Author Archives: B-Side
From the living room of an apartment building, bay windows look out onto a courtyard, a bit of street, and the corresponding windows of other apartments. Through those windows are people of all types and stripes, unaware they’re being observed. What do you see? What should you see? Rear Window is the kind of film you suspect Alfred Hitchcock made just to see if he could, an experiment in restricted perspective that nonetheless is one of the director’s strongest theses on what it means to go to the movies.
In one of Hitchcock’s most masterful, understated opening sequences, blinds – not so unlike stage curtains – rise and the camera pushes through those big, inviting bay windows and introduces us to our unsuspecting cast of apartment-dwellers, going about their morning, until it comes back through the apartment, scattered with action photography stills and fashion negatives.
Our setting belongs to photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart). Jeff’s been laid up, stuck saddled with a cast all the way up to his hip, during a still, sultry summer; he’s spent his time, we quickly gather, people-watching through the windows and avoiding a deeper commitment to his girlfriend, the wry sophisticate Lisa Freemont. With all the binoculars and long-focus lenses Jeff has at his disposal, casting characters across the way like “Miss Torso” and “The Songwriter,” he doesn’t notice that Grace Kelly wants to play nurse. But when one night Jeff believes he witnesses a murder, the conflict he and Lisa draw themselves into becomes anything but a game.
It’s a ballsy thing to decide your entire movie is going to take place in a single room (except when it doesn’t), around a passive, reactive protagonist (except when he isn’t – and those instances are smartly set off visually). But Rear Window does and is, and is as suspenseful as any glossy, globe-trotting thriller. Hitchcock ties the film specifically to Jeff’s vision – through his binoculars and camera lenses we see the apartment courtyard, and his perspective is inescapable. Hitchcock forces you to observe observation for long stretches – although not as long or as wordlessly as in Vertigo; there’s plenty of witty banter provided by screenwriter John Michael Hayes – and so what happens to the fictional observers, the pleasure they draw from watching, affects the actual audience as well.
Through masterfully constructed montage and point-of-view editing, we watch Jeff construct his murder mystery and come to the same conclusions about the ominous Mr. Thorvald (Raymond Burr), who left his apartment several times in the night with a suitcase, and left the next morning without a sign of his bedridden wife. Jeff has a devil of a time convincing Lisa, an old war buddy turned detective (Wendell Corey), and his saucy nurse (Thelma Ritter), but the more spying they do, the more it seems to make sense that Thorvald gave her the axe. The suspense in the film is built into the very act of looking for definitive proof of Thorvald’s guilt. Hitchcock basically powers a movie on the illicit thrill of peeping, made engrossing through dynamic camerawork, framing, and pretty ingenious set design. Yet there are moments, including one visual stunner in which Grace Kelly’s beauty seems to hold the film stock itself in her thrall, that poke in to say, shouldn’t you be doing something more worthwhile with your time?
The entire cast’s performances are a strong argument for eavesdropping. The characters in the surrounding apartments are a collection of the stereotypical storylines we enjoy going to the movies for: new romance, lonely hearts, mysteries, thrills, creative struggle. Kelly, her fashionista far more rough and ready than you’d initially expect, near steals the film, with stiff competition from Ritter’s quips and Stewart’s comic timing. They’re exactly the sort of people we want to be stuck in an apartment with. However fuzzy your rear window ethics might be, Hitchcock’s spritely pacing, inspired, sardonic humor, and charming players will convince you to kick back. Papers longer than Jimmy Stewart’s leg can go on about the construction of Rear Window as a reflection of the viewing experience, but don’t let all that fool you into thinking the film is anything approaching dull.
Yet movies, at least movies made in the Classical Hollywood Narrative Style, are the lives of strangers, constructed through a particular lens for the enjoyment of interlopers as stuck in the front row as Jeff is in his wheelchair. The Hitchcockian twist in Rear Window is nothing more than that the story begins to affect watchers we thought were immune. Would we be here, as trapped, helpless, and terrified as Jeff, when Lisa ventures into the danger of the murderer’s apartment if we hadn’t dared to look? It’s a pleasure to watch and it might well be Hitchcock’s most elegant and accessible masterpiece, but Rear Window will make you pause before you tear open your next Netflix DVD.
The playful experimentation and engaging performances make Rear Window a classic, but it’s a Great Movie because of what the film has to say about the medium itself.
Do Not Drink: every time there is a point-of-view shot through a film camera or binoculars. You still have so much more to give.
Take a Drink: for every glamour shot of Grace Kelly.
Take a Drink: for every shot that covers the entire apartment block in one.
Take a Drink: for every shot that could not have been seen from Jeff’s vantage point.
Take a Drink: whenever Jeff or Lisa leave the apartment.
Do a Shot: for Hitchcock’s cameo, of course.
The best thing in the world for a Baz Lurhmann movie to be is a beautiful little fool. The Aussie director’s particular brand of whizz-bang cinematic mayhem has livened up adaptations of the literary cannon before, and a camera whirring among the champagne and the CGI stars is actually not an illogical way to cover F. Scott Fizgerald’s biting depiction of the gaudy and unfulfilling artifice of the Jazz Age. Unfortunately, the star of this sparkiest Sparknotes adaptation is not Jay Gatsby, nor Baz’s stylistic excess, nor even the Jay-Z curated, anachronistic score. It is the words themselves. The film hangs on Fitzgerald’s prose so hard well-known quotes physically appear on the screen, and they have same impact as on a 10th grade English quiz: vaguely important and completely meaningless.
Unlike Lurhman’s more successful foray into highbrow fare with Romeo + Juliet, the emotion here is smothered by the glossy visual style and plodding narrative reverence. Leonardo DiCaprio, as the enigmatic Mr. Gatsby, barely escapes with his dignity intact, and Carey Mulligan, entirely too intelligent and sympathetic to make a convincing ditz as Daisy Buchanan, does little better. The romance between the two stops the film cold after the first hour, and whether you know how their affair ends or not, believe me, you will want it to. Tobey Maguire manages the proceedings as consummate observer Nick Carraway, and the script’s choice to frame the film through Nick’s reminiscences at a sanitarium ultimately drowns our own opportunities to observe or the film’s to illustrate things visually. Haven’t y’all ever heard of show, don’t tell?
The first hour does have a little more pep in its step. Lurhman has that special gift for making an apartment party into an orgastic bacchanal, and the contemporary score carries the excitement and attitude of the young slickers and dames aspiring stockbroker Carraway finds himself involved with in the summer of 1922. If anything, Lurhman could have created a cutting tempo more like a Beyonce video to go along with it, instead choosing to employ an aerial camera continually skimming over the Long Island sound. It reinforces that green light, to be sure, but it’s odd to watch such expansive, sweeping movements when they don’t have, like, the topography of New Zealand to cover.
That said, the CG rendering of Manhattan, West and East Egg, and all the physical mis-en-scene is impeccable: so tactile, exaggerated, and rich that Douglas Sirk could hardly complain. Joel Edgerton and Elizabeth Debicki are especially magnetizing as Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s blue-blooded beast of a husband, and Jordan Baker, the hawkish, socialite golfer Daisy means to pair with Nick. And much of the film’s early humor lands right on. To explain would be to spoil the moment, but the movie features one of the more inspired uses of Gershwin since Fantasia.
But by T.J. Eckleberg’s rusty rims, the film stops dead in its tracks the moment Daisy and Gatsby come face to face. Lurhman has said publicly he was drawn to the property as an epic love story, and here epic seems to mean slowed shot speed and long stretches of anguished stares interrupted by a increasingly obvious voiceover doling on backstory and motivation a better movie would provide wordlessly. Nick’s disembodied intrusions kill what tension there is, and despite the decent chemistry between Mulligan and DiCaprio, their plight comes across as mechanical and dull. So, at least I guess I finally understand what it was like for most people to read The Great Gatsby in high school.
When you throw away structure and nuance in favor of style, that style has to be pretty damned fabulous to work. The 3D in Great Gatsby is fine, but it will not advance the form. Oh, the parties at Gatsby’s house are appropriately, lavishly Busby Berkeley-esque. But Lurhman eschews a more sophisticated play with depth in favor of using the screen to write Fitzgerald’s words and fill in Gatsby and Daisy’s history with celestial projections and sepia-toned flashbacks. He throws pretty much everything he can think of – split screens, degraded footage, dolly zooms – at the screen, without sufficient regard for the emotion these devices need to be carrying. It is the cinematic equivalent of having a library full of unread books. If film form isn’t a matter of infinite hope for you, friend, save your IMAX money and buy the soundtrack.
What we’re left with is an adaptation so showy and at the same time reverential that it’s suffocating. You can tell the film wants to go a little bit The Bad and the Beautiful in its treatment of Gatsby, mythologizing a tragic figure Fitzgerald himself chooses to lay painfully bare. Nick’s voiceovers are filled with longing. Instead of the sad, thoughtful man who comes to understand, through Gatsby, the true nature of the American dream, what we get from him is Tobey’s mopeyface. Maguire does fine with the material he’s given. But overall, The Great Gatsby itself tries to grasp at the green light instead of illustrating how and why it is we fail to do so.
It’s livelier than the Redford adaptation, produced and acted to the nines, but Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby stumbles over its chances of being a good movie trying to get the novel hella right. It doesn’t do that, either.
Take a Drink: every time Tobey Maguire is so drunk it alters the visuals in some way.
Take a Drink: whenever Gatsby calls someone “Old Sport”
Take a Drink: for every sweeping aerial shot across the Long Island sound.
Take a Drink: whenever the T.J. Eckleberg sign appears.
Take a Drink: whenever actual Fitzgerald text appears onscreen.
Finish Your Drink: once you are so over Nick’s voiceovers.
Michael Bay movies are all about attitude. Not just the director’s aesthetic – he’s arguably the most distinctive and influential commercial stylist of the 00-10s – but you, movie viewer with a flask in your coat pocket. You have to be ready and willing for something big and loud and little bit rank, a treatise on fucking badassery that skates by on its looks alone because it knows it can, knows that it has a bigger swimming pool than Steven Spielberg’s and a transformer in each of its six garages. Pain & Gain‘s ‘roided up crime saga is kind of the perfect subject matter for Bay, although it’s ultimately unsatisfying as a story because he treats it with the same bombastic overkill he’s lavished on other projects.
The movie begins in a way reminiscent of The Godfather‘s opening lines, but whereas that film is about the dark side of the American dream, Pain & Gain is about its dumb side. What petty conman and weightlifter Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) believes in is fitness, and he recruits fellow meathead Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and god-loving ex-con Paul (Dwayne Johnson) to make good on his self-centered dream of an easy life of riches to go with his super-hot bod by, you know, kidnapping a sleazy businessman (Tony Shalhoub) and beating him into signing his fortune away to them. Amazingly, they succeed, but that’s only the beginning of this amazingly true story.
The best thing about Pain & Gain is its cast. Marky Mark always does a fine job playing lovable and dumb, but his version of Lugo (a real person currently sitting on death row for the events of the film) has the right combination of puppy-dog earnestness and adrenaline-fueled yearning to make you completely buy how he comes up with and executes his kidnapping plot. Anthony Mackie as his wingman Adrian has excellent comic timing, although he gets the least to do of the three kidnappers, and Tony Shalhoub as the mark is exactly the sleazy, unsympathetic prick you can believe no one would miss.
Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Rob Corddry, and Ed Harris all turn in deft performances, even when deft means a Cheshire cat smile from Wilson as her clinic nurse enthuses “Penis magic!” But by far and away, the Most Valuable Human Being involved in the entire film is Dwayne Johnson. The movie is worth seeing just for his gentle giant, by turns filled with Jesus and Cocaine. The Rock is idiot charm itself, always meaning the best and doing the worst, and it’s a mesmerizing, rib-splitting thing of beauty to watch.
A film professor once explained Michael Bay to me as the most successful commercial abstract artist, and it’s kind of true. What he’s really interested in is motion and color – gleaming hulks of metal and glass tumbling past the camera faster than they eye can really catch or slowed down to bullet-time or both. And he does very interesting things with movement and color here, mixing film and digital in how he shoots interiors and exteriors, meticulously creating different textures for the big, neon, glossy world of huge possibility and the confining reality of a kidnapper’s den/homoerotic toy warehouse (yes, really).
For some reason, though, there’s a huge number of low angle dolly shots, setting off our protagonists in all of their idiotic glory, but as the film goes on, that becomes sort of the Les Mis problem. Just hold the camera still for a minute, dude, you’re making my head hurt for no reason. The same goes for the screenplay, too. It begins strong, framing the torture Wahlberg devises for Shalhoub in the language of self-help, positivism, and pop culture references, but by the end, both the dialogue and the multi-perspective voiceovers are just so much white noise, noise in which you suspect there never was a signal to begin with.
Bay’s most successful when he’s able to take the things he loves to do – move the camera, compose spectacular patterns of primary colors (an explosion against a blue sky or a sunset on the water), give the soundtrack a life of its own – and pair them with good ol’ fashioned Amurhican melodrama. But conspicuously staging your characters behind American flags or crosses does not make for instant emotion or commentary on the shallow, entertainment-soaked culture of American entitlement whose logical conclusion is a blissfully unaware maniac like Daniel Lugo.
Not that the film needs to be some scathing indictment of consumerism in the mid-90s or anything. But the fact that Bay’s uninterested in stepping back even a little bit makes the film’s third act, when the gang tries to kidnap again and ends up murdering a porn mogul and his wife on whose implants he’s spared no expense, much harder to take. It’s actively gross – although, again, Johnson is the MVP for bringing his coked-up reactions and mile-wide smiles to grilling fingerprints off the couple’s severed hands. It would be one thing if the film’s escalation turned the fun against you, to somehow implicate the viewer or make you feel guilty for enjoying the same over-the-top attitude that lead the three men to dismembering bodies. But the movie retains the consistency of a celebratory frat party boast between pong matches. Of course, Michael Bay probably wouldn’t it want any other way.
If it treated its story with the same care as its gorgeous visuals, Pain & Gain could have been a great movie. As it stands, it’s a good Michael Bay film aided and abetted by its outstanding cast.
Take a Drink: every time someone lifts weights.
Drink a Different Drink: for every new voiceover.
Take a Drink: whenever someone gets hit by a car.
Take a Sip: for every gorgeous aerial sweep of the Miami coast.
If you’re a doer, Do a Shot: whenever Johnny Wu has/needs the bitches back on the boat. If you’re a don’ter, Do One: for every time “Gangsta’s Paradise” plays on the soundtrack.
Films are manipulative. They can move around in space and time and control the way we receive information, affecting how we perceive reality, who we root for, what is truth. Especially documentaries, which cover factual events and people, can trick us into choosing one theory, or interpretation, or ideology in the guise of being objective. What is so powerful about The Invisible War is how it presents the facts of its charged subject matter, rape in the military, because the film’s very focus is the facts: the abundance of evidence of sexual assault that has gone unheard or ignored or been swept under the rug.
The Invisible War centers on a court case brought by a handfull of former service members, and its point is simply to place faces from both sides and let the personal stories of the victims compete against the brass tasked with parroting policy, interspersing this with statistics put out by the Department of Defense, or that the court in question ruled rape to be an “occupational hazard” of military service. The game is rigged. But when a documentary’s done its job, you understand why it’s rigged the way it is. The whole point of The Invisible War is that this issue is so cancerous in part because the institutions in question refuse to discuss it at all, leave alone address the underlying problems. So let’s talk about it.
Part of what’s so impressive about the film is the sheer number of subjects filmmaker Kirby Dick secured to speak on camera and share their stories, some in shadow with altered voices for fear of discovery, particularly as part of the problem in rape cases is a fear of coming forward. The most prominent of these is former Coast Guard servicewoman Kori Cioca, whose jaw was shattered while she was raped, and her struggles to collect health benefits from the V.A. to receive proper treatment. The film spends a lot of time in her home, watching her play with her young daughter and go on doctor visits with her husband. It is the juxtaposition of her daily life, the tension and strain simmering just below it, that makes the statistics so damning. Left alone are the instances of bureaucratic SNAFU, letters denying her for coverage for supposed back injuries when it is her jaw that needs work, while the film lingers on Cioca in her kitchen, with no other option than to eat soft foods with a spoon.
Experts, advocates and archival footage are trotted out at regular intervals to examine the whys of institutional negligence in the prosecution of rape cases in the military, a negligence which only breeds more rape, and the famous sex scandals of the various service branches – Air Force Academy, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and the Tailhook scandals – but the key to The Invisible War’s effectiveness is in its success putting faces to the statistic which opens the film: after a peppy montage of WWII era propaganda footage advertising the exciting new opportunities for women in the service, we are hit with the heartbreaking fact that 20% of all active-duty female service members are sexually assaulted during their time in the military.
Without recourse to traditional law enforcement, representation, or the ability to leave of one’s own will, survivors of military sexual abuse are trapped in a way other survivors are not. The film takes a similar approach to its statistical analysis, showing talking head after heartbreaking talking head of survivors telling their stories, then always returning to the damning numbers and the rage-inducing responses of the military leadership, including a “Prevention” strategy so unspeakably idiotic, the film doesn’t need to do anything but show posters chiding soldiers to, “wait until she’s sober.”
The film methodically builds its case, examining the circumstances of Cioca and her fellow plaintiffs in the D.O.D. lawsuit assaults and the command structures, psychological tendencies, and institutional culture that permitted such crimes to occur, to skate punishment, and, implicitly, to go unheard in the wider dialogue we as a country have about the military. The film’s endpoint is its most damning: breaking the coverup and exploring the culture of sexual abuse at Marine Barracks Washington, the most prestigious ceremonial unit in the United States. The Invisible War punctures that glittering façade, to make you wonder as you glance at the servicewomen atop the rotunda during the Inauguration, what’s happened to them? Upon showing a completed version of the film to newly appointed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, he revoked the right of commanders below the rank of colonel to handle cases of sexual assault two days later. That’s how powerful a case The Invisible War makes. The success of its case hinges, however, on the rest of us to continue to speak out once the lights have come up.
The rare film that deserves the word ‘Important’ in front of it, The Invisible War should be required viewing for potential recruits and has done a great deal to further the case for further justice and accountability in the military. It’s streaming on Netflix. Go watch it.
Take a Drink and/or Throw a Drink At The Wall: whenever top Brass and their PR minions prevaricate, plead ignorance, hedge, or try to smooth over the damning evidence.
Waterfall Your Drink: during the Army’s “Assault Prevention” rap video, but even then it will probably be just as awful and enraging.
Take a Drink: when you have done something positive – write your congressman, get educated, etc. – to help influence a change in policy, because incentives lead to action, right?
Once upon a time, there lived a normal boy and a magical girl, and they were fated to fall in love. But this was so that she might lose him, and fueled by the bitterness of her heartbreak, become an evil witch and bring forth an age of total darkness. Because that’s how women deal with break-ups.
Welcome to the plot of Beautiful Creatures. It may say more about its genre that the movie is actually one of the abler depictions of supernatural YA forbidden romance, but that doesn’t change the facts on the ground. For instance, the setting for our lovers’ struggle to choose their own fate is the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina, a haven for “casters,” magical sorcerers who call everyone else ‘mortals’ but can totally die too, so maybe they should look that word up, voodoo librarians (no, really), and Bible-thumpin’, Confederate–lovin’ civil war reenactors. You certainly have to be willing to accept a lot of camp and even more contrivance, but if you are, Beautiful Creatures kinda has a down-home charm to it, y’all.
In a structural sense, Beautiful Creatures is a simple reverse-engineering of Twilight, making the girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), the outsider with dark, dangerous power and a curse that forces her not to get too close to anyone until she does. The boy, Ethan Wate (Alden Erenreich), is in the Bella role, but his Marty Stu is more bearable because he has infinitely more believable ambitions – although he’s well liked, has a cool best friend who wears fedoras, is a well-muscled athlete, and reluctantly dates the belle of the high school, he reads banned books with hipster glasses, yearning to get out of the ignorant-ass end of the South to go to NYU and be a writer like his mother was. The two reject the uber-Christian (read: dumb, judgmental) culture of Gatlin and bond over normal meet-cute stuff: books, sarcasm, movie spoilers. Erenreich and Englert are engaging separately and have good chemistry together, both yearning as teenagers do for a way out of lives that are too small and pre-determined, and find that what their worlds have been missing is each other.
Of course, Lena’s world is considerably weirder than Ethan’s, something that comes of having Jeremy Irons, Emmy Rossum, Margo Martindale, and a purple-haired Eilen Atkins (!) for CGI-wielding wizard relatives. Either super high or exceedingly well paid, the supporting cast is kind of amazing, hock-hamming it up all over the place in ridiculous costumes and delivering some of the film’s many – and this feels like the appropriate word – zingers. Beautiful Creatures, although there’s a couple scenes so bad they come back round to hilarious, is genuinely funny a surprising majority of the time it tries, and executes its Buffy Summers-patented, the-supernatural-as-metaphor-for-teenage-angst well, too.
However, the biggest argument for seeing this movie is Emma Thompson. In probably the most compelling scene, she faces off against Irons in a church and, in the time it takes a brier hare to twitch, effectively communicates the personality of the woman whose body she’s possessing (yeah, that’s a thing), a theatrical, devious persona meant to lure Irons into her web, and her true, frighteningly vicious self. You can feel how much fun she had every second she’s on screen, and it’s incredible.
What’s not incredible is the film’s second act, which drags on forever. They’re together but then Irons doesn’t want them to be! Then they get back together! Then they’re emotionally distant! Then they make out! Then she erases his memory so she doesn’t have to kill him! The mechanics of all this comes down through lots of apparently inviolate caster “rules,” which includes the ritual of “the calling,” when Lena’s true nature will reveal itself and she will either be claimed for “the light” or “the dark.” Except there’s totally this civil war curse to make sure she’ll go dark. Except that she can break the curse if she kills someone she loves. Except that she doesn’t have to kill her boyfriend, he just has to die. While I’m sure these are all plot points in the novel on which the film is based, director/screenwriter Richard LaGravenese does not do a good job at all of carrying us through them without the whole endeavor feeling clunky and contrived.
In terms of visual style, too, there’s not much to write home about. The coverage of the actors is pretty unvaried and the large number of single shots of him suggests that maybe Jeremy Irons wasn’t on set all that much. While the CGI is certainly passable, the magic in Beautiful Creatures is stock and utilitarian – light forcefields as barriers (Harry Potter 7), altered eye colors as outward signs of mind-control (The Avengers), and casters battle by sort of throwing silky, smoky whirlwinds at each other (Harry Potter again). There’s no explanation for why they dress so avant garde or live in an outwardly dilapidated plantation with an interior designed by Bravo. If the effects don’t wow us, the audience begins to question how the magic works, and Beautiful Creatures doesn’t provide any answers there, even though both main characters get explanatory voiceovers.
The other thing Beautiful Creatures unfortunately inherited from Twilight is a non-climax. Although the twist of [OMG, SRSLY SPOILERS]Irons sacrificing himself to fulfill the strictures of the curse is well executed, it means Ethan wasn’t even present for the final showdown, and Lena’s denial-choice of accepting both the light and the dark within her is nice but feels appropriately ambivalent. The plot contorts so that the two can be together on their own terms, but only Lena had to sort of work for that. It’s swell that the girl gets to defeat the villain and for once the “special” mortal didn’t actually turn out to be a faerie or have secret powers but was exceptional simply by being so caring, but the result doesn’t feel very earned. Lena’s this badass caster and she can’t reverse the amnesia spell? Reading a book makes Ethan suddenly remember everything? Everything about the ending is painfully contrived.
Beautiful Creatures has a too-convenient plot acted by a very charming cast. It’s a leave your mind in the lobby date-night flick, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there are moments which show it could have been more.
Take a Drink: every time Lena or Ethan quotes something out of a book.
Take a Drink: anytime the stereotypes of ignorant, overly religious Southerners and/or the Southern accents are so overt it makes you uncomfortable.
Take a Drink: whenever any of the casters amazes you with how ridiculous their outfit is.
Take a Drink: whenever you can tell Emma Thompson was enjoying herself.
Do a Flaming Shot: when the Now Leaving Gatlin sign catches on fire.
Pixar is so good it’s unfair. The studio has put out some of the most imaginative, funny, exciting, emotionally resonant and luminous looking tales in animation, perhaps matched only in consistency by Studio Ghibli. What’s even more amazing is that arguments for the best Pixar film tend to focus on the group that came out one after the other, starting with Ratatouille in 2007 and ending with Toy Story 3 in 2010. But I’d accept any argument in favor of 2009’s Up.
Up sets a high level of difficulty for itself. It’s an adventure story channeling the unapologetic gumption of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, yet is anchored by the geriatric curmudgeon Carl and bumbling boy scout (excuse me, wilderness explorer) Russell. Its villain is a centenarian, the long exiled Charles Muntz, whose ruthlessness in tracking down a mythical bird the science community claimed he made up is matched only by the ingenuity of his henchmen dogs. Carl and Russell encounter said bird, a mother named Kevin, as well as Dug, an outcast from Muntz’s pack with a talking collar, and they pack the film with fantastic elements in a world already filled with a house turned into a giant dirigible that successfully sailed to South America. There’s a lot going on, and any one piece could bog Up down. But the film soars.
The fantasy elements of Up – Kevin and the balloon-powered flying house – are imaginatively written and beautifully rendered, of course; but for my money Up is its opening sequence, an assured, breathtaking introduction that begins the day Carl and Ellie first meet as children. Ellie is the more adventurous of the two, using a vacant house as her adventurers’ clubhouse; when Carl stumbles in, she promptly inducts him and plots for the two of them to fly to South America. As she jumps out of his window that night, she enthuses, “I like you, kid!” Next thing, of course, they’re married. The opening winds through a montage, with only Michael Giacchino’s sweetly plaintive score for sound, of their entire life together. Little touches – like how Ellie’s hair is always pulled up, making the moment the two discover they cannot have children a gut-punch: the visual of her sitting on their lawn (they’ve turned their old clubhouse into their home a la It’s A Wonderful Life), her hair down, blowing listlessly in a breeze – make this gorgeous, economical, visual storytelling at its best.
The story of rainbow birds and dogs who know great squirrel jokes (for the inspired dog dialog, Pete Doctor and Bob Petersen deserve…wait for it…a big treat), though, takes place after Ellie’s death. Carl’s become a bitter loner without her, and, about to be shuttered away the Shady Oak retirement center (ick), he instead decides to uproot his house, taking it, and symbolically Ellie, to the place she always wanted to go: Paradise Falls. He does so in spectacular style. The house’s flight sequences are fluid and effortless, and the balloon physics have an oddly bewitching realism. The landscapes of Paradise Falls have only recently been surpassed in beauty by Brave’s Scotland. Unfortunately for Carl, he doesn’t realize Russell has tagged along on his very solitary quest to do right by Ellie. The second act, which consists of the two’s unlikely partnership to move the house, still floating, to the perfect spot beside Paradise Falls, is quickly interrupted by Kevin and Dug and Muntz’s shenanigans. As each complication erupts, the house drifts closer to the ground.
If Up has a fault (it doesn’t), it is that there’s an awful lot going on, but almost everything is fairly uncomplicated. Russell’s journey from a big-hearted boy yearning to be loved to a big-hearted wilderness explorer whose love for adventure endears him to others is predictable but well encapsulated visually. While the film could have been a nuanced musing on aging, Carl is as spry or comedically frail as the film requires – it’s hard to buy the same man who needs a stairchair can control the ropes steering his house-ship. Muntz tries to kill Kevin. Guess how that goes. The visual novelty of balloon-based sky travel, a half-toucan, half-roadrunner, and the humor of talking dogs are enough to make the film cleverly charming, but nothing more.
What elevates Up, and all Pixar movies, is a willingness to creatively confront a very old problem: loss. Carl’s spirit of adventure was never a mega-zeppelin (of the same name) or an exotic jungle or a balloon: it was Ellie. Voiced brilliant by Ed Asner, Carl’s journey is one of rediscovering that friendship and love are what give his world color and make life an adventure. If this is the moral of every Pixar film, Up is simultaneously one of the more tender and liveliest iterations of it.
If you’re unsure whether a new acquaintance is actually a robot, showing them the opening sequence of Up would be a great way to tell. If they don’t react: probably an android, with sinister intent.
Take a Sip: whenever a balloon pops.
Take a Drink: any time the word ‘adventure’ is either spoken or appears onscreen.
Take a Drink: whenever Carl’s walker is unexpectedly useful.
Take a Drink: any time the frame is bathed in a warm magenta glow that melts your heart because Ellie.
Do a Shot: when SQUIRREL!
For those of you being particularly thorough with your Oscar watch list this year, A Royal Affair is Denmark’s entry into the Not-Amour category; for fans of sumptuous costume dramas, the film is equally unfortunate to not be Anna Karenina, although it comes close; and for history buffs, the movie dramatizes another example of slightly anachronistic takes on Enlightenment ideals battling it out with simplistically cruel, backwards religious superstition. But the story backing all of these generalizations is kind of awesome in its own right, and is executed well enough that A Royal Affair very nearly transcends its clichés. It is, in any case, mesmerizing to watch.
Upon entering into an arranged marriage with King Christian VII of Denmark, English Princess Caroline Mathilde notices something amiss when her new husband rushes up the palace steps to greet his dog over his bride, giggling maniacally. A mentally unstable idiot and a puppet, Christian relegates his wife to exquisite loneliness until the arrival of new court physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, who dares to loan her copies of Voltaire and simmers with libertine notions like ‘sanitation,’ and ‘free press,’ and ‘revised legal codes.’ With Stuensee, Caroline finds a marriage of minds that thaws her out and inspires both her and Struensee to use their influence on the king to change the course of Danish history. Oh, and to also have lots and lots of sex.
A Royal Affair wisely puts its stress on the ‘royal.’ Doomed court romances – the film is framed by Caroline’s letter to her children from exile – can only play out so many ways. Where the films succeeds is in portraying the idealism of the two leads as (more than) equally what thrills them and fills them with fire. The film does a fantastic job establishing how aristocrats pay for privilege by being completely controlled, and so when Caroline muses, “All men are born free and yet they are everywhere in chains,” it’s clear she’s looking to John Locke for an understanding of her own plight and possible salvation, not on behalf of Les Miserables. This spices the reform measures undertaken by Caroline and Struensee with a personal flavor and a fervor that actually ignites the stale Enlightenment ideals we moderns take as self-evident.
The two best, and best looking, things about this film are, however, Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee and newcomer Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as Christian, who deftly balances being a vindictive prig and a bewildered victim of his own psychosis. Mikkelsen uses his considerable intensity seen in Valhalla Rising and Casino Royale and bridles them in Struensee, a man painfully ahead of his time, his agency muted by station and social conventions.
Oddly, as Stuensee rises in favor and eventually comes to control the government, he remains almost just as cool a customer. He can never quite get over, it seems, being a provincial doctor, and this pays off in his eventual fall from power and Queen Caroline’s banishment. The emotions are as high-flown as in any costume drama, but A Royal Affair keeps them tethered, a little, making the viewer pay more attention to the subtleties of expression and composition. And the craft in this film – from its austere, Rembrandt lighting to its meticulous costumes to its quiet, assured camerawork – is well worth looking at closely.
If anything, though, A Royal Affair is a little too muted, stifled, and dispassionate. While the chemistry between Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander is fine, there aren’t really a lot of sparks in their relationship: this ain’t Grease. The film is overly studied – there frankly isn’t a lot of camera movement, either, to liven up the scenes. Long, lingering takes on lushly color-graded frames are what’s supposed to transport you – and it’s seemingly overly respectful to Struensee and his historic significance to Denmark. He, and his relationship to Christian, takes over the movie for most of the second act; and while this does make us feel poor Caroline is as marginalized as she probably was, it doesn’t make her drama more compelling.
The villains of the piece, too, are the most grotesque caricatures of crony court noblemen, with their man-makeup and poofy wigs and contempt for orphanages. They’re absurd, but not funny-absurd the way Mr. Burns is, or not even absurd-as-a-fact-of-nature, as is Mr. Potter of It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s difficult to care about why these silk stockings are bent on undoing Caroline and Struensee, or to be engaged watching them go about it. The framing device is the film’s saving grace, as its pall of doom does way more than the King’s council to render A Royal Affair’s lovers suitably tragic.
Definitely more thinky than your average period romance, A Royal Affair’s love triangle and lush production values are enough to make it worth watching. Just don’t expect a lot of fan-fiction to come from this one.
Take a Drink: every time something is banned or censored.
Take a Drink: every time a new law is declared.
Take a Drink: every time Christian ‘acts’ badly.
Take a Drink: for every Enlightenment philosopher quote.
Finish Your Drink: when the King is told to go play with a little friend.
Depending on the ratio of naughty to nice in your soul, you can describe Christmas Holiday in one of two ways. In the first, you rely on buzzwords, like ‘Gene Kelly,’ ‘New Orleans,’and ‘set over a Christmas vacation,’ which allows potential viewers to create their own expectations. Most people would think a brassy Technicolor musical, with bad accents, rosy cheeks aplenty, maybe a crazy nightclub ballet, and the miracle of snow falling on St. Louis Cathedral at the end, right? You would think It’s A Wonderful Life with music and a different star’s more wonderful butt (sorry, Jimmy Stewart). You would be right to think that, knowing what you know about Gene Kelly, one of Hollywood’s most engaging, athletic singing and dancing men. If you want the full experience of going into Christmas Holiday expecting these things, be my guest. It makes for interesting viewing. I’ll wait until you’re gone.
Okay. The rest of you? Christmas Holiday is a film noir. With Gene Kelly. It’s a hugely misleadingly titled film noir, directed by Robert Siodmak, starring (at the time) wholesome teenbop sensation Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. I know, right?
Besides being the perfect bait-and-switch for unsuspecting relatives during the festive season, Christmas Holiday is also really kinda gorgeous to look at. Robert Siodmak, the German director behind noir classics like The Killers and Criss Cross, utilizes smoke and shadows with a precision that borders on the occult. His New Orleans night scene is exactly as sultry and glistens as slickly as you think it should; and while the lighting here isn’t as angular or extreme as in some examples of the genre, it goes a long way to alleviate any doubts you may have about Durbin’s ability to play a lady of darkness.
In fact, Durbin is one of the best things about Christmas Holiday, which is odd, considering how Siodmak’s smoke and slow, slinking camera obscures her character’s motivations (until the very end). Built, like great noirs often are, around a delayed flashback structure, Durbin’s recollections seem a little more fevered and muddled than most. However, it gives the film a melodramatic, impressionistic quality that’s kind of fascinating and weird, in a good way.
The film’s mood and camerawork certain have to compensate for the plot. The first 20 minutes of the film focus on third wheel character Lt. Charles Mason (Dean Harens), a newly minted lieutenant who receives a Dear John letter right before his Christmas leave, and makes for San Francisco with intensions as stormy as the weather that grounds his plane, inexplicably, in New Orleans. It is there he meets “Jackie” (Durbin), a nightclub singer who secretly wants to be taken to midnight mass, if you know what I mean.
And then they actually go, and there’s an extended sequence of the ritual of mass at St. Louis Cathedral before Durbin breaks down sobbing in the aisle. This scene is the cinematic equivilent of turning a corner and catching yourself right before you run into a brick wall. It’s not bad, necessarily, but it kills the momentum the film had built up and changes its course in a way that startles a little. The majesty of the mass is supposed to be this big cathartic thing for Jackie, but we have no idea what the cause is, so the viewer goes through the whole thing a little nonplussed. Aftwards in a coffee shop that is definitely not Café du Monde, Durbin reveals to the LT what brought her to tears: falling in love with her murderer husband, a gambler named Robert Manette.
This (finally) brings us to Gene Kelly. His Manette, while definitely an homme fatale, essentially still has the same sweetness and levity to his movements, the same smile that promises sunshine and puppies, as his characters in Singin’ in the Rain and On The Town. He wears a bow-tie, for goodness sake. While it’s easy to see how Durbin is – in flashback much closer to her actual screen persona as the dewy-eyed “Abigail” from Vermont – it’s less easy to see Kelly as a vicious wastrel capable of murder. The psychological veneer the script throws on him to explain this exists in the form of Kelly’s grim, over-involved mother, played by (never a good sign) Gale Sondergaard. But the unstable momma’s-boy syndrome just makes you pine for Anthony Perkins, or someone truly creepy, who would have brought more mania or menace to the role.
Kelly, for all that he does an okay job playing Manette as a charming rake, never really looses his marbles. It is not until after the flashback that Kelly’s return to the picture to confront Durbin (he escaped from prison on Christmas eve, naturally) electrifies the screen with a real thrill of danger, and it makes you wish the whole film had been like that. The real problem with Christmas Holiday lies in the odd, delayed placement of the flashback. We get 20 minutes of Dean Harens without knowing anything about the main couple, and then Durbin basically tells the story of her fall, but there isn’t the same sense of overarching doom as there is in more satisfying noirs like Out of the Past or Double Indemnity.
A film more objectively fascinating than good, Christmas Holiday is still worth a watch for Siodmak’s beautiful imagery, Durbin’s against-type turn as a femme fatale, and the novelty of Gene Kelly asking a girl to dance, and then not actually dancing with her.
Take a Drink: when Christmas is referenced in a way devoid of cheer.
Take a Drink: whenever you think Gene Kelly is scary (take a second drink if you ever think one of his bow-ties are cool).
Take a Drink: every time Deanna Durbin sings.
Take a Drink: whenever you think Gene Kelly’s mother can’t get any creepier.
Finish Your Drink: when the clouds part to reveal the light of the Christmas moon.
In a movie in a theater, there showed The Hobbit. Not a nasty, boring, poorly-acted movie, filled with uninteresting character and ugly visuals, nor yet a tight, well paced, finely scripted movie, with nothing unessential to weigh down the run time or distract: it was a Hobbit movie, and that means (nearly three hours of) geek comfort. This The Hobbit was a very well to-do movie, made by Peter Jackson. The Peter Jacksons had lived in the neighborhood of CGI in the region of FX-saturated films for time out of mind, and both critics and fans considered them to be very respectable, not only because their previous films had made them very rich, but also because they never had any studios making them shoot more movies or did anything with high frame rates: you could always tell their aerial landscape shots would be gorgeous without the bother of caring for the plot. But this is the tale of how a Peter Jackson movie came to (mostly) have an adventure.
The story begins in the idyllic North Island of New – er, the Shire, home of hobbits, who love good food, comfortable living, and, smoking pipeweed early in the morning. However, a voiceover takes us to the mountain kingdom of Erebor, a dwarf stronghold so rich that Benedict Cumberbatch decided he’d very much like to have it; and because he was also a dragon, there was nothing Richard Armitage or any of the dwarves who actually look like Gimli’s could do. Not, that is, until Gandalf the wizard shows up at Bilbo Baggins’ gate, with a proposition he isn’t going to refuse, though he doesn’t know it yet.
Whether you’re a casual fan, or already planning your 24 hour marathon of all 6 extended editions, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a very definite entry into Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings saga. The scenery is as pretty, the world as detailed, the score as uplifting (hearing motifs LOTR like the Shire theme, subtly twisted into new variations by Howard Shore, is like coming home), the scope as epic. This is still the Middle-Earth we know and love. No ewoks.
Jackson does a fine job of balancing the fourteen (14) characters on the quest to reclaim Erebor, picking and choosing a few dwarves to have meaningful amounts of screentime, with the others distinguished by props or prosthetics. Each is distinct, yet the audience isn’t burdened with memorizing the differences between Dori, Ori, and Nori. Seriously, this is one film to win all the makeup awards. The singing pretty much works, too.
The film comes alive in the goblin kingdom the company find themselves trapped in. Alan Lee and John Howe, famous Tolkien illustrators and Jackson’s concept artists, deserve credit for the intricately detailed, fascinatingly Byzantine setting. Even if the dwarves’ escape recalls the Fellowship’s flight from Moria in a way that favors the latter, it’s still where the movie feels most energized. Bilbo’s confrontation with Gollum in the goblin caves, although it contains too many close-ups of the Ring, is also one of the most engaging sequences, suspenseful; you can see the shifts in power through the lights of the characters’ eyes. Martin Freeman is absolutely perfect as Bilbo, constantly fidgeting, looking perplexed, overwhelmed, or nonplussed as the situation requires it, but with the full heart and gentle courage of the everyman hero that Bilbo absolutely is. It’s just a shame the movie isn’t really about him.
Many people, myself included, were concerned and skeptical about the decision to turn The Hobbit into three movies. How can you make one film per 100 pages? Jackson found a solution, but unfortunately it’s one that dilutes the importance of Bilbo, who should be the audience’s emotional line through the fantasy. Thorin Oakenshield, a stubborn, valiant, greedy dwarf bent on reclaiming his gold, has been turned into an Aragorn-type, a noble vagabond, deserving of multiple voice-over battle sequences and a special albino orc nemesis.
We spend so much time with Thorin slashing orcs and Thorin looking dour and Thorin wearing an awesome fur coat that we don’t get enough organic character moments amidst all the grandeur. Most Thorin sequences also are too slow, both in shot speed and duration; they kill the film’s momentum without showing us anything cooler than we saw in LOTR. Pace and tone are real issues for this movie, and that has to do with building up Thorin’s epicness.
There are other digressions. The extended sequences with wizard Radagast, and the White Council of Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Gandalf both are meant to set up what I’m guessing is the third film’s villain, the Necromancer of Dol Guldor. But these cats spending entirely too much time staring meaningfully at each other and saying Elvish names that have absolutely no significance if you haven’t read the appendices. All this portent destroys the levity Jackson does sometimes bring to the material. The time we spend away from Bilbo and the dwarves is ultimately not as satisfying.
You know what else isn’t as satisfying? Both the complainers and the apologists for 48fps. The Hobbit may eventually be important as a first for that technology, but the 3D stands by itself, bright and artistically well integrated. The 48fps does have teething problems, losing clarity when there’s lots of motion in the frame or camera movement, and there’s often both. But when things are still, the picture is absolutely enveloping. You don’t need to see the film 48fps, but if you’re interested, it will not melt your eyeballs.
Not nearly as strong as the original trilogy, yet just as epic(ally long), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has enough charm to recommend it on the big screen. If it were a part of any other franchise, that probably wouldn’t be true.
Take a Drink: every time a voiceover provides the excuse for an action sequence.
Take a Drink: for every mention of “the Precious.” It won’t kill you in this one!
Take a Drink: whenever the dwarves are counted or named in succession.
Take a Drink: whenever something out of the appendices is ominously mentioned and/or something is named in Elvish and you have no idea what it means.
Do a Shot: when Thranduil’s (Lee Pace) mount is revealed.
Finish Your Drink And Then Take Another Drink: whenever it appears the film could have ended…and then keeps going.