Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Movie Review: Jennifer's Body

(For the radio version, please click here).

Now, how to justify seeing Megan’s – I mean Jennifer’s - Body to the public radio audience, and my wife? There has to be something socially redeemable about a horror film starring Megan Fox, the Angelina Jolie of the coming decade, in ridiculously tight clothes.  Here goes.

Hollywood is a male dominated industry.  Female screenwriters are rare. Female directors are rare. A movie written and directed by women, like Jennifer’s Body, is something akin to a meteor strike. Now a little on horror films and females. This contradicts my expectations, but horror film audiences are already primarily female. It’s what the data shows. I think horror films tend have a misogynistic undercurrent where barely clothed women are helpless confronting a faceless, murdering, male, monster. But that may not be exactly true. Film scholars point out horror films pioneered a powerful formula of female empowerment. Often, after unspeakable and graphic horrors, the last person standing is female. Think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween or Sigourney Weaver in the Aliens franchise. "Film scholar”. Now that's a job to go to college for.

So imagine this formula, already popular with women, in the hands of two women. What is different? For one, the monster isn’t male, but a hormonally enraged sexpot. Having just recently seen 500 Days of Summer, I kept expecting Hall and Oats ‘Maneater’ to play. But perhaps that would’ve been overselling the metaphor.

I was excited to see another film by the screenwriter Diablo Cody. Ms. Cody won an Oscar for Juno and has a firm bead drawn on the angst and humiliations born by teens, particularly female teens. Her teenagers are fully fleshed, so to speak, human beings. Her caricatures, the jock, the Goth, the cheerleader and her awkward best friend, are only starting points.  Cody Diablo is proving to be the John Hughes of our time.

Ms. Cody’s dialogue is unexpectedly funny. Witticisms bubble out during intense bloody scenes. The quirk level is so high the movie is hard to define. Is it horror? A comedy? Drama?  You can’t quite get comfortable with the film’s direction.  It either drives you crazy or sucks you in.

A background story providing an occult rationale for all the evil-doings is thin. Fortunately, the need to explain what’s going on isn’t really needed and the movie is compelling when it focuses on the best friends forever relationship between Fox’s Jennifer Check and Amanda Seyfried’s Needy Lesnicky.  It is a potent mixture of love and jealousy, affection and insecurity.

The film’s revelation is not Megan Fox as Jennifer, though she delivers the goods. It is Amanda Seyfried’s portrayal of the suffering friend.  Ms. Seyfried’s Needy worships Jennifer, loves her boyfriend, and in the dawning realization of what she must do, provides a convincing note of sadness in the mayhem.

Jennifer’s Body is a bloody film that earns its ‘R’ rating. But this isn’t a stupid film, not by a long shot.  I give it three stars. It plays this weekend at Gross Alaska Glacier Cinema in the Valley. This is Clint Farr, Alone at the Movies.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Movie Review: In the Loop

(Sorry, no radio version)

“In the Loop” depicts the build up to a US led invasion of a Middle East country that is analogous, but not exactly, like the build up to the US invasion of Iraq. This film takes place in the days before a UN resolution allows a war and is told from the British perspective.

The movie’s premise is that the build up to war was assisted, or even caused, by mid-level bureaucrats and their assistants. Basically, people more interested in keeping their jobs than doing the right thing.  It’s as if the inevitability of war was the result of laziness, complacency, and the promulgation of bad intelligence to please the president and prime minister. Any hiccups of moral indignation were quickly squelched with the promise of a destroyed career. Neither the bosses nor their assistants fair well. It’s an interesting premise, but I’m not sure I’m buying it. 

Did I mention this was a comedy?

And as a comedy, it is an excellent film.  It begins with a mid-level cabinet minister, played by a sheepish Tom Hollander, providing an honest opinion to the press on the “unforseeableness” of war.  His statement is not in line with official British policy. As such, his honesty is rewarded with a visit from the Director of Communications played by Peter Capaldi. Capaldi’s character, Malcom Tucker, is the highlight of the film as an imaginatively and voluminously profane panther chewing the hide of those who dare cross him; with a Scot’s brogue no less.  Normally, I believe cursing is rather lazy.  But if you can imagine Scotty finally going “R” rated with Kirk after asking for more power one time too many, you get the idea.

The dialougue is rat-a-tat-tat perfect and biting; a joy for those who love language and good writing in film. The performances are equal to the writing - funny, quick, and clever showcasing a boat load of Brit-wit. Some American standouts include James Gandolfini as a dove-ish general, Mimi Kennedy as an administration official with a toothache.  The movie is shot in a quasi-documentary style and feels as if Ricky Gervais wrote and directed it as his “war movie” follow up to his BBC version of “The Office”. And if you knew how much I love Ricky Gervais, that is high praise indeed. I give “In the Loop” three stars

“In the Loop” is playing this weekend at the Gold Town Nickelodeon at 7 and 9:15 PM on Friday and Saturday, and 4 and 7 PM on Sunday.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Movie Review: 500 Days of Summer

(For the radio version, please click here).

You should see ‘500 Days of Summer’ for a lot of reasons: terrific performance, smart script, and clever soundtrack, but I’m going to start with talking about one small cinematic pet peeve - The Speech, with a capital ‘S’.  I’m surprised because this movie seemed too smart for such a thing; disappointed because NOBODY GIVES SPEECHES.  I understand the need to suspend disbelief. I understand the desire for a scene of cathartic release. But if you are trying to depict a realistic moment, you don’t orate. In my list of cinematic pet peeves, The Speech is a big one (along with self-congratulatory applause at the end of a film and terminal illnesses) but don’t let that keep you from seeing this film.

I like films that highlight a truth previously unexplored. ‘500 Days of Summer’ explores how some people warp space-time such that things just work out for them.  This manifests in many ways: perhaps it’s the average looking high school girl all the boys love; or the scholar athlete who writes poems, turns down dates, and is a quick healer; or the guy who runs into famous people no matter where he goes, even on a train in the Russian steppe.  Their lives are effortless. They get what they want and get away with it.

They are rare, but we’ve all known a few. This phenomenon is not on display much in pop culture, except maybe Kramer. In ‘500 Days of Summer’, this person is Summer Finn. She is portrayed by Zooey Deschanel. If you’ve seen Ms. Deschanel in movies like ‘Almost Famous’, you know she has a charismatic screen presence not common in young actors.  She is just smart enough, cute enough, and quirky enough to pull off a great performance. And through her performance, you understand why Tom Hansen, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has a massive crush on her; an infatuation he plays like he’s carrying around an oxen yoke for enormous oxen.  Sad and dejected when not in Summer’s good graces, buoyant when things are good, Mr. Gordon-Levitt manages to portray a sensitive male without making him a complete pushover. 

Ms. Deschanel and Mr. Gordon-Levitt also sing in the film and appear on the soundtrack. Music is an integral part of the film’s plot and a song is nearly always playing.  From The Smiths to Hall and Oats, the music tells the story just as much as the script. This is a rare and pleasant change from the norm when music is added after a film is shot to manufacture an emotional response to a given scene.  

‘500 Days of Summer’ was written and directed by men, and is about unrequited love.  But in a rare twist of the formula, rather than the women being affected by a coolly unreachable man who “teaches” her something, it’s the man who is thrown for a loop by the woman. The movie does not objectify women so much as idolize them. It’s a movie in the tradition of ‘Say Anything’ or ‘Sideways’ and squarely targets the sensitive male and the women who tolerate them.  Being thickly mired in the sensitive male demographic, I love this movie. I give it 3.5 stars. So buy the ticket, buy the soundtrack, and dive into Zooey Deschanel’s impossibly big and blue eyes.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

(To hear the radio version, please click here).

Tarantino movies are glorifications of morally complicated and wounded badasses who can take care of themselves – with many exacting revenge upon their tormentors. His latest, Inglorious Basterds, is no exception.

Now, morally complicated does not necessarily mean the characters are sitting around discussing the implications of their actions – though they certainly did that in Pulp Fiction.  The soldiers in Inglorious Basterds are not saddled by such considerations.  They’re killers, Jewish Nazi killers, continuing a movie trend of portraying Jews as aggressors rather than victims (Munich, Defiance, Don’t Mess with the Zohan), Tarantino reimagines a WWII where a crack group of Jewish-American soldiers are set behind enemy lines in Nazi occupied France where they proceed to kill every Nazi they see.

Now understand, this movie rewrites history and does it unapologetically.  It’s a fantasy of would’ve, could’ve, should’ve-s.  To me, it’s not unlike Rambo going back to Vietnam (had only the gubn’t stayed out of the soldiers way), or a group of highschoolers fighting back Russian and Cuban armies in Red Dawn (Americans know how to fight right out of the womb!), except it addresses, my god the cajones on Quentin, the holocaust.   It’s pop culture’s way, I suppose, of dealing with the greatest crime against humanity in the history of humanity. Perhaps we could’ve shortened the holocaust and ended the Third Reich if only we had set upon the Gerries a group of killer American Jews under the guidance of a part Apache Tennessee Mountain man.  If only.

Another thing about Tarantino’s films, and it’s nothing new, it’s something we already know, but warrants a repeat. His films are very, very violent. And the violence is depicted very, very graphically. His target for abuse this time out - foreheads.  On many instances, when you expect the camera to pull away (like the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs), it doesn’t.  So be forewarned.

But really, it’s not the violence itself that sets Quentin’s movies apart. It’s the promise of violence that hangs over every quotable conversation. And boy, are there conversations. 15 minute long conversations.  The opening scene in the French countryside and a scene depicting a spy rendezvous in a bar are particularly noteworthy.  The thing is, you know the conversation is going to go downhill. You know it isn’t going to end well.  You just don’t know when.  It is an exquisite tension that can make the most mundane of chats fraught with danger. Only Tarantino does this; only Tarantino can keep you on the edge of your seat watching a person drink milk.

The performances are outstanding all the way around.  The standout, the one to watch at Oscar time, is Christopher Waltz, as the SS officer in charge of rounding up the Jews in France. It is as chilling a depiction of gleeful evil I’ve ever scene.  Also on the screen for all too short of a time is German actor Til Schweiger’s who portrays former SS soldier Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz. I won’t tell you why so much as he left the movie with me wanting more. Mélanie Laurent plays a Jewish cinema owner in Paris with pain and intelligence. Tarantino loves his women characters and, given his type of movie, provides good meaty roles and great direction for his female players.  I wish the other action movie directors in male dominated Hollywood would take note - though calling this film an action film is like calling the Space Shuttle a water rocket.

If you have the stomach for it, I highly recommend Inglorious Basterds. I’ll give it 3.5 out of 4 stars. It’s playing at the Glacier Cinema at 4 and 7:30PM.