Friday, December 30, 2011

Young Adult

I recently wrote about Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, one of my favorite movies from the past few years. I also loved Juno and thought Thank You For Smoking was good for a first time director, if not quite a great film. With his track record, Reitman has become one of my favorite directors, the type whose new movies I look forward to regardless of what they are about. So I was excited to learn that he had teamed up again with Diablo Cody, the screenwriter of Juno, on the film Young Adult. When I learned more about the movie’s story, I became even more interested in seeing it. It is about Mavis Gary, a young adult fiction writer and former high school popular girl, played by Charlize Theron, who returns to her hometown from the big city in order to win back her high school boyfriend and save him from his boring life of marriage and fatherhood. I glanced at a few reviews and interviews with the filmmakers, which all mentioned how unlikable Theron’s character is. This definitely sounded like a movie I would like to see, as I enjoy characters who are not the typical heroes, and I recognize how challenging it is for storytellers to center a plot on a character who does not ordinarily elicit audience sympathy. I went in with high expectations. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, expectations can make a big difference, and often it’s dangerous to expect too much.

As I sat in the theater, I tried to stave off a sense of disappointment. Though I laughed a few times, I was expecting it on a whole to be funnier, a darker version of Juno’s quirky humor. The acting was excellent, and the film was well directed by Reitman, but I felt like the script wasn’t quite solid. Often, the dialogue felt too direct, where the subtext was stated explicitly instead of hinted at. For instance, at one point, Theron’s character, Mavis, says to her parents that she thinks she may be an alcoholic. Would a person in that situation genuinely say that? Another example: she reveals her plan to steal her ex-boyfriend from his wife to another former classmate (the great Patton Oswalt) with whom she has spent an evening drinking. Would she so bluntly say such a thing? By the end of the film, I was glad I had seen it and enjoyed it overall, but left feeling that somehow it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be.

But then I was surprised. I couldn’t stop thinking about this movie. For a week, the film continued to play out in my mind. I believe I’ve mentioned in previous posts the concept of resonance. That is what I look for in what I would classify as being more substantial works of art. I love a good light comedy or exciting action flick now and again, but they tend to be ephemeral. What I love more is the type of movie that continues to bounce around in my head after it’s over, that I wrestle with or feel continued emotion from, that for whatever reason strikes me like I’m a tuning fork, leaving me vibrating afterward. Young Adult had that effect on me.

What I initially distrusted as being too explicitly stated dialogue, I now see as being far more subtle. Would Mavis tell her parents she thinks she’s an alcoholic? Yes. She has had serious emotional problems for years, which have been largely ignored by both her and her parents. They know that she has a habit of pulling out her own hair, but rather than encouraging her to seek psychiatric help or providing her with that help when she was young, they simply tell her she shouldn’t do that because she has such beautiful hair and it’s a shame to mess it up. This family is clearly dysfunctional and has provided no basis for Mavis to grow into a mature woman, so she has been self-medicating to treat her depression and other problems (she is a narcissist, borderline personality, or maybe even a psychopath). But she wants help. All of her actions seem to have surface motives: she wants to steal her ex-boyfriend back in order to return to the happier days of high school. But those actions have much deeper motives: she wants help. She needs change in her life. So when she tells her parents she thinks she’s an alcoholic, it isn’t merely an observation or a fresh realization—of course she’s an alcoholic—it is her way of asking her parents for a response, to do something to help her, to say something comforting; but her parents simply deny the problem.

The same thing is true when she talks with Patton Oswalt’s character, Matt. On the surface it seems like he is largely a sounding board for her to reveal the details of her plot, but there’s far more going on. She recognizes him as a fellow misfit and is searching for some human connection. Part of the struggle faced by Mavis is that she has never needed to work very hard for surface connections. She is so beautiful that popularity came easily in high school, and since then she has managed to continue coasting on those looks. In one scene, she goes on a date set up by an Internet dating service. The man mentions charity work he has done, and Mavis initially thinks he is complaining the way she would about being stuck in traffic. She starts to sympathize (“That sounds awful”) until she realizes that her date is proud of his accomplishments, so she quickly changes tack. It’s clear her date is far too good for her, but the next morning, he is beside her in bed with his arm wrapped around her body. Mavis can be a terrible person deep down and still get the guy because her surface is so appealing, and because her surface is so appealing, she’s never had to develop anything beneath that surface. But as life wears on and she destroys herself with alcohol, she will not be able to rely on those looks like she used to. When she spends time with Matt, it is due to her desire to reach out and connect with someone, even someone she would consider so far beneath her.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to state that by the end of the movie, little has changed in Mavis’s life. Many of the reviews I’ve looked at address this point, even suggesting that she is less likable at the end of the movie than she is at the beginning, which may be true. So is this a failure? Do stories need to be centered on a character’s change or growth? I remember when I was a graduate student studying creative writing, students in workshops often attacked short stories for lack of character change, the assumption being that a story requires some change within a character or it is a failed story. I disagreed with this assumption and have since encountered a much better explanation for what a good story requires: the opportunity for change. A character should either change (for the better or for the worse) or face a last chance to change and fail to do so. This failure to change is a much harder story to tell well, which is why, I think, so many grad students think it’s impossible. But Young Adult is an example of a successful story of this kind. Mavis desperately wants change, but she is incapable of it; in the end she returns to the same life she’s been living and probably will live until drinking herself to an early death.

This movie certainly is not for everyone. It features a despicable lead character who fails to grow and learn from her mistakes. It is not uplifting by any means. But it is realistic. And for me, it resonated.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

In many ways, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a straightforward mystery-thriller. The basics of the plot are simple: a girl disappeared forty years ago on an island, and since the bridge leading to and from the island was blocked, it was impossible for her to have run away, so the family assumes she was killed and the body disposed of; everyone who was present that day is a suspect; an investigator, Mikael Blomkvist, is brought in to untangle the mystery; and through some twists and turns, he does just that. So the structure of the story is by no means original—it essentially could be an Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle story—and it even dips into the melodramatic quite regularly. If it weren’t enough that there is a murderer in the family, it turns out that there is actually a serial killer on the loose. And not only that, there are Nazis, too. By the time the villain is revealed, the story has many elements of the ridiculous about it, and as the final showdown between killer and investigator plays out, this could easily be no more than a commonplace thriller whose only purpose is to entertain for a couple hours and then be quietly forgotten. Yet it manages to be more than that.

I have not read the Stieg Larsson novels on which this movie and its inevitable sequels are based, but I know they were huge international bestsellers, and like many huge international bestsellers, I’ve heard from those who have read them that these books are not very well written. One friend told me that the core plot was interesting, but the novel reads like a rough draft in serious need of revision. So the question arises: why are these books so popular? Of course, there is the argument to be made that the average reader is not particularly interested in literary merit, which I think is true. But why would so many Americans be drawn to these Swedish mysteries when there are so many James Pattersons and John Grishams to choose from? Surely, there must be something original going on. And, indeed, there is. The primary element that lifts this story above the crowd is the title character, Lisbeth Salander.

She presents a harsh exterior to the world: dyed black hair, cropped so she can wear a Mohawk if she chooses; multiple body piercings; black leather goth/punk clothing; and, of course, tattoos. When faced with situations that would crush the spirits of many people, she fights back, allowing her intense anger to pour forth. Her past is never fully revealed, but there are hints: though in her twenties, she is a ward of the state, required to report regularly to an appointed guardian or be institutionalized. She is brought into the murder investigation because she is a brilliant computer hacker. Like much of the rest of the story, Lisbeth could devolve into melodrama and be little more than a sum of sensational characteristics, but she does not. Part of what keeps her fascinating is the mystery of who she is and how she became the woman she has become. Despite her outer strength, there remains a vulnerable core. Yes, she is covered in tattoos, metal studs, and leather; but beneath those decorations is a tiny, vulnerable woman. Yes, she cleverly seeks revenge against those who wrong her, but behind her anger is a lonely girl.

Lisbeth Salander is a fascinating character, and director David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian for the most part handle her well, choosing not to reveal too much. Rooney Mara plays the character superbly, showing hints of what’s going on beneath the surface, but holding back more than she reveals. A few key moments truly stand out. Lisbeth’s strength is demonstrated when she fights off a thief on a subway escalator. Her vulnerability is shown during a brutal rape scene. Her intelligence comes through as she pieces together clues to unravel a forty-year old mystery. Her sexuality emerges several times in both overt and subtle ways. And her deep desire to both connect with humanity and protect herself from the pain of human connections emerges slowly and touchingly. She is as complex a character as any in recent movies. I’m sure Lisbeth Salander is why Larsson’s novels are so popular.

Beyond the primary appeal of Lisbeth Salander, the film has one other aspect that makes it stand out beyond a simple melodramatic mystery story. A common thread runs through the story of the vanished girl, the family on the island, the subplot about corrupt businessmen, and how Lisbeth became the young woman she now is: the idea that the past affects the present. We are haunted by our pasts. Those spirits may be something as outrageous as Nazi ties in the family or as commonplace as childhood abuse, but those past events matter. This is a large and interesting theme. I am reminded of another work of Scandinavian literature: Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. Again, from what I’ve heard about the books, I think it’s safe to say that Larsson is no Ibsen, but the theme is certainly worth exploring, and it adds resonance to what could be a simplistic thriller.

The movie has some flaws, certainly. The plot is more or less beside the point, though it’s interesting enough that it maintained my attention. After the primary mystery is solved, the movie continues for too long, essentially a full additional act beyond the standard three-act plot structure. One element that stood out to me as distracting was the difficulty of handling language. The story is set in Sweden, but for this Hollywood production, the actors all speak English. Many newspaper headlines and shop signs appear in Swedish, but the characters do Google searches in English, and even a tattoo is written in English when logically it would be in Swedish. Whether to use accents or not must be a challenging decision for this type of movie. I generally think the best approach is what they did in Amadeus: though the story takes place in Austria and the characters would logically speak German, the actors, British and American, all adopt a similar standard, somewhat formal, American accent. That would have worked here. Instead, we have most of the cast putting on Swedish accents, including Americans Rooney Mara and Robin Wright, and Swede Stellan Skarsgård, but Brit Daniel Craig sounds pretty much the same as when he plays James Bond. This lack of consistency was distracting. Though I don’t think they should have changed the setting, I think the language hurdle could have been handled more gracefully. But despite these weaknesses, the film is well made and engaging.

One final point is worth addressing: this story has already been adapted to film. There is a Swedish version from a couple years ago. After seeing the American movie, I decided to go back to the previous adaptation to compare. In most ways, the two are the same since the basic details of plot are the same. There are some differences, of course, but many of those differences are inconsequential. On a whole, I’d say the American version is more skillfully made as far as the quality of filmmaking, the cinematography, editing, and so forth. Also, nearly everyone in the American film is very attractive, while few of those in the Swedish film are. A middle-aged, wrinkly magazine publisher who looks like she may have cut her own hair is recast as the beautiful Robin Wright with no locks out of place. Even Lisbeth’s hacker associate, who is fat, hairy and looks like he rarely is away from his computer long enough to shower is far more attractive in the American film. The Swedish version of Mikael Blomkvist looks like a typical middle-aged man, including sagging, acne-scarred skin, which leads to a feeling that he may be in over his head and could wind up being killed by the murderer he’s trying to catch. In the American version, Mikael is played by Daniel Craig, James Bond himself, so when he is supposedly in danger, it doesn’t feel real because we know that James Bond always escapes from the villain in the final moments.

The most significant difference has to be in the portrayal of Lisbeth. While Noomi Rapace is certainly a beautiful woman, she is flat chested and does not have the toned muscles of a Hollywood starlet. She is much more androgynous than Rooney Mara, who presents a more overtly sexual version of Lisbeth. Overall, the American Lisbeth is more extreme, less subtle, than the Swedish version. When she is hassled in the subway, she fights back like an action star. When she is raped, the extreme nature of the violation is graphically portrayed. But the American film pulls back at a key moment. Toward the end of the story, in the Swedish version, Lisbeth is faced with a life and death decision. In the American version, the decision is out of Lisbeth’s hands. Denying Lisbeth the chance to make a clear choice feels like a copout on the part of the American filmmakers. They have worked hard to portray the complexity of the character, to hint at the past that she struggles to deal with, to show both a vulnerable and a strong human; then when a moment of action would clearly tell us who she is deep down, they remove the ability to act from Lisbeth’s control. One could debate what choice she would have made, but the Swedish version actually forces Lisbeth to choose. Though in many ways I prefer Mara’s take on the character, I think the Rapace version has a slight edge in the way it more honestly handles the key moment toward the end.

Ultimately, both films are worth seeing as they take what is a hackneyed basic plot and elevate it to something more interesting and less forgettable.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Up in the Air

I am a huge movie fan, yet I’ll freely admit that there are few movies that have truly changed my life. For instance, I grew up in a somewhat conservative household, and I thought of gays as bad people. I remember that I took piano lessons when I was a kid from a man who my parents mentioned in passing was gay, which really shook me up. I quit piano lessons shortly thereafter, in part due to my fear that I was in danger of being molested sitting on a bench alone in a room with a gay man. Then when I was a freshman in high school, a friend and I went to see Philadelphia, which really humanized homosexuals for me. Tom Hanks made me see a gay man as a person deserving of respect and fair treatment, an ordinary human being rather than a monster. But that movie is one of the rare instances of a film that challenged my views on the world and really shook me up.

One of the few recent films to do help change my thinking like that is Up in the Air. I saw it originally in the theater, and though I loved it immediately and felt it was the standout film of that year (and it’s still one of my favorite movies of the past several years), it also really depressed me and left me feeling down for a couple weeks. The reason this movie shook me up so much is because I related strongly to the main character, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney in a phenomenal performance), a man who has virtually no ties to the world around him, who lives distanced from other people, who is alone in any crowd, and who likes his existence exactly as it is. Or at least he likes it when the film begins. As with many great stories, Up in the Air is about a character in the process of changing, and during the story, Ryan realizes how much is lacking in his life. He comes to appreciate that relationships are what truly give life meaning.

I imagine this simple message is one that most people will find obvious, and of course it is. The movie unfolds in many ways as one might expect. This solitary man starts to fall for a woman he meets on the road. He is challenged in his philosophy of isolationism by a young colleague, and reconnects with his distanced family through a wedding in which the groom has cold feet. Yet despite those basic, somewhat predictable plot turns, the movie holds surprises. It feels fresh and real in its humor. The specific setup—a man whose job is to travel the country firing people—is one I’ve never seen in another story. The performances are strong across the board. And the ending manages to avoid the obvious. In fact, what struck me the most when I first watched the movie was how perfect the ending is. As it got closer, I worried that there would be a pat ending that would feel forced, and then the movie stunned me by ducking away at the last moment from what would have been a clichéd, trite, romantic-comedy ending, and instead had Ryan’s story unfold in what struck me as the most truthful way possible. It was beautiful and resonant in the way that great art is, but it was also enough to send me into a blue mood for days.

Again, the message of the film might seem fairly obvious, but it was a message that hit me hard. I spent much of my young adulthood cultivating connections about as well as Ryan Bingham did. I didn’t have a career like his that sent me traveling a majority of the time, from the time I finished college, I moved about every two years, and not just to a new apartment or to a city across the state. I moved from one corner of the country to another. Of course, when one only lives in a place for a couple years at a time, one does not develop strong relationships. But by the time I reached my thirties, I was beginning to reevaluate where I stood in life. I looked at those around me who seemed the happiest, and I saw strong connections and love that I lacked.

I think the desire to connect with other people is natural and inborn in most people, but somehow it was something that I struggled with and only came to understand much later. So when I saw Up in the Air, I saw myself: a man with no deep connections and, therefore, no sustenance for life. At one point in the film, a character asks about what the point of everything is, what it all means. And the only answer is simply that the happiest moments in life are those moments that are shared with others. As I mentioned before, that may seem obvious to most people, but it was a conclusion I had been coming to slowly over a period of years.

Now, there are certainly differences between me and Ryan Bingham. I’m not nearly as handsome and successful, for one thing. And I’m younger. And I have a far better relationship with my family. Truly, I am probably closer with my family than most people are with theirs, and they are what have sustained me emotionally throughout my life. But in key ways, I resonated with Clooney’s character.

After the film, I continued to think about what really matters in life and reached a conclusion I had been approaching for a long time, and it’s the same conclusion that Ryan Bingham reaches. Within months of seeing Up in the Air, I began trying to cultivate a relationship for myself in the hope that I might be able to achieve the kind of happiness I see in those who have deep connections. And I even began dating more seriously than I ever had before. Up to that point in my life, my longest dating relationship had lasted about two months. But now, my new longest relationship was close to a year. That relationship didn’t ultimately work out because we were very different people and not a great fit for each other in some key ways, but it did give me a taste for the connection that I long for and increased my desire to experience the love that I see in others.

Although it seems a bit strange to say it, the movie Up in the Air really may have changed my life. I’m not sure whether the nearly year-long relationship I recently had would have happened had I not seen this movie. I’m not sure that I would believe that maybe I will find connection someday had I not seen it. In the short term, it made me depressed, but in the long term, it acted as a catalyst for me to begin changing some of the ways I approach my life. And to have such power makes it a rare work of art, indeed.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


This probably says something significant about me as a person: My first impulse when I initially saw a trailer for Moneyball was to think, “Hmm . . . a baseball movie? I’ll pass.” Then the trailer continued, and I thought, “Oh, it’s a movie about statistics; a movie that glorifies rational thought and the power of cold, hard numbers over intuition—yes, that’s a movie for me!”

First, let me address the baseball movie issue. I am not a sports fan in general and not a baseball fan in particular. And when it comes to movies about sports, baseball tends to leave me cold. I remember liking Hoosiers and The Pistol as far as basketball movies go. Rocky is fantastic, and The Fighter was quite good. And even all the football in Jerry Maguire got my blood pumping. But baseball seems to have a much bigger draw for fans when it becomes the subject of movies. And here’s my deal: I didn’t get Field of Dreams. It’s been years since I saw it, but I remember it being boring and without any real appeal. Then there’s Bull Durham, which I understand is highly rated as one of the all time great baseball movies. I watched it years ago and felt confused because I was under the impression it was supposed to be a great comedy, yet I didn’t think it was funny, and I also didn’t think it was interesting at all. Strangely, though, I did enjoy For Love of the Game, a movie that I think is rarely rated as highly as those other Costner baseball stories. The difference for me with that movie was that although it was about baseball, it felt to me to tell a sort of universal story about passion. It didn’t matter particularly that the main character was a pitcher striving for a perfect game; he could have easily been a poet struggling to compose a perfect stanza or a guitarist trying to move an audience with his playing or anything, really. The theme of loving what one does and trying to be great resonated with me, even though it was about baseball, which I don’t specifically care about.

Moneyball has the same type of appeal. It is specifically about baseball, but it’s about more than that. It’s about how one looks at the world and understands how events unfold. There are those who believe in going with their guts, in following intuition, believing that it will lead to the best possible outcome. Those people feel rather than think. This is a tempting way to live life. It can be exciting, and certainly when it comes to something like sports, it can be dramatic because the scout gets a good feeling about a young athlete, and then when the athlete delivers on the promise and hits the dramatic game-winning homerun, the crowd cheers, and the scout appreciates that his intuition led him down the right path. But the problem with this approach to life is that it’s not as reliable as a more rational approach. Those with a scientific worldview will have a better understanding of the real world around them, but that world will likely be less exciting because of that.

I try to live my life rationally. I believe science and statistics are the best way to understand our world. Intuition is inherently faulty. So the premise of Moneyball held strong appeal for me. And sure enough, it delivered.

The basic story is about Billy Beane, a former baseball player who never lived up to the promise he showed as a high school athlete. He is now the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, a team that can’t compete with most other teams because of its small budget and inability to attract star players. But Beane rethinks how to put a team together and focuses on the statistics of his players rather than the less tangible factors like what they look like or how much muscle they have or how attractive their girlfriends are or how they live their lives off the field—the factors that lead traditional scouts to have gut feelings about who will be a star and who won’t. Beane understands that a successful team isn’t about star power, it’s about adding up point after point after point, getting on base, no matter whether that’s achieved through homeruns or walks. By putting together a group of cheaper players who have consistent abilities to get onto base, he is able to compile a team that will win more consistently than those teams made up of pricey superstars.

The disadvantage to a story like this is that it’s inherently less dramatic than the traditional sports story. It has the underdogs-make-good plotline that often comes with this territory, but there’s no big hero. We don’t have the amazing player to root for. We have players who don’t swing at the ball and get walked onto first base. But that’s the power of this story: in the real world, the cold, hard numbers win. It’s exciting to think about beating the casino through an amazing streak of luck, but over time the casino will always win because the odds are in its favor. And Moneyball shows how the same idea is true in sports because it’s true in all aspects of life. Statistics trump feelings.

I’ve read a couple reviews of Moneyball that critique the sometimes slow pace and assert that the movie, though generally strong, has too many endings so continues on too long. I can understand this view, but I disagree. The ending wasn’t flashy with a victorious team. It was a slow winding down with some reflection. And that felt right to me. A big victory is exciting, yes, but to truly appreciate the way the world works, one has to slow down and think.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

As a kid growing up in Arizona, I was not a huge fan of cowboys and the Old West and the whole western genre of stories. I resisted the appeal of that mythology because I was surrounded by it. My town, which had been the territorial capital of Arizona, had its annual Frontier Days and Territorial Days and The World’s Oldest Rodeo. My young rebellious spirit wanted to like something different, not something that the rest of my town seemed obsessed with. And yet some of the appeal did sink in, in part due to my older brother’s influence. He loved cowboys, and since I looked up to him, I started getting into some of those as well. But my early images of westerns include Emilio Estevez and Kevin Costner rather than John Wayne and Gary Cooper. It wasn’t until later in life that I went back and started watching some of the old classics. And when I finally did, I was stunned by how good many of them are. I had largely dismissed the genre as cheesy, sentimental, and simplistic. But many are truly great films with complex themes.

I just watched for the first time The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a John Ford western starring James Stewart and John Wayne. This is a great example of what the western genre is capable of. The basic story is about senator Ransom “Rans” Stoddard (James Stewart) who returns from Washington to the small western town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of an old friend. The local newspaperman is curious who would bring such a prominent man all that way, and the name Tom Doniphon is unfamiliar to him. So Rans begins telling the tale of how he first came to Shinbone. The movie flashes back to decades earlier. We meet young Rans, an optimistic lawyer headed west; Tom (John Wayne), a gruff but kindhearted homesteader; the outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin); and Hallie, the woman both Tom and Rans desire, who, as we’ve already seen in the opening, will eventually become Rans’s wife. The basic structure works like many other movies, among them Citizen Kane, with initial questions presented that we expect to see revealed through the flashback. We want to know who shot the gunslinger Liberty Valance and how bookish Rans rather than tough Tom ended up marrying Hallie. But those issues of plot are not what make this film special. It’s the exploration of significant themes that make the movie a standout.

I was struck early on by the names Ransom and Liberty. Clearly liberty is a significant ideal when packing up and moving out to the frontier. A major conflict in the story comes from the different ideals of the townsfolk, who want their territory to become a state, and the ranchers, who want no outside intrusion and regulation of their free range. The townsfolk want law and order, which could mean sacrificing some personal liberties for the greater good of all. The ranchers want total freedom, which can result in anarchy. Representing that anarchy is Liberty Valance, who, along with being a thief and killer, is also a hired thug sent to Shinbone to scare the townspeople into voting the way the ranchers want. But what about Ransom? What does his name signify? Ransom wants to use the law to prosecute Liberty Valance, but Tom insists that the only way to deal with the outlaw is by being quick with a gun. So what has to be ransomed, paid, sacrificed? Is it possible to have liberty without ransoming some principles? Is liberty itself worth sacrificing?

These ideas are hit upon several times in different ways. For instance, Rans starts a school to teach the townsfolk to read and write and understand the laws of the country in which they live. The opening words of the Declaration of Independence are recited by Pompey, Shinbone’s sole African American, who is not allowed to drink with the white men at the saloon. Pompey struggles to recite the words, forgetting the part about all men being created equal, until Rans reminds him. And the remaining lines about unalienable rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—are left unspoken to resonate silently with the audience.

There’s much more, too, in this film. Ideas about the role of the press in our democracy and the ways politics can become a sideshow are explored. The film even touches on the end of the Old West, the way that time has been misrepresented and misremembered, ideas that are prominently explored in later western films like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

I could continue on with interesting themes this film explores, and I’m sure this is one that will resonate in my head for days to come. The bottom line is this: if you’re like me and have in the past dismissed westerns, give them another try. Their quality and complexity might surprise you.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Trip

Probably my favorite new movie I’ve seen this summer is The Trip. This is a British movie that was evidently first a six-episode BBC television show and then was reedited into a feature film. This seems like a strange way to make a movie, as there must have been an hour or so of material from the sitcom cut out. But it works well. I’m curious to see what was included in the original show that was left out of the movie, but I don’t feel like anything is missing. As a film, it works well.

The story is about English actor/comedian Steve Coogan (played by English actor/comedian Steve Coogan), who is taking a road trip through the north of England, visiting restaurants and bed & breakfasts for an article he’s been contracted to write. He was planning on taking his American girlfriend, but she decided they need a break and has returned to America. So instead, Steve takes his friend, the Welsh actor/comedian Rob Brydon (played by Welsh actor/comedian Rob Brydon). The plot is really nothing more than these two traveling around, talking about what they would like to do in their careers, and working on various impressions. Yet there’s so much more going on.

The most immediately enjoyable parts of the movie feature the two competing with each other in performances. In one scene that will surely be remembered and replayed again and again, they both work on Michael Caine impressions. In another, they discuss wanting to make a period drama à la Braveheart or Rob Roy, and the conversation devolves into a hilarious bit about when a troupe of soldiers should rise before battle, whether they need to rise at daybreak or if maybe they could sleep in a little and get going by 9:30 following a continental breakfast. There are several set pieces along these lines that stand out and made me laugh incredibly hard. Before watching the movie, I had heard clips on the radio and seen some of the Michael Caine sequence in ads, and I feared that maybe I’d already experienced the best the movie had to offer, and though those scenes are some of the best, there are many, many more throughout.

What elevates this movie, however, is the quiet moments intertwined with the hilarity. Steve Coogan is a talented comic actor who has yet to really break out in America. My understanding is that in Britain, he is fairly well known for having played an iconic character for years on television. But in Hollywood, he’s still relatively unknown. I first saw him in the movie 24 Hour Party People (directed by Michael Winterbottom, who also directed The Trip), which is a fantastic film, and Coogan is great in it. I remember around that time hearing that he was going to break out and become an A-list actor as a result of that movie. The next thing I remember seeing him in was Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, another movie I loved. In this one, Coogan played Steve Coogan, a self-important actor who is hitting the big time following his performance in 24 Hour Party People. He meets with Alfred Molina and barely has time to spare for someone at Molina’s level of celebrity, which I found amusing in part because I would consider Molina more famous than Coogan, and now, years later, Coogan still hasn’t achieved the fame that the Steve of Coffee and Cigarettes seemed to feel was his due. I saw Coogan play Steve Coogan again in Winterbottom’s meta-adaptation of Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story. And for the third time, Coogan plays a version of himself in The Trip. In between these, he has been in bigger Hollywood movies, like Tropic Thunder and The Other Guys, but he has still never managed to become a household name in America. And this is the basis for the Steve character in The Trip. He is an actor who has been somewhat typecast as his television character in Britain and desperately wants to break out in Hollywood, but despite a decade of making movies, he has yet to reach the level he feels he’s entitled to.

The issue at the heart of The Trip is identity. Who is Steve Coogan? What kind of person is he? What kind of actor? Ultimately, the movie portrays him again and again as someone who desperately wishes to be something and someone he isn’t. Of course, actors make their living being people they aren’t, and that thread runs through the whole movie as both Steve and Rob attempt to be the better version of Michael Caine or of James Bond or of a Bond villain. Actors are supposed to not be themselves. But in The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are playing Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. And as the two interact, the differences between them emerge. Rob is married and has a baby. He is so aware of what makes him successful, that he has developed an iPhone app for one of his silly character voices. He’s content with his life and with his career. He’s a comedian. He’s an impressionist. He spends nearly as much of his time speaking in other people’s voices as he does his own, but he seems comfortable. He is most himself when he is Hugh Grant. Steve, on the other hand, is divorced. He chases younger women. He is a father but rarely talks to his children. He wishes he had the career of Michael Sheen. He thinks he has not been granted his due. He is discontented with his life and seems uncomfortable being himself. But, like Rob, Steve’s identity comes through most clearly and he seems the most comfortable when he is riffing on impressions and joking around. He is, deep down, a comedian, but he wishes he were a great dramatic actor. His failure to be himself, to accept who he truly is, is his great tragedy.

The Trip is fully worth watching solely on the merits of the comic scenes, but the exploration of identity lifts the film to another level. Steve Coogan, the character, is a modern Salieri, and Steve Coogan, the actor, plays the role so perfectly that it is clear he is a very talented dramatic actor as well as a talented comedian. I’m sure Steve Coogan could be a star on the level of Michael Sheen, but I hope he is content being Steve Coogan. That’s certainly good enough.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Super 8

Another summer movie I saw recently is Super 8. This one came fairly highly recommended. I had heard positive reviews and had friends comment on what a pleasure it was to see. Then another friend posted a comment on Facebook checking the generally overwhelming praise. He still seemed to think it was good, but not the greatest summer movie of our time. I was glad to read a few remarks going against the tide of praise to lower my expectations before I went to see it.

I didn’t go to it when it was still in its initial run; instead, I waited until it was at the second run theater at a nearby mall where matinee tickets are only two dollars and evening shows are four. I went to the 4:30 showing, and my ticket and a soda together cost less than the price of a ticket by itself at a first run theater. Of course, the sound system was a bit low tech, leaving the whole movie a bit muffled, and the seats have seen better days, but in order to save a few dollars, I’m willing to put up with the lesser accommodations, especially if it’s a movie I’m somewhat indifferent about or one that I’m seeing to stay out of the heat and kill a summer afternoon rather than because I’m desperate to see the movie itself. I saw Bridesmaids at this theater a couple weeks ago (and I still need to write about that one), and if I bother to see The Hangover 2, it’ll be either at this theater or on TV. But with Super 8, I actually wished I’d seen it at a nicer theater because it’s a movie that is well made and engaging enough to deserve the full theatrical treatment projected onto a big screen with high quality surround sound.

Let me not get carried away, though. The movie is good enough to deserve to been seen in all its glory, but that doesn’t mean it’s the greatest summer movie ever. Basically, it’s intended to feel like an old Steven Spielberg film, and it does achieve some of that feeling, but it also left me with the desire to go back and watch Jurassic Park and E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Super 8 is good, and it does capture some of the essence of those wonderful Spielberg films, but it also feels a bit like an imitation of them, a forgery of a master artist’s work.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the basic story, I’ll recap here. It’s 1979 in a small Ohio town. Our hero, Joe, is dealing with the death of his mother in a steel mill accident and the newfound reality of living alone with his father, who is unprepared to be a single parent. Summer vacation is starting, and Joe and his best friend Charles are excited to have more time to work on their 8mm zombie movie that they plan to enter in a local film contest (Joe handles makeup and special effects; Charles directs). They sneak out of the house one night to film on a train station platform, and as they film, a train derails. The Army comes to town to clean things up and investigate, and the mystery really begins: what or who was on that train? Why is the Army keeping things quiet? Why do all the dogs in town suddenly want to run away?

Strangely enough, the same elements that work as some of Super 8’s great strengths are also weaknesses. Charles, the young film director, talks about changing his script to add more story because that is what will move an audience. He read an article in a moviemaking magazine about the need for more than just special effects and thrilling adventure. So Charles writes in a wife for the main character, so the audience will understand what’s at stake for him. Charles also realizes that in order to stand a chance at making his movie stand out in the competition, he needs “production value.” So he films as the train passes by and ultimately derails so his film will have more going on than just kids standing around talking. Later, he films in front of the derailed train and near a group of Army guys. The same elements that Charles recognizes as essential to a good film are present throughout Super 8. The dead mother makes the audience more invested in Joe’s character. The conflicts between parents and children add more emotion. The derailing train sequence is a great example of production value, as are the other top notch special effects throughout the rest of the movie.

So if what we go to movies for is to have our emotions played with and to be awed with production value, then Super 8 is a great film. However, I sometimes felt like it was all a bit shallow, like J. J. Abrams, the writer-director, was really just a grown up version of Charles. All he wants to do is have fun making a movie, not because he has a story he feels utterly compelled to tell, but rather because he loves movies and wants to make one like the kind he loves. So the special effects and emotional twists come across as a bit manipulative rather than authentic. Just as Charles wanted to make his version of a Romero film, Abrams wanted to make his version of a Spielberg. I imagine him working on the screenplay and trying to figure out what would make this movie stand out, and just as Charles thinks, “I’ll give the guy a wife,” Abrams thinks, “I’ll give the kid a dead mom.”

It’s hard to explain exactly why I find it a bit dissatisfying. Overall, it is very well made. The audience is as skillfully manipulated as in just about any other movie. And I enjoyed the experience on a whole. Yet I also left feeling a bit empty, like this was only a great movie if I didn’t think too much about it. Or maybe it’s as simple as I mentioned earlier: the move left me really wanting to watch E.T. or Jurassic Park. Super 8 is a great example of just how good Spielberg is, though I can’t explain why he’s so much better than almost everybody else.