Film criticism by Ian Kay.

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“Easy A” (2010), dir. Will Gluck

John  Hughes may have recognized his influence in this teeny-bopper film (not to mention that his own movies are referenced several times), but he never would have directed it.  The angst and adolescent euphoria that pervaded Hughes’ movies in the 80’s is nowhere to be found in Easy A.  But this film is a postmodern homage in an era of disillusionment, not an insightful tribute to youth, and it is very entertaining and smoothly performed by an impressive cast.

Emma Stone is quickly becoming a star, displaying incredible depth for a twenty-two year old. Here she plays Olive, a smart high school girl who, while not exactly a nerd, isn’t popular either. Although a girl of Stone’s looks and wit would certainly not be shunned by real high school boys, we are told that she is not only a virgin, but is never asked out on dates. Olive’s parents (played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, in the two best performances of the film) are of the “treat your kid like an adult” variety, laughing at her detention, prodding into Olive’s life only when something is obviously not going well.  Usually, teen-movie parents are either strict, out-of-touch task masters or easy going hippies who are “cool” except that they never actually pay attention to their kids. Screenwriter Bert Royal refreshingly has Dill and Rosemary (hippie names, to be sure) act like mature parents when they are called upon to do so. And yet they are still irreverent and funny.

Thomas Jefferson is credited for saying, “He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and a third time till at length it becomes habitual.” And Olive finds this to be only too true.  In an attempt to be cool, she lies and says that she slept with a college boy. Rumor, these days aided exponentially by text messaging, flies, and soon Olive gets a reputation.

The plot is launched when Olive’s gay friend, Brandon, bribes her into letting people think they have slept together. He sites her new reputation as the credibility he needs. This is one of the few times in the film when a touch of real high school issues rears its head. Brandon is so desperate to erase his reputation as a homosexual that he is in tears begging Olive to help him. From there, it snowballs. An overweight boy approaches Olive next, again bribing her to allow the rumor to spread (though this time it’s just grab-ass). And so on until, according to rumor, Olive has literally become the school whore.

In an act typical of frustrated adolescence, Olive runs with her new persona. She redesigns her clothing, and sews a large red “A” on her shirt. As Olive herself mentions (one of many self-references in the script), so often the book you are reading ends up being reflected in your real life (at least in the movies). And just by chance, her favorite teacher has assigned The Scarlett Letter, in which an early American puritanical town forces a woman to wear a red “A”, which stands for “Adulterer”.

The remainder of the film deals with three things: regaining her reputation, erasing the damage she has done to others, and winning the love of her childhood sweetheart. All of these are predictable and fairly irrelevant to the entertainment value of the film. The witty dialogue and fine, light performances of the chief players carry us through a happy ending that leaves us smiling and amused, even as we start to forget the plot as we walk away.

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“Carlos” (2010) and other films I’ve seen this month

Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is an engrossing, five and a half hour recount of the career of notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal.  It was released as a TV mini-series and is only recently being re-released in theaters. The picture shares the flavor of the Bourne movies, the international events, seemingly endless, world-wide shooting locations and bursts of violence. But of course Carlos is a real man, not a super hero. Likewise, Assayas avoids the jarring, hand held camera and rapid fire editing of the Bourne series.

The movie’s strength stems from Edgar Ramirez, the actor playing Carlos. He fluidly moves from passive arrogance to aggressive violence, speaks several languages and transforms his body from a lean youth to a doughy, aging man. As Assayas tells it to us, Carlos is a man of intense ego and insatiable ambition, with addictions to women and alcohol. Yet he is also incredibly intelligent and driven by vengeful anger that can only come from long experience with injustice. Ramirez internalizes all of these elements, brooding on them and allowing them to surface only sometimes, and not always when we expect.

Carlos seems to be more anti-capitalist than pro-communist. He seeks to tear down, rather than build. He envisions himself as a weapon to be used by governments who share his goals, though as his fame grows, he begins to think in reverse. In the 1970’s and 80’s, he allies himself with the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. But by the early 90’s he has lost the support of nearly every Middle Eastern and North African country, who see him as a wild card and a liability. As one of Carlos’ friends remarks near the end, “We have lost”. The capitalists had “won”, turning Carlos into a soldier with no war to fight.

Quite a lot of the film is in heavily accented, often mumbled English, obscuring a line here and there. But most of it is smooth, and of course there are subtitles for the half dozen or so other languages that are spoken. At the very end of the film, we see pictures of the real people involved, and the casting (by Antoinette Boulat) is, at least in terms of looks, strikingly good.

I also saw two films by Pier Paulo Pasolini this month:

Hawks and Sparrows (1964)

I cannot quite say that this is a good movie. Yet Pasolini’s creativity and originality overwhelm the disjointed storytelling and the occasional dip into the ridiculous.

Hawks and Sparrows is a not-so-subtle satire of1960′s Italian politics, Christianity and Marxism. The message feels like it comes from an agnostic, saying, “Well, I don’t know the answers, but aren’t we funny for seeking them?” All of that is mildly interesting, but the real fun of the movie is the old man, his son and the left-wing intellectual talking crow that won’t leave them alone.

The Decameron (1971)

Pasolini approached this film in nearly the opposite manner to Hawks; the production value is much higher, the story is amusing and relatively fluid, and there is very little pretense of “message” or “meaning”. Simple stories convey broad ideas, with little need to dig for them.

The Medieval morality tales are changed a bit from Boccacio’s versions, and of course only a handful are represented. The lurid sexual events only hinted at in the written form are brazenly displayed in the film, lending a kick of energy and realism to the otherwise tall-tale style. It earns quite a few laughs, and the pace matches the fun, making for an easy, entertaining ride. The cinematography is particularly good.

Secret of Kells (2009), dir. by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey

This fun animated adventure uses a style that reminds me of the Samurai Jack tv series. It is jagged, simple and very expressive.  An Irish abbey is besieged by Vikings, and Brendan, a 12 year-old boy, is tasked with saving and completing a magical book.

There is an epic feel (though the movie is only 75 minutes long), as Vikings are transformed into monstrous giants, the woods are filled with fairies, wolves and demons, and stunning pictures are drawn with bright, magical inks. A young man must come of age to become a hero, yet his world is even less predictable than Frodo’s in the Lord of the Rings.

“Source Code” (2011), dir. Duncan Jones

Source Code is a high caliber thriller that is carried by Jake Gylenhaal’s subtle acting and less so on action or plot twists. In fact, two of the story’s biggest mysteries are, while not exactly predictable, not that difficult to surmise pretty early on.  What is actually happening to our hero?  Who on the train is the unknown villain? I won’t spoil it for you here, but suffice it to say there are some visual hints early on.

Yet I was not at all let down by having it figured out.  The three main characters are so engaging that it hardly matters where the plot goes. Think of it as Groundhog Day meets Inception, replacing the humor of the former and the intensity of the latter with character development. I don’t want to exaggerate;  Source Code does have its action and some suspense.  It’s just that the movie doesn’t depend on those things.

The concept of a “source code” falls into the category of the dream manipulation in Inception. It is clever, sometimes vague and vulnerable to logical discombobulation. But just like many of Hitchcock’s fantastical plot devices, it just doesn’t matter, because it isn’t about realism; it is about how the hero responds to the crisis it presents.

Gylenhaal is Colter Stevens, a veteran of the Afghan war who wakes up, disoriented, on a train. He doesn’t remember why he is on the train, he doesn’t recognize the woman sitting across from him, and doesn’t recognize the reflection in the bathroom mirror.  After eight minutes of confusion, the train blows up, killing everyone on board… and then Stevens wakes up in an isolation chamber of some sort. Quickly it is made clear that Stevens is part of some sort of military operation, though we are not told exactly what. Carol Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) appears on a monitor in the chamber and calms Stevens down, bringing back (some) memories and reminding him that he is on duty and must comply with the constrictions of the mission at hand. The mission? He must return to the train, and in eight minutes, locate the bomb and identify the bomber. If he fails, he will blow up, return to the isolation chamber, and then have to try again.

There is a bit of eye rolling frustration in Stevens’ extended ignorance, which is prolonged for the benefit of our cinematic suspense rather than military sense. While there are bigger secrets of which he is not supposed to know, he is hardly informed of the details of his mission for quite a while. Stevens’ superiors continue to repeat that “there is no time”, yet he continues to fail largely because he is kept ignorant. After he is briefed, he becomes quite an effective soldier.

Each time he is sent back in, fails, and returns to the chamber, we learn something new. Earlier that day, a commuter train had exploded, killing hundreds of people. By some miracle of science, Stevens is able to be placed into the final eight minutes of memory of one of the victims on board the train. In those eight minutes, he can act freely and investigate the source of the terrorism. Unfortunately, nothing he does on the train during those eight minutes would change what happened. “It’s not a time machine”, someone says. It’s just a detailed glimpse of the past, used to identify the bad guy before he strikes again.

Besides the race to capture a terrorist, there is another dilemma emerging. Goodwin, herself a soldier, is finding it increasingly difficult to keep Stevens in the dark. This is where the movie shines; Farmiga’s struggle is written all over her face, not in the script. We can tell that there is something unsavory going on, and that Goodwin does not like it. Gylenhaal, for his part, flashes brilliantly between confused man and dutiful soldier, developing our sympathy without cliche Hollywood crutches.

I like the tasteful pro-soldier vibe that emerges about two-thirds through. Not rah-rah America, mind you, but rather a recognition of the sacrifices soldiers make in the line of duty, and why they deserve respect.  So we pull for Stevens not only because he is the script’s hero, but because he proves himself to be an honest soldier with a true sense of right and wrong. Jason Statham certainly kicks more ass in his action flicks, but Colter Stevens represents the kind of hard-nosed hero we would actually want in our armies, representing our country.

Review: “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011), dir. George Nolfi

I don’t know what the original Phillip K. Dick short story is like, but the screenplay for this thriller plays out like it was written by junior high boys with a handful of “cool ideas”. There is a schmaltzy romance, a tension bubble that deflates halfway through and more plot holes than I’ll be able to recount here.

There is promise in the first half hour. Matt Damon is as engaging as ever, and there are Hitchcockian hints at something sinister lurking around the bend. Damon plays David Norris, a relatively young and inexplicably successful New York politician. We are shown (in a montage of media reports) that he has quite a history of missteps, including drunken fist-fights. Yet he remains a favorite of the people, supposedly because of his good looks and “genuine” presentation.

Yet immediately before his expected election to the New York senate, his opposition releases a picture of Norris with his pants down, mooning someone in a bar. This latest act of immaturity is just too much for the voters to swallow, and it topples Norris’s ratings. He loses the election. As he rehearses his concession speech in the men’s restroom, he meets Elise, who is hiding from security (she had crashed a wedding). This is the only scene with actual chemistry between the two. She is mysterious and flirty, he is mesmerized and turned on. Elise, being the quirky, independent woman that she is, in the course of one conversation changes Norris’s outlook on the election and his life.

Fast forward a bit. Norris is now attempting to be a “normal guy”, starting a new job at a firm in the city. But of course Norris is not allowed to have a normal life. Mysterious men in 50’s-style suits and hats appear in the park near his apartment. They walk and speak like CIA operatives in the movies walk and speak. Norris is their target, for what we don’t know. As Norris goes to work, one of the operatives is given the assignment of making Norris spill coffee on himself, by “no later than 7:05”. However, in an enormous and preposterous twist of fate, the operative falls asleep, misses Norris as he passes, and cannot catch up to him before he boards a city bus. It is here that we first get an idea that these men are far more than they seem. The operative, trailing the bus, does something that seems to be nothing less than magic. Moving on.

This first scene with the mystery men (the Adjustment Bureau, of course) is a microcosm of the rest of the film. It leaves us with a feeling of hit-and-miss intrigue; these guys must be good if they have planned things down to the minute! And yet, how intimidating can they be if they literally fall asleep on the job? The first of many groans of disappointment.

The sleeping operative’s mistake allows Norris to arrive at his office too early. He walks through the door only to find what at first appears to be the cast of Madmen hanging out with security guards from the Death Star, large black helmets and all. These men are holding some kind of light producing device to his campaign manager’s face, doing God-knows-what to him.

Norris flees, and so the thriller really begins.  But Norris is easily caught. We see that their leader can seemingly cheat space and time by always appearing one step ahead of Norris. Norris is brought to a large room where the men decide what to do with him. He has seen them, so his memory must be adjusted. But wait, no. For some (unsatisfactory) reason, they decide that a “mind-wipe” would be too much. His mind would be completely empty afterward. So instead, they threaten him and make him promise not to tell. Groan. The interrogation scene is a crass bit of exposition that I assume the writer intended to serve as a foundation for suspense. Later on we discover that Norris’s campaign manager had a small mind-wipe done. He seems free of side-effects throughout the film. Why a short-term mind-wipe of Norris is impossible we are never told.

The men in the Bureau can stop time, but cannot keep up with Norris. They can manipulate tangible objects like cars to do their bidding, except for the bus that Norris is on. They can walk through rifts in space, unless of course they aren’t wearing their hats. I can go on pointing out the absurd and picking the story apart, but I won’t. It’s just not that interesting. Essentially, the Bureau does not want Norris and Elise to be together (romantically). We find out that there is a “Chairman”, who, although it is never stated plainly, is obviously supposed to be God. The Bureau are angels. And according to the Chairman’s “Plan”, Elise and Norris are not supposed to be together. Through many thin plot devices we are dragged until finally True Love (signified by a desperate kiss) resets the Chairman’s plan, and all is well. Gag.

2010: A Year in (Brief) Review

"Inception"

The films that are being spoken of as Oscar contenders were released fairly evenly this year. Fall and Christmas did not completely dominate, which made for an interesting summer and an underwhelming holiday season.

Living in Boston, I took special notice that Massachusetts had quite the cinematic showing this year. The Town and The Fighter put on display the slightly less refined side of the state, while The Social Network gave us a glimpse into the elitist world of Harvard University. All three were excellent pictures.

"Winter's Bone"

There weren’t many sweeping period dramas and no intense, big budget war films. Mysteries and thrillers were the rage, and individual character dramas replaced social commentary.

Anyhow, without further ado, I give you my top five films of 2010.  I have not ranked them; apples and oranges, etc. Feel free to discuss or comment!

The Five Best Films of 2010

Black Swan Trippy, intense and beautiful, Aronofsky gave us the year’s most stunning visuals and an Oscar type performance from Natalie Portman.

InceptionHitchcock would have admired Nolan’s sci-fi thriller. Tension, tension, tension… and some MacGuffin-esque nonsense about dream layering. The most fun I had at the movies this year.

“Toy Story 3”

The Social NetworkThese events took place about 15 minutes from my apartment, so it gains “fun” points in my mind. It is also a fascinating version of one of the biggest social developments of our time. Top performances all around and a “Man of the Year” for Zuckerberg.

Toy Story 3Pixar yet again transcended the animation genre and gave us one of the most touching stories of 2010.

Winter’s BoneBleak, gritty and mesmerizing. No special effects, award winning songs or super human feats. Just down to earth, brilliant storytelling.

Memorable Performances of 2010

Christian Bale, “The Fighter”

James Franco, “127 Hours”

Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”

Chloe Moretz, “Kick Ass”

Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”

“Black Swan” (2010), dir. Darren Aronofsky

Natalie Portman gives the best performance of her career as Nina, a ballerina who pirouettes along the bounds of sanity in her effort to achieve dancing perfection. The film is a story of sexual awakening and unilateral thinking, of ambition so overwhelming that it borders on psychotic. It is a tale that is apparently not as different as you would think from the real lives of world-class ballerinas.

Miss Portman has always been able to cry, convincingly, without great effort. On this stage, in these settings, this ability is used as a weapon, sharp and poignant. In a movie seeped in brutal imagery, her crying evinces some touching, vitally real moments. Tears of sadness, tears of happiness, tears of confusion. Not the tears of a weepy child, but rather of a tormented individual whose every waking moment is a balancing act poised to please other people.

Nina, always a technically proficient but uninspiring ballerina, has been chosen to be the Swan Queen, the leading role in a new performance of Swan Lake. We learn early on that Nina’s mother, played darkly and wonderfully by Barbara Hershey, also used to be a ballerina. As so often happens, her dreams of greatness were lost when real life interfered; in her case, it was when Nina was conceived. So instead, she lives vicariously through Nina; when Nina is chosen as Swan Queen, her mother is as excited as she is, and she buys an enormous cake in celebration. It is here that we first witness an underlying dark thread in Nina’s life. Nina, calorie conscious as any dancer would be, refuses a large piece of cake. Her mother grows viciously petulant and threatens to throw away the entire cake. Nina’s refusal is a refusal of her mother’s vicarious dream: if she had been named Swan Queen, she would have wanted a large piece of cake.

Despite her appointment to the coveted role, all is not roses for Nina. The ballet’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is unsure of his choice. He is satisfied with Nina’s performance as the White Swan, but he has yet to see her demonstrate the sexuality needed to play the evil twin, the Black Swan. Nina’s life is cold and calculated. She lives for ballet and to please her mother, who dominates her at home. Nina does not know love, or sex, or any form of “letting loose”. And then appears Lily.

(Spoiler Alert: Readers who have not yet seen the movie may want to skip down to the paragraph that begins, “The ballet at the center of it all...”)

Lily, played competently and playfully by Mila Kunis, is everything that Nina is not. She is easy going, friendly, and natural in her dancing, albeit with less than perfect technique. Lily is two different people to Nina. She is the wild child newcomer to her ballet troupe, and then she is the impish temptress of Nina’s imagination. There is much uncertainty throughout the film as to which Lily we are seeing in any given scene. What we do figure out soon enough is that Lily is the black swan to Nina’s real life white swan; the free and sexual partier to Nina’s life of solitude and study. Nina’s longing to please Lily, to be like her, to be intimate with her, are reflections of her unhealthy dreams of perfection. If she can master the Black Swan, her Swan Queen will be perfect.

There are many scenes of wince-inducing physical pain that fine tune the edge of the sharp tension already cutting through the drama. Dancer’s feet, in general, are decimated by the constant strain of standing on the toes for long periods of time. We see Nina’s red and swollen toes, hear her joints crack, and watch as a masseuse unjams her ankles with a tug and a pop. As a further metaphor for the agonizing effort of her dancing, Nina also experiences a strange rash on her back, which bleeds unexpectedly. This ailment seems to spread to her fingers, which bleed and peel and are further battered by her domineering mother who insists on clipping her daughter’s nails herself, using scissors. The scene in which the mother grabs that small pair of scissors and snips harshly at Nina’s nails is more horrifying than most horror movies can induce in two hours. With every frustrated “snip”, our fingers curl in chilling nervous response.

Perhaps the most gossiped about event in the film involves the sex scene between Nina and Lily. Yet Nina’s sexuality is an issue that develops throughout the entire film, and besides her lesbian encounter, it includes her relationship to Thomas and her understanding of herself. Nina needs to define what sex is for her; is it a ticket, used to obtain (and keep) the lead role? Is it a necessary part of her training, the tool that allows her to perfect a dance? Is she attracted to men, or women? Or both?

The ballet at the center of it all, Swan Lake, was composed by Peter Tchaikovsky, a gay man who lived in late 19th century Russia. Biographers see Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality as one of his life’s greatest challenges. For many years in his youth, Tchaikovsky tried to be straight. It was what was expected of him, and being gay was even less accepted than it is now. Later in life he “discovered” his homosexuality, and from all indications had gay lovers in his lifetime. Yet he never seemed to be completely at peace with it. I think it is certainly no mistake that the filmmakers chose this theme of sexual disorientation for Nina, the Swan Queen of Swan Lake.

Director Darren Aronofsky has made what is very likely the best film of his career, and certainly since Requiem for a Dream. He loves the use of abstract and hallucinogenic visuals punctuated by scenes of piercing music and machine gun editing. His main characters are harrowed, isolated people at the ends of desperation, lending to his visual preferences. It is a style that has worked well (as in Requiem) and not as well (The Fountain). In Black Swan, he may have mastered it. At the least he has a firm grip on it, and the intimate character study that results is one of the best movies of the year.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part I (2010); dir. David Yates

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt. 1 is a somber, moody setup for the final movie in the brilliantly successful series. The film is not meant to stand alone, of course, so there are more buildups and setups than revelations or conclusions.  And while director David Yates tends to use a switchblade for violence where the book used a sword, the character developments, tension and foreboding are present and compelling.

Like the Half-Blood Prince before it, the newest installment in the Harry Potter series is filmed (by Eduardo Serra) even more beautifully than its predecessor. Leaving the school grounds of Hogwarts allows for a vast array of breath-taking locations and mood setting climates.  Along with the cinematography, the acting has improved. Having grown to young adulthood as these very characters, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson deliver performances as smooth and natural as any method actor could hope to achieve.  The frustrating aspect of the film is that it is, of course, incomplete. A climactic “part 2” will be released next summer.

Harry, Ron and Hermione are no longer Hogwarts students.  They are alone, out in the world – the Muggle World – as they blindly search for Horcruxes and dodge Voldemorte’s henchmen. (If you don’t know what a Horcrux is, than you should probably hold off on seeing this film until you’ve seen the others. ) More than in any of the other films, the three young actors are asked to carry the film. The veteran cast of famous British actors that provided such a solid base for the first films are largely absent. Thankfully, though not surprisingly, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson rise to the occasion. Very notably, many of the ticks and facial expressions that were becoming “go-to” looks have all but disappeared. Grint no longer falls back on the big, crooked grimace that got so many laughs when he was younger. Radcliffe has loosened up, both facially and physically (though he still dances like a robot). Watson still frowns and shakes her head quite a bit, but she has given Hermione a whole array of traits that go beyond even what Rowling included in the books.

Much of the story shown so far is about the trio’s struggle to define themselves: What are their roles? As Ron says in the film, Harry may be the chosen one, but it’s bigger than that. Is Harry still their leader when he doesn’t seem to know what he is doing? There are no professors, no Dumbledore, to advise them, so they argue and stumble as they make the awkward turn from children into young adults.

And then there are many chase scenes, battles and close calls, and while their time alone in the wilderness is well covered, the movie never lacks for momentum. Just as the characters constantly “disapparate” and jump from location to location – either in escape or pursuit – the story does so as well, leaving an ungrounded feel to the turning of events. Gone are the long takes of the strong halls of Hogwarts, or the quiet, impressive stares from professors. This serves the story quite well, as the heroes have lost that base of support and do not even know themselves where to go next.

There is one blemish on this otherwise nearly faultless effort. Some of the more emotional scenes from the book are blunted in the movie. During one chapter in the book, there is good reason to believe that their long time friend Hagrid has died. This is completely skipped for the sake of time. Two other events are more difficult to understand. When Hermione is tortured by Bellatrix LeStrange, it is supposed to be excruciating, and Harry and Ron, trapped in an underground cell, are tormented by the sounds. Yet Yates has chosen to cap the screaming and show almost nothing of the event itself (other than the poignant but rather small physical aftermath), diluting our hatred for Bellatrix and missing a chance to highlight the level of evil that is looming over their heads. Almost immediately after, an important returning character is killed. This moment is confused by slow-mo and editing and falls into anticlimax when in the book it is a near breaking point for Harry. These last scenes close out the film and could have left the audience with quite an emotional stinger.

On the lighter side, there are two particularly excellent bits of animation in the movie. The first is a long scene with a closeup of Creature, the house elf, who is a CGI character. The face and skin are so fleshlike and realistic that it seems that we are a very small step away from not being able to tell which characters are real and which are not. I think that the Academy Awards will recognize this achievement. The other masterful display is of more traditional animation. When Hermione reads the fable of the Three Brothers who are given the Deathly Hallows, the film moves into a stark, jagged type of drawn animation with fierce figures and surreal movement. It is an energizing scene and lends a little more mystery to a world with which we’ve become largely familiar.

As a real fan of both the books and the movies, I can say that I am happy with this new film, yet anticipate more from the last one. The book was one continuous story, so the breaking into two parts feels unnatural – but perhaps that is simply impatience on my part.