Category Archives: Reviews

Shame (2011)

Director: Steve McQueen

Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Behari

Expressionism & Realism

I don’t really know where to start with this film since it is so beautifully layered. It’s hard to believe that it’s only Mr. McQueen’s second feature. The level of accomplishment and the confidence that exudes from each frame is astonishing. Perhaps it’s what Orson Welles attributed to the artistic cinematic success of his first two features: the brash ignorance of film technique married to the proficiency and success in another visual art medium (theatre for Welles, photography for McQueen).  The resulting Shame is the type of film and the kind of film-making you wish was more popular or acceptable but, at the same time, understand why it is not. With it, Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender and, to a lesser degree, Carey Mulligan have crafted an exquisite piece of film art that blends realism and expressionist subjectivity (like Mr. Welles particularly did in his first film, Citizen Kane)  to powerful, resonant effect.

On the surface, the subject of this film is Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) sex addiction, but this seems more of a categorizing and way of promoting the film. Sure, Brandon has a sex compulsion to the point of it controlling the way he lives his life. The sex is not wanton or erotic. Like all addictions it leads Brandon to loneliness and isolation. His apartment is stark, his nakedness spartan and fitting in to the minimalist aesthetic; his job is nondescript and his habits are those requiring solitude (Internet pornography and masturbation).

The loneliness is drawn out by the expressionist qualities of the film. The opening scenes in Brandon’s apartment are especially expressionist with frigid and sterile blues and greys. The opening shots of Brandon lying on his bed make his face skeletal and his form dismembered in the way the sheets cover his body. Brandon’s clothing is plain and muted (pale glen plaid coat, pale grey scarf, pale blue shirts). His state of mind is as washed away and as dead as the environment he lives in. It’s not until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in that colour disrupts his world. Upon coming home to discover Sissy in his apartment, Brandon picks up her purple-pink boa with the end of a bat rather than with his hands. Red is the colour that becomes most explicitly linked to Sissy (her Annie Hall-esque hat and her lipstick as she croons “Ney York, New York” ).

The suggestion of the colour is not as a contrast to Brandon’s sterility in terms of vibrancy, but instead it suggests danger and sex. Sissy is, of course, a danger to herself as well as to Brandon’s mode of living. Toward the end of the film she attempts suicide and stains Brandon’s environment and his self with blood. Just prior to this Brandon’s compulsion for sexual anonymity has taken him into a gay sex club which is awash with expressionist red. Brandon’s sexual desire and frustration is at its highest, most dangerous point. It could be that red, already associated with Sissy, is being used again to connect Brandon’s compulsion to his desire for and sexual frustration toward his sister. Mr. McQueen’s targeted use of expressionism in lighting and colour draw attention to Brandon’s character and his motivations.

The realism of the film is brought to the fore in Mr. McQueen’s favoured  use of  a single-camera set-up (static, pans, and tracking shots) and long takes. In Hunger (2008), this technique was used most notably in the scene between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the priest (Liam Cunningham) — one take, one camera, no camera moves. Shame doesn’t use it to such an extreme, but when it is used (such as Brandon’s morning routine or his stalking through his own apartment while Sissy is with his boss in the bedroom or the attempted sexual encounter between Brandon and Marianne) it leaves the audience as transfixed as the camera is on what is happening. I can easily see many viewers being uncomfortable with something so stationary (which is partly the point). There’s no illusion of action, there’s only the person or people in the frame and their sense of confinement and, of course, the power of Mr. Fassbender’s fierce performance. Holding to a single camera and a single take allows Mr. McQueen to take full advantage of his lead actor’s ability to weep out, to sweat out, to excrete the essence of his character through his body, his mouth, and his eyes. How Mr. Fassbender was ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) for an oscar nomination is ridiculous.

Shame is a virtuoso example of cinema. It is crafted with confidence and complexity (I haven’t even gotten into the film’s main themes) and uses the full repertoire of cinematic syntax: camera work, montage, light & colour, performance, and sound & music (which I also haven’t dealt with). As long as Steve McQueen continues directing films (and especially if he continues his collaboration with Michael Fassbender) then the type of film that should be more popular and should be seen by adult/grown-up/intellectually mature audiences will continue to be made. It’s the type of film and film-making that demands our support.

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The Avengers (2012)

Director: Joss Whedon

Writers: Zak Penn (story) and Joss Whedon (story & screenplay)

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddlestone, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson

Franchise & Film-maker

The Avengers is a triumph! It’s about as much shallow-minded mental fun as is possible to achieve at the movies. This is not to say that you have to turn off your brain to enjoy it; you don’t. In fact, if the human brain is all about sensory input and engagement, then this movie requires your brain to be switched on and, if so, it then rewards you with the pleasurable release of natural joy inducing chemicals into your bloodstream. Your heart beats faster, you smile, you puzzle, you smile, you laugh, you say, “Wow!” The Avengers is a far better movie than Iron Man (2008) and even better than Spider-man 2 (2004), which I had considered to be the best Marvel adaptation.

In Joss Whedon, Marvel found the perfect film-maker to  handle what was increasingly looking like a burdensome ambition and a movie-going chore; a trip to the theatre done out of obligation rather than desire. Somehow, with Iron Man 2 (2010)Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the set up was becoming boring and in no way did it seem as if the end product was going to justify the efforts and dollars expended. Then, something amazing seems to have happened: the project was handed over to Mr. Whedon and they trusted him and they let his traits come to bear and the fruit on display in this movie is sweet and juicy.

Now, I haven’t been a fan of everything Mr. Whedon has been involved with. I did go through a pretty heavy Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) phase in the late ’90s, but I never got into Angel (1999-2004) or Dollhouse (2009-2010). On the other hand, Firefly (2002) was clearly terrific, but I went into that well after its cancellation and after being underwhelmed by its movie follow-up Serenity (2005). Of course, after binging on Firefly I went back to Serenity and found it to be really pretty great. All of these previous projects now seem to have been perfect preparation for The Avengers. All of them have traits that are present in Mr. Whedon’s film (only his second feature film): revolving and involving a large cast of principal characters, stories progressing along multiple threads, a script teeming with cleverness and zingy lines, actors having fun with their characters and with each other, action sequences that are well-paced and make sense (no Transformers style aesthetic and logical vomit here), and a villain in Loki who is just slightly conflicted, but as charming as he is evil.

I think the film’s success is not entirely due to the efforts and input of Mr. Whedon (and here I’m assuming that it’s North American release will be as tremendous as it’s international — myself, I saw the film last week here in South Korea in a packed theatre). A large part of what makes this film work, i.e. what enables it to be understandable, is the immense marketing effort that Marvel/Disney has put behind it. It really has been, I believe, unprecedented and tremendously ambitious. From the post-credit tag scene at the end of Iron Man to the Tony Stark cameo in The Incredible Hulk (2008) to the all out blitz over the past two years from Iron Man 2 through Thor and Captain America. It’s been risky because those movies, to varying degrees, suffered from the weight of laying the groundwork for The Avengers. In fact, it could possibly be argued that Marvel first planned this assault way back in 2002 when Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch re-imagined the Nick Fury character in the image of Samuel L. Jackson for The Ultimates comic book (this being The Avengers equivalent in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. I am hoping more of the style of this comic universe will be on display in the new The Amazing Spider-Man movie later this summer becuase Ultimate Spider-Man is one of my favorite comcis ever). So, if any true comic book aficionado can enlighten me on Marvel’s possible prescience or grand plan,  please chime in. My point is that Marvel has put in a lot of effort to make sure awareness for The Avengers project was extremely high and it looks as if they were willing to take some losses and bad reviews along the way. While since Iron Man in 2008, box office and reviews for these movies have been moving lower and lower, the awareness of the characters and The Avengers as a group has been increasing. Marvel knows that not everyone has seen all of these movies, but what everyone has seen over the past 18 months is a trailer or TV spot or an interview or guest appearance or tweet from one of the principal cast members. The tiresomeness of the releases of Thor and Captain America in particular last summer stemmed in part from the knowledge that the audience was purchasing a ticket to watch an advertisement for the main product: The Avengers. But, even this is not the end product. What Marvel/Disney has set up is far more enduring; they have designed a self-perpetuating content property. This is not just a tent pole franchise; it’s an entire camping park. Whereas Harry Potter and Twilight have had to resort the heavy-handed tactic of splitting the last novel to lengthen their film series (it seems inevitable that The Hunger Games will resort to this also), Marvel and its Hollywood studio partners have been able to draw on the culture and history of comic book narrative and publishing. No other form of popular literature is as malleable and re-visionable as the comic book, yet readers still accept the convoluted mythologies and the shifting appearances and histories of the characters. Marvel has applied those qualities to both its marketing and the production of The Avengers and hired, in Mr. Whedon, the person to translate that into something that makes sense.

The Avengers is not a perfect movie even if you put away all the cynical corporatization of the narrative and the idea that the whole thing or more about marketing than story or entertainment (content = property = profit). The film is probably too long, the SHIELD secret agenda subplot is too easily dismissed, and Agent Hill is a non-starter. But still, it’s amazingly fun and most amazing of all is that the studio overlords let their storytellers tell the story. I have to tip my hat, because I am now re-excited about marvel’s upcoming projects. My favourite thing about The Avengers was Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk. I’ve been in awe of him ever since You Can Count On Me (2000), and the prospect of a Hulk movie that actually works because of its lead actor has me smashing things in childish excitement. Also, Iron Man 3 has a great chance of being pretty fantastic; it’s being written and directed by Shane Black. Mr. Black wrote the second best action movie of the ’80s* Lethal Weapon (1987) and is the guy who saved Robert Downey Jr.’s career with the wonderful but woefully under-seen postmodern L.A. neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). If Mr. Black is afforded the same trust and he delivers like Mr, Whedon has delivered, then the way way for Marvel properties will be a pleasure to watch.

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* The best action movie of the ’80s (and of all time) is Die Hard (1988).


Haywire (2012)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Lem Dobbs

Cast: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton

Gina & Genre

Haywire is a one-woman show… literally. There are only two other women with lines of dialogue in the movie, and one of those women is a shop clerk who only says, “42.50”, the price of a disposable mobile phone. This is not to say that Haywire is a male-centric film; it certainly is not that. The collection of male talent arrayed against Gina Carano’s Mallory Kane are in orbit around her either as satellites or as kamikaze asteroids doomed to fall and fail by the force of her gravity and then be systematically crushed by its power. Physically Ms. Carano is sublime — as a non-professional actor she isn’t asked to do too much verbally, but she portrays Mallory as a coldly efficient warrior warmed just enough with (for her) an uncomfortable sexual allure and a comfortable (again, for her) smoldering sense of vengeance. Her physicality is wisely placed at the centre by director Steven Soderbergh, and it is exploited for its power. As a male viewer it’s difficult not to be awed by her presence, but there is never a hint of seduction in Mallory Kane. Still, her allure is palpable.

The exploitation of the physical is, of course, nothing new in the action genre, but unlike the early movies of similar male crossover athletes/actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme come immediately to mind), Ms. Carano is not treated as a piece of muscly meat. Mr. Soderbergh does take advantage of her curves, but not in the way you’d expect.The idea of eye-candy is explicitly brought out in one scene in Lem Dobbs’s (The Limey — 1999) script when Mallory bristles against playing that role for an assignment in Dublin; however, Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Dobbs constantly seek to subvert the idea. Michael Fassbender offers the only vaguely erotic nudity in the film when he appears shirtless and sinewy with a towel wrapped around his waist after a shower. The point of the scene is not seduction or arousal… unless it is of the arousal of each characters’ professional curiosity; it is tension, subterfuge, and vulnerability. It is a kind of antithetical callback to an earlier scene in which Mallory is also shown right after a shower… wearing a house robe and which a towel frumpishly wrapped about her head. The expectation of Mallory’s sensuality in this scene is a subversion because the scene follows her “seduction” of Channing Tatum’s character in Barcelona. Mr. Tatum himself is often characterized by reviewers and audiences as beefcake eye-candy, but he also remains covered throughout and his sex scene with Ms. Carano is cut with her unbuckling of his belt. I look forward to more play on the idea of eye-candy in Mr. Soderbergh’s later 2012 film, Magic Mike, which also stars Mr. Tatum (this time as a male stripper).

I do think that how we look at women and men and our expectations of them is an aside for Mr. Soderbergh in this film. I think his real purpose with Haywire is something more obviously movie-is. He has, of course, crafted an action genre movie, and by doing so, is commenting on that genre.

There is nothing extraordinary about the plot of Haywire. It is every bit as implausible as any other action movie. It is not high-concept like Die Hard (1988) or the Mission: Impossible movies (1996, 2000, 2006, 2011), but neither is it low-brow like Commando (1985), Bloodsport (1988), or The Expendables (2010). The plot of this film is decidedly low-concept (double-cross + revenge), but with no smart-ass one-liners or obligatory tits-shot. The narrative is not told in a strictly linear manner, its first half is a sequence of flashbacks as Mallory relates events to Scott, her helpless tag-along witness, but it is straightforward and there are no twists. Similarly, there are no attempted undercurrents of political commentary as there are in the paranoia filled world of Jason Bourne or (lesser to Bourne) the dark action films of Ridley Scott and his brother Tony Scott: Black Rain (1989), G.I. Jane (1997), Body of Lies (2008), Man on Fire (2004), and Domino (2005).

In fact, I couldn’t help thinking about the Bourne films as I watched Haywire. Both share a lot of action (fights, car chases, foot chases, gunplay), but otherwise they are dissimilar, particularly in the way they are shot. The Bourne series has become known (and notorious for some) for its use of handheld camerawork and rapid editing. In those three films things are shaky because Bourne’s world and state of mind are shaky. The action and the violence spill out of the frame and into the audience’s world; perception is disrupted and comfort along with it; the technique is effective psychologically as well as in terms of narrative and character. Mr. Soderbergh’s film, however, is smooth and calculated. His always excellent camera-moves glide with the motion of the characters — the camera is controlled because the film’s central character is self-controlled. In a foot chase sequence in Barcelona, the camera tracks backward as Mallory Kane runs forward and after her quarry; the camera will never escape her and neither will the man she is chasing. She is kept centre-frame and this serves to highlight her directness. It is a simple and effective use of camera and action informing the audience of character. In close combat scenes, the staging works in a similar way. Walls form the sides of the frame and Mallory propels herself off these edges; she is kept inside the frame where her opponents have no escape from her. For a modern (post-modern?) action movie, the filmmaking is unusual in its avoidance of quick cuts, bombastic music, and disorientating staging. Instead, takes are relatively long for action sequences, fast, smooth pans are employed, music is dropped out, and the action usually unfolds in long or medium shot. Again, it’s all very simple, straightforward, effective, and entertaining.

There is nothing new in Haywire, but between Gina Carano’s forceful presence and the direct centricity of her character, there’s more than enough to satisfy both fans of action movies and fans of Mr. Soderbergh (like me). And, as a final thought, it’s too bad that undamaged women do not drive more films, action or other genres, forward.

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Overdose: Orson Welles, Part Two

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

On first impression, The Magnificent Ambersons was a real surprise. I came into the film on the back of watching Citizen Kane for the first time in decades, but that was not what was influencing me the most in my expectations. Instead, I was expecting a film more tonally along the lines of the film it probably most heavily influenced: Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).  The opening of the film, while clearly emulated in style (and Wes Anderson is nothing if not at least a cinematic stylist) by Mr. Anderson, offers the first hints that Mr. Welles’s film will not strike the breezy irony that Mr. Anderson’s films have become so identified with. Mr. Welles’s voice over narration is sombre and serious in a way that Alec Baldwin’s deadpan delivery is not, and neither is it leavened by pop orchestration of a “Hey Jude” cover. Mr. Welles is offering a history and a context for the eponymous  family rather than just the history of  the individuals that make it up. Both, however, do serve their respective films very well. Still, with the comic missteps of Eugene Morgan and his double-bass, I was still on the path of mis-expectation. As the film unfolds, it slowly and gently pulls the viewer into its sad morality tale. Then, with signature deep focus shots and long takes, the viewer is compelled to view the downward spiral of the Ambersons from the outside. As the title directs, they are magnificent and clearly separated from the ordinary citizens who are, of course, the diegetic audience while we, the cinema audience, remain even further removed. Made immediately after Citizen KaneThe Magnificent Ambersons is clearly its very close relative, but they are not twins. If Kane is a hybrid of European expressionism and good ol’ American realism, Ambersons is, to me, a study in Bazin’s cinematic realism. Narratively, Kane is fractured and subjective; it’s a story told in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards from six narrative points-of-view. These narratives, while presented pretty chronologically, are bookended by sequences that are highly expressionistic with noir-esque cinematography, horror film allusions, dramatic use of music, and employment of distortion and canted angles. The Magnificent Ambersons on the other hand is detached in its perspective and with those long takes (the final ball of the Ambersons is such a beautiful use of camera and set working together) and the deep focus shots it asks the audience to coldly observe. While George is a young boy and young man we partake in the expectation the townsfolk have of relishing his comeuppance, but when it does arrive the citizens have forgotten and we, now the only audience remaining, are left with ambivalence as we watch not what is expressed, but what is being reported to us.

A lot has been written and said about how Mr. Welles, through circumstances mostly out of his control — the Pearl Harbour attack, for one — The Magnificent Ambersons that has been left with us is not the film its director would have delivered (about 40 minutes is missing from Mr. Welles’s original cut). However, precisely because these losses have been so lamented, Mr. Welles’s intent is easy to place in the viewer’s mind and the film’s original spirit can be evoked, especially if watched shortly after a viewing of Citizen Kane.

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Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Screenplay: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin

Cast:Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty

Film & Performance

A few years ago, Robert De Niro donated a huge collection of personal files from the films he has worked on throughout his career in order that they be available to film and cultural scholars for study. I can only imagine the wealth of information that is contained within that collection, and the insights and revelations of one film in particular, Raging Bull, must be particularly fascinating. Over the last few years, this film has emerged as clearly my favourite Martin Scorsese film. It is without doubt a masterpiece of filmmaking from top to bottom: directing, cinematography, editing, sound, and, of course, performance. It is also fair to say that without Mr. De Niro, this film would never have been made by Mr. Scorsese. According to many, including this 2010 VanityFair article on the making of Raging Bull, Mr. De Niro not only put the idea and the script into his director friend’s hands, but spent weeks in isolation with Mr. Scorsese putting in countless hours of uncredited  work on the screenplay and in preparation for the film. I think that because of Mr. De Niro’s persistence, preparation, and insistence, so much of Raging Bull is about performance.

From the opening shot, Raging Bull instructs the viewer on its nature and on the nature on its central figure, Jake La Motta. Balletic and menacing, the boxer alternately dances and prowls, a graceful but caged animal, inside the ring while the screen audience succumbs hypnotically to music and image… operatic, smoky, slow motion, brilliance. We then are transported a few decades forward to a physically altered (from transfigured to misfigured) Jake La Motta and a different warm up act, a different performance, but, we suspect, the same caged instincts in play. This time La Motta is constrained by his tuxedo and the smallness of his dressing room. The boxing ring the title sequence shot, while roped, is open and the background and off-screen space seems infinite with its flashbulb punctuation. As is pointed out on Art of the Title, the foreground ropes suggest musical bars with La Motta occupying the role of a treble clef in the right of the frame. In the dressing room, the off-screen space is tight: La Motta is squeezed into the right-hand side of the frame and a mirror is on the left and then we are taken to close-up to further emphasize that what is really containing this man is not the world outside, but himself. So, with the opening sequence of the film, a sequence not just of contrasts, but of performances, we come to understand that La Motta has survived to a peace that is literally and figuratively uncomfortable.

The film is of course bookended by these two performances and by La Motta’s stand-up stage act. The flatness of his recital of Terry Malloy’s speech from On the Waterfront (1954) is post-modern in its self-reference and meta-fictional nod from Mr. De Niro to Marlon Brandon, a taking- up of the method acting baton from one great to another. The lifelessness of the delivery of this speech only adds to its pathos. La Motta, at his mirror, addresses the speech to himself, not to his brother Joey. It has not been Joey who has denied Jake the life of a somebody; it has been his own violent, repressed, self-destructive, animal nature.

Other performances punctuate the film between the beginning and the end. The fights are dizzying examples of on-set choreography not just between the actors in the ring but between the actors and the camera and also the choreography in post-production with the editing of image and sound. The fights between La Motta and Sugar Ray Robinson offer the best evidence, particularly the last one with it’s circus-like contra-zoom and the tigerish growls emanating from the soundtrack. Scorsese’s tracking shot as Jake enters the arena for his title shot is a further example of this synthesis. Like other classic Scorsese tracking shots — the Jumpin’ Jack Flash shot in Mean Streets (1973) and the Copa shot in Goodfellas (1990) — it’s purposefully showy and fits dramatically and thematically with the elements of performance — situation, character, actor, and director combined. La Motta’s home life is also a kind of performance. The kitchen sink comedy of Jake getting his steak has its audience within the film as well as in the cinema: the screaming neighbour who knows Jake’s character perfectly well (“You animal!”). Even if Jake can’t help himself, he is very aware of the ways in which performance shapes his life. He plays up the comic villain role for his Brooklyn neighbour, he fusses about his robe after a fight, and he deconstructs the scene unfolding at the pool with Vicky and the local wiseguys. Salvy and his crew are acting up for the teenage beauty just as much as she is putting on a show for them and whomever else is watching (Jake included). The dazzling pin-up poster framing of how Scorsese shoots Vicky in her introduction works hand in hand with Jake’s analytic commentary of what he sees.

In contrast to all of Jake’s types of performance stands the torment of his lack of performance and the anguish of these failures. The sham of Jake throwing a fight leaves him sobbing, banned, and publicly humiliated (this is echoed later when La Motta is thrown in jail). After successfully defending his title, barely, Vicky cajoles him into calling Joey to apologize, but Jake stands impotent and inept in the phone booth on the cusp of his inevitable defeat to Sugar Ray Robinson and his becoming an out-of-shape loser. And finally, as we are reminded time and again, his inability to perform sexually. At first it is a masochistic trial as he dares Vicky to seduce him between fights with Sugar Ray. This ends comically with him dousing his ardor with ice-cold water. Eventually, though, the impotence turns real and violent with La Motta strutting after brutally beating Janiro (“He ain’t pretty no more,” observes Tommy), and then beating his brother and then Vicky — and all this done with an audience (on the street, and in front of Joey’s kids). His awareness of performance also fails at crucial moments. One is Jake’s inability to hear the truth from Joey regarding Vicky (assuming Joey is telling the truth). Jake instead is blinded and deafened by insecurity, paranoia, and violence. Then, again, in Florida, the “reformed” La Motta is too wrapped up in his own Mr. Nice Guy persona to spot the 14 year-old girl in his club which leads to his destruction of the one remaining item of value for all the struggle and violence he put himself through: his championship belt.

A lot of attention is given to Raging Bull particularly for Mr. De Niro’s performance. This is justly so. However, what makes it so is not just the brilliance of his on screen work, but the way in which the actor’s presence threads through this film from its conception to its writing, its production, its acclaim, and its criticism.

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John Carter (2012)

Director: Andrew Stanton

Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon

Cast: Taylor Kitsch

Of Mars & Men

I’m just back from the cinema and my viewing of John Carter of Mars (I refuse to drop the “of Mars” since it’s a much better title and it appears at the film’s end). Here are some quick hits:

The story and imagination on display are not groundbreaking. I don’t think it matters that the source novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs provoked the imaginations of those who have brought countless science fiction and fantasy hybrids before our eyes. They got to the silver screen first and Joh Carter of Mars now looks a little generic. However… however, it is done with superb joy and craft. The bad guys are nothing to write on your blog about, but Taylor Kitsch as John Carter… well now. If a guy can invoke the aura of Kurt Russell then he’s pretty fucking brilliant as far as I’m concerned. It may have been just the beard and/or the hat, but I just could not get Mr. Russell out of my head while watching this movie. Other things, the story moves along at a good pace. It’s never too slow and it’s never too fast. It looks pretty good, too, but there’s nothing mind-blowing or groundbreaking about the visuals, either. The bookends device works brilliantly in both paradoxically tying up the movie and leaving things open for further stories. So, to sum up… goofy looking aliens, weird names, Mark Strong playing yet another generic bad guy, McNulty… it all adds up, somehow, improbably, to a pretty fun time at the cinema. I’m gonna chalk it up to the Pixar DNA of Andrew Stanton’s story-craft.

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Young Adult (2011)

Director: Jason Reitman

Screenplay: Diablo Cody

Cast: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswald, Patrick Wilson

The Agony & the Apathy


You know, of course, the old Klingon saying that revenge is a dish best served cold, but that is rarely true in cinema where the revenge film genre is full of hot-blooded violent male fantasies. It is also true that these films tend to be thrillers in which males become, at least in part, victims of their own drive for revenge for wrongs done to the women in their lives (the subtext being that without women there would be no need for revenge and the male soul would be at peace). Some of these are pretty good movies — Mad Max (1979), Memento (2000),Taken (2008), and  Drive (2011), for example — while others are beyond the pale in their implications and cruelty (and, in my experience, they tend to belong to the rich sub-genre of Korean revenge thrillers).But in the wake of all this blood and gun-play, imprisonment and mutilation, comes a very different kind of revenge fantasy: Young Adult from the director and writer tandem that brought the world Juno(2007). Now, I’m going to abandon my usual (and common) director-biased view of cinema in favour of the writer of this film, Diablo Cody.

It seems to me that Young Adult is a film seeking vengeance not for its main character (Mavis), but on its main character. The film is cold and cruel as it strips away her props and delusions until she is left stained and naked save for the decidedly un-sexy NuBra stuck to her breasts. She perfumes herself with booze, sleeps it off face-down in her own self-negligence, washes it out with diet soda, gorges on KenTacoHut (KFC + Taco Bell + Pizza Hut all in one far too convenient fast-food box store). She is repeatedly pricked, snipped, and re-polished by indifferent manicurists and pedicurists; she plucks out the grey and pins hair-extensions to her head; she smashes her Mini and abandons her Pomeranian. Mavis is a wonder of both projection of loathing and injection of self-loathing. Do I think we are supposed to feel sorry for this character? Yes, that’s where I think the revenge fantasy is seemingly fulfilled. When Mavis finally has her breakdown in public, none of the other character is surprised. They pity her and yet have no mercy for her. But Ms. Cody isn’t done with Mavis yet. Victimized geeks must get their revenge, too, and Patton Oswald’s Matt Freehauf fulfils his fantasy by having sex with the hottest girl from high school whose jock friends beat him to within an inch of his life and left him an emotionally and physically scarred cripple. But the ultimate revenge comes right at the end, after talking with Matt’s sister on the morning-after, the promise of Mavis’s redemption, atonement, and self-awareness is rendered meaningless. Mavis is nudged back toward loathing and she accepts the invitation whole-heartedly. She apologizes to her dog, but to no one else, and heads back to a life of denial and reaffirmation in Minneapolis. I suppose this is the final cruelty to complete the fantasy, and ultimately because she’s a type and not a person, she deserves not to be redeemed; it wouldn’t be true and she clearly doesn’t want it — and neither does the audience.

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