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May 31, 2011

The Tree of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is only open in New York and LA, so it'll be a few more weeks before most people can spend 3 hours of their lives watching a non-linear, highly conceptual art film with hardly any dialogue about the dawn of the universe, the questionable existence of God, and a family in 1950's Waco, TX. The guys at Filmspotting wrote on Twitter, "Can I just call it the greatest movie ever and not see it, thus not spoiling the illusion?" It's a daunting movie with dangerously high expectations, but I loved it. Here are a few notable things, before I forget.

This is Malick's 5th movie, and if you've seen any of his other stuff, you know the story. Lingering shots of natural settings, gorgeous cinematography, whispered voice-overs that seem like audible subconsciousness. Light on plot and structure, heavy on mood and emotion.

But this one made me realize how much he relies on his actors to convey what's happening in a scene and with the story, often without letting them say anything. Most scenes don't have much action, but we learn something about each character through everything they do on screen.

This is especially true of Brad Pitt, who plays the father of the family at the center of the movie. I'm not a Brad Pitt fan, but he's great in this. It's not a likable character or a flashy role, and he has to embody internal conflicts and strange, seemingly contradictory aspects of his personality. A lot of the time I forgot I was watching a big star. Jessica Chastain is good as the loving, nurturing mother, but one of the movie's few flaws is that her character doesn't have much depth. She's all loving, all nurturing, all the time. She's the emotional core, and maybe her consistency as a source of goodness gives some answer to the question at the center of the movie.

Which is something like: Where is God, or are we alone in a meaningless universe? It's basically the same question the Coen Brothers ask in A Serious Man, but Terrence Malick asks it with wise-eyed children and dinosaurs instead of Jefferson Airplane and rabbis.

Malick really goes all out with the unconventional storytelling. We jump between 1950's Texas and a contemporary city (Houston?) where a morose Sean Penn, the oldest child in the family, wanders around his office building and appears to be completely untethered from his current reality. There's a long, unstructured visualization of the dawn of the universe, with spectacular, cosmic images of the natural world that are so overwhelmingly beautiful that they're sometimes hard to take.

A few months ago, I posted something about the movies that make you cry. This one's not only on my list, but I think it sets some personal record in terms of volume. I was a pathetic weeping mess. Which brings me to my main question about this movie: Is it just an expertly crafted tool of emotional manipulation? All those scenes of kids running around in fields glowing in the magic hour sun, playing kick the can and climbing trees: Malick really nails our collective American nostalgia for lost childhood. I experience something like cinematic patriotism watching it. It's uplifting and devastating at the same time.

Most of the heartstrings-pulling impact of the movie is sincere, but one or two moments toward the end, set in some mysterious communal time and place of reunification, veer toward emotional button-pushing. In general, it's admirably restrained and precisely controlled, so I can let some of the mushy stuff go.

One other thing: I don't know how Malick found the three young actors that play the boys, but he got some amazingly great performances out of them, and they carry some of the movie's best scenes. It's their first movie for all three.

May 25, 2011

Woody's leading men

Woody Allen and Owen Wilson on the set of Midnight in Paris

Over the years, we've seen lots of actors play the classic Woody role in Woody Allen's annual, whether you like it or not, movie release. This character is a man (usually) with neurotic tics and an overpowering fear of death who wears a lot of tweed jackets, loves high culture but loathes pretentiousness, and inadvertently falls in love with a beguiling woman who he (usually) can't have.

My favorite actor to play this role is still Woody himself, who plays it with a lightness and self-deprecation that makes the hapless character sort of charmingly, exasperatingly likeable, in spite of everything.

I wasn't expecting to think much of Owen Wilson, who stands in for Woody in his new movie Midnight in Paris, but as it turns out, Owen Wilson is absolutely perfect. He's sweetly bewildered at the English-major fantasy that forms the central plot. He's romantic, funny, and passionate, yet holds onto his standard chilled-out goofball aura that makes it seem like he ripped a gigantic bong hit right before the cameras turned on.

Somehow, it works. Owen Wilson's performance reminds me of the last time the Woody surrogate was cast so perfectly: in Melinda and Melinda, where Will Ferrell plays the Woody role. Both actors play it for laughs, but without any winking at the camera or an embarrassing attempt at a full-on Woody Allen impersonation.

Some less successful actors in the role are the people that you'd consider respected dramatic actors, like Anthony Hopkins and Josh Brolin in last year's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, and whatever Woody was trying to do with Scarlett Johansson in Scoop. Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is probably the only time he's given the Woody role to a woman and made it work.

Maybe he should stick with casting actors known for broad physical comedy to play the Woody role. Those actors can tone down their usual style and make the character funny in a light, believable way, and don't fall into the the neurotic impersonation trap that serious dramatic actors often do when they take on this style of comedy. Woody himself will appear in his next movie, which also stars Jesse Eisenberg, who could be either the greatest Woody role actor in history, or a stammering caricature in hyper-Jewish overdrive.

It also stars Alec Baldwin. Because someone's got to get all the best lines.

I loved Midnight in Paris, and it's good to be able to say that about a Woody Allen movie again. It's smart and literate, but not snotty. It makes jokes about the storyline of Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel. And it features the awesome Alison Pill, who I want to see in a whole lot more movies. Glad to have you back, Woody.

May 23, 2011

Casting the Carrie remake

Sissy Spacek as Carrie

We heard last week that Stephen King's classic adolescent horror revenge-fantasy Carrie is going to be adapted into another movie, and is supposed to be more faithful to the book than the 1976 Brian De Palma movie that made a star of Sissy Spacek and filled millions of pre-teen girls with abject terror about getting their periods.

Carrie is one of the few Stephen King books that I somehow didn't get around to reading during those heady days of 1989-90 when I went King-crazy and read everything the library had, even The Tommyknockers, which now that I think about it, had to be some kind of joke, right? Anyway, I don't know exactly what elements from the De Palma movie won't make it into the remake, but I'm guessing most of the big ones will still be there: Carrie's social reject status at school, her religiously oppressive and terrifying mom, the pig's blood at the prom, and the explosive and fiery demise that her telekinetic powers wreak on all those bastards. Probably, as The AV Club predicts, in 3D.

But the obvious question is: who's gonna play Carrie? Sissy Spacek was so great--even though she was 26 when the movie came out, she's still believable as a shy outcast who doesn't understand what's happening to her body, why the other kids are so mean to her, or the secret powers she has.

Stephen King has suggested one name only: Lindsay Lohan. Maybe he was kidding. Considering that at age 26, Lindsay Lohan already looks older than Sissy Spacek does today, I don't think she can pull off a role as a high school student anymore. Or a college student role, unless it's in a kooky comedy about a broken-down old hag attending college as a non-traditional student, sort of like Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.

A few other ideas:

Carey Mulligan. She's 26, but was great at playing a naive kid in over her head in An Education, and I'd love to see her branch out into horror. Or, oh oh, yes: Dakota Fanning! She's already done more interesting, dark roles than most middle-aged actresses (child rape in Hounddog, drugs, addiction, nervous breakdown, and hooking up with Joan Jett in The Runaways) and can apparently do anything. She doesn't exactly look like most high school social rejects, but Hollywood loves to make beautiful women ugly for the tough roles. She's the baby-faced psycho I'd love to see.

Or maybe Emma Watson can break out of the Hermione cage by laying utter waste to prom.

And what about Carrie's mom? Piper Laurie in the original is probably the scariest crazy-eyed movie mom I've ever seen. For the remake, I can see Amy Ryan pulling some seriously twisted psycho-fundamentalist shit on her daughter. Or maybe Olivia Williams, who always seemed so gentle until we saw her all pissed off and bitter and possibly murderous in The Ghost Writer last year.

There's no director yet, but maybe Catherine Hardwicke can redeem herself and do something good again. I hear Red Riding Hood was a bust.

May 18, 2011

Some guys just have the knack

Officer Moreno, charged with rape     Dominique Strauss-Kahn, charged with rape

New York has a couple of high-profile alleged rapists in the news: Officer Kenneth Moreno, accused of raping a drunk woman in her apartment, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of attacking and raping a maid in his hotel room.

Let's just assume, for the sake of argument, that Moreno and Strauss-Kahn did in fact rape their respective victims. Both of these guys are opportunist rapists: I don't think either attack was premeditated, but when they realized they'd encountered vulnerable women they thought they could take advantage of, they went for it.

But one of these guys could teach the other a thing or two about how to commit rape if you want to get away with it:

First, pick a woman who is totally wasted. That makes it harder for her to defend herself, and makes it easier to discredit her in court. Officer Moreno is a real pro at this one, with the added bonus of being an alcoholic himself, so he could tell a story to the jury about how he empathized with his victim and spent those four visits to her apartment counseling her through her addiction, spooning in her bed, and singing "Livin' On a Prayer" to her.

Strauss-Kahn, on the other hand, selected a sober, able-bodied woman for his attack, and while he apparently was able to ejaculate somewhere during the assault (EWW EWW EWW), she eventually fought him off and got away.

Second, wear a condom. That way, there's less chance of physical evidence. Officer Moreno confessed to his victim, who was wearing a wire, that he used a condom when he raped her (and has subsequently gone through all kinds of bizarre logistical contortions to explain that one.) But he successfully avoided leaving any trace of his bodily fluids in the apartment or on his victim, while Strauss-Kahn's genetic material is being extracted from the Sofitel carpet and analyzed as we speak.

And we have the NY Post to thank for this additional piece of advice: you should wear a condom in case the woman you rape is HIV+.

We'll know in the next day or two if Officer Moreno gets away with it or not. I think it's going to be a lot harder to get to a guilty verdict for him than it will be for Strauss-Kahn, if he ever goes to trial. He may be a brilliant economist, but he's one sloppy rapist.

I hope they both get locked up forever.

May 15, 2011

Bridesmaids: #2!


Did you see Bridesmaids? Because it's really funny. A lot of people saw it, sure, though not enough to achieve my desired goal of it becoming the #1 movie in America. That's because Thor is the #1 movie in America, for the second week.

According to the head of distribution for the the studio that released Bridesmaids, Nikki Rocco, coming in second on opening weekend is "pretty good considering this is a picture titled Bridesmaids." Maybe a little defeatist there, Rocco, about a movie that it's your job to promote? What about a picture titled Thor? I'll tell you right now, I'm not interested in a picture titled Thor, particularly if it's directed by Kenneth Branagh. I'll see Shakespeare by Kenneth Branagh, but a Norse god comic book adaptation? I'll stick with Bridesmaids.

Also, am I just being paranoid, or is the (female) head of distribution for Universal implying that a movie primarily by and about women is inherently less watchable than a movie by and about men? She's just flat out saying that, right?

Bridesmaids is a very funny movie, and Kristen Wiig (who co-wrote, co-produced, and stars) is wildly talented, but it's most notable for two things. First, Melissa McCarthy, aka Sookie from "Gilmore Girls", as the sister of the groom. She is a comic genius, and her character is, in Manohla Dargis's words, almost radical: a fat lady whose sexual confidence and outrageously brash physical comedy aren't signs of any pathology or deeper insecurity, but are accepted as simple, hilarious fact. Sort of like a female Jack Black. Everything she says and does is funny.

Also, Bridesmaids might be the best example of the then-nonexistent movies about believable, cool women that Cynthia Heimel described in her wonderful short essay from 1992, "I'd Like to Lose it At the Movies", which you can read on Google Books:

I want to see women who are rowdy and difficult, who are not victims, who control their own destinies, who are prey to lust and confusion and unbelievable fuck-ups, who are complex, who are real, who are adventuresome, whose entire existence does not rely on the way in which their men treat them.

She then goes on to imagine her own movie studio, where she would remake every movie that stars Jack Nicholson with a woman playing his role: "Picture Five Easy Pieces with Goldie Hawn as a lapsed concert pianist who is so tortured by the ironies of life that she has to pick up Matt Dillon at a bowling alley and fuck his brains out." Yeah, it's from 1992. Still.

It's not perfect, it's heavy on the poop jokes, and it's 100% formulaic, but I think Cynthia Heimel finally got the movie she was looking for. And it's a lot funnier than Baby Mama.

May 12, 2011

If You Leave Me Now

Peter Cetera sings Chicago's

Chicago's 1976 #1 hit, "If You Leave Me Now", holds a distinct honor as my own personal Worst Song Ever (a prestige it currently shares with "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton.) The treacly strings, the horn section stripped of all soulfulness, and worst of all, that melismatic falsetto moaning of Peter Cetera, the band's lead singer.

The thing is, this song starts out OK, with a little bit of '70's soft rock sincerity: "If you leave me now, you'll take away the biggest part of me". But then the second line comes in, "Ooo Hooo HOOO-OOO, NO-OOO, baby, ple-EEEASE don't GO-OOO!" It's a teeth-gnashingly visceral aural horror. Here's the band performing the song live on TV, with spectacularly silly '70's video embellishment (see photo above).

So this morning, I heard a good interview with Will Ferrell on NPR about his new movie, Everything Must Go, where he plays a drunk sad sack whose wife kicks him out of the house, leading him to set up his living area in the front yard.

Ferrell says that to tap into his own dark feelings of abandonment, he remembered when his parents got divorced when he was 8, and his mom would leave him alone in the car while she shopped for groceries while he listened to the radio. He specifically mentions Chicago as the band that made him feel the saddest, then he actually starts singing "If You Leave Me Now", right there on NPR, because of all the memories he has of his parents getting divorced and feeling sad and alone, that song is the single best expression of human misery. [Here's the audio clip, singing is at 4:40.]

I bet Will Ferrell doesn't actually like "If You Leave Me Now" any more than I do, but he seems to have accepted its special, odious role in his life with more maturity and grace than I'll ever have.

He also brought the song up in a People interview for Talladega Nights in 2006, when he says it's the song he would choose if he were an "American Idol" finalist, and then he and John C. Reilly start singing it together. This guy's been living with the pain of "If You Leave Me Now" for a long time.

My favorite use of the song is in Three Kings, when metal fan soldier Spike Jonze grudgingly plays it on his car stereo on his way to a raid in Iraq, after an earlier scene where Ice Cube suggests that the best pump-up music to listen to when going into a combat situation isn't Judas Priest, but "easy listening classics." The horrors of war.

Here's the video:

May 7, 2011

Watching The Beaver

Mel Gibson in The Beaver

Watching Jodie Foster's new movie would be an emotionally easier thing to do if Mel Gibson wasn't so amazingly good in it. When I first heard about this movie and watched the trailer, I thought it had to be a joke. The Beaver (?), starring Mel Gibson (?!) as a depressed family man who finds a way back into his life by expressing himself through a puppet (!?!), directed by Jodie Foster (huh???) How did any part of this absurd movie happen?

It's impossible to watch this movie without remembering all the terrible behavior, hateful tirades, and accusations of violence that have led to a tailspin of bad publicity for Mel Gibson. Whatever ongoing psychological crisis he's going through in real life seems an awful lot like what we see on the screen: a very troubled man who doesn't know how to deal with his problems through any socially acceptable methods, so he turns to an alter-ego in the form of a beaver puppet that talks like Ray Winstone. Or, in the real life version, the drinking, abusive spouting, raging bigotry, and "sugar tits". The world thinks both men are insane, but at the same time, we can see that the alternative to this bad behavior is utter self-destruction.

Why Jodie Foster decided to produce this wacky screenplay is anyone's guess, but it's obvious why she chose Mel Gibson to play the lead: because he's phenomenally good, he has real personal understanding of the pain this character lives in, and he's her friend. Foster's promotion of the movie puts her in a tough position of having to defend Mel, the actor, while distancing herself from Mel, the out-of-control asshole. She calls him a good friend while not excusing his behavior. Here's a clip from her interview on Letterman, where she deftly supports him as her star and her friend, while not offering any explanation for all the bad stuff.

The best article I've read about Hollywood's ongoing support for Mel Gibson, in spite of everything, is the Vanity Fair piece from a couple of months ago, "The Rude Warrior". There have been calls for Mel boycotts from powerful studio people, he lost a cameo in The Hangover Part II, and every new piece of news has been bad. Even so, he seems to be one of the most loved people in Hollywood. Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jodie Foster have all defended him in public, and many more producers, directors, and actors have only very positive things to say in the VF article.

Obviously, the guy's got problems. He's an alcoholic (he was going to AA meeting as early as 1989) and seems to turn into another person when he drinks. The scenes in The Beaver of drunken self-destruction are great in a scary, psychotic way. If anything, knowing that Gibson has his own real scary dark side only makes them better. The movie gets darker and stranger as it goes on, taking some gutsy, ugly turns that are definitely not what you'd expect if you've seen the goofy trailer that, strangely, makes the movie look like an oddball sentimental comedy.

There are some missteps, like an uninspired subplot about the older son and his shaky romance with Jennifer Lawrence, and Foster's character is curiously hollow, but what makes the movie compelling is Mel Gibson, who's stopped insulting women and Jews just long enough to turn in a brilliant and subtle performance of probably the weirdest movie role I'll see all year.

About May 2011

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in May 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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