Review- Peace, Love & Misunderstanding

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding has a simple enough set-up: in the very first scene a husband (Kyle McLaughlin) asks his wife, Diane (Catherine Keener), seemingly out of nowhere for a divorce. The second scene is the dinner party they were planning for and he seems his normal petulant, pedantic, socialite self and she’s affected. While the legalities are being straightened she decides to take her kids; college-aged Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and high school student Jake (Nat Wolff) to Woodstock to stay with her long-estranged mother. As they stay their the difficulties of reuniting and illustrations of why Diane left become readily apparent.

So the foil is established early inasmuch as you have in this tale a hippie mother (Jane Fonda), who still very much embodies that lifestyle and a conservative, attorney daughter. The film does well to arc a majority of its characters. This film is a bit like Boy because it’s not so much about all of its characters changing, but more about accepting your family for what it is. Fonda’s character won’t change, as adventurous as Diane gets on the odd occasion she fundamentally will not either, it’s really a progression of learning to accept and live and let live on the other side of the mother-daughter relationship. Zoe is an interestingly drawn character; seeing as how she’s a college student she is open-minded and politically aware, at least in theory, but meets people who challenge her preconceived notions in a very creative way. She is at a crossroads more than once in the film, and must decide if she’ll be more laissez-faire or more rigid, seeing as how she’s torn. Then there’s Jake who is perhaps the most deftly written character because he is awkward around girls he likes, tells mostly inappropriate jokes with his sister and takes his documentarian ethos wherever he goes (and sometimes makes mistakes in that regard). However, it is he that makes the most incisive observations in the film but he doesn’t express them verbally.

He expresses them through his free form poetic short film that debuts at a short film festival in the story. We see the entirety of the film and many of the scenes are spliced back creatively in juxtapositions that seem apropos of nothing when looking at just one pair of joined images, but as a whole the short serves to illustrate that in spite of the lunacy and at times chaos that transpired between the family members during their time away it was evident all the way there was affection amongst all members of the family there was just difficulty in expressing it.

So while having a few characters not fundamentally change, at least not yet, makes the rendering of drama a bit more difficult the relationships do work as a whole. What was not even a family per se before this film started; now is one. While the nuclear family fractures, the extended family starts to re-solidify and working a number of characters together, leaving them at peace with one another is something and quite true: their may be a truce but each individual will still have his or her own baggage.

The progressions aren’t instant, or in a bee-line, a bit like reality it’s two steps forward and one step back. However, there are gaps being bridged throughout the course of the film.

Of course, these relational dynamic would hold no interest, and would not be allowed to build as they do, if it were not for the performers inhabiting the roles. If the actors inhabiting these parts are not sufficiently interesting then the struggles they’re in will not be either, and each player in this film excels in their part. Jane Fonda has been infrequently on the big screen in the past few years, alas this is a role and a narrative truly worthy of her talents and she truly shines in the film. For her part Keener seems a bit too perfectly suited but she does do well and plays brilliantly off of Fonda, which is half the battle. It’s not Elizabeth Olsen’s best role, partially due to her screen time, but there are no small roles and having an actor so gifted in a supporting part is truly a blessing for any film. The male performers in this film for the most part take a backseat to the ladies, which is rare but that is not to say they are insignificant. I discussed Jake’s character above but the interpretation by Nat Wolff is quite natural and adept. Some young actors don’t have the reflexivity to play the inherent awkwardness of certain situations that come with the teen years for whatever reason be it range, their type, direction. Yet, everything he does works whether it be his flippant innuendos, self-deprecating humor, aloof artist mode or being painfully shy around a girl. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has a charm and confidence that is just enough to be very convincing as the free spirit who could get to someone like Diane. Some actors, or some other casting decisions, might place too strong a personality opposite here. He is winning but subtly so, not forcefully persuasive, which makes him harder for Diane to resist. Now, Chace Crawford does have to be an equal to Zoe as Cole, for nothing else would be so disconcerting to Zoe as someone who not only challenges her beliefs, but is as strong a personality as she is; and he succeeds most easily.

Peace, Love and Misunderstanding is most definitely a character study. However, it’s not a talking heads drama. There is visual interest and the short film does add some artistry in the edit. It’s a film that will have you think on it a bit and the kind that got a little better as I wrote this. It’s definitely worth a shot.

7/10

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Comparative Analysis: The Dictator (2012) and The Great Dictator (1940)

I have often said that I do not enjoy indulging in comparative analysis when writing a standard review. Sometimes it does come up by I try not to focus on that aspect. However, there will be the rare occasion where the comparative analysis angle is far more intriguing than a standard review, so I have taken it here. I hope you enjoy it and welcome comments.

After having seen The Dictator a thought occurred to me that would invariably shift the tone and direction of the piece I wrote regarding it and it would thus not be a traditional review. The thought was as follows: The Dictator is like Sacha Baron Cohen’s own take on The Great Dictator. Now before proceeding with this line of reasoning allow me to state unequivocally that I am not for a second equating Cohen to Chaplin. What I am saying is that the parallels that this film shares with the one made 72 years ago are rather hard to ignore.

Frankly, I could also write a little more on this topic and explaining why this film does work to the extent that it does and find that this is a much more interesting dialogue than “How funny is this?” as that’s quite the subjective question, and “How does this rank in Cohen’s canon thus far?,” ibid.

Now, this might seem a rather facile allusion at first but what most intrigued me about this thought was the absolutely refractory nature that this tale has and that it makes The Dictator not only true to its time but as true to the artistic force driving it as The Great Dictator was.

The first confluence that the two films share is that there is a rather overt political message being delivered in the film. Each fits the tone of the actor and the film perfectly aside from being a necessary oration for the political climate in which it was spoken. Chaplin, the silent star, who resisted the advent of sound with fervor eventually, slowly gave in. The Great Dictator was his grudging embrace of the new form. That’s not to say Chaplin didn’t make it a visual venture, as this film features the iconic playing with the globe scene but it does also have the memorable speech, one of the most brilliant pieces of acting ever committed to celluloid. The silent star has a stump speech wherein he not only wears his heart on his sleeve but belies the fact that he is a double for the dictator.

The Dictator does have its own double aspect, however, as the title indicates, it focuses on the dictator rather than the double, and the speech here is given by the dictator not the double. The speech, as opposed to being heartfelt, goes from being tongue-in-cheek to sarcastic to the near equivalent of a bit from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, the 21st Century replacement of the political cartoon. Chaplin’s speech was made during the darkest moments of the 20th century and was a message of hope, whereas Cohen is speaking in a world that alternates between great apathy and great fervency, where there is much conviction with little to no information despite the ready availability thereof. In the end, his is a rather even slam of both sides showing the warts totalitarianism and capitalism have.

While Cohen’s tale creates a fictitious nation meant to capture the foibles of as many leaders of Aladeen’s ilk as possible, Chaplin’s is clearly a caricature of Adolf Hitler, and has the additional layer of being a personal statement by Chaplin on his own behalf, who had for years been a presumed Communist by Hoover’s FBI.

While the cinematic quality of either is never going to be confused, I will reiterate that each reflects their lead perfectly. Chaplin was every bit the dramatist, the sensitive artist as he was a comedian, he’s cinema’s crying clown, only he’s unlikely to frighten small children. Cohen is broad, crude and if he’s left a member of his audience un-offended he feels he’s failed in his mission. His style is a perfect reflect of the excess and vapidity of the global political scene in this day and age. This is not to say that decisions of today’s world leaders do not carry weight, but while the world is always in the balance we’ve rarely come so close to the brink of global devastation as we did in World War II. Therefore, the tone of events allow for greatly contrasting tones in the films.

Cohen’s film taking place in a world that is not completely and totally at war allows there to be more societal commentary here, namely in the person of Zoey (Anna Faris). It’s not subtle and it doesn’t always work perfectly but she is the personification of what I referenced above: much conviction with not enough information.

The insanity of World War II also lead to the creation of the United Nations, what was essentially supposed to be a more effective solution than the prior League of Nations. In some ways it has been, in others not as much, this is also a notion that this film toys with quite a bit. Whereas The Great Dictator tackles the Nazi notion of Aryan superiority foremost, then the major players of the Nazi party and then the party’s constructs. The tertiary commentaries of The Dictator vary from totalitarian mindset, to post-9/11 paranoia, the year of protest and more.

While very different tonally, in terms of comedic and dramatic effect it would be fascinating to see these two films as a double feature and further compare and contrast them, but there are some of the most apparent parallels that I found upon one viewing of the newer film.

For the record, there is a bit of inconsistency in The Dictator for my liking. The laughs stop long enough so you notice some of the sillier plot points so the most I can give it is a 7/10. Having said that, I clearly found method to Cohen’s madness such that I took up this tangential association as the most interesting way I could find to discuss it. No film is perfect but there are few films in this day and age that even have something to say, and no matter how crass the method of delivery or how silly the context that does mean a great deal, and I definitely appreciated that.

Mini-Review Round-Up May 2012

I had quite a review drought to end 2011 so I think the remedy for this kind of post would be to have the post be cumulative monthly. Therefore, after each qualifying film a short write-up will be added to the monthly post. The mini-reviews will be used to discuss Netflix and other home video screenings. Theatrical releases will get full reviews.

For a guide to what scores mean go here.

From Time to Time

Kwayedza Kureya, Alex Etel and Eliza Bennett in From Time to Time (Freestyle Digital Media)

This is a film that I saw a little bit ago and I struggled with whether I’d qualify it for this year’s BAM Awards or just leave it in the Gray Area. Typically, I go by US release date (so long as I had a legitimate chance to see it), should a film have not had a US release date (namely only released overseas, or seen in a festival, etc.) it’s qualified in the year viewed. With regards to From Time to Time, I knew that its actual vintage was a few years old and it was released in the UK some time back, however, it only his US home video very recently. Technically, that is is its US release since it didn’t have a theatrical run, so there you have it.

This is a very interesting ghost drama, which has a few interesting things going in its favor: first, it cuts through time with great facility and creates a British gothic tale with the ease of Magical Realism. This stripping down of the typical pretensions of supernatural tales making the acceptance of these other-worldly facts commonplace allows the film to dwell in a more dramatic and intriguing milieu. Second, as clearly intimated above this film deals in two periods but makes them both intriguing and vital and blends them wonderfully. Lastly, this film features very strong performances most notably by the under-utilized Alex Etel, last seen by me in Sea Horse; Maggie Smith, whom at this point could benefit any and every film in creation and Carice Van Houten, whom viewers of Game of Thrones may recognize.

This is an intriguing film that is worth looking for on Netflix or other home video resources.

8/10

Chronicle

Dane DeHaan in Chronicle (20th Century Fox)

Since I viewed this film on a plane it was easy and not distracting to take notes on an iPhone, but I will try to keep these comments brief as the review is supposed to be “mini.” Having said that, this was a film I heard a lot about and I love the fact that it is divisive. I had a lot of stumbling blocks to overcome in this one, but seeing elements enacted as opposed to just hearing about them are two completely different things.

This being a found footage film there are “cheats,” inasmuch as it’s not always the same source camera providing the footage, but as events escalate you’ll see why it’s possible, you just get no hint as to who put it all together. That’s a minor concern regarding the handling of technique.

In fact, the only other quibble I have has to do with Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) who is a blogger, thus she too obsessively records things. It’s a bit convenient but mostly the film works in the found footage milieu because it remains tremendously reflexive, and it has to. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) feels compelled to record his life due to his abusive father (a wonderfully malignant villain with few parallels), it clearly continues after the mysterious inciting incident.

Perhaps what is most brilliant and moving about the film is that it creates a sense of identification immediately and it builds from there. It’s not a case of likability but rather understanding. It gives characters powers, and inherently responsibilities, they’re not necessarily equipped to cope with and shows you what they do.

Yes, there is a slightly Jackass, slight YouTube voyeuristic quality to certain scenes inherent in the found footage approach but things to do come back that seemed as if they didn’t fit, and the seemingly frivolous is sublimated quickly. Through it all it remains a character study. It’s a film that does not get overly-concerned with its technique to the detriment of its plot or personages.

Clearly, the performances need to be really strong for a film of this kind to work. That is the case with Michael B. Jordan as Steve, who convincingly plays the winning, popular, untouchable jock but also conveys some hidden depths when allowed to. However, the true standout is Dane DeHaan who is asked to deal with far more range in a film of this kind than you’d expect and is magnetic and captivating in all facets of his character. The scripting shows a certain amount of restraint in many of his scenes and intonation and expression have to convey a lot and he does.

There’s an air of mystery to the story even after the inciting incident as you learn with the characters but are still not overly-inundated with facts.

The sound mix is rather effective especially as it counterbalances with certain moments of dead silence paired with powerful images. The visual effects aren’t as flashy as some other films but very strong.

I tend to try and avoid things that can be construed as pull quotes but the film did get quick a few visceral, nearly unconscious reactions from me I laughed, I was was on the verge of tears a few times and my jaw literally dropped at least once.

I have the few small reservations mentioned above but many prejudices I had coming in vanished entirely and I came away resoundingly impressed with this film.

9/10

Corpo Celeste

Yle Vianello in Corpo Celeste (Film Movement)

I have previously discussed the benefits of programs like Film Movement. This film is their most recent offering.

What is most interesting about Corpo Celeste is that it comments through its narrative or visuals on any number of topics but always does so in an interesting, thoughtful and compelling way it is never didactic, pedagogic or heavy-handed. This is key with themes such as coming of age, religion, politics, family and nationalism (to name a few) being discussed. Most of the reason the film can do this is that all of these things are discussed personally and visually. They barely need to be elucidated. When dialogue is employed to convey the touched-upon themes it is used sparingly and tightly.

The personal approach keeps a film that might be overly aloof rather cool and connected. One of the more interesting things about it is the approach the film takes in bringing its protagonist to the fore. The first few images, scenes even you rarely see Marta alone, she is in crowd scenes and crowded dinner tables and gatherings. Our knowledge the story is to be about her allows us to get a glimpse of her world and her not really seeing a place in yet, hence she’s coming of age. She soon comes further and further into focus and in some way identification is already established.

The film features a tremendously natural performance by Yle Vianello, which enables you to connect to the film not only through her character but through any facet you see fit. The two major ways to connect to the film are either as a coming-of-age tale or a spiritual journey. Many of us have been through either, if not both, so closely examining these two major journeys in one protagonist makes it quite effective.

This is a really good film that is worth your while. The DVD also features the Academy Award nominated short Raju, which I saw earlier.

8/10

Hick

Chloe Grace Moretz in Hick (Phase 4 Films)

Hick is a resoundingly disappointing experience on a number of levels. One reason this is so is that Derick Martini, the director of this film, crafted a wonderful film a few years back entitled Lymelife. It was one of my favorite films of the year in question, while some of those same motifs and actors that made that film work are back in this film there’s little else that binds the two. Part of the issue with this film is it’s a case of novelist acting as screenwriter backfiring, it can be a wonderful thing, but here it’s a detriment. The film does not move well; the denouement is massive; the amount of coincidence; the lack of clear motivation on the part of certain characters; seemingly extraneous elements, and awkwardly staged situations are some of those reasons. The lead in the film is Chloe Grace Moretz, who as previous honors have indicated is very talented, yet even her excellent performance cannot salvage this film.

What it reminded me of was Leolo gone wrong. You have a very strange home life and an adolescent seeking to escape. The world isn’t very firmly established neither is the protagonist’s desire, not at first. She clearly is haunted by the loss of a sibling but that’s not clear imemdiately. She has a goal but it quickly becomes clear she’ll need a new one, and how she finds it and why is underdeveloped and is a tremendous example of deus ex machina. The pace of the film is also off and it feels a lot longer than it is. Hick is one worth avoiding.

4/10

First Position

Gaya Bommer Yemini and Aran Bell in First Position (Sundance Selects)

I can’t claim to be an aficionado but I am a fan of dance. Through my production company I sponsor a dance competition, so while not an insider I do know my fair share about the world this film describes. What I was somewhat fearful of was that this film would serve as a glorified infomercial for YAGP (Youth America Grand Prix), which is the world’s largest youth dance competition.

All those fears are soon allayed. The necessary information is divulged such that the layman understands the enormity and the gravity of the competition and the controversy regarding any competition is vaguely hinted at, but mostly the film is an introduction to just how competitive the world of dance is, and also a glimpse into how dedicated these artists must be from a very young age.

Yet any film can only get so far on the facts alone. Where First Position succeeds is that it profiles dancers from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds and also with varying aesthetic philosophies. The film is structured very dramatically such that the performances with the highest stakes appear latest in the cut and the flow from performer to performer is just right and well-ordered.

What starts as an informative, introductory doc soon turns quite the emotional experience that gets you very invested in the outcome. It’s a great film sure to please fans of film and dance alike.

10/10

Citizen Gangster

Scott Speedman in Citizen Gangster (IFC Films)

This an interesting story about a man, Eddie Boyd (Scott Speedman), in post-WW II Canada who frustrated with his job and trying to get by embarks on a career as a bank robber. The film interestingly has a quick and effective genesis. The pathology and inspiration is properly established in a short time such that through the course of the film you follow the protagonist further and further past the point of no return. It’s the case of an anti-hero plot in as much as it does at least create a sense of identification if not sympathy.

The film also has a tremendous amount of technical prowess that helps create the world of the story. The cinematography offers a tremendous balance between stark, pale sunlit exteriors and blown-out interiors. When you combine this with the production design which was very concerted on white interiors with one accent to break up the monotony.

When you consider some of the scoring and performances there is quite a lot working for this film. The only thing that really holds it back in anyway is that from about the mid-point on the pace does become very stilted, which is especially noticeable towards the climax and denouement. Having said all that, this is a film that should be getting more notice and I’m glad to have seen it. As indicated above, it’s especially strong in compartmental areas but is intriguing enough in its narrative, especially for those unfamiliar with the details of the story upon which it is based, to sustain interest.

7/10

Hospitalité

Kanji Furutachi, Bryerly Long, Kenji Yamauchi, Kiki Sugino, Kumi Hirodo and Eriko Ono in Hospitalité (Film Movement)

Comedy just may be the most culturally specific genre of them all. In my experience, each culture has their own precepts it brings to comedy. Granted there are some things that are universally embraced as funny, but cinematic aesthetics, narrative constructs and indigenous commonalities often color how these tropes are conveyed. Which is a very roundabout way of saying that certain films purported to be comedies have struck me with confusion, surprise, and consternation on occasion. American comedy being typically rather broad is rather accessible; British comedy being somewhat dry and witty I’ve always been drawn too and being Brazilian I have a grounding there in where the jokes are coming from.

Hospitalité is a Japanese film, which is quite funny at times simply because it relies almost wholly on situations, characters and the element of surprise to deliver its humor. Where it loses a bit of its steam is that it could use a bit of tightening up in length and towards the end. The power plays exhibited are necessary but perhaps a bit drawn out there too. In essence, the dramatic elements of the narrative are overplayed as there isn’t a lot of follow through.

You may find it more funny than I did, and to be fair there are effective dramatic elements and pieces of commentary being made, but as it is a situation that is seemingly simple and does follow the house-guest-from-hell mold rather there’s just a certain deliberateness and gravitas to it all that drains it a bit.

6/10

Michael

Michael Fuith in Michael (Films du Losange)

I generally remain vague about plot descriptions in my reviews. Philosophically I believe that if you happened upon my review you know enough about the film and you’re just looking for some further information. With a film such as Michael one does need to be forewarned: while not sensationalistic or exploitative this film does chronicle about five months in the life of a pedophile. You will be disturbed and affected by it: I guarantee it. What is most effective is that the film does so almost exclusively through implication.

The film edit of the film is tremendous and much of the dialogue on reflection implies so much more than is said. One example of how the film communicates horrible consequences while doing little is a simple visual: Michael and Wolfgang, the child he has captive, are setting up a bunk bed in his room. That scene has made its point and hits you in the gut.

What makes the film most harrowing is the humanistic portrait painted of Michael. With an act as awful as child abuse, whether of a physical or sexual nature, some films overplay their hands. Meaning they feel the need to make the antagonist over-the-top and borderline cartoony as if to re-emphasize the inherent villainy and cruelty of their actions. Yet more often than not that kind of writing takes a viewer out of the moment. This film takes things as mundane as decorating a Christmas tree, talking to a neighbor or a haircut and tinges them with malignancy and implications that belie the simplicity of the line spoken or the action taken.

You also have in this film two performances that make this film work and they are those of Michael Fuith, who used his awkwardness to endearing effect in Rammbock, but here is intimidating, frightening, awkward and charming as needed. Then there’s also David Rauchenberger, who while not in the film a tremendous lot, has the unenviable task of playing the victim who as times dour, at times detached, at times a child and also rebellious.

The craftsmanship of the film is what truly makes it work. There’s one scene that really doesn’t jibe with the restraint, and the ending is one I stewed on but decided it is earned, as a whole other film would start had it continued.

8/10

Review- The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in The Hunger Games (Lionsgate)

The Hunger Games, as many expected, was one of the most anticipated films of the year. It will likely go down as one of the top earners of the year as its early run totals rank amongst all time highs, and it’s a three-time box office champion. I wanted to read the books but never really did, I borrowed the first book from the library and got through half of the first chapter and didn’t get to renew it. Therefore, I had little foundation to go upon but found the film for the most part to be quite enjoyable and captivating.

The double-edged sword in this film is that the backstory of this world, this dystopian future where America is unrecognizable and not even named as such anymore, is not overtly told. The positive to that is that there are not really any overly-elongated and elaborate expository sequences and the negative is that at times you are left flailing about awaiting the next tidbit of information that will enlighten you. You eventually do get sufficient information to get by but you also get the sense that there are unplumbed depths that are likely the key to the book’s success.

The only other truly significant struggle this film faces is in the game itself Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is steadfast in her character but she only attacks her opponents when in a bind, which is admirable but there is much waiting, hiding and running. Essentially, it’s a slight editorial problem more so than a character flaw. Virtue is a positive and Katniss has it in spades there were just a few opportunities that are better off not presenting themselves if that is to be her approach.

Those minor reproaches aside there is a lot to like in The Hunger Games. Perhaps the best part of the film’s success is that now everyone can see just how awesome Jennifer Lawrence is. She already has an Oscar nomination that she was very worthy of, but it was Natalie Portman’s year, for which she was woefully under-publicized and Winter’s Bone is not the kind of draw that this film is. In a similar vain, I’ve known for quite some time that Josh Hutcherson would be a superstar and this is truly his breakout. Now, Josh has a long track record from the Journey series, to appearing in the Best Picture Nominated The Kids Are All Right, to his early days as a young performer that garnered him a BAM nomination for Bridge to Terabithia, however, here as Peeta, a character who knows the game better than Katniss at the start but isn’t as steadfast or strong-willed as she is, he brings his chops to a big vehicle. That could be the most impressive facet of the film; not only is there action and commentary but also room for performances. You should also look for Stanley Tucci’s great supporting turn.

Aside from the aforementioned concern in the Game the film’s pace stays rather brisk even if its running time tops two hours. The tale is a bifurcated one: before the games and the games themselves and they are distinctive sections of the film that are a bit different but they balance quite well. The before the games section builds up some good drama and anticipation and to an extent the game brings good sequences and tension.

The Hunger Games also presents a pretty interesting vision of a futureworld most vividly conveyed by the production design, which is amazing and also the makeup and costuming. Now the latter is not something I was not instantly enamored with but it was a bold and consistent choice and it is a class distinction that is a kind of interesting future-retro hybrid, as the exaggerated hair and makeup hearkens eons past where powdered wigs and ivory faces were status symbols.

The ending of the film foreshadows much larger hurdles and problems to come in the series that even teases it will grow outside just the insular world of the Games and branch out into the politics of this world. Perhaps the upcoming installments will fill in some of the nagging blanks.

When a film does a lot very well the few things that leave you wondering do tend to stand out a little more than they would otherwise but this is a very enjoyable, occasionally funny, romantic, dramatic and thrilling film.

8/10

Review- John Carter

Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins in John Carter (Disney)

I was likely one of very few people who was actually very eager to see this film, however, this is not the place to discuss the marketing missteps of this film that will likely land it the dubious distinction of being one of the biggest flops of all time. However, it does bear mentioning that flops are usually measured in financial terms alone but this film I found to be very good and it deserved a better marketing campaign and more of an audience than it did end up getting in its opening weeks.

The film does take its time to build and thus pushes its running time over the two hour mark but it’s all time well spent. The beginning shows where Carter is and how he is a man who given the chance would turn his back not just on the norms of the world at present but the world in general. There are some beautiful cuts to illustrate his defiance and it is not the only element of his character and the plot that is being established and layered at the start.

The film does have a lot of extra-terrestrial political intrigue and to an extent transcendental politics that are involved and the balancing act that these elements have to engage in with the visceral, relatable parameters of the story are not handled perfectly but with any aspect that is introduced in this film that makes the balance more precarious is also making the story a bit more intriguing and involved, which is a good thing because without them I admit it would’ve been a bit milquetoast but there’s enough going on that it stays interesting and somewhat unique. Is there an element of pulp fiction to this tale? Absolutely but pulp fiction can be some of the most enjoyable stories you’re likely to find.

Aside from the political intrigue there’s also a certain duality introduced that separates this film. To say more would be to divulge too much but it is very effective and adds an additional element to the story that really lends it some much needed gravitas at the moment where it truly needs it.

Why it’s a necessity is because the story at that point had reached a point where John and Dejah’s conflict had passed its boiling point and, in fact, was running out of steam so that added to it. Regardless of the minimal script issues Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins do very well. They are equally impressive and in my frame of reference had different tasks whereas Lynn Collins I was not very familiar with at all I knew Kitcsch from Friday Night Lights and here had to watch him play an older, jaded character and it was convincing. Daryl Sabara’s participation in this film while small in screen-time is significant in his interpretation as a young man who’ll readily listen to his uncle’s tales.

The trifecta in separating this story from other space operas is it conclusion. It was a built to and alluded to finale but it did catch me slightly off guard but it was also clear enough such that it clicked right away. It made sense and is a great little twist that made the whole experience that much more enjoyable.

The effects work was very good, it rarely was in your face and included very deft creation of vistas and creatures. I cannot comment on the 3D work since I did not watch it as such simply because of showtime options.

I personally left the film wanting the sequel that the box office receipts seem to indicate will never come which is a shame but it does not alter my opinion of this film. It’s a very good one that deserves a shot.

8/10

Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Sociopolitical Overview (Part 2 of 17)

Photo Credit: Peter Turnley/Corbis, The epitome of hope in the 80s: The fall of the Berlin Wall

When we think of the 90s sociopolitically you can almost draw a parallel to the kind of films that were produced. With Clinton in office the stock market more than doubled it was prosperity galore and yet there was a generation (Generation X followed by Y, how original) that could care less. There were hardly any films that reflected the times we were in because that would be bourgeois, no one really cared they had money in their pocket. Yet there was also nothing to escape unless you count the laughable Lewinsky affair, so film stagnated aside from the occasional blip here and there.

While the 80s were not like the 60s in that there was an issue constantly looming over everyone like the Vietnam War. There were several crucial events in America’s history. Films are the products of our society and the people writing those films for the most part came of age in the 60s and thus, had a higher social consciousness than those who grew up in the culturally devoid 70s.

Being children of the 60s coupled with the fact that escapist family-oriented cinema was in demand for a great part of the decade lead to many of these films having a lot of pie-in-the-sky idealism in them.
The 80s socially and politically were a mess. There was always something. New York was a crime-ridden dirty hole, which is reflected in Ghostbusters, and to some extent Trading Places. At the beginning of the decade there was the hostage crisis and the decade ended with the beginning of the communist collapse. While there were many crises and negative events there was a national sentiment in the nation and a presentiment that gave people a feeling that we could change things, amid all the excesses of the ‘me generation’ there was Hands Across America, Farm Aid and Artists for Africa which were movements by musicians that we could change the world and films like Amazing Grace and Chuck reflect that sentiment.

It was undoubtedly a turbulent time but there was a wind of change in the air. Reagan’s short-sightedness in his term is paralleled by the studio heads. Reagan wanted to give the taxpayers a break immediately and it hurt in the long run while the studios wanted money immediately and slowly the quality of films they were producing would dwindle. Thankfully, the quality did keep coming out until the end of the decade. The political conditions were all aligned for good, even great films to be made. Great films never come out in abundance when the nation is affluent. Pre-packaged hit-me films do, the 80s were a great time to grow up in because you probably weren’t aware of all that was going on around you. Yet I do recall seeing the possibility for change and seeing that something good can occur in this world and I saw it plastered across a large silver screen every weekend.

Note: This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments. This is part two you can read part one here.

Review- The Adjustment Bureau

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau (Universal)

Frequently, it is mentioned that one should disregard the marketing of a film when analyzing it. I agree with that principle, however, when there is a germane marketing point to be made I feel it is worth mentioning as an aside I will include it. The fact of the matter is all film’s have a pre-life. You hear about the concept, see the trailer or what have you. You know of a film before you see that and you decide “Oh, I want to see that” or “I might see that” and so on. When the projector starts up that’s when your preconceived notions must go away but everyone forms some opinions and at times, to our delight or chagrin, we are wrong.

The ads for The Adjustment Bureau don’t misrepresent the film at all. Why it bears mentioning is that in seeing the trailer, in conjunction with that for the forthcoming Limitless, they both seem like the kinds of concepts that are interesting but may eventually spin out of control.

The Adjustment Bureau never does that. It does deal with the concept of fate and who is the puppetmaster of our destiny and what if anything we can do about it but what it never does is get too absurd or grandiose. It manages to do this by focusing solely on our protagonist and his very simple goal: to be with the woman he loves.

Even though those pulling the strings are abstractions of higher entities and there is a bright and lofty future intended for both our protagonists we never have flash-forwards that open up a Pandora’s Box or make these characters less identifiable to the common man.

In the single-minded obsession of our protagonist a film with some heady notions stays somewhat grounded. Slowly but surely the hierarchy and what these figures do and do not understand about the plan is revealed. There are some awkward moments along the way but ultimately you find that you are allowed to “beat the system” it’s just very difficult.

Of course, the grounding of this tale would be impossible without affable and talented leads and this film has that indeed. The first mention goes to Emily Blunt. Who is one of the more electric, charismatic, talented and under-hyped young stars of the cinema today. She plays perfectly in to the refreshing no B.S. love story that is crafted for her. Adding humor, warmth and personality to it in spades.

Then there’s Matt Damon whom cuts through a lot of the red tape set up by the character and script. There is a long sequence at the beginning of the film which gives us his characters’ political past replete with many cameos by figures of the political world. We meet the image before the man and we come to know the man as the film moves along. He faces hard choices as he has stumbled upon a secret that most will not and debates how he should respond and how much he is willing to risk to get what he wants.

This is also the kind of film with effects work that is likely to get overlooked because it’s not the “Look At Me” variety but rather the functional variety wherein they only come into play to display locations that cannot possibly exist behind the doors that are opened. They are, however, very well done.

By keeping the story close to the vest suspension of disbelief becomes very easy even with some rather unbelievable things happening throughout. What is also helpful is that there is a humorous element to the story that is acknowledged and embraced by the film which raises its level somewhat from where it otherwise would’ve been.

The end of the film while not breathtaking after a rather action-filled film is proper and puts the last few questions to bed. It fits and is earned and that’s all that can be asked for in truth. The Adjustment Bureau is a fun and intelligent film of the kind there are far too few of these days.

9/10

The Gay Dilemma

Vince Vaughan in The Dilemma

There has been much controversy swirling about the Ron Howard directed, Vince Vaughn starring, Universal film called The Dilemma, a rather apt title when you think about the conundrum the film presents. The kerfuffle is about a joke that Vaughn’s character utters “Electric cars are gay…”

Firstly, it must be said that this line is controversial because the word gay is being used out of context. It is not used in any of its eight assigned definitions. What this usage insinuates could be anything from stupid to effeminate (which is not synonymous with male homosexuality for the record).

This issue about the usage falls into no man’s land which is what makes it a lightning rod. On the one hand I do not and shall not be an endorser of censorship in any form. However, what has occurred with this line in the film falls just short. Universal didn’t have to agree to GLAAD’s demands of the line’s removal from the trailer but it was in their best interest after the publicity started getting negative. On the other hand, I firmly disagree with the misappropriation of the word.

GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) is doing great work, which started well before the rash of suicides to combat slurs, like using gay as a synonym for stupid. I applaud their efforts and as you will see this kind of forum is where a real difference in attitudes and perceptions can be made.

Art imitates life, I believe, and not the other way around. Racism was much more pervasive and out in the open through much of American history than it is now. These attitudes were reflected in how minorities were portrayed by Hollywood. While racism still exists, of course, it is less socially acceptable now and its appearance in films, save for pedagogical purposes, is frowned upon. Hence, if homophobia becomes less present in society it’ll be a less functional device to implement in cinema.

There have been much, much more offensive gay jokes in the past such that what offends me most about this joke is actually the writing. Whether this version or the earlier version it’s bad writing and not terribly funny. Not to cast aspersions on the film as a whole. It may end up being funny and that joke just falls terribly flat because its unoriginal, unintelligent and unnecessary. Slurs should be viewed like profanity: what a writer must always ask him or herself is “Is the profanity/slur the most viable option?” If not substitute it.

Vaughn’s statement regarding the line where he defends the it rings hollow due to this fact. If the line was comedic genius I’d understand the need to defend it but whether or not this line ends up in the final cut will not change what the film is and what it’s about (knowing Vaughn there are likely ad-lib takes with different assessments of electric cars). This is not removing instances of “The N-Word” from Huckleberry Finn we’re talking about here.

My adolescence coincided with a world where “Politically Correct” was a buzzword and there is something to be learned from the concept. Mostly it’s this: political correctness can lead to over-zealousness and over-sensitivity but it can also create real change when applied to the right situations. Eradicating the use of the word gay as a pejorative would certainly be one of those cases.

The main factor that keeps me from lighting a torch, getting a pitchfork and charging the Universal Lot is the fact that I don’t think art will change perception of a given people in one fell swoop. Everything is cumulative.

Look at the very climate we live in now, in the 1980s and 90s there were to an extent varying degrees of apathy. Protests both for and against gay rights are much more prevalent now and the Gay Rights Movement has become a forefront issue not only in the US but worldwide. Many more people seem to be open about their sexuality now, which is great but there is a backlash, sadly. This openness has lead those who find fault with homosexuality, for whatever their prejudicial and ignorant reasons, to feel more inclined to persecute those who are, and those they deem to be, gay.

So the ebb and flow in societal assimilation is very violent at the moment, both literally and figuratively. Homosexuals are trying to refuse the counterculture label they’ve had to live with for better or worse and are standing up and seeking to be counted. Obviously, there are some who don’t want that. Things always come to a boiling point before a new sense of normalcy is reached. Hopefully, a nation repeatedly struck by the tragic losses of those whose only “sin” was knowing who they were will wake up and realize they are berating their sons and daughters into an early grave.

This drift in topic, away from the film itself, does have a purpose. For the word ‘gay’ to stop being used as a putdown the change has to come from society. It’s happened before, the mentally challenged and physically challenged weren’t always referred to as such. It wasn’t arts that lead the way to correcting the derogatory nicknames they acquired, it was people.

Timing is everything. That is why this silly little line has become such a talking point. If the political climate were calmer then GLAAD still would’ve objected but it may not have gotten this kind of attention. Oddly, the one thing we can be thankful for is that this film with its thoughtless insensitivity has created more debate. And discourse is good. Talking about this and saying its wrong repeatedly is the only way it’ll ever sink in. Eventually people will learn but movies won’t teach society but instead will follow. So let’s take the first step to making both better.