THE HUNGER GAMES: Battle Royale With Cheese

24 03 2012

I’m so sick of people telling me I have to read Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES, and no, it’s not because I hang out with a lot of twelve year-olds, though I admittedly do, in a treehouse. Here is a young adult literary franchise that seems to have crossed over and made fans of non-young adults, even very non-young adults. And to hear them give me the hard sell, you’d think the thing were Dianetics or something. (Hail Xenu, BTW.) Ever since this phenomenon began, I’ve consistently said one thing: ‘leave me alone, I’ll see the movie,’ and ever a blogger of my word, opening night I ventured out to see THE HUNGER GAMES directed by Gary Ross. I sat through it beginning to end, didn’t get up to pee or fall asleep, and no, I’m sorry to report, Hunger-heads, this film didn’t inspire me to go back and devour the novels. Though I did come home and drunkenly Wikipedia the synopses of the sequels, which means technically, I can say I’ve read the whole series. So check mate, pre-adolescents.

The first thing to say about Ross’s HUNGER GAMES is, the handheld camera moves and shakes fucking non-stop. The second thing to say is, practically every foot of film is excessively cut, so that the consistency of this adventure is straight mush on an aesthetic level. Apparently this is done to convey some sense of subjective realism, but instead it’s just nausea-inducing. Nothing looks good here. The production design consists of a single idea, borne out to the power of ugly. Ross & Co. create in color a contrast between the rural industrial life of the oppressed, and the literally colorful excess of the elite. Translation: on top of shaking and chopping his film into artless pulp, Ross is also assaulting you with the most garish costumes and sets since LOGAN’S RUN. (This is a film that appears destined to age about as well as that one…)

Stanley Tucci (left), seen here chewing the Tyvek and styrofoam scenery

More than likely though, the limitations here aren’t just Ross’s as a director, but also those of the production budget, which judging by the overhead CG shots of the ‘Panem’ capitol city, was on par with a SyFy Channel original… Not to mention the limitations of an MPAA PG-13 rating that must be upheld over all so that children who read the book can actually see the film. That’s all well and good, and I’m not filled with blood lust or anything, really I’m not. But I would have liked our protagonist Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) to have to reckon with her own violence in the end. In one way or another, every time she kills, it’s always by at least one degree of removal. She kills, but technically, doesn’t, and so goes through the story morally blameless – which is fine for kids, sure, but it may be boring for grown-up’s. And I guess I’m one of those now. (Shit.)

Instead of our heroine confronting her brutality, we get a climactic mea culpa from some other teenager named Cato (Alexander Ludwig,) a villainous twerp who, facing death, starts blabbering like Stallone in the end of FIRST BLOOD. Poor Cato isn’t the only casualty of a choppy, sloppy adaptation. Supporting players Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland and Wes Bentley all come off as one-dimensional caricatures, some veering into high camp, others not. Yeah yeah, I’m sure they were better in the book, but here they’re under-served. What exactly is Lenny Kravitz’s character Cinna meant to be? The ‘Kindhearted Stylist with No Other Discernible Personality Traits’? How compelling. Ironically, Kravitz, who came to pop prominence because his hair was more interesting than his music, is basically the one actor here without an absolutely ridiculous wig.

Friends, countrymen, I was paid $400,000 for three days of shooting.

Apart from giving short shrift to characters, the screenplay also glosses over seemingly significant story points. Example: Katniss’s home team ally Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is seen at one point early in the games forming an alliance with Cato against Katniss, yet when Peeta and Katniss meet up later, she gladly saves his life and his betrayal is never discussed. Never! At the end, they’re even in love. Seriously. Nonsense. And let’s not even try to parse the conundrum that is the physical universe of the games themselves. How is it that these kids are all battle royale’ing inside a domed forest where giant fireballs and monster (ZOOL) dogs can be digitally manifested and flung at them with the touch of game-master Wes Bentley’s button? Maybe I’m mistaken, but I thought matter can’t be created or destroyed? Or do the rules of Y.A. lit supercede the rules of Newtonian physics? Again, there’s probably a smart explanation of the mechanics behind the games in Suzanne Collins’ book, but I haven’t read the book, so the film failed me as an outsider.

Maybe it’s the rush to market or the schizophrenia inherent in making a children’s movie dark and edgy, but there’s a slipshod approach to THE HUNGER GAMES that runs through its every element: the incomplete scripting, the unappealing design, the one-note performances. Admitting that, it also seems clear that a more elegant handling of this source material by a different director might have made me care. So, pre-teen treehouse pals, I suppose I can see the appeal, but for now I’ll just sit back and watch you all chow down, ‘cause I sure ain’t hungry for more.

I’ll stick with TWILIGHT.


Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Friday March 23, 5:30pm showing


2011: The Year In Spielberg

24 01 2012

By all accounts, Steven Spielberg hasn’t had a lean year since the early 1970’s. Dude’s got no problems getting work – but even by the standards of an average Spielberg year in which the man’s got multiple pots on the stove, 2011 was a prolific one. By my count, Spielberg’s name was on six major motion pictures: WAR HORSE, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, SUPER 8, REAL STEEL, COWBOYS & ALIENS, and TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON.

Granted, for the last three of these, Spielly wore the ‘executive producer’ hat,  so while the quality isn’t necessarily reflective of his skills, these are at least in name Spielberg movies. All six of them. And what do the six say about the Spielberg State of the Union? Well, I’ve finally seen them all – and here’s The Official Steven Spielblog Steven Spielberg Report.

All right, I haven't seen REAL STEEL. 5 out of 6 ain't bad!

The least of the lot, it’s painfully obvious to anyone who sat through it, is TRANSFORMERS, the unholy third entry in the Michael Bay franchise. The only interesting thing about the TRANSFORMERS films is how they’ve effectively flopped the way in which films are rolled out in relation to their merchandising. Spielberg and George Lucas certainly revolutionized movie merch with the myriad toys that have resulted from their biggest blockbusters – but with TRANSFORMERS’ success under the Dreamworks brand, we now have the cart in front of the horse. The newest one-sheet poster for Universal Pictures’ upcoming Transformers cash-in BATTLESHIP actually bears above-the-title line From Hasbro, the company that brought you Transformers.” You know, as if Hasbro were a movie company, and not a toy company. Now, the movie itself is effectively a toy, and is marketed as one.

It's just like DEADWOOD, but with aliens instead of all that interesting shit.

Less criminal than TRANSFORMERS – marginally – is COWBOYS & ALIENS, one of 2011’s biggest commercial failures. It’s another ‘cart before the horse’ scenario, this time with the cart being that goofy title – which was clearly the reason this film was ever made. Of all the latter day Spielberg fingerprints showing up here, the most disturbing are its very boring aliens, which reminded me of a cross between the personality-devoid tripods in WAR OF THE WORLDS, and the dull extraterrestrials that were apparently meant to astonish (and not enrage) us at the end of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF I AM LITERALLY CRYING AS I’M WRITING THIS TITLE.

Spielberg’s certainly given us his share of classic aliens over the years. But recently, his aliens have become increasingly homogenous, and COWBOYS & ALIENS feels like a continuation of that, if not at Spielberg’s explicit instruction, then in the spirit of CRYSTAL SKULL. As has been noted recently, you can sort of gauge Spielberg’s outlook on society at any given moment by his aliens. And if that’s true, then it strangely doesn’t appear that the man has much on his mind. What sets the nondescript aliens of COWBOYS apart? Only their surroundings. And who hasn’t seen a Western before?

Don't look directly into the nostalgia!

Into that ‘boring alien’ file drops SUPER 8, on which Spielly isn’t an executive producer but a full producer. SUPER 8 is a Frankenstein monster of early Amblin product; director J.J. Abrams (who by his own admission owes Spielberg his career,) leaves no trope unturned – and yet what Spielberg was able to do effortlessly in his early heyday, weaving emotion into breathless suspense set-pieces, is done here with an overt, clinical precision. Abrams’ effort is exactly the point of the thing. And as in COWBOYS & ALIENS, if you remove the specific nostalgic context from the story, you’re left with just another alien. I think this one was a bluish color…? Maybe green-gray…?

If all this sounds dangerously close to Spiel-bashing, don’t take it that way. I’m a fan, duh, and I’m just as aware as anyone that the cinematic development process is one of infinite voices, infinite opinions, checks and balances, and to pin the quality of any of those three films on Spielberg himself would be totally naive. As for what Steven Spielberg actually directed himself in 2011, well, you’ve got two very different films – different from each other, different from what he’s done before – and that speaks well of the man. When it comes to his most personal output, he continues to push himself.

WAR HORSE: You will believe horses are real!

In the case of WAR HORSE, Spielberg adapted a successful children’s book and its theatrical version, and in doing so, removed the single biggest reason to recommend it; that being the brilliant stagecraft that’s central to the play, in which after five minutes or so, you believe that you’re watching a real live horse, and not three men operating a life-size puppet. The film is filled with Spielberg Face, (chronicled so well here,) the very same that Sam Neill and Laura Dern wear when staring at that first brontosaurus in JURASSIC PARK. Except instead of being wide-eyed and slack-jawed looking at a dinosaur, well, it’s a horse. Not quite as cool.

But cool isn’t really the point of WAR HORSE. It’s old-fashioned entertainment, light on spectacle, heavy on horse, and there’s something commendable about that, as an undertaking for the master of visual effects blockbusters. But man, are there flaws. To return to the idea of the groupthink that’s central to  much of filmmaking, one of the biggest problems of this film is the input of Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. He’s an Oscar winner, sure – aren’t we all? – but he has a terrible habit of shooting practically every single frame with a hot white backlight, which outlines the edges of any given character’s face, making them look like a paper doll in a far-off environment. It’s a miscalculation that’s glaringly displayed through WAR HORSE, and it took me right out of the film in some of its most poignant moments.

Again, this isn’t necessarily criticism of El Jefe himself, but the buck stops at Spielberg. He makes films by committee, and Kaminski’s one-size-fits-all lighting scheme should have been vetoed, particularly after Kaminski did the exact same thing in INDIANA JONES AND THE TITLE I KEEP WRITING IN SPITE OF HOW SAD IT MAKES ME, where Kaminski and Spielberg claimed to be aiming for a faithful emulation of Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography in the original Indy trilogy, and then, there was that hot white light. Everywhere. Or take a look at the opening scene of CRYSTAL SKULL – that unsettling orange sunset – and then watch WAR HORSE. It’s here, too. Not at the beginning, but at the very end. Spoiler Alert! The end of WAR HORSE is bright fucking orange! And it’s still all shades of wrong.

Andy Serkis (left) and Probably Also Andy Serkis (right)

Which brings us to the best Spielberg film of the year, the one he got right, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, which is if nothing else an amends for CRYSTAL SKULL; the inventiveness of its many action sequences outshines anything in that last adventure. And though it pains me deeply to say it, it’s also easier accepting bouncy little Tintin as an action hero than a sleepy 65 year-old Harrison Ford. This is also Spielberg’s first animated film, and the sense you get watching it is that the man is really having fun with a new set of tricks, manipulating his camera and characters in ways he’d long dreamed of but had never had the means to do. Whereas CRYSTAL SKULL was Spielberg trying to recreate the alchemy of his own classics, this is him free to try anything he can imagine, unconstrained by physics.

What TINTIN doesn’t have, is any subtext or point. Though the film may in some ways be a response to the fury of Indy fans, it lacks the key ingredient of the Indy films – which is their underlying debate between faith and science, with Indiana Jones batted back and forth between earthly perils and supernatural anomalies. Tintin, by contrast, becomes unwittingly embroiled in a search for some sunken treasure, and- that’s about it.

If there’s one uniting trait to all of Spielberg’s cinematic output in 2011, it’s that these were all children’s movies. In 2012, the juvenilia apparently out of his system, Spielberg’s grown up again; his long-gestating LINCOLN starring Daniel Day-Lewis drops at Christmas. Kaminski, if I see one backlit stovepipe hat, I’m coming at you like John Wilkes Booth.

Steven Spielberg presents Abraham Lincoln as you've always imagined him: over-lit.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO: The Remake with the English Accents

25 12 2011

Surprise is a tricky commodity when it comes to movies, because it’s so subjective. What surprises me may not surprise you, which is why a Spielblog review of David Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is a tough one to write this most Christmasy Christmas morn. I haven’t read the books by Stieg Larsson, but I’ve seen the Swedish films, and I’m not alone in my awareness of their unlikely hit status. At this point, if you aren’t somewhat familiar with the DRAGON TATTOO craze, it’s clear you haven’t set foot in an airport bookstore recently. Or an H&M for that matter. But, if you have managed to avoid spoilers this long and your Swedish is rusty, then by all means this English language version is worth watching.

H&M's officially licensed 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' clothing line. Because evidently, that's acceptable.

Fincher is a stylist over all, so one thing that’s not surprising is that his film looks terrific. Visually it’s dark and intricate in a way the Swedish version isn’t. (The credits sequence set to a Karen O. version of ‘Immigrant Song’ is particularly sick.) But structurally, Fincher’s version hews close to the Swedish film, as it does to the source material – so in spite of its impeccable surfaces, this film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime passed slowly for me. Maybe it won’t for you. Daniel Craig fills the thankless role of Mikael Blomkvist, the disgraced journalist who’s hired to research a decades-old disappearance. But there’s a reason this ain’t called “The Guy who Knows the Chick with that Freaky Tattoo.” Blomkvist’s better half, goth-chick-hacker Lisbeth Salander is the star, and in that role Rooney Mara is slightly more effective than Noomi Rapace was, if only because Mara looks child-like in a way Rapace doesn’t – which makes her brutalization and vengeance that much more disturbing.

Most surprising about the massive appeal of this story is that its most unique and memorable portion, Lisbeth Salander’s self-contained revenge tale, has run its course well before the film and book is through. It’s a bizarrely compelling subplot, and once it’s done, the conclusion of the bigger procedural mystery is much less interesting by comparison. Once that’s all been wrapped up in Fincher’s version, there are still almost fifteen minutes to go, some of which involve characters watching television news to learn about how other plot elements have resolved themselves elsewhere. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, this version and all others, hits its high point in the second act, not the third. That much, Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillain didn’t fix. But if they had, I’d have been surprised.

… Oh, and P.S., the American version contains a HUGE plot hole – which is the one big difference from the novel & Swedish version. Spoiler warning!

M:I-GP – Brad Bird Does the IMPOSSIBLE.

19 12 2011

When lil’ Steven Spielberg found himself with the keys to Hollywood in the post-JAWS late 70’s, one of the first projects he expressed interest in pursuing was a James Bond film. Having grown up on the Sean Connery films, the Bond series must have represented for Spielberg a cinematic rune – timeless, tried and true – and it was to be considered a real honor to carve your notch on it. Following a snubbing by Cubby Broccoli and a Hawaiian vacation with George Lucas, however, Spielberg’s Bond became RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, (it’s no coincidence that Connery plays Indy’s father in LAST CRUSADE.) But what would a Spielberg Bond film have looked like? If you’re anything like me, that’s a question that keeps you awake every single night. But with Brad Bird’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL, I think you and I may finally be able to sleep. Because this film strikes me as more or less just the sort of Bond film Spielly would have turned out. And yes, coming from the 100% Official Spielblog, that’s high praise.


Bird, an auteur with a background in animation, has chosen for his first outing in live action to carve a notch not on the Bond series, but on a series whose existence is inextricably tied to Bond (the M:I TV series came about in the spy-crazed 60’s as a direct response to Bond’s popularity.) And Bird, like Spielberg, is a terrific choice to enliven a waning spy franchise, because Bird also understands that when people say they like the gadgets of films like this, we’re not just talking laser wristwatches and underwater cars, we’re talking about the mechanisms of the films themselves: the sequences of suspense constructed around raising stakes and upending expectations – and laser wristwatches. These are the gadgets of the Bond and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series. Luckily, the nifty hand-held gadgets of GHOST PROTOCOL are matched by the sequences in which they’re displayed. The story hurtles precisely from setpiece to setpiece, all novel, and all, more importantly, exciting – not merely explosive. The mid-film Dubai tower heist is arguably the best stand-alone chapter in the whole series, a half hour of pretty exquisite editing and stunt work.

Tom Cruise, People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive (1990)

As a 90’s kid, I enjoyed the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. But that motherfucker was serious, sometimes to the point of dour-ness. DePalma’s trademark over-stylization fit the plot, which amounted to an elaborate ‘through the looking glass’ manipulation by corrupt members of Cruise’s own team; an interesting way to start a film franchise. The second MISSION, as well as the third, were made in an age (so very very long ago) when Tom Cruise still had commercial viability as a romantic lead – so each of them was saddled with a fast-forward-worthy romance element. In the bizarre M:I-2, duties went to Thandie Newton. In the forgettable M:I-3, to Michelle Monaghan. Since about 2005 though, Cruise’s appeal for the ladies has steadily diminished (I can’t imagine why,) and GHOST PROTOCOL wisely doesn’t fight against the tide. It reflects Cruise-as-action-star, and wastes no time on Cruise-as-romantic-lead. Certainly, Cruise himself deserves credit for this choice. As a producer of GHOST PROTOCOL, he could have shoehorned in a love story. And he wouldn’t have been the first aging movie star to insist on casting himself as Casanova past expiry. So, thanks, Tom.

The plot of GHOST PROTOCOL is not worth a sentence summary, we’ve seen it that many times before. (Quick, disable that thingy before the other thingy does its thing!) It meets franchise protocol, let’s just say that – but Bird artfully jumps the expositional chatter, and renders any complaints about the plot more or less moot. Bird’s film is an embodiment of action over words, and in that sense it’s a better MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie than we’ve ever gotten. On its fourth go-round, here is a series that surprisingly, finally seems to have found its proper tone. Humor and tension keep it afloat, as opposed to logic-bending betrayals, excessive angst, or spies-in-love bullshit. And in the case of John Woo’s sequel, dramatic slo-mo pigeons. Not a one here.

Brad Bird cut his teeth on the best seasons of the best television show ever, THE SIMPSONS, from 1989 through 1998. From there, his resume gets only slightly less impressive. THE IRON GIANT. THE INCREDIBLES. RATATOUILLE. His live action debut is nothing more, or less, than a near-perfect James Bond flick – and the world could always use one of those. Where does Bird go from here? Don’t care. Can’t wait.


Arclight Cinerama Dome, Hollywood

Sunday December 18, 5:30pm showing

Academy DVD Screener Round-Up!

5 12 2011

In Hollywood, there are two types of people: those who’ve risen through the ranks, paid dues, gained industry-wide respect and been recognized with membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences… and then there are assholes like Steven Spielblog who go over to the homes of A.M.P.A.S. members, and watch all their Oscar-season screener DVD’s. This past weekend, I shamelessly devoured a metric ton of them. Here’s my report:

J.J. Abrams (right) directs SUPER 8

With SUPER 8, J.J. Abrams attempts the acrobatic feat of remaking every single Steven Spielberg film all at once, and again proves that he’s a better student of film than he is a filmmaker. Lose the near-constant lens flare and chock-a-block nostalgia, and the story here barely qualifies as a full one. Not for adults, anyway. As a Spiel-worshipper, I should say that it’s commendable that Abrams made a children’s film that’s meant to be a contiguous addition to the 80’s Amblin catalogue (with the man’s name on it, no less,) and if SUPER 8 turns kids onto CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, well, terrific. But in every other way, this is just a faithful footnote that strikes a grown-up fan as puny alongside the classics.

Johnny Depp as Donald Rumsfeld in THE RUM DIARY

Johnny Depp does Hunter S. Thompson proud in his portrayal of Paul Kemp, the protagonist of Thompson’s long-gestating semi-autobiographical novel THE RUM DIARY. The meandering but likeable film built around him has its highs (Richard Jenkins) and lows (Amber Heard,) but it hangs together – barely – as a result of a few choice lines, some priceless Depp deadpanning, and perfect costuming by the great Colleen Atwood. Still, crack open a Webster’s to the word “rental,” and this is what you’ll see.

Yeah, didn't make it to this part.

I didn’t make it through PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES. I shut it off. And no I will not apologize. Next!

The stuffy, overlong biopic J. EDGAR relies on the same narrative framing device as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s last film, MILK. It’s the “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” approach, in which the main character actually says the line “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” (or some minor variation of it,) and we then launch into a series of flashbacks. In J. EDGAR’s case, the flashbacks fare better than the ‘present day’ material, if only because in the role of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging make-up is so hilariously wrong. The only believable aging anywhere in J. EDGAR is on America’s childhood crush Lea Thompson, who shows up in a small role. Lea, bless her, now without aid looks almost exactly like Lorraine McFly circa 1985 in BACK TO THE FUTURE. For your consideration in the category of Best Makeup: Time!

THE SKIN I LIVE IN is so good, you too may lick your TV screen.

Take Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, turn the ‘that’s fucked up, yo’ meter to eleven and dub it en Español, and you’ve got an idea of the treat you’re in for with Pedro Almodóvar’s newest, THE SKIN I LIVE IN. In SKIN, Antonio Banderas stars as an obsessive doctor whose live-in experiment (the gorgeous Elena Anaya) holds a dark secret… dot dot dot. Only Almodovar could pull something as twisted as this off and still make it so darkly hilarious, which does with typical style. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is weirder than anything he’s done in years, and what it lacks in the empathy of one of his masterworks like ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, it makes up for in inspired macabre suspense. I loved it.

When brothers fight, we ALL win.

A manly melodrama, or “man-o-drama,” Gavin O’Connor’s WARRIOR casts Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as estranged brothers who enter an ultimate fighting championship in Atlantic City. Hardy’s the brooding/brawny Iraq vet, Edgerton the family man who can’t pay his mortgage, so he turns to professional bludgeoning. (And what’s more American than that?) The fighting on display is repetitive, but no matter, it’s the brothers’ emotions and motivations that take center stage, and in that arena WARRIOR clicks, particularly when booze-battling father Nick Nolte’s on screen. He makes a believable pops to both, and a believable alcoholic too, turning in his best work since AFFLICTION. But WARRIOR’s a film primarily for guys who think ‘Affliction’ is a clothing brand. Don’t worry, it’s safe to cry here, Ed Hardy Boys. No one will see you weeping inside the UFC cage…

Evil nazi gynecologist Jesper Christensen in THE DEBT

It’s no secret my favorite genre is ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ so John Madden’s THE DEBT lands squarely in my sweet spot. It’s a suspenseful piece that builds to a gripping climax, with a superb cast playing characters in early days and later (Jessica Chastain turns into Helen Mirren, Martin Csokas turns into Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington turns into Ciaran Hinds,) a choice on Madden’s part that underscores the sense that our heroes’ dealings with the brutal Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen) totally change them as human beings. Even so, the back-and-forth is just this side of distracting, with one too may inconsistent accents – and, you know, the fact that Sam Worthington looks absolutely nothing like Ciaran Hinds. But regardless of your affection for the ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ this one’s worth your money. Or in my case, it’s worth – free! Ah, the joys of watching someone else’s Academy screeners! Sincerely, boo-yah.


4 12 2011

Like Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne makes films that address the chaos of human experience. And thankfully, they’re funny too. THE DESCENDANTS, his newest, is no exception in either regard. In it George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian attorney whose life is turned upside-down when his wife is thrown from a speedboat and falls into a coma. Complicating matters are King’s adolescent daughters, the elder of whom informs Matt that his wife was cheating on him.

You're entering a world of Payne.

It’s a trailer-happy setup, but THE DESCENDANTS, like Payne’s other films, unfolds in unexpected and poignant ways. Its relaxed pace is underscored by multiple cross-fades and a soundtrack consisting mostly of solo acoustic guitar. But even slow-going, the film’s never dull, thanks to two equally strong performances by Clooney and Shailene Woodley as his teenage daughter Alex. My sister informs me Woodley’s on a show called ‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager.’ But because I’ve never seen it and never seen her, I’ll go ahead and call her a newcomer. Anyway, she’s fantastic.

In ELECTION, Matthew Broderick’s attempt to wreak havoc on the student council led to his shaming, but the film’s coda found him, finally, happy; his sins were zero-sum. In SIDEWAYS, Paul Giamatti objected to Thomas Haden Church’s pre-wedding philandering, but ultimately covered for him. And in ABOUT SCHMIDT, Jack Nicholson set out to stop the wedding of his daughter to a mulleted moron only to back off and retreat to his lonely widower’s life. In each of these films, Payne’s leads walk the line between order and chaos, between hanging on to a principle and letting go in the face of alienation. In THE DESCENDANTS, Clooney’s Matt King is unable to get closure following his wife’s accident, and the push/pull between what he feels necessary to create order while staring into the abyss, is the film’s central focus. Does he track down the other man? Can he confront him? Should he? THE DESCENDANTS comes closest to ABOUT SCHMIDT as far as Payne’s back catalogue goes, with King’s crisis of impotence echoing Schmidt’s, and the search for the other man filling the void of grief as did Nicholson’s journey across the U.S. to stop his daughter’s wedding. As in SCHMIDT, the journey becomes the coping mechanism. But what happens when the journey ends?

SPOILERS, that’s what.

George Clooney and Beau Bridges, as Beau Bridges.

When King does finally face his wife’s lover, he’s played by none other than Matthew Lillard, apparently sprung from movie jail. (The terms of his parole, I assume, include staying 500 yards from Freddie Prinze, Jr. at all times.) King asks his foe how it all got started. “It just happened.” “Nothing just happens,” responds King. It’s perfect dialogue. Not only is it just what the cuckolder would respond in such a situation, but at the proper moment it gets right to the core question of THE DESCENDANTS, and of Payne’s films taken in total: if shit happens and all we can do is react, what’s the point of doing the right thing? Payne’s protagonists consistently ask this question of themselves. This, to my mind, is what makes them, and the films about them, so human.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE: Sundance Darling, Spielblog Kindling

31 10 2011

To say what I really want to about Sean Durkin’s MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, I’ve got to reveal some SPOILERS. But for those who choose not to read on, let’s just say that the biggest problem with the film is that ultimately, it doesn’t reveal much.

MMMM jumps back and forth in the story of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen,) taken in by charismatic/monstrous Patrick (John Hawkes,) who keeps young women hostage on his dilapidated rural farm, renaming them as he sees fit – hence ‘Marcy May.’ (I won’t spoil ‘Marlene.’) After escaping Patrick’s cultish group and returning to her estranged family, Martha is forced to confront her demons, and we piece together just what happened on Patrick’s farm, as she does.

Elizabeth Olsen, the star of next week, this week

Martha’s sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson,) who hasn’t seen Martha in two years, doesn’t seem to think it’s fit to pry into where exactly she’s been since last they spoke. Martha claims to be getting over a rough break-up, and leaves it at that. Lucy, either too polite or too self-centered, doesn’t push Martha for details, even as Martha’s behavior turns increasingly bizarre. So while we the viewer watch the depraved conduct of Patrick’s brood in the past tense, every time we return to the present, Lucy fails us, as she fails to break Martha out of her shell.

Because the film opens with Martha fleeing Patrick’s hovel, we can only assume she has good reason to do so. As we jump back again and again, the menacing Patrick comes into focus – but what, with all these flashbacks, do we finally discover about him? Only that he’s a creep, and (surprise!) he has the capacity for violence. In other words, we really learn nothing about him that we can’t already infer from Martha’s escape in the first place. Her whole entire experience with Patrick’s group leads to a senseless murder in the midst of a home invasion. And it’s that violence, evidently, that spurs Martha to fly. But that’s it. If you’re going to construct your indie film on ominous flashbacks, kids, please, let them actually build to something interesting. How many times do I have to say it?!

John Hawkes (left) and members of his FULL HOUSE... Olsen Twins joke FTW!

After much portentous dawdling, the final scene in MMMM, the big twist, is that after two hours of ‘Non-Inquisitive Sister’ not asking ‘Obviously-Fucked-Up Sister’ where exactly she’s been, Lucy convinces Martha to go to a treatment center. And in the car on the way to rehab, we see Patrick’s SUV on the roadside. It pulls out behind Lucy’s car, begins tailing them – and just as Martha turns to look over her shoulder, panicked, we cut to black. The end. No doubt this is the reason MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE received distribution. It’s an anti-climax that will get people talking (even if it’s nothing you didn’t see in the final episode of THE SOPRANOS.) Perhaps the whole point of the film is that Martha’s refusal/inability to discuss what happened is what makes her vulnerable to the vengeance of Patrick; the act of retribution itself doesn’t matter, and so is withheld. If only Martha had told Lucy where she’d been, and what had happened to her, then they could have stayed safe. D’oh.

Except, of course, that Lucy – were she not a frustratingly thin character – would have gotten this information out of her sister already, if not in the moments immediately after picking up Martha in Upstate Nowhere, then certainly after the scene in which Martha curls up at the foot of her bed as she and her husband are mid-intercourse. I mean, if that doesn’t force you to shake the shit out of your kid sister until she comes clean, really, what will? It’s a funny scene – but in a film with zero sense of humor, should we assume it’s intentionally funny?

Sundance hype aside, Elizabeth Olsen, younger sib of Mary Kate & Ashley, turns in an outstanding debut performance as Martha. She’s so good, in fact, she almost makes you forgive her character for being so foolish; not just foolish enough to be taken in by such a foul creep in the first place, but foolish enough to keep her mouth shut for so long after the fact. The film then plays like a sort of indie/arthouse slasher flick, except instead of screaming at the screen “bitch, stay outta the attic!” you’ll find yourself screaming “bitch, seek counseling immediately!” To no avail. If MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a statement on psychic paralysis – the past is never dead, it’s not even past – then point taken. But it still doesn’t mean Martha isn’t a moron.


Festival Cinemas, Vancouver BC

Friday October 28, 1:45pm showing