Monday, April 6, 2015

Powell & Pressburger's THE LIFE & DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP


So... "Forty Years Ago..." as the Colonel in 1940 says first to an "impudent" officer who tells Blimp that the war starts right here and now - when of course Blimp declares that "War starts at MIDNIGHT!" - and then as Powell and Pressburger's camera moves along the water at this bath-house we hear the words repeated in a dreamy voice-over. 

 And suddenly, the man, Wynn Candy (Roger Livesly), appears forty years younger, sans walrus mustache and slimmer, and the film "begins" as it were.  But really, it's the story of how a man goes through a whole life, faces changes (or tries to avoid them if possible), and about a particular time and place - old Europe at the turn of the 20th century - and the changes that come from two world wars.  It's easy to call the film and its production ambitious, but what is most pleasantly surprising is how sheerlessly entertaining the whole thing is, and how it goes by at 163 minutes without feeling the least bit that long.

The story of Wynn Candy - called 'Colonel Blimp' not once I could really see in the film, though is loosely based on a comic strip by David Low - starts in 1902, with Candy's occupation as a professional soldier, a man of the military (the kind that, as is told by his superiors, is to never trust a politician), and his story goes mostly through the forty years in three parts: this portion, wherein Candy goes to Berlin to seek out a potential German spy, only to affront a German officer the wrong way and get himself in a Gentlemanly duel with another German, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (played by great Anton Wolbrook); in World War I, he is an officer and while we never see him on a battlefield (this is one of Powell/Pressburger's wonderful narrative tricks I'll get to in a moment), he is very much fighting this war, and runs into his old friend Theo and meets his wife, Barbara, who looks oddly like Edith, a woman he fell in love with only after she got married to Theo (though, as an old-time British gentleman, kept his feelings to himself); and World War II, as the now Major Colonel Candy gives speeches about the the Home-Front army, and has to realize how times, warfare, Nazis, have changed the Rules of the Game, so to speak.


Each section is meaty in terms of story, though what is so fascinating on the filmmaking duo's approach is that we get some of the big moments for Candy and the other characters - being accosted in the restaurant where he later is made to have the duel, giving orders in war-time, speaking to his superiors on some urgent matters, and Theo's drama in arriving from a Nazy-occupied Germany in the 30's - but not all of them.  

While it would be too spoiler-like to give some things away that, ironically, are not shown, it's the kind of scenes or moments another filmmaker would do just because it seems dramatically resonant.  But Powell and Pressburger are more interested in behavior, how the British military folks like Candy and other officers, or Theo, or the women in Candy's life (all the roles the 20 year-old Deborah Kerr plays, an ingenious bit of casting where every character does and doesn't feel like the others, hence the appeal to the protagonist), and in a sly satire of protocol and build-up.

 The most memorable sequence in the film, to be sure, nails this most certainly (and as a bit of trivia, was what inspired a key scene in Scorsese's own Raging Bull): When Candy and Theo have to make their duel, they are in the room with other officers, there's the waiting for Theo to arrive, he does, then we see how painstaking it is to get the instructions for a duel (rip the sleeve of a shirt or no?) and then finally, as the duel starts between who we are led to believe are physically powerful men with these fencing swords, the camera rises up above them in a glorious over-head shot that lasts about five to ten seconds... and then it dissolves to the wintry night sky outside the building, as Allan Gray's music swells, and it settles back into a carriage where Edith is waiting outside to find out what has happened.


This would be unconventional filmmaking for today - for 1943, I have to think this would be almost unprecedented were it not for the creative freedom given to Powell/Pressburger at the time by the Archers, the production company that famously put out their films (i.e. Red Shoes, Black Narcissus).  It's a way of still making this film an 'epic', but it's how it doesn't feel too long: we're always unsure what will come next, whether it's not seeing a particular character's death (media itself, newspapers and typing out details of things for military use on typewriters, become the communication of this information), or Candy going out on African hunts.  This set-piece alone, a montage of animal heads shotgunned on to the wall of Candy's den, would make the film memorable on its own.  Yet it's just another piece of what makes the film so remarkable and exciting.

The other major thing which must not go overlooked after how the filmmakers deal with the themes - the passage of time, the old chivalrous ways of military men (the kind seen in Jean Renoir's great Grand Illusion, which this feels like the British cousin), how does one live a respectable life and keep humanity - is the acting.  Good Lord is Livesly, a rival to Laurence Olivier, who incidentally had to turn down the role due to wartime commitments, very good in this role.  Every time period he plays convincingly, and beneath the grand British courtesy one might expect in such a time period, Candy is essentially a good person and kind and generous and it makes the audience like him more seeing him be so genuine.

Livesly carries this with subtlety in some scenes, and finds the humor that the filmmakers are after; this isn't vicious satire, but more gentle yet knowing of how humorous serious situations can get, like when Candy is first interrupted (his entrance in the film) at the bath-house, and is completely indignant.  Here we could get all we need to know about a character, but there's more, lots more.  Add on to that a sensitive performance from Kerr (also with some room for her to play indignant, a real early feminist character(s) in a British film), and Walbrook (watch for a monologue he gives about Nazism, maybe there are two actually), and you got a top-shelf cast.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a VERY British film - even if you're American you may feel the need to have some tea during the run-time - but it holds up so extraordinarily because it understands the goodness in people, and finds an interesting path to showing the passages of time, in a person and the society around them and how they must co-exist or die off in despair (or try and cope I guess).  It's smart, innovative filmmaking, and the only shame is the beating it took on its original release - Winston Churchill reportedly hated the film, thinking it was a caricature of him when really it was likely a more loving if skewering portrayal of his type - and how long it took to getting properly restored.

Disney's FROZEN

All Elsa wants to do is to figure out this gift she has - or is it a curse - wherein she can shoot out literal winter from her fingertips and create snow and ice all around her.  But it's what starts out as a trick as a child, something to impress her little sister Anna.  But when Anna is injured, her parents, the King and Queen of Arendelle, take her to a magical troll who repairs Anna's brain - to forget her sister ever had magic, and for their childhoods the parents separate the sisters (the parents die, but this is almost treated as an aside in the film, why this isn't dealt with more I don't know, it's one of those things for story sake and it would stretch out the run time I guess).

By the time they're grown-up, Anna is a sort of typical fun-and-happy good-natured Disney Princess, and Elsa is being coronated as the queen.  Anna does that all-too-typical thing of falling for the first cute guy that comes in her path, and Elsa, thankfully, doesn't see why she should get married so quickly.  In a moment of mistake, Elsa lets down her guard and lets loose some of her icy-magic, and its finally what lets the kingdom know her secret.  She runs off to her own self-made ice palace on a mountain, and from here the rest of the story takes shape as Anna just has one simple task: reach out to her sister, and stop winter from over-taking the kingdom (it's summer at the time).

This all sets the stage for what is a quality Disney Animation production - once again following 2010's Tangled and 2009's Princess and the Frog under the tutelage of Pixar chief John Lasseter (he now heads all Disney animation) - and a story that features two things that I really found greatly interesting, compelling, and made for a much richer experience than I had expected as far as the usual lot of Disney animated musicals go.  And lest not forget it's a true-blue Disney musical with Princess and Queens and magic kingdoms and talking creatures and things (this time a snowman, Olaf, sort of created by the girls as kids for fun and back with the kid-like perspective brought by Josh Gad).

What makes this different?  First is the treatment of Anna (charmingly voiced by Kristen Bell) as a seemingly typical Disney princess.  Gone is the reverence of a Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, and as with the main character in the Rapunzel adaptation Tangled this film treats its teenage girl as a little bumbling, jokey, almost self-aware of some of her clumsy ways but not to the point where she comes off like a ditz.  But what's most gratifying is that the filmmakers, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, did something I didn't expect: they pull a criticism of this sort of Disney Princess type while showing her.

She falls for a young would-be Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), and of course they have the meet-cute as she almost falls off a boat early on and he's the oh-so-dreamily-drawn type and the two even share a musical number, "Love is an Open Door".  Later this musical number almost seems like a parody of itself (though for its intended audience, little kids and especially little girls, it will be sincere and it works fine and well for them) - Elsa, as well as Kristoff, the man Anna has to have help her find a way up the mountain to speak with Frozen-Ice-Castle-Bound Elsa, all make light of the fact that this love-at-first-sight-let's-get-married business is a bit rushed, and that doesn't know much about this man except that he is the youngest of twelve brothers and has a last name 'Of (insert place here').

It's one thing to have to buy into, say, the love-at-first-sight tale of The Little Mermaid (also a Hans Christen Andersen story), but it's another to get filmmakers who understand this lineage and bring another element into it - something that can be a useful criticism that kids can keep in mind as well.   This also comes into play later in the film when a greater conflict is introduced, one that could bring tragedy to all the main players.  But no spoilers, for now.

The other key element is with Queen Elsa.  She is a "villain" in the sense that she does something wrong and it could possibly doom the whole kingdom.  But it's really a case of being her own worst enemy, and her sister knows, despite being estranged from her for most of their adolescences, that there is good in her too.  In a weird way though Elsa becomes more of a supporting character as the story goes into its mid-section, as the adventure for Anna and Kristoff hits off, Elsa is really the most complex of any character in the movie: a girl alienated by her ability, unable to bring it to fruition, and when it does it actually, kinda, really, feels GOOD.

This is highlighted by, arguably, the best song in the film "Let it Go" where Elsa (voiced and sung by a tremendously gifted singer and actress, Idrina Menzel) sings out by herself about the pleasure of embracing her abilities she's shunned for so long.  It's a song filled with deep-rooted pain and resentment, but a kind of high-flying joy of, as the song posits, letting the hell GO and being oneself.  It's not a tidy message, and yet I think kids will identifying with the simple pleasure in being oneself; if an X-Men character were to have a musical number upon entering Xavier's School, it might be this.

These two elements keep things steady in Frozen with these two characters, Anna and Elsa, and how the filmmakers are able to get a good deal of conflict and drama in what the characters want and need (Anna is also put into a love triangle, perhaps a bit obvious, but hey it's Kristoff the lad with an adorable reindeer named Sven vs. an all-too-perfect Prince, so figure).   There's also a slightly simplistic message about fear and hate vs. love, but this is the part of the Disney musical package after all, and the quality of the action, singing, and especially the animation where every snow-flake and bit of ice looks painstakingly drawn and detailed.

There's even some cute comedy from Olaf the snowman ('cute' cause he's the real innocent of the story, enough to sing a song about how much he wants to be in summer-time), and little asides from the Duke of Weselton - not "Weasel"-ton as it's pronounced, he reminds people - who is basically a royal stooge out for extra money from the kingdom (though he is a little under-developed as a character and sorta-side villain- but at leasy Alan Tudyk is there to provide a distinct and despicabe-fun side character).

So much is so well put together in Frozen that it pains me the songs aren't, for the most part, better or just more memorable.  Perhaps if one is really into musicals in general, of the Broadway variety, some numbers like the times Anna and Elsa sing together ("For the First Time in Forever", which gets reprised), have their moments.  But aside from Elsa's showstopper on the mountain, none of the songs were that striking, even as they did help at times to advance the story forward or note on character (i.e. the magical trolls singing about Anna and Kristoff getting together).
(I may just be a bit jaded after years of so-so musicals in the late 90's (Tarzan, Mulan), or thinking of the high standard of those in the late 80's and early 90's (Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Lion King).  But will little kids be singing these years from now?  Do they jump off the screen?  Not really.  Yet they are not bad enough to be tossed aside either; if you get the Frozen soundtrack for yourself or your kids, I wouldn't look down on that for a minute - at the least the film does a decent job of getting a character to start talking in song and mixing it up a little (looking at you, Les Miserables).)
And yet Frozen is worth seeing, for its almost subversive (or is the word just 'smart') storytelling and character development, the attention paid to making these characters *look* memorable in a setting not seen quite this way in a Disney animated film, and for some of the light comic touches.  It goes by briskly - it's 85 minutes long - and you leave feeling happy.  If it's not the "new Classic" some critics have been calling it, it comes close enough for a movie you can take your family to see and get a full BIG-SCREEN experience (3D optional), and isn't chock-a-block with celebrity voices like other animated fare without room for character-actor voicers (Turbo anyone?).



Imagine you're in a small, idyllic town in America.  It's the 1950's, right smack-dab in Eisenhower's age where everything is simple and people are all honkey-dory and going about their concerns in suits and long dresses and saying 'golly' and 'gosh-darn' instead of other curse words we commonly use today.  Now imagine that in such a small town people are becoming not quite how they saw each other before - a son seeing his mother as *not* really his Mother.  He isn't sure exactly how; she has her voice, mannerisms, but something is just off with her.  This is starts happening to other people, and poor general practitioner Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is at a loss except that it may be a general mass hysteria of some sort.  But what about those pods that are excreting out human beings from their bubble-bath foam areas and SAY WHAT?

de ws invasion of the body snatchers 2043

Invasion of the Body Snatchers perhaps could have been set at a different time in history, and, of course, since Don Siegel's film was released there have been many remakes and re-imaginings (just off the top of my head, Philip Kaufman's direct remake in 1978, Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers in 1993, Robert Rodriguez's high-school take-off The Faculty, and The Invasion in 2007 with Nicole Kidman).

But in 1956, with this story and this scenario, it can't be helped to see that there is something else under the surface - make that a whole smorgasbord of themes, sociologically, politically, emotionally about what happens when people are over-taken by beings that are them but are not at the same time: there is the essential "there" that isn't there, and it's downright terrifying to see not only an acceptance of this, but a willingness to spread it to others.

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Siegel's film is first and foremost a science fiction suspense film. and about the effects of a phenomena on a large group of people - for the time with a not-too-low budget of $300,000 (not as big as major Hollywood fare at the time, but certainly higher than Roger Corman's crop of lo-fi flying saucer vehicles) - and with a charismatic and strong leading actor in McCarthy (perhaps best known to my parent's generation for this film, though for mine arguable Weird Al Yankovic's UHF of all things as villain R.J. Fletcher), as well as a good (if not great) leading lady in the late Dana Wynter (best when she has to be pushed to the character's limits in the climax of the film).

What still works about Siegel's film so well so many years later is that he doesn't make things over-blown with special effects.  On the contrary it's only those pea-pods, perhaps a bit comically over-sized, that are the most striking images, as well as those plastic-caster faces and bodies of the characters who we see as being 'snatched' into their new selves.  There are a couple of icky bits with the aforementioned bubble-bath compound where the new beings come out of, but even that looks acceptable, even kind of creepy as weird shapes and forms come out of the pods into their new forms.


There's also many striking and startling images - iconic even.  My favorite is when Dr. Bennell is looking out the window at the town square, everything *seeming* to be normal, but this is only because of a couple of visitors from out of town are passing by.  As soon as they leave, in Siegel's widescreen image of a small-town Americana (ala Pleasantville), everyone in the vicinity converges into the middle of the town square, all these beings coming to parse out the pods from *other towns* as this thing that is happening is taking over.  It's not even so much about it reflecting the total reality of the period - how many towns were actually THIS idyllic I don't know - but in representing a kind of pitch-black satire of this time period, it's spot-on.

It's not a perfect film, this should be said.  Some of the minor performances don't hold up completely, such as one of the Snatched Bodies that explains in full detail like a rational-logical person (like one of the placid, creepily calm doctors out of Clockwork Orange) to Dr. Bennell about why it's so easy and almost necessary to become one of them - the actor is just a bit too stiff in a way that is hard to describe.  And there's a couple of bits of dialog about being in love (how quickly, of course, the doctor and his lady companion fall for one another is more about plot convenience than anything else - Reno is also mentioned in passing, referring to the period and it being the only place to get a divorce).  But these can be forgiven because of how much does work in the film, how everything is so convincing in the dread and paranoia that mounts with this situation, how quickly everything escalates as this doctor has almost no place else to turn but the desert to run.

I think that the greatest thing about the film, what makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers endure, is that anyone can read what they want into it.  At first I thought the film was going down a path of being about Communist inflitration-indoctrination-international-conspiracy (to quote General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove), and then I thought, 'No, actually, it's really about the Red Scare itself, how so many people were duped and dragged into believing that being someone who is NOT in lock-step, following protocol, is someone that needs to be turned (the heavy amount of police officers in the film, how they are the agents of these body snatched-beings, emphasizes that for me). 

But, really, this isn't any sort of definite interpretation.  It can be about just conformity in general, how if you follow along so much into the way that people tell you, you lose your head (McCarthy had his own interpretation on the DVD interview, it being about Madison Avenue ad execs in the 1950's).


It's such a universal concept, about losing yourself, losing your emotional connections, about the Group-Think ala Orwell or just that sense in the 1950's that being the "other" was a vile thing, though that really the "other" is actually the villain that makes the film so radical even today.  And just as a horror movie Siegel makes sure to time his shots well, keep the pace tense, every corner and shot adding to the paranoia and derangement of the senses, it rocks the socks off of folks like me who, perhaps naively, thought going in "Oh, I've seen this before, I remember Elijah Wood and Jon Stewart in the Faculty, yada-yada).  It's more than that. 

Even with its tiny flaws, it stands up as a classic of its time, and many others, especially as a piece of quasi-subversive American cinema that would influence so many with its concepts.
And that ending!

Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT


What if  you're just working in a very large corporation, but you're not the higher echelon?  Far from it really - one of many folks sitting at desks, working at that, for example, insurance game, knowing numbers just off the top of the head, and trying to get by.  Some of you can relate.  This is the lot in life for C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon).  You won't find out his full-real name, but why bother?  Most call him Baxter and he's fine with it.  Not as fine exactly is he with the fact that, recently, he's made his apartment host to fellow co-workers - specifically a handful that are on the upper-echelon - who want/need to use his pad to bring a girl over.  You know.  For what was called in 1960 as 'heavy petting' or 'necking' or 'a little fun'.  We know what that means.

How it exactly got started isn't as important as where it leaves Baxter now, having to rearrange his life schedule - such as, you know, sleeping and eating - around those guys who now take advantage of him.  But it's a tricky thing for Baxter, who is one of those eager-to-please workers, and of course it would be damaging for him permanently if it got out what was going on.  Plus, he could get promoted.  That's always such an important thing in this corporate world.  Isn't it always?


Enter Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, back again in a Billy Wilder film as an insurance man, but in a much different place than the Walter Neff of Double Indemnity, the classic noir).  Mr. Sheldrake hears about Baxter's pad situation, and though Baxter tries to not go there (and it's a helluva cold he's got during this friendly-but-full-of-insinuations meetings), he has little choice - the next leg up in his career can happen if he just let's it happen.  And meanwhile, there's that elevator gal Fran Kubelick (Shirley MacLaine), who Baxter has kind of a crush on (he even shows off his new bowler hat with a big silly grin at a Christmas party, one of those scenes that is more awkward for one in the room than the other), without knowing (at least until it's a very horrible point) that she is really the 'other woman' for Mr. Sheldrake.  Oye.

There's more complications from there, however, in Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning film (Picture and Director, and more).  It's a "comedy" inasmuch that it has Jack Lemmon at the height of his comedic powers, and there are some very funny lines and moments.  Surely when Lemmon's Baxter has a very bad cold and has to present himself and explain his whole apartment-as-office-hump-stop he has just natural comic flair, especially against MacMurray as he plays the straight man so well (watch how he flings his handkerchief and is so humbly pathetic in front of him explaining the why's and how's and percentages of office employees using his apartment).
I love you, too, snot.
Or when he has to go about his apartment after one of his fellow workers has "used" the apartment there's some funny stuff there.   And there's a lot of wit - a mega-ton - especially it being from the writing team of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, who wrote several of Wilder's classics (Some Like it Hot, One Two Three, Sabrina, etc).  Much of the comedy comes from the reactions to little moments, innuendo, inferences, and the irony that is not too heavy, but not light enough to miss when Baxter and Fran talk over their problems.

But what is so great is that you can really take it on the terms of a drama, and one that really weighs heavily on the two characters played by Lemmon and MacLaine.  It should be all so simple, for Baxter to tell one of these businessmen off, or for Fran to split from Mr. Sheldrake, who says she's the one for her, he'll divorce his wife, etc et al, but she's not the *only* woman that such promises have been made to.  This actually leads to the largest portion of the film, almost like an extended one act play, that all takes place in the apartment after Fran tries to do something to herself (pill overdose) in a moment of pure desperation.

Baxter has little choice but to look after her - and, damn it, it's Christmas, there's not much Sheldrake can do from home, with his, you know, wife and kids - and this is where the real connection between these disparate souls happens.  So it may be a comedy, of manners, of bad luck, but it always carries a sort of melancholy feel, as everyone here, even Sheldrake as the closest thing to a "villain" of the piece (certainly making the most conflict for the characters), is cogs in this system.

I think that another great strength is that Wilder keeps this indictment of this society, of these middling people working in this insurance office doing work that doesn't really matter and numbers that mean little in the great scheme of things, how people are either used or users and how natural it all is (watch for the in-joke, by the way, where one of the employees calling about using the apartment has a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like, that's a hoot), in check with rich characterizations. 

We have so much time with these two people in this apartment, going through the heavy medical stuff first on to the conversation, that we can't help but not only feel for them but want them to be with one another.  They're smart people but they have the common thread of being trapped.
What, you never?
And all the time, there's the sense that this is dialog that's been written, but feels natural by the performers.  Here's an example of the dance between light and dark, humor and drama, that comes in just an exchange:
Fran Kubelik: Would you mind opening the window?
C.C. Baxter: Now don't go getting any ideas, Miss Kubelik.
Fran Kubelik: I just want some fresh air.
C.C. Baxter: It's only one story down. The best you can do is break a leg.
Fran Kubelik: So they'll shoot me - like a horse.
C.C. Baxter: Please, Miss Kubelik, you got to promise me you won't do anything foolish.
Fran Kubelik: Who'd care?
C.C. Baxter: I would.
Fran Kubelik: Why can't I ever fall in love with someone nice like you?


This is sharp dialog that has to be played just right.  With lessor players, it could come off as melodramatic or cloying.  Lemmon and MacLaine have strong chemistry, play off as a comedy duo AND a romantic couple that we want to see together (and the STAKES are there!  goodness, can you imagine such things like non-sociopaths and something believable in most modern rom-coms?)
And MacLaine especially makes this character Fran very memorable, even iconic.

It's nearly a fully feminist movie (or just that): years before Mad Men would tackle office politics, both between the men and the men and women, it looks dead-on at what this woman, as do others in the office like the poor secretary for Mr. Sheldrake, have to do to just keep their jobs.  I have to wonder if this film would have been as popular in the 1950's, but in 1960 people were ready for something smarter and a little edgier.


Or, at least, Wilder wanted his audience to meet him half-way or more.  It doesn't sugar-coat what women had to put up with if they wanted to just have a simple job as an elevator operator in this male-dominated world, let alone try and find a better place.  It's rough, hypocritical, and sometimes just mean (or, more often than not, passive aggressive), not to mention being the "other woman", as Fran finds herself.

The Apartment holds up because of the wit it places between the characters, like a terrific play where its all about moment-to-moment and beat-to-beat with some good room for the actors to breath and contemplate as their persons, and its modern look and take on the world.  By the time it comes to New Year's, and Fran sits there with Mr. Sheldrake wondering what next to do, when the big decision comes (leading up to a final line worthy of Some Like It Hot, with "Shut up and deal), it's exhilarating.  It's wonderful to see a filmmaker, cast, and style (fantastic widescreen compositions in black and white, like the one above shot at the office), all coming together in sync for a story that means something, carries sophistication and satirical bite on its New York middle-upper-class milieu, even as seemingly (or even deceptively) 'light' entertainment.

OLDBOY vs OLDBOY (Park vs Lee)

"Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone." oldboy_movie_poster_01OLDBOY_800x1236  
"Be it a rock or grain of sand, in water they sink as the same." - Quotes from Oldboy (2003)



I still remember a key line from Roger Ebert's review of the original 2003 Chan-wook Park adaptation of the Manga comic by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchia (still unread by me). What he wrote in his 4-star review: "Oldboy is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare." That, for me, is a key difference between the two films, the first (and winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004) and the new film (the latest "Spike Lee Joint", though this time, maybe for the first time, it says a 'Spike Lee Film' on the poster - guess he's gotten to the age where it's time to give up advertising his films like a young pot-draggin' dude... but I digress I guess).

 In the story of Oh Dae-su in Park's film, it's a realm of and greek tragedy, where a man gets kidnapped, put in a prison shaped like a motel 15 years, and though he tries to escape he is just "let go" by his captor, leading to a story of a mystery wrapped in a revenge inside enough taboos to choke an elephant. Choi Min-Sink played the title role and his performance, where he dug in deep to the bottom of his being and ripped himself apart on screen (moth physically and mentally, mostly physically until near the end when the two rip-aparts converge), and Park's direction brings sweeping camera-movements, narration (not unlike Wong Kar-Wai films) and high-quality musical score (parts by Vivaldi), it all somehow came together as this violent high opera with touches of poetry. Whether that makes it sound pretentious or not I leave to your judgment (see the trailer and some clips below).

In the story of Joe Doucet in Lee's film - what Lee calls a "reinterpretation" not a remake, and even equating it to doing 'My Favorite Things' over again by John Coltrane - this time it's 20 years, and the same circumstances, more or less, fly after Mr. Doucet is let go from a trunk in the middle of a field. The same level of high art infusing its pulp fiction roots are not quite there, mostly because, I think, Lee and his screenwriter Mark Protosevich, they're more interested in exploring the surface elements, for the most part, than digging deep into the rancid heart of the matter of two men in this face-off. But, it should be said, that 'for the most part' references a fact that people who go in to Lee's film possibly prepared to hate it in advance don't take into account:

 Lee is still going to do things *his* way, and, initially, it works. For those who know how the film opens originally, Oh Dae-Su is just a drunken mess in a police station waiting area. In jump-cuts he flails about, talks about his daughter's birthday being today, and going between being a funny drunk to an annoying one (Min-Sink really sells this as well). We don't know much else about the man except that, perhaps on this night, he's just had a few too many, but he looks forward to seeing his daughter and even gets to talk to her on the phone - before he is sort of snatched away while Park does a circular-dolly-shot on a phone booth.

Joe Doucet (Josh Brolin), meanwhile, gets a bit more of a character-background before the big imprisonment happens, and I have to think this is by design of the filmmakers knowing the source lacked such information - this protagonist is, frankly, a louse, drinking while working as a marketing salesman, flirting with his client's girlfriend, and just getting really obnoxious in the street. Lee employs his quasi-trademark camera-attached-to-a-character as Joe roams around in his drunken stupor, crying, yelling, being an ass, and it's not much fun to watch this. But is it interesting?

Yes, up to a point, at least in a basic-screenwriting-let's-show-who-this-guy-is-fully sense. There's not mystery here, as opposed to Oh Dae-Su. But let's see how it goes. Then it gets to the motel room. Here is where it gets a bit trickier on Lee's/Protosevich's end (mostly involving a TV show called "Mysteries of Crime", but I'll get to that in a bit), but surprisingly here is also the strongest section of the film.

 Both Brolin, as he gives his tremendous all in the realization that he's been taken prisoner (it doesn't happen all at once, it's more like, "I wake up, go to the bathroom, open the curtain and - where's the window, phone, door-knob, and what's with the dumplings being given under my door?") and from there, it does follow the story of Park's film, but Lee expands it, finds his own room for surreal nightmare images - in this case, in an odd in-joke to Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train where he played the same role, Lee's brother Cinque Lee plays a bellhop who is all in Joe's head, and on the wall of his bedroom - and makes this room into another sinister character with its fake parts and kung-fu/work-out images on TV and Brolin himself, going from pudgy alcoholic to sober, and buff, man of action, writing his list of men he has possibly wronged in his life and letters to his daughter.

Somehow, this section shows Lee doing what he does best, but in the same framework. In this case it is a 'reinterpretation', and it's very satisfying to see a director and actor like Brolin, who can be hit or miss (for every No Country for Old Men there's Jonah Hex), so in sync and finding their own voice. This is not to decry or lessen the impact of what Park and Min-Sink so in their film, but in a way that goes by much quicker in terms of screen-time, and through only some iconic images (Min-Sink's wide-toothed-insane grin with frizzy hair, the ants crawling out of his arm like Un chien Andalou) is it so striking.

 More impactful is when Oh Dae-Su escapes and is on the roof of a building with a man and his dog, and holds him by tie-length from falling off the building as he tells his story. This, as opposed to Lee's film, where as soon as Joe pops out he lays waste to a few football players (?!) for just being in his way. Yikes. And it's into the two acts where suddenly, but distinctly, Lee's film loses its vigor, doesn't have the same "umph" (in thinking about it more a day later, it's actually a big component due to the music being just a standard thriller soundtrack - this comparing to the searing tracks Park laid down), and even the acting from Brolin is just serviceable. It's after this, too, that the two films' stories just converge just too much to ignore, even if one has seen the original once.

 And if you haven't seen the Korean film, seeing Lee's film is like getting a lot of kinda-cool set pieces (hey, he's fighting ALL those guys in two hallways, how awesome is that! and Samuel L. Jackson is here as the prison warden... okay, that is legitimately cool, any time Lee and Jackson have paired up - Jungle Fever, Do the Right Thing - it just clicks - hell, imagine if Sam Jackson had been the lead instead of Brolin, THAT would've been challenging), yet always tinged with a pulp nihilism that doesn't have a lot of heart at the center.

It's hard to describe how to see that difference in the heart of the two films, especially in Lee who many times in his career where's his heart on his sleeve for his characters to take on (for better and for worse). But you just see it and feel it, and it becomes more of a distilled, basic thriller (even with its twisty and brutal sections), just taken on its own terms. Well-shot? Sure. It's Sean Bobbitt, who is right off of Steve McQueen's films and can, and usually does, bring the high-crane-shots and wild close-ups Lee enjoys employing (though, as with the original, my one critique of the original, when it comes time for Brolin and his companion, here played by Elizabeth Olsen, to see into the past of the Evergreen Academy, they're in the same space watching the flashback, and it's just a bit tired/cliche for my tastes - though even still Parker brings more artistic integrity to those bits).

Should I keep comparing both films so much? Frankly, it's hard not to, especially when one sees that with some little exceptions - this time Joe's friend-on-the-outside isn't some guy in an internet lab but a bar owner, and the 'girl' by his side is a nurse instead of a chef, meant, I suppose, to elevate her being of a kind and gentle use to the world where Joe previously was not - so much of the two stories is the same.... well, not exactly, sorta. Here's what it is, and this is where we get into the major spoilers here.

 In the original film, as you may recall, a heavy dollup of that good ol' incest was in there with the villain, Lee Woo-Jin (Yu Ji-Tae), as he had sex with his sister, got spied on by a young Oh Dae-Su, and the rumors spread about not only the sex but a pregnancy (in an added sick twist, when Lee Woo-Jin is doing his villain-monologuing bit, he tries to make it that she wasn't pregnant, but probably, we can guess, she was), and thereafter she killed herself. The revenge Lee Woo-Jin has plotted all these 15 years?

Getting Mr. Dae-Su and the lovely Mi-do (Hye Jyong-Kang) together and fall in love - this despite, actually, by manipulation, are father and daughter. It was one of those dastardly twists that you didn't see coming because, well, who had seen a movie quite like Oldboy before anyway? Suddenly it's here that the reverse-Elektra machinations were taken, and where Min-Sink goes to town begging for his daughter never to find out - one of those scenes where you just are on the edge of your seat not knowing what he or his dastardly ex-'Oldboy'-schoolmate is going to do next - and the end point is still, to this day, stomach churning (to put it simply, he won't say another word about anything ever again).

When seeing just the trailer, nevermind the film itself, to Lee's film, if one knew the big twist-reveal from the original film, the new film seemed to indicate this would *not* be the case this time, that Joe Doucet was seeing his daughter on TV being interviewed about her mother being murdered by him (yeah, it's part of the equation), so, you know, why on Earth would he have sex with her this time around? Let's say without getting too much into the contrivances in both stories - though in Lee's film meant to be more "real world" than Park's, perhaps - that Joe does, in fact, 'get with' his daughter, and it turns out to be the same god-forsaken scenario as before of it being the first girl to come into contact with the recently-release, and it connecting back to the TV show Joe watched with wide-teary eyes.

I get that the director and writer are trying to make some point here about TV's ability to manipulate, but the show itself looks too fake - and the villain, played by Sharlto Copley as a fey-Vincent Price, far as I could tell - and it becomes too obvious when Joe just happens to watch the show at a key moment and see his 'daughter' at such and such a time. It's a cheap fake-out designed to distract fans of the original from thinking it will be just like it was before (in other words, it is, but it isn't, but it is, sigh), and yet I would think for people who have no awareness of the original film, it's just a stupid device that, especially once revealed, just relishes in the contrivance a bit more.

Then again, one has to wonder after leaving Lee's film is all of what is translated from Korea to America in these stories works entirely. Having this intricate criminal prison run by thugs through a whole building (just a floor as I could tell in Park's version) is still dark fantasy, but somehow it works in that society. Could such an underground network be run in the states - right in Spike Lee's New York city - without it being revealed? And then other questions arise in this story of Joe Doucet: why don't cops get called when Copley and his thugs come into the bar run by Michael Imperioli?

How does on amass and keep such a fortune as a slimy weasel such as Copley's character - Lee Woo-Jin looking much more like a respectable businessman with just a *whole* lot of scars under the shiny surface? And yet with all of these complaints... Lee's film isn't *bad*, exactly. It is just underwhelming. Which is a shame for this director since even his failures (She Hate Me, Miracle at St. Anna, Bamboozled) still are interesting to watch for how far such a filmmaker with burning, raging talent will go.

Though he's cast the film relatively well - only Copley over-does it (though he did as such in Elysium) - with Brolin never boring and Olsen being always a sincere presence, and of course Samuel L. Jackson is that motherf***er - and he shoots it well. But where's the music to make it rise up into something else? Why be so reverent to the original material, again, the film, I don't know yet about the comic, though I've heard incest isn't figured into that source, when there's more room to explore with such a unique revenge-nightmare? I don't know. If nothing else it gives the director, mostly now doing (GREAT!) documentaries and mixed-to-good-to-okay dramatic films, a chance to flex muscles doing VERY violent set-pieces and gruesome moments of drama.

Maybe this was, simply, one of those films that did not scream out

 Instead, Park's film remains the masterpiece, the sorrow song that rests in a realm that is like our world but crafts its own vision of descending into the pits of hell, while Lee tries to elevate it back to Earth and the flaws in the ointment becoming clearer as the story progresses to its most artificial point. Or, to put it in simpler terms: one film has a live squid being ripped apart. Another just gives it a glance.  


Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ain't too complicated - at least, that's what he tells us, the audience, in voice-over.  "I only care about these things," he says, "My body - my ride - my family - my church - my friends - my girls... and my porn"  He then goes on to extol, in his casual and almost philosophical way how his attitude to porn ain't bad at all.   If one can call a spoof on a New Jersey "type" (by that I mean ala Jersey Shore, full-blown Italian, as a New Jerseyian I can tell you, don't worry, we're not ALL like this, I think anyway), Jon is that, and Gordon-Levitt knows it (let's call him JGL from here on, make it easier).

He hangs out with the same three friends, always at the bar, always picking up the same kind of girls and giving them the one to ten ranking.  And of course, one night, he meets his 'ten' in Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, who, to be sure, has rarely looked more attractive, which is part of the point of the character on a surface level at least), and falls head over heels.

The porn.  Oh, the not-real-but-enticing sex acts and booty on display!  As we gather from his confessions to the priest, which, as with everything else, carries the air of ritual that is just 'What It Is' in capital letters, he goes for a lot.  He doesn't sugar-coat it, his masturbation levels are on a chart so high that MTV's Beavis and Butt-head would look on in stupefied awe (so much to the point that it's, at one point in the film when Jon is at his lowest, is comically a LARGE amount of doing-the-deed with porn). Or, in other words, a goofier, less withdrawn version of Michael Fassbender in Shame.
But, hey, it's porn, it don't harm nobody, Jon tells us, and all guys do it, he also explains.  What he doesn't seem to get, and what drives the conflict of the whole film forward, is that it's not about the porn, per-say.  It's about human connectivity, of actually having the give-and-take aspect of a relationship.

Barbara seems to get this, perhaps on an intuitive level, but what makes Don Jon so winning, funny, and dynamic as a romantic comedy (with some dramatic elements, especially in the third act, which I'll get to in a moment), and surprisingly uncompromising, is that JGL doesn't let Barbara off the hook as a character.

While Jon has his porn of the fantastical flesh-humping-sucking-et-all kind, Barbara's "porn" is emotional: she's obsessed with soapy romantic comedy/dramas (featuring by the way, uproarious cameos in a film-within-the-film Jon/Barbara watch with Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway - we may have seen such rom-com parodies before, but it's still never not funny), as we see her face completely lightened up as she is watching these stories of complete fantasy - in its own way just as emotionally manipulative (but in their own way, I might argue, more dishonest when it comes to certain parts of basic relationships, but that's another article altogether).

She has this own crutch to her, but the other part is that, in a way, Jon has met his match, but perhaps something he does and doesn't deserve: someone who will control him, dig her nails into him, to try and make him her's.  In one of the sexiest/funniest scenes in a long time, we see how Barbara operates as she does a kind of standing-lap-dance-talk with Don outside his apartment door, grinding against him, and teasing him with the possibilities of what could come... if only she could meet his friends and his parents (this after maybe the second or third time they've met).

The sexual tension is palpable, but the dialog is extremely witty and deadpan here, a logical extension of a screwball comedy from the 30's let loose with 21st century R-rated clothing.    When the director finally let's his character, and us, for a breath, it's hard to stop laughing at his discomfort.


There's more to this control aspect that is more serious, or given a dose of reality: a great little scene where the two characters go to some store and Jon talks about the (genuine) joy he has in keeping his apartment clean.  He is met by a demurred Barbara who doesn't understand why he doesn't just get someone else to clean the apartment.  It's a small argument scene that dissolves under the circumstances (mainly being Jon still being so crazy for Barbara, perhaps on a physical level but maybe something more, that's the tricky part audiences will have to read into themselves), but is indicative of their larger problem as a couple.

So by the time the big "reveal" comes with the porn - this isn't spoiling so much as we know this from the trailer, and it's a given due to the whole conflict of Jon's "Addiction" (by the way, the original title of the film was "Don Jon's Addiction" before "Addiction" was seen as too negative a word or something with such a film), it comes as no surprise how Barbara acts.  He lacks the real connectivity with her - after what he describes as the best (possible) sex when it happens, he goes off while she's asleep and opens up that good ol' laptop - and she lacks the slightest bit of patience with such a predilection with sex.


This leads to the other main relationship in the film, which JGL is careful to develop not too quickly; as Jon starts to go to classes (you know, another Barbara suggestion, though not a bad one) to move on from being a jockish bartender, he meets/is engaged in conversation with Esther (Julianne Moore), another, older student.  She notices his 'habit' by chance and suddenly they strike up an uneasy friendship - which becomes, or could become, something more in the third act.

But she, like Jon, is pretty damaged (without too many details, we see for the first time crying, one of those excellent Julianne Moore moments where it's just *there*, no pretense, no BS, we know something is not right from there, even with her charming personality in upcoming scenes).  The other aspect to Esther that helps Jon is her attitude to what he's doing with himself - seeing through him to what is really at the core.  This may be a slight flaw on the writer/director's part to spell it out just a bit too clearly, but in a way Jon really needs this more than we do, especially as, deep down, he has an emptiness that he tries to fill with porn or the gym or his friends.

Don Jon is a very funny movie most of the time, by how naturally he interacts with characters around him - his friends feel like long-time, typical but not completely cartoonish male troglodites out for a little tail - and the way he shoots much of the film is clever; there's a visual trope that he repeats, which makes sense for the character.  Every time he goes to the gym, it's a same shot of him walking down the hallway, or going up to a church, sitting with his family, and then in confession.

Later, as his face goes through its contortions as he, in also very funny (because it's so self-conscious) voice-over, extols how he is not an addict, "I mean," he says, "I went to school with guys who smoked crack!"  These shots are the same as well.  Same for those scenes with his family around the table at his parents house (Tony Danza and Glenne Headley, with Brie Larson as a quasi "Silent Bob" sister who barely has a line in the film, a one-note joke basically but it's fine).

So then it's a little surprising that my two problems were with a stylistic choice - when it comes time for the scenes between Jon and Esther, they're shot in more carefree, loose, hand-held style (not the only time, it also happens when Jon/Barbara fight), and it just feels *too* loose in a way, it's hard to describe but it started to just feel messy in a way that didn't jive with not so much the rest of the film but the context that the scenes were set in.  There's a way to do that hand-held style and make it less jerky, and that would be the only stylistic misstep Gordon-Levitt took there.

As for Jon's family, while there are some solid laughs to be had when watching Danza explode multiple times as Headley tries to be the soothing mom, it comes off after the first scene like sitcom fodder.  Not bad, but not up to par with the rest of the writing and dynamics in the rest of the film (perhaps it was part of JGL's point to show them as over-the-top caricatures, but it doesn't work when the other three principals have such dimensions AND are still types in their own respects).
the Dark Robin Rises! ... Sorry, I couldn't resist.
But these are almost nitpicks if not flaws when looking at the awesomeness that this first-time filmmaker has become.  He's certainly, or at least probably, learned some lessons from other films, and it feels in a way like a cousin piece with his film (500) Days of Summer, which was also a story of a relationship with each side having unrealistic expectations with the other, leading to an unfortunate demise (though, in the way of perhaps being *truer* to real life, Barbara is much less forgiving and able to reason at the end of it all in Don Jon, unlike the slightly more philosophical and peaceful resolution to Summer's relationship to JGL's character in that film).

And like any good post-modern style critique of the romantic comedy - others I might throw in, starting with Annie Hall, would be High Fidelity and, on a lighter level, Love, Actually - it finds a balance between showing up the genre for the major problems that come with sticking to its conventions, while still providing us characters to care about and connect with, conflicts that seem within reason, and, with warts and all, we want them to find if not definite love then something close to a start for their lives going forward.

Oh, and humor.  Genuine, sexy, sometimes off-the-wall humor (Marky Mark on the soundtrack!).  And confidence to know when to keep a joke going and when to pull back to sincerity and heartfelt drama.  Between this and Enough Said, it's a nice time to be back in the genre, for a few moments anyway.  As an aside it's also fun to see such Jersey behavior and even spot some sights (they shot, in part, in Hackensack, New Jersey, which is right near where I live and is fairly accurate to the some of the local color and mood, if not in full).

One more note: the Church itself, it should be said, also gets some criticism in the film, without coming out and just saying "this is all BS", this too is an area that JGL is able to touch upon the false promise of "cleansing" of sins, a more comical version of something Scorsese's been doing for forty years as a director in his films.  I mean, didn't Jon see Mean Streets?  It'd solve his problems in five minutes of Harvey Keitel voice-over and hand-over-a-candle-in-existential dread.  But I digress.

Alfonso Cuaron's GRAVITY

Before digging deep into the details of the film, a little note on the format of Alfonso Cuaron's science-fiction thriller (notice full 'science' here, not sci-fi, or even worse SyFy, it is one of those real attempts, for the most part, to bring real space science into the mix).

This almost never happens for me, but I've seen Gravity twice now, and after seeing it the first time in regular good old "flat" 2D, I thought without any second thought "If I see this again, I'd really like to see it in 3D."  Sometimes a film will make me curious enough, mostly because it was shot *in* the format, to see what the director and photographer has one in the format - Scorsese with Hugo, Ang Lee with Life of Pi, and Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams are the 'high-art' examples, though sometimes a Drive Angry pops out as a guilty pleasure.  There's the hope going in that, 'hey, maybe they will do something with it, push the artistic envelope and find a new way to use the tool that is 3D for good use.  Of course the ideal for the filmmakers is an "immersive experience", which is something redundant to me since the idea of a good film is that it already IS an immersive experience in 2D.

But with Alfonso Cuaron's film, what he did that is so intriguing is to use his environment - outer space, with zero gravity, yet with things like shrapnel that can go through the (lack of) atmosphere at bullet-time speed - to emphasize objects going around the characters, in front of them, and that spatial matters are all unnatural.   Emmanuel Lubezki, who has made his own sort of "3D" movies in his free-floating work with Terence Malick, has also pulled off something of a cinematographic miracle with a lot of these shots: they go around actors and these set pieces in ways that look so unlikely.

A shot will start in one spot, an actor comes into view after being a speck, then the shot continues giving us attention to details - a screw could get loose into the rest of space until it's grabbed at just the right moment.  The power in how it's all shot, especially in its startling opening shot that lasts, I think, about eight or nine minutes, is that Cuaron through his direction and Lubezki through how he lights and moves his camera makes us believe this IS out in space.

Documentary though it may not be - this isn't shot exactly like, say, Cuaron's previous film Children of Men, where the tactic was to put us at times into the war-time scenario of the dystopian United Kingdom.  Here it's a lot smoother, taking a bit of a cue, at least in the first two-thirds, from the slow-moving suspense of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  When George Clooney's Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone have to go to from the wreckage of their destroyed space station to a Russian satellite, it's not in one quick flash.  They have to go deliberately, with Stone losing her oxygen bit by bit and Kowalski just trying with some basic humanity to keep her alive.

And yet aside from some style, it's not quite 2001, either.  The problem perhaps then comes in with it still being, after the auteurist experience of a director fully in control of his faculties and strengths at making this outer space feel alive and quietly, deadly threatening, a Hollywood movie.  It's got these big stars, especially Clooney who is playing a variation on being George Clooney (maybe like Clooney meets the cockier of astronauts-in-training from The Right Stuff), and Sandra Bullock is like an older, still rattled take on a character she played in Speed - she's not even technically an "astronaut", which puts her a bit more into the audience empathy corner despite her training.  Thus the dialog, from Cuaron and his son Jonas, comes off just occasionally as showy.

On the other hand, that sort of dialog from Kowalski, where he pontificates stories heard by ground control many times (and hey, speaking of cliches, it's his last mission by the way!), may be cracking jokes just as the basic need to soften a situation.  They both know, Stone and Kowalski, how desperate and grim the situation is.  Having now seen the film twice, I grew to like Clooney more on another round, and could see more of the psychology behind his decisions... that is, until, frankly, he is used as a plot prop.

I may have not gotten into the basic story, but really there's only so much you need to know about the set-up: while astronauts Clooney and Bullock are repairing a satellite/installing something Dr. Stone only knows about, another satellite got destroyed or other and the debris, which is incredibly dangerous out in space, comes at them and destroys their station, kills a couple of other crew members, and now the remaining two must survive.  In a sense it could be a story set on a mountain with a glacier-fall as the "villain", or out at sea in the middle of nowhere.  At the same time the genius of the premise and its setting is that the filmmakers use the beauty as a cover for how horrible it can be.  "I hate space!" Dr. Stone exclaims at one point.  It's a deceptive place.

And for the first two-thirds, as our two stars do what they can to survive until, sadly, only Stone is left, it's very gripping, moment-to-moment stuff, the proverbial "good thrill-ride" to quote Stanley Kubrick' "proverbial good science fiction movie" re: 2001.  And all the way up until a certain point, when Dr. Stone is finally on a pod that can get her to another station but has a moment of full failure, it's fully gripping stuff.  Even a bit that should be just throwaway character stuff - who Stone was back on Earth, a dead daughter, nothing totally to live for except, we assume, her science - is compelling in the moment.

What gets me to not love it all the way through is a sort of story turn that happens at about the twenty minute mark, a character "returns" to give some vital plot info, and our remaining hero is able to save herself.  This is where it started to feel contrived, the character talks just too much to herself (that sort of "I'll-say-this-and-that-to-myself" talk), and there's even an unintentional(?) reference to a space-move that was previously seen in WALL-E involving a fire extinguisher.  A final shot further elongates things as if to make a point about, um, evolution?  MEIN WORLD!  I CAN WALK!

And yet... I am still intrigued by this section of the film for the reason, seeing it again, that it all could be something the filmmakers may or may not have intended: the old 'Is it in my head' deal.  There's something about this final 15-20 minute stretch that almost has an air of intentional unbelievability to it, it's a bit more rushed than what we have seen before, and the character's triumphs start piling on.  Naturally, this is the sort of stuff that keeps a film like Gravity a triumph for audiences, because the character overcomes conflicts and obstacles and all that jazz.  But there's another way to look at it, I think, starting from when Stone receives her crucial plot info and can steer herself back to safety that this is when it's all a dream, or even the after-life.  What if Earth is a place on Heaven, to reverse the pop song?

This adds another layer that still doesn't make the film perfect, and it is still, for me, flawed in its touches of storytelling that don't quite gel with everything else - a moment of 2001 homage involving an embryonic Star Child (!?) also has an air of self-indulgence to it.  Yet these may be just nitpicks in the scheme of things: what the director does, his crew, and especially Bullock who commands the screen in such a way throughout that is not over-insistent but gets her emotional turmoil across with depth, warmth, and a character that just clicks for what we want to see in a reluctant hero, is outstanding work of popular entertainment AND art, something that inspires the senses, thrills us, and could even be longer if it wasn't already so tightly constructed.

Its imperfections may make it endure MORE than if it was a super-well-oiled work of full-blown Hollywood machinery, instead of an outsider working within it.



There's a very short scene amid the chaos of the London-set climax of the movie Thor: The Dark World - as with most if not ALL Marvel movies a Big-Gigantic-Holy-S***-Things-Are-Getting-MESSED-UP last like ten-fifteen-half-hour - where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has to get somewhere fast.  Normally, he could use his trusty hammer to get him to fly around (why he can't get around up in the sky without the hammer is just one of those Norse-God-Marvel things I guess), and so he has to get on a subway to take him across part of Greenwich to stop Christopher Eccleston's bad alien from domination.

He gets on this subway, and asks a woman if this is the right subway.  We haven't seen this woman before, and won't after, and she awkwardly says this is the way to go to wherever it is (does it matter really where, point is, it's A to B correct).  Thor gets on, and for a moment she stands next to this guy, in a get-up that is literally out of this world, and comes *this close* to just feeling up his abs.  But she shows restraint.  Sometimes it's difficult when a tall intergalactic Demi-God is right there.

It's one of those wonderfully absurd moments that can be found throughout the recent Marvel movies, particularly those of the Avengers Assemble(TM) set, where it's acknowledged that, hey, this is a fantasy, this is very comic-book-y, and just because people now know for sure that aliens exist (thanks other adopted king, Loki) it doesn't mean it makes it any less freaking odd when such a character gets on.  People even take notice just before Thor and the big baddie, Malekeith (sic), do their destructo-holy-crap-ness all over merry ol' London that, 'Hey, it's Thor!'

I wish at times there was a big more of that, however then one might be into overkill.  On the other hand, it might help distract from some of the problems with this particular film, where it's clear, or at least likely, where certain uncredited writers (::cough:: Joss Whedon ::cough::) stepped up on 'punch-ups' to make certain scenes funnier - or anything between Thor and his brother Loki - and where it just kinda falls flat.

It's not exactly any one particular fault, though perhaps it could be on Alan Taylor, the director, and certainly not an incapable one by any means (among his MANY TV credits Game of Thrones was likely the one that got him the gig, just as Kenneth Branaugh with his medieval Shakespeare epics did for him).  The first half if just all set up - there is a substance called "Ether", which is this big black inky-misty-thing (prime example of a MacGuffin), and it's this thing that has been trapped away for a very long time, along with villain Malekeith (Eccleston), who has used it before to try and bring darkness to the space-realms.  But when sneaky little Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) goes investigating for ways to try and connect with Thor again, who is back on Asgard with imprisoned Loki, she somehow stumbles upon two things: 1) weird space portals not unlike the Portal video-game (look it up, it's worth it), and 2) the Ether, which something overcomes her.


A chain of events happen, and pretty soon Eccleston's black-eyed, pale-skinned baddie, looking not too unlike any given Star Trek villain (seriously, is he a Klingon, or a Romulan, or a BORG or one of those?  I may lose geek cred for this guy being just a complete unknown as a character, perhaps Thor fans can explain in the comments), is out for revenge against Asgard, particularly Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins, going capably between soft-spoken a-hole and loud one with some degree of skill), and Thor has to restore balance and so on.   This is the first half, and while it's never quite boring, a lot of it just seems/feels like going through the motions.

None of the actors are exactly bad either... okay, Kat Dennings is lame.  And not funny.  And Stellan Sarsgaard, the great actor from Breaking the Waves once upon a time, is reduced to running around naked at Stonehenge (but hey, why not as the perennial Mad Scientist that previously had Loki in his head in the Avengers?)  But otherwise it feels all pretty rote, and also a shame to see Eccleston, an extremely talented and engaging actors with a wide range - from Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later to a wonderful one-season stint as the Doctor on Doctor Who - has a character without much personality, nothing in the way of humor or interesting dialog, just a cypher of typical comic-book rage, with half or more of the dialog in an alien tongue anyway.  The talent is all here, but the script doesn't always reach up to rise to their potential so much as keep the gears of the basic story moving.

So why does the film work?  Simple: Chris Hemsworth IS always engaging as Thor, even when he has to say some pretty basic, boiler-plate comic-book hero dialog, and especially because of Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  Putting the two of them together helps a lot as well, which is what happens in the second half of the film where we get to see the 'Can You Trust Him?' type of storyline.

Loki is arguably the most fascinating recurring villain now in the Avengers series, perhaps by proxy of it being that he was the main bad-guy in Avengers (not counting the aliens and the other invaders and their ilk), and it's probably largely because of Hiddleston himself, yes, as an actor who just indulges and has a great time playing such a fiendish personality, someone who has a lot of real conflicts and real paigns with his family (without spoiling too much, someone close to the Royal Asgard Kingdom gets knocked off, and Loki probably takes it harder than anyone else, albeit locked in his prison cell).  He could even teeter on being an anti-hero in this film if he wasn't, per the sort of now Whedon-type tradition, such a snarky bastard.  You know you can't quite trust him as the audience, as well as the characters, and the fun is waiting to see where the other shoe will drop... and then the other and the other.

Thor: The Dark World carries a lot of high-flying, shiny special effects, and they're fun to look at until a certain point where it just becomes clear, at least at certain points, such as when one of the alien intruder ships busts through the palace on Asgard, that it's all TOO CGI-like, at least, in parts, for me.   Would it have hurt, just once, to show a model crashing through a made-for-scale set?  But this is mostly just a quibble.

If there is an over-arching, nagging problem with this, even when the director and filmmakers are doing their best to deliver on some exciting action - and even in the "dull" first half there is some moments of kick-ass fighting that is staged competently - it's all fairly predictable by this point, non?  The crazy professor will get out to help, in part, to Save the Day - Jane Foster, though tortured by the 'thing' inside her, will be cured - the comic relief will still be the plucky comic relief (whether or not the quips are funny I leave up to you).

Thor: The Dark World film still

The real wild cards come with characters like Loki and perhaps certain objects.  The Tesseract, the 'Big Thing' from The Avengers, is mentioned a few times and not without reason as there are, apparently, other Sacred Stones that need to be kept for safe keeping.  And indeed one of the "Stingers", one of the scenes that takes place as the end credits are going, shows this process starting to take hold (and with a certain Oscar winning actor in a weird wig to boot).  Nothing is ever badly shot.

No exchange Hemsworth, who always sticks to being charming, tough, assertive, and a hero we can get behind (albeit now he's lacking a bit of the more intriguing conflict of the first film, perhaps it was wise to move him along from the less-thinking creature he once was, leave the brutishness more to Odin this time around).  And many lines are funny and winning; at one point Chris O'Dowd of the IT Crowd (!) shows up as a 'date' Foster has, and this is an example of an amusing bit that doesn't over-stay its welcome.

So it's worth seeing, but aside from things I've mentioned with Loki - and the twists here, really, are not as mind-blowing and polarizing as in Iron Man 3 from last summer - nothing exactly will *stick* with me from this film.  It has some inventive action scenes, some cool ideas, and that's about it.   And while it improves on some aspects of the first film, with some of its character dynamics (ironically Loki, while a strong presence in 2011's Thor, wasn't really the *best* thing, per-say, about that film), it's not as consistent as Branaugh's film either, which kept a steady pace as a solid B Hollywood blockbuster.

 The Dark World hints at and occasionally shows some marvelous things, no pun intended, but then falls back on its haunches like another TV-episode-of-the-week.  Which, in essence, this sort of is as part of Marvel's "Phase 2", which goes along to Captain America 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, and back to Avengers 2.

Woody Allen's BLUE JASMINE

Woody Allen has been working for so long - if one takes into account writing jokes for NYC papers since the early 1950's, but in the movies it's been since 1965 - that it's easy to take for granted what he puts out, especially as it's at the average rate of a film a year since the 70's.  And so it is with Blue Jasmine, his 44th directed film, another relationship drama (with speckles of comedy of the dark variety, like really squirm-in-your-seat variety) about neurotic people who can't seem to find the right significant other.  Only this time there are two aspects to the film that are a bit different than what Allen has done before, or variations: A Streetcar Named Desire (and Tennessee Williams' flavor of man/woman discontent only transferred to New York and San Francisco, with a touch of Elia Kazan melodramatics) and the financial collapse in the US.

How is a film that is presumably and mostly about a character, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), who moves in with her sister after her late husband (Alec Baldwin) went to prison and has to find herself on her feet again?  Well, the 'husband went to prison' part is part of it - how Jasmine lost her way and her marriage was that she didn't see the forest full of trees (couldn't or wouldn't is a question that is left to the audience without too much ambiguity): her husband was a wealthy wheeler-and-dealer, we're never really told what exactly, and perhaps all the better for it, aside from it being with companies with big stocks and bigger profits to move around.

He was also a crook who embezzled and did bad deals left and right when not having multiple affairs with women he'd come across, be they a girl working in a gym or a lawyer (the scene, rather late in the film in flashback, one of many, when Jasmine discovers he had been having an affair, and that it was much more than one as confirmed by a friend, is devastating... and yet very darkly funny, or may be if it isn't so tragic).  So then comes the humiliation of losing everything, and the only choice being to start over with her (adopted) sister in San Francisco, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who has her own man problems (split up from her husband, played by Andrew Dice Clay, now with the sorta-brutish Bobby Cannavale).

What one comes away with in Allen's film though is this character study of Jasmine, and her sister Ginger as a kind of B-plot (also featuring the great Louis CK in a fun little role as another beau), is a sharp difference in class.  I have to wonder if Allen wrote this script in the heat of all of the Occupy Wall Street happenings a couple of years ago, and of course in the wake of the financial collapse.  What happens, hypothetically, to one of the wives of these crooks that were part of the banks or lending schemes or whatever it might be?  How are families affected?  (There is a minor plot too with Baldwin's son, though this is more of a plot device than a fully-fleshed character, which is fine for the sake of the story).

What makes it so fascinating is that Allen doesn't let Jasmine off the hook really, by a long-shot.  She knew what was up, or if she really didn't know then ignorance is bliss and yet it's own sort of punishment (reaping what you sow is a theme throughout the film, if not intentionally), and Jasmine's big conflict is still trying to shake her past, which lead to a nervous breakdown as well as an unfortunate tendency to pop pills, drink vodka, and ramble to oneself (or to others, whether they listen or not).
Louis CK explains one of the stories in his show to a captivated fan
This key question drives the film, can there be a good change for Jasmine?  Is there a chance for her - and it comes at around the halfway/two-thirds mark with Stellan Sarsgaard (cast because, frankly, he's meant to be the super handsome n'er do-well and potential congressman that attracts Jasmine so, and pulls what he's asked to do well).  But there is an underlying thread that keeps the emotional through-line interesting which is this class thing, and it's not just with the glossy-empty-deviant depictions of the wealthy in New York (or as Jasmine says where she's from, "New York. Park Avenue" as if it's a borough).

Hawkins (charming and fragile and interesting always to watch here), Cannavale and Clay are the "working-class" characters, and while it nears veering into its own stereotypical depictions - people impressed by wealth but very unforgiving of those who do wrong with it, and let out anger and emotions like atom bombs - though some of the strongest actors of the bunch.  For Cannavale, playing the "Brando" part (which I'll get to more in a moment), it's a given he delivers a strong, unironically funny-and-heartbreaking performance. 

But Clay is the revelation among the supporting players as a man who has his world of hurt, and his own values, so that when he comes at a pivotal point in the film his presence alone is enough to show the sharp divide between someone like him or Jasmine.  He's gruff, tough, and full of "I-don't-give-a-f***', but not in the caricature we've seen him (or avoided seeing him) in stand-up comedy.

So there is the class and social commentary aspect - something which, among other films in 2013 dealing with such subject matter (i.e. Great Gatsby, Elysium, The Lone Ranger, yes, that film), this towers above in terms of giving believable characters and a construct that makes the society fully believable they're in - but there's 'Streetcar' as well, with Allen in jazz-musician mode riffing off of the four main players; Blanche (Blanchett), Stella (Hawkins), Stanley (Cannavale), and Mitch (Sarsgaard).

It's not too far a stretch to see Jasmine, in one of her trance-like ruminations on falling in love to the song "Blue Moon" for her to slip in a bit about "depending on the kindness of strangers."  It's that type, but like Allen has done in the past riffing off of famous works - La Strada, 8 1/2, Wild Strawberries, Russian literature - he makes it his own due to his bittersweet take on the human condition and how easy and difficult it is to fall in love, usually with a man who is either wrong or just right enough to get by, maybe, or not really, and also the other way around.

It's easy enough to say Blanchett is great here, because she is.  She just embodies this character, a woman who has made her own lonely state of being.  She makes Jasmine bigger than life when she needs (or wants) to be, but also brings her back down to Earth when she has to pause (or try to, it's hard for her to do) in thinking about what had gone so bloody wrong.

 She's fiery, desperate, crazed, and genuinely affectionate as a character, and yet Allen makes it complicated (in a superb way) by making her oh so attached to material things - her luggage which is high-quality, and that she can't get rid of since it has her initials on it - or not fully grasping how to get back into a role in society when before she can take a class on-line to be an interior decorating she takes it upon herself to take a class to learn how to use the computer(!)  Blanchett gives every line Allen has passion and commitment, even when it's talking to Ginger's boys about her marital troubles.  "You know the song Blue Moon," she says to the boys, who obviously have not heard it but listen patiently, as if listening to a crazy person.  Sad but true.
"What, Instagram!"
Blue Jasmine is a lot of fun to watch, even if it's about a character in total despair, set amid a society where it's important not simply how you make a living but really how you live in that society (does one make a pat statement against Cannavale's Chili for yelling during a boxing match on TV?  maybe, maybe not).  If I did laugh it's in the sort of dark, cringy-type of scenes that Jasmine gets herself into, but it is really a hardcore drama, one of Allen's deepest in recent years - think Match Point or Crimes and Misdemeanors level - and it should be a top-of-the-must list for anyone interested in the director's big catalog.