Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Playing Ketch-up Again: RABBIT HOLE, OWLS of GA'HOOLE, FAIR GAME

And once again I try my best to catch up on some films I've seen recently I've yet to write about either here or on my mistress-network IMDb.com Comments sections.  Thankfully I've been wanting to write about these for a while, just haven't found the time....

RABBIT HOLE (John Cameron Mitchell)

Grief and its process is just one of those things that makes for, in the right hands, good drama.  Sometimes it can be overblown or melodramatic, depending on who is attempting it, but if it's just focusing on the process, of how people process those emotions that are so difficult that counseling sessions every week don't quite cut it, then it can mean something.  Rabbit Hole has that capacity to explore grief with intelligence, decency and thankfully some humor (nothing too outrageous, just enough to have some relief-laughs).

When we're introduced to the married couple played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhardt, Becca and Howie, and it isn't introduced right up front that the two lost their four year old child by a sudden, nobody's-fault-exactly accident by a seventeen year old boy who ran him over as the boy chased a dog.  We don't need to know that up front, and Mitchell is wise to keep most of this in body language, how subtly uncomfortable Kidman is with things... until they go to their weekly grief counseling meeting.  They have barely gotten over his death, and yet they have gotten over it far enough to recognize BS in their midst: at one meeting Kidman calls out on one grieving person about their 'God' and 'Angel' and 'Heaven' talk.  It's one of those... very... uncomfortable... silences.

It would be one thing if it were just Becca and Howie having to deal with their grieving selves, but there is also the fact that Becca's dear sweet mother, Nat, lost her son (Becca's brother), though under much different circumstances as he was 30 and a junkie.  That doesn't stop her from trying to give advice, and it's powerful to see that connection made between mother and daughter and the kind of grief they're each still going through; a line that should be sappy where Nat tells Becca about grief being like carrying a brick in your pocket means very much, is resonant and rings true for anyone in the audience that has gone through similar grief for deceased, because the acting doesn't have a moment that feels false.

Even with Nicole Kidman, who can be cold and unaffecting in certain performances and recently got some bad plastic surgery for her face, has so many good scenes here where she connects with the actor just based on the shared pain of the other character, or how the other one feels.  This is in some part for her husband, who is going through his own process that is apart from his spouse (he goes berserk when she deletes on particular video of their son from his phone by accident even as they have a whole lot of them elsewhere), and then by chance the teenage boy who hit their son.  At first we assume this, but we're not quite sure: she follows the boy on his bus rides home from school to say.. what exactly, she doesn't even know.  Her own path through trying to cope with what happened is ambiguous, or what she wants to 'do' exactly with this boy.

Don't fuck with the Wiest

I may have been alone or among a few who thought that was the original intention with Becca and Jason (a perfectly awkward but amicable performance from Teller), as opposed to the one between Howie and fellow counsling-goer Abby (Sandra Oh) as the two bond over doobies in her car and giggle in counseling meetings inappropriately (this is one of those laughs to had, by the way, a moment right out of Curb Your Enthusiasm in terms of cringe comedy).  The chance for affairs are there in the air, but I really appreciated how the writer didn't take the material to predictable areas.  How each character navigates through seemingly simple, but complex, and then simple again territory is engrossing.  We don't know what the other might do, or when a breakdown might occur, or how long the apparel and things on the wall in the boy's old room will stay up before it's all taken down for the realtor selling their house.

Memories and pain, sadness and loss, it's all here, but it's all treated with an equal amount of reverence and reality.  I always believed in the characters and felt for them, sometimes despite their misgivings and their faults.  And I felt for them when they cried, but it wasn't so much a "I'll cry when they cry" thing.  It's just a mutual understanding of where the pain lies and how to grapple with it, and Mitchell gets at that with tact.  I could see a lot of people finding something to relate to here, and without being pandered to or with that sappy music that distances the viewer into abstraction.  There isn't anything abstract in Rabbit Hole.  The characters deal with the pain as we all do, whether it's a sudden and very tragic accident, or a 30's junkie.  But that the movie is wise enough to make distinctions and grapple with the gray areas is very brave.  It's some of the best acting and writing from an American film this past year.



There was barely a moment that I didn't expect what was coming in this anthropomorphic tale of owls who escape the imprisonment of (no joke) Nazi-indoctrination via Owls of "pure Owl-hood" at St. Aggie's in order to join up with 'The Guardians' or Ga'Hoole, legendary fighters who will combat against St. Aggie's.  And yet I enjoyed it far more than I could have figured.  It's ostensibly a children's movie, and directed by 300/Watchmen visual-CGI-fucker Zack Snyder, and I thought it might make for some goofy but disinteresting stuff, like a side project as Snyder keeps work on his upcoming Sucker Punch, his first original work.  What surprised me was how much it was a good fit, and that Synder has made a movie for kids that can be enjoyed viscerally and visually as much for adults.  If Don Bluth were still working steadily and had some balls and guff for CGI he might come up with something like this.

It's also a British-dominated pic, with some Australian voices thrown in there for good measure (among the heavy hitters there's Helen Mirren as one of the main villainess owls at St. Aggie's, and Geoffrey Rush as the old bad-ass warrior owl Ezylryb (sic), and among character players, Hugo Weaving, Sam Niell and young Jim Sturgess).  And it's also rather violent in some places, perhaps expected from a man who directs mostly adult-oriented pics with blood-leashing as a big component, whether to start with (300, Dawn of the Dead) or not (Watchmen).  But it's not so violent that it should be unappealing or make kids too 'scaredy'.  On the contrary, it's good to have a work that doesn't talk down to kids with its darker themes and characters.  Not to mention the, you know, early history lesson on how some people in the world are more than evil, they make other people just as evil.  Ah, brainwashing, for the kids!

As Snyder is perhaps honestly directing in a sense just pure animation this time and getting to use his slow-motion (which isn't a deterrent as much as in the past - sometimes you got to see how these owls fight and get down with their flapping and clawing selves), as a visual stylist he gets the most points with his animation director and fellow animators best at creating a world that feels rough and ragged and dark and also joyous and fun and fluffy and cute.  It's a gorgeous looking picture, one of the best animated movies to come out of the studio system in the sense of immersion in a specific style which is not the cutesy kind from Disney or even Dreamworks.  No pop-culture jokes, nothing of the sort that seems like thirty-odd hack writers took shots at writing various scenes ans set-pieces.

As it's a film more indebted to fantasy stories (based on one of those myriad of children's books that have 20 titles via Harry Potter-like), it's not concerned with the usual exteriors of entertainment like we usually see.  It's high-flying scenes are breathtaking, the detail in the owls and architecture of the tree-civilizations are intricate (and best seen on HD TV or, if you saw it in theaters, IMAX), and This is more like something that would've come out in the 80's, and could have revival screenings for nostalgic middle-aged hipsters ala Krull or something.  This isn't to denigrate its quality, it's what it is: dark-and-light pulpy work that a family can have fun with, and possibly ooh and ahh at the detail of what's on screen, the fun of the British/Aussie cast with such fun-stock characters, and occasional cutesy but grounded comedy from a character like 'Digger'.

Now say it altogether: AAAWWWWW!  Good, now don't ever do it again!

If you got a hankering for a story that has good vs evil pretty tightly lied out, with only some almost-gray area like with Soren's brother who doesn't get out of St. Aggie's and becomes the star Stormtrooper pupil, this is a good ticket.  Only one sequence midway through the movie, a training montage for the young Soren on Ga'Hoole as he prepares to become a young warrior owl, is tainted immeasurably by an Owl City pop song put on it.  It's repeated in the end credits, and it should have just stayed there; it takes one out of the action and story, which is straightforward but absorbing on a solid fantasy-storytelling level, and we're suddenly made aware of the cynical tactic of a Hollywood executive going "Yeah, well, the owls are all good, looks shiny and cool, but... where are the pop songs?"  Ugh.


FAIR GAME (Doug Liman)

It's always said about the tragedy of the attacks on 9/11 2001, 'Never forget'.  This is a given, and it's certainly impossible for anyone especially who lived near NYC (no more towers to look at from afar or up close) or for those who lost their loved ones.  Fair Game is also a 'Never forget' story, about the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, but one that you may have forgotten already unless possibly reminded.  And no one ever should as it's a story that is immensely tragic in its own dimensions, and a crash course in the wicket, corrupt power of people in high places like the White House.

Luckily for some it's impossible to forget such a story that occurred only seven years ago - I mostly speak to those who have attention spans of crickets, of whom I can guess are many who pay attention to the news in its current 24-hour cycle - and happened to the wife of a man who was a public figure, an ambassador, Joe Wilson, and whose wife was outed chiefly because Wilson wouldn't back down from calling the obvious bullshit on the Bush white house in the lead up to the Iraq invasion.  But what's pleasing about Liman's film, based on books Wilson and Plame wrote about this time period, is that it gives such a long amount of screen time on what Wilson and Plame were doing; I don't think the 'main conflict' of the film really comes to fruition until halfway, perhaps more, into the story.

In disguise as movie star Naomi Watts, Valerie Plame goes to lunch.
Up until then we become invested in Valerie and to a lessor extent Joe as they go about what they do in this immediately post-9/11 landscape: Valerie has contacts throughout the world, and is an actual honest-to-goodness spy, trained to be immovable by emotions when under her given tasks, which are usually communication with terrorists and finding them out, or trying to assist professional people like in Iraq in the lead up to the war.  She goes at her work with dedication and formidable skills, and can communicate with someone very simply: as she explains to one of her contacts, an Iraqi woman who comes to help her as she is made to trust her, she can lie so well because "she knows the truth of why she's lying."

Joe's work is more on-the-level, and originally made by a basic recommendation from her wife (though never by name at this point), and is sent to Niger to check out a serious claim of yellow-cake.  As we all know now, there was no yellow-cake in Niger as it would have been too big to produce and move around not to be noticed by someone or with some semblance of a paper trail.  It was a serious matter handled seriously by Wilson, though it didn't stop Bush and his administration on their own path to war.  There's a chilling scene that, while dramatized, feels very much like out of a real moment in time, as Dick Cheney's chief of staff Scooter Libby meets with a CIA official and has a very nasty conversation about what they "do" know or what they "don't" know, and how intelligence is gathered and what percentages mean in the risk of terrorism.  One can feel, via the actor playing Libby, pure immovable conviction in his own "doubt", which is frightening.

In disguise as Sean Penn, Joe Wilson pontificates about the disaster of Bush's... wait, what disguise?

As Wilson finally resolves to go on the record with the media to let his side of the story out, first via op-ed and then on TV, the White House fights back, their way, and lets loose Plame's identity.  What's so engrossing here is that we've spent so much time with Plame and seeing her work that it's totally dis-heartening to see her hard work totally and irrevocably erased, and her life put into a flux as being outed (it's one thing to fear the phone calls, it's another for a best friend to find out, "Really?", one would remark).  It's around this point, in the second half to third act of the film, that the story takes on a quality kind of life The Insider: now that Plame has this put upon her, will she go public with how screwed over she was, how it was, in fact, illegal, or keep to herself and still not make waves through her embedded-in-her CIA training to not talk and not give names, especially her own.

There are things in the film itself that work very well, and some not quite as much.  Fair Game gives its actors generously material and characters, as real people in real-dramatized situations, scenes and moments that are real, have complexity and depth, and combine the personal with the professional in their character's lives.  Naomi Watts especially makes Valerie a believable, tough presence and as Plame is broken down by the powers-that-be it's amazing to see how Watts takes her to be tender (one scene especially as she finally has her cry as she's brushing her teeth makes for a moving moment - Valerie where she's vulnerable and alone).  But equally, or sometimes more-so, impressive is Penn in a secondary lead (not to be confused with supporting player) that this and Milk seem to make him a master at 'playing' at real people.  As Joe Wilson, a figure I've seen often on TV (not as much as Plame for obvious reasons) he makes Joe just as tough as his wife if a little more 'normal' as a person.

There's a moment between the two of them that characterizes what made Valerie and Joe, and likewise Watts and Penn, so endearing as figures to watch in the film, as they become less like media figures we know from TV and like people we know.  As Valerie goes out once again on one of her 'missions', of which like many she won't tell her husband where she'll be, Joe staggers out to the stars as she's by the door.  He's tired but makes his points coherently: he's worried sick that he won't know where she is or of she's dead somewhere.  This could be a usual worry for husbands with wives, not so much when the wife is an honest-to-goodness spy whose confidentiality is to everyone (and, ironically, when she's outed by the White House, she has little cover).  It's a short scene but so important to understand them as people, in a marriage, that could be torn by media exposure and stress in the public eye, as defenders in a story that makes All the President's Men look tame by comparison.

While some of the rest of the picture may not be shot all that great- my 'not so much' comment from a few paragraphs ago- as Liman continues the Bourne-style (he shot the first film by the way) with some hand-held work that is too noticeably hand-held to stand it in some scenes, the people in front of us are raw and immediate, even supporting players.  And as history that is so immediate it might seem for some to be 'too soon' or 'nothing new'.  This is a fair criticism, and if someone weren't to see it right away because of that I might not begrudge them, albeit I would then go on to praise Penn and Watts and the screenplay as many better reasons to see it as a straight dramatic thriller that strips away much of the usual veneer of what a spy or ambassador does in the world.  But in ten, even twenty years, I would hope this movie could last as something, anything, as a reminder of the bad times in this country, where people got away with a lot of big bad stuff, and some worse smaller things.  It's a flawed but brave effort of theatrical recollection.

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