Tag Archives: Drama

Gone Girl

Gone Girl is one of those movies that grew on me — I started indifferent to Ben Affleck’s presence and to dialogue that sounded too scripted and not organic enough, yet soon enough the film drops into a fairly straightforward engrossing plot that then remarkably shifts gears at the midpoint and becomes…. something else… and yet this turn of events leads to the kind of conclusion that now disturbingly sticks with me even a few hours after the final credits rolled and I suspect will continue to grow over time. (Accordingly, it’s one of those movies that, the less you know going in, the better.)

The film plays with perspective and truth a great deal, although by movie’s end we have a decent understanding of the most important facts of the story. It’s unclear for a while how reliable the different narrators are, and meanwhile there’s an underlying interplay with the US media which is constantly spinning stories and judging people in the court of public entertainment. What is guilt and innocence but the stories we spin based on the facts we find most interesting and that resonate with core feelings within ourselves? The movie highlights how fictions are not merely the product of the spinners but the audience as well, by how they respond to and modify the narratives with their own energy. Everyone is complicit in the convenient twisting and pillaging of the facts, until public opinion and cultural narrative become the only story that matters.

There are some scary channelings going here: Missy Park is like Nancy Grace’s twin sister, both Affleck and the plot borrow strongly from the Scott Peterson debacle over the murder of his wife Laci, and even Carrie Coon reminds me a bit of a less quirky Joan Cusack. Tyler Perry is particularly at ease at spinning a likable amalgam of every high-profile defense attorney we’ve seen in the media, without the whiff of snake oil. (Even more remarkable is his claim in interviews that he would have likely walked away from the movie if he had known who David Fincher was or the popularity of the book, as he brings an effortless good-naturedness to his role that helps anchors the film.) The only unfortunate casting for me was Neil Patrick Harris (Barney, Dr. Horrible), as I kept imagining to be inwardly smirking over his most serious lines, but that’s a minor quibble.

The movie spends some time exploring the question of who Nick Dunne is — a wonderful husband unjustly accused, a narcissistic philanderer who removed an inconvenient spouse, or something else? But it’s the movie’s opening question that grows to dominate the movie: Who was/is this woman named Amy Elliot Dunne AKA Amazing Amy? Gone Girl is ultimately focused on the questions of who we are, what we want, and who we will pretend to be in order to get them.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Up front, I’d like to give the guy who created the final trailer for Walter Mitty an award.

I remember seeing that trailer in late Fall 2013, leading up to the Christmas Day release of the movie; and I remember being dazzled at just how good that trailer was… nodding toward that abyss of existential angst underlying any human ego and offering to provide one man’s way of soaring above it — all with triumphant music, stunning color, and a resolutely resonant Ben Stiller… although underlying it all, I found myself skeptical of any of it being real. It was like falling in love with someone across a crowded room, thrilling over the mere sight and sound of them, yet knowing full-well that things could likely flop if you ever dared actually approach them and find out who they truly are.

And that’s how the movie worked for me.

The issues come at the start and last a good half-hour or more into the story. The movie is flat… very flat…. to the degree I almost stopped watching. Stiller does best when he’s allowed to create energy on-screen… but the interpretation of Walter Mitty is so restrained and internalized that Stiller isn’t really able to engage anyone or anything until later in the movie as he begins to explore his own self-expansion. Beats drop out of the dialogue, there are long pauses where someone should be responding, and Mitty just… stands there. Or says something inconsequential. It’s hard to care about a character who doesn’t seem to care.

Adam Scott as Hendricks, the “professional head chopper” who decimates the Life mag staff, comes off as a brittle and annoying twerp (with a paste-on beard, to boot!) who no respectable company would have taken seriously enough to hire. Again, the tone issue is a killer; if Walter Mitty weren’t so flat and humorless, then maybe we could view Hendricks as caricature, but it just doesn’t gel.

Fortunately, Wiig (as the potential love interest of this isolated man), MacLaine (as his independent and engaging mom), and Penn (as the almost-but-not-quite MacGuffin of this “coming to terms with self” story) do a lot to both anchor and energize the movie before it completely deflates. Even Patton Oswalt’s rather random character (the eHarmony service rep who jovially pesters Mitty throughout the movie) is more entertaining.

The movie comes more to life when Walter finally does something “crazy” (mostly out of desperation — he’s too professional to quit trying, even after it doesn’t matter) and takes off for Iceland, to track down photographer O’Connell and acquire the missing “negative #25”. In the process, he ends up having to take more risks than he’s reduced himself to over the years, reacquiring a spark for life he once had but then had forgotten.  Some of the depicted events are unbelievable, yet the landscapes and depicted events are the most stunning parts of the movie  — far more compelling than the character of Walter Mitty.

And ah yes, where is that mysterious “negative #25” that is “lost” in the early part of the movie, instigating Walter’s decision to take a risk? Well, I imagined it going one of two ways, and it was my second thought that proved true. No real surprises there. The content itself kept me guessing ’til the end, yet left me unsatisfied with its conventional sentiments. I thought the ending would be… bigger?

Maybe it was that trailer that I couldn’t get out of my head. You know, the one that made this a story larger than Walter Mitty, a story that encompassed all of humanity. The one that sent my pulse pounding, my heart racing, spurred a desire to just drop all the dead weight of my day and look for more meaningful ways to spend my time. The one that suggested a large lesson — that life is not meant to be managed or processed, it’s meant to be lived, and the risks we take for the things we desire and love (rather than just hiding in our heads) are what ends up contributing to our eventual satisfaction.

So live, Walter. And let’s live, all of us… not the secret life, but the real one.

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While not a literal translation of the Old Testament story, “Noah” serves as a unique and decent-enough adaptation with some beautiful visuals and engrossing action sequences. Crowe brings solidity and weight to the role of this apocalyptic prophet, and even his occasional bit of singing (to address another amusing and tangential question) is commensurate with the movie’s needs.

Unfortunately, while Aronofsky offers some intriguing exploration of Noah’s prophetic visions and psychological headspace, on the large scale “Noah” is not one of his most resonant works. Aside from any fantastic quirks, the movie seems a bit more straightforward than Aranofsky’s other efforts (especially Black Swan and The Fountain); the director’s touch is most obvious during Noah’s prophetic dream sequences and the way he doesn’t flinch when showing the horrific outcomes of individual choices. Violence and emotions in this movie at times can be raw and explicit.

While Aronofsky has not literally recreated the story as Western Christians learned it as children on Sunday morning, it’s clear that he did his homework since even the stuff that left Baptists squirming in their seats has basis in Christian lore. For example, according to Genesis, there were angels that fell to earth to bed human women, and the offspring of that damned union were referred to as the Nephilim or (as often translated, correctly or not) “giants.” The Book of Enoch delineates further, listing the names of these fallen angels (called Watchers) as well as the specialized information that each imparted to humanity much as the Greek Hephaestus and Athena shared knowledge of the arts with men.

Aronofsky adapts this source to support the themes and plot  of his narrative. Here, the Watchers were angels who came to earth against the Creator’s will out of compassion for humanity, so He punished them by stripping off their wings and smothering their holy brilliance within grotesque shells of twisted stone. Now shambling rock giants, the Watchers bequeathed their knowledge to humanity, but men were unworthy and used that knowledge to not just destroy each other but lay waste to the planet. By the time Noah comes around, the world more resembled “Mad Max” than any proverbial paradise. Seeing the extent of their mistake, the Watchers finally threw in their lot with Noah, the Creator’s foreordained; and the Creator’s response to that choice can now provide a moral map to Noah as he struggles to reconcile the Creator’s judgment with His mercy. (The Watchers not only offer insight into the divine heart but also patch up weak spots in the narrative’s hull, justifying how Noah could feasibly construct such a huge boat so quickly, as well as defend it against the desperate human hordes that would steal it to survive.)

Aronofsky liberally adds other details to the mix. The character of Methuselah helps explain everything from where all the wood came from to how barren women might eventually become pregnant. He also establishes the character of Tubal-Cain not just as a physical foil but a moral contrast to Noah: The men offer competing visions for humanity between which Noah’s children must eventually choose, and Aronofsky avoids the temptation to stack the deck. Tubal-Cain raises some good points.

While none of those particular details occur within the Genesis account, they all help set up Aronofsky’s point of interest in Noah: How does a prophet of doom perceive and process the notion of mercy… if such a thing is even possible? Prophets are naturally severe in personality and perception, they foretell judgment on the community for good or ill; and for a man to persevere in such a large undertaking in the face of permanent human extermination would suggest that Noah by nature was an unyielding man, full of conviction that humanity deserved death for its crimes against innocent creation.

Aranofsky not only explores how that perspective might have developed in Noah as a boy, but he accentuates that bent to its logical conclusion and thus sets up the largest moral crux in the movie. Noah’s family is not exempt from corruption, they are all as human as those whom the Creator has destroyed; they are all descended from the first two people who ruined Paradise. So he must consider, what if his family was not chosen to be saved and restart the race of men, but chosen simply to bring the innocent animals to safety and then to complete the destruction that the Creator began, to prevent the world from being ruined yet again? Because of the severity of his loyalty, Noah must contemplate terrible actions in order to remain faithful to what he perceives to be the Creator’s intent, regardless of the cost to his family and whether anyone agrees with him. That final struggle, the battle within Noah’s heart, is one reflective of human beings in general: Is there a way to reconcile judgment with mercy… and how?

Even after Noah makes his decision, there are still ramifications to his past choices that the family must deal with. Perhaps the earth has been wiped clean of its current corruption, but only the future will tell whether that choice was effective.


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August: Osage County

“August: Osage Country” sometimes feels like sticking your arm into an exquisitely designed, finely-sharpened meat grinder; yes, the machine might do its job well, but why would you want it to? In this earthquake of a story, you are looking at the remains of an expensive china shop with few items surviving intact… and then the movie proceeds to smash those as well.

AOC covers the period directly following a family cataclysm that brings all the crows home to roost, so we can see how things shake out. There are three generations represented in the movie (and a fourth, by proxy), although the main story revolves around the caustic reigning matriarch (Violet) addicted to prescription meds and her three grown daughters who’ve never really escaped from under her damaging shadow even if two left town long ago. One suspects early that the queen tyrant is beyond redemption and the only reason to deal with her is simply so that the grown daughters might have a fighting chance.

These three sisters, now in their 40’s, could be viewed as classic birth-order personalities: Barbara the oldest is the battler and will inherit her mother’s mantle if the kingdom survives Violet’s decline; Ivy is the caretaker, the quiet “girl next door” who has developed a successful strategy of invisibility and acquiescence; and Karen spins her legitimate desire for love and light into a hood to pull over her eyes, too fragile to face the dark. You could also view them via psychologist Karen Horney’s classic “positioning” theories. Barbara “moves against” Violet, as the best defense is a good offense; Ivy “moves towards” Violet by caring for and accommodating her; Karen “moves away” by leaving the house and surrounding herself with everything her mother is not.

But in the end, what you get is one daughter who is becoming her mother in the process of fighting her; another whose life is slowly being leeched dry; and a third who is too weak to properly care for herself. In the Weston family, you’re either a victim or a victimizer… or you cash yourself out while you still can.

While it’s difficult to feel sympathy for Violet, later in the movie she relays a story to her daughters involving her OWN mother that provides a necessary insight as to how she might have become the woman she is. It’s a simple story, offered without analysis; but I was immediately struck by the thought that, however bad Violet appears, she might actually be progressive. The sins of the mothers are visited upon their daughters, and crazy begets crazy begets more crazy, but maybe (just maybe!) if the sisters develop enough perspective, they might lift the Weston name another footstep out of the muck and one day win the family free.

As I noted earlier, the movie is well-acted, yet not necessarily enjoyable due to the constant barrage of emotional violence. I grew up in a dysfunctional house with its own share of sick behaviors and interfamily conflict, but even that was nothing as terrible as what I saw in AOC. It’s difficult to watch people hate each other this openly and this much, with the camera able to capture every sordid snarl, eye twitch, and half-muttered (let alone bellowed) invective. I suspect the grand physical gestures (there’s even a full-out fleshpile at one point) and wild emoting are necessary in a stage setting so that a distant audience can recognize what is happening; but due to the camera zoom such intensity here is jarring at best. Collesium spectactors who cheered over tiny lions devouring tiny prisoners in the arena center would have freaked had the entire massacre happened in their laps. 

Streep (the queen bee), who is almost always interesting, can switch from bat-shit crazy to mesmerizing contemplativeness during her quieter monologues, then back again. Roberts (the heir apparent) also is at her best; the disappointment and underlying anger she holds towards Mommie Monster is physically etched on the lines of her face and stark downward slashes of her mouth; when Barbara finally decides enough is enough, we know that Violet’s reign is hastening towards an end.

But at times both of these actors shine too brightly for the camera, and it is the more subtle performances of the ensemble that linger.

Julianne Nicholson (who deserves far more attention) plays the middle daughter as an apropos blend of smothered frustration and uncertain bravado in search of a voice, and Lewis — although it’s much like other roles she is known for — provides desperately positive chatter that suggests she knows deep-down she’s running but just doesn’t have the strength to face reality head-on.

Margo Martindale as Aunt Mattie shows a penchant for destruction as strong as her sister Violet but releases it more as a slow poison that nags and nibbles, eroding will and strength until nothing is left. Cooper plays the simple but kind-hearted uncle who finally gets in a good speech when his patience runs out. Cumberbatch, playing against many of his recent roles, is the gentle cousin emasculated by his mother’s incessant criticisms who badly wants to be worthy of (and strong for) the one woman who values him.

And then of course there is Sam Sheperd as Beverly Weston, around whom the plot centers despite his absence, and whose short scene is laced with sad knowing sweetness and more perspective than all the other characters combined.

The play’s original ending cuts off a few minutes before the movie ending, with Violet reaping the inevitable consequences of her tyrant’s reign. The movie tries to be more upbeat by overtly suggesting all three daughters might salvage something out of this mess, and that perhaps — just perhaps — upbringing is not destiny after all. That maybe even those badly damaged by the sins of their families can still find their day in their sun. Is it enough? I don’t know. I hope it is.




Believe (NBC)

If belief were enough, “Believe” would make the cut. But execution matters, and “Believe” has been struggling since the pilot. Its saving grace at the moment (versus “The River,” a darker but decent idea sunk mid-season a few years ago by flawed execution) is that its wider demographic might provide additional stability until everything settles.

“Believe” tracks the weekly adventures of a little fugitive named Bo with as-yet-unspecified mental powers (although so far we’ve seen telekinesis, telempathy, animal summoning, and even some precog) and her protector Tate (an escaped convict), running from the research thinktank that bred and trained her for its own purposes.

Sounds like an idea with potential bite? Well, not as currently implemented. The mix between Alfonso Cuarón and JJ Abrams is an odd one, resulting in  a hybrid that seems part “Firestarter Lite” and part “Highway to Heaven.” The simplistic but heartfelt resolutions seem aimed in flavor of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” crowd (oddly, the latter seems darker), rather than kind of edgier work you’d expect from Cuarón’s involvement. Instead of some dark topics and incredible action sequences, we just get a little girl who intrudes into a different person’s life every week and helps resolve some painful issue in their lives — something Tate once refers to appropriately as her “door-to-door Chicken Soup for the Soul bit.”

With that kind of angle, “Believe” so far isn’t working well as a serious drama, but I suppose if NBC wanted to add a “feel good” show to its lineup, it could have done far worse. Bo’s relationship with Winter (the head researcher who trained and eventually took her from the facility to protect her) is endearing, and the fledgling connection between strong-willed Nate and Bo (where neither knows how they’re related… or at least Bo pretends not to) seems natural and real enough.

In fact, casting is one of the show’s strengths. Jake McLaughlin’s Tate is less articulate and more prickly than Sawyer from “Lost,” yet remains likeable because you know he’s not quite the jerk he aspires to be. And Johnny Sequoya in her first front-and-center role as Bo is intriguing — she’s cute, smart, sassy without being repulsive, the kind of self-assured and empathetic little girl who inspires you to believe even if you think she has no clue about how life really works. Delroy Lindo as Winter, protecting Bo against exploitation by his former partner Skouras (Kyle MacLachlan), projects a love for the little girl that remains palpable and untarnished; and MacLachlan’s ruthless pragmatism is balanced by an idealism for how Bo could help humanity to improve. One of the best scenes so far, in fact, has been the brief meetup between Winter and Skouras in a local delicatessen (a riff on the “coffee shop bit” in Michael Mann’s “Heat”) where they unexpectedly sit down to discuss their differences of opinion.

However, as mentioned before, the show kind of “plays” at suspense without being suspenseful. Every episode, there’s a lot of running, a lot of hiding, a lot of Bo disobeying Tate’s incessant nagging and doing things that almost (or actually) get them caught, then Bo doing something that helps them escape without hurting anyone, and… cycle, rinse, repeat. The old “Incredible Hulk” TV series could make this format work, but… in today’s TV world? The times, they been a-changin’.

And the action sequences are unbelievable: When people normally would get shot, the perpetrator doesn’t fire; when Bo could use her powers, she does so in the slowest and least effective way possible; escape routes conveniently occur in places where they normally wouldn’t (like the storm tunnel trapdoor in the hallway of a death-row maximum security ward, way back in the pilot). And so far, while Tate was chosen to protect Bo so that Winter wouldn’t lead anyone to her, literally every episode so far involves Winter personally stepping in like a deus ex machina to save them. Why not just keep Bo with Winter, at this rate?

“Believe” also utilizes repeated story flashbacks without seeming to be quite comfortable with the story device. “Lost” and some other series have been able to show flashbacks, flashforwards, flash sideways, flashing in every which way but loose, without ever needing to tell us “when” they happened by using setting, character appearance, timely pop culture elements, and other clues organic to the scene to signify time and setting… but “Believe” consistently stamps ugly subtitles on the screen to spell it out for everyone (and at least in one episode, multiple times for the SAME time period). A little more visual distinction in the scenes or a little more trust for the viewers would go a long way.

Finally, I was hoping for more honesty in a show where both Abrams and Cuarón were involved, but the story keeps selling out for the “happy ending.” [Note: HIMYM viewers disgruntled by their series finale might be more satisfied here.] For example, a soldier breaks off an engagement to his fiance without explaining why [although the reason is legitimate], and when Bo reintroduces the couple years later, the ex-fiance tells him (truthfully) that she still does love him, but she’s engaged to someone else, so they can’t be together now. Bo seems confused and a bit distraught by this turn of events, Tate feels bad but makes it a “teachable moment” about how sometimes things just don’t work out even when your intentions are good; and then “Believe” backpedals with a rather absurd “Snidely Whiplash” moment that suggests it doesn’t have the courage to enter ambiguous places.

Enjoyment of the show will depend on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a light, happy fix of goodwill, with a dash of the fantastic, then you might enjoy “Believe.” If you don’t like shows where people carry guns and girls throw cars but no one gets hurt and characters are more a plot contrivance of the plot than exploring the grit accmulated by living in a fallible and uncertain world, then it’s becoming more and more difficult to believe that “Believe” will go somewhere meaningful.

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One of Divergent’s strengths is that it isn’t “The Host” or “I Am Number Four,” but every time the movie almost becomes interesting, it swerves back to the format’s conventions.

Divergent is one of those vague post-apocalyptic tales that looks like it was paid for on someone’s credit card despite an $85 million budget.  It looks like it was shot in the ghost city of Pripyat, Ukraine; there are very little special effects (aside from maybe parts of the “fear” sequences and the short-lived zipline scene); and the prop lists consists of a train always running in the same direction, a springy net, an assortment of plastic guns, and whatever non-descript clothes the characters wear on their backs.

(As “The Host” exemplified, sometimes less is, well, less.)

People have labeled “Divergent” as “Hunger Games Lite,” which is understandable but rather unfair because “The Hunger Games” at least seems to make more sense. A revolution against the ruling class leads to the subjugated provinces being forced to pay tribute and having their children drafted into annual games for sport? That story is an old one; I can buy it.

What we have here, though, is more of internalized angst — the unnuanced adolescent quest for identity coupled with typical cynical mistrust of the system — externalized into a contrived plot. The remnants of Chicago have been divided into five rigid factions to which everyone must belong; and unless you’re “Divergent” (i.e., don’t fit into the system), you’re presented as part of the uninspired 95% — soulless, uninventive drones who just follow orders and support the establishment. Rebel against the system? Any sane person would, or at least set up a council populated by people from all the factions; but apparently few of the adults have any backbone or common sense, so that job is going to fall to the kids. The movie seems to be a cross between flipping the bird at tests like the popularized Myers-Briggs Trait Inventory (MBTI) and the typical unease teens feel at the thought of selling out one’s ambitions to find economic and social security in an undesirable career.

Woodley plays Beatrice (later renaming herself “Tris,” which sounds less stodgy), a daughter of Abnegationists who has reached the age of choice, but of course she tests as a multiple (Divergent) and ends up choosing Dauntless — which is not just the most exciting-looking faction but the one most convenient for the plot (since it allows for fighting and action sequences — the movie would far slower if she had picked the equivalent of the farmers, altruists, lawyers, or brainiacs). While they’re supposed to be cops and soldiers, Dauntless seems to spend the days and nights running around town whooping like drunk frat boys on the last day of class, climbing stuff and jumping off things. I suspect their mortality rate is much higher than the other factions.

Woodley is never quite convincing as a girl with enough edge to stay in the game; underneath she seems soft rather than hard. It’s telling that, no matter what trouble she gets herself into, her eyebrows and hair remain picture-perfect or merely mussed in the way a model’s would be. However, she and Tobias (Theo James, noticeably older than his character but more than adequately solid and empathetic) hold the movie together; both are likeable and relate well to each other, and I wanted to see them happy.

The movie trundles on by the numbers, each beat as predictable as the rails under a train track. Tris is the underdog but manages to make each cut mostly because she doesn’t quit. Tobias, the hot, kind, quiet guy, of course falls for her. And of course he is Divergent as well. (Believe me, that’s not really a spoiler.) She manages to bump a few times into Jeanine, the head of Erudite who also serves as the movie’s baddy; and Winselt plays the role with perfunctory coolness that doesn’t fool us for a second about her regard for Tris as more of a structural nuisance rather than an interesting rarity. Toss in some predictable family tragedy to clean up loose plot threads + provide additional motivation for Tris to really rebel, and you’ve got your setup for the next movie.

I can’t speak for Roth’s original text (which I haven’t read but suspect was deeper), nor for the travails of condensing this book to the screen, but the movie as completed seems overgeneralized — vague and thin. What would have happened if the factions and adults had been treated less as cliches? What if the deck hadn’t been stacked so much in favor of the Divergents? I’m hoping that later movies will reveal substantial reasons that could justify the existence of the faction system, or at least why the authorities fear those who have no regard for the establishment aside from simply the threat of losing their power.

You don’t necessarily need to be Divergent in order to be cool.



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The Counselor (Extended Edition)

Even commenting on a movie like this means navigating between two factions: The majority of people who hated on it more than it might have deserved, and the minority who are using the hate of the first group to establish themselves as the few Chosen Ones who are able to appreciate the glorious cinematic masterpiece of two masters (director Ridley Scott and writer Cormac McCarthy).

To cut to the chase, the movie at times seemed to be a somewhat pretentious writer’s exercise with a beautiful veneer — the characters dress impeccably, the shots are beautifully framed; even the ornate settings don’t feel cluttered. And if you’re a clumsy-eared gringa like me, born and bred in the rural US, you might even have trouble understanding some of the dialogue in the movie due to the heavy accents in places. All these things put up potential roadblocks to understanding what’s going on, not just plot-wise but (more importantly) thematically.

And I think this is a movie where theme actually is more important than plot. Things happen in the plot and soon enough you’ll “get” what’s going on even if they take awhile to really start rolling; but in the end the plot doesn’t roll very far. What’s more important is what the characters understand of the forces they’ve set in motion and how they’ve positioned themselves to those forces. Some are prey; some are predators; and some (sadly) are just in denial.

While the story definitely meanders about, some of the anecdotes shared are amusing to listen to (like when Reiner describes in a graphically detailed flashback how his girlfriend Malkina had sex with his car — and yes, you read that right… not IN his car, but WITH his car). The actors have fun with their roles and their lines (albeit not quite as much as a Tarantino movie), even when some of those lines need a professional contortionist to utter them.

But I think irony is even more palpable when you realize how Fassbender’s character (the eponymous Counselor — we never learn his real name) is the one character constantly asking others for advice and being denied until almost the very end. And thematically, the reality is that a lawyer’s job is to make cases and change people’s opinions, and so The Counselor is unprepared to deal with the realities of this world that he has chosen to be part of — a world where no arguments matter, no one is interested in listening, and the only choice that matters is the one you originally made to enter that world at all. The other characters (Westray and Malkina especially) are very very aware of this and take responsibility for what happens to them, but despite Westray’s repeated harping on the matter, The Counselor doesn’t really understand until it is too late.

Much of the pushback against this movie, to me, stems from this focus on theme versus plot, Scott’s directing style (he’s not great at lending impetus to weak scripts, he typically plays things too clean for that), and McCarthy’s writing style that works better on the page than ported directly into audial-visual. The very reason the film was anticipated is probably the very reason it failed critically and in the box office. Also, there seemed to be a very strong expectation for plot to dominate more (like in “No Country for Old Men” — things happen, characters are very active), whereas here there is very little direct activity between the characters and most things resolve through dialogue, even when you might expect the plot to kick up a notch. It’s true that the Counselor, as “hero” of this story, seems ineffectual and acted up rather than acting on others… but I also think that that’s the point as well.

Admittedly, I had difficulty with the movie and actually paused it multiple times in the first half to do something else — not really an auspicious beginning, if it can’t hold my attention for more than ten minutes at a time. But once I figured out the plot, and I had enough pieces thematically to grasp where it was going, I could start recognizing those patterns in the latter half of the movie and things became more interesting. And I still walk away with the important lesson that sometimes the choices that matter most are the ones we are tempted to view as the least consequential. New worlds open, old ones vanish, and we are stuck with what remains and cannot change what we have already wrought.


The Host

The Host is the kind of movie you keep going back to over and over… because it’s impossible to watch more than 5-10 minutes at a time without either being completely bored out of your mind or completely shaking your head over what’s unfolding.

But it’s hard to complain in light of the fact that, despite all the critic outrage, this flop of a movie might really just be the fault of poor marketing and distribution choices. The reality is that this isn’t really box-office material; it should have been either direct to video or a made-for-TV feature. The trailer itself — “Alien doesn’t quite possess girl’s body, the hybrid flees back to the secret human base where no one trusts her” — tells you all you need to know to skip the first 50 minutes, and then the rest proceeds at the level of a teenage girl drama written for split showings on Nickelodeon and SyFy, where the biggest dilemma seems to be choosing which boy she should actually let kiss her.

The premise itself is fascinating. What really happens if an entire race of aliens takes over most of humanity? What would it feel like to have an interloper in control of your body, and what happens when you’re the interloper who realizes you are exploiting the enslavement of other independent beings? As two minds working together in one body, how do you navigate two worlds where both sides fear and hate you, to the point of destroying you? Instead of the complexity of such psychological and sociological navigation, we just get a lot of teenage angst and lust throw into a blender, with the lust itself being extremely subdued; and the headier ideas are mostly approached at the level of novice song lyrics scribbled in the margins of a high-schooler’s notebook.

There were also many, many bad choices here in terms of creating and maintaining dramatic tension, including how the entire opening (the capturing of Melanie and the insertion of the alien Wanderer) was handled so routinely. I’ve read a few pages of the book, so I’m aware that the movie is tracking the text here, but this was a chance to translate the story to a new medium and compensate for any deficiencies. I can’t imagine how that entire capture/possession/escape sequence could have been rendered with less suspense or made less interesting.

Meanwhile, the interplay between the human Melanie and the alien Wanderer/Wanda is handled as voice overdubs and simply doesn’t work in the way intended, especially when Wanda starts doing things Melanie doesn’t like (like kissing the wrong dude — or on occasion the right one) and we listen to her protest wildly (and ineffectively) in the background. There were so many moments that could have been dramatically interesting and instead generated unintended laughs.

There are also numerous “what?” moments, where the logic of the plot changes just-because — such as when Melanie pushes Wanda to return to the Resistance, where she is promptly imprisoned as an “it” (what the humans rather boorishly call the aliens), and then Melanie tells her there’s no way to prove she’s really on their side, so now they’re both going to die. Was the entire escape just an elaborate suicide scheme on Melanie’s part, or was it just lazy plotting? This lack of through-line for character motivation and rationality is one reason The Host just comes off as a big featureless jumble of ideas.

Along with constant emotional outbursts that mean nothing, we also are offered interchangeable characters, whether alien or Resistance, there to utter whatever pretentiously vague social truths should dominate the moment. (Besides, any time you hear the lines, “You need to kiss me. Melanie hates it when you kiss me. I need you to bring her back,” this is probably two sentences more than any normal teenage boy needs an excuse for in order to kiss a girl.)

There are some standouts among the cast. William Hurt as the Resistance leader brings some stability to any scene he’s part of, even if it’s not enough to elevate the material. And it’s too bad we didn’t get to see what Saoirse Ronan could really do in a starring role; she was capable in “The Lovely Bones,” and here she is earnestly compelling as Wanda, an inquisitive and yet private alien who means well and is mortified at how her people have enslaved humanity. Emily Browning gets a very short uncredited cameo at movie’s end. As Head Seeker, Diane Kruger actually starts to explore the darker side of the human/alien symbiosis until her plotline gets conveniently subsumed into another. Francis Fisher (“Titanic”) is rather wasted.

Probably one of the largest shocks of The Host is how Andrew Niccol, typically an interesting and thoughtful director, was so intimately involved (director and cowriter) in such a bomb. It almost bears speculation that he had been taken over by an alien who then struggled writing a screenplay for a race of beings it didn’t yet understand. If someone could get Charlie Kauffman to write that script, that might be a movie for adults worth watching.

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Les Miserables (2012)

The closest I ever came to Les Mis was in college (back ’bout the time Hugo wrote the novel, *cough*) and a friend lent me his copy, and years later, it’s still sitting untouched on my bedroom bookshelf. (Note to self: Is that why he stopped talking to me?)

Too many purists were emerging from the woodwork when this adaptation hit the theaters on Christmas 2012, so I decided to save my money. The biggest surprise upon viewing this spring was how enjoyable it actually was, even if not perfect… but then again, isn’t acceptance of the imperfect the definition of grace? And if Les Miserables is a tale of anything, it is a tale of grace to move the heart.

Jean Valjean is a man harshly punished by society (5 years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s child, another 14 for myriad attempts to escape), and not just before his release. His relapse into theft is quick (stealing the monastery silver), driven both by need and by society’s contempt for him as a prior felon — but a moment of grace by the Church offers him a taste of freedom and a new vision of who he could become. So Valjean violates his parole and vanishes in order to recreate his life from the ground up, reemerging eventually as a well-meaning and well-respected community leader.

The story might have ended there, but parole violation is still a crime, and the relentless Inspector Javert has no forgiveness for anyone’s shortcomings, not even his own; he lives so that others might pay for even the smallest of crimes. Valjean is granted a golden opportunity to pin his crimes on another, but selflessness have permeated his heart: He finds he can no longer stomach such deceit,  so he reveals his identity and the chase begins anew.

Les Miserables doggedly pursues this conflict between grace and guilt, dispensation and denunciation, through both the mundane events of life as well as through an actual revolution in the streets of Paris. Can the truly guilty still experience redemption? What is the nature and cost of forgiveness, what is the difference between a clean versus corrupt heart? Which worldview dominates, and what happens to the man who realizes his world no longer makes sense?

The public discussion around the movie at its release is, for the most part, accurate. In terms of composition, the movie relies on face shots for many sequences, which might provide some intimacy to the characters but reduces the contributions of establishing shots and set/costume design. However, Hooper’s decision makes some sense in terms of how the film focuses on live (not canned) performance, which involves capturing both sound and facial expression. Art is essentially a collection of decisions made between mutually exclusive choices; there are always tradeoffs, and in this case Hooper opted for the raw and personal.

Jackman, with prior stage experience, comports himself admirably as Jean Valjean; he’s believable, he’s sympathetic, he can sing, he can act, he propels the story forward by sheer force of will and emotional grit. It’s also impressive that Hathaway (as Fantine, the mother-turned-prostitute in trying to provide for her little girl) snagged an Oscar for a performance with so little actual screentime. While she sings well, it’s really her acting — especially the facial expressions during “I Dreamed a Dream” — that will tear your heart out. I don’t think I’ve seen such a diverse, yet authentic flow of emotion (sorrow, fear, rage, regret, emptiness) expressed within such a short range of time, even if at time the song dies in her throat. There are some who would take issue with this, but I don’t agree; she’s not a singer here, she’s an actress, this is a movie and not a musical concert, and Hathaway’s choices serve the ultimate goal of bringing the viewers deeply into the movie’s pathos.

Sadly, the comments about Crowe are also true; his singing skills aren’t up to task, he lacks confidence in his own performance, and even at his best moments sounds like he’s crooning to a lover rather than angrily hounding his enemy to the ends of the earth. (If you want to see “Stars” falling from the sky, you need go no further; the song is a disaster, from at least a characterization perspective.) But it’s hard to blame Crowe, who was doing his best with a role that was obviously beyond his grasp to start with.

The other characters comprise themselves well. Even if it’s not a stretch for them, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter perfectly play farcical innkeepers who always seem to have money on their minds. Seyfried as the older Cosette hits all the right high notes; and then we begin to run across cast members with extensive theater backgrounds and professional voices (Redmayne, Barks, Huttlestone, et al) who bring a whole new depth to the music as well as the acting. They don’t get as much attention as the top-billed stars… and to me, that’s a crime far worse than the theft of a loaf of bread.

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The Fountain

“Why do you cry, Tomas?”

“To see Spain brought so low, with an enemy living within her borders, feasting on her strength,” agonizes the queen’s hard-driven conquistador. “I have failed her.”

“This loyalty of yours inspires you to protect Spain at any cost, but killing the Inquisitor is suicide,” says Queen Isabella.

The time periods change, the specific foe might change; but each narrative in “The Fountain” is one of clutching for life within mortality, something fallen humans have done (according to Judeo-Christian tradition) ever since God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden and placed a flaming sword there to keep the Tree of Life from our grasp.

But Tomas, the queen’s champion, has been sent to New Spain in hopes of locating the Tree. Tom, accompanied by a now-dying tree, travels through space to reach Xiabalba, Land of the Dead, part of a dwindling star. And in modern times, Tommy, a cancer research scientist, works frantically from extracts of the same tree to cure his wife Izzi before she succumbs to the tumor that is slowly killing her.

There is little doubt that the story of Izzi and Tommy is authentic, although whether you believe in the factual veracity of Tomas’ quest or Tom’s interstellar journey is up to you; Izzi herself writes the bulk of the past and future tales in her notebook labelled “The Fountain” before passing the last chapter off to Tommy to finish, truly making “their” story a joint effort. The question is whether Tommy will have the courage and wisdom to discern the authentic conclusion to the narrative versus the one he prefers.

Izzi and Tommy initially seem to share the vision that Tommy needs to cure her. “Take this ring as a sign of your promise,” Izzi’s regal counterpart says in 1500 AD. “When you find Eden, you shall wear it, and when you return, I shall be your Eve, and together we shall live forever.” But the further she proceeds into her cancer, the more Izzi explores the likelihood of her death and what eternal meaning can be found within it. This creates tension between the lovers as she becomes aware of patterns that Tommy can’t yet acknowledge, deepening their individual wells of loneliness at a time when each desperately needs the other even more.

Aronofsky explores pairs here — death and life, husband and wife, past and future. Are these things truly separate, or are they each part of the other, forever and always? Aronofsky lets even the imagery bleed together; the same lines of dialogue reverberate across the timelines (“Is everything all right?” / “Yes. Everything’s all right”), sometimes taking on different meaning depending on context, and in places visuals from multiple timelines are merged unsettlingly to blur differences and draw additional connections.

The Fountain is not an easy movie to evaluate. Could the story have been told better? On first viewing, I found myself moved in some spots and confused in others; a second viewing, once I had read a synopsis or two, proved much more profound and I can now recognize how interlocked the elements actually are. The story is much more efficient than it seems at first glance.

I do believe a movie should be accessible on its own merits, and yet there are ideas and images of such magnificence in “The Fountain” that I’m not only glad I invested the effort but recognize that perhaps some of the depth might have been lost with a simpler telling. Both Jackman and Weisz offer brave, vulnerable performances that linger with me, and the Kronos soundtrack lends the movie grandeur. The juxtaposition of human mortality with the notion of enduring love is not something that is easily resolved, so why should a movie about it be?

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