...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Monday's Movies (from 2011!)

I've seen very few movies this year, in fact I'm working on this post instead of watching the Golden Globes (big sacrifice, I know).  There are about a dozen films that I would have loved to have caught before they left the big screen.  Drive, Melancholia, A Separation, and A Dangerous Method are the first ones that come to mind.  None of which will qualify as uplifting experiences.

But, I would like to share with you three lighter films from this year's crop that I did view, courtesy of Qwikster Netflix.

The Help

I didn't read the book.  I didn't see the trailer.  I didn't peruse any of the reviews.  I saw this one cold.

PLOT:  A young writer, Skeeter (Emma Stone), writes a book from the point of view of the black women who serve (almost slave for) the wealthy white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s.

I'll start with the good stuff.  It was better than I had anticipated.  Viola Davis is AWESOME as Aibileen, a black woman raising generations of white children.  The film, swirling with broad stereotypes, feels like it's held together by her quiet reserved performance; a cinematic center of gravity.  The final emotional payoff succeeds so well because of her.  At the same time, Jessica Chastain, who gives the loudest performance, lights up the screen whenever she's on it.  Chastain, who was so angelic and serene in The Tree of Life, zips and bounces and shouts like Marilyn Monroe in a screwball comedy.

On the other side of things, the film is way too long.  A lot of the comedy hijinks feel like they belong in a different film; one that isn't trying to sell the viewers of the importance and weight of the drama.  The male characters prove superfluous and could thus have been trimmed right out -- thus giving us a film with an entirely female cast (a good thing).  Because there are so many characters, there are a ton of ending scenes.  Cutting these things back would have delivered a much tighter, more effective film.  How this got by nine executive producers, I have no clue.

As I'd mentioned above, most of the characters (black and white) are written as stereotypes.  The antagonist (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) is one-dimensionally demonic, from start to finish.  That's a shortsighted choice for any film to do that today.  Watch any successful drama on television and you'll see that the bad guys have as many dimensions as the good guys.  Without shading, The Help's antagonist comes across as a psychotic cartoon which in turn weakens the drama.

The film largely glosses over the lynchings and terrorism of the time period, which is more of a fact than a fault.  The movie isn't trying to be Mississippi Burning.  That's not the story it's telling.  But it did make me wonder if Skeeter understood the real danger of her act.  I never felt that she did.  Had she seen real blood and death, if her own life had been in constant danger, then her character's actions would have carried more weight and she would have shown courage in alliance with the ladies she interviewed.  And she would have understood what those ladies risked by telling their stories.  Instead, she's a blank slate from beginning of the picture to the end.  Her safety is never in danger, it's just her ability to hit the publishing deadline that's at risk.  As a result, the strength in the drama of Aibileen's struggle pushes Skeeter's drama to the far periphery of the story.

With some trimming and some beefed up character work this could have been a stunning work.  (Wow, that sounds like I'm giving script coverage.)  But, I guarantee you it was better than three-quarters of films with which it had shared the multiplex.

Midnight in Paris

Everyone told me to see this.  From all directions and segments of my life: family, friends, co-workers.  But because I lose interest in a film whenever one person recommends it to me (I'm a bit of sh*t), the constant "You'd love Midnight in Paris" did not inspire me to see Midnight in Paris.  On the other hand, with such an odd cross-section of folks from my life suggesting it, I was intrigued.

So now I've seen it.

I get it, y'all.  You see in me the writer who has been obsessed with other times and places.  A writer uncomfortable with his cosmic lot.  And I'm Jewish and apparently speak in Woody Allen cadences.

But that was me, 10-15 years ago.  The romanticism is gone.  The illusion of a better time is dead.  Every era is suffused with great struggle and pain.  Beautiful art isn't borne from pleasure.

Oh yeah, so the movie...

Gil (Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter who yearns to be the great novelist that he'd once dreamed of being.  He loves Paris, inordinately, especially the Paris of the '20s and the Lost Generation.  One night, during a Paris visit with his fiancee and future in-laws, an old Rolls Royce picks Gil up and deposits him in the 1920s.  He hangs out with Hemmingway, Dali, Eliot, Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Picasso, and countless other famous artists.  He falls in love with an 'art groupie'.  And he's forced to reconcile these experiences with his modern day life.

I wish, I wish I wish I wish I wish that this would become an HBO series so that Woody Allen could write up 10 hours of material so that we could hang out with Gil in the 1920s.  Every moment the film plays out in the past is lovely and funny.  It shines and glows and hums.  All of the famous folks play out according to their archetypes.  Hemmingway speaks like he writes.  Dali loves rhinoceroses.  Zelda is a manic-depressive party girl.  Gertrude Stein plays mama to all of the artistes.  Oh, but it's all over so quickly!

Conversely, almost everyone in the contemporary scenes is a stereotype.  All of the Americans are jerks.  All of them.  His in-laws are wealthy Republican tea-party supporters out of a Liberal nightmare.  The American intellectual is a dick to everyone.  While Gil's fiancee (an unforgiving role for Rachel McAdams) is shrill, spiteful, and shallow, his mystery woman from the past (Marion Cotillard) is luminous, thoughtful, and complex.  Curiously all of the contemporary French (including a great Carla Bruni!) are portrayed gentle and selfless.

As a result, the contemporary scenes come across very thin.  Allen has created so many great roles for women; why couldn't he (at the very least) have given the fiancee a three dimensional character?  It may have made Gil's final decision more difficult, but it would have struck a more honest note.

Despite these issues, the heart of the movie is fantastic.  It moves lighter and faster than anything Allen has done in decades.  Wilson's slow sleepy persona makes for an unusual but giddy match for Allen's rhythmic cadences.  Darius Khondji can do no wrong as cinematographer.

I do recommend this to all.  Even if you're also a bit of a sh*t, go see it.

The Trip

I love this movie.  Now that I've become a burgeoning Anglophile, perhaps I was predisposed to appreciate it.  But one doesn't have to be a fan of all things British to enjoy this comedy by Michael Winterbottom.  It is a deceptively well structured, acted, directed, and edited film that is above all else very very funny.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, two characters they'd previously portrayed in Winterbottom's 2005 post-modern self-reflexive smart-silly whats-it Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.  The Trip goes the opposite direction of Tristram, simplifying and relaxing the storytelling.  Steve and Rob travel the UK countryside, hitting a half-dozen restaurants for Steve's cuisine-based guest writing gig.  Between the dishes and quarrels, there's constant actor-y oneupsmanship.

Despite the fact that Steve plays Steve and Rob plays Rob, the film doesn't try to be a mockumentary; it's just a film about Steve and Rob.

The Trip can be appreciated on a number of levels.  Again, it's damn funny and comedy is its prime target.  (The trailer does not give away the best stuff.)  Further, if one desires to be nerdy about it, there are all sorts of great British tweaks and jabs about the Welsh, actors, Colerige, Wordsworth, and Alan Partridge.  Then if one (read: moi) desires to dig further there's an undercurrent about 40-something men emotionally adrift within their lives.  But it's NOT DEPRESSING.  Winterbottom seems to know that constant navel-gazing only results in a finger full of lint.  So he happily blends the bittersweet with the whimsical and wonderful.

And, yes, Kristen must hear me quote lines from The Trip while I'm cooking or driving or just breathing.  Luckily she likes the film too.

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