Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Disappointment: Sucker Punch (2011)

I know, I know, I shouldn't have expected anything from Sucker Punch.  I was that person who despite the terrible trailers and terrible reviews still held out hope that the film was going to be fun entertainment and a visual spectacle.  I was half right.  Visual spectacle, yes.  Was the film fun at times?  Certainly.  Those times were usually the first 5 minutes of battle scenes that then continued for another 20.

Zack Snyder has proven himself a master of visuals.  The man has time and time again created visually stunning and cohesive universes for his films.  One of them even became instantly iconic: 300.  The one concern I have with a man who has this much style is that there isn't much substance.  I think that isn't true necessarily, but it's part of the problem.  Snyder clearly needs to work on his storytelling skills because Sucker Punch was a hot mess.  Plot-wise the film tried to juggle multiple narrative-within-a-narrative stories. The film starts out with a truly amazing sequence where our lead character Babydoll's (Emily Browning) mother dies and the stepfather in a fit of rage from being left out of the will tries to rape her and then her sister.  She accidentally shoots her sister and is then committed to an asylum.  In the asylum she hears that she is going to be lobotomized and then creates this parallel world where her and her four friends--Amber (Jamie Chung), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Rocket (Jena Malone), and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish)--are dancers in a high-class bordello.  Within this bordello Babydoll finds she's a dancer who can seduce any man.  While she dances she enters a world inside her mind where her and her friends fight off dragons, orcs (yes, the Lord of the Rings kind...they look exactly the same), robots, and giant machine men.  Sometimes on a futuristic train, a medieval castle, or even a WWI (or WWII...that is also unclear)-era battlefield.  During these dances in the faux-real-world her friends and her are stealing items for their escape plan.

Babydoll and Madame Gorski

It sounds fucking ridiculous, I know.  That is, if you could follow that at all.

The film doesn't feel as crazy as that when watching, but the focus of the story is always on the wrong thing.  Instead of focusing on why the orderly is evil they focus on battle scenes.  Instead of making Madame Gorski (Carla Gugino) an actual character, they forget about her until she's actually needed.  Even the relationships between the 5 main girls seem forced and insincere. It is a complete mess.  Complete. Mess.  Snyder needed to take more time developing the script because it feels schlepped together. With the right script and focus I feel as though this film could've been something really great.  Instead the whole thing falls flat after the first battle scene is over and you realize that you've still got countless more to go.

Pet peeve:  Snyder needs to stop with the super slow-mo in the battle scenes.  It is used ad nauseum and gets REALLY ANNOYING.  We know you can do that, we know you think it's cool, now STOP.

The acting of the film=average.  Jamie Chung as Amber was my favorite of the girls, if only because she looked as if she was just having a great time.  The others--Browning's Babydoll in particular--looked miserable/pouty/coy/coquettish almost every second of the film that it got irritating.  Also, why people keep hiring Jena Malone to do anything is beyond me.  Attention must be paid to one person though:

Abbie Cornish.  You hurt my heart.  HURT. MY. HEART.  Why do you do this to me?  After all you gave me in Bright Star you decide to star in this?  Did you not read the script and see how terribly your character was written?  Quintessential bitch-with-a-heart-of-gold.  I hate you for this.  Thank goodness you looked fierce in those leotard/bustier outfits and were good at kicking ass because we would've been through otherwise.  THROUGH.

Grade: D+

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Psycho

Oh Hitch you old devil. Everywhere I turn these days I seem to be bombarded with something Hitchcockian! At work--The Hartford Stage--we're currently beginning previews of our production of The 39 Steps. Our lobby is decked out with posters of his films. Then Nathaniel R over at The Film Experience announced that the 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' this week would be for Psycho and I felt that the stars had aligned.  Not to mention I just last week watched Frenzy on Netflix!

I wish every week could be unofficially dedicated to such a wonderful filmmaker. Maybe we'll have Jane Campion month soon!

Psycho is a complete masterclass in film-making. I had compiled over 40 frames of 36 different shots from the film that I absolutely loved. Cutting those down to a select few proved quite difficult, and when I had finished I noticed something peculiar: my favorite shot is part of a distinct technique Hitchcock uses throughout the film to manipulate the audience. In all of his films Hitchcock uses the camera and its placement and framing of people and objects to unsettle the audience when need be. Hitch created the language which contemporary horror has raped.  The quick cuts to pump up the blood pressure, the way things seem just slightly off in the frame, the use of Bernard Herrman's score, etc. All of that is so prevalent in contemporary horror and amplified to levels that are usually laughable. So how come even though these features have become so familiar are they still so effective in Hitch's films?!

It's because the way Hitchcock uses them.  Take my favorite shot, for example:

It's my favorite shot because of how effective it is at startling the audience! This shot is used right after the policeman raps on Marion's car window and wakes her up.  Marion is visibly scared and it cuts to this ugly mug and we immediately know why she gasped so audibly. This guy is absolutely horrifying. The dark sunglasses that make his face look like a skull with empty eye sockets, the clean and pale face, and the dead expression all create a sense of dread that would not have been nearly effective with a regular beat cop. If Hitch had used an average Joe Po (which he never would have done) those following scenes where he is following her to the car dealership wouldn't have been half as effective. With this face in viewer's minds he's already given them ample reason to be scared.

Hitchcock does this in many other ways.  Usually during a moment where an average film-maker would've used an over-the-shoulder shot is where Hitch uses a creative and odd shot to leave the viewer unsettled:
A smiling and charming Norman with a SCARY FUCKING BIRD.  Also, Anthony Perkins is SO adorable in this that weird?
Look at that nefarious smile and that close-up as she stares directly at the camera!
Shocked Lila and a concerned Sheriff's wife.  The way Lila is so close and the Sheriff talks at her so intensely!
This shot where Norman leans over the guest book is so odd, and leaves the viewer at such a scary place!

It's all so effective, and all so brilliant at creating a sense of dread without having to resort to creaking doors, cheap jumps, and the beautiful Herrman score.

Some of my other favorite shots:
I love how this shot starts here...

...and ends here with the skull superimposed onto Norman's face!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I am getting so sick of perusing the blogs this morning and see article upon article devoted to the dancer stand-in for Natalie Portman claiming that Nat didn't do much dancing in the film.  While I understand the concern since so much of her Oscar campaign was about the amount of training/dancing she did, this shouldn't take away from the performance OR the film.  The film is about the ballet world, yes, but very little of the film is about the dancing.  The whole film is about Nina and her slow descent into insanity by her quest for perfection.  Does that sound like it involved scene upon scene of dance?  Even though my favorite scenes in the film have dance, the film as a whole comes together with those moments which aren't about dancing.  Those moments?  There's no stand-in for Natalie Portman.

Whatever. It shouldn't matter. Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf was about a singer, but the performance wasn't reliant on the singing, right?  Similar case.

Love at First View: Youth in Revolt

I'd say 95% of films that I see in a given year I may feel admiration, enjoyment, indifference, ambivalence, or hatred for.  That other 5% of films (which last year would've accurately equaled about 18 films) I end up loving in some way or another.  Most of those I don't fall in love with immediately upon viewing.  The film ends up sticking to my brain for the days or weeks following my viewing and they haunt my thoughts until I'm itching to relive the film.  Then when I finally do I end up adding it to my ever-growing list of films I adore.  

Some films I love immediately upon watching.

Now, in the two days since seeing Youth in Revolt my admiration has waned quite a bit.  If I had written this immediately after viewing you'd probably be reading a complete rave, but for now it'll have to be deep appreciation.  Miguel Arteta's film (his Cedar Rapids I was underwhelmed by earlier this month) is a hipster-parodying comedy for the intellectual outsider in all of us.  Michael Cera's character Nick Twisp goes on vacation with his family where he falls for complete hipster francophile Sheenie Saunders (Portia Doubleday).  When she tells him that he just isn't the guy she'd ever see himself marrying, he invents Francois.  Francois is an alternate personality that embodies all that Sheenie desires in her future husband: innately cool, French (I understand those two may be redundant), dangerous, sexual, and confident.  This additional personality pushes him to great lengths to win the love of his crush.

Youth in Revolt may have a concept that seems a bit convoluted, but it's executed with such a sense of whimsy and fun that it never seems complicated.  I was relieved to see Michael Cera doing his schtick but in a way he hasn't done it yet.  I think that between this and the AMAZING Scott Pilgrim vs. The World we're seeing Michael Cera really explore what his on-screen persona  has become, and it's refreshing each time.  I must admit, though, that I am not at all sick of Cera.  Juno, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Scott Pilgrim, Superbad, and now Youth in Revolt I all love.  It's actually quite shocking to line up all of those films since besides Superbad I actually love them all!  Revelation: I'm a big Michael Cera fan.

Besides Cera being Cera I was worried that the film would have an overload of indie quirk, and I was very happy to see that it isn't quirky at all.  There are moments that may seem to fit into that recent quirk mold, but it never quite goes in that direction.  The comedy of the film is genuine, and that leaves it at a really good place.

Also, the talent involved is great: Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, Jean Smart, Zach Galifianakis, Fred Willard, Ari Graynor (who is best-in-show in Nick & Norah's), Justin Long, and even Rooney Mara!  What an embarrassment of riches there.  They all do great work here, but the clear stand-out is Cera and Doubleday in their leading roles.  They make Nick and Sheenie so rounded, even if their characters could very easily veer into caricatures of hipster/quirky/intellectual/indie outsiders.  

It was love, at first view: A-

Monday, March 28, 2011

Confusion: Angie Jo in Girl, Interrupted

I detest Angelina Jolie as a person.  Her charity work is fantastic, yes, but wasn't it Aristotle who said that charity is only charitable when the person goes unrecognized for their charity work?  Hm.  Not Angie Jo!  She's also a home-wrecker, who tore apart a marriage and seems to sleep well. 

I don't hate Angie Jo as an actress.  I think sometimes she's very good: A Mighty Heart, Changeling.  Most times, she's pretty average: Salt, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Tomb Raider, etc.  In Girl, Interrupted I was hoping that I'd get a chance to see an actress at her very best.  Angelina won an Oscar for her work in the film and I felt that against an embarassment of riches like Wino, Brittany Murphy, Whoopi, Jared Leto, Clea DuVall, Elizabeth Moss, Mary Kay Place, and Vanessa Redgrave she must really have done some incredible work.

I was mislead.

Jolie's work in Girl, Interrupted is a master class in loud scene-chewing.  For the part of Lisa it is certainly appropriate, but it seems like such an obvious choice to make her loud and crazy.  If an actress of less visual interest was in the role I highly doubt that it would've been touted to the high heavens the way it has.  The performance seems like a force of gravity, stealing viewer's attentions away from the true performances: Wino and Brittany Murphy. 

Some could argue that this is exactly what Lisa is: scene-chewing.  I wouldn't disagree that it is certainly a large part of the character, but Jolie relys on that facet of her personality to color the entire performance.  When Lisa has a breakdown finally and lets her mind rest it feels disingenuous.  There was no progression to that point.  I think that the reason the performance works and so many people felt it was such a banner performance is the way that Wino and her play off of each other.  It's their chemistry and relationship that keep both of their performances grounded.

To be honest, I think Brittany Murphy is the clear best in show of the film.  Her Daisy is heart-breaking, mysterious, and seems legitimately crazy.  Another reason why I will mourn her death for years to come, as well as the terrible downward turn her career had taken.

And we can take Angie Jo's Oscar and give it to Toni Collette for The Sixth Sense.  THAT is a performance, my friends, and a supporting one at that.  I hate the Academy's penchant for awarding scene-chewing over great performances that actually support.  That is a rant for another time, though.

Just for kicks, here's Angie Jo as Morticia Adams winning her Oscar:


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Daily Dose of Ferocity: Carmen Dell'Orefice for Vanity Fair Italia

I spend most of my day working and perusing film blogs, but I do visit the occasional fashion-centric blog to keep up with what's going on in the world of garments.  My favorite part of the fashion world besides the clothing are fashion editorials and advertisements.  How the fashion world sells its luxe clothes is always just as interesting as the collections themselves, non?  Legendary octogenarian (just turned 80) model Carmen Dell'Orefice shot a fashion editorial for Vanity Fair Italia recently and MY GOODNESS it's amazing.  The woman is a better editorial model than probably 60% of the girls that US Vogue uses in every issue (and it seems like they have a rotation of 12 girls and that's IT).  These images are stunning:

I love this Viktor&Rolf gown!

There were a couple more in the editorial but I felt these three alone are worth it.

La Liz: 1932-2011

I know everyone is probably exhausted and red-eyed from having to be reminded of Elizabeth Taylor's passing from every corner, but I have to say my words.  Her beauty and talent are both unbelievably great.  She is the definition of what Hollywood tries to create in movie stars (yet is innate).  It's the combination of beauty, glamour, talent, joie de vivre, and an 'x' factor reserved for only the chosen that will keep her alive forever.  Angelina Jolie wishes she was half of what La Liz is and will forever be.  Suck it Angie Jo.  Long live LIZ!

The clip I'd like to honor her with is the one that first made me a true believer in how talented an actress she is.  It's from Giant and it's when she puts the men firmly in their place (4.45-8.00):

Ferocious.  There's little I love more than a woman sassing her man.  We love you Liz, we'll miss you dearly, but I'm so grateful that you've made so many wonderful films that I can revisit every single time I need to remember what an amazing icon/actress/goddess/sexpot you were.

I hope you're in heaven right now surrounded by beautiful men, hilarious gays, and dripping in diamonds.

Eyre-athon: Jane Eyre (1997)

Jane Eyre (dir. Robert Young, 1997)

Robert Young's made-for-TV adaptation of Jane Eyre surprised me.  Out of all the adaptations it was the one that held the least promise.  Despite having the talents of Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton I felt as though Hinds was terribly miscast.  The promotional materials for the film were staggeringly mediocre and ill-advised.  The clips I had seen were poorly edited and the cinematography and direction of the film seemed dead behind the eyes.  Yet the film is the best of all I've watched thus far in regards to the relationship between Jane (Samantha Morton) and Edward Rochester (Ciaran Hinds).  

All of the film adaptations I've seen thus far try very hard to strike a balance between the bodice-ripping passion and guarded emotions that together constitute the novel's central romance.  Most end up feeling rushed or forced, and many have had zero chemistry between the two leads.  This version is electric with the chemistry between Hinds and Morton.  The direction is uninspired but it is smart in capitalizing upon the chemistry and tension between the two leads.  The film seems to let the fantastic acting do all the work for it, and that works out fine for the power of the love story.

Since the love story is so finely executed in this version, most of the other moments fall flat.  Jane's youth is poorly constructed and feels more rushed than in any other adaptation.  The friendship between Jane and Helen Burns--something very central to Jane's development into adulthood--is pathetically portrayed.  Finally, once Jane leaves Thornfield for Moor House the film grinds to a complete halt.  The courtship of Jane by St. John is well-handled and necessary for Jane's reconciliation with Rochester, but as a viewer the juxtaposition between the power of Jane and Rochester's scenes and courtship against their separation is staggeringly off-putting.  

Even with its detractions the film is still a good adaptation.  It's not as good as the Zeffirelli version from the year before but could stand alongside it.  The relationship in the Zeffirelli version does not have nearly the same power and electricity as this one has, and the comparison cuts large holes in the Zeffirelli film.  As a whole this film needs a lot of work, but it's worth a watch for the power of its two leads.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: A Streetcar Named Desire

Watching A Streetcar Named Desire is a tumultuous experience.  Seemingly from the first scene of the film there's this flow of lull then discord, lull then discord, lull then discord.  Tennessee William's words are powerful, and you can see that Elia Kazan knew that the more flashy the direction the more it would detract from the piece itself.  Kazan's direction is masterful in its seeming simplicity.  Yet every shot and every edit is meticulously chosen, so they string together into a perfectly executed maelstrom of a film.

My favorite shot was a tough choice because I selected SO MANY I loved of Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois (they can all be found at the end of the post).  The shot that struck me the most doesn't involve any of the leads.  It involves the flower-seller and the way she haunts Blanche during her final breakdown:

The composition of the shot is quite obviously beautiful, but it's the symbolism that I love.  The woman at first comes to the Kowalski's door selling her wares, and Blanche pushes her away.  The woman stays, however, right outside the gates, in the shadows.  She creeps ever closer with her calls for 'Flowers!' getting ever louder. It's a nice parallel to the chaos of Blanche's mind.  She guards and chooses her actions so carefully and keeps all the negative thoughts and memories pushed far off into her brain.  Yet they creep ever closer, their calls leading her ever closer to destruction.  

My second favorite shot is when Mitch (Karl Malden) and Blanche first meet and your regular over-the-shoulder shot suddenly turns Lynchian with a close-up of Mitch's yelling face with Blanche obscured in the background.  It's a wonderfully jolting experience and yet again parallel's Blanche's vacillations between calm and sedate to crazy and feverish.  I was tempted throughout the film to call Harry Stradling's photography subjective towards Blanche, but there seem to be only glimpses of us entering her perception of her environments.

There are also a plethora of shots where Blanche is turned towards the camera cowering from a Stanley staring at her, confused by her actions, much like so:

I love how in each shot you know that Stanley can only see her cowering from him, but we see Blanche thinking of her next move.  The viewer can see her calculating how she should come across, and Leigh is so good at emoting every thought that enters Blanche's brain.

My other choice shots:

Kazan's camera loves Marlon Brando.  And with good reason.  Just look at his first full frame to himself:

God he's beautiful, and so perfect as a Tennessee Williams lead.  So many of Williams' men are these brutish hypersexual animals, and Marlon Brando looks and acts the part with such vivacity.

Check out other 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' entries over at Nathaniel R.'s The Film Experience

Watch My Hips Crush Plates of Baked Goods

My day was so exciting, lovers!  So exciting that my brain looked something like this:

If you had never experienced that prior to now, you're very welcome.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Let Me In

Photobucket Photobucket

Let The Right One In is not only one of my favorite horror films of all time but also one of my favorite films of the aughts.  I've seen it about 5 times now, and never once has it lost its luster or power over me.  I believe that the developing friendship between Oskar and Eli is handled magnificently and in such a way that never feels manipulative.  I never feel as though the director is trying to make me fall in love with these characters and what they find in each other.  That all seems to happen quite naturally.

Let The Right One In's Oskar and Eli

Imagine my shock and dismay along with the rest of LTROI's fans when it was announced that Americans were going to remake the film.  Gasps, screams, and lots of kicking and expletives ventured forth from my bedroom when I first read that it was underway.  Then they got Matt Reeves as writer director.  I like Cloverfield, but was still pissed.  Then Kodi Smit-McPhee was cast as Oskar doppelganger Owen.  I did love the kid in The Road despite being a tad whiny, but who knows?  But the casting of adorable Chloe Moretz as Eli surrogate Abby really pissed me off.  What I loved about Lina Leandersson's Eli is how androgynous and naturally creepy she looks.  Her performance just adds to an already fantastic canvas!  But Chloe Moretz?!  HIT GIRL?!  Gross.

Let Me In's Owen and Abby

Yesterday I did the unthinkable and watched Matt Reeves' Let Me In.  I was hoping that I'd hate every minute of it and find it completely pointless and crappy.  Well.  I won't say that's exactly how it went down.  I still think the film is unnecessary since the original is still better than the remake, and only 3 years old.  The remake puts up a damn good fight, though.  Greig Fraser's (Bright Star) cinematography is incredible, the acting is impeccable (even stupid Moretz over there), and the things that were cut or altered actually serve the film really well.  The crazy cat attack sequence of the first film is gone, and thank goodness for that.  Of course I'm disappointed that Eli/Abby's gender issue is completely glossed over in the remake, but it isn't necessary to the film or the story as presented in the remake.  I do think it adds a layer of weird to the original, but the original is so stuck to its weirdo convictions, and the American version tries to keep it cleaner.

Let the Right One In
I will say what I don't like at all about the remake is how much the emotion is dialed up.  Even the title--Let Me In--is a strong command as opposed to the original's--Let the Right One In--creepy suggestion.  And that is a parallel comparison to how the two films unfold.  The American one wears its heart and emotions loudly on its sleeve while the original is much colder towards the emotions.  The viewer can see the feelings about to boil over inside the characters but it isn't explicit.  In the remake there is nothing left under the surface for our two characters.  I find that this detracts from the horror tone of the film (which is why the horror sequences are also dialed up and Michael Giacchino's obnoxious score is just there to play menacing strings at any suspenseful moment) and it detracts from the love story as well.  It was much more affecting to see these two people who are so emotionally distant from the world around them find a subtle and non-effusive connection with each other.  It makes sense since both characters are so cold to their surrounding worlds.  Yet in the remake the actors play as though the world doesn't understand them and they don't belong in it, but they're so effusively in love with each other and enjoy each other's company.  It doesn't do justice to the character's emotions and....well...character!

Let Me In
I did find the film worthwhile though.  I give it a B+.  I truly believe that if the original wasn't such A material and didn't exist that this film could easily have been a horror classic.  It will always be in the shadow of the original.  Good work to all involved though.  (ESPECIALLY Greig Fraser.)