Thursday, March 31, 2005

The function of a film review

Two friends have recently thanked me for writing a review that let them know not to see (fill in any movie name here). To be honest, I am kind of horrified by these statements. I suppose many reviews function in this way: “is it worth my money?” Yet there is another purpose to a review: a more probing inquiry into the zeitgeist. To an extent, I am more interested in this latter type of reviewing: analyzing a film’s commentary on the world.

Now, not every film sets out to propagate a socially minded agenda. Yet I would contend that despite articulated intentions (i.e. Biggest blockbuster of the year! or Most romantic movie of the summer!), every film contributes something intellectual/philosophical to our cultural milieu, consciously or not. We cannot help but be influenced by the hidden and not so hidden messages in movies. Films can be entertaining and full of fluff, but they comment upon our world in their method of entertaining or in their very fluffiness.

For this reason, every film has value. Every film reveals something about how one can look at the world and how one can find a niche within it. I may disagree with the messages I find in a movie, but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire some aspect of the film, be it the acting, the tight script, or the impressive cinematography.

Considering film reviewing from another direction, perhaps my reviews should focus exclusively on the values of the filmmaking. What is the director’s vision? Is it clearly conveyed? Do all the elements that make up the film form a cohesive picture? Does the editing keep the film moving and help tell the story? How’s the acting? Etcetera. Certainly, these are important, and one of the chief goals of my project is to train my eye to observe just these factors of filmmaking.

That said, I think I can sum up my approach to reviewing with this question: does the film accomplish the goals it sets out for itself? If the film is a romantic comedy, is it romantic? If it is a blockbuster, does it appeal to a mass audience and offer larger than life thrills and adventure? Perhaps I would better serve the films I review by first asking the above question, and then only after considering the film on its own terms, moving on to contemplate larger implications upon cultural mindsets.

For those of you looking to decide whether or not to see a film, check out Ebert and Roeper (I know I watch them every week). But if you want to see a film and then consider some of the questions within it, I hope this blog is one place you’ll look. And if I find a film truly unworthy of viewing, I promise to let you know.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Tatonka means "Buffalo" in Sioux, but Kevin clearly mistranslated it to "Mousse." Posted by Hello

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Upside of Anger

Watching the movie The Upside of Anger, I wondered how this script got produced—the script has potential and offers a wonderfully meaty role for Joan Allen (which she ate right up). Yet so much of the script seems unfinished, half done, or just glossed over. Then I realized that Mike Binder not only wrote, directed, and played a role in the film, but also that his brother Jack Binder produced the movie. So he’s either well connected or darn driven.

Difficulty #1: the film revolves around a mother and her FOUR daughters. Yikes, that’s a lot of daughters: the run time of the film simply doesn’t allow a thorough exploration of each daughter’s character. Instead every daughter comes off as generic and unrealistic. Unlike the film, I do have time to look at each daughter individually (don’t worry, I’ll get to Joan Allen’s character soon enough).

Emily Wolfmeyer, played by Keri Russell (to the delight of Felicity fans everywhere), wants to be a dancer but her mother Terry does not approve. Emily proposes a conservatory type program, but her mother balks. Apparently Terry acknowledges the pursuit of higher education only at big state schools. Here’s the kicker—we know little about mom Terry’s background (like, did she go to an accredited university? Did she ever, oh, I don’t know, hold a job??). It is like this story is told from a child’s perspective: mom says no just to be contrary and mean and doesn’t seem to have valid reasons for it.

Binder barely reveals the result of this fight; we see a road sign that indicates Terry is driving to the University of Madison to visit Emily in the hospital. So I guess Terry forced Emily to go to a liberal arts college rather than a conservatory? Another issue between Emily and Terry treated similarly—used to create tension but then dropped without follow through—is Emily’s supposed eating disorder. Though her refusal to eat is casually referenced throughout the film, Terry and the doctors fail to consider this as a cause of Emily’s illness. Rather she suffers from a very vague disorder encouraged by “stress.” Why opt for an ambiguous illness when you have already introduced a perfectly viable, socially relevant, and character-specific illness early on, Mr. Binder?

Erika Christensen, a luscious blonde who reminds me of a curvier Julia Stiles, plays Andy Wolfmeyer, the daughter who refuses to go to college…for no apparent reason but that she just doesn’t wanna. So instead she gets a job as a production assistant—not by applying for the job, mind you, but rather because her Mom’s boyfriend makes the arrangements himself—and then she only gets an interview because she’s hot. Andy proceeds to sleep with her boss and subsequently become the producer of a morning radio show. Wow. There is a model for young girls: how to rise up the ladder of success horizontally.

Seemingly, it never occurs to Andy that sleeping with her boss Shep is a bad idea, nor do we ever learn what she likes about him. Her mother treats Shep terribly, but Andy never confronts her, hence a missed opportunity for us to learn more about her motivation: either, “but Mommy, I love him!” or “Good, I’m glad you hate him. That’s the point.” Nor do we ever see Andy at work, except through conversations with her boss, Shep. Is she good at her job? Do her co-workers appreciate her or just ogle her? Are we to believe that her affair with Shep led to her promotion, and that this is a good thing?

Hadley Wolfmeyer, portrayed by Alicia Witt, is the eldest daughter who graduates college, only to inform her mother that she has a boyfriend, is knocked up, and is getting married. Again, the daughter in question does not elaborate why she is making these choices—rather, the daughter choosing motherhood gives a nod to non-traditional feminism (it is okay to want to stay home) and provides conflict without depth.

Much in the script indicates that Terry’s most difficult relationship is with Hadley, and we see one brief scene when Hadley returns to college that reinforces this assessment. Binder’s dialogue here is stilted, halting, with the situation quickly resolved/brushed under the carpet to move on to the next scene. He seems really uncomfortable with the layered writing necessary in this scene. Most of the fight scenes start well but then wander as Binder struggles to determine how women might resolve a fight scene. The good news is that he doesn’t create easy solutions. The bad news is that he creates no solutions.

Binder excels at infusing the film with drama, but he fails to explore the potential within these situations. As with all the daughters, Hadley’s problems with her mother operate as a footnote rather than a motivation for action. Terry gets drunk at a celebratory lunch for Hadley and her fiancé, but the only fallout is between Terry and herself. Next we see Hadley, she and the fiancé are dining with Terry, seemingly without tension. How did Hadley feel about her mother’s embarrassing behavior? Did she and her fiancé fight about it? Is she hurt by her mother’s failure to embrace her pregnancy and marriage? Did she plan the pregnancy, consider abortion, panic at all?

Finally, our narrator, called Popeye, is played by the wonderful and subtle Evan Rachel Wood. She begins the film by describing her upset towards her mother, a woman that used to be so sweet but now is simply angry—a promising start. The film then flashes back to show us when Terry became so angry. I kept waiting for the promised confrontation between Popeye and her mother. Nope. Never happens. Of all the daughters, Popeye has the least amount of screen time with Terry. Then why choose her as the narrator?

But this movie isn’t about the daughters, after all. Terry’s character is beautifully drawn, incredibly complicated and contradictory (in a good way), and vulnerable. She has flaws in abundance and yet we like her. And she is able to find Grey Goose for only $20 (why can’t I do that?).

Abandoned by her husband, Terry embraces her anger—she refuses to dress, drinks all day, and says exactly what she is thinking when she is thinking it. In some ways, this embracing of anger is heroic and admirable—feminist theoretical writings often point out how female anger tends to be appropriated by men. Think back to wronged women of film/literature past and consider whether a man ever stepped in to exact justice, to right the wrong, or to give her a new life by accepting her.

So what then are the implications (SPOILER alert) of the fact that the plot ultimately undermines Terry’s reason for anger: her husband did not leave her. He in fact fell in an old well in the backyard and died, only to be discovered a year or so later by a construction crew. I could not help but wonder—if Terry had not jumped to the conclusion that her husband left her, might she have initiated a search and found her husband wounded but not yet dead? This is a pretty damning thought—Terry’s irrational (apparently) assumption that her husband had left her for his secretary and her subsequent refusal to contact him might have led to the death of a completely innocent man. In this light, is Binder condemning female anger as paranoid and extreme?

The most problematic aspect of Terry’s character is that the narrator tells us how sweet she once was, but the Binder fails to show us this kinder, gentler Terry. Note the contrast between the two personas (a Stepford-wife type pleasing gal versus a pissed off banshee—gosh, can Terry win here with either stereotypical categorization?). The film begins with anger, and ultimately, I think the script intends to validate her anger—because the journey itself was worthwhile. If Binder offered us a contrast between the Terry of the past and the new post-anger Terry, we might really learn something about the upside of anger because we’d see what she lost and what she gained in the struggle.

Terry finds love with neighbor Denny (boy is it great to see Kevin Costner play a schlub).
Denny and Terry share many things besides the fact that their names rhyme: alcoholism, depression, a feeling of uselessness. Yet more to the point, perhaps, both are deeply ingrained within the suburban lifestyle and mindset. This is one of those movies where you watch these characters who don’t have to worry about money and live in enormous houses—yet somehow the audience is supposed to empathize with these privileged, ungrateful people. There are occasional references to Terry’s financial status, so the idea is not completely overlooked, but these issues are glossed over and thrown in at random for effect rather than impact.

There is much to admire and ponder in this film, as should be obvious by the fact that this review is so long: clearly the film affected me. Yet much more is downplayed, obscured, and overlooked. The script simply doesn’t feel finished: it wanders from storyline to storyline with Terry’s anger alone connecting the dots. Despite a bravura performance by Ms. Allen (a performance that makes the film worth seeing in itself), writer/director Binder knows enough about women to cause a ripple but not enough to take a journey beneath the surface to discover an entire world under the water.

(Sorry, can’t let that metaphor go without an apology—but have you noticed how many film reviewers love overwritten metaphors? Couldn’t help myself.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Look, Anakin...the end of my relevance is so close! Posted by Hello

Monday, March 21, 2005

George Lucas

A quote from Mr. Lucas: "That's not my job, to make people like my movies. They either like them or they don't. That's completely out of my hands."

That’s not his job?? So what is his job? Self-indulgent and arrogant filmmaking to please himself?

I'm one of the embittered fans of the first Star Wars (er, I guess I mean, second, chronologically) trilogy. And I fear for the third installment, though the fan in me still hopes.

If I could stand it, I would watch Attack of the Clones again, if only to use this blog to purge my anger at the dreadful destruction of the Amidala/Anakin romance.

The Notebook

To prove that I am not a complete film snob (though I admit that I evidence certain signs of film snobbery), this entry is about Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook. Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks (which I understand is poorly written), the film delivers extremely satisfying bodice-ripping romantic cheesy goodness. Though Cassavetes did not impress me with his directorial vision, he certainly completed the task as appropriate: the actors always look wonderful, the country town is idyllic, and the cast is impressive (Joan Allen! Sam Shepard!).

My roommate and I watched the movie as a conscious attempt at female bonding. Quick summary (spoiler alert, though if you can't figure out the ending of a romance film, you probably haven't seen a lot of movies and therefore aren't reading this blog): as his wife loses her battle with Alzheimer's, Noah reads to her the the story of their falling in love, separation, and eventual reunion. As expected, my roommate cried; cynic that I am, I marveled at Noah’s ability to make it up a huge flight of stairs with his pants around his ankles and Allie’s legs wrapped around his waist. Damn impressive. For what the film wants to be, it is successful: sympathetic love story, hot sex, and reinforcement of the idea that love is forever.

So how does one consider this film from a feminist perspective? Since my feminism is less political and more social, this means I naturally ask myself why women enjoy a romantic film like this. Now, I’m not saying that men can’t enjoy the movie (and my roommate plans to test this theory by having her boyfriend watch it), but I think few would argue that this film’s target audience is women. I didn’t create the system—I just live within it. Can't help but wonder--when a woman in love watches this movie, how does she react? Does she say, "boy I love my boyfriend so much?" Or does she instead wonder, "boy, I wish my boyfriend was Ryan Gosling." Though I lean towards the latter, I'm quite sure that the intent of the entire romance genre is the former.

Certainly, I was successfully emotionally manipulated by the film: the delay of consummation between the couple made me feel eagerness to see their union, the sex was arousing, and the tender love evidenced by the older couple was quite effective. Not to stress this point too much, but the actors are beautiful, and this beauty seems an important part of the fantasy. After all, that is what we are sold in this film: fantasy.

During his grand romantic gesture speech about wanting Allie forever, Noah tells her that life will be hard together and they will have to work at it every day. Yet we don’t see any of this hard work. Instead we see a man still desperately in love with his wife fifty years later—a far cry from the couples I see at restaurants who silently eat because they have nothing left to say. Does our art reflect life at all? Do we even want it to?

Film critic Robin Wood (and others) writes about the ways that many movies keep humanity in line, and though I am sure to completely misrepresent his ideas, these are somewhat operating in the back of my mind. The film world reassures us that by following society’s expectations—work, marriage, children—we will find romantic/familial happiness, qua the ultimate attainable happiness. Celebrating sports heroes, business masterminds, and political leaders, movies disguise the corruption inherent in many of our institutions. Not that there isn’t a cinema of dissent, but perhaps Mr. Wood is correct that the majority of a films veil the darker sides to life to keep us in line.

Back to The Notebook. Does its unabashed embrace of sexual-romantic love mislead its target audience, women, as to what love is/should/could be? Allie is engaged to another man—one who forgives her for running away to consummate her relationship with her first love and insists he still wants to marry her—in many ways a more likely partner: handsome, employed, and of course, fabulously wealthy. But she chooses the dirty lover who works with his hands. Does she ever regret this choice? Does she ever resent that she can’t buy the fabulous clothes she wore as a girl? Heck, does she have to get a job? Does Noah ever feel shame for his inability to give her the life her other fiancé offered?

It is possible that I am missing the point entirely—I mean, maybe I should just chill out and enjoy a little romance. But I cannot help but be suspicious that all of this fantasy romance—initiated in childhood fairytales and perpetuated in virtually every novel, television show and film aimed at women—is a trap, set to capture us in the societal imperative of marriage and children.

One important consideration, however, is that this film focuses not just on the years during which Noah and Allie fall in love. Rather, the film also examines their last few days—though these scenes represent only 1/3 of the run time of the film at best. Perhaps this is the real fantasy engendered by the film: a couple still completely in love after 50 years together. Am I being too cynical when I ask how often this occurs? Life offers so many challenges: how often can love survive these challenges without evident signs of wear and tear?

I suppose my bias is showing: I expect art to reflect life. Sometimes art can simply be entertainment. The Notebook is decidedly of the latter type. Still, I feel a bit taken in after watching a film like this: how can my expectations of my own love life not pale in comparison? Will my real life ever be able to match the fantasies inspired by entertaining art? And if not, am I wrong to be disappointed?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Imaginary Heroes

Dan Harris’ Imaginary Heroes is a flawed but deeply interesting film. He presents a rather depressed worldview—virtually every character is either closed off or hyper emotional in a bizarre compensation for the emptiness of everything. Drugs, sex, and suicide abound, as one might expect from a film directed by a 25-year old. These drug-induced fantasy scenes are among the best in the film, and lead to a positively electric homosexual kiss. The actors have impressive chemistry, and I will almost forgive Emile Hirsch for The Girl Next Door based on his wise decision to play this part of the son trying to survive in a family destroyed by his older brother’s suicide.

As for the negatives (let’s get the less pleasant stuff out of the way): the pacing is off, the imagery is forced (if I saw one more character spin around on the playground equipment I was going to throw something at the screen), and the plot contains one too many neat and tidy surprises. Yet the movie is still on my mind a week later.

So let’s get to the biggest player in the film: Sigourney Weaver, who plays Sandy Travis. Her performance is beautifully understated—no hysterics or over the top moments—just a sly desperation. Harris keeps all of his characters on a tight leash: this is a world of incredible tension, and in those moments when the film slows down, the tension keeps you engaged.

People (you know, those “people” who always seem to have something critical to say) often discuss whether a white author can create a character of color or a male author can write a female voice. So here we have a 25-year-old white male writing the part of a middle-aged woman. Shouldn’t we tar and feather him for his audacity?

I choose to look at the issue from a different perspective. Sure, a man may not know what it is like to have a vagina, but his interpretation of a female character (what she feels, how she chooses to act) can shed light on gender ideas nevertheless. Perhaps we would learn more about how men and women see and treat each other if we weren’t so afraid to describe how we view the “other” (as in other gender but also the ultra-scary “other” of psychoanalytic criticism).

I’ll admit that I was disappointed by the reveal of the source of the anger between Sandy and Marge, the next-door neighbor. Marge never quite forces Sandy to admit her fault, her guilt, or her erroneous self-righteousness. Marge is almost saintly in her willingness to forgive. Interestingly, we see virtually nothing of Marge’s relationship with her son, Kyle, who is our hero Tim’s best friend. Marge becomes little more than a device, and in this moment, Harris fails to reveal much about characters in conflict, much less female friendships.

Still Sandy Travis is a delightful character. Her close friendship with her son Tim may be unrealistic but somehow the idealization is incredibly appealing (Gilmore Girls, anyone?). Do we all yearn for that sort of relationship with our mother, or perhaps do we simply wish we had an adult be that frank with us when we were teenagers? Sandy’s desperate but playful experimentation with marijuana brought humor to the film but also revealed that Sandy is a woman who refuses to take herself too seriously. Incredibly flawed, she relishes her humanity and refuses to apologize for herself.

Her husband, Ben Travis, is quite another character altogether—he wanders in the background of the film, silent, pained, without a clue as to why he should continue living. This character is not well drawn—Harris gives him a gloss but it is Jeff Daniels nuanced performance that brings even the simplest of scenes, like a father asking his son if he needs money, to vibrant life. Redeeming himself in the well-played climactic moment in which Ben claims Tim as his son, Harris endows the character with tremendous potential but simply doesn’t give him the screen time to full develop him.

Perhaps I should mention the daughter, Penny Travis, played by Michelle Williams. Her character’s meager development prompts the question—if Penny is not in the movie, then what does the film lose? She allows Harris to recycle his deus ex machina—a suicide patient who imparts wisdom to Tim, later flirts with Sandy and picks her up from jail, and finally falls in love with Penny (very economic use of a random character, Mr. Harris). Ultimately, Penny herself imparts some wisdom (you guessed it, while spinning around on the playground equipment) to Tim: find what you love most, and hope you are good at it. Not exactly awe-inspiring. Seems safe to say that praise for Harris’ believable writing of female characters suffers when considering Penny’s role in the film.

Quite simply, Harris has an awful lot of people populating the world of this film. There simply isn’t time for him to develop each with the depth that the conflict allows (acknowledging and honoring the tremendous intricacies of the plot). Yet despite all these difficulties, the film has a lot of heart and provides some amazing insight into what it feels like to be completely lost in the world.

Monday, March 07, 2005

So it begins

The only thing better than watching a movie? Talking about it afterwards.

The Goals:
1) Enjoy as many films as possible this year
2) Enhance the longevity of my enjoyment by maintaining a record of my
expectations/experiences/reactions to each film
3) Expand my vocabulary for describing technical, artistic, and literary achievements in film
4) Encourage a dialogue about film with others as excited about movies as I.
(Sidebar: Did you notice all those words beginning with “e”? Me too. It means nothing.)

The Unavoidable Qualifier:

So, my feminism isn’t political or theoretical. Rather, I simply orient myself towards all things with a keen eye to how I experience life as a woman. My joyful and painful experiences as a woman have so deeply affected each aspect of my life—I simply cannot escape the fact that I orient myself around a decidedly feminist, or woman-centered, perspective.

The Inspiration:
After watching Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her, I really wanted someone to talk with to help me understand my reaction to the movie. Not one to discount a film or an artist straight away, I needed another perspective to widen my view of the film but also to help me articulate just what the film made me feel. Despite a plethora of reviews, I could not find one that echoed, countered, or even just acknowledged my own interpretation.

You see, before watching Talk To Her, I knew little about Almodovar—just a few things I had read in the New Yorker and word of mouth type stuff praising his depictions of women. So imagine my surprise upon completing Talk To Her to realize that Almodovar’s portrayal of women in this film is much more complicated than praiseworthy. His women: silent, sexualized bodies; their stories: written upon their lifeless forms by the men who “adore” them. I was disturbed by the film, to be honest, so I turned to the internet to find out if I was crazy or not.

My disquiet only grew as I realized how few feminist resources were available to help me understand this film. I found a couple of women in England who shared my extreme discomfort with the rape at the center of the plot line of the film, but otherwise, I found mostly praise of how Almodovar places women in the spotlight. I needed more to help me understand why I responded so negatively to this film.

So like any enterprising young person living in the age of the internet might, I decided to turn to the blogosphere. I don’t want to analyze Talk to Her further in this entry (because I am in the process of reviewing more of Almodovar’s work to get a more nuanced understanding of women within his films). Rather I am simply using it to explain how I hope this blog might actually contribute something new to the over-saturated internet.