My Michael Bay Apostasy

From Thompson on Hollywood:

Admittedly, peer pressure and summer rain are usually the only things that get me into the cinema for a Bay movie. In any other situation, my ten bucks seem better off devoted to getting ice cream, or paying someone on the street to yell in my face. On a fuzzy Sunday when all you want to do is lay on your couch, though, the films’ smooth, almost unconscious forward propulsion is satisfying, even soothing. No commitment is required to watch a Michael Bay film: they are the one-night stands of the cinema.

Take The Rock (1996), Bay’s inversion of the “escape from Alcatraz” model, in which Nic Cage and Sean Connery infiltrate the island prison to combat domestic terrorists threatening San Francisco with nerve gas. It’s a film I’m always delighted to find on cable. Because it’s so reliant on the geography of secret passageways and escape hatches, Bay limits his cutting to what’s necessary. Volume turned down a notch, it becomes a great cat-and-mouse game, heavy on suspense yet wryly written. Sneaking around to avoid detection, contained in small, dim spaces, Cage and Connery achieve a tense quiet, without trickery or forced technique...

I can’t say the same about Pearl Harbor, the exception that proves the rule. The purpose of the film, I suspect, is Bay’s self-conscious Spielberg moment, an interminable take on the 1941 attack that has none of the raw emotion and pure fear of the virtuosic opening to Saving Private Ryan. Pearl Harbor devotes about as much time, however, to the saccharine Ben Affleck - Josh Hartnett - Kate Beckinsale love triangle, which as both narrative convention and character arc is a sorry excuse for romance. Watching Pearl Harbor, I was reminded that television and a hangover can hide a general lack of taste that seems glaring on the big screen. As for Bay telling a good love story? I may have to start drinking again to make that one fly.


Funny Girl(s)

I take on the question of women in comedy — and why they're undergoing a resurgence the last few years — in today's column for TOH:

Sure, Fey’s impression takes advantage of certain facts not of her doing — her resemblance to Sarah Palin, the fact that the candidate was already prominent in the zeitgeist. The reason why it works not only as adept mimicry but also as political satire, however, speaks to the ways in which women are mining a new vein of humor that appeals to anyone, male or female, burnt out on bland romantic comedies and wayward slackers. Fey, unafraid of cutting to the quick, displays a glimmer of empathy, too; there’s a subtle-yet-raw vulnerability to her Palin impersonation that takes it beyond the realm of caricature.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking here about “women are weak” vulnerability, which is a sham idea anyway. I mean that this is full-blooded comedy, reliant not only on audacity but also on the recognition that part of what’s funny about people is their propensity to fail miserably and find a way to get up smiling...

The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, among other sharp comedies of the last decade, did the same thing for those of us stuck between comfortable stoner-dom and the “real” world, but the premise is no longer current, the subgenre nowhere near fresh (witness the full-frontal dreadfulness of The Hangover: Part II). But the vein of vulnerability I’m talking about isn’t a woman thing, though they’re the performers who’ve capitalized on it most. It has broader appeal: it’s a human thing, a darkly funny reminder that we’ve created this monster of a troubled world...

But the delicate balance of pathos and penis humor in New Girl, easily the best in this new crop, suggests how America’s funniest women are facing vulnerability with a candor that puts most of the guys to shame.

Actually, I think the gents are coming around to what the women have already discovered. Last I heard, the best-reviewed comedy of the season was a little picture spawned from the Apatow stable—but independent of him—called 50/50. A cancer comedy, huh. Isn’t Laura Linney already making one of those?


The Making of a "Classic"

This one is sure to get the Tarantino crowd up in arms, but I stand by my assessments in today's "Now and Then" at Thompson on Hollywood: Citizen Kane is unthinkingly crowned the "best film of all time" every year, as if by rote, which forces us to forget its flaws; Pulp Fiction is a cold, clinical exercise when you get down to the bones of it. A real classic needs a soul. More excerpts:

In so many ways, though, Kane represents our ideal of film as art: the obsessive vision of a singular auteur, the technical inventiveness, the enduring themes, the epic scope. What is not often discussed is the flip side of this. As Pauline Kael argued aggressively, Kane owes just as much to screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) used deep focus with more vigor, animating the upstairs-downstairs chaos of a hunting party. The themes lack enough nuance (“Rosebud…”) to be easy targets of parody, and the film’s sheer size is unwieldy.

I won’t deny that there are moments in Pulp Fiction that continue to thrill me, on what must be my sixth or seventh viewing. (The drug-addled nostalgia-trip freak-out of Jack Rabbit Slim’s, and the strange illicitness of Thurman and Travolta dancing there, is evidence of just how striking Tarantino’s visuals can be.) But to elevate it to the level of “masterpiece,” as any number of critics have done, neglects that ways in which the world of Pulp Fiction, however cleverly constructed, is essentially a hollow one. The film’s circular structure has always seemed emblematic of this emptiness: around we go, trapped in a closed loop of pretty pictures that inevitably brings us back to where we’ve been.

 A “great” or “classic” movie needn’t be self-serious or tepidly highbrow (pretty much anything by Hitchcock in the Fifties or Sixties will do to illustrate the point), but it does need soul. The pastiche of Pulp Fiction, a mashup of pre-existing material with a dash of S&M and a heavy helping of irony, is more snarky than soulful. At times it feels mannered, an exercise in hip B-movie obscurity street cred that misses out on all the ways in which movies connect to us on an emotional level. You can adore Samuel L. Jackson talking about French cheeseburgers, and I do, but I’m not sure you can get any more out of it than a wry laugh — this isn’t exactly empathetic filmmaking. Sound and fury can be fun, but sometimes they signify nothing.


The Day After

From my piece on trends in American cinema since 9/11, at TOH:

The westerns of the past decade can’t ignore the killing either: they are, if nothing else, about innocence lost, and their resurgence speaks to how we have attempted to deal with the world to which we woke on September 12, 2001. Whether set in the recent or distant past, each grapples with how democracy and capitalism function on frontiers. More vitally, they imply that democracy’s finest feature is that it protects the ability to criticize, argue, question, be heard. They show us that we may falter in trying to make good on this promise, but that there still remains some valor in the trying.

The best film about 9/11 treated the fateful day with stirring immediacy: United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006) captures the organic, natural bravery that we can muster at our best, even in a dark hour. It is a frightening, draining film — I remember seeing it on opening weekend and feeling as though the wind had been knocked out me — but it’s also a fitting memorial to all the people that day who showed the utmost courage in the face of a scary new world.

In the past decade, I suppose, the cinema has matched this broader world, trying to balance its critique of where we’ve gone awry with a depiction of what can happen when we follow our better angels. United 93, for its part, is entirely about the latter, and rightfully so. Reading about the 40 heroes of United 93 this week, the most poignant aspect for me was how their courage came about. It wasn’t formal or planned, but they voted to change the course of events. There’s still something to be learned from that, ten years into what came after. 


Why The Help Remains the Most Successful Movie in America

Of course, I write about The Help and I get more response from readers than ever. This in itself says something about how it has broken the barrier from niche to mainstream — in an era when "water cooler" talk has nothing to do with an actual water cooler, and most of it takes place in narrowly defined digital spaces, The Help is being talked about across subgroups. To quickly address the two main criticisms of the piece:

1) Yes, The Help is going strong because there's so much crap out there (my reference to "prefab horror franchises and stale comedies"), but it's more than that. One of the reasons why blockbusters have become more rare is the oft-cited notion that there's too much entertainment out there for people to experience. It's a cliche, but from an anecdotal perspective of my friends and colleagues, going to the cinema is reserved for especially intriguing films, when time allows; the rest of filmgoing is done on Netflix or iTunes. So what about The Help — which, I might add, is not stylistically reliant on the big screen to work —is drawing people to the theatre itself? I think it's the amount, and power, of feeling that it evinces.

2) Just to clarify, I'm not saying that women will go see anything with a woman in it. I'm saying that the claim (about Bridesmaids, Sex and the City and now The Help) that each "proves" women can carry a movie disrespectfully implies such a view. Women are a lot smarter than that. But it's an easy way to continue to ghettoize women-centered cinema as a blip on the radar, rather than an audience (not limited to women, I might add), desperate for adult fare and rarely given any to chew on. The Help is, for all its flaws, a vital exception.  
To give you a taste, here's my piece over at Thompson on Hollywood yesterday:

Based on my own unscientific sample — one screening at one cinema in one city — women are only part of The Help’s box office triumph. The theatre I attended in New Orleans was equally divided, by my rough head count, between men and women; the crowd skewed older than, say, Colombiana, with Zoe Saldana as a female lead, but it wasn’t ladies who lunch. What’s happening here, I think, is not unlike the rise in gold prices. When the economy’s in the tank, investors flee for the stability of gold; when the weekend’s offerings at the multiplex are prefab horror franchises and stale comedies, filmgoers flee to adult fare. Neither choice is a particularly risky one, and you may not win big, but you’re just as unlikely to lose.

A lot of ink has been spilled over The Help: arguments about its politics, femininity, historical accuracy. But the real issue, if we’re talking about its success, is not Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) deciding to write a book from the perspective of local maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) in 1960s Jackson, Miss. Because The Help may be grossly oversimplified, cheaply emotional, messy, melodramatic, and overlong. But it’s also rousing, uproarious, fiercely felt and acted within an inch of its life by some of the most talented actresses today. Nearly every one is believable, complicated, finely balanced. The cast provides an impressive display of emotional range in a part of the year when movies are usually drained of every drop. Bryce Dallas Howard, as the villainous Hilly Holbrook, pushes right up to monstrosity and then pulls back with a veil of tears — what starts off a bit too broad narrows until she’s just a woman, embittered and humiliated, unable to get what she wants. Jessica Chastain gives a brave tragicomic performance as the lonely, ditzy wife of a local heir, vacillating between bubbly and distraught. 

The one that lingers longest, though, is the magnificent Viola Davis, roiling and raw. As Aibileen Clark, the first maid to agree to speak with Skeeter, she steals the movie from the opening minute. “How does it feel to take care of white children all day when your own are being looked after by someone else?” Skeeter asks. Davis conveys her near-incapacitating pain at having to respond with just the pace of her breathing and the gaze of her eye. “It feels…” she trails off. The Help, just as it’s getting underway, answers my earlier question. Why has it become so popular, despite its imperfections and the conventional wisdom that people don’t go to see things like this anymore? Because it feels. When it comes to movies, sometimes that’s all you ask.


Love Hurts

My review of the indie drama Littlerock, which opens in L.A. today, reposted from TOH:

You could say that I had an on-again, off-again relationship with Littlerock (trailer below). Impressive yet exasperating, Mike Ott’s film about two Japanese tourists stranded in a California hamlet seduces, cheats, and comes halfway back to reconciliation, which is just another way of saying love hurts. And love it I did, at least at first. The camerawork is sensual and assured, whether capturing the low glimmer of fairy lights at a backyard kegger or a field of crispy, amber grass at dusk. While it’s just a slip of a film, more impression than narrative, the impression smacks of nostalgia — it’s a sweet reminder of afternoons drinking beer from brown bags and throwing rocks in abandoned lots.

The tourists, siblings named Atsuko and Rintaro (Atsuko Okatsuka and Rintaro Sawamoto), have wandered into town to wait for their broken-down rental car to be replaced. Speaking little English, they are taken under wing by a wannabe model and actor, Cory (Cory Zacharia), and in the pleasant minor adventures that follow, Littlerock exudes a low-key confidence that won me over. 

(I was spurned.)

Even for a film that does youthful dallying well, Littlerock has an unfortunate lack of focus. Just as Atsuko discovers an ability to disarm the young men around her — angering Rintaro, who drives on to the next destination without her — the film drowns her with extraneous material. Characters emerge and drift away; throwaway lines, like Cory’s father’s suggestion that he go turn tricks with the “pretty boys” on the Sunset Strip, make dark allusions that float off unexamined. Potential subplots, such as a stale one involving money Cory owes to a pair of local drug pushers, never gel. In this dreary middle section, Atsuko becomes a foil for Cory’s painful earnestness, which Zacharia plays with contorted face and high voice. “Would you rather kiss Jordan than me?” he whines. “I’m telling you how I feel, and it’s like you don’t even care!” The film’s weakest link, he never convinces as either loyal friend or potential love interest — against Atsuko’s grace, Cory’s just a brat.

When Rintaro returns and tells his sister it’s time to get the show on the road, it’s a relief. As Atsuko walks her bike along a dirt path in the gloaming, teary eyes catching the last light, Littlerock rekindles somewhat, but the momentum’s already gone. She’s crying over the aforementioned Jordan, who earlier gave her a mixtape titled “Limerence.” I looked it up, thinking I’d find some hip band I’d never heard of, but it turns out limerence is a psychological term. It refers to the overwhelming need to have one’s feelings reciprocated by those with whom we fall in love. I guess Littlerock had me feeling a little limerent myself: I wanted so much for it to be as good as it promised, but in the end I was left holding the bag. 


The Rules of the Game

Excerpts from my review of two stellar sports movies, today in "Now and Then," at Thompson on Hollywood:

With a homey, lived-in style and a strong command of performance, [Tom McCarthy's] three films behind the camera (the other two are The Station Agent and The Visitor) capture the particular anxiety of suburban life. And though he’s never lost his sense of humor, McCarthy’s progression from oddball character study to fully conceived narrative has displayed an impressive engagement with real people and real worries. Win Win only amplifies the trend: without quite meaning to, McCarthy has emerged as a master of middle-American quiet...

Unassumingly, the film builds to a clever understanding of recession-era blues: it’s hard to do what’s right when the spoils seem to go to those who don’t. As Terry says when Kyle gets disqualified from the big match, “We were right there, Mike. Right fuckin’ there. Now we got nothin’.” Nothin’ is something, though, if it means treating people with decency, a value at the heart of McCarthy’s style. Kyle wins his matches with a move the team calls “Whatever the Fuck It Takes,” but what wins in wrestling — pinning the opponent, crushing him, whatever the fuck it takes — is not always what wins in life.

It’s because of [its] glimpses outside the lines that I respond to Hoop Dreams, and why it upsets me, too. Not every kid from a bad school in a rough neighborhood can play hoops or throw touchdowns; though the non-athletes may be equally talented, intelligent, witty, and hard working, it just so happens that their area of expertise is something less valued in this country than being able to make a lay-up or a jump shot. Says a guidance counselor at the public high school to which Agee transfers, the system “doesn’t make sense”: “Once [private school students] walk in those doors, they expect to get their diploma and go to college…Whereas our students, to get out high school, for a lot of them, it’s an accomplishment.”

Despite its greatness, Hoop Dreams only alludes to the fact that for too many, life isn’t about hoops at all. It’s wholly about dreams — dreams deferred, denied, fulfilled, forgotten. It would be unfair to expect a film to do anything other than what it’s trying to do, but this documentary gets so close to the issue that not addressing it more fully seems a cop-out. So we’re back to question of whatever the fuck it takes, which in sport might be the right pin or the right three-pointer at the right moment. But in the question of what’s right, of what’s just, I’d like to think it takes something else entirely.


Lost in Translation

From my review of Semper Fi: Always Faithful, at TOH:

Semper Fi: Always Faithful, Rachel Liebert and Tony Hardmon’s affecting if imperfect exposé of water contamination at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, takes its title from what the Corps website calls “more than a motto — a way of life.” Some life. From 1957 to 1987, the USMC exposed nearly one million people to toxic cleaning agents in Camp Lejeune’s drinking water. Then the Corps tried to cover it up...

Juxtaposed with the canned statements of USMC representatives, these tales gather to them an undeniable power; such stories give average citizens a voice. “We are not numbers in a study,” says a woman whose newborn son died to a public hearing of the National Academy of Sciences. “We are human beings in a great tragedy.”

The human quotient overcomes the film’s flaws, because the personal histories, such as McCall’s, belie the central meaning of semper fidelis — that we’re all in this together. Her unnecessary death from cancer, in the middle of filming, shows just how cavalierly the Marine Corps neglected its supposed way of life, all while she, Ensminger, and countless others upheld their end of the bargain. Watching Semper Fi , I was reminded of another soldier and another Latin phrase, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori . “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.” The poet Wilfred Owen, writing during World War I, called it “the old lie,” and he was right. It is a lie, especially when your country is what kills you. 


The Belly of the Beast

I’m a little late to the Winter’s Bone bandwagon, certainly too late for my ringing endorsement of Debra Granik’s sharply observed indie drama to count for much. But that said, if you are reading this and have not seen the film, stop at the end of this sentence and go watch it: you can come back to me later. 

Set in the grim far reaches of the Missouri Ozarks, the gray hills buttressed with crumbling lean-tos and burned-out trailers, Winter’s Bone is a terrifying portrait of the American underbelly. Ree Dolly (Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old with an invalid mother and two young siblings, knows her way around guns and squirrel guts. She’s the family caretaker, and, it turns out, the muscle — when the law comes around looking for her meth-cooking father, she’s the one who goes searching for him. He’s put up the house as bond collateral, and if he doesn’t show up in court, Ree and the rest of them will be forced to leave.

Without flagging, what follows is an ingenious mixture of mystery and case study, peopled by mean, crazy fucks ever poised at their thresholds, waiting for trouble to arrive. As Ree digs deeper, her already closed-off world tightens; most of those she visits are at least distant relations, but the thickness of blood can trap as easily as it can free. The movie is shot in dusky, dirty hues that are less color than it’s negation. Where there is a spot of brightness, it comes almost as a shock — a yellow garden hose lays coiled on the cold ground like a snake.

Everything about the film works, enveloping you in this dim world even as it worries. But what anchors it, what gives it the necessary spark, is Lawrence. It’s a career-making performance, hard-nosed yet nuanced, glowering but kind. She has a soft, round face and steely eyes, which pretty much sums up Ree’s dual existence. I’ve rarely rooted for a heroine harder, and when she finally breaks down, in a creaky rowboat gutted by the sound of her wails, it almost comes as a relief. “Never ask for what oughta be offered,” Ree tells her little brother early on — but don’t be afraid to demand it, she seems to suggest. And then she does just that.


This Kind of Movie

“Can I tell you something that’s going to make you livid?” my roommate said as the score swelled. “I hate this kind of movie.”

He’s right on both counts: Rebecca is not for everyone — it’s old-fashioned, melodramatic, inconsistent, formalist. Yet the suggestion that the 1940 Best Picture winner is anything less than a classic tends to piss me off...

The real relationship is the fearsome triangle of our heroine, Rebecca, and housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Played by Judith Anderson as though channeling Nurse Ratched, Mrs. Danvers is an indelible villain — just try not to get the creeps as she shows the shaking Fontaine Rebecca’s mausoleum of a bedroom, brushing the girl’s face with an old fur and lovingly patting the dead woman’s underwear. 

From here the two face off in a thrilling psychological battle. The new bride directs the housekeeper to dump Rebecca’s old crap (“I am Mrs. de Winter now,” she says); Danvers exacts retribution by tricking her prey into a dress matching one Rebecca wore. The sight sends Max into a rage and Fontaine into gag-sobs, which Danvers capitalizes on by opening the window and hissing out what amounts to a witch’s spell, capturing Fontaine in a trance: “You’ve nothing to live for really, have you?” If Rebecca , eccentric and exciting, is “this kind of movie,” that’s fine by me: like Mrs. Danvers’ chilly whisper, it’s almost a form of magic.

Though less fantastical, Jane Eyre is still a tough nut to crack. Twenty or so screen adaptations precede Cary Fukunaga’s stab at Charlotte Brontë’s heroine. But with talented Mia Wasikowska in the lead, he captures Eyre’s balance of propriety and vigor...

This is, as you might expect, a difficult book to film, what with the terrible childhood and the potential mistress and the harsh secrets. What Fukunaga does well — sexual tension, misty moor-scapes, shadow houses where flames hide from darkness — he does impeccably. Certain of the other elements, like the wan interlude with St. John Rivers (boring!), seem shoved into what’s left, there to get us from Point A to Point B. What tips the balance is Wasikowska as Jane, fierce but never vicious, staring down a mean life and making something of it. She is not a “machine without feelings,” as she says in her most powerful monologue — she’s a force to be reckoned with, and Jane Eyre is all the better for it.

Excerpted from today's "Now and Then" column, now posted at Thompson on Hollywood.