Monday, November 30, 2009

As Oscar Rush Time Approaches...

I find myself oddly indifferent to most of the Oscar-baity films that are slated for release this holiday season. Which may mean that the end of December will be less crazed than usual for me when it comes to moviegoing...Then again, maybe not. I'll probably still want to see what the awards pundits are chattering about, even if I wouldn't be interested otherwise.

Here's where I stand right now in terms of movies that I've seen, want to see, and may want to see:

Movie most recently seen: RED CLIFF, or rather the condensed 2 1/2 hr version, cut for release in Western theaters, of John Woo's original 2-part extravaganza.

I'm not going to review it, mainly because my opinion has been heavily influenced by the opinions of others who tell me, on good authority, that it makes hash of both the history and literature on which it's based. "Red Cliff" purports to adapt the tale of a famous battle that took place during the 3rd-century Three Kingdoms period in China and is recounted in the even more famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The latter, for those of you who don't already know, is a classic work of Chinese literature that's basically the Asian equivalent of Homer's and Virgil's epics rolled into one. Having seen the film, all I'll say here is that it's great for visual spectacle - there are some truly fantastic action sequences - and the cast, which includes Takeshi Kaneshiro and the incomparable Tony Leung, bring plenty of star quality and sex appeal. But for accuracy...well, "Red Cliff" is about as faithful to its source material as "Troy" was to The Iliad. If that doesn't trouble you, then by all means go see it. Just don't assume that anything you see bears any resemblance to the original story.

If you want a more incisive and well-informed critique of "Red Cliff," check out my friend Jeff's review of the original uncut version. He comes down hard on the movie, but he knows what he's talking about - and I know others, well versed in The Three Kingdoms, who agree.

Movies currently out that I want to see:

FANTASTIC MR. FOX: Apparently the Wes Anderson film for people who hate Wes Anderson. As one of the latter (actually, I don't hate him, I just find him annoyingly twee - though I did like "Rushmore"), I'm curious.

ME & ORSON WELLES (not yet released in D.C.): Unlikely to be a serious Oscar contender in any category; nonetheless, I still want to see it, if only for the performance of the kid who plays young Orson Welles...No, not Zac Efron (though he's in it and I like him, too).

UNCERTAINTY (not yet released in D.C.): Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins play a young couple in parallel storylines, both set in New York. That description is a lot less interesting than some of the reviews I've read. Check out Salon and the NY Times.

BROKEN EMBRACES (not yet released in D.C.): Pedro Almodóvar's latest has not been garnering the rapturous praise that's usually showered on his work, but I'm intrigued by how much this movie seems to be a beautiful love letter to movies in general. Also, Penelope Cruz really shines in Almodóvar films.

and maybe

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS: Nicolas Cage crazy put to good use. Werner Herzog at the helm. Hallucinated iguanas. Sounds profoundly weird but potentially fascinating.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (not yet released in D.C.): I still can't figure out what exactly the plot of this movie is or why the heroine is dressed up as a princess when from what I understand she's a cook in 1920's New Orleans...but glowing early reviews and nostalgia, despite my better judgment, for the Disney princesses of my youth may bring me to this one. Awaiting more reviews.

Movies I'm trying to muster up the will to see:

PRECIOUS: Searing drama that puts a human face on an invisible underclass, or exploitative poverty porn that feeds off white liberal guilt? I'd like to judge for myself, but I'm not sure I have the stomach to watch the nonstop abuse that gets inflicted on the main character.

THE ROAD: Though the generally tepid reviews have probably doomed its Oscar chances (except maybe for acting), I'm curious to see how it measures up to the book. Also, I'm a Viggo Mortensen fan. But oy, the book was brutal, and the movie by all accounts no less so.

Upcoming movies I want to see:

UP IN THE AIR: I haven't been too excited by the trailers, but George Clooney's been on a roll lately, and the buzz coming out of the Toronto Int'l Film Festival for this film was very strong.

NINE: Early reports have been promising for "Chicago" director Rob Marshall's second movie musical, and the cast - Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren - speaks for itself.

A SINGLE MAN: Tiny arthouse picture about the day in the life of a grieving gay man (based on a book by Christopher Isherwood that I read in college but don't remember all that well) has been picking up huge Oscar buzz for star Colin Firth. Rest of cast, which includes Julianne Moore and others I'm forgetting, is also promising.

INVICTUS: Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Co-starring Matt Damon. Based on an inspiring true story. Um, unless Clint totally misfired on this one, there's no way it isn't going to be an Oscar frontrunner. But we'll see what the critics say.

Waiting for reviews:

AVATAR: I'm not prejudiced against fantasy, at all, or against James Cameron (despite "Titanic" and the big head he grew after it), but those blue people look kinda...silly.

THE LOVELY BONES: Good cast + great director + acclaimed novel = no sure recipe for success. Besides, the premise of the novel (spirit of girl who was raped and murdered guides her family to find her killer?) always sounded simultaneously treacly and creepy to me. I'll keep an open mind.

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS: Terry Gilliam is a weird dude. Sometimes that pays off. Sometimes it doesn't.

Probably forgetting some movies, and others will probably crop up in due course that aren't currently on my radar. Stay tuned...

Monday, November 23, 2009

I'm Not a "Twilight" Fan

but I have to say I'm struck, and a little perturbed, by the effect it's having...on young men.

They hate it. Oh, how they hate it - almost as much as their sisters and lady friends (and perhaps their mothers) love it.

Look at this ratings analysis of "New Moon," the second installment in the film franchise based on Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. In particular, look at the breakdown of ratings by gender (and, to a lesser extent, age).

Now there's nothing particularly shocking about those stats. It's no secret that the Twilight books are wildly popular among girls and women, not so much among men. And when it comes to the movies, that male-female disparity is pretty much par for the course for female-targeted films - especially in the IMDB universe, where the voting demographic slants heavily male and under 40, and bad "chick flicks" tend to be rated much more harshly than bad action flicks. That's not to say that IMDB voters have bad taste - only that their tastes really do not favor movies focused on, or tailored for, women. (Take a look at the current "IMDB top 250," especially the top 25, and you'll see what I mean. Even though it's really not a bad list as far as it goes.) Vampire movies usually fare better, but apparently not movies about vampires who choose to brood romantically over misfit girls instead of biting and sucking them.

But there seems to be an unusual degree of hostility towards the "Twilight" phenomenon among many males of a certain age - i.e., anywhere between 14 and 40 - that's plainly reflected in the flood of "1" ratings from 60% of male IMDB votes (how many of these guys do you think even saw the movie?) and online discussion threads with titles like "ARE GIRLS REALLY THAT STUPID?" (Answer: Yes. Yes, they are. But you, my dear, are probably just as stupid in a different way.) And among fanboys in particular, who are disproportionately represented on IMDB, one senses real outrage that such a huge population of fangirls could spring up over something they perceive as so idiotic and so unworthy of being in the company of, say, "The Dark Knight," which "New Moon" for a while looked like it might unseat for the title of best 3-day opening. Imagine the chill that that prospect must have sent down many a fanboy spine!

Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that "New Moon," which I haven't seen, is, in fact, as good a movie as "The Dark Knight" (though I continue to maintain that TDK is highly overrated), or even a good movie at all. The reviews, in fact, have led me to believe the contrary, which is why I have no plans to see it. Nor do I have any investment in the issue, as I haven't read a single one of the books; I've glanced once or twice at random pages of one or another of them and frankly been so repelled by the appalling prose style that I've never been able to read any further. (Meyer makes J.K. Rowling look like F. Scott Fitzgerald by comparison, and believe you me, much as I adore Rowling, prose style ain't her strong point.) But knowing what little I do of the premise of the series, I think I can understand the appeal it might have for impressionable girls - including the souls of impressionable girls that still lurk inside many otherwise mature and intelligent women.

And I think that the power of this appeal, as evidenced in the sheer obsessiveness of "Twilight"'s female fans, disturbs young men because they don't understand it, don't know where it comes from, and don't have a clue how to harness it. (Whereas their older fellow men in Hollywood, I'm afraid, understand only enough to make money from it.) Is the hysteria silly? Yes. Is it threatening? Well, I'll refrain from citing feminist chapter and verse on male fears of female sexuality, but I do believe it applies here. The "Twilight" case especially confounds men because what it sexualizes and romanticizes to the point of absurdity is, well, abstinence. Chastity. Unfulfilled desire. Not something that most young guys are likely to find compelling. Obviously I'm stereotyping broadly, but not, to my my mind, baselessly.

Ultimately what both amuses and annoys me about male backlash against "New Moon" - which echoes, in magnified form, a similar reaction I saw to the "Sex and the City" movie (admittedly, a very poor movie) - is how lacking in self-awareness it is. The same dudes who rail about how bad the movie is, and how dumb girls must be to fantasize about Robert Pattison or the werewolf-boy with the killer abs, see no irony in giving far higher ratings to the equally, if not more, terrible "Transformers" movies and fantasizing about Megan Fox. Maybe the difference is they know that Megan Fox is just Megan Fox. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sentimental "Education": The Story of a Bored, Brilliant, Before-Beatles Young Girl


directed by Lone Scherfig
starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson

“An Education” is that rare breed of film, a throwback that still manages to be delightfully fresh. At its most basic level, it’s a tale of a young girl, hungry for life, who meets an older, worldlier man she thinks is the answer to everything she wants—only to discover he really, really isn’t. Nothing new here, except the particular character of the girl. But that, as it turns out, makes all the difference.

The movie takes place in 1961, when Britain was at its squarest, dullest, and grayest—or so it seems, anyway, to Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a bright 16-year-old stuck in a prosaic corner of London with her loving but hopelessly bourgeois parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). Jenny yearns for a world filled with high culture and sophistication, in the form of fine art, music, and films (preferably French ones), and, in her words, “people who know lots about lots.” Her one hope lies in gaining admission to Oxford. For she’s the star of her class at her prep school, and she’s got the full driving force of her parents, especially her anxious, status-conscious father, behind her.

Then Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), an attractive man in his 30’s who seems to offer her a much quicker, pleasanter path to her dreams. His occupation and background may be a bit mysterious, but she knows right away that he’s just the kind of people whose society she craves, with his easy, agreeable manners and his air of cultivation, his expensive car and his superlative taste in music and flowers. Before long he’s squiring her to classical concerts, fashionable West End supper clubs, and high-end art auctions—never alone (he’s too canny for that), but in the company of his affable, beautifully dressed friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike). David is so smooth he even convinces Jenny’s parents that he’s a man of influence who can help elevate their beloved daughter to a better class. It’s all an act, of course, that eventually, inevitably comes crashing down, forcing Jenny to learn that there are no shortcuts to the life she desires.

That description makes “An Education” sound preachier than it actually is. In fact, the film treads almost too lightly for its own good. Based on the memoir of a British journalist, Lynn Barber, as adapted by Nick Hornby, Britain’s best-known comic chronicler of British boy-men, and the Danish director of “Italian for Beginners,” it maintains a breeziness of tone and a gentleness towards its characters that tends to gloss over the darker aspects of Jenny’s story. This occasionally strains credulity: in particular, Jenny’s parents seem absurdly naive in the face of David’s predations, even if one understands why they might have the incentive for willful self-deception. And though the movie doesn’t avoid showing David’s unsavory side, including the shady business ventures that fund his courtship of Jenny, it doesn’t dwell on their uglier social implications; they merely serve to confirm the basic point we already know—namely, that David’s a scoundrel.

What gives the film depth and grounding is the quality of the acting, which helps fill out the underwritten characters and render the unlikely developments more plausible. Molina makes the often frustrating character of Jenny’s father surprisingly sympathetic, while Sarsgaard, as David, strikes a careful balance between charming and slightly creepy. Olivia Williams is also excellent as Jenny’s concerned English teacher, and the great Emma Thompson pops up briefly and entertainingly as the headmistress of Jenny’s school. It’s always a pleasure to see Thompson on screen, even if her role here borders on caricature.

But it’s obviously Jenny who makes the movie, and thanks in large part to Mulligan’s vivid, confident performance, she emerges as one of the most fully realized young female protagonists to appear in any movie this year. Virginal but not artless, precocious but not wise, winsome but never cloying, she’s ultimately too smart and too resilient to be crushed by David’s perfidy, her parents’ foolishness, or her teachers’ disapproval. Mulligan, who’s been picking up a lot of well-deserved Oscar buzz, sparkles in a wholly believable way: watching her, we can only believe that her Jenny will take this experience just enough, but not too much, to heart, and become all the stronger for it. Here’s hoping the same holds true for Mulligan as an actress.


Monday, November 09, 2009

"Mad Men" Season 3 Finale: Made of Awesome!

“Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, how may I help you?”

That, right there, says it all. After an often-punishing season that seemed to be building to the collapse of the “Mad Men” universe and much associated misery, Weiner & co. instead presented us with a holiday basket of a finale. I don't know if I'd call "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" the best MM episode ever, but it was without a doubt one of the most satisfying and purely enjoyable. A corporate gut-and-run that plays like a ’60s heist film! Don, Bert, and Roger allies again! Peggy, Pete, and Joan back in the SC fold! Add to that Don having to give Peggy, and even Pete (admittedly under duress), the props they deserve, Lane Pryce throwing in his lot with the Yanks and finally telling PP&L where to get off, and plenty of guffaw-inducing lines to go around (golden pork chops! nervous poodles!), and there’s really not much more that any MM fan could desire.

In fact, the Great Sterling Coup was more than most fans probably imagined even in their headiest dreams. Who among us can honestly say we saw it coming? While I recall some speculation from a few particularly prescient folks that Don, Roger, and Bert might try to buy back Sterling Cooper, I doubt anyone could have foreseen that Don and Roger would set aside their grievances with one another, that Bert Cooper would get his mojo back (a beautiful thing to see), that Pryce’s indeterminate position would prove vitally useful, and, perhaps most importantly, that Don would finally swallow his pride and acknowledge the need to make others feel valued. It was like a tonic to see the fun side of “Mad Men”—which we haven’t really seen in a while—and all of our favorites together again, humming like a newly refitted machine. Well, all of our favorites minus Sal (who seems permanently uninvited from the party, given the continued importance of Lucky Strike) + Harry Crane, who continues to stumble his way up the career ladder. Does the man’s dumb luck never run out? Personally, I’d swap him out for Paul, who at least gives me a good laugh now and again, and whom I felt a twinge of sympathy for in the moment he realized, once again, he was being left behind.

Of course we don’t get to this point without an obligatory trip to Don’s dark side. The other major storyline of the episode—the Draper divorce—not surprisingly got overshadowed by the rebirth of Sterling Cooper. Yet the two plots are integrally related, as the implosion of Don’s family life causes him to reevaluate and take new direction in his professional life. The realization doesn’t come easily, to say the least: Don’s confrontation of Betty about Henry Francis was nakedly ugly and scary, not to mention hypocritical, and his goodbyes to Sally and Bobby heartbreaking. But ultimately he seemed to accept that that phase of his life, like his time at Sterling Cooper I, is over, and it’s time to start building a new one.

As for Betty and Henry, I find their pairing somewhat more interesting than most MM viewers seem to, but not so much that I want to see it front and center next season. That said, if they do end up marrying, I wouldn’t mind seeing them pop up occasionally as a rising power couple.

Which brings me to the broader question for MM: What next? And when next? Truthfully, I have no idea. I don't know whether season 4 will pick up a few months or a few years in the future. I don't know if the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will hit the ground running or flounder initially, or how much of the growing pains we'll see. More generally, I’ve been wondering for some time whether Don Draper—and by extension Sterling Cooper—will move forward with the sea changes of the ’60s, or be left in their wake. I’m still wondering. But they have Peggy, and they have Pete, and they have a reenergized Don. And to me, that means the world is theirs for the taking.

Some favorite moments (there were so many!)

-Trudy signaling to Pete - from another room, no less! - that he's going off the rails ("Peter, may I speak to you for a moment?"), followed by him shuffling his feet like a little boy and Don smirking. It's official, I'm on team Pete & Trudy. Though it'll be interesting to see what sharing a desk will do to the Pete-Peggy dynamic.

-Pete's nervously loud "Hey everybody, Harry Crane is here!"

-Bert Cooper threatening to lock Harry in the storeroom

-Don kicking down the door to the Art Dept.

-"Very good. Happy Christmas!"

-Every line out of Roger's mouth. Does John Slattery ever not kill in his delivery?

-Every moment involving Joan

-Every moment involving Roger & Joan

-This exchange:
Roger: Peggy, can you get me some coffee?
(A beat)
Peggy: No.

ETA: Did Don really say to Peggy "I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you?" I heard "won't." But "will" makes more sense in context, and makes that scene, in retrospect, quite moving.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

This Blanche-tt Doesn't Need Our Kindness, Thanks

The other night, I saw Cate Blanchett play Blanche DuBois at the Kennedy Center in D.C. She’s the marquee name in a touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire staged by the Sydney Theatre Company (which Blanchett and her husband co-direct) and directed by Liv Ullmann (aka Ingmar Bergman’s muse).

Blanchett aside, it’s a solid, perfectly respectable, unexceptional production. The staging isn’t particularly imaginative, but then Streetcar isn’t a play that needs much visual pizzazz. Joel Edgerton is quite good as the crudely territorial Stanley; the rest of the cast is competent, though some of them struggle a bit with the accents.

But what about Blanchett? Was she an iconic Blanche?

Well, she gave a strong performance. “Strong,” indeed, may be the operative word here: as an actress, Blanchett radiates such natural strength that I wasn’t sure how she’d play a woman I think of as, if not weak, certainly fragile and very, very damaged. She got around that difficulty by choosing to highlight Blanche’s theatricality – not a bad choice, considering the character is nothing if not the textbook drama queen. But as a consequence, her Blanche flies her freak flag a little earlier than I was expecting. This may well be by design; I’m just accustomed to thinking of Blanche DuBois as a woman who unravels by degrees, and is finally pushed over the edge when she sees her last, slender hope dashed. Blanchett does effectively capture her character’s caged desperation, though her voice would occasionally take on a steely resonance that, while thrilling, I couldn’t help thinking would easily cow even the most brutish Stanley Kowalski. In the end, of course, she’s broken, even though the rape scene isn’t staged as an unambiguous rape. One touch I liked was a brief tableau, shortly after the deed, showing Stanley passed out and Blanche sitting on the far side of the bed, her back to the audience. The slump of her shoulders in that moment conveyed more than the entire final scene that followed.

All in all, it was an impressive star turn by an impressive actress, if not quite the interpretation of the character I had in mind. When she was on stage, it was impossible to take one’s eyes off her—and isn’t that all that ultimately matters?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.12: "The Grown-Ups"

And so, despite suggestions in interviews that he would not deal directly with The Assassination, Matt Weiner chooses to tackle it head-on in the penultimate episode of the season.

More than most shows, the episode titles for "Mad Men" provide a ready-made framework for analysis of the show. This week's episode bears the title "The Grown-Ups," which immediately posits the natural question: Who are the grown-ups here? In an episode where a father figure consistently avoids or denies reality, a little girl comforts her mother rather than the other way around, and the most senior characters put immediate social obligations ahead of a national crisis, that answer is left deliberately murky.

I haven't anything to compare the JFK assassination with other than 9/11, but based on my memory of the latter and what I've read and heard about the former, I found the depiction of that day and its aftermath quite effective, if not especially original, and the reactions of the various characters 100% believable. (I wonder what the veddy British Pryce made of the whole thing?) Everyone behaved pretty much within character, from Roger's angry, almost comical bemusement ("Someone go buy a cake!") at his daughter's ghost town of a wedding reception - partly mitigated by a great toast - to the sight of distraught Carla sinking down on the sofa next to an equally distraught Betty and lighting up (two things you can bet she'd never do on any other day), to the growing solidarity of Pete and Trudy, who were totally awesome for flipping Sterling Cooper the bird...though I have to say Trudy looked a-ma-zing in that blue dress and I was sorry she didn't get a chance to show it off. And, of course, Peggy's shock upon realizing that Duck withheld the news from her so he could still get his "nooner." (tm Paul Kinsey, who made the most of his two lines in this episode.)

But the person whose reaction struck me the most was Don's, whose instinct to deny, deny, deny, and offer the one assurance he couldn't possibly back up - that "everything will be all right" - only led to the rapid crumbling of his universe, which had already started to buckle in the last episode. This may have been the first episode in the entire run of "Mad Men" in which I felt totally, completely, unreservedly sorry for Don, even though in so many ways he had it coming to him. It crushed me to watch him trying to be a good father in the beginning, to connect with Betty on the dance floor when her mind was clearly elsewhere (and really, Betty, how could you be so unresponsive to the look he was giving you? I melted, and I've been a longtime skeptic of the Irresistible Sexual Powers of Don Draper), and, near the end, to prevent her from running off to meet Henry Francis. And you could feel his utter devastation when Betty delivered the bombshell line: "I don't love you anymore." (And, of the kiss: "I didn't feel a thing." Ouch!!!) From the look on his face, I'm forced to conclude he loves her after all, or at least thinks he loves her. More likely, he just loves what she represents to him. But still. It hurts. It hurts to be told you're not loved. And what makes it most painful, to quote a poster on Television Without Pity,

This was exactly his worst nightmare - that, in seeing his true self, Betty would not love him and he would lose everything. Of course, it was a self-fulfilling prophesy. By lying to Betty all these years, and seeking solace outside of his marriage, he pretty much guaranteed this would be Betty's reaction. But it is something I think could break him.

I hope not. I like vulnerable Don Draper much more than imperious jerk Don Draper, but I don't want to see a broken Don Draper. I thought it was interesting that he didn't think to call or visit Suzanne, though I was bracing myself for it. OTOH, it was frustrating, though not unexpected, that he immediately fell back into his default mode: Deny. But of course it isn't working, as even the children noticed the next morning. Or at least, Sally did.

As for Betty, it's hard to tell what her next step will be. Notice she didn't tell Don she was leaving him....yet. Will she go for Henry? His proposal might seem like it came out of left field, but ever since he first appeared, I've always gotten the vibe that he might want more than a mere affair, notwithstanding hints that he's had plenty of those in the past. I just hope Betty's learned enough from her first marriage not to spring into another with a man she barely knows.

I also thought it was interesting that the writers once again chose to put Betty and Pete - two characters who don't directly intersect very often - on parallel tracks. Betty's own pause on the brink of a huge decision mirrored Pete's own dilemma after realizing that he has no place at SC. Will he take the plunge, now that Trudy's signed off on it? Will he go work for Duck? (Will he find out about Duck & Peggy?)

All this remains to be seen. Still one more episode this season to find out!

ETA: Alan Sepinwall makes the same observation about the Betty-Pete parallel, but I swear I didn't cop it off him.

Random notes:

-The demarcation between grown-ups and children may have been blurred, but in some instances it was very clear, e.g., the Sterling family. Good lord, but Margaret is a brat in need of a spanking. Mona, however, was fabulous, as even Roger acknowledged.

-That AquaNet ad will have to be revamped, though Peggy seemed to be suggesting it wouldn't?

-Best line, from drunk Jane, re: JFK: "He was so young and handsome...And now I'll never get to vote for him!"