Friday, December 30, 2011
This time, as I write to you, I feel tremendously humbled. I am humbled because this day marks the 2nd birthday of Savage Cinema and despite all of my efforts with the actual writing of each and every word upon this site, Savage Cinema would mean nothing without the continued participation and encouragement by all of you.
I am not able to stress strongly or often enough how important your presence happens to be for me. Typically, when I write and eventually post a new review, there is a tremendous amount of self-satisfaction because I gave myself a project to begin, pour over and complete and that sense of completion carries a sense of gratification inside of me that is just indescribable. As I look back over the two years and the nearly 260 postings that have occurred during that interim, I am amazed as it all feels to be the work of another individual and I do have to almost pinch myself and remind myself that all of these words came from me.
All of that being said, the little voices that always give me pangs of self-doubt keep reminding me that no one could possibly be reading anything that I have written, that no one would have the time or patience to utilize sections of their lives to devote to my ramblings and musings. I know fully well that the world has absolutely, positively, undeniably no need whatsoever for yet another person professing their opinions over anything artistic, let alone the movies. I will never make a dime from this experience, therefore disappointing my Mother who feels that I should somehow turn this site into a lucrative enterprise. And frankly, who cares what I think anyway?
Yes, I do often feel that I am writing inside of a vacuum to which no one else exists and to that end, I have reconciled myself to the idea that I am fulfilling an emotional and artistic need to please myself and prove that I can indeed write something…anything…that speaks to a piece of my soul that has remained as passionate as it was when I was a child of eight years old and saw “Star Wars” on opening night back in 1977, an event which monumentally altered the course of my life. In every review I write, I hope to capture that sense of passionate, almost “out of body” enthusiasm I had when I sat in that movie theater so long ago, mouth complete agape at the sight of an Imperial Star Destroyer engulfing the movie screen. I wish to somehow express the love for the artistry of the movies I have held for so much of my life in an entertaining way, a hopefully intelligent, articulate, artful way as well. Each review is indeed yet another writing exercise of course, but as I just described in my review of “Pearl Jam Twenty,” each review is the act of me, the eternal cinematic fan, jumping around excitedly, telling you about an art form that means the world to me and hopefully, you can see what I see.
But…I must announce to do with as much emotional heft as you are able to gather from these written words, when I see that any of you have taken the time out of all of your extremely busy lives to read anything that I have written, that knowledge lifts my soul. I have conceived of Savage Cinema to be a place where the conversations about film and even life itself could begin here. This site is designed to be a dialogue between me and all of you and while I do feel that I am mostly speaking to myself, I am surprised again and again when someone responds to me, ultimately extending that wished for dialogue one step further. Truthfully and without hyperbole, Savage Cinema could not exist without you. If no one ever responded or cared a whit, my own sense of self-perseverance would undoubtedly only last for a finite period. You give me the strength and inspiration to continue, to keep writing, to soldier onwards and provide for you an experience that I hope is a positive one.
As the third year begins, I pledge to continue to try my absolute best to keep Savage Cinema a place you wouldn’t mind visiting once in a while. I will try my best to keep writing pieces that you feel are well written enough that you would devote your time to reading them. My gratitude is endless and my appreciation for all of you is boundless.
I am Savage Cinema. Savage Cinema is me. Happy Birthday and long may it continue. But, without YOU, it would be meaningless.
Despite the smallness of the following two words, I hope that all of you can gather the fullness of their meaning….
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
“PEARL JAM TWENTY”
Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe
*** ½ (three and a half stars)
“If I close my eyes, where am I? What does this music mean?”
When I close my eyes and remember the alternative rock scene during the 1990’s, I realize more than ever what a precious time that was to be a rock music fan. This feeling has continued to grow steadily, during and since those years, as I was indeed more than a little skeptical of the bands that flooded the airwaves and MTV seemingly out of nowhere. In 1991, I was 22 years old, just out of college and beginning my new adult life. If there has ever been a constant with me, it has been the presence and gift of music. Even moreso than books, writing, and film, music is nothing less than life’s elixir. I don’t read books every single day and I certainly do not watch movies every day either. But, I cannot ever imagine a day where music does not contain its magical pull over my heart and soul. But, in 1991, I definitely gave the alternative music scene, which was so quickly snapped up and mass marketed by the music business and the media, that I was very unsure if what I was hearing was real, or was it all just feedback and attitude all cloaked in copious amounts of flannel.
I remember when I first heard Nirvana. It was perhaps a hair before their world domination and I had to admit that I was immediately struck by the honestly and lack of flash in what I was hearing, in addition to the undeniable intensity. I remember the point in 1994, when my musical spirit began to separate the alternative scene’s wheat from the chaff as the dark musical visions of Nine Inch Nails and The Smashing Pumpkins spoke to me the loudest. And while there were bands whom I eventually began to embrace, Pearl Jam did possess a certain enigmatic status that for some reason, I have never quite wrapped my arms around.
Pearl Jam has always been a band that I have appreciated. But, as I have been even less than a casual fan, I have always felt that this band was indeed the real deal. I liked how they have marched to their own beat seemingly from the very beginning, making up their own set of rules to create music by. While I do love that certain artistic boldness and declaration of autonomy from my favorite musical artists like Prince or Todd Rundgren, for whatever reason, Pearl Jam hasn’t quite spoken directly to me…yet.
Writer/Director Cameron Crowe’s new documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty,” is not only a celebratory film that marks Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary as a musical unit, the film feels like the act of the ultimate, passionate fan imploring you to try and see what he or she feels about a band that they happen to love so much that it hurts. That is a sentiment to which I can relate to, as I have been that person so many times as I have pestered friends and family to try and see what I see in the art that moves me in the greatest way. Now that I have seen the film, and therefore listened most attentively to Crowe’s impassioned declarations, I can say that “Pearl Jam Twenty” has given me a broader understanding of the rich legacy of Pearl Jam’s music and artistic intents. It is a first rate film that rocks epically and is also as intimate as the best emotional scrapbook.
“Pearl Jam Twenty” opens in 1989 Seattle, as guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament are already bound together as musical brothers-in-arms in the seminal band Mother Love Bone, which featured the flamboyant and magnetically charismatic Andy Wood as the front man. Just as that band’s musical dreams were ready to take flight, tragedy struck as Wood died from a drug overdose. From those ashes, Gossard and Ament, along with guitarist Mike McCready began to write new songs as they each pondered their respective futures. A demo tape of instrumental tracks eventually found its way to California and into the hands of Eddie Vedder who found himself so inspired that he contributed his vocals to the tracks, sent the tape back to Seattle and wowed Gossard, Ament and McCready in return. Vedder was invited to visit Seattle so the musicians could jam together and after merely six days, a new band was born and playing their first shows to boot!
From this point, “Pearl Jam Twenty” chronicles the band’s overnight success and stratospheric rise into the pop culture mainstream (much to the chagrin of Vedder, who would have preferred a more deliberate pace upwards), their period as MTV mainstays during the early 1990’s, their subsequent battles with Ticketmaster, their collective and individual pressures with sudden fame and their eventual and purposeful retreat from the limelight, a decision the band refers to as “The Birth Of No” and made in order to keep the band focused upon the music instead of the trappings that accompany celebrity. Throughout it all, Cameron Crowe’s “Pearl Jam Twenty” gives us a portrait of a band whose perseverance, tenacity and devotional love of music has served to strengthen their bonds with each other as well as their faithful audience.
With Director James Moll’s solid “Foo Fighters: Back and Forth” and Michael Rapaport’s outstanding “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest,” Cameron Crowe’s “Pearl Jam Twenty” joins the ranks of the extremely impressive music documentaries that are being released these days. With these films, I have found it to be more than fascinating that this crop of documentaries are focused upon musical groups and artists during an age in which seemingly every moment has been documented, unlike music documentaries of the past where archival material was scant at best. I first noticed this particular quality when I saw Director Peter Bogdonavich’s wonderful and epic four hour documentary “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Running Down A Dream” (2007) and “Pearl Jam Twenty” (while only half of that film’s running time) is cut from that same cloth. Cameron Crowe’s film has been culled from reportedly over 1200 hours of material including concert footage, television appearances, home videos, all manner of visual odds and ends plus brand new interviews with all of the members of Pearl Jam plus Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, a close confidant of the band as well as member of Temple Of The Dog, a one-off band created in tribute to Andy Wood.
Perhaps stemming from his years and experience as a rock music journalist, Crowe is not the least bit intimidated by the extreme wealth of cataloged material. Also, his journalistic and filmmaking skills are not hampered in any way due to his personal closeness with the band, whom he has known since the late 1980s and collaborated with on “Singles” (1992). Crowe is remarkably clear eyed and completely focused in his storytelling, which after a somewhat slow start built into a powerfully resonant and moving film experience that eventually rockets by.
What is obvious from this film is its complete lack of hyperbole and the manufactured drama that marred the old “Behind The Music” series. The film actually works like Pearl Jam’s music: Nothing is prefabricated and everything feels honest and authentic because as Crowe himself states in his brief and warm narration “this was music created by guys who stayed indoors a lot. They had a lot of time to play and a lot of time to listen…and they listened to everything!” Crowe illustrates through this film that Pearl Jam creates music simply for the love of creating music and this film beautifully works in tribute to that creative spirit and to all of the musical heroes that inspired the band members.
Eddie Vedder, even through a documentary feature, shows his magnetic personality. He is a complex figure seen to be quite thoughtful, introspective, very shy and even mercurial yet once on stage, he is unleashed to a nearly completely opposite degree. In one fantastic sequence, scored to the song “Porch,” Crowe strings together a series of concert clips where Vedder took dangerously death defying steps climbing the rafters, lighting rigs and whatever else he could conceivably scale and then, propelling himself into equally death defying leaps into the arms of the adoring crowds below. Of course, these dangerous yet show stopping antics were grudgingly tolerated by the remainder of the band. Yet, despite the differences that exist between Vedder and is Seattle bandmates, their union seemed to be almost divinely ordained as the separate tragedies found in the deaths of Andy Wood and Vedder’s own Father felt symbiotic as if both events were cosmically designed to bring a new destiny into fruition.
This same sense of spiritual intervention also arrived for me during a somber section of the film detailing the tragic deaths of nine concert goers at the June 2000 Roskilde festival held outside of Copenhagen. In addition to all of the band members’ respective periods of existential reflections, a redemptive moment arrived months later when the band revived the track “Crown Of Thorns,” a selection not performed since the demise of Andy Wood and Mother Love Bone. This sequence for me was one of the film’s most stirring as the past and present came together in song, in healing and in hope of carrying onwards towards a new future.
From a musical standpoint, I really believe that one can tell a lot about a band by how they perform on stage. For their entire musical career, for all of their success, Pearl Jam has continuously strived for and proudly consider themselves to be a band that has grown increasingly faceless. This quality plus their decreased presence from public view within the media and my transient interest in the band, I really have not seen very much live footage. Inspired by Director Jeff Stein’s classic rock documentary about The Who entitled “The Kids Are Alright” (1979), Crowe showcases Pearl Jam’s electrifying intensity, superior musicianship (I have to make special mention of Mike McCready’s blindingly stunning guitar solos) combined with the undeniable brotherly love between the band members makes for a enormously rousing musical experience. This footage provided me with an avenue into the band which I have not possessed before viewing this film and I now see them in an entirely new light. Furthermore, now that we are living in an era where concerts exist with Broadway show pyrotechnics and lip synching is not even blinked at in reproach, I feel that a film like this one provides a most necessary antidote to the plastic glossiness of live performance. Pearl Jam’s authenticity should be commended more than ever as each performance never seems to be about the act of just singing songs. It is an act of deliverance.
Even with all of this material which is so vibrantly presented, what makes this film extend beyond an elongated episode of “Behind The Music” are the band members themselves. I enjoyed their camaraderie, their sense of community with other musicians in Seattle and their thankfulness at being granted the opportunity to collectively live the artist’s life. Watching the current interviews with the members of Pearl Jam, I was struck at how much they appear like the people I see everyday and those that I have known throughout my life, an observation that lead me to this film’s larger goals, I think. Pearl Jam and the bands of that era, despite their fame, never really felt as out of reach to me as say The Who or The Beatles. These were the right people making the right music at the right time and for my generation, the unfairly named “Generation X,” the 1990s was undoubtedly and vigorously our time. The members of Pearl Jam came from us. They were, and remain, part of us with our successes, downfalls, life lessons and everything in between jointly shared. The communication between the band and the audience felt entirely symbiotic to me, especially during the climactic performance sections of “Better Man” and the classic “Alive.” For me, I think that Cameron Crowe presented a vision during which every Pearl Jam concert exists one shining moment in time in which we are ALL stars together. That is what the very best music of the 1990s, regardless of genre, delivered to listeners. This was music made by fans for fans, all the while creating sounds and artistic statements that forged new territories while also honoring all that came before.
Even greater than that observation is a topic that is a constant presence in all of Cameron Crowe’s films, including his terrific “We Bought A Zoo”: “Pearl Jam Twenty” is a passionate ode to the state of integrity, how to find it, cultivate it, maintain it against all odds, by any means necessary and even at the risk of alienating your biggest fans because in the end, the band members, as well as this idiosyncratic filmmaker are the only ones walking within the shoes of their lives and they must satisfy their creative spirits above all else. These are people who have been blessed with the talent, drive, persistence and the opportunity to be creative artistic people and they have equally been blessed with the opportunity to build their lives from those blessings. Rightfully and unapologetically, they refuse to squander those blessings.
“Pearl Jam Twenty” is a triumphant film which chronicles how a band came together and has continued to solider onwards despite any and all changes in the musical landscape, carving out a specific place to call their own. In fact, while this is a film about Pearl Jam, this film may be just as autobiographical about Cameron Crowe as his “Almost Famous” (2000). Through Pearl Jam’s artistic life, he speaks of his own.
And to that end, we end up thinking about how we live with integrity within our own lives. To think, all of that plus a booming soundtrack!
So, where can you see “Pearl Jam Twenty”? After its nationwide one night only theatrical screening in September and a showing on PBS television’s “American Masters” series in October, the film is now widely available on DVD and Blu-Ray formats as well as through your cable or satellite provider’s On Demand services. This film is a great rock and roll ride, so don’t hesitate to check this film out.
Oh yes…PLAY LOUD!!!!!
“THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO”
Based upon the novel by Stieg Larsson
Screenplay Written by Steven Zallian
Directed by David Fincher
*** ½ (three and a half stars)
“The time for American audiences to expand their collective cinematic minds is long overdue and I cannot help but to wonder if Hollywood and David Fincher just shouldn’t even bother with the remake. To be fair to all parties involved, I will certainly save any official judgment until December 2011, when this new version has already been scheduled for release. Yet, when we already have a film of such high quality, can’t that just be enough?”
And so, here we are again…
I wrote those opening words of this new review in my July 22, 2010 review of Director Niels Arden Opley’s original Swedish film adaptation of late author Stieg Larsson’s monumental best seller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. At that time, news had been announced that filmmaker David Fincher would create his own American adaptation of the same novel as his follow up to his masterful “The Social Network.” (2010) and as you can clearly see, dear readers, I was not terribly enthusiastic about the project. I have more than stated my case against the plethora of movie remakes, re-boots and re-imaginings here upon this site and do not fear, I will not rehash old grievances. But, I have to say that while I certainly did enter David Fincher’s adaptation with a huge amount of skepticism, I exited as a most surprised, pleased film-goer as Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” not only stands as one of 2011’s strongest adult thrillers, I was excited to see how magnificently Fincher was able to make this adaptation stand on its own firm cinematic feet. If one is to go ahead and remake a film in such close proximity to the already terrific original, then David Fincher confidently and skillfully educates us all in how to accomplish this tricky feat most successfully.
I want to assure you that it is not due to any amount of laziness that I will not recount the fullness of the film’s plot this time. As it is already housed on this site (just ask, and I’ll point you in the right direction), I will simply provide you with a brief overview. Daniel Craig stars as the crusading investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, currently housed within a professional downward spiral as his political magazine “Millennium” faces ruin after Blomkvist’s defeat in a high stakes libel case. Seeking professional redemption, Blomkvist is presented with an intriguing opportunity as he is hired by retired CEO Henrik Vanger (a wonderful Christopher Plummer) to investigate the 40 year disappearance of his niece, Harriet.
Blomkvist’s investigation is soon aided by researcher and computer hacker, the lithe, intensely brooding, leather clad and body pierced Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a young woman facing down her own demons as she strives to attain a newfound sense of independence and freedom in a harsh, unforgiving and violent world. The twosome form an unlikely yet powerful partnership as their pursuits lead them into a deep web of family secrets, including past ties to the Nazi party, and the wrath of a serial killer, potentially still on the loose.
My original trepidation with David Fincher’s version of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” regardless of his undeniable talents as a filmmaker, was not based on a question of his skill but more about a question of purpose. I could not figure out exactly what David Fincher could do that was not already achieved in the Swedish film. Well, I have to say that my questions of purpose in regards to this American version were extinguished by the spectacular opening credit sequence scored to Trent Reznor and Karen O.’s version of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song.” Where the Swedish film presented the story as a slow burn, whose fullness of effect arrived for me afterwards, David Fincher’s great sequence functioned as nothing less than an anguished howl. The sequence boldly announced to me that this version would exist as a more visceral, aggressive take on the same story, and for the most part, this new version is as successful as the original and in some ways perhaps even a tad better.
First of all, Fincher’s version is faster paced than the original film, which gives the disturbing material a greater sense of urgency and intensity. As with “The Social Network,” Fincher is aided terrifically by a great screenplay by veteran screenwriter Steven Zallian (who also co-wrote this year’s “Moneyball”) who provides sharp, quick dialogue which does help to force the action to reach and maintain a certain velocity.
Beyond that element, and overall, Fincher’s version is indeed a more stylish affair and therefore, more cinematic than the original film, which often felt to function as a realistic docudrama. With Fincher’s trademark meticulous attention to his visual palate provided by Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, excellent sound design and the disturbing aid from Trent Reznor and co-composer Atticus Ross’ film score, which surrounds the experience with a chilly dread filled with eerie wind chimes, bells and assortment of dissonant effects, Fincher plunges us into a world which felt to be more claustrophobic and somehow even more distressing than the already grim original version.
Speaking of the film’s grim atmosphere, there was some question as to whether Fincher’s version, arriving from Hollywood, would be a watered down take for a mainstream audience. IO am here to inform you that any of those fears are completely admonished. While Blomkvist is indeed made to be a bit more virtuous by making him less of a womanizer (although he still carries on his love affair with his married editor, played elegantly by Robin Wright) as well as some tender scenes with his teenage daughter, the story’s themes that contain larger and horrific acts of violence all remain intact. The story’s infamous and grisly rape scene remains as does the film’s even grislier sequence of retribution. David Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” like many of his films, exists as a HARD “R” rated motion picture. This is a warning to those of you who may be more sensitive viewers.
In fact, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” works so very well as a David Fincher experience that it could actually work as the third section of an unofficial serial killer trilogy with Fincher’s “Se7en” (1995) as the first part and his epic “Zodiac” (2007) as the second. In fact, all three films share a variety of themes (including biblically themed serial killings plus a procedural and journalistic pursuit of a killer, which grows obsessive to the point of extreme paranoia) which helps the individual works serve as a complete whole. By linking his works together, this new film version is clearly a David Fincher film as it stands nearly as tall as much of his oeuvre. “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a natural artistic progression while also serving as a forbidding return to familiar material and themes.
As expected from any film directed by David Fincher, all of the performances are excellent and it was a great pleasure to see Stellan Skarsgard, character actor Steven Berkoff, and Joely Richardson along with the aforementioned Christopher Plummer and Robin Wright, each working in peak form. But, of course, and especially to those of you who have seen the Swedish films, the biggest questions lie in the quality of Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara’s performances.
Craig, as expected, is rock solid. With all due respect to Michael Nygard, who wonderfully portrayed Blomkvist in all three of the Swedish films, Daniel Craig seemed to be a perfect fit for any potential American version. While Craig plays the character with a hair more aggressiveness than Nygard, who handled Blomkvist with a more nuanced tone, he carries the weight of a certain beleaguered journalistic weariness perfectly. What’s more, Daniel Craig wisely does not portray Blomkvist as an action hero. I liked how he played upon his age as well, with his ever present reading glasses and moments where he is winded after running. He’s more cinematic but still relatable as a human being.
Of course, all eyes are on Rooney Mara (whom you may remember as the young woman who dumps Mark Zuckerberg at the opening of “The Social Network”) in the title role, especially as Noomi Rapace’s interpretations in the original films are considered (at least by me) to be untouchable. Amazingly, Mara heroically rises to the challenge, and in her own specific way, she owns the role of Lisbeth Salander upon first sight. There is absolutely noting tentative about Mara’s commitment to this role, and nor should there be, as this is Mara’s moment to shine. She goes for it full throttle so much so that she nearly gives Noomi Rapace a run for her money!
As with Daniel Craig, as well as the entire film as a whole, Rooney Mara creates a more aggressive, rage fueled and again, cinematic heft to the character where Rapace’s performance was more realistically tormented and tenacious. In some respects, Mara’s Lisbeth Salander at times appears to be like a character from an adult graphic novel. This is by no means a criticism, as the character does lend herself to existing as a real person as well as the archetype of an avenging angel. I loved how Rooney Mara played Lisbeth as a caged animal, sol to speak. Her violent reactions function s at the speed of a whip crack, when cornered her fury is palpable and when it is time for revenge, her methods are almost robotic in their methodology. Yet, throughout it all, Mara never sacrifices Lisbeth Salander’s humanity, always giving the character our empathy and ultimate rooting interest. It is rare to be an actor or actress’s first starring performance given with such forcefulness, but with this portrayal, Rooney Mara richly deserves all of the acclaim she is receiving and shows that she is indeed an actress to watch closely as she definitely has the goods.
Even with all of this praise, not everything works entirely well. I have to say that I did not care for the sequence where Blomkvist and Lisbeth meet for the first time as it felt to be a tad emotionally false to me. Blomkvist seemed to be too dominant and Lisbeth too submissive considering everything we had seen to this point.
I will also say that despite the overall intensity, there were a few points (notably the section after the climax) where this film did tend to drag, just as it did with the original film. Perhaps that is just the nature of this first installment, especially as I really enjoyed the second and third parts even more than this one.
I also had problems with the film’s ending, which is indeed faithful to the original novel. Somehow, I am remembering the Swedish film’s conclusion resonating with more of an emotional ambivalence that felt to be truthful to everything the characters had experienced, especially towards each other. This new version’s ending seemed to tread a tad too far into…shall we say…romantic heartbreak, a feeling that just didn’t gel well enough with all of the preceding turmoil, despair and violence.
Those quibbles aside, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is another triumph for David Fincher who smartly found the overall purpose in creating a new adaptation of this story. The best thing that I can say about this film is that the new version is not attempting in any way to wipe the original version from viewer’s minds or discourage anyone from seeing it at all. The films are not in competition with each other. In fact, I think the two films work well together as dark twins.
Utilizing a more musical descriptive, first noted by Writer/Director Cameron Crowe in describing the differences between his “Vanilla Sky" (2001), itself a remake of Writer/Director Alejandro Amenabar’s terrific Spanish film “Abre Los Ojos” (1997), I think the two versions of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” work in a very similar way. The Swedish film is a disturbingly haunting folk song where the American version is the industrial rock cover version.
And man, does this film roar!
Friday, December 23, 2011
Based upon the novel by Kathryn Stockett
Written For The Screen and Directed by Tate Taylor
*1/2 (one and a half stars)
Near the conclusion of “The Help,” Writer/Director Tate Taylor’s adaptation of best selling novel, long suffering African American maid Aibileen stares young racist high society member Hilly Holbrook in the face and asks her plainly, “Ain’t you tired?” When that line was uttered, I asked the very same question to myself.
Yes, dear readers, I am tired. I make no apologies for climbing upon any semblance of a soapbox in this matter because I am tired, so exhaustingly tired of seeing films that purport to be about the issue of racism and race relations and yet they are typically so simplistic and handled with such broad strokes. I am tired of seeing a profound lack of compelling African American characters (slightly less so in television yet distressingly so in film) where the fullness of my race is misrepresented, if we are to be represented at all. It is alarming to me that in a year when an African American man exists as the President of the United States, I am still faced with viewing a collective of African American actresses playing subjugated maids for these are the images Hollywood will allow to be seen due to the financial bottom line. Mostly, I am tired of seeing the sorts of stories that claim to be about the experience of African American characters but we are almost always sidelined for the Caucasian leading characters. Look at Sandra Bullock’s Oscar winning performance in her gargantuan hit film “Me And My Pet Negro”…oops…I mean, “The Blind Side” (2010). Was that film about the homeless African American teenage football player or was it really about the good Christian, tart tongued, no nonsense Republican woman who saved him? Who were the film’s advertisement campaigns revolved around? When you think of that particular film, who immediately springs to mind? And again, who was nominated for an Academy Award and therefore, who won the Oscar?
So, here we are again, in 2011 with “The Help,” which is sadly no exception to this sorry, pathetic cinematic epidemic. For a film that dares to address race relations and racism in Mississippi at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, “The Help” is shamefully without nuance or complexity, completely superficial and as subtle with its cornpone sentiments as a sledgehammer to the head. No matter the mammoth box office success and critical accolades the film received and despite those of you who have seen and may have loved this film, with all due respect to all of you, I hated “The Help” and for me and my sensibilities, it was one of 2011’s weakest efforts by a long shot.
Set during the early 1960’s in Jackson, Mississippi, Emma Stone stars as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a 23-year-old college graduate who returns to her hometown with big dreams of becoming a journalist. Much to the chagrin of her ailing Mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) and her high society friends, which includes Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly) and the ringleader Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Skeeter takes a job as a writer of cleaning advice columns at the local newspaper instead of attempting to find herself a husband. While visiting Elizabeth at her home, Skeeter asks if her maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) would be able to offer her assistance with household cleaning tips. Yet, covertly and due to her uncomfortableness with the treatment of the maids within her community, Skeeter inquires of Abilene if she may be able to record her personal stories of her life as a maid in order to potentially write a tell all book, thus exposing the town’s ingrained racism.
Aibileen and the town’s maids, most especially Aibileen’s trusted best friend, the volatile Minny (Octavia Spencer) are initially reluctant to share their stories with Skeeter as the consequences would be understandably dire if they, and the truths within the book, were to be discovered. Yet slowly, and fueled by Hilly Holbrook’s new “Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” a proposed bill that would legally create separate bathrooms for black help staff because of the fear that blacks carry different diseases that white people, Aibileen, Minny and all of the maids begin to confide their tales and inner lives, which Skeeter dutifully documents in their entirety.
Now, as far as the actual story is concerned, there really is nothing inherently wrong with “The Help.” My problems with this film lie firmly in the presentation and execution. First of all, for all of the lip service the film gives to having the maids tell their own stories, you don’t really hear that many of them. Unlike Director Wayne Wang’s excellent adaptation of “The Joy Luck Club” (1993) which allowed audiences to fully walk within the shoes of the Chinese and Chinese-American characters, therefore gaining a window into the world of their lives, “The Help” never travels that deeply. While we do learn some facts and bits about the lives and histories of Aibileen and Minny, and the film carries a few scant sequences narrated by Aibileen, ”The Help” is entirely filtered through Skeeter’s eyes, desires and hopes. As how Hollywood typically handles stories and themes like this one, Aibileen and Minny are shuffled off to the sidelines so we can have ample screen time devoted not only to Skeeter. Additionally, we are given more than enough time to witness the growth and development of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a high society outcast who undergoes her own awakening to newfound independence through her experiences with Minny. And frankly, so what? This film is called “The Help” not “Skeeter and Celia” and the people I wanted to know about the most were the ones the film focused upon the least.
To me, “The Help” all felt, once again in a Hollywood movie, that any sense of liberation and freedom the black maids earned only occurred because this young white woman swept in and listened and if she hadn’t arrived, the entire maid community would continue to suffer in silence. God bless you, Skeeter!! For there’s no problem in the black community that could not be fixed by a well meaning, college educated white woman on a mission. “The Help” is just the type of film, albeit a well-intentioned one like Director Norman Jewison’s “The Hurricane” (1999) that is designed to make some white liberals feel good about themselves. The effect is just painfully condescending at best and completely trivial to the experiences of the real African American women who served as maids at worst.
Dear readers, I am not against having leading white characters in stories related to the African-American experience as a rule. I can acknowledge that despite some issues, Director Alan Parker’s “Mississippi Burning” (1988), along with Director Edward Zwick’s “Glory”(1989) and “Blood Diamond” (2006) for instance were all superior motion pictures that dealt with racism and race relations compellingly.
But, I loved films like Writer/Director Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon” (1990) even more. That film presented a contemporary story featuring the realities of racism as one of that film’s many themes and a very tentative friendship built between characters portrayed by Kevin Kline and Danny Glover at its core.
But, towering above them all is Spike Lee’s monumental third film “Do The Right Thing” (1989), which for me, is still the greatest exploration of modern day race relations that I have ever witnessed on screen. It was a film simultaneously filled with hilarity, heartbreak, joy and righteous rage and all of it was filtered through characters as vivid as the lives we live everyday. What Spike Lee accomplished so brilliantly within that film, and throughout his career, is that he never pandered to any imaginary audience that may be watching the proceedings of his characters. Therefore, the experience of “Do The Right Thing” was matter of fact and ultimately fearless. It was unconcerned with making a potential audience feel safe or comfortable at the expense of providing the truth.
“The Help,” by contrast was a film that felt to be all too aware of its audience and held the intensely difficult, messy and disturbing topic of race relations at such a safe distance that the film as a whole essentially functioned as a watered down, MOR, completely non-threatening experience that was unwilling to draw blood. As the horrible socialite Hilly Holbrook, Bryce Dallas Howard is presented as such a cartoon racist that any well-meaning audience member would obviously feel superior towards her and that conceit, in and of itself, is a major problem for a film dealing with the topic of racism. In “The Help,” nearly all of the white characters are generally snobbish racists while the black characters are essentially portrayed as noble victims and retribution against racism is depicted through crowd-pleasing toilet humor and an oft repeated joke about the mysterious contents of Minny’s famous chocolate pie which Hilly has consumed. None of the characters are given the difficult complexities of real living and breathing human beings, especially those living in a turbulent time and place. In “The Help,” racism knows nothing but tired clichés and empty homilies about courage and strength. It was so afraid of its own subject matter and riveted to its ultimate aims to keeping the audience feeling comfortable and happy that it sugar coated racism to the point that insulin needed to be administered.
And what a sad shame as “The Help” is a film that is just begging to be explored minutely and profusely due to the multi-layers of the story’s complexities. For instance, one of the film’s most compelling issues and one that was NEVER dealt with in any way, was the motivation for Skeeter’s book and that motivation’s relationship to the maids. I found myself wondering if Skeeter’s intentions were pure. Did she really want to have the maids tell their stories solely to enlighten and educate a larger community with hopes of bringing race relations forwards or was this book just a tool for Skeeter to realize her dreams of becoming a writer? If the motivation was to be found in the latter theory, then Skeeter would be using the maids just as cruelly as the maid’s employers, or even moreso because Skeeter’s actions would have been entirely disingenuous. I think that would have been a worthy issue to examine. Yet, since this is Hollywood, and we have to have a white heroine as a rooting interest, no such complexity arrived. Skeeter is just the latest Hollywood “White Knight” to ride into town and save the poor black folk who cannot save themselves.
Even worse, is the complex issue the film does bother to mention. The fact that the white children who are raised by black women ultimately grow up to become the same black women’s employers and how that cycle is rolled into the cycle of racism is a brilliantly gripping concept to tackle. Now, this could have been the thrust of the entire movie, giving the film a real opportunity to explore race relations and racism along with issues of Motherhood in a provocative fashion. Unfortunately, no such luck.
Aside from those issues I had with “The Help,” there were some of the film’s aesthetics qualities that caused simple but deadly narrative problems. If the film is going to bother spending so much time with Skeeter anyway, then it surprised me with how sloppily it even handled that aspect. For instance, there is the issue of Skeeter’s non-existent love life, which is just the bane of her Mother’s existence. Skeeter gets a date, she suddenly has a boyfriend who then breaks up with her in just a few short scenes that seem to be disconnected from the main plot to the point that those scenes could have been excised from the film and it would not have effected “The Help” whatsoever. There is also the issue of Skeeter’s book. One minute, she's writing on a legal pad in long hand, and the next minute the book has been published and is a literary sensation. The plot holes were distressingly glaring throughout.
Now I have been told by my wife that many of my feelings concerning this film are representative of the source material from which this film is based…and I have not read. Maybe so, but as I have often said on this site, books are books and movies are movies and in translating a book to cinema, a filmmaker has to determine what is needed to represent the story at its very best. I just do not think “The Help” was translated to the screen at its best. Perhaps if the film possessed amore serious tone than the light-footed one it has, that would have helped tremendously. Or maybe the film needed to be more of a three hour epic, where all of the characters could have been examined more thoroughly and truthfully. That would have helped as well.
Look, I do believe that Writer/Director Tate Taylor, Producer Chris Columbus and the entire cast had the very best intentions at heart and desired to do tier best job. I will concede that the film is well made. It is a good-looking work. The performances are all committed yet, Viola Davis is the one person in the entire film that seems to be striving for something stronger, deeper, and more wrenching than this film has any courage to tackle, again quite surprising for all of the talk the characters make concerning the concept of courage.
As stated, my views are filtered through my own personal sensibilities with how African Americans are represented in the movies and which stories are being told. Having yet another image of African American women as maids would be just fine if there were more of a wealth of representations being seen throughout our nation’s movie screen. But that speaks to a larger Hollywood issue that “The Help,” as one movie, could not even begin to rectify. All of that being said, “The Help” failed for me because it felt designed to be a crowd pleaser, leaving the audience with a sense of prefabricated uplift it had never earned in the first place. This is a film that needs to bruise but it all goes down as smoothly as a succulent but innocuous malt shake.
Written and Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
**** (four stars)
The exuberant joy of going to the movies has just grown even more euphoric.
Just in time for the holiday season and honestly dear readers, for every day and night afterwards, when we all watch movies, arrives a cinematic gift unlike any other released in 2011. Writer/Director Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” is a stupendously irresistible, magical, enormously playful, exhilarating and unabashedly emotional movie going experience that illustrates the art and craft of filmmaking to perfection. The film is exactly as advertised, a silent movie filmed in luxurious black and white cinematography. Perhaps, like some of you, I was also filled with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation with seeing this film because, I have to admit, I wondered if this film would successfully translate with a 21st century audience in our increasingly accelerated, instant gratification times, which includes the sometimes sensory overload experience of modern day films. I wondered if the film would be nothing more than a quaint, stuffy throwback at best or exist as a piece of chilly, self-congratulatory hipster homage at worst. Well, all of my skepticism and cinematic fears were washed away mere moments into this film and it placed a sense of uplift within me that was unquestionable. I cannot urge you enough to make time for this extremely special film. No matter your personal tastes and desires when going out to see a movie, I am certain that you will find so much to love about this one of a kind experience.
Opening in 1927, silent movie star George Valentin (an extraordinary Jean Dujardin) is on top of the world. At the premiere of his latest crowd pleaser “A Russian Affair,” George meets Peppy Miller (a gloriously enchanting Berenice Bejo), an adoring fan who holds her own big dreams of making it in the movies and the twosome form an instant connection.
George and Peppy meet once again as she gains a bit part as an extra in his latest project, “A German Affair.” Their undeniable attraction found in their first meeting proves to be no fluke as they share a brief dance on set, but unfortunately, the pair is unable to pursue their attraction as George is currently married, although unhappily to the chilly Doris (Penelope Ann Miller).
Peppy Miller’s star begins to rise as she ascends from bit parts to leading roles capturing the public’s adoration in the process. But for George, dark times are ahead as the advent of new sound technology threatens to upend his career. Two years later, George’s worst fears come to pass as studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) ceases production on all silent films. Fearing a life where his brand of artistry will become obsolete, George falls in a rapid downward, drunken spiral into despondency while Peppy Miller’s star continues to ascend.
How the lives of George and Peppy continue to intertwine will be left for you to discover on your own as I cannot praise the beauty of “The Artist” enough. Again, I implore you to not be deterred by the fact that this is a silent movie with (almost) no audible dialogue, ambient noises and sound effects to…ahem…speak of. I have to say that it was definitely a trick of my senses to witness a film in 2011, where even the simplest sound effects that we are all accustomed to hearing when we go to the movies where nowhere to be found. Think about it. Footsteps. The applause of an audience. The ebullient barking of an endlessly faithful and heroic dog. Absolutely, positively, no sounds whatsoever. Not only do you not miss those sounds, Hazanavicius is so astoundingly skilled with this production that he nearly tricks you into thinking you are hearing those sounds anyway. Therein lies the mastery of his visual palate and storytelling.
The plot of “The Artist” is appropriately simple and straightforward as it combines elements of “A Star Is Born” (1937), the iconic “Singin’ In the Rain” (1952) and even dashes of Orson Welles’ inimitable ”Citizen Kane” (1941) into the mix while always feeling supremely fresh, vibrant, and joyously original. With special mention that must be given to Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, as the look of the film is stunning. As with classic silent films, Hazanavicius’ storyline is presented to the audience though brief title cards and additional visual cues (watch the movie theater marquees in the background), which all assist to keep the audience firmly in place as to the story’s trajectory. But, I have to say the greatest elements of the success of “The Artist” are found unquestionably in the spectacular performances from Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo.
Through simply his dashingly handsome appearance, Jean Dujardin instantly recalls an amalgam of Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelley as he elicits a supremely engaging performance of magnetic physicality throughout as his body language and facial expressions completely convey the elegance, the arrogance, the intense pride and despair of a cinematic celebrity whose star has begun to fall. I found it very interesting that there have been several films released in 2011, from Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult,” Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” to even “The Muppets” for instance, where characters are in the extreme throes of an existential crisis. George Valentin is of no exception as his entire livelihood and form of artistic expression is threatened to be wiped clean from the public consciousness due to technological advances. Without his art, then who is he and what is his place in the world if it does not want him anymore? George’s despair is compellingly real within a glorious dream world like “The Artist.” It is a performance that grounds the film within an empathetic reality, providing the experience with supreme soulfulness.
As Peppy Miller, Berenice Bejo is Dujardin’s gorgeous equal as you are as instantly melted by her smile and energy as George Valentin is. Yet, Peppy does not solely serve the film as a shining starlet. She provides the film with a hefty amount of compassion, faith, tenacity, and the triumphant spirit of true love combined with a wonderment of the movies that I believe to be comparable to any audience member’s love of the movies. Her smile is as bright as the shine of the sun and I guarantee that she will warm your heart unlike any other actress that has been on screen this year.
I would be remiss if I did not make extra special mention of the film score composed by Ludovic Bource. In my opinion, not only should Bource’s score be Oscar nominated, it should win the award for Best Film Score as his wall to wall music has to convey an emotional palate to a degree that no other film of 2011 has to accomplish as well as be a pleasure to listen to. Bource’s score speaks to the tenor of the film as a whole while also existing as a musical conduit for the exterior and interior lives of all of the film’s characters as well. It is a towering accomplishment that would be a cinematic crime to ignore.
On this site, I have made mention from time to time about how movies need to earn our emotions and any goodwill we have towards those films. In the case of “The Artist,” it is how Michel Hazanavicius understands that for his film to obtain any long lasting relevance beyond a cinematic curiosity or experiment, he knows that it is not nearly enough to emulate a classic silent movie to perfection and just call it a day. Hazanavicius understands completely that for his film to resonate, he has to figure out how to render his story visually as best as he is humanly possible. “The Artist” proves to be a lesson for all established filmmakers as well as for those who harbor cinematic dreams. It is simply the difference between good storytelling and bad storytelling and Michel Hazanavicius is a masterful storyteller.
But “The Artist” is no stodgy film school lesson as it is invigorating, thrilling entertainment from beginning to end. When you regard the magic of “The Artist” on screen, it is a reminder that the films we see and adore in 2011, and throughout our lives, would not exist without the era of silent motion pictures and it is an art form that must be forever appreciated and revered. Think of some of the furthest reaching films of this year. What is the nightmarish opening eight-minute prologue to “Melancholia” but a silent movie? What is much of Terrence Malick’s odyssey “The Tree Of Life,” which includes Jessica Chastain’s nearly wordless performance but a new version of a silent film? Examples of the silent film era are prevalent in almost everything we are able to view in the 21st century and Hazanavicius plays with our enthusiastically perceptions over and again while also enthralling us with his beautiful story of George and Peppy.
Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” is no mere confection or cinematic trifle. I believe that this film is a masterpiece, a tribute to the innocence and rapture that is found when making an unexpected and amazing discovery. I wholeheartedly challenge you to find a film released this year that conveys the inexplicable and transportive magic that occurs during a shared experience with strangers in a darkened movie theater that is better than this one. I dare you to not surrender to its overwhelming charms. think this is 2011’s crowning achievement.
I implore all of you to leave any feelings of trepidation behind, purchase a ticket and make the discovery of the excellence that is “The Artist.”
Monday, December 19, 2011
Screenplay Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman
**** (four stars)
“People don’t mature anymore. They just stay jackasses for the rest of their lives!”
Written by John Hughes from “She’s Having A Baby” (1988)
Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a teenage acquaintance of mine. She was excitedly informing me about her recent exams at school as well as her plans, worries and hopes for college. As we spoke, I tried to alleviate her of some of her fears concerning potential college admissions as time was to her advantage within that process. As we spoke about life beyond high school, I decided to toss her the following nugget: That if any adult ever told her that high school is designed to be the best part of your life, then she should run as far away from that adult as possible. I stated this because, as far as I’m concerned, when looking at one life’s journey, I think it would be depressing to realize that you had peaked at the age of 16, making the remainder of your life an endless downward spiral.
This sentiment is at the core of “Young Adult,” a bitter, extremely sharp written dark comedy from Director Jason Reitman and Writer Diablo Cody, who have re-teamed for the first time since their wonderful collaboration with “Juno” (2007). So often with Hollywood and independent features, filmmakers give much lip service to creating stories with characters who they deem to be “unlikable” yet I have found that rarely do so many of those films live up to the harsh convictions they wish to present. “Young Adult” does not make that tragic cinematic error as it houses a leading character who is defiantly unlikable at film’s start and even more unlikable at the film’s conclusion with no apologies and no false sentiment in the final reel. Yet, Reitman and Cody wisely realize that just being unlikable for the sake of being unlikable is not nearly enough to base a motion picture upon. So, through great sympathy and clear, detailed, crisp storytelling, “Young Adult” gives us a sad portrait of a life that never reached the fullness of its potential and how that realization becomes all consuming, leading to some very nasty behavior. While for some, a story of this nature may prove to be tedious or frustrating, but for me, “Young Adult” ultimately resulted in another Directorial triumph for Jason Reitman and further proof that Diablo Cody is indeed the real deal, and no “one trick pony” as a Screenwriter.
Charlize Theron provides a terrifically edgy and petulant performance as Mavis Gary, a 37-year-old ghostwriter for a once popular and now fading teen book series entitled Waverly Prep. Living in Minneapolis, Mavis’ life has taken a downward turn as her publisher has informed her that her series has been cancelled and her draft of the series’ final installment is due post haste. Perpetually drunk or hung-over and constantly bathed within the television glow of reality programs, Mavis receives a devastating blow within her e-mail which arrives in the form of a birth announcement celebrating the Fatherhood of her high school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). Enraged, Mavis returns to her small hometown of Mercury, Minnesota with the full, misguided determination of “saving” Buddy from his empty life of marriage and parenthood by rekindling their old romance, stealing him away and whisking him back to Minneapolis.
While toiling away a lonely evening in a tiny Mercury bar, Mavis is reunited with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a barely remembered high school classmate whose locker was immediately next to hers and is now living out his own melancholy existence with a permanent physically disability gained from being the victim of a misdirected homophobic high school attack. As Mavis drunkenly confesses her dubious plans to claim Buddy Slade for her own once more, the twosome forge an embittered companionship of sorts as they each remain trapped by the lost dreams of their youths which have transformed into their respective miserable lives in early middle age.
From the first few scenes, “Young Adult” quickly establishes itself as one of the sharpest comedies of 2011 by firmly establishing the life of a former high school mean girl who has become an even meaner woman while not winking at the audience, letting the viewer know that what they are watching is nothing more than an ill-tempered joke. On the contrary, Jason Reitman has so much more on his mind than easy humor and superficial bad behavior. What he and Diablo Cody have accomplished so strongly is to present the fullness of a life, warts and all and most importantly, without judgment. In his previous films, including the brilliant “Up In The Air” (2009) and the aforementioned “Juno,” Reitman has become a masterful chronicler of modern day 21st century life and times and I deeply appreciated how he simply allowed the characters and situations to speak for themselves, allowing the audience to make the connections and observations for themselves. Reitman’s hand is always unforced yet always inventive and insightful as he always probes deeply, unearthing a myriad of uncomfortable truths that are nothing less than universal. “Young Adult” is no exception as it combines the familiar feeling of emotionally unfinished business and high school reunion anxiety of a film like Director George Armitage’s excellent “Grosse Point Blank” (1997) with an acerbic, acidic and cynical wit that is all of its own creation.
Charlize Theron is sensational. She delivers a fully lived-in, three-dimensional portrayal that never strikes a false note, or descends into audience self-congratulatory bitchiness. It is a performance given with a complete lack of vanity as Theron goes through a physical transformation that made her nearly unrecognizable from the statuesque model we have seen on television commercials. While not as drastic as her ferocious appearance in Writer/Director Patty Jenkins’ “Monster” (2003), I was consistently surprised with how unattractive she looked throughout “Young Adult,” a perfect cosmetic tool as her appearance is obviously a reflection of her inner world combined with her rampant alcoholism. Reitman places his camera uncomfortably close to her face and you can see the desperate, alcohol ravaged, cracked plastic beauty of the glowing teenager she once was. And I do not think that it would be terribly far fetched to see her jealous disgust at the natural beauty of Buddy’s wife, Beth Slade (Elizabeth Reaser) staring her in the face.
But, Charlize Theron’s performance is not purely cosmetic as she works this character completely from the inside out. Mavis Gary is a woman who has succumbed to a raw arrested development where she desperately tries to live her adult life from the cocoon of her beloved 1990’s teen years. But, just like the characters in Director Steve Pink’s raucous yet surprisingly perceptive “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010) and Writer/Director Noah Baumbach’s equally perceptive yet sadly somnambulant “Greenberg” (2010) discovered, Mavis slowly realizes that her cherished years were possibly not much to cherish in the first place. Beyond that, she also realizes that despite any popularity in the high school halls and class yearbooks, she was vehemently despised by many back then and even moreso now. In fact, and much to her disgust, the very people she barely holds any contempt for are the very ones who now pity her sad existence. Mavis’s sense of entitlement knows no bounds as she struggles yet refuses to accept living in a world that will simply not deliver all of the glories she desires simply because she wants them. It is more than fitting that she is constantly watching Kardashian reality television programs or is consumed with ghostwriting a book series that deals with the most shallow, narcissism of adolescence. Ultimately, Mavis Gary is in the same disappointing life stage as Kristen Wiig’s hapless character from Director Paul Feig’s excellent “Bridesmaids.” Both of those characters exhibit some very bad behavior but, like the song says, only Mavis Gary is truly bad to the bone.
Patton Oswalt fulfills the promise of his dramatic acting chops seen so wonderfully in Writer/Director Robert D. Siegel’s “Big Fan” (2009) as he beautifully combines gallows humor and crushing pathos as he brings to life a character for whom the long range and life altering effects of teenage bullying are permanent.
The relationship he creates with Theron as the characters of Matt and Mavis is an achingly precarious one that is filled with a cruel sense of one-upsmanship. Matt still nurses his long unrequited crush yet feels morally superior to Mavis due to her selfish pursuit of the married Buddy Slade. Yet for Mavis, we can always question if she has finally found a kindred spirit in Matt or if he is yet another person who will always be placed on a lower rung on the social ladder, a place where she can always feel superior over someone else, forever lording her status overhead. Patton Oswalt and Charlize Theron are a particularly dynamic, yet loathsome, duo but they make for an exhilarating acting duet.
I must take some time to call attention to Diablo Cody’s screenplay as she is a writer who I believe has received an unfair amount of short shrift and criticism. During the theatrical release of “Juno," Cody was criticized for heaping a large amount of dialogue many felt to be self-consciously quirky to the degree that it was distracting and a hindrance to the film as a whole. Now, dear readers, you know how I feel about that awful independent film self-conscious, self-congratulatory shield of quirkiness. But for me, I felt her dialogue within “Juno” completely served her title character as it was nothing more than a protective shield to mask her obvious fear with being a pregnant teenager. Yes, Cody’s dialogue was heightened by so was the dialogue of say John Hughes, Woody Allen or the dialogue of Quentin Tarantino, three screenwriters consistently revered for their skills with creating their own cinematic language as real people in the real world do not speak exactly like their characters either.
In “Young Adult,” those levels of heightened dialogue are toned way down not because of past criticism but because that style would not really fit this story. Cody is intelligent enough to know when to bring out snap of her dialogue at the right moments so that the words sting harshly and leaves prevalent wounds that linger throughout the film. Greatly, it is her gift as a storyteller that shines brightest as she gives Mavis Gary a full history that we are given the details at key, crucial moments. And most importantly, I must commend Cody and Reitman for not making the cardinal cinematic sin of having an unlikable character who must be redeemed by the film’s conclusion. “Young Adult” succeeds grandly where films like Director Jake Kasdan’s “Bad Teacher” and Director Jesse Peretz’s “Our Idiot Brother” failed. In regards to the former, we are not given a candy colored superficial sense of a person’s inherent badness and with the latter, and unlike that film’s horrifically whiny trio of sisters, Reitman and Cody ensure that we understand the character of Mavis Gary while we also loathe her. Therefore, we will continue to follow her story and not stone the screen in repulsion.
Recently, I have come to the realization that middle age does not necessarily mean that one has ascended to a newfound sense of maturity. I think it means that we have found ourselves in the throes of adult adolescence. What we choose to do with that is up to us. We will rise, fall and hopefully rise again, making the same mistakes that plagued us during our teenage years as we all struggle with the idea of what will we be when we grow up. But we do grow up, whether we want to or not and unfortunately for Mavis Gary, that realization may have arrived too late and if it has, I doubt she even cares anyway.
Thank the cinematic fates that we have storytellers on the level of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody who care enough to rise to the challenge and break all of the familiar rules when it comes to tales of the emotional paralysis that occurs during a bout of middle-aged ennui. Dear readers, the movie theaters are about to become flooded with must see material, of which I am going to try my best and see as many of as possible. But I urge all of you to please not let this excellent film fall through the box office cracks. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When films of the high quality of “Young Adult” arrive, I really believe that we owe it to ourselves as moviegoers to go out and support them.
“Young Adult” more than deserves our support.
Screenplay Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
*** (three stars)
I have to say that I could easily live the remainder of my blessed life without ever seeing even one more entry in the “Planet Of The Apes” series.
Throughout my life watching movies, I have to admit to having never had that much of an attraction towards the “Planet Of the Apes” series. Even throughout my science fiction obsessed childhood (which consisted of a steady diet of “Star Trek” reruns plus “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers” serials), especially during the days before “Star Wars” completely changed the game in 1977, the sights of walking, talking, horse riding apes with rifles did not posses a draw for me. I actually never even saw the films until the 1990’s, when a chance cable television viewing of the 1968 classic Charlton Heston starring vehicle impressed me enough to quickly race out and rent the remaining four films in the series. While the quintet of films were more than a bit messy, I was surprised and impressed at how dystopian, bleak, violent and even socially relevant those films actually were in regards to their allegorical plays on race relations, the civil rights movement, the ecology and even nuclear holocaust (the second film in the G rated series actually concluded with the destruction of Earth of all things).
Because of that quintet, my interest was piqued just enough to get myself excited about Director Tim Burton’s 2001 “re-imagining” starring Mark Wahlberg and without going into it terribly much, that film was such a massive, misguided letdown that it truly soured any potential interest I had in ever watching another “Apes” experience ever again.
But then, this past summer, the suits in Hollywood decided that another try with the “Apes” franchise was necessary for some reason unbeknownst to me. I have to admit to being surprised not only with the massive box office take the film received during its late summer release, but also with the high critical praise it received as well. Now, dear readers, after having seen it myself, I do have to make the announcement that, while not perfect, “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” was more than a bit of a surprise. It is a thoughtful, imaginative, inventive, fast-paced series reboot…or rather, re-imagining that cleverly accomplishes the feat of appealing to fans of the original films while simultaneously making the experience completely accessible to novices.
“Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” opens with the capture of five primates from the jungle and their transport to the San Francisco based Gen-Sys biotechnology laboratories where Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) is deeply involved with a potentially revolutionary treatment that may potentially cure Alzheimer’s disease.
Utilizing the apes as test subjects for his new formula, it is soon discovered that through mutating the chimpanzees’ genetic makeup, the original level of the animals’ intelligence is dramatically enhanced. After a chimpanzee nicknamed “Bright Eyes,” Will’s most successful test subject, goes on a rampage in the attempt to protect her then (unknown to the scientists) unborn chimp, Will’s boss and financial benefactor Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), orders the complete euthanization of Bright Eyes and the remaining chimpanzees. As Will’s friend and chimp handler Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) is unable to kill the baby chimp, Will reluctantly takes the chimp home for temporary safekeeping as well as for therapeutic companionship for Charles (a hammy John Lithgow), Will’s Alzheimer’s afflicted Father.
Over the course of the following years, Will feverishly continues his scientific research which includes secretly testing his new formula upon his Father, an act which does indeed cure—albeit temporarily--his Alzheimer’s disease. The chimp, now named Caesar, has become a deeply loved member of Will’s household. Caesar, having inherited his Mother’s hyper-intelligence, yearns for larger surroundings to explore outside of the home, which is granted through beloved visits to the Redwood forests. Most importantly, Caesar has begun the painful process of examining the purpose of his life’s existence. As a cherished family member, although within a human family, he questions if he is merely a “pet” or meant for something much larger.
After one too many negative encounters with their cantankerous airline pilot neighbor, Caesar is forcibly taken from Will and brought to the San Bruno Primate Facility, a dank, dungeon like facility run by the icy John Landon (Brian Cox). Even worse, all of the animals are treated viciously by Landon’s sadistic son Dodge (a thoroughly hiss worthy Tom Felton from the “Harry Potter” film series).
While Will and his girlfriend Caroline Aranha (Frieda Pinto), a San Francisco Zoo primate specialist desperately try to free Caesar from the Primate facility, Caesar begins his life altering journey as this genetically enhanced primate is assimilated for the first time with members of his own species. As he struggles to claim his dominant platform within the group, Caesar eventually organizes the imprisoned apes, becomes leader of his species, and begins an uprising than is nothing short of revolutionary.
When it comes to the concept of “re-imagining” a classic film series, “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” briskly and firmly shows how that feat is to be accomplished correctly. The film functions as a loose remake of 1972’s “Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes,” the fourth film in the original series, while also working tremendously well as an origin story. Director Rupert Wyatt and his screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have ingeniously established the groundwork for a new epic trilogy that cleverly is disconnected from the original series’ timeline by moving all of the action to present day. And yet for those for whom the original series is beloved, the filmmakers have gathered more than enough visual and dialogue references that honor all of the familiar material handsomely.
Wyatt mounts a lean, clear expositional tale with a healthy dose of humor that allows the film to never become ridiculously ponderous while also keeping a firm sense of pathos regarding Caesar’s existential crisis and the film’s themes of humankind’s destructive hubris.
In fact, the most compelling theme of this film to me was essentially the found in the old proverb, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Dr. Will Rodman is not evil by any means whatsoever. He is a good man, filled with good intentions as he attempts to utilize his intelligence and scientific skills for the betterment of humanity. Unfortunately, his single-minded quest contributes to unethical and dangerous decision making which eventually results in a situation that ultimately places this film is the same vicinity as Director Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” and yes, even Writer/Director Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia.” Of course, “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” is nowhere near as serious or as artistically far reaching as those aforementioned films, but I did appreciate the strength Wyatt, Jaffa and Silver gave to this material which could have just come across as something that functioned a hair above “silly.”
As previously stated, the film does contain some flaws. For all of the CGI special effects, I did feel that in some of the more expansive sequences of Caesar swinging through the trees for instance, that the film began to take on a look that was a tad too cartoon-like. He film’s weakest link for me was sadly James Franco whose performance was so surprisingly wooden that he was thoroughly unconvincing as a genius scientist that has the formula to cure Alzheimer’s. To me, he just seemed to have stumbled, in a narcotically induced haze, from the “Pineapple Express” set. He seemed to be uncommitted to the role, which is a shame as he is an actor with strong skills as evidenced in his gripping performance in Director Danny Boyle’s excellent “127 Hours” (2010).
Where the film’s special effects work strongest, aside from the heroically staged Golden Gate Bridge uprising climax, is through the marvelous, spellbinding work of Andy Serkis who provides the full performance of Caesar through the same motion capture technique he pioneered with filmmaker Peter Jackson in his roles as Gollum and King Kong. As I have said time and again, all of the special effects in the world do not mean a whit if there is no emotional content or substance to the story at hand. Serkis does so much more than provide “Rise Of The Planet Of the Apes” with substance. Andy Serkis gives the film its beating heart and strongly pulsing soul.
Just watch Serkis’ body language throughout of course, but mostly, I would love for you to pay attention mostly to his eyes and facial expressions which convey a profoundly true sense of soul searching and that aforementioned existential crisis, and all without saying a word…that is until he absolutely has to. For some of the rumblings I have seen advocating for the work of Andy Serkis to be recognized by the Academy Awards, I would have to throw my cinematic chat into that ring as his work is so deeply skilled and unprecedented that for him to be honored with full recognition by his peers would be wonderful indeed.
But, I am getting more than a little ahead of myself. Back to the film at hand, I will say to you that Andy Serkis is so compelling that he nearly single handedly gave me an experience with a film series I have not cared that much about and despite my opening statement, he transformed it into something where I am actually looking forward to the inevitable second installment. “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” is yet another example this year of a summer escapist film experience that was made in the fashion and spirit of how these sorts of films used to be made. It is a solid film made with impressive skill and commitment and I think for these filmmakers, they can only rise from this satisfying point.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Written and Directed by Lars von Trier
**** (four stars)
“Life is only on Earth…and not for long.”
After the end, there is nothing but blackness and silence.
Earlier this year, I announced that legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life” would most likely become my favorite film of 2011 for a variety of reasons yet mostly because I just did not imagine that I would possibly see a film within the same year that stretched its artistic reaches and visions further than that film. While I am not upending my earlier proclamation, I will announce that I may have just seen a devastating equal to Malick’s masterpiece.
Uncompromising, unrepentant, and unforgiving, Writer/Director Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” is one of 2011’s most masterful and furthest reaching cinematic achievements. It is a profoundly frightening experience as von Trier imagines no less than the end of all existence through sequences and images he bookends the film with that are truly some of the most disturbing, sensational and unforgettable images I have seen in many, many years. Yet somehow, the film as a whole did not resonate as a completely nihilistic statement. Dear readers, as you all know very well from me, I have grown to have an extreme distaste and disease with films that depict an apocalypse for pure entertainment purposes, like Roland Emmerich’s terribly inhumane “2012” (2009). Thankfully, von Trier is operating from a most humane perspective. While “Melancholia” is defiantly extremist in its conclusions, the film does indeed conspire to take a disaster and have it play out with real, recognizable people while exploring various stages of human behavior. It is an overwhelming experience and supremely artful to the highest degree. If you are willing to take this ride, I feel that the rewards will be plentiful.
“Melancholia” opens with the music of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” set to a series of stunningly gorgeous yet grotesque images that unfold in a speed that I can only describe as “nightmare slow.” We are witness to birds falling from the sky. A horse falling backwards to the ground under biblically dark clouds. A bride traveling through a grim forest with ominous tree branches reaching outwards, strangling her legs and feet, holding her in place. A Mother and child feebly running away from some unseen horror with their feet sinking into the grass like quicksand. All of this and more is intercut with galactic footage of Earth and a larger, blue planet engaged in an interstellar and most likely cataclysmic cosmic ballet.
From this incredible, nearly eight-minute wordless prologue, “Melancholia” is divided into two sections. The first part, entitled “Justine,” focuses entirely upon a lavish wedding reception for the titular character (played by Kirsten Dunst) and her blissfully happy new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). At first, all seems to be very well for the couple as they are introduced as being deliriously in love and laughing heartedly at the feeble attempts for the stretch limousine, in which they are riding, to navigate a narrow path to the reception location. Upon arriving, albeit late, at the massive grounds (which includes an 18 hole golf course) of Justine’s protective older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her horribly arrogant Astronomer husband John (an excellent Kiefer Sutherland) and their young son Leo (Cameron Spurr), Justine and Michael go through the myriad rituals of a post wedding celebration. But all is not well despite the enormous opulence on display.
Justine’s genteel Father Dexter (John Hurt) is a flirtatious, unreliable drunk while her Mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) is a savagely bitter nihilist who is unable to keep herself from publicly voicing her endless disapproval of the entire institution of marriage. Additionally, Justine is constantly hounded by her employer Jack (a terrific Stellan Skarsgard), to somehow conjure up a new advertising promotion on the spot.
As the evening wears on, the social constraints and expectations increasingly take their toll upon Justine who repeatedly exits the reception to find a sense of unattainable solace. Yet, an unusual new star in the sky has begun to capture Justine’s attention…
In the second section of the film set a short time after the reception and entitled “Claire,” Justine has collapsed into a debilitating depression and returns to her sister’s castle grounds for convalescence. At the same time, the family is transfixed by the arrival of Melancholia, a rogue planet scheduled to reach Earth within five days. John, the man of Science, is convinced that Melancholia will “fly by” the earth creating an astronomical event for the ages. Yet, as Melancholia moves closer, Claire grows increasingly unhinged, as she fears the two planets will collide, thus ending all existence. Surprisingly and conversely, Justine grows more serene, calmer, accepting and fearless regarding this potentially catastrophic event.
As with several grim recent films I have seen in recent months most notably Jeff Nichols’ excellent “Take Shelter,” Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” is a merging of a person’s fractured psychological state with a more widely enveloping doom. It is a film that simultaneously functions as an intimate family drama, a dark satire of social bad manners as well as a science fiction disaster film that left me, and the audience I saw it with, motionless and in complete silence. No one rose from his or her seat until deeply within the end credit scroll and even then, every movement was made at a snail’s pace. Initially, I felt it to be a film like Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant yet brutal “Requiem For A Dream” (2000) that I could absolutely, positively never sit through a second time no matter how brilliant the experience was. But, after having settled myself with the experience over the last few days, I realize that no only could I sit through “Melancholia” a second time, I actually want to sit through it a second time.
First of all, I have to admit that during the “Justine” half of the film, I found myself growing fatigued and a tad bored. I felt some impatience with the first half of this film as the wedding party seemed to just drag on and on but once von Trier placed us within the superbly executed second half, the drudgery of the first sections became that much clearer, most especially and importantly in regards to Justine’s state of mind and extinguished spirit. At its core, “Melancholia” is a psychological portrait and metaphor for the crippling disease of depression and perhaps the devastation of suicide and death as well. I am gathering that von Trier, who has reportedly succumbed to severe depressive episodes himself, is suggesting to us that depression is not simply a slightly more extreme version of “the blues” (although the planet Melancholia is a luminous blue). Depression, at its most paralyzing, feels as if a planet has just extinguished you. And here is where the vivid intensity of Kirsten Dunst comes incredibly into play.
Kirsten Dunst is an actress I have admired for many years and while she has continued to surprise me with her depth, I have to say that I have not ever seen her with such weight and gravity. While she does not elicit a performance that is a showstopper on the level of Natalie Portman’s career best performance in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010), Dunst is an unexpected yet absolutely perfect conduit for von Trier’s exploration of mental illness. As Justine, Kirsten Dunst portrays a young woman who seemingly has everything going for her from an adoring husband, wealth, beauty, to a career promotion, but ultimately, she loses every shred, most notably her mind and whatever faith she ever held in the nature of life itself. Dunst’s performance is not one that depicts depression as a means of hysteria. It is a performance where she evokes the physical debilitation of depression where even the most seemingly simple tasks like taking a bath are impossible and even eating a favorite meal is filled with despair (“It tastes like ashes,” she weeps during a family dinner). I was amazed with the way Dunst dropped her vocal range a few registers, brining forth a new hardness and coldness.
I also found it very interesting that within the film’s family dynamic, Justine, who seems to be purely American, exists within a family of Europeans, just one element that contributes to Justine’s sense of displacement in the world. Near the end of the film, as she has a tense conversation with Claire regarding how she feels that there is no other speck of existence in the universe, Claire questions Justine as to how she can be certain about such a belief. Justine simply and plainly replies, “I know things.” Recalling the film's prologue, this statement oddly stations Justine as some sort of a prophet (or keeping with the science fiction element, she may also function as an alien), another stance that places her severely outside of everyone else in her life. Kirsten Dunst delivers a performance of subtle power and all of the accolades she has received thus far, and is bound to receive during awards season, are fully deserved.
As Justine’s sister Claire, Charlotte Gainsbourg is Kirsten Dunst’s equal as she is the lifelong caretaker who finds herself in need once her own existential anxiety upends her during the second half of the film. Where Justine, I would imagine to be somewhat impenetrable for many viewers, the character of Claire is more relatable as her vision of the world reflects my own, making the horror of the end of the world entirely shared. While not forsaking any conceptual themes from the film’s first half, Lars von Trier makes the second half exist as a nearly unbearable thriller.
Believe it or not, I found myself often thinking about James Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997) during this part of the film in regards to its structure and how it contributed heavily to the terrifying nature of what lies ahead for the characters. Like Cameron’s epic, the second half of “Melancholia” builds tremendously well because of the knowledge the audience has already gained from the film’s striking prologue. As the planets merge closer to potential collision, the characters and the audience are placed within the same emotional and existential boat: death is coming and there is absolutely, positively nothing that anyone can do about it. Lars von Trier finds many simple and brutally effective ways to increase the tension. The sounds and sights of anxious birds and horses was a great touch. But, my favorite was the simple device of a child’s astronomical tool, nothing more than coiled wire on a stick, that is used to detect the physical proximity of Melancholia to Earth. Every time Claire used it to check and see if the planet was either closer or further away, I could hardly bear to see the results although I was sitting safely in the movie theater. And that is precisely the wicked cinematic magic Lars von Trier has created. For the characters, Melancholia is approaching and they can do nothing but await their demise and for us in the audience, we know what will happen and despite how much we wish for relief or a different outcome, we know it will never happen.
The brilliance of “Melancholia” is carried so firmly by the fact that the first part of the film informs the second part and vice versa. With regards to the wedding reception section, we are immersed in all manner of surprisingly cruel behavior. All of the pettiness and horrible behavior those characters inflict upon each other and furthermore, von Trier argues, the horrible behavior we inflict upon each other in our daily lives completely enhances Justine’s belief that “Life is evil. The Earth is evil. No one will miss it.” In Justine’s mind, the arrival of Melancholia is nothing less than the absolution of our problems, foibles, pressures, concerns and whatever else that clouds our minds each and every day, including our own sense of self-importance in a merciless universe. In that shining apocalypse, our problems mean nothing and in the end, they never meant anything in the first place. It is all futile when all we know becomes an endless nothingness. For a woman who feels as she, a person with nothing to lose, the end of the world comes as a blessing.
Whether becoming completely engulfed by one’s own inner demons to the point of incapacitation or being wholly devoured by a mysterious planet, Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” is an overwhelming experience. The evocative cinematography is consistently outstanding and like moments within Malick’s “The Tree Of Life,” I felt the ghost of Stanley Kubrick hovering nearby with its usage of repetitive classical music augmenting interstellar imagery.
But “Melancholia” is no mere homage as it is purely a Lars von Trier experience. I greatly appreciated von Trier’s boldness during a time when most movies don’t even know how to be bold anymore. He fearlessly takes this film all the way to the wall, to its most logical conclusion, and like Justine in the face of annihilation, Lars von Trier never blinks.
Like Kevin Smith’s “Red State,” you have many options of seeing “Melancholia” if you so desire. In addition to its surprisingly small theatrical run, you may rent the film via your cable provider’s On Demand feature or you may even rent the film through i-Tunes, Amazon.com and I believe that you can stream the film through a Playstation system as well. For me, nothing is like the big screen but if it is not playing in your area, try to find the biggest screen that you are able to find and let this movie take you over!
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Story by Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall and Jesse Peretz
Screenplay Written by Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall
Directed by Jesse Peretz
*1/2 (one and a half stars)
Paul Rudd deserves better than this. Much better. And for that matter so do Rashida Jones, Zooey Deschanel, Steve Coogan, Emily Mortimer and Elizabeth Banks for all of them are saddled with carrying a movie that is nowhere equal to any of their talents.
Dear readers, I have to say up front that “Our Idiot Brother” is a terrible film simply because it is one of those films that simply cannot be bothered to dig itself in and try. Yes, the aforementioned cast is an excellent one, the actual story provides a great framework for these actors, and yes, it does have its moments, including one choice and extremely well placed expletive that made me howl with laughter. But, when the proceedings were all said and done, I felt nothing and simply regarded almost the entire escapade as an empty exercise.
Rudd stars as Ned Rochlin, an affable, perpetually stoned organic farmer who, at the film’s start, is arrested and jailed for eight months after mistakenly selling marijuana to a police officer. Upon his release from prison, Ned is exiled from the farm by his passive aggressive pseudo hippie ex-girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn). Now penniless, homeless and without the company of his treasured dog Willie Nelson, Ned travels back to his Mother Ilene’s (Shirley Knight) house for a family dinner with his three seemingly more successful and well-adjusted sisters and their respective partners.
There’s Ned’s oldest sister Liz (Emily Mortimer) who is married to Dylan (Steve Coogan), a brusquely impatient and romantically duplicitous documentary filmmaker. Liz and Dylan are extremely strict parents to the young and unhappy River (a fine and natural Matthew Mindler), whom they are both anxiously hoping to enroll into an exclusive private school.
Next, we are introduced to Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), Ned’s more free spirited, bisexual sister who is currently in a relationship with Cindy (Rashida Jones), an attorney. Yet Natalie’s fear of commitment lands her into an affair with the hipster artist Christian (Hugh Dancy).
Finally, we meet Ned’s third sister Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), a brittle, high-strung writer for Vanity Fair magazine who is struggling to have her first story published, an exclusive interview/expose with the philanthropist socialite Lady Arabella (Janet Montgomery). Unlike her sisters, Miranda is without a romantic partner but her neighbor Jeremy (Adam Scott) would love to take upon that role. Unfortunately, Miranda repeatedly shuns his affections while also repeatedly using him for any assistance with upkeep to her apartment.
As Ned plots and plans to earn the $500 needed for him to return to work and live at the farm, he is shuffled from one sister’s home to another, and his guileless, open hearted, uncompromisingly honest worldview inadvertently dismantles his sister’s cushy lives in more ways than one. Yet throughout all of the misunderstandings, hilarity ensues, valuable lessons are learned as the sisters discover that Ned really isn’t such an idiot after all.
If you detected a certain sarcasm within that last statement regarding the storyline of “Our Idiot Brother” you would be absolutely correct. And believe me, I don’t think that I have revealed any spoilers as I believe that any of you who have ever seen a movie before will know exactly where this film is headed from the set up. While there is nothing on the surface of this film that is dramatically wrong in regards to the actual storyline and despite the great cast and all of the talent on display, “Our Idiot Brother” is painfully and almost unbearably yet another entry into the dysfunctional family genre. But this film, like Writer/Director Noah Baumbach’s equally painfully unbearable “Margot At The Wedding” (2007), has absolutely nothing, I mean nothing insightful or new to say about the subject. Which is a shame, as well as a shocking surprise, because Peretz and his team of two screenwriters could not seem to come up with even one idea or observance about family life and sibling relationships that delved anywhere beneath the obvious. It felt as if Peretz thought the likeability and talents of the terrific cast, especially those of Paul Rudd, would be enough to collectively carry and save the film. But it wasn’t. The cast of “Our Idiot Brother” are all active, engaged performers who are willing, more than able and very ready to work, so why not really give them all something to sink their collective talents into instead of just squandering them all?
In addition to Peretz’s direction being completely flat, and too wry and dry for its own good, I just did not believe in many of the film’s characters at all which was a huge problem. I hated all three of the sisters as they are so insufferable, so narcissistic, so selfish, self-absorbed and egotistical that they were almost irredeemable. These three sisters were not represented in a satirical or surreal sense like Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson conveys with Adam Sandler’s army of seven sisters in the wonderful “Punch- Drunk Love” (2002). No, Peretz is attempting to present a grouping of real people in a real world with real problems but without any real depth whatsoever. And as good as Paul Rudd is in this film, the screenplay lets his character down over and again as his level of sweetly candid honesty is unrealistic to the point of being a near cartoon. Yes, he is stoned for a time and does live with his head in the clouds of a more utopian sensibility but his lack of common sense felt to be so phony, so contrived and simply existed in this fashion to keep the wheels of the plots creaking along.
Worst of all, and as previously stated, “Our Idiot Brother” is a wholly predictable enterprise with absolutely no surprises or at least, valuable insights into the inner workings of this family. Of course, this film does not need to be a Bergman-esque or Chekovian drama and I firmly believe that the story of a family’s black sheep returning to the fold to unravel and hopefully mend the lives of his three sisters could be mined deeply for comedic gold. So it just boggles my mind that Peretz even give the material an honest attempt as the entire proceedings feels like a sketch of a screenplay instead of a fully thought out experience.
Think of Director Lisa Cholodenko’s excellent “The Kids Are All Right” from just last year or even the complete works of Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener, which includes “Walking and Talking” (1996), “Lovely & Amazing” (2001), “Friends With Money” (2006) and last year’s terrific “Please Give.” Both Cholodenko and Holofcener somehow, and in Holofcener’s case, always discover probing, fresh and uncomfortably perceptive viewpoints with the familiar subject matter of families and the roles in which we play within the families we create as well as the ones we are born into. Both filmmakers also utilize a light tough but they always weave ways to burrow under your skin, peeling back one layer of difficult truth after another.
“Out Idiot Brother,” on the other hand, is completely and utterly superficial as the film is nothing more than sitcom situations, band-aid solutions and nowhere near as funny, honest or perceptive as it desperately needs to be…or thinks it is because these characters never really function as real people. Peretz just firmly sticks to the easiest, simplest and most obvious set up and conclusions: Ned’s three sisters are the true idiots who all have something to learn from Ned’s relative innocence and good hearted nature. And Peretz makes this point over and over and over again. Yawn.
Look, dear readers, despite my vitriol, I am glad that I saw this film as I did want to. I'm just mad at the result. But, I’m telling you, my patience grows thinner with each and every movie that comes along and wastes my time. Honestly, if the filmmakers aren’t going to try and make the best story that they can, then why should I watch it at all?