Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross

Reviewed: 25 March 2012

jamesintexas rating--***1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Effortlessly, The Hunger Games is a strong, well-crafted film that conjures up the following references: Orwell's 1984, Stephen King's novella The Running Man, Richard Bachman's novella The Long Walk, the pageantry of the Roman gladiators fighting in the Colosseum, the nervousness and anticipation of the Vietnam War draft, the death of the young in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the loss of life in recent coal-mining disasters, the atrocities of World War Two, the hunter gods of Greek mythology, the suicidal acts of Romeo and Juliet, and the media manipulation of a televised world in Peter Weir's prescient classic film The Truman Show. But, on a deeper, rawer, more elemental level, the film ties to Shirley Jackson's chilling short story "The Lottery," tying back even as far as the book of Genesis with Abraham's sacrificing of Isaac. Ross and series author Suzanne Collins are swimming in deep water here, and the story of a young girl from District 12, disheveled, starving, hunting to keep her family alive, achieves a poignancy and an intensity from its sharp focus on the very strong, very haunted Katniss Everdeen, a feminist film icon that film has not been seen since the likes of Ellen Ripley, Clarice Starling, Trinity, and Ree Dolly. When she kills for the first time, you can see the emotional toll that it takes on her character. Ross lingers on these moments, as well as on Lawrence's expressive eyes and face to show her conflict and self-loathing. Of course, there's a muted love triangle of sorts for Katniss that is believable and understood (a shot of a character's face in the penultimate scene tells you all you need to know about disappointment, and I appreciated that Ross did that, not inserting a painful, redundant, expository conversation), a sharp satire of certain aspects of our media culture (best depicted through the garishly overdone makeup and gestures of Katniss's media handler Effie Trinket well-played by Elizabeth Banks and the Seacrestian unctuousness of the quasi-narrator/commentator on the Games, Cesar Flickerman played by Stanley Tucci), and the hold-your-breath intensity of a world designed like a video game by a team of technicians all lorded over by game designer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, welcome back, and what a beard!), who himself is lorded over by quietly menacing President Snow (Donald Sutherland, crafty and weary, always watching, always judging). The film has impressive casting that is buttressed by a quiet, warm performance by Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss's makeup and clothing artist and the great Woody Harrelson as an appropriately haunted, alcoholic ex-Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy. Harrelson does not go for broad comedy, instead trying to convey Haymitch's pain, guilt, and self-disgust with his own survival and the culture of violence and its effect on children (expertly shown in a wordless scene where Haymitch watches children fight with fake swords). Similarly, Kravitz's Cinna has a quiet grace and humanity; he seems to be one of the only characters who fully absorbs the gravity of the situation and the tragedy of Katniss's selection.

Any question as to whether Jennifer Lawrence could embody the Artemis-like, older sister-hunter-warrior Katniss Everdeen should have been settled last year based on her flinty performance as Ree Dolly in Winter's Bone. There, with the garnering of a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Lawrence played a daughter in the meth-infused backhills of the Ozarks who held her family together (absent father, catatonic mother, helpless siblings) in the face of great adversity (natural in terms of weather and terrain; familial in terms of homicidal, criminal relatives; personal in terms of wanting to abandon her family and enroll in the army while knowing that if she finds her dad, she can save their land). Her performance was epic in that film, and her shoulders are strong enough to carry the mantle of this beloved literary character. She is a credible conflicted warrior; Ross wisely foregrounds her relationship with her little sister Prim in the first fifteen minutes, as well as her ability to scorch her mother with acidic words. Katniss volunteers as tribute when her sister's name is selected for her District's representation in the fight to the death among 24 young people. There's a boy back home. There's a boy out there who has pined for her. There's media preparation and manipulation; there's training and weaponry. And then, 24 children are placed in the middle of a controlled forest environment to fight it out. The last man (or woman) standing wins everything. All others die, live on television.

In terms of storytelling, Ross does some interesting and artistic things. A conversation between two members of the ruling class opens and frames the film; a narrow focus early on gives us a look at District 12's poverty. Flashbacks move judiciously and without explanation throughout the film. One song in particular is repeated in a moving way, and the tiny details (Katniss tying herself to the tree to sleep so that she won't fall out) were all brilliant. The CGI at times took me out of the film in a Lucasian Star Wars: Episode One kind of way; I didn't think that it was necessary to show expensive shots of the capitol or CGI beasts in the third act (which lose their power to evoke a response because of their murkiness despite an absolutely terrifying jump-out of nowhere scene that the more I reflect on it seems like a cheap shot). The scenes in the Games were filmed in the gorgeous woods of North Carolina, brilliantly shot as a maze of fallen trees, moss, waterfalls, and caves. Katniss wanders through the forest, bow-clenched, and I half-expected her to bump into Daniel Day-Lewis's Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans or the band of rebels on Endor from The Return of the Jedi. The film does some very impressive things with its sonic architecture by having overlappping sound and dialogue from one scene to another. Announcements delivered during the Games are disorienting and distant. A countdown scene has an impressively disturbing sound component, jarring us and the characters. James Newton Howard's score seems unique though familiar and not too cloying or didactic. I will probably buy it. End credit songs seemed impressive and of high-quality (T-Bone Burnett delivers, again).

Action-wise, this film is a mess. Ross's previous films include Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, both adult, craftsmanlike works known for their atmosphere, fine acting, and art design, not necessarily known for their rapid-fire editing and cross-cutting and action sequences. Ross's commitment to this project being a PG-13 blockbuster for under 17 teens undercuts his ability to tell a coherent story through the eponymous violence. His handheld camera is overused and distracting at times, but I understand Ross's method of throwing the audience into the chaos of the moment to simulate Katniss's sense of being overwhelmed. However, there is a new term that I've recently become familiar with through reading a movie blog that I love entitled Battleship Pretension: chaos cinema. And, I think that The Hunger Games, sadly, falls into the category of films marred by the editing of their action sequences.

Matthias Stork defines chaos cinema as "apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle." Stork's excellent video essay on the BP website wrestles with the implications of this new type of cinema, and though I do not agree with each of his conclusions, never have I felt more in tune with the labeling of a film as one of chaos cinema than when Marc Foster attempted to use frenetic editing within action sequences to ruin the James Bond franchise with the often nonsensical Quantum of Solace and the completely incomprehensible fight scenes of Gary Ross's The Hunger Games. Often times, I had no idea who was fighting who because of the handheld camera, the avoidance of clarity, the rush of movement. The final confrontation, I felt, was undercut and destroyed by the editing; I'm still not 100% sure what happened and how the final movements went down. The editing of the violence got in the way of my understanding of it, and this is a film ABOUT watching violence and understanding it.

So, what I'm driving at is an unpopular conclusion. The Hunger Games needed to be an R rated film. The commitment to depicting the world of Panem, the tributes, and the fight to the death among children needed to honor Suzanne Collins' vision, NOT the commercial aspirations of Ross and the studio. I could see through the fight scenes, past the script and the book (which I have read) into the studio meeting where the debates swirled around "How violent can we be?" I do not want to see grotesque or exploitative violence in a film; I know that this film, like it or not, has a fan base of middle school children, and to show violence in a more intense, realistic, or comprehensible way would be very disturbing. I already experienced two young children crying and leaving during a key moment in the film, a reminder of the audience and the power of film to damage, disturb, and upset us. However, this film depicts a world where people are entertained by the viewing of violence, and not to get too meta, but we are complicit in that watching because we have paid tickets to see this film, knowing that a major portion (60+ minutes I would say) involves the hunting, stalking, trapping, and slaying of children by children as we watch. We are watching the film in the same way that the audiences of Panem are watching the Games. However, they have no filter and do not receive quick-rush editing, incomprehensible camera movement to make sure they do not see blades insert flesh, blood spurt from wounds, or the faces of those killed. In a sad way, Ross and his studio have edited and held back from us the very graphic violence that Collins used to hold a mirror up to a violent, competitive society, thus under-cutting the themes and power of this film.

I wanted to see a vision of this film and this book that honored the violence and the implications of the violence. To do that is to possibly make an even darker, less commercial, more brutal, and more savage film that would not appeal as broadly to middle school viewers. It would be to raise issues with parents and families about whether or not the film is appropriate for young people to see without adult supervision. It would cut into the box office (which seems epic and massive right now, allowing us to collectively breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that the remaining books will become films). Who is to say that by bloodying it up, pulling his camera back to depict the actual fight scenes in a way that show us who is hurting who and how, and refusing to hyper-edit into incomprehensibility, Ross would have crafted a film that was uncommercial, unsuccessful, and sank a very profitable and very creative series.

I contend that with bravery and aplomb in the editing and shooting director Gary Ross could have made a version of The Hunger Games that does not cheat its audience, skirt the issues of violence and complicity, and still retained its commercial viability. Katniss Everdeen is a legitimate heroine of the highest order, and Jennifer Lawrence has arrived. I cannot wait to see what she (and Ross) do next with this character, but my hope is that the box office from the first film will translate into more risks and more honesty in the second film. But even if not, The Hunger Games is a pretty terrific piece of thought-provoking entertainment with an impressive compression of quite a bit of backstory and characterization. Ross delivers another impressively crafted film that transcends its moment, and though not perfect, it is a stunning achievement, worthy of nearly my highest rating.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Friends with Kids

Movie Review: Friends with Kids

Director: Jennifer Westfeldt

Reviewed: 16 March 2012

jamesintexas rating--* (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

A frustrating, inconsistent, and poorly edited film, Jennifer Westfeldt serves as writer, producer, director, and star of the film Friends with Kids which starts out with promise (a seemingly honest commitment to exploring modern relationships with graphic language from both sides; a dazzling cast of couples featuring Jon Hamm, Maya Rudolph, and Kristen Wiig), but eventuallly, it collapses under its own contrivance. I hate to use the words "vanity project," but here, I think it applies. In this film, Westfeldt serves as her own worst enemy, relegating some amazing actors to the corners of the picture, while giving herself and the central relationship way too much focus, thus sabotaging what could have been an interesting exploration of modern relationships and feminism.

Adam Scott (wonderful on Parks and Recreation) plays Jason; Westfeldt plays Julie. Both are 30 something best friends who call each other at 4 a.m. to ask cloying questions, despite being in bed with other people at the time. The non-romantic couple is set in the context of two other couples, the hot-and-heavy Wiig and Hamm and the loving, baby-bound Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd. A title card flips us four years forward in the future, and babies have entered the lives of the two other couples, turning Wiig and Hamm against each other, while also making Rudolph and O'Dowd world-weary and worn-out. Because the plot indicates that Jules must be thinking of becoming pregnant, the two friends agree to conceive a child together, not be in a relationship, and share the costs and responsibilities in a 50/50 way. Sex happens, a title card jumps us 9 months into the future, and the non-romantic couple finds itself with a son. Complications ensue.

So, I'm not sure even where to start in dismantling why this film does not work.

There is clumsy editing, and I think even clumsier use of music in certain scenes.
Westfeldt's direction is not as focused or tight as it needs to be. My wife commented that a third act trip to a ski chalet could have served the same purpose and been repurposed into a party at a restaurant or apartment, where most of the film takes place anyway, and she's right. The ski chalet scenes are especially clunky. Megan Fox is probably the best that I've ever seen her here as a romantic interest for Jason; the charming Edward Burns is Kurt, a stand-up guy who disappears from Jules's life without the luxury of a scene to show it. The highlights are the supporting cast of Wiig, Hamm, Rudolph, and O'Dowd. The movie seems alive when they are on the screen in a way that it doesn't when Scott and Westfeldt are.

And in many ways, this gets to the heart of my criticism. Westfeldt has assembled four of the cast members from Bridesmaids, a smash hit from last year in part because it traded upon female relationships (Wiig and Rudolph, in particular) as well as raunchy comedy. Rudolph's recent work on Up All Night show her to be a fiercely funny actress, and Wiig is simply brilliant. So, why would you assemble a cast with two of the strongest modern actresses and relegate them to holding tissues, drinking wine and giving looks, as well as completely ignore the sense that any of these women are friends. There are no scenes in this film where Jules speaks with either Wiig or Rudolph candidly about her radical decision and lifestyle choice. There are no scenes in this film where Jules speaks with her mother or sister(s) or other confidante about what she's going through. When a key relationship is broken up in the film, Westfeldt allows one half of the relationship to have screen time analyzing it and explaining it; the female half of the couple gets zero screen time. And that's a problem for me.

I'm a fan of cursing and jaw-dropping lines. This film has plenty, though at times it seems clunky, trying too hard, and takes me out of the picture. The film seems over-long at times; I resent the writer putting the lines in the mouth of a child who has been silent the entire film only to make them force the climax at the end of the film. There's far too little going on in these characters' lives beyond themselves (the jobs are superficial at best; there's no sense that work is difficult to balance with having a kid, or that money is something that need be a concern). Westfeldt is simply not a strong enough or expressive enough actress to carry this film. Scott handles his line deliveries well (awkward as some of them are), but the central relationship does not work for me, and a conclusion that has been telegraphed from the first scene takes forever to arrive.

Last, the sexual politics of this movie are hesitant and frustrating. A modern take on relationships should acknowledge that these people have friends, family, mentors, people who love them who will talk to them about their choices. I have difficulty buying that any of the characters in this movie were ever friends; there's no indication that they support each other, care for each other, share history together. In a world where blended families do exist (children with divorced parents who have both remarried, etc...), there's little focus on the nuts and bolts of how a relationship is handled. We see drop offs and pick-ups, we see a heightened scene where Jason wants Jules to watch the kid on the ski trip. However, do we really see how this child has affected either of them in terms of their lifestyle, personal philosophy, or habits? I get the sense that this film could have ended radically differently in a nontraditional romantic comedy way, and I would have had more respect for it. However, it chooses not to, and this movie comes down to a series of wrong choices.

It was wrong for Westfeldt to cast herself in such a pivotal role.

It was wrong to regulate the strongest actors, actresses, and characters in the film to the margins or to mangle their performances in sloppy editing.

It was wrong to offer up a modern feminist protagonist who does not have serious conversations with any of the women around her in the film (and certainly does not talk about anything beyond herself, her baby, or her relationships).

It was wrong to expect this film with its budget, cast, and marketing to offer anything fresh or exciting in terms of a relationship movie in 2012.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home

Movie Review: Jeff, Who Lives At Home

Director: The Duplass Brothers: Jay and Mark Duplass

Reviewed: 16 March 2012

jamesintexas rating--***1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

A moving film, with a moving lead performance by Jason Segal, Jeff, Who Lives At Home keeps a narrow focus on Susan Sarandon as Sharon, the mom of two adult children, the eponymous Jeff (Jason Segal), a bong-hitting, Signs-obsessed basement dweller and Pat (Ed Helms), the driven, mean older brother who wants a Porsche and fails to see his crumbling marriage. Judy Greer is in a supporting role as Linda, Pat's neglected wife; Rae Dawn Chong also appears as Carol, Sharon's co-worker. The film focuses on these characters in the city of Lafayette, LA over the course of a single day, and the narrowness of focus is one of the film's many strengths.

In a way, the film is a study in grief, sketching out how the different family members deal with the loss of the father. Jeff seems a Lebowski-like disciple of reading signs in the world: a wrong phone call, a name that seems to have other meaning, a journey in the city turning into something greater, something deeper. Pat seems lost in himself, ignoring his wife, focusing on buying the Porsche, an ultimate symbol of achievement while not being able to afford it. Sharon stares at her picture of a waterfall at her desk in an office, frustrated with her two adult children and wishing for more for herself.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home, for me, exists as a study in flow. The Duplass brothers capture this at many times in the film, but in particular during an early basketball game where Jeff, who up until now has seemed schlubby and tentative, takes control and seems sure of himself, firing passes to other players, scoring at will. His brother Pat tries to exist in a state of flow, driving the Porsche at top speeds, showing it off to disastrous results. Instant messages disrupt the flow of Sharon's work day as she seems to have a secret admirer. There's movement in cars, busses, and water in this film, as well as Jeff's idea that you are put in the right place at the right time. The flow in Pat and Linda's marriage is stuck. A walking journey flows Pat and Jeff to the cemetery where their father is buried. A third act conflict fits naturally in with these concerns with both brothers having to make very real choices, as well as disrupt or become part of the flow around them.

I'm sounding esoteric and strange, but this film dealt with many of these deeply philosophical issues with tenderness and heart. Segal is winning and carries the movie quietly, while Helms is as unlikable as I've ever seen him. His desperation for an anchor, for anything to hold onto mid-way through the film is believable. Sarandon captures Sharon's quiet desperation perfectly. I like how it engaged the idea of being in the right place at the right time in a serious way. When a person lives their life looking for signs or believing that there are things pointing them in the right direction, is that both naive and freeing? Who has not ever experienced the serendipity of running into someone at the right time and wondered about fate, the universe, and control?

A word about the Duplass brothers' style: I'm not sure if I love the technique of zooming in on a character's face to show emotion constantly. It was distracting at points. There really was not a lot of music, and characters are treated warmly despite their flaws. Segal and Helms are a funny pairing, physically, heightened in a great scene in a hotel bathtub with both of them sitting with their legs sticking out. There's humor and delight in watching Segal tiptoe around or hide behind a candy machine in a hotel hallway. I've rated this movie 3 1/2 stars because I think it wrestling with some very deep ideas, and the last 15 minutes achieve a very coincidental climax for all characters involved. I was not a giant fan of Cyrus, their previous film, but I really enjoyed Jeff, Who Lives At Home, down to its final image, as well as its title: everything in its right place.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I hate people who talk during the movie!

Going to the movies is making me hate people. And, at times, it is ruining the movies.

A few years back, the jerk sitting in front of me at the second Kill-Bill film announced a surprise plot point to the theater before it happened. I still loved the film, but his talking ruined a moment for me, a moment that my favorite working director Quentin Tarantino was building towards. And years later, I've never forgotten it.

I buy into the Academy Awards and their "movies are magic" sentiments. This year, it seemed like the Academy made a concerted effort to remind us that attending movies is a communal, quasi-religious experience. Actor after actor recounted the thrill of seeing a film with a large audience. In the past six months, my movie-watching experience has deteriorated so much that I feel the need to challenge the Academy's love of community. What happens when going to the movies makes me hate people?

Don't talk during the movie. Don't talk, don't talk, don't talk.

My wife and I went to the Sundance Theater in downtown Houston, arguably the best, most artsy, most high class movie screen in town (you even have the option to pick your seats out online before hand). We went to see the Iranian film A Separation; Ebert gave it best film of the year, and at the time it was up for Best Foreign Film (which it won) and Best Screenplay. The theater was partly full. Since it was subtitled, many audience members felt the need to read the subtitles out loud or comment on the movie as it went along. And this was a theater of older people; no way can we blame this on the teenagers. There were none there.

When an older couple starts reading the subtitles out loud to A Separation, I'm at a loss of what I do beyond whispering "Shhh!!!" frequently, increasingly in volume, as well as the occasional turning of the head and silently staring to indicate, "Are you kidding me?" I'm a high school English teacher, as is my wife, so we are accustomed to having to wait for our students' attention. In the classroom, I can use the silent stare, heightening the awkwardness of the moment, or sometimes I can use the power of peer pressure with others at that table. I cannot do those things in a dark theater. In talking about this annoyance after the film, I wondered if there is a fundamental ignorance about behavior at foreign films with subtitles. Do some people generally think that since the film isn't in English they do not have to be silent? That it is okay to read the subtitles out loud to their partner? That they can have conversations about the plot while I'm trying to read the subtitles, listen to the actors' tones, processing the action and camera movement on screen ? I love going to the movies, and I always have. However, at what point does my enjoyment of the movie disintegrate because of the distracting behavior of others around me?

Last night, I was at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, seeing Turner Classic Movies' presentation of Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront introduced by the luminous Eva Marie Saint. After a tepid banter from the TCM host and some engaging, wonderful stories by Mrs. Saint, a gorgeous black and white print was projected upon the big screen at the MFA-H. This screen has been rated the number one screen in Houston. However, the audience was generally older, and the couple next to me had to continually interrupt the film to nudge each other to ask "Who is this? Is that Charley's brother? What is going on?" throughout the movie. A gentleman behind us towards the back row spent several minutes rustling through a loud plastic bag during Brando's infamous walking through the park while picking up the glove sequence, snapping my concentration and forcing me to look back multiple times. Phones only went off twice, which I guess is a pretty good record in a movie theater in 2012. At one point during the interview before the film, an older gentleman clearly unfamiliar with his iPad was using it to film the interview and then proceeded to accidentally play the video while Mrs. Saint was still speaking, only to endure the wrath of those around him with a plethora of "Shhh!"' and requests to "Stop that!" Yet, when the film started, the noises increased, and those people who were so bold and quick to police the audience during the interview portion of the evening melted away into the darkness and said nothing.

Where does this come from? Does some of it arise from our culture's increasing technological
fragmentation? Meaning, I'm writing this column right now with two computer screens open, iTunes running behind this screen, my facebook page and my goodreads page both open in case I choose to take a break. I've got headphones in as well. There are some movies at home that my wife and I make conscious efforts to watch without our laptops open or the newspaper spread before us, but I know that my viewing of Margin Call yesterday was partly limited because I didn't give it my full attention. Emailing, adjusting excel spreadsheets, and typing Spring Break assignments means that less of my eye is watching the screen. When we need to interrupt, we pause the movie, and we always have the ability to go backwards if we need to repeat something. As a society, are we so unfamiliar with focusing on just one thing (not checking our iPhones with a thousand things to distract us: sports scores, email-both work and personal, imdb, blogs, games), that when a movie in a theater dims the lights, commands us to power down our phones, are we really unable to focus on just one thing? Does the intensity and singularity of that focus make us uncomfortable?

I don't want to stop attending movies. I don't want to create scenes that get me kicked out of my favorite theaters. I don't want to only watch film at home by myself or with my wife on our television. I like the ritual of the movies: the previews, the popcorn, the comfortable seats (at least at Sundance), the staying until all the credits are done, the sight of Marlon Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis's face on the gigantic screen. And part of the joy of seeing a film in a theater for me is that I know that I am dedicating the next two hours or so to immersing myself in this world completely. Like it or not, I'm going to live in Scorsese's vision of Paris while watching Hugo; there is no escape route or screen to look away at while watching the film. Like it or not, a film like A Separation is going to put me into the grueling judicial, class, religious, and family systems of modern day Iran without a breather, without a break or intermission, and that relentlessness is part of the method and meaning behind the film.

So, my push for the Academy next year is to repurpose their message to American audiences. Instead of trying to build up a non-existent (or seldom existent) communal experience of watching a film on the big screen, they should rather promote the idea of watching movies as a sacred experience, comparable to attending the theater, the ballet, an interview, a lecture, etc... Audiences need to be reminded of the decorum of attending a film; with prices skyrocketing for tickets and so many options for viewing at home, the focus needs to be on the experience being pristine and unpolluted by talking, cell phones ringing, texting during the movie, or other distracting noises. My wife and two close friends saw On The Waterfront for the first time last night, and that's an amazing cinematic experience. I saw it in 1994 in Mr. Wetta's Composition, Literature, and Film course at York High School as a junior, on a tiny screen on laserdisc, and the class of juniors and seniors were silent during it, though my teacher did have to break it up into 4-5 parts to show on different days, as well as have brief discussions, things to look for before or after viewing. We were trained to write during the film, take notes, and then to have the discussion afterwards. I saw the film the first time in silence with solemn appreciation. My wife and two close friends had to fight the distractions all around them: talking, rustling, phones, etc... In short, the audience polluted Kazan's classic film for them.

I hate people who talk during the movie, and this isn't a diatribe against teenagers. How can we educate America (especially grown-up America) that reading subtitles out loud, informing your spouse who is who, answering your phone, texting, and the various other indignities are ruining the film going experience? And how do I do it without getting thrown out of a theater?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Margin Call

Movie Review: Margin Call

Director: J.C. Chandor

Reviewed: 14 March 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

I don't understand Wall Street. I'm not sure this film helped me understand it any better (or meant to).

What I think Chandor's Margin Call captures well is the heady, rushy feeling of being up all night in a crisis of some kind. It also captures at least three times the way crisis situations can throw people of radically different lifestyles and philosophies into contact with each other. This film is well-made, well-constructed, and shot in an interesting way.

When Spock discovers a file left incomplete by the recently fired Mr. Julia Child and completes it, this means that the house of cards at his financial firm is about to fall down. Spock sends it up the flagpole, culminating in an all-nighter with boss Keyser Soze, G.I. Jane, John Nash's invisible roommate, the Mentalist, and Scar who shows up via helicopter. They swirl around the numbers and try to figure out how to best profit from the impending implosion.

The first moment shows G.I. Jane and the Mentalist sharing an elevator with a cleaning lady. They continue their conversation over her head, literally and figuratively, and it is significant that they do not say hello or acknowledge her presence. She cleans the office; they are masters of the universe. Their actions have a ripple effect into the lives of everyday Americans like her. She does not warrant a hello or a name. A small moment but telling, I think.

The second moment is when a distraught young trader breaks down in the bathroom about being fired and losing this opportunity. He cries to the Mentalist, "This is all I've ever wanted to do!" The Mentalist, quietly and methodically shaving in the sink, looks at him with incredulity: "Really?" A person who loves what he does vs. a person who cannot even comprehend a person loving that job. Another look at two different worlds. Nicely done.

The final moment is a closing image of Keyser Soze, now more like Lester Burnham than Turkish gangster, digging a hole for his beloved dog in the front lawn of his ex-wife's home. The closing conversation between Lester and Stands-With-A-Fist shows him as a distraught man, forced to bury something cherished, aware of his loss of his family, his humanity, his dog, maybe everything. He just tried to get out of the firm, but Scar demands his loyalty for the next 24 months. He is not his own man. The burying has begun, foreshadowing the burying of the American people under these underwater mortgages and mountains of debt.

As Lester might say, "It's all downhill from here."

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Movie Review: Wanderlust

Director: David Wain

Reviewed: 12 March 2012

jamesintexas rating--**1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Wanderlust is Paul Rudd's movie. And I like Paul Rudd. Here, director David Wain wisely focuses on Rudd more than Jennifer Aniston, half of a power couple from NYC who purchase, lose, and abandon their micro-loft in the West Village in the span of about five screen minutes. George loses his job because his company is shut down by the Feds, presumably. Linda fails to get HBO on board with her documentary on penguins and testicular cancer. On their sojourn to Atlanta to live with a loathsome brother Rick (played unctuously by Ken Marino), George and Linda alternate singing and fighting, brilliantly captured in a two minute montage of the emotions of a long car ride. When the drive becomes overwhelming, they pull off the road, and instead of traveling down a small road to a Deliverance-style confrontation, they encounter nudist Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio) who helpfully tries to direct them but ends up causing a car accident. So, the couple stay overnight in Elysium, a commune led by the daffy Seth (a scene-stealing Justin Theroux), salty Carvin (Alan Alda, quite good), among other recognizable faces.
And thus, they consider joining the cult, rejecting the outside world and committing fully to living there instead of depending on George's brother Rick's insulting generosity.

Wain's positioned Elysium as an alternate lifestyle in direct opposition to the kind of impersonal big-city existence established in the first five minutes of the film. There are truth circles, lots of hallucinogenic drugs, the specter of free love, vegetables, yoga, and the omnipresent site of Wayne wandering around starkers. In an establishing shot one morning, I believe it is their first morning, Wain shows the entire compound in all of its glory: goats and horses wandering around, people working with nature, Seth's shouting out to the world against war. Wain satirizes this kind of existence, but his players are loving at all times. There are small undercurrents of menace at times, but in general, the performers commit to their characters and their bits or scenes work. Kathryn Hahn's angry cult-member seems consistently on the edge of lashing out; Kerry Kenney's clueless mama bear Kathy consistently delivers some of the funniest line readings. Lauren Ambrose glows as a pregnant cult-member (it took me the entire movie to remember her from Six Feet Under).

Theroux dominates this movie in a quiet way. His character is decidedly the leader and the mouthpiece for the group's philosophy which he espouses in a way that seems trapped in the late 80's; he lists the litany of technology that besets the couple and keeps them from self-actualization-walkmen, diskmen, and at one point he's amazed by Rudd's car CD-player). His quiet confidence juxtaposed against Rudd's manic nervousness reveals a choice that Linda has to make. Should I stay or should I go when George reveals a desire to retreat to NYC?

And that conflict is what I think ultimately pins the movie down and keeps it from true greatness. A radical character shift in Seth precipitates final confrontations and pay-offs that do not work (though I love the idea that he betrays his principles for a whole "$11,000"). There's a subplot involving Rudd's inability to abandon his monogamy that struggles. Rudd, gamely, indulges in the same sort of "Slappa-da-bass, mon!" improvisation that made I Love You, Man so wonderful. His three minute extended sequence of dirty talk is a highlight for the film. Yet, the film never congealed for me, it never moved beyond a series of successful sequences or bits.

I like how cars end up in the pond without ever being shown how they arrived there.
I like Michaela Watkins' bitter sister-in-law character and her commitment to solving her unhappiness.
Jo Lo Truglio is winning, even when nakedly discussing his upcoming book about a Beltway insider.
Shoot, State and Stella alums Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and director Wain are winning in two short sequences satirizing a morning news team.

However, the movie loses its steam with the final third. The laughs become less frequent. George's final fight with Theroux is just silly (considering his commitment to his body and capoeira), and both Aniston and Malin Ackerman seem underused or curiously sidelined.

Wain displays the love for a community in this film that dominated Wet Hot American Summer and to a certain extent Role Models. I wish that he pulled this film together more; it felt like at times, a better idea for an entire television season of bits and mini-stories (ala Portlandia) than a cohesive film. But, I will keep enjoying and laughing at his films.