Happy Christmas everybody! I got back from Portugal on the 21st, and since have been making merry, praying and watching lots of "For Your Consideration" screeners. I must admit, I like the free screener part of being in the WGA very much.
There isn't time to do decent reviews of all the movies I've seen, and frankly many of them aren't worth a serious consideration, and even more frankly, a lot of what I would want to say about most of the films can be summed up in some version of "Yuck" and "Eeeeeeeeew." I am going to jot down whatever pops into my head about the movies and then give it a pass or a plaudit.
Road to Hell
Directed by Sam Mendes, written by Justin Hayth, starring Leo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet
Storyline: Not much happens for two draggy hours while we get to watch two narcissists become miserable when their responsibilities as spouses and parents stop being fun. Then in a desperate need for a plot-point and some kind of ending, the woman acidentally kills herself while trying to abort her unborn child.
Theme: Children ruin everything.
Sub-theme: Don't let the (secretly miserable) traditional family people take away Roe vs. Wade or women will be puncturing their own uteruses left and right again.
Sub-text of the whole damn mess of a movie: Marriage and family life is one big sh*thole of a slow death..... And, actually, I suppose that pagan marriage is that. So, you know, maybe this is another one of those projects about which John Paul II noted, "Contemporary artists have become very good at showing us what human life without God looks like." But if I were Kate Winslet, I would be concerned about what my husband Sam Mendes is brooding over on his side of the bed at night.
Script: Flat. Not really one good dialogue line in the whole two hours. No imagery. No twists. No clever choices. Just a slow spiral to nowhere. What can you really say about a movie whose primary raison d'etre is to resentfully murmur that being a grown-up is hard and requires sacrifice? I kept wanting to say to the selfish characters on the screen, "Hell, have a beer. Have two."
Performances: Highly melodramatic. Leo winces painfully through two hours. Kate masters that undead look that rich, Hollywood types seem to think should be the appropriate demeanor for middle-class people who aren't famous.
Some lovely cinematography, but everything else about this film comes off as an arch and cynical parody of the 1950's. It's American Beauty without whatever fun was in that previous hate-filled rant against the quiet life in traditional American suburbia. Mendes has undeniable visual talent, but if he doesn't get some therapy or religion soon, it will all be squandered in a career full of sound and fury signifying nothing. (Been wanting to work THAT last into a sentence since about 2001...)
Revolutionary Road is anything but. As entertainment it's too talky and draggy with only one or two emotional beats. As a story, it has no lesson to communicate, no reward for traveling on its tedious journey. As a work of art it is uneven and its communication is cynicism and not insight.
Slumdog Millionaire is this year's Crash. Which means it has a good chance of winning the Academy Award. Especially if they put it up against the highly mediocre Milk - this year's Brokeback - in a rallying gesture of support to the poor suffering gay men who have been denied by religious people the chance they've all been deeply yearning for to enter into state-sanctioned life-long, monogamous, committed and stable relationships with one other person. We've all seen these guys clamoring for holy matrimony on the streets of West Hollywood on Halloween night.... But back to Slumdog...
Directed by Danny Boyle, written by Simon Beaufoy, starring a whole slew of fair to midlin Indian actors you haven't heard of
Storyline: Two brothers from a Mumbai slum survive terrible awful things. One of the brothers is demonic and the other one is angelic. In the end, the angelic one gets the girl, $10,000,000 rupees, and a job formerly held by a middle-class family man in Toledo harrassing by phone JC Penney customers who are past due on their credit card bill. (Okay, not that last part...but isn't that job the true stuff of the Indian dream these days?)
Several people whose opinions I respect really loved this movie. For me, Slumdog suffered from a story problem I internalized several years ago and have since thought of as "The Horse Whisperer Problem". That is, the opening moments of The Horse Whisperer were so dark and hard to watch - a horse and little girl rider getting hit by a truck and then lying on the side of the road with broken legs and gushing wounds - that the film could never overcome their emotional impact. Personally, no moment of ultimate triumph/survival in Slum Dog could overcome the traumatic nature of the film's early sequences, including...
- a man strung up, beaten, stripped and tortured by electric shocks.
- a little boy, trapped in an outhouse, gets out by jumping into the deep well of diarrhea and feces. He emerges covered in human excrement in an extended sequence that is played for humor in the movie, but which was horrifying and repulsive. It was gross and disgusting in a way that even I have rarely seen at the movies.
- starving children looking for food and sellables on a rat-infested mound of a putrid garbage dump
The film also includes child rape and prostitution, a mother being beaten in front of her children and then drowning in a dirty pool, a few brutal murders, and the perennially entertaining sequence of a little boy's eyes being put out with hot acid.
It was all too much for me to get past to enjoy the ultimate victory that the good brother acheives at the end of the movie. However, as I said, others liked it very much and didn't get as stuck as I did on all of the above.
People are calling the movie Dickensian, because it is a meandering tale of a poor, nice kid who gets jerked around by bad people and then makes good through a series of ridiculous and improbable twists of fate. What Slumdog was missing for me was the real staple of Dicken's success is that Dickens had profound characterizations. However, it definitely has some of the feel of an Oliver Twist in India.
I wondered afterwards if the fascination peope are having with this movie was mainly attributable to its arena. We haven't seen a lot of the Mumbai slums before. But as such, it isn't that insightful about people in a Mumbai slum. They are all caricatures in a way that would probably be critically slammed were the movie set in an American slum.
Screenplay: Should have been much better. There are no surprises. No imagery. In places, TERRIBLE, cringe-producing dialogue, and the ridiculous impossible beats that, I guess, are acceptable in a movie trying to be like a Dickens fable. I found the characters one-dimensional - either really good or really evil. And there were several repetitive scenes. But the script does achieve some poignancy in the almost hopeless pure love that perseveres.
Performances: Uneven. The main lead was solid. The guy who played his brother was embarrassing.
Score: I felt like I was trapped in the third circle of 1970's hell.
It's a tough movie. You have to wade through a lot of human tragedy to get to the happy ending. I recommend it for people who have a high tolerance for human tragedy at the movies.
The Twilight of the Movie Vampire
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, written by Melissa Rosenberg, starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattison
What is it about vampires? Or rather, why are vampires in the post-sexual revolution era suddenly potentially sympathetic? Somebody please, it's a doctoral thesis waiting to happen. My sister dragged me to Twilight, and I was happy to go, if only to avoid the stack of very dark, oftne violating and depressing award screeners that I have been plowing through. I wanted to see something fun and light, if not beautiful, and Twilight was there.
Storyline: An attractive teenage girl from a broken family, moves from sunny Arizona to live with her father in the wet and cold hell of Washington state. She soon finds herself in the throes of irresistible passionate attraction with a handsome seventeen year old who turns out to be a vampire. They stare at each other for two hours in lots of tight close up shots. Their chests heave with lust and they stroke each other's arms. They don't have sex. The girl asks to be a vampire. The guys says no. It stops.
Theme: Baby-boomer parents are the source of all evil except for Washignton State weather and bad vampires.
Sub-theme: It is possible for teenagers to like each other and not have sex.
Performances: Better than I expected. The two leads are very attractive and the supporting players had some nice moments.
Production notes: Really cheesy special effects, which surprised me in this day and age. The director's vision was mostly annoying. The shots were two self-conscious in the first half of the movie. It reminded me of the first half of Into the Wild. Too many close ups is just annoying. Very low budget locations.
Script: As bad as the book in terms of dialogue. Nothing much happens in terms of character choices. I actually thought the movie was better than the book, most of which I read in twenty minutes standing in the aisle at Walmart. It's not Madam Bovary.
It's kind of Sex in the City for the younger female set, except without any sex. It's a millenial-female fantasy about falling in love with a man who is a grown-up, especially compelling to the younger set because most of the milennials have been raised by people who were not adults. The paradox of the piece is that the man that Bella feels safe with, just happens to be a, well, monster. If there is any danger here, it is in an over-emphasis on hormones and sexual attraction. The best advice to a teenager who is wanting to spend all their time in sexual fantasy is, "Don't dwell on it." Twilight says, "DWELL ON IT. Stare at it. Roll around in it and give yourself to it."
In its literal story beats it is harmless, though. Lord knows, they could be watching American Pie or Saw XVII. Can't recommend but I won't call for a pass either. It is better than Bella..... (heh heh)
Wrestling with the Unexamined Life
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Robert Siegel, starring Mickey Rourke and Marissa Tomei
After Wall-E and The Visitor, The Wrestler was actually the best film as art I have seen so far this year. Of course, it comes with some horrifying violence, and way more of Marissa Tomei than I ever wanted to see. That is, folks, full frontal nudity several times. She's one of those strippers writhing around poles that we are seeing so much in the movies these days. Along with vampires. (The whole world has lost its mind.)
Storyline: An aged-out professional wrestler has a heart attack that sets him on an existential crisis to reconnect with his lesbian daughter, and to make a serious relationship with a stripper. In the end, he can't handle the mundane life outside the ring and dies for one last dive off the ring ropes to crush his opponent against the mat.
Theme: Being an object of public blood-lust takes its toll.
Performances: Excellent. Mickey Rourke really goes there and there isn't a false note here. His character is paradoxically amiable and dedicated, even though it is to a life of pretending to beat the crap out of other men. We like him and we are rooting for him to find love. If I wasn't so high on Richard Jenkins getting the Oscar for The Visitor, I'd be wearing a Mickey Rourke button.
Tomei is always great, which begs the question why she is taking roles like this which require her to prostitute herself. I was sad to see her sink to this level. Granted, the character of the wrestler would fit in a strip club, but they really didn't have to go there. She could just as well been a grocery store lady or a beautician. Evan Rachel Wood also does a solid job of fleshing out the millennial child who becomes an angry lesbian because her baby-boomer parents have let her down. (Dry voice:) Haven't seen that before....
Directoral Vision: Excellent. Absolutely served the story and didn't distract. You don't think about the director in this one.
The film is hugely dependent on the arena for its entertainment value. I hadn't seen or thought of the world of professional wrestling before, so it was a guilt pleasure for me to have this access to it. It is seedy and ugly and depressing - reminded me of a rock music doc series I saw years ago called, "The Decline of Western Civilization".
The funny thing about the film is how tender it is in parts. Achieving poignancy in this arena is an achievement indeed.
I can't broadly recommend this film because it is a hard R full of nudity and lap dances and simulated brutality and foul language. But if you can stand a gritty portrayal of a man wrestling with the wages of sin which are leading to his death, then this is a worthy character study.
Coming soon: Quick reviews of Milk (got nausea?), Burn After Reading (Newsflash from the Coens: "We've been wrong. Crime actually does pay!"), and Guilt.