to the former. This is not a huge spoiler: it's the first scene, in which Mulligan watches Garfield as he is about to undergo another surgery.

Mulligan and Garfield! Good heavens! To think I used to know them as "that girl with the glasses on Marple" and "that subpar Zack Morris"! How was I to know that I was actually watching the first steps of two phenomenal young actors, actors whose subsequent projects have me sitting up in anticipation! The way the two intertwine Kathy's practicalism and Tommy's optimism into two aspects of one personality is expertly done. The scene they share during a walk, where Kathy expects Tommy to confess his love and he can't...or won't...that hit me. I didn't cry or anything during Never Let Me Go, but that was one scene of many where I was in serious danger of starting (I'm getting better at controlling that, thank goodness). And Keira Knightley? She's always great. Her beauty has worked against her: no one ever seems to take her seriously, even though she's always solid in her performances. Her Ruth is angry, loving, jealous, conceited and insecure. That she can play all these at once is a mark of her mastery of the craft. Even when she sits quietly in a chair, even when she's shrouded in silhouette, you feel every bit of pain and loss in Ruth. Another subtle turn from an underappreciated young actress.

Young actress? But good Lord, it's the youngest of them that gives one of my favorite performances in the film: Ella Purnell, as the younger version of Knightley's character, is either amazingly well-directed or a scarily-brilliant actress. It could be both. Either way, hers was the one I kept coming back to when the credits rolled. Yes, yes, Izzy Meikle-Small and Charlie Rowe are also great and promising as the younger versions of Mulligan and Garfield, but Purnell! She even gets Knightley's clipped speech pattern down! She conveys those same emotional beats Knightley does, with equal precision and effectiveness. A glance, a smile, a scowl, a mere look as she stands in a doorway...and you get it.

Rachel Portman, two-time Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Original Score, offers another winner here. I didn't find it as overpowering as other reviewers, though this may be due to the iffy sound quality of my theater. Anyway, I found her score to be appropriately serene and reflective. It sounds like a memory, really, and I don't know how else to describe it. She gets it, though.

A sad experience? Yes. Life-affirming, perhaps? A little, I think. I come back to it frequently, as I've been doing with other modestly-executed films this year (Get Low, I'm looking at you). After much reflection, I have to say it: I think it's one of the year's best.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Short and Shallow

It's time to play catch-up! Short and shallow looks at the cinema I've been exposed to this past couple of weeks.

Look, either you drink the Saw Kool-Aid or you don't. I've seen every one on opening day since Saw II. I probably would have enjoyed Saw 3D even more if it wasn't in 3D. Except for one shot at the end, the 3D is never put to use; maybe Step Up 3D spoiled me. In Saw terms, though, the movie delivers. Is it as good as Saws II and VI? No, but it's not as disappointing as Saws IV and V, either. A satisfying end to the series, though I would be more than happy to see it continue with what it sets up in the climax. But hey, if you were going to see this movie, you would have already.

Helen Mirren is dead sexy here, and her scenes with Brian Cox absolutely delighted me. The chemistry between the two is the best part of the movie, for me. Why haven't they done more together? John Malkovich is a hoot, the action sequences are suitably exciting/appalling. A fun time. The score is waaayy too loud, though, clobbering you over the head with its insistence on HOW MUCH FUN the film is. The plot/plot twist/villains are all...uninteresting, even if it's amusing to see Dreyfuss as a villainous arms dealer. Morgan Freeman actually pulls his Invictus performance out of his ass for one scene, making that Oscar nomination all the more dubious. And I've never been so disappointed in Mary-Louise Parker. Throwaway fun, though Mirren, Malkovich and Cox are rather good.

Man, I love Zack Snyder. All I knew going in was that this was an owl movie. But owls with little owl daggers and owl Nazis and Geoffrey Rush as a crazed warrior? Nice surprises! In terms of children's films, this is more The Black Cauldron or The Secret of NIMH than, say, Bambi. The animation is spectacular, each feather, each drop of water lovingly rendered so as to seem almost live-action. It's an exciting film with great 3D (flying and dancing: that's what 3D's for, apparently) and scary voice performances from Helen Mirren and Joel Edgerton. Mind, I couldn't get completely involved emotionally (they're just owls, really), but I appreciate the technical marvel, and my own personal hangups don't really reflect the quality of the film itself. My legitimate complaints: the Owl City song in the middle is from a completely different film; and the poorly-written/annoyingly-performed heroine, Gylfie. Blechh.

At times a shot-for-shot repeat of Let the Right One In, at other times a truly original take on the story. Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz are fine, for the most part, especially Moretz. Smit-McPhee, I fear, may have been directed to undersell a few too many scenes, so that while much of his performance is still great, there's also a significant amount of blank expressions that tell me...nothing. Obscuring the face of his mother would be interesting if it wasn't so conspicuous. There's a shot where they linger on the back of Smit-McPhee's ear, his mother's blurry body in the background, for about ten seconds. That's long in movie-time. At other times, though, Greig Fraser's lighting and composition are breathtaking, so it's a toss-up. I find that with each great aspect comes a caveat: great score, except for the chorale sequences; great cinematography, except for the numerous out-of-focus shots that take me out; fine performances, except for the occasional deadpan, blank-faced acting on the children's part. I don't think that's them, I think that's director Matt Reeves. Still, he adds an extra dimension to Richard Jenkins' character, and Elias Koteas is quite effective in his small role. The VFX are distracting. I like it overall, but there are problems. Serious props, though, for the slow burn...even if the end feels rushed.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Not Just For Colored Girls

I know Rotten Tomatoes is imperfect system, but it still seems absurd to me that For Colored Girls is at a 33% "Rotten" rating. Tyler Perry turns in his most mature, subtle, courageous, beautiful work to date, and people are going to smack it with a one-star rating? Surely there's some bias and denial at work here, for I went to see For Colored Girls this evening with a Tyler Perry hater -- I mean teeth-gnashing, head-smacking HATER -- who loved what he saw. Me, I don't hate Tyler Perry, so perhaps I have a different bias, but I also loved what I saw.

For Colored Girls is, of course, based on Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, a collection of 20 choreopoems to be performed by seven women, all identified by a color. Tyler Perry writes much of his own material for the film, but incorporates the poems sometimes powerfully, sometimes out-of-place. Tessa Thompson's "graduation nite", for example, comes out of nowhere, with no one reacting to it. It's a long monologue set beautifully to some dance exercises, but the overall feel of the scene is off; it's a recitation. Compare that to her later "abortion cycle #1": her performance is natural, unforced, beautiful. The transition between Perry's dialogue and Shange's is fluid here, whereas in "graduation nite" the leap from one to the other is alarming.

That was always going to be the challenge. Shange's masterpiece is an abstract theatre piece, relying on dance and poetry, with the Ladies sometimes interrupting each other, taking over a verse, finishing a thought. Her poems are not always direct, but they are consistently moving. Perry, known primarily for his Madea films, is generally unsubtle and inconsistent, his broad comedy usually peppered with alarmingly melodramatic treatment of serious issues (the incest/rape dialogue in Madea's Family Reunion is a perfect example of this).

That he makes it work as well as he does is impressive. This isn't faint praise either, for Perry has upped his game considerably. Most of the poems do work with the rest of the film, and exposure to such complicated material has clearly done some good. In a typical Tyler Perry film, morality is black and white, the villains twisting their wicked mustaches as the damsel in distress waits for a man to save her from her plight. In For Colored Girls, there are no such clear divisions. One need look no further than the powerhouse scene between Thandie Newton and Whoopi Goldberg for evidence. Even Janet Jackson's two-timing husband is sympathetically, almost tragically, portrayed by Omari Hardwick. Jackson is fine, too, and her performance of "sorry" is layered and heartfelt. It's too bad she and Hardwick are saddled with the weakest  and least interesting storyline.

Let it not be assumed that this is merely a good movie for Tyler Perry; it's a great movie, period. Flawed, but fantastic. Perry never loses sight of the connection and sisterhood between these women. He even remembers to bring them together, as the play so often did, in dance: the film opens with Anika Noni Rose's ballet and closes with a party. The final shot of the ladies in their "layin' on of hands" is effective, and it is not clear that everyone will be okay. The layers each actress puts into this final moment is incredible.

Indeed, if one is to commend the film for anything, it is the performances: Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Macy Gray, Anika Noni Rose and Loretta Devine are unforgettable. Rashad and Devine have several poems apiece, and they are the most natural and entertaining of the actresses to watch. Certainly, every time Devine showed up, my entire theater was overjoyed. Goldberg is unhinged, delivering her most un-Whoopi'd performance in ages. She's frightening and pitiful, but the aforementioned scene with Newton adds so much to both characters. Newton, an actress I usually cannot stand, is sexy and angry, and though she just about straddles the line between camp and believable hysteria...she maintains a balance. Gray's cameo as a back-alley abortionist is creepy and genuine; her "i used to live in the world" is one of the stand-outs. Rose is beautiful, as always, but also vulnerable as the dance teacher raped by a man she trusts. And Kimberly Elise? Astonishing. She will break your heart and uplift it.

But again, it's not perfect. The journey to the back-alley abortionist is almost silly: gamblers, junkies, drug dealers, and a pit bull all congregate outside, played to the rafters by pantomiming actors in close-up. Truly a bizarre moment. The decision to intercut a rape scene with an opera is interesting, but the staging of the latter takes away the impact of the former; it also goes on for way too long. Jackson's character is underwritten, Thompson is inconsistent (though promising), and Kerry Washington is both. The editing is sometimes too abrupt. And while I usually commend a director for holding on a performance, Jackson's "sorry" monologue goes on for about three minutes without so much as a push-in. I admit, I started zoning out in the middle of it. Where utilized, the special effects are, shall we say, unpolished. This is no small matter, as it very nearly kills "a nite with beau willie brown", arguably the most important sequence in the film.

But then I come back to the score by Aaron Zigman, the costumes by Johnetta Boone, the production design and art direction of Ina Mayhew and Roswell Hamrick, the performances by Rashad and Goldberg, Devine and Elise. I come back to it all and think, "Damn!" It may not be completely successful in its attempt to bring Ntozake Shange's work to the screen, it certainly does the play justice.