Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

25 August 2013

1509 in 2013

This exchange is from a 1572 English translation by George Gascoigne of a 1509 Italian comedy called I Suppositi by Lodovico Ariosto. I hear in the conversation a series of complaints that I believe I heard just a few days ago at the airport.

Philogano: ...But that was nothing to the stir that the searchers kept with me when I came aboard the ship. Jesus, how often they untrussed my mail [luggage], and ransacked a little capcase that I had, tossed and turned all that was within it, searched my bosom, yea my breeches, that I assure you I thought they would have flayed me to search between the fell [skin] and the flesh for farthings.

The Ferrarese: Sure, I have heard no less, and that the merchants bob [bribe] them sometimes, but they play the knaves still.

Philogano: Yea, be you well assured, for such an office is the inheritance of a knave, and an honest man will not meddle with it.

TSA is the absolute worst.

20 August 2013

LOTS of Drinking: Part Two

I'm not sure if I can actually be smart about why I liked The Spectacular Now as much as I did, but I am going to try.

The Spectacular Now is a rather simple drama on the face of it. High-school kid Sutter is a fun-loving guy who spends most of his time drinking, partying, and cruising around town in his car instead of focusing on his future or spending time with his family accidentally wakes up on someone else's lawn after an evening of blackout-level drinking. This isn't a drama about alcoholism, so it's not like he has a rude awakening or anything, instead Sutter wakes up to the face of the relatively plain and unassuming Aimee Finecky.

They start hanging out, and since Sutter and his cute/hot girlfriend of two years have recently broken up, Sutter spends more time with Aimee. No one has ever really taken any notice of her, and she falls for Tucker hard. The whole thing is very sweet in a non-cloying, non-clichéd, non-She's-All-That kind of way.

This is a movie about high-school-age young people, so this is a coming-of-age story and a story about taking responsibility, saying no to the other adults in one's life so that one can become one's own adult. Like every film about high school, The Spectacular Now is also filled with awkward, silly decisions made by people who think they know a great deal about the world, but in fact know just as little as the rest of us.

What makes James Ponsoldt's film excellent, though, is the way that it manages to eschew most of the usual clichés of this genre, the way it demonstrates just how much fun Sutter is, and the way the director deftly follows Sutter's alcoholism in a way that allows it to make sense (there were times when I thought I wish he wouldn't drink so much, but... he's so fun when he's drinking. Oh, who cares: let him drink! I want him to keep being fun.)

Mr. Teller
And then there are the performances. Shailene Woodley, who was this close to scoring an Oscar nomination for her role in The Descendants a couple years ago is awkward and lovely: it's a gorgeously natural performance. And Miles Teller, who was the teenager who accidentally killed Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart's kid in Rabbit Hole, is unbelievably good. I found his performance to be absolutely revelatory. He is just incredible: naturally buoyant and fun, he lifts every scene with his impeccable timing, his easy flow from line to line, his beautiful way of giving away his feelings while appearing to attempt to hide everything. We understand Sutter through and through, and even though he makes mistake after mistake, treats his girlfriend like a total asshole, has a serious drinking problem, and can't figure out how to be anything resembling polite to his mother, I loved this boy. Teller is just excellent.

In any case, The Spectacular Now is just a movie about high-schoolers figuring out the world. It's not groundbreaking or life-changing, but I found it deeply moving. And in this time where most filmic ways of looking at characters are ironic or cynical or even smug, The Spectacular Now looks at its troubled central character with humanity and deep affection. I don't see that very often at the movies, and when I do, I am glad of it.

19 August 2013

LOTS of Drinking: Part One

I thought Cate Blanchett was really stellar in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's annual film.
After he made Midnight in Paris a couple years ago, people praised him: Woody's back! But that isn't really how Woody Allen works. He's not "back." Midnight was just one of the really good ones.

The famous shot from Interiors
As I am sure you are well aware, ever since Allen made Annie Hall in 1977, he has made an average of one film every year, directing (and often starring in) the current one while writing the next one. Some are great, some are less than great.

But even during the days of Annie Hall ('77) and Manhattan ('79), he made Interiors ('78) and Stardust Memories ('80), very difficult – even depressing – movies which most people had no idea what to do with. And Allen capped off the great streak of Zelig ('83), Broadway Danny Rose ('84), The Purple Rose of Cairo ('85), Hannah and Her Sisters ('86), and Radio Days ('87) by making September ('87) and Another Woman ('88). Ever heard of 'em?

That's probably too much intro to telling you that even though Allen is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers and a director whose films I always consider essential viewing, I did not care for Blue Jasmine (and, for the record, didn't care for his last picture, To Rome with Love, much either).

Jasmine is the story of a rich white socialite who loses all of her money because her scheming businessman-thief of a husband got arrested by the FBI and went to prison. Jasmine has started drinking very heavily (she is at least slightly tipsy in nearly every shot) and uncontrollably talking out loud to herself in public like a crazy person. Because this woman has actually begun to lose her mind.

The whole thing is funny, of course, but it isn't quite played for laughs. Instead, Blanchett plays this woman as a hot, drunk mess and her work is extraordinary. She's so good, in fact, that I almost started to feel sorry for her character at times.

I loved most of the other actors, too: there are a lot of them. Louis C.K. is great as a sound engineer who starts dating Blanchett's sister, played by Sally Hawkins. And I love Bobby Cannavale, Max Casella, and Andrew Dice Clay as the working-class guys who hang out with Sally Hawkins. (Cannavale in particular has some truly hilarious scenes.) Alec Baldwin and Peter Sarsgaard don't really have much to do in the movie, and Michael Stuhlbarg's character has only a single note to play.

And this is the largest problem, I think. Allen's film is scripted lazily. It is edited poorly. And there is so much repetition in the film ("Your husband was a crook!" "You can do better than this bum you're dating!" "Are you cheating on me with that au pair?" "You think you're so much better than me because you used to be rich.") that I was already bored fairly close to Blue Jasmine's beginning.

This doesn't take away from how great Cate Blanchett is as Jasmine herself, but it does make the whole thing a less than enjoyable experience as far as I was concerned. And frankly I find it really hard to sympathize with a woman with quite as much wealth as she has had when she has to take a computer class and work as a receptionist in a dentist's office. Get over yourself, lady.

I do want to say one more thing about Blue Jasmine. I've heard lots of people talking about Tennessee Williams and how this is in some way Allen's tribute to him or his version of A Streetcar Named Desire. I didn't see it. And Blue Jasmine's ending is pure Woody Allen. Even if the film is uneven, Allen's moral compass is still right on target.

13 August 2013

Force Fields and Fields of the Dead

Elysium is the action-movie of the summer, in case you hadn't figured that out yet.

Neill Blomkamp certainly knows how to do a bleak dystopian future. Elysium is a totally action-packed adventure film, filled with lots of great set pieces, tons of explosions, firepower, and insanely advanced and fascinating weaponry.

Not only is the film totally fascinating from a "look what these badass weapons can do" perspective, Elysium – because this dystopian future contains machines that can achieve all sorts of medical miracles – also contains some really exciting images of the impact of those weapons on the human body.

In fact, Elysium's entire focus is the human body. This is a movie about healthcare: who has access to it and who does not (and why). But the film also makes a point of detailing and examining what happens to bodies that have been shot, that suffer explosions, that are poisoned by radiation, that are malnourished, that are given steroids or other medication. This and more make the movie a fascinating must-see.

My favorite part of the movie (amid several things I loved) was the way that the movie is paced. Elysium feels short – it is paced so that fast-moving action sequences are followed by slower-paced but still tension-filled sequences that allow for the intensity of Blomkamp's movie to build over time, heading toward a totally awesome finish that feels completely earned.

I'm not gonna say too much more about it, but I thought Elysium was better than World War Z, Pacific Rim, and Star Trek: into Darkness, and I liked all of those films a lot. Amid a great summer for action movies, Elysium is a stellar finish.

09 August 2013

Only God Forgives

The most interesting thing about Only God Forgives is its poster art.
The movie itself is stilted and ponderous; the sentiment is all overwrought and unearned; even the violence feels unwarranted and gratuitous. Nicolas Winding Refn (whose Drive we all liked so much two years ago) has attempted to make a film about color and light, but there isn't enough variation between the colors and lights for these elements to say anything. He is also attempting to make a Kim Ki-duk-style crime film, but Only God Forgives is only ever second- or third-rate Kim Ki-duk.

Before I say how much I hated this movie, I do want to say that Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent in this picture. I see any- and everything she is in and she is superb in all of her movies, but she absolutely tears into this role and it is totally awesome. She is a scheming, horrible human being with zero redemptive qualities, and she absolutely plays it to the hilt. It helps, too, that her character is the most fleshed out by the director. The other two main characters have so few lines that I never felt like I understood them even a little bit.

There is a lot to complain about with Only God Forgives, but for me the worst part was the terrible performance at the film's center by Vithaya Pansingarm. He walks like a toy soldier throughout the city of Bangkok, but NWR doesn't seem to mind, allowing his camera to linger as we watch Pansingarm walk around in his wooden way. This awkwardness is almost comical at times, but by mid-way through the movie I wasn't laughing any longer. I was just angry. What an extraordinary waste of time.

08 August 2013

Some Quick Thoughts on The Way Way Back

The Way Way Back is directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the screenwriters for Alexander Payne's The Descendants, and their new movie has a similar feel to it: quirky but realistic characters in a beachfront setting comically dealing with problems that are not exactly funny.

The realism is, I think, the thing I liked most about The Way Way Back. Instead of a group of characters that are all more or less ridiculous and never feel like they could actually be real people (à la Judd Apatow), Nat & Jim have opted for characters that feel real. The situations in the story don't feel the least bit manufactured or outrageous, but instead feel almost banal. Yes. This is how these things happen. This is why sometimes life sucks. And this is how laughing at the situations in which we find ourselves can often help us survive them.

The Way Way Back is about a teenage boy who hasn't quite figured out how to be engaging socially, who is being mistreated in a casual way by his overbearing idiot stepfather and mostly ignored by his mother. And the teenage boy is (gasp!) actually played by a teenage kid – a casting decision that already signals that Nat & Jim are more interested in realism and story than they are in selling tickets or doing things in a way that would be more conducive to the studio system.

I'm not saying the film doesn't have its share of ridiculous characters or situations. (Allison Janney is hilarious as an overbearing drunk divorcée neighbor.) But the majority of the film is more interested in situations that are funny because they come out of real life and pertain to real problems.

I should note, too, that Sam Rockwell just kills it in absolutely everything he is in. The man can do no wrong. Put him in all movies and let him do his thing. He is fantastic.

And this isn't a teach-me-a-lesson sentimental Judd Apatow movie, either. There are no lessons to learn in The Way Way Back, only techniques for surmounting the times in our life when we experience growing pains. And this is something we can all do with a little bit more. Laughter doesn't solve everything, certainly. But it sure helps.