Monday, September 26, 2011


Still gotta think about this one.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Disturbed and f'ed up.

I have neglected this blog heinously, which is truly shameful because I have way too much to say about way too many movies. I really need to figure out a writing schedule.

For now, I list the top ten most emotionally scarring movies I have ever seen. IE, these are the movies that left me wondering whether or not I should have watched them, movies that altered the way I view the world, movies that I've probably seen only once but still think about. Movies that actually BOTHERED me-- and for someone who watches pretty much every movie that comes along, that's saying alot.

The absolute number one spot goes to Mysterious Skin, a movie I was aware was going to be dark, but good God. Whenever I enter into the eternal (usually internal) debate about artistic responsibility. Generally I feel that if it exists, we should be able to make a movie about it. However... that doesn't mean that what we put out into the world isn't dangerous, and isn't there a line between illustrating/educating/enlightening and terrorizing? I'm not sure where that line is when it comes to DRAMA (as opposed to horror/gorefests, which one can easily gauge where the filmmakers went off the tracks into exploitation land) and the human experience. I DO know that I was profoundly, PROFOUNDLY disturbed by Mysterious Skin, the exploration of the lives of two young men who had been molested/raped at a very young age and the affect of that attack on their lives. Each responded differently, one blotting it out and replacing it with fantasy, his fear mixed with awe and a quest to find out what really happened, the other fully remembering every last detail and blurring evil with love. Their lives are fucked up. We get to see how, in fact, fucked up their lives are. There's not much hope, really, but I suppose in the end the truth is finally spoken and that is a positive thing.

Interestingly, this movie was made by a famously homosexual director, and he explores a character that the homosexual community does not seem to be fond of (the gay kid/flagrant hustler who was molested by a dude). From what I understand the gay community doesn't dig allegations that one is turned gay due to trauma (prompting one to question if the abused are really homosexual or not, or in their case is it a choice? sidetrack...), but this director doesn't really care about or focus so much on the hustler's sexual preference so much as his damaged sexuality and persona in general. He is brave to show the ugly side of homosexuality as well as humanity.

The scenes in here were apparently carefully shot, and though the scenes involving the child actors do not *show anything* they are absolutely mortifying. Mortifying. Even more mortifying is the idea that THIS HAPPENS ALL OF THE FUCKING TIME. This film is brilliant in its illustration of the domino effect of pedophilia not just in the lives of the victims but the community of victims as well. The victimized tend to love their abuser, seek to imitate them in some way, and, as we all know, a high percent of molesters were once molested. The cycle just goes on and on and on.

Another thing I really appreciate about this film is that there is no attempt to make the lead character (JGL in a FEARLESS performance. cheesy to say but utterly true) terribly sympathetic, other than the insight that we are given into his abuse. He is hurtful to everyone around him, he is prickly and exhausting to watch, and as we finally find out he has continued the cycle of distorted sexuality and abuse from the age of eight.

I think about this movie alot. Not just the absolutely dreadful abuse scenes, but the general tragedy contained within. It hurts me to think about, and it brings me back to thoughts I've had in the past about becoming, much much later in life, a psychiatrist/psychologist/counselor for those struggling with pedophilia/those rehabilitating. Of course it is probably the most difficult, taboo subject, and not one that I can fully wrap my mind around, but it is something that deeply troubles me. Watching films like this, Little Children, and The Woodsman makes me wonder if such things should really be floating around, perhaps into the wrong hands, like people twisted enough to see these films as confirmation that pedophilia is not so inhuman, or people who are rendered completely helpless by them. They cannot think or discuss what they have seen, they can only be horrified. That is not good, either, and I do believe that sometimes a film that could enlighten is sometimes even worse than observing trauma or a victim firsthand-- it is less tangible, it is only in front of you but not with you, and yet you cannot get rid of it. That is very bad for some people. Probably for most normal people.

But for me-- not to say that I'm this extra-special exception or whathaveyou that just UNDERSTANDS these things, I still feel sick and helpless and dirty when I see them, however-- I think I can filter it. I think I can do something with it, rather than putting it in a too-small box ready to spill into my nightmares later.

Also, sidenote, the fact that JGL got almost ZERO recognition for this role is INSANE. IN. EFFING. SANE.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Best of 2011 (that I've seen, revised)

Taking into account that I have not yet seen the following: Somewhere, Blue Valentine, The Rabbit Hole, Winter's Bone, or that one movie about the old British couples, this is what I think happened to be the best of 2011-- not a particularly great year for movies, though it did pick up there towards the end, mostly due to some fine writing (but do the screenwriters get noticed? still no! Sorkin is only a mild exception).

1. The Social Network
The brilliance of this movie begins to dawn on you the viewer somewhere around the middle, however the first five minutes are the best, most vicious part. Sorkin, one of the almost-household-names in screenwriting, writes a two-person dialogue that just lays into the characters and sets the tone for the movie. David Fincher (Fight Club) has pulled all together with such PRECISION, making scenes in which characters argue and type(for crying out loud) as exciting as cops and robbers. The atmosphere is also very suitable, the film looks fantastic and dark and cold, much like the cyber world seems. The dialogue is some of the best that I've ever heard (so. sharp.), Sorkin really is an amazing writer that I think all of us screenwriters should pay close attention to. Furthermore, Jesse Eisenberg is absolutely phenomenal, he NAILS this role in one of my favorite performances of the year. All that is very well and good, but the really interesting thing about this movie is the perspective that snuck up on me. At first I expected it to be pretty stupid (the facebook movie? what?), then I anticipatd a droll almost-courtroom drama about a startup business, as its structure suggests. And of course the film does follow the timeline of the facebook evolution, but that is not what it's about. It's not about facebook-- it's about WHY facebook is facebook. Why it is significant, and what it says about us. Sorkin and Fincher merely use Zuckerberg to illustrate their point, just like Orson Welles used Hearst. Zuckerberg wants to use facebook to be somebody, but everything that it brings him pushes further away from The Genuine. The irony of a friend request-- the very emptiness and lack of significance of a facebook page is its own significance. I read somewhere that this movie defines our times and I scoffed a little bit, but the more I think about it, the less off-base that summation seems.

2. True Grit
Social Network might be the best film this year, but True Grit was my favorite.

3. The King's Speech
It's odd to say, but this movie was even better than I had expected it to be. It was much less straight-forward than I had anticipated, and very funny. Colin Firth is really a fine actor, and I found him very moving. I enjoyed the fact that this film paraded the tightly-wound, image-obsessed and repressed daily function of British Royalty (and my perception of the Brits in general), making their propriety a bit amusing (especially when contrasted with Geoffrey Rush as the free-wheeling Australian therapist), but never mocking them. George and his wife are as real and sweet as the common people are, as evidenced in the PRECIOUS scene in which George tells his two little girls a bedtime story about a penguin. I love films that explore relationships, and ultimately that is what this film was. In screenwriting we were repeatedly told to ask the WHY, and it seems as though that question must have been asked a million times during the construction of this piece. Every bit of it is so satisfying. And moving.

I especially liked the scene in which the king goes to visit Geoffrey Rush after George's father has died, and Rush urges him to sing-song when he has trouble saying something. It's a long scene (bliss!) as the king finally talks revealingly about himself and his life, resisting Rush's insistence that he sing, and trying not to take shame in own anguish. A really beautiful scene.

4. Greenberg
I will write more about this movie, but I think what makes me love this movie so much is that it has balls. It has the balls to make its main character (and many other characters) unlikable. Greenberg is a sod, no bones about it, and once you accept that about him, you begin to see the complexity of a human being, and what it's like to feel empty and lost.

The thing about Greenberg is that he's got nothing due to the fact that he's an ass. He's brought everything bad upon himself. What so many people can't seem to understand about this film is that THAT describes everyone. We bring our own pain upon ourselves, usually. But that doesn't make us non-humans or undeserving of love or at least hope.

5. Inception
I've nit-picked about this one already, so I will just say again that I did not feel that it met its potential. However I did spend the entire theatre experience shaking my head and marveling at how amazing the spectacle was. Visually it is incredibly beautiful, and the complexity of the world that the Nolans created is insane. The story is not what it could be, however it does play out like a mystery meets a heist film, and I know I was on edge at every turn. DiCaprio, Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page and Cillian Murphy are some of my most favorite actors working right now, and they all did an impressive job with what they were given. Above all, I loved the much-discussed final moments-- Cobb's top falters a bit as it spins, but the important thing is that Cobb has walked away. The message of the film is really important, and I was impressed at Nolan's ability to prompt his audience to consider the ethical choices of his characters. Again (see: The Prestige, Memento). I definitely think he is masterful, and this film will be added to the canon of great American Blockbusters. Somehow I doubt it will ever touch The Matrix, however.

6. Catfish
This is a strange movie that has stuck with me. I think about it quite a bit, and was both horrified and saddened while watching it. The trailers play it up as a thriller-- it's not. But it IS a fascinating character study. If this were a scripted drama, everything within it would be explained away, played up to great effect, but here it can't be. There are moments that feel inauthentic (on the side of the boys), as if the boys are doing all that they can to milk the situation, and the lead fellow (whatever his name is) gets on one's nerves. However I liked that he was constantly in view-- his frequent, painful smiles, like the tics of many people I know, have prompted many a viewer to suspect that he was pulling the strings more than he reveals in the film, but I don't really think so. His smiling throughout awkward and difficult moments seemed to me more of a tic, a guarded thing, a defense mechanism that I think many guys have. By the end of the movie it becomes a familiar sight. Anyway, I do suspect that perhaps the beginning of the film was shot after the second half of it and therefore is more of a re-enactment of the goings-on, but I do not doubt the validity of the film. The personality revealed at the end is very sad, and I can see why some critics call "exploitation!" but... I disagree. It is far more of a commentary (perhaps an accidental one) about loneliness and how vast it can be, and how our present culture may only serve to further it in its attempts to make our pain less severe.Irritating at times, but hits all the right notes.

7. Black Swan
An exploration of identity and passion, Black Swan is very artfully done and kept me involved throughout. All in all, it was one movie this year that turned out to be almost exactly what I expected it to be, an elegant exploration of madness.

8. Kick Ass
On the other end of the spectrum, Kick-Ass was completely surprising to me. I went in expecting a violent action flick and got instead something very convicting and conflicting. On the one hand, it is an action-comedy flick with highly stylized sequences and amusing dialogue and weird characters. The fight scenes are pumped with pounding music and amazing choreography, and are often fun to watch. On the OTHER HAND... the movie turns on you and itself, inquiring exactly why one should find violence to be such fun. Watching a teenager and a little girl engage in hardcore to-the-death fighting (not versus each other) is jarring. The little girl's existence in this world is unsettling, and once the baddies have the gall to actually fight back, the sight before you is just plain wrong. The film is a representation of its main character-- a boy who thinks the whole hero thing is cool and all, but who continues to fight because violence is sometimes the only way to combat violence against the helpless (which he very eloquently says in one scene). The film is a celebration of action, but only because sometimes the only way to combat a serious issue is to display it. I'm not sure if that makes it right, but it's a very interesting idea. Anyway, aside from all of that, this film has some crazy odd-ball flair and snappy dialogue that I enjoyed very much, not to mention some really fine performances by the lead and Chloe Moretz, as the young super heros, and Nic Cage doing what he does best: weirdness. This is a movie that I found entirely unpredictable (rare!) yet left me feeling very satisfied by the end credits. Pity it was released so early in the year, no one seems to remember it now.

9. Toy Story 3
The thing about TS3 that makes it so great is exactly what makes Casablanca so great. Although each is a fine film and completely worthy of admiration, it is what the public has projected onto these movies that give them an almost mythic status. Casablanca was an American response to a world gone mad- a tough-guy, dialogue-rich, romantic-heroic themed story involving self-sacrifice set during our most trying time. We ate it up. TS3 is the American Generation Y (I think that's us) response to growing up. Everyone my age has grown up watching the Toy Story films and identifying with Andy, mainly because we all owned toys and so did he (it doesn't take much when you're a kid). I myself have a very strong connection to the original Toy Story, I very vividly remember going to see it in theatres about 3 days before we moved out of state (from California back to Texas). I was already weird about my toys, so you can imagine how upsetting that movie was (I obsessively tried to arrange my toys so that each might have a moving buddy), and that I identified with Andy all the more. And now I'm grown-up. And so is Andy. And the Toy Story toys become like the Toy Story movies-- a symbol of a childhood that is slowly fading away. When Andy finally relinquishes his toys, especially that last, decided--mutual-- look he gives Woody, I collapsed into a pile of tears because I saw myself saying goodbye, too. I might have felt that way without the previous two films, but the interweaving of Buzz and Woody throughout my life created a huge emotional response in me, and I think in most of us. If it wasn't young people my age, then it was our parents who held back tears just as Andy's mom does as she surveys his empty room. We just grow up so fast.

I also liked the prison-movie theme they had going on here, and the addition of Michael Keaton's Ken was hilarious. The Pixar writers are so in-tune with every day life, so observational. I suppose that's what I've always liked about them.

10. The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski may be a tortured soul, but he sure can create an atmosphere. I think he's Hitchcockian in that way, actually. He builds more than suspense-- it's more like the sense of utter doom that can be found in his finest films, like this one, Chinatown, and Rosemary's Baby. Things happen, but the FEAR of things happening is much more unsettling than any action that really occurs. In fact, the most shocking actions are even downplayed, adding to the viewer's discombobulation. I love this subtlety that Polanski has. I also thought this was a nice, tidy thriller story. I suspected the reveal at the end, however I had forgotten my suspicions by the time it occured. The story rewards the viewer with a second viewing, however unlike other political thrillers it is not hard to follow nor is it dull or unrelated to character (IE the political intrigue directly affects everyone). Ewan McGreggor is very likable here, and does the talking-to-himself thing pretty well. It's hard to be the regular-guy that is forced to be a detective (and in this case, the rather complacent writer who can't even write for himself-- oooh character commentary-- being prompted to unravel a dangerous truth), one has to act as though they are understanding, and I reckon that's difficult. However, Pierce Brosnan and Olivia whats-her-face are phenomenal as the utterly sharp-edged former prime minister and wife. You never know what either of them are up to, and each have moments of sympathy and villainy. Also, I think I just like seeing Brosnan as a sketchy man. He's had an interesting career post-Bond, which is nice to see, and I think he's generally a good and very underrated actor (Mama Mia, which he nearly ruined with his god-awful singing, aside).

The best part of the film? The last five seconds. Best reveal of any film in recent memory, and the final cap on the very sense of growing doom which, for a moment, we thought we had escaped. "This is how the world ends..."

11. The Fighter
The only reason why I elevate this above The Town is because of the female performances. Christian Bale is, as everyone agrees, so engrossing as the smack-addict brother who is trying to live vicariously though his fighter brother, but I thought Melissa Lao as the matriarch and Amy Adams as the refreshing yet at times equally controlling, ballsy girlfriend of the fighter were incredibly impressive. The film is told with a nice style that allows its viewer to be a part of the community and the fighter's family, which really makes the film work, because in the end Mickey the fighter is really fighting for his identity and himself against all of the people in this community that he happens to love but who project their dreams upon him. The finale is thankfully pleasant and cathartic-- everyone finally throws their support behind Mickey-- not themselves, but Mickey-- and he does not need to carry them all on his shoulders. I especially liked the believable presentation of family dynamics, and Amy Adams as the girlfriend who sticks up for her man when she notices he's overrun by his family. She sees his need and fills it for him, however she begins to see that her role is valuable and she begins to abuse it almost as Mickey's family did, until she is confronted with the ultimate abuser-- Mickey's brother, reminding her that really love should not be selfish in nature.

My favorite scene of the film was when Dicky, the heroin-addict loser brother, is retrieved from his smack-den by his bossy "bawston" ma. Dicky has obviously been her pride for most of his life, but seeing him ravaged by the damage he has done to himself crushes her. They sit in the car while she fights tears until Dicky starts singing a song they both seem to have a history with. Finally, she starts to sing along until she feels she can drive the car away. Such is the dilemma of a family member.

12. The Town
Ben Affleck can direct. I didn't think this movie was rich in substance, though it's not empty-headed by any means, however I did think it was probably the most exciting and well-done thriller of the year. Inception was a sight to behold, but The Town completely tops it for action. The chase scene with the nun costumes was one of the best-filmed car chases I've ever seen. The acting was also very intense, and I especially liked Jeremy Remmer and Jon Hamm in their respective roles. Remmer because he plays violent thug oh-so-well, all while giving us a glimpse of insight and motivation into this tightly-wound criminal (who remains a violent criminal to the last). Hamm because his police man was intelligent and insightful, hot on the trail of the protagonist but also highly sympathetic, unlike many cop characters in other films who pursue criminal protagonists-- the screenwriter seems to think that in order to like the anti-hero, his pursuer, the man on the "good" side must actually appear to be an antagonist. Thankfully, this character is not written as such and Jon Hamm does not play him as such. Pete pete postlethwaite, in what I think was his last performance, is solid gold as always. I am continually impressed by him, and I thought he was completely terrifying here. Also, surprisingly, Blake Lively turned in a very authentic, emotional performance as Affleck's overlooked ex, a trashy girl who seems sadly aware of her own predicament even though she's not sure of what else the world could possibly offer her. Ben Affleck is still not a stellar actor, but I'll forgive him that-- he can certainly direct worth a damn.

13. Tangled & Despicable Me
Both surprising movies with emotional truths. And darn cute.

The film I think I was most disappointed in was The Kids Are All Right. The lamest movie I probably saw was The Tourist. Man. What an idiotic movie. Points for Paul Bettany, however. Eat Pray Love, as I have afore ranted, certainly didn't get much love from me, either.

Black Swan

There is a bit I would like to work out involving this film at a later date. I can say that it is definitely an unsettling work of art with so much to say about identity and passion (and repression, obviously). I felt it was as though Nina was unraveling, but there was nothing at her base and therefore she unraveled into nothing. Pushing to perfection without passion is rewarded with emptiness and exhaustion, passion without joy is madness. Nina does not know who she is, but she has to have passion to play the Black Swan. Her search for passion is fruitless, in a way, because she has no love to base it upon. Once the film culminates in her discovery of passion, her pinnacle, she has disappeared into the fog of madness-- she has transformed from all performance to all feeling, with no anchor in between.

I did find the film a little... melodramatic and oversexed, frankly, and the constant bombardment of bizarre sexuality made me squirm (Nina's instructor basically assaulting her at numerous points, the very creepy girl-on-girl scene, the way too creepy beast-on-girl scene....), BUT I find that all of that was necessary (or mostly necessary) in context. Nina is uncomfortable with herself, and thus all representation of sexuality in the film is actually fairly shocking.

I very much loved the use of mirrors in the film, and Nina's hallucinations of seeing her own face on others. Seeing Mila Kunis and Portman in the same frame together was uncanny at moments-- in reality they do not look that much alike, but thanks to tweaking and teasing, as an audience member I was wondering if Portman's face was transposed on Kunis's even when it wasn't.

Using Swan Lake as the structure for the film was what I most enjoyed. Being only basically familiar with the ballet, I'm sure further education on it would only be more enlightening. The use of mainly Swan Lake music throughout the film was also a very good and effective idea.

I was not especially fond of some of the special effects-- mainly the one involving Portman's legs. Like some of the melodrama, this effect took me from the film for a moment, despite Affronsky's best efforts. Still, even with all of this outrageous material Affronsky is nothing if not brilliant with atmosphere. The cold, strangely masochistic world of a ballerina is even in reality somewhat frightening, I think, and I found Affronsky's presentation of it insightful.

Finally, I was not very impressed by Mila Kunis. She is very likable, but she really doesn't do all that much in this movie. Stop it with the accolades. If she gets nommed for best supporting, I will be in awe. Very silly idea. Portman, on the other hand, was very good, and one can clearly see the blood sweat and tears she put into the role, I can imagine it was emotionally traumatizing. Still, I found her as always too self-aware! Like Nicole Kidman, Portman is very good at displaying emotion but I rarely feel connected with her performance, I rarely feel as though she is FEELING what Nina is feeling rather than just crying on cue. She is a good actress, I simply don't respond to her acting style. Nevertheless, she did pull off some really great moments, namely my favorite, when Nina has found out that she has been tapped for the Swan Queen/Black Swan role. She looks at the casting sheet, then retreats to the bathroom where she locks herself in to call her mother. Crying, she says into the phone: "He picked me, mommy..." I was moved by the sight of her elegant, ballerina exterior cracking to reveal the hopeful Nina. Vincent Cassel was also very good, and it was nice to see Winona Ryder out and about again.

Mostly, I am completely wild about the ending. It was perfect, I thought, utterly satisfying. I would not have appreciated the film nearly as much if it had been any different. Though it doesn't "explain" anything, really, this is not a movie where everything needs that kind of explaination. It really is merely an elaborate, melodramatic show. And that is quite all right.

True Grit: Obsessed. (here there be spoilers)

I've seen it four times now; for some reason I keep getting called back. I was surprised by how incredibly funny the film actually is, and how much more like a classic Western it is than the gothic curio I thought it was going to be. The material is perfect for the Coen brothers, and I love what they do with the characters. They always make such unusual choices, and their hintings at the complexity of seemingly straight-forward characters from familiar stories makes me very happy. Lebeouf, for example, is a prissy lout at first glance. Pompous etc, he's a Texas Ranger who lives off of seeming impressive. Flummoxed by Mattie and Rooster who do not follow his rules, he mocks Rooster as pathetic and humiliates Mattie by spanking her and basically attacking her with a switch. Where Mattie's grit intrigues Rooster it pisses off Lebeouf because to him there are RULES and Mattie insults him and scares him by not keeping to what he sees as law. He wants to see her as a little girl who needs protecting, but this she's not, at least not in the way that Lebeouf believes. However, in the end Lebeouf is winning, his insecurities exposed and some affirmation finally attained-- not for being some big-man Texas Ranger, but for being someone who fundamentally cares about what's right.

Rooster is also expertly etched-- an ex-badass, apparently lacking in character, alcoholic and over-the-hill. He is a pathetic sort, really, judging by his behavior and the stories he relates to Mattie about his younger days. The film exposes that, but doesn't dwell upon it as it could. It does not dramatize Rooster's pain and patheticness much, it doesn't wallow in that sort of thing-- in fact, he's mostly a funny guy. It's only in glimpses, around the edges, that one really takes in how hopeless Rooster sort-of is. At one point he mentions two of his wives leaving him, one taking his son, who according to Rooster never cared for his father, anyway. Rooster expresses some regret for speaking roughly to his son, saying he "did not mean nothing by it." Mattie is his redemption-- from the time she makes it across the river he builds admiration for her, seeing in her the "true grit" they have in common, he pledges to finding Cheney for her. He's just no use, however, much to everyone's disappointment, until he must be. When Mattie finally calls for him, he summons the grit and the goodness he didn't know he had, to do one good thing, the thing that will redeem him. He becomes an unlikely savior, but only because Mattie saved him first.

James Brolin as Cheney (Chaney?) is also a thoughtful presentation. He is not as one would expect a villain to be presented. He is lowly, dim, whiney and scroungey, adding insult to Mattie's injury. His voice is not threatening but kind of high and strained. He is just a lowlife that serves Lucky Ned, who himself is also unexpected. As it turns out Ned has his own set of well-worked out ethics, and isn't that much into killing people unless he has to. In fact, despite the fact that he's kind of gross, he's a smart, nice dude. He shares his food with Mattie and tells Cheney that no harm should befall her. Of course, Cheney is mad, and logic doesn't really appeal to him, especially in the face of stress. Anyway, Ned is at least as acceptable a companion as Rooster is. I liked that. As much as I like very evil character portrayals, especially amidst the wilds of a Western story, I like the acknowledgment that society itself was fairly wild at that time (something I also like about the presentation of Eastwood and Hackman's characters in Unforgiven). At some point the audience has to wonder what, exactly, the difference is between Rooster and Ned, and at the time of the shoot-out, the answer is really, not that much, except that Rooster is starting to feel the desire to act.

As interesting as the male characters are, Mattie is, thankfully, the centerpiece of the film and its namesake. She IS true grit, and the perfect balance between her two male companions. Her sense of morality and her fearlessness combine to make her an inspiring figure. She reacts with restrained emotion, and ultimately comes of age while chasing after her father's murderer. She is not unaware of the death that surrounds her, but she is also not afraid of it. In the end, she kills Cheney, mostly in self-defense, summoning up all of the strength she has, accomplishing the rain of justice that was necessary. I loved her character, and the fact that it was she who killed Cheney, though only because she had to.

Still, I found the end beautiful. Rooster would have continued to wallow in his own filth and disappointment were it not for Mattie, her "quest" and her existence brought him out from his pit and into a strange sort of glory that reaches its pinnacle when he goes into the pit to retrieve Mattie. Mattie, having given Rooster a reason to act or even just care, is now in trouble, and Rooster, despite his exhaustion, his laziness, his out-0f-shape old body, physically carries Mattie to safety when their horse gives out. It is then realized that Mattie simply must live, and not just for Mattie's own sake.

Ahh. The final fifteen minutes or so, from the pit to the epilogue, are sublime-- can I say sublime without sounding incredibly pretentious?-- and weirdly emotional. Mattie and Rooster have saved each other, and Rooster's redemption I thought was so moving without hitting the audience over the head with its poignancy. It's straight-forward stuff, with a little Coen weirdness thrown in. The acting is brilliant and the script is fantastic with stylized, old-fashioned dialogue. Few of the characters ever use contractions, which makes for amusing one-liners ("I do not know this man.") but also a poetic sound. The score is fantastic and a variance on the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" which triggers the redemption idea even further (as Rooster carried Mattie to the subtle piano tune of this hymn, I couldn't help but think that God-- or just goodness, if you will-- can reach anyone. God is everywhere, and in that moment He was a part of Rooster Cogburn, of all the unlikely people. I would have liked more set-up between Rooster and the Ned gang (without this the shoot-out loses some impact), and perhaps a few more stark, lonely shots, but overall I thought True Grit was an amazing movie-- not in the way that hits you upside the head like Inception, but rather one that settles into your mind slowly, bouncing around until you realize that you've seen something both entertaining and artful.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Torture Horror Genre

The Hostel films, Eli Roth's babies, have always seemed repulsive to me, knowing them only as hyped horror films that literally look like simple dungeon torture. Knowing well who Roth is-- IE one twisted (and occasionally hilarious) soul, I have decided to avoid what I assumed would be a somewhat kinky, overly gorey and unflinching franchise. However, my weird mother in a particularly weird moment of hers rented the first Hostel out of curiosity, watched it, and told me about it later. Mother LIKED it, because she liked the moment of bloody revenge at the end. That's my mom, folks. Anyway, of course the torturous parts were not a big hit with her, and torture-horror has never been my thing so I never gravitated in that direction, especially after hearing the concept.

I did watch the original SAW, at my friend's insistance, and thought it was a decent thriller with some B-movie qualities. The contraptions featured in the original were not as abundant nor as celebrated and elborate as they were in the sequels, and I felt, though they were cruel and difficult to look at, they contributed to the punch of the story (like the "punishments" in Se7en, a far superior film). Anyway, the story itself was fine. Not amazing, but pretty good. Then, of course, they had to make the sequels. I only saw about half of the second film, which was wretched, gimicked, gross, and without focus, meandering around and completely wallowing in what made the first film a grabber- the traps. The film reveled in those scenes like any Terry Gilliam movie revels in dysotopian muck, and threw in the audience's face its ultimate purpose: to wallow in the terror of physical torture. With the SEVENTH SAW FILM out this year (that's right, guys. 7 whole SAW movies, meaning that about 14 hours or more of Jigsaw's stupid, bicycling puppet making people cut off their own appendages exists), I can only scratch my head and wonder how many times these audiences- BIG AUDIENCES- are willing to subject themselves to a front-row seat of of 5-8 characters per SAW film enduring a new and shocking horror device and usually coming to a nasty end, or at least a whole lot of cryinging, crying, squirming, screaming pain. Ugh. All this to say, Hostel and Saw really kicked off a new and creepy trend in very mainstream film: the "torture-porn" horror, something akin to dressed-up snuff.

I suppose most horror films are about torture in some sense, if you think about it. It might be Ghostface chasing around his whimpering, pop-culure savvy stabees, or the emotional/mental torture of Deborah Kerr at the hands of her ghosts. Are there people out there that get off on that? No doubt. However, this new genre erases any trace of subtlety, any metaphor for torture is gone, here there simply IS. It is horror in excess, a look at the most almost-ubbelievbly ugly side of the malice in man. No boogeymen in masks (though there is that blasted puppet....) just man punishing man, and despite Jigsaw's fancy footwork, it's always messy. Pure excess.

Now that I've said all that, I should say that I finally sampled the Hostel franchise yesterday, and was surprised to find that it did have some substance. I wasn't aware of the concept in context, and discovered it to be a very interesting exploration of an old idea, one that reminded me specifically of The Most Dangerous Game, about a hunter bored of hunting merely animals, and My Favorite Episode of "The Avengers," Murdersville. Very wealthy people purchase human beings through an organization called "Elite Hunting." Much like sex trafficking, this organization arranges it so that the highest bidder may torture and do away with their purchased person in the dungeon-like fort of EH, which is, of course, in Slovakia. EH mostly preys upon backpackers who are just unlucky enough to fall into their trap.

I opted to skip the original Hostel, and after seeing a short article in Entertainment Weekly praising the sequel, I watched Hostel 2, which tells two converging stories: that of the hunter and the hunted, the former being the most interesting. The first hour of Hostel 2, and much of the movie, is well-made, dark, and almost Hitchcockian in its doom-- as we follow three girls through Slovakia and see the shady connections they make the audience knows it's only a matter of time before they get taken (oh Liam Neeson, where are you when we need you??). Therefore the film is only creepy until about an hour in, in which one of the girls gets slaughtered (by a female, Bathory-inspired client) in a scene that I skipped through, but which I could tell was excessively, almost humorously bloody (IE what Eli Roth does best..). After the girls are finally enslaved an the rich guys show up to do their thing, the movie does get nasty, unfortunately, though thankfully only gross and not incredibly finger-nail rippingly graphic (none of the other scenes were like what I saw from the first girl's death scene). Anyway, all things considered, it's really a shame that the film makes that descent, and I feel that Roth's gross-out tendencies/sense of humor cloud and corrupt what could have been a pretty brilliant film thriller, and what I think is regardless a very interesting story and commentary. If the overtly gleeful boody-gore stuff were excluded (and I'm not saying it's gross because it's realistic-- it's not. it's generic, SAW style oh-look-severed-body-parts and intestines stuff), IE the elements that make this a bona fide horror film, the movie would be genuinely GOOD, or at least comparable to the elegant creepiness of a Hannibal movie.

The commentary that this film is making- or could be making if it weren't ew- is chilling. The very idea of Elite Hunting is terrifying. First, that man can be so premeditatively primal (and that there can be so many of these hunters). Second, the powerful theme of The All-Mighty Dollar being the one and only decision maker (whooo willll goooo and whooo will stayyyy). One of the best parts of the film shows a quick montage of Elite Hunters-- rich men in their typical environments- around the globe checking their messages to find updates on the "new merchandise" and starting their bids. This is a reality not far from sex trafficking, and certainly similar to the snuff film industry (not that I know much about that in its present form, merely the idea that women are tortured and murdered in films marketed as pornography-- the most hardcore and obviously illegal pornography in existence). The most compelling element of H2 (that I'm not sure was in the original) is the question: "Who would do that?" We're shown this variety of psycho rich-men and this derranged woman who wants to bathe in blood, but they're as distant as villains in a comic-book, until we meet the other part of the Hostel story, the two rich men who are taking part in EH for the first time. One, a cold and completely deluded man, is in it for the pure bad-ass-ness of it, the idea that it will make him macho, and the other, far more sympathetic man, seems unstable and uncertain, dragged along by his sick pal. He's obviously feeling as though his masculinity has been trampled, and his macho buddy assures him that this will do the trick. It's their journey, all the way into the torture chamber that is really intriguing. "Are we sick?" the unstable one asks as they get in the car, on their way to play dungeon master. The other one snorts coke while assuring his buddy that they are "the normal ones." The sane ones, just keeping up with a world that is both primal and repressed.

Again, if it weren't for Eli Roth's fondness for the torture porn genre, which gets a good work-out here (what with older men torturing young, pretty girls), this could have been tweaked into something like Silence of the Lambs, something that critics and audiences could discuss with manners, but alas. Roth decides to make his point by almost making the audience the Elite Hunter, paying money to watch (weird) violence against women. Once again, we are (supposed to be) getting kicks out of watching people in deep agony. I guess that's supposed to make us wonder who the monster is, and that's interesting too, but ultimately a dangerous thing to unleash on the unsteady public-- it only continues the pattern of exploitation (torture porn) by marketing itself as a fun, kinda darkly funny thrill. It only promotes the ideas that it might condemn. Shame. There are some great ideas buried in there.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The worst movie I've seen in a long time award goes to Killer Inside Me, a movie that has been trying to get made for decades, based off of an infamous hardboiled novel (a touchstone in the noir universe) which Stanley Kubrick found disturbing. It's about a young smalltown sheriff with some serious, sick repressed tendencies who copes with his issues by being sickeningly cliche in his interactions with people (an element the film did not touch on, or if it did I sure missed it). A loose woman comes into town, and she unleashes all of his twisted stuff (she apparently understands him), but he winds up killing her and a ton of other people in violent ways, all while keeping up appearances. There's alot of ways you could have gone with a story as dark as this, and the director and screenwriters apparently chose irony, juxtaposition, and extreme violence towards the female characters to convey the sheriff's descent. This, for some- or many- reason(s) fails, hard, and becomes a fairly boring film with no hook, really, and an ending I couldn't have cared less about. Well, maybe not less, but I certainly wasn't hanging on Casey Affleck's every word.

One of the few things the film brings across well is the brutal beating violence that Affleck inflicts on two of the female characters. That is, this would have been pulled off had the movie been of quality. Morally, when it comes to scenes such as that (in this case, Jessica Alba's prostitute gets repeatedly beaten in the face while Kate Hudson gets punched in the stomach and lies struggling for breath on the floor, her dress covering her face, until Affleck finally ends the suffering), I wonder about their right to exist, and in the end I think it's alright, though admittedly a bit of a grey area, like any sort of reprehensible behavior put onscreen. I'm anti-censorship and believe that only parents and nurturing surroundings can help prevent impressionable young people from doing such reprehensible things, however it is undeniable that film is a powerful medium and so long as it has influence on what people wear or say, it will inspire people in other ways. I've thought about and often discussed with others the Artist's Responsibility, that is, the creator's duty to make his or her point as clear as possible, and to be aware of such negative inspirations on the audience (should Mel Gibson have changed Passion of the Christ by removing objectionable parts quoted directly from the Bible? no, but perhaps he should have added a foreward to the film condemning anti-semitism for those crazies who might think The Passion was some kind of call to arms... though he refused to do that because he thought that would be an indication that there was something improper about his film. que sera sera). Point being, artists should make sure that such material is damn necessary and effective before just tossing it in the salad.
Anyway, the violence is the only thing that has caught anyone's attention about this film, and that makes sense. I was a little surprised by how cringe-worthy Alba's death was, because I thought that I had seen "beatings" in films, but this was different-- there were very few cuts, the camera was unflinching as Affleck just punched her face repeatedly, prompting me to wonder how many things in the human face can be broken. Really horrible stuff-- which would have been suitable if the film had ANYTHING to say, or any flair with which to say it. Affleck is this completely Evil Man with a wicked past and a mother who liked masochism. Apparently the mother part messed him up, but that's the only light we see in Affleck's head. Killers kill due to compulsion, disgust, sexual thrill, or material motivation, and I guess Affleck is supposed to be starting here with the very former, but we don't see any of that. He just starts killing folks. We get the impression that he's supposed to be sort of brilliant to get away with all of this, but the film never really lets us feel that he's brilliant, despite his annoying, excessive voice-over narration, which is another thing that was all wrong here-- the VO could have been crucial, bone-chilling, Lector-level creepy but again the director goes for irony-- isn't it creepy that Affleck is so bland, isn't it spooky that he just HAS to kill like that?! Misses the mark completely. There's also a theme of old-country tunes sprinkled throughout, which is kind of interesting but the style of the film is so flat already that the tunes become gimmicky and super-annoying.

With the best thriller/horror/evil-psycho-man movies there's a sense of dread, and every time another one bites the dust, the audience bites their nails, thinking dammit, I liked that one, I thought he was going to live! They're pulled in by their fascination with the antagonist because, as my Irish Lit professor pointed out, the most frightening is that which is like us but not (vampires, werewolves, Hannibal Lector). Alas, this just doesn't happen, but it's not the cast's fault. Firstly, most of the main players are miscast. Jessica Alba cannot act, she needs to go away, and though I will admit that this is the best I've seen her, she's not suited for it. Kate Hudson is all right, but overall underused, underdeveloped, and as an actress she seems a bit lost despite trying very hard. Casey Affleck is one of my most favorite actors, and he does a great job with the directions and script he's given, but the character just isn't there. Nevertheless, I do admire his subtlety in this role, his twitches and dry, Texan voice work well, and I think he could have pulled it off under different circumstances-- STILL, I don't believe he was the best choice for the role at all. It should have been someone a bit bigger and more commanding, charismatic, while still being able to anchor himself with dorkish, bore-of-a-sheriff-ness. The two actors I really did love in the film had criminally insignificant parts: Bill Pullman had a great few minutes as a fake-irate lawyer that rescues Affleck from an asylum, and that guy from the Mentalist plays the investigator of Affleck's murders (but, like alot of other folks in this movie, Mr. Mentalist seems to have nothing to do).

Towards the end of the film all of Affleck's lies are starting to unravel and we're supposed to feel the tension, but there is none, because nobody really cares. I mean, you're a bit curious to know how this guy is going to go down, but even when that happens it's underwhelming and the ultimate assurance that there was no reason to sit through this movie that's grabbing only in its let's-beat-up-the-girls moments, which ultimately makes the film more than a fail. Without any backbone or character truth, those scenes are worse than cringey, they're pointless. About twenty minutes worth of women being attacked by a man (who "loves them") to no end, which, if you ask me, is pretty dirty.