The Lovely Bones (2009, dir. Peter Jackson)
Starring Saorise Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon
Before he was known as the director who brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen, Peter Jackson was a small budget New Zealand filmmaker. Among his work was the wacked out zombie flick Dead Alive, the Muppet show on crack Meet the Feebles, and the amazing Heavenly Creatures. And it is Heavenly Creatures, that seems to bear the strongest kinship to Jackson’s latest film. Both films focus on female protagonists and involve their subconscious being brought to the surface in surreal landscapes. However, where The Lovely Bones is an improvement in technical achievement, it lacks the narrative strength of Heavenly Creatures.
Based on the 2003 novel by Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones is a first person narrative where the newly deceased Susie Salmon chronicles her afterlife and her family’s reactions to her death. Susie is unable to be at rest in the afterlife, due to her murderer still wandering free. She begins to influence the actions of her family and direct them towards the murderer’s house so that the case can be solved and she can move on. This is juxtaposed to her living out fantasies in a strange surreal afterlife landscape.
This film felt as much like fantasy as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While there are no orcs or wizards, characters are so unrealistic they might as well be wielding magic wands and riding dragons. Susie is so perfect in her actions and attitudes that I could not connect or empathize with her at all. Susie’s biggest rebellion as a teenager comes in being embarrassed about her new knit cap. Everything Susie does is framed by the film in a sort of gauzy light. In contrast, Mr. Harvey, her murderer is filmed in an equally absurd but menacing way. He constant sweatiness and heavy breathing is over-emphasized, and Jackson employs low camera angles to create a sense of looming danger.
This over simplification causes the film to come across as shallow as a silent film. I half expected, Mr. Harvey to start twirling his mustache and tie Susie to a railroad track. I assume the audience is meant to be wowed by the CG effects employed in the afterlife sequences, but because of the initial depthless nature of the characters it was simply some pretty pictures. At the end, the characters are so poorly developed it doesn’t seem possible to have the strong emotional response I’m sure Jackson and co-scripter Fran Walsh intended. It seems that since, and in despite of the success of, the Lord of the Rings series, Jackson has been returning a diminishing product (see King Kong as well). One hopes that he can make his next project a bit more meaningful and more character-driven.
The Road (2009, dir. John Hilcoat)
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smitt-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce
The post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road does not feel all that distant. Set mainly in rural areas and rundown smalltowns, these are settings familiar to my own youth growing up in Springfield. There is an extreme nature to these places though, all animals and crops have died and now roving bands of modern barbarians troll for fellow humans to slaughter. Into this setting is dropped The Man (Mortensen) and The Boy (McPhee). The characters are never named, purposefully, and the story contains traces of allegory moreso than speculative fiction.
Though I have not read the novel this film was based on, I was familiar with McCarthy’s work through Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men. I was elated when I heard John Hilcoat was signed to direct this picture. Hilcoat directed the 2005 independent Australian western, The Proposition and in that film I could see the themes and spirit of much of McCarthy’s work. Both men are contemplative and almost mystical in their narratives, while juxtaposing that with sudden and brutal moments of violence. Hilcoat seemed one of the few directors best suited for speaking for McCarthy on the big screen.
The Road is by no means a perfect film, and in moments feels like a filmic self-flagellation, watching humanity suffer in such hopeless squalor. There are few moments of happiness, which is understandable when the world around our characters is literally crumbling and dimming out. The structure of the plot is episodic, with the Man and the Boy mostly encountering hostiles and the occasional old man (Duvall). Flashbacks are provided wherein we see how The Man and The Boy came to be on this odyssey to the East Coast and what happened to the Man’s wife in the early days of the Apocalypse.
The most obvious parallels to be drawn between the two main characters are that of the Old Testament Jehovah and the New Testament Jesus. The Man is thoroughly convinced that all people they encounter possess base, survivalist instincts. Within the Boy though, he talks about a fire that burns inside him and is his responsibility to carry on. The Boy is the half of the duo willing to trust those they meet, and chance that they will find some sort of company in the wilds. And despite all of the film’s bleakness and atmosphere of a shattered world, it does offer hope in the final moments, specifically in The Boy. You see that, unlike The Man, the Boy is able to trust and understands that without that capacity to risk in others life would truly be over.
The super hero movie is valuable stock in Hollywood these days. From Batman to Iron Man to Spider-Man and the X-Men, every superpowered being in print is fodder for the next big budget blockbuster. On the flipside, existing parallel to the Big Two (DC and Marvel), has been an independent and creator driven comics industry. Out of this alternative has come unique and quirky stories that use the sequential art medium to tell stories off the beaten path. Here’s a few that would make for a dynamic and engaging film festival.
While I am no big fan of this adaptation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, it is still decent film even though it loses the essence of the original work. The story follows British Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) who has been brought onto the Jack the Ripper case. He befriends East End prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), whose friends are being picked off one by one. The mystery unfolds as part of a dark Illuminati conspiracy and the Ripper’s motives are attached to satanic machinations. The Hughes Brothers, best known for their contributions to African-American cinema with Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, and the wonderful documentary American Pimp, devise a few clever visual tricks but nothing that can raise the film too far beyond a mediocre level. The best part of the film are those metaphysical and occult concepts of Moore’s that made their way from the page to the screen.
From my earlier review: “American Splendor is one of the most unusual comic book adaptations of the 2000s. While this is an origin story, there are no capes or tights. Instead its vintage records and perpetual scowls. Cleveland native, Harvey Pekar began chronicling his life in underground comic books in the 1970s after befriending cult comix artist Robert Crumb. The film works as a docudrama, that features the real Pekar commenting on his life mixed with Giamatti acting out the anecdotes. Even the illustrations from the comic books are animated and spliced amongst the live action sequences. The entire form and style of this film is unlike any other I have seen and have not seen it attempted since. Giamatti does an excellent job mimicking Pekar, but if you have seen the film you can agree nothing surpasses the natural curmudgeon of the original.”
Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World follows the post-high school graduation summer of surly teen, Enid (Thora Birch) and her best friend, Rebecca. The two girls move from episodic moment to episodic moment, slowly growing apart. Enid is the voice for many of the mid- to late 90s proto-hipsters. She has a love of old blues vinyl and kitschy ironic pop culture, and it comes across in a less forced away than many contemporary hipsters do. The summer is a growing time for Enid as her poor temper is forced to dissipate as the responsibilities of adulthood set it. A very sharp, clever film that appeals to the introverted English major type (as I can speak from experience).
Based on the overlooked graphic novel by crime writer John Wagner, Cronenberg reinterpreted it and took the main character, Tom McKenna (Viggo Mortensen) in a different direction. The inciting incident, a pair of murderous thieves hold up Tom’s small town diner, is the same but the choices the character makes and how figures from his past choose to interact with him is where the changes occur. This is a wonderful film that displays Cronenberg’s gifts as a filmmaker. He is totally comfortable in quiet moments and knows how to jolt the audience without playing to cheap shocks. This is also a film that gives an ending that doesn’t need a twist to create a powerful impact.
Unlike the other films of this list, the author of the graphic novel had a direct hand in the adaptation and direction of their work. Persepolis chronicles Marjane Satrapi’s adolescence in Ayatollah-ruled Iran and her eventual relocation to Europe when her parents become afraid of the oppression in their country. Both the film and graphic novel give a wonderful history lesson on Iran and showcase how great America’s ignorance is about Iran’s relations with Iran and the rest of the Arab world. On a microcosmic level, it is also the story of a young girl who tests the borders of rebellion and transitions through the awkward moments of childhood into a confident and brilliant young woman.
East of Eden (1955, dir. Elia Kazan)
Starring James Dean, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives
This month, I’ll be looking at the three core works of James Dean’s sadly short career. I didn’t see any of these films until 2007 when, while living in Washington state, I decided to check out Giant from the public library. What I discovered was the reason behind an icon. So often a pop culture figure’s work has been so far removed from our contemporary experiences that it is hard to understand exactly how they became so iconic. I have found that Dean was indeed a brilliant actor with a potential I don’t see in many others.
Dean made his starring role debut in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (based on the novel of John Steinbeck), playing the tragic loner Cal Trask. Cal is the son of Adam, a farmer and brother to Aron. Throughout his life, Cal has been overshadowed by Aron’s accomplishments and looked at as the black sheep of the family. The mother mysteriously disappeared when the boys were children and Cal remembers little of her. The story is a reworking of the Cain and Abel story and mixes it with the gorgeous landscape of Salinas and Monterey, California.
The filmmaking at work here is a unique artifact of its time. Kazan is a deft director who is responsible for such masterpieces as On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. And it was Kazan’s keen eye who discovered James Dean as he was performing on Broadway. Dean was a major proponent of method acting, a technique that transitioned from the more classical theatrical style of acting into a more psychological and physically interpretive method. Method acting bridges a sort of gap between acting and dance. This is seen in the way Dean almost spasms through his performance, he twists and contorts his body in unison with the psychological torment. The character of Cal is stunted mentally and Dean chooses to express that through his movement. Cal is constantly jamming his hands into his pockets, kicking at the dirt nervously, just like an awkward adolescent.
Dean was reportedly very uncooperative on set, and Kazan admitted he would encourage this by antagonizing the actor. Kazan believed that keeping Dean in such a mentally upset state would, in turn, enhance the anger and frustration of Cal on the screen. Dean’s co-star, Julie Harris is credited with truly enhancing the performance by adjusting her own to become more low-key and further highlight the distinction of what Dean was doing. For a first major film performance, Dean delivers in an astonishing way. Method acting was a new and exciting development in theater and its no wonder audiences were entranced with Dean.
Coming up next: I take a look at the film that made Dean an icon, Rebel Without A Cause.
Youth in Revolt (2009, dir. Miguel Arteta)
Starring Michael Cera, Steve Buscemi, Jean Smart, Ray Liotta, Zach Galafinakis, Justin Long
In 2003, Arrested Development debuted on Fox, and introduced America to the nebbish, nervous comedic talent of Michael Cera. He made George Michael one of the most lovable sad sacks in television history. With the series’ cancellation, Cera would go on to star in the Apatow-produced Superbad, wherein he reprised the George Michael personality. Since then, Cera’s stock had begun to drop as it appears he’s becoming typecast in a very disconcerting way. Youth in Revolt appears to be a partial attempt at breaking out of that mold, but sadly only reconfirms Cera’s career may have an early expiration date without some drastically different roles.
Based on the novel Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp by C.D. Payne, the film follows high schooler Nick Twisp, an intellectual lad who, despite his deft use of language, is unable to relate to his classmates. His life is transplanted to a trailer park miles away after his mother’s current beau scams some Navy men. Twisp meets the francophiliac Sheeni Saunders who becomes his object of obsession and leads to a series of catastrophic incidents.
Twisp is a strange mix of Cera’s afformentioned George Michael and the wise cracking of Ferris Bueller. Whereas, Bueller possessed an abundance of confidence about his plans, Twisp manages to mutter clever comebacks under his breath and awkward hatches schemes. I felt that Cera was probably of the mind that this film would help him break the typecasting he’s undergoing, but once on set he was coerced into going through the same muttery shtick that has defined his career so far.
Director Miguel Arteta is best known for indie pics Chuck and Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002), and since then has worked primarily in television (Ugly Betty, Freaks and Geeks, Six Feet Under). Because of Arteta’s background in the indie film scene of the late 90s/early 00s, Youth in Revolt has a the feel of those low budget pictures. The way in which things spiral continuously downward for Twisp felt to me like many indie black comedies. While, Arteta is very skilled at directing he offers few inspiring visual twists, aside for a couple stop motion animation sequences, that don’t add much to the film.
Youth in Revolt is not a bad film, but it feels like an opportunity missed. The material provided the opportunity for Cera to truly break free of the audience’s expectations, but it seems the filmmakers were too scared to attempt that. At the end of the day it will provide a few chuckles, but doesn’t contain much beyond that.
Up in the Air (2009, dir. Jason Reitman)
Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman
I come to the table with a strong dislike of the work of Jason Reitman. I didn’t find Thank You For Smoking funny and reviled Juno like the swine flu. That said, Reitman had a lot to prove to me and I felt this film was his “last shot” before I wrote him off as a director who simply didn’t make the sort of movies I enjoy.
Based on the novel by Walter Kirn (he also wrote the wonderful Thumbsucker which was also adapted to the screen), the story follows Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a “career transition counselor”, or in plain english, the man your boss hires when he’s too scared to fire you himself. Bingham is at home in airports and first class seats. The entire process has evolved to an almost ritualistic state, and Bingham takes great pride in his impeccable ability to traverse and flow through the environment like water. The inevitable snag occurs when young upstart Natalie Keener (Kendrick) proposes a new video conferencing system to replace the face to face firings Bingham’s firm provides. Bingham is terrified that his entire life and soul is at stake and volunteers to take Keener on his route in an effort to prove that the face to face is an essential part of their job.
Reitman has begun to win me over. Gone is the smirking humor of Thank You For Smoking and the nails-on-chalkboard hip-speak of Juno. There are still traces of the director’s hand but it feels like a maturation has occurred. Bingham is developed quite organically from a simple pastiche of Clooney’s typical film persona and into a truly broken and incredibly pathetic man. Vera Farmiga plays Alex, a woman who refers to herself as just like Bingham “but with a vagina”. They meet in an airport bar and foreplay consists of showing off their voluminous elite status cards from luxury hotels and car rental services. Their relationship feels shallow and it is and how that relationship plays out was quite a surprise to me. There are a few beats in the film, involving the transformation of Bingham’s priorities and it feels like Reitman is taking us into heavily tread territory, but he completely reverses things in a very satisfying way.
The film is very much a product of contemporary events. Bingham’s firm is seeing a boon in business as the economy tanks. Bingham himself seems to be losing the assurance he normally feels in his job as he is contracted to fire an ever growing number of the workforce. The film comes across a bit heavy handed in some of these moments, particularly a ending montage sequence where real people who have been laid off in the last year talk directly to the camera about their feelings and reactions. While I thought they had good insight, the insertion of this into the film felt slightly pretentious. I think a documentary of said material would be a much more interesting venture though.
In the end, Reitman has duly impressed me. I went from having incredibly low expectations for his third film, to finding it to be enjoyable. I think his tempering and maturation as a filmmaker are very apparent, and I’m actually interested in what his next project will be.
Sherlock Holmes (2009, dir. Guy Ritchie)
Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, James Fox
There are few characters more iconic than Sherlock Holmes. He is a figure strongly ingrained in the pop culture psyche, wearing his deerstalker hat while sporting a pipe and magnifying glass. When British director Guy Ritchie was announced to be helming the current incarnation of the most famous detective, I wasn’t to intrigued. Since 2002’s Swept Away, Ritchie has seemed to be unable to find direction in his film career. With Sherlock Holmes he has managed to combine his dynamic visual storytelling style with plenty of humor to create an incredibly fresh twist on the icon.
The plot is not based on any particular Holmes’ tale, but references many characters and cases familiar to those who have read the stories. Holmes and Watson have just helped Inspector LeStrade apprehend Lord Blackwood, a member of the House of Lords involved in a satanic Illuminati ritual. Blackwood tells Holmes of a larger power at work before he is hung and appears to return to life. While Holmes attempts to uncover the truth behind Blackwood he must deal with Watson’s impending engagement and the return of his greatest adversary and infatuation, Irene Adler.
What Ritchie has effectively done is make a buddy cop movie set in the London of the late 19th century. The dynamic between Holmes and Watson is much different than previously presented and feels much more in tune with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s intent. They are a bickering married couple, with Holmes blatant jealous and worried over the idea of Watson leaving him to marry his fiancee. Ritchie also brings in Holmes’ past as a boxer, as aspect of the character greatly ignored in the previous interpretations.
What surprised me the most was how funny the film is, and because of that it should be classified much more as a comedy than anything else. I came to the realization that Robert Downey, Jr. is a good actor but what he’s been asked to play for the last decade or so is a pastiche of himself. Other than an accent there is not much difference between how he plays Holmes and Tony Stark. What I enjoyed wasn’t necessarily his acting, but rather his ability to do what he does so damn well.
The film is definitely a fresh look at the icon of Sherlock Holmes. Anyone who holds the traditional film portrayal, first seeded by Basil Rathbone, will find this to be quite jarring. For audiences who are ready for a new take, it is one of the most fun films they will see this year. And in the case of any good studio franchise, they leave this one open for an inevitable sequel.
Precious (2009, dir. Lee Daniels)
Starring Gabby Sidibe, Paula Patton, Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Sherri Shepherd
I waited a long time to see this film, not because I lacked interest in its subject matter, but, because of my time in inner city schools, I knew it was going to affect me in a rough way. I have worked with primarily African-American students in low income situations and, while many of them come from loving families that give support in the best ways they know how, there are also a fair share that are stuck in multi-generational cycles of destructive parenting.
The story follows Precious, a 16-year old living in 1987 New York City, repeating the 7th grade, and in the middle of her second pregnancy. Her mother, Mary, is incredibly abusive towards Precious which stems from the fact that her husband is the father of Precious’ two children, the first of which was born with Down’s syndrome. After the discovery of her second pregnancy, Precious is moved to a special school for struggling students in an effort to get her a GED. Her mother is threatened by this, believing it will result in her welfare benefits being removed and becomes increasingly more vicious.
This is a hard film to talk about, especially from the perspective of a white American male. I don’t necessarily believe I feel white guilt but I definitely feel a sympathy for the African-American community from my first hand experiences working with their students. For the majority of the film, Mary represents a very extreme type of person, and in reality transcends race. There are plenty of white parents, many of whom I have encountered here in the South who develop a resentment of their offspring as a result of wretched economic circumstances. Mo’Nique delivers a performance I never would have expected out of her, especially during her final monologue where we finally get some solid information about Precious’ upbringing.
A lot of critics are worried that Lee Daniels’ portrayal of African-Americans is helping to feed a terrible stereotype of the community. I completely understand those fears because, seen through the eyes of a filmgoer who does not critically view cinema (and sadly many of them don’t, as evidenced by the success of Avatar), this could reinforce negativity. I like to the view as an piece of honest encouragement to African-American youth. The film doesn’t resolve everything in a pretty bow, but it does show a strong black female character who, with a support system, manages to make things better for herself and is determined to continue to make things better.