Rio Lobo

Rio Lobo (1970) movie poster

(1970) director Howard Hawks
viewed: 08/28/10

A rather disappointing swan song for the great American auteur Howard Hawks, Rio Lobo is his second re-working of his great Western Rio Bravo (1959) from a decade prior and his final film.  Also disappointing was his prior re-working of Rio Bravo, El Dorado (1966).  Many critics consider Rio Bravo to be his last great film, but it’s interesting that he went back to the well not just once but twice.

I’d queued up both Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo back when I’d seen Red River (1948), but only got around to seeing them after watching John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which truth be told, is better re-working of the material than Hawks himself managed.  By the 1960’s, the classic Hollywood Western had gone through some major evolutionary changes, whipped about by directors like Sergio Leone (and other Spaghetti Westerns) and Sam Peckinpah.  Like many film genres, the Western is a lens upon the time of its production, a set of rules or standards or structures which can be used as a metaphorical setting for stories about other things.  But the Western in the 1960’s and 1970’s became typically more revisionist, at least in regards to the way that the classic Western had mythologized American values and history.  It’s actually probably a fantastic cultural study to pore over the bulk of the genre this way.

But Rio Lobo is stuck.  It’s still trying to be the classic Western as in the heyday of the studio system, following the conventions, not breaking from them, and it pins its Hollywood style on its leading man, John Wayne, yet again.  But here, he’s now over 60 and his voice is raspier and more tired-sounding.  He’s bigger and older, still a commanding presence, but now surrounded not by quality players as in Rio Bravo, but a bunch of not so hot young actors (with the exception of the great Jack Elam).  And the story, which is kind of convoluted when you boil it down (even though it is written or co-written as was Rio Bravo by Leigh Brackett), is more of a paint-by-numbers sort of build-up to the shoot-out at the end.

What’s interesting about viewing films through the auteur theory lens is that even the poorer films of a great director’s oeuvre are fascinating.  In studying authorship, it probably is more interesting, particularly with a good Hawksian film scholar.  But sadly, watched for simple pure enjoyment, it’s not an argument in and of itself for Hawks, Wayne, or the Western at all.  It’s tired and heavy with re-tread.  And especially so for me, since only earlier in the day I’d watched Rio Bravo.

I’m not trying to say what makes a film great or not great.  I’m sure there are a lot of ways to slice it, analyze it, parse it, and study it.  I watched it because it was a Howard Hawks film, a sibling of sorts of Rio Bravo.  So, don’t get me wrong, I do watch films accordingly.  It’s just too bad that his final film was a mere shadow of his finer work.  But one might find that that is often the case.

Rio Bravo

Rio Bravo (1959) movie poster

(1959) director Howard Hawks
viewed: 08/28/10

Inspired by watching John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which was inspired by director Howard Hawks 1959 Western, I decided to queue up Rio Bravo, which I’d actually had in my film queue for a few years now anyways.  I’ve often noted that it’s pretty impossible to have seen all the great films of the world, probably impossible to have seen simply all the great films from Hollywood alone.  And I watch a hell of a lot of movies compared to the average Joe.  Bottom line, I’d never seen Hawks’ great western, though I had seen one of his own re-tinkerings with it, his 1966 film El Dorado.

It’s one thing to see the films that cannibalized Rio Bravo, or paid homage to it.  It’s another to go to the source material, one of Hawks’ most-beloved films.

It stars John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, and Ricky Nelson, so the cast, while a little on the odd side as a grouping, is actually pretty damn great.  Wayne is the sheriff in a Texas town, holding prisoner the murderous low-life brother of a wealthy, disreputable family until regional authorities come to take him for trial.  But the villain’s brother hires a litany of would-be killers for money to stake out the town and wait for the right moment to strike and free the prisoner.  All that Wayne’s sheriff has on his side, is the gimpy Brennan, the recovering alcoholic Martin, and eventually the young hotshot Nelson against the crew of killers-for-hire.  Well, actually, he’s go the sexy, slightly sullied Dickinson and the diminutive Mexican hotelier on his side too, but then that’s all part of the film’s legend.

It’s said that this film was made, partially, in response to High Noon (1952), the classic Fred Zinneman Western starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, which is considered a metaphorical critique of McCarthyism and the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC).  In High Noon, Cooper is a sheriff who can find no one to help him fend off the coming of a gang set to kill him.  The town’s cowardice is meant to reflect the cowardice of those who didn’t stand beside the accused Communists.   Wayne in particular hated High Noon for these reasons, and the common reading is that Rio Bravo is a conservative political response to the earlier film.  In Rio Bravo, while Wayne’s buddies are all a little questionable on the outside, they all stand up, show their pluck and their worth in the end.  I actually don’t know how that plays out with the HUAC metaphor, but it is oppositional in its narrative.

More than anything, it’s a Howard Hawks film, and a great one for applying the Auteur Theory to as it exemplifies many of Hawks’ ideological considerations, visual styles, characterization, and humor.  It’s certainly the best of Hawks’ Westerns that I have seen and a very likable film.  You can easily see why it’s a favorite of so many.

I grew up disliking Wayne, perhaps for what he symbolizes (and how much of that includes his conservative politics) or perhaps what I’ve projected on him.  But Wayne in cinema is quite a grand and interesting figure, who starred in numerous great films made by a number of great directors.  This film, made at the end of what is sometimes referred to as the “Western cycle”, or the end of the period of the classic Hollywood Western, still works from that same set of staple elements that made the classic Hollywood Western a great genre.  It’s still part of the studio system, it’s classic Hollywood, up and down.  Wayne is 50 years old in this film, but he’s still a rock-solid hero and star.

Angie Dickinson is striking beautiful in this film (I can’t say as I’d ever thought much of her before), and she’s a classic Hawksian female lead: fast-talking, able to drink and “be one of the guys.”  Martin puts in a solid dramatic performance, with added humor and a song as well.  Heck, Ricky Nelson, even not given much to do and not doing a whole lot with it, also is a charming asset in the film.  And Walter Brennan.  Jeez, I love Walter Brennan.   A fine film, all told.

The Thing

The Thing (1982) movie poster

(1982) director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/26/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Great f’ing movie.

John Carpenter’s re-make of Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) is doubtlessly Carpenter’s best film.  Tense and intense, straightforward and yet gorily over-the-top, there is a gritty earnestness to the film’s whole, a pared-down and energetic horror/action film that features some of the best of 1980’s special effects courtesy of Rob Bottin and Rick Baker.

When it came out in the 1980’s the gore/effects were so shocking that there were lots of rumors or stories about people throwing up in the theater.  The effects are strange and extreme, innovative and shocking, still holding great power today, which is owes no small debt to the overall film and its effectiveness.  Many of the best scenes are that in which the “Thing” is morphing, exploding, oozing, whipping around tentacles, never finding a single, singular form.  It must have been quite the exciting challenge, an open ended interpretation of what the creature is going to look like at any given time.  One of the best is when the head of a dead man detaches itself from the body, whips out a long tongue, which it uses to grab on to something to pull itself to safety, and then sprouts antenna-like eye-protrusions and several spidery crab-like legs as it tries to scamper to escape.  It’s not just the grossness but the shock and weirdness and unpredictability of the designs that keeps you always unsettled.

The action is set in Antartica, and the film opens with a helicopter chasing a husky across the snow, shooting at it.  The immediate sequence gives no lead as to what’s going on (i.e., “why are they shooting at a dog?”), so it’s kind of disorienting, very effectively so.  The men in the helicopter chase the dog to the American base, unintelligibly speaking a foreign language, shouting and firing at the dog and wounding the Americans before they are shot and killed.   The dog is taken into camp.  The mystery is afoot.

Kurt Russell, in the best of his starring roles for Carpenter, is the American chopper pilot, who leads a search of the Norwegian outpost to try to figure out what happened.  Footage that is found shows that the Norwegians discovered a spaceship in the ice, and apparently a being as well, frozen for who knows how long.    And unfortunately for all involved, they find out when it thaws out that this creature is a parasitic impostor, a monster that absorbs other creatures and then turns itself into a replica of them.

Things go from bad to worse as the story unfolds, as they begin to understand what they are dealing with.   What comes about is an air of utter paranoia.  The American base team, a very strong all-male cast of character actors, suddenly doesn’t know who among them might be the Thing.  And this leads to one of the film’s best scenes, in which Russell tests their blood with a heated wire, because the creature’s blood will react as a living thing, not merely a bodily fluid.

I’ve been on a minor John Carpenter bent of late, watching his earliest films,  Dark Star (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and I’ve come to have a greater and greater appreciation for him as a director.  I remember that the last time that I watched The Thing, probably about 12 or so years ago, I was also duly impressed.  It’s a film with very little fat.  And with quite a bit of intensity, surprises, and excitement.  Heck, it’s probably one of the best of the 1980’s period.  Yes, it’s that good.

House of Horrors

House of Horrors (1946) movie poster

(1946) director Jean Yarbrough
viewed: 08/26/10 at the Roxie Theater, SF, CA

Shown as part of the Roxie Theater’s “Not Necessarily Noir”  film series, House of Horrors is a late Universal Pictures horror film from the lower tiers of low budget.   It’s most notable for featuring iconic, though obscure, actor Rondo Hatton, a man whose face and body were distorted by disease and wound up making for a cheap “effect” himself, a monster who required no make-up to be intimidating.

While most of the B-movies that are enjoyed now and in retrospect often have A-quality charms, House of Horrors is a B-picture all the way through.   The story of a down-and-out sculptor, driven to near suicide by his awful mean-spirited critics, finds himself at the river’s edge, conemplating thowing himself in.  But then he sees a man trying to escape the river and goes to help rescue him.  That man turns out to be Rondo Hatton, a killer known in this film (and featured in a few others as well) as “The Creeper”, a man not terribly bright and also one who has received little kindness in his life.  “The Creeper” is a serial murderer, temporarily thought dead by police.  But when the sculptor begins to complain about his critics, Hatton takes the suggestion and starts murdering them.   There is an aspect of influence of Val Lewton in this film.

The “Not Necessarily Noir” series is a wide-ranging one, featuring a number of films like this one that are not available on DVD, so not as well known as many of their contemporaries.  There have been a few Noir festivals in San Francisco, including the annual Noir City series at the Castro Theatre.  The Roxie has hosted some many times as well.  But this series allows itself to take the term and find its stylistic characteristics in films that don’t fit so nicely in the usual film noir canon.  That said, noir is considered a style, not a genre, though the bulk of most famous noirs are crime films or melodramas.  But alongside these unusual older films, the selection at the Roxie also includes several “neo-noirs” or modern films with distinct noir flavorings, again not so typically categorized.

Frankly, I’m sorry that I missed several of the earlier films in the series.  It had been ages since I’d last been to the Roxie.  And with the announced closing of the Clay Theater on Fillmore earlier this week, it’s further testament to how these little neighborhood theaters will not be around much longer without better support.  The Roxie has been through hard times in recent years, but has, I think, re-established itself a bit.

It’s a great film series and a cool little film.

Piranha 3D

Piranha 3D (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Alexandre Aja
viewed: 08/22/10 at the AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

T & A and blood and gore, and in 3D as well.

Alexandre Aja’s remake of the Roger Corman/Joe Dante/John Sayles original Piranha (1978) is most everything it promises to be, and unlike so many re-makes of horror films of late (A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), My Bloody Valentine (2009)), it refreshes the content rather than just regurgitates it.  In fact, Aja makes for a funhouse ride of sex, gore, torsos, and extremities, with a dose of humor almost as large as the dose of blood (in gallons).

I’d actually been yearning to see the original, directed by Joe Dante, as part of a trope of early Roger Corman-produced films by name directors of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  And I had also desired to see Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981), which happened to be James Cameron’s first feature film.   Long, convoluted story short, watching the originals will have to follow watching the remake.

The premise is that it’s spring break on “Lake Victoria” (Lake Havasu was the location of the filming) and that lots of young adults are going to party, drink, and get out and out wild for the holiday.  But just before that, a seismic event occurs, which unleashes a horde of prehistoric piranha that have been trapped in a “lake under the lake” for a millennium.  While trapped down there, they cannibalized to eat and they are pretty much super-piranha.  It’s a formula made for lurid enjoyment, watching the hard-bodied youth become stripped of their flesh or downright skeletonized.  I mean, this is what you pay your money for.

Richard Dreyfuss shows up in a nod to the original “fish terrorizing a community” film, Jaws (1975), for which the original Piranha was a knock-off/parody.  We also get the game Elisabeth Shue, last seen in Hamlet 2 (2008) and now playing in a fun B-movie, as the town’s sheriff.  Her eldest son is supposed to be babysitting his younger siblings but takes a job with Jerry O’Connell, playing a character based roughly on Girls Gone Wild-producer Joe Francis, scouting sites for the filming of nudity and debauchery.  Actually, I thought O’Connell was pretty hilarious.  Like Shue, the whole cast is pretty game; everyone is here for the bloodbath, jokey gorings, severed body parts, and lusty nudes.

The 3-D seemed an apt upgrade here, an opportunity to thrust teeth and prongs and various pieces of flesh at the audience.  But really, it didn’t make for any memorable additions to the process.  A further argument against this whole push in current film-making.  And the digitally animated fish, well, they’re typical digital animation effects, not particularly frightening or realistic.

I give Aja credit though. Aja (High Tension (2003), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Mirrors (2008)) embraces this film with a gusto and verve that makes it worth the effort.  From the underwater swimming nude scene to the disemboweling and general chopping up of the titillating and erotic features of hundreds of gyrating bodies, the film just is what it sets out to be, a sexualized  gore-fest, which fixates on the body.  There’s not a lot of subtext to the naturally occurring fish.  But the hot, partying humans, their eroticism and mortality are on high display.

Jason and the Argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) movie poster

(1963) director Don Chaffey
viewed: 08/21/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Celebrating animator/special effects legend Ray Harryhausen’s 90th birthday, the Castro Theatre booked a series of his films for the weekend.  Each day featured a different triple feature.  Saturday, it was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).  Sunday featured It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).  The kids and I have watched most of these over the past few years, as well as a few others of his films, so I was keen on taking them down to the Castro to see them on the big screen.  But I didn’t think they’d last through a double feature, much less a triple feature, so I had to pick one…and I opted for Jason and the Argonauts because it’s Harryhausen’s favorite of his films.

It was kind of funny because it had been 3 years since we’d watched the film, still quite within my memory span, but not in Clara’s (she might not have sat through it the first time anyways) and vaguely for Felix.  We watched both the Talos (the giant bronze statue come to life) sequence and the famed skeleton fight on YouTube to warm them up and get them excited about it.  And actually, when it came time to head down to the Castro, we had an entire entourage with us.

Clara kept wanting to hide her eyes when the monsters came on screen and the adventure kicked in.  I told her, “This is the best part, don’t hide your eyes!” Because really, the films without the animation are tolerable, but nothing spectacular.  But of all the films Jason and the Argonauts features some of the cooler monsters, but also one of the more cohesive and logical storylines.

I was a little torn between seeing Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  As a kid, I think my favorite was the latter, mainly because I liked the cyclops and the dragon more than Talos.  And The 7th Voyage of Sinbad features a skeleton fight, too.  Only with one skeleton, not the seven or so that go all out in the Jason and the Argonauts finale.  A good time was had by all, but I did find myself a bit wishing that I’d caught another film or two of the series.

What with having watched A Town Called Panic (2009) the night before, the kids have a pretty passionate appreciation for stop-motion animation.  Me, I like the monsters.  We all like Harryhausen.

A Town Called Panic

A Town Called Panic (2009) movie poster

(2009) directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar
viewed: 08/20/10

An oddball, funny, fun stop-motion animated feature film from Belgium, A Town Called Panic was a real hit with the kids.  Expanded from a television show, short episodes of the wacky adventures of Horse, Indian, and Cowboy, the whole character and aesthetic of the world of A Town Called Panic is one where little toys have come to life.  The figures don’t have great depth of facial expression and many of the standing figures have little platforms attached to their feet like the army men in Toy Story (1995) and thus waddle about for movement and express themselves with their whole bodies.  The limitations of the characters’ movements and style are all chosen and opted for in the filmmakers’ aesthetics and give the film its hilarious and kooky personality.

The fact that the characters are “supposed to be” animated toys belies the fact that they actually have multitudinous models for the characters to give them the range of expression and physical extremes.  It’s a wholly different approach to stop-motion animation from say, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) or Coraline (2009).  But it’s further argument that 2009 was a fantastic year for the form.

The story is sort of simple, but it grows into an epic-like adventure.  It’s Horse’s birthday, so Cowboy and Indian, the troublemakers of the gang, order some bricks to build him a barbecue as a gift, but accidentally order too many, which leads to the destruction of their home.  Their subsequent re-build of their house is troubled by the theft of their walls, which turns out to be the doings of a submarine Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)- like gang of amphibious fellows who live in the underworld world below.  There is also a weird sequence in which a motorized giant penguin, run by super-strong old scientists, roams a snowy wasteland throwing giant snowballs at other worlds on the planet.

It’s the absurdity and comedy that make this whole film just plain fun.  It was in French, with subtitles, which I had to read to them, which oddly didn’t diminish their enjoyment at all.  They watched it the next morning on their own again and laughed just as hard the second time around.  In fact, Felix rated it among his favorite films of all time, a list which I tried to query him on to of which get a better understanding.

Sometimes the best things are the weird little ones that you just plain aren’t expecting.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Edgar Wright
viewed: 08/18/10 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

Channeling comic books, video games, anime, manga and riffing off pop culture elements from music, film, television, everywhere, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the most visually inventive films in a long time.  For a movie sold towards teens and the cineplexes, it’s almost an art film from its frenetic, cartoony pacing and design, while deep in its core it’s a hipster-ish love story.  At times, at many times throughout the film, the whole lively, lurid, comic and free-form imagery feels almost utterly radical and truly new and fresh, overt and over-the-top as it is.  It can also be annoying or clunky, and when it’s not “on”, when the film is a little more normalized (typical un-enhanced photography and acting) it can seem a little dry.

On the whole, it’s a pop confection and aesthetic fun house of a movie.

Starring Michael Cera, of Youth in Revolt (2009), Juno (2007), and Superbad (2007), and adapted from an alternative press comic book, Scott Pilgrim is a hipster’s paradise (a target age no doubt well below my own and a nerd factor perhaps high above mine).  The story is set in Toronto, about a 23 year old bass player in a small local band, Scott Pilgrim, who is still smarting from a break-up from a year before and is dating a 17 year old high school girl when he meets the girl of his literal dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).  With her bright-colored hair and alt-style look, she’s a striking, pretty thing, but not someone we know that much about.  But as Scott manages to dump his teenage girlfriend and start dating Ramona, he realizes that he must “defeat her 7 evil exes” in order to continue to date her.

The premise is transferring life to a video game.  It’s a Mortal Kombat-like one-on-one fight to the death, with magical realism-like super powers just taken at face value, and Scott (Cera), a wispy young man in jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts, has to manage to win the beat-downs as they get more and more challenging, a la … a video game.  This is the main premise of the film and it makes for a number of interesting and playful sequences, with each defeat resulting in a cloudburst of coins as the evil ex is destroyed.

Director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz (2007) and Shaun of the Dead (2004)) uses all kinds of visual elements, split screens, multiple split screens, animation (styled after the original comic book), all kinds of text placed on screen (especially the frequent comic book visual “sound effects” of thuds and ringing phones).  The world of the film is one of undefined fantasy, the over-amplified metaphor of the battle of ex-lovers as imbued with super hero powers.  The tone is one of constant rapid-fire humor, visually, verbally, as well as relying on Cera and other actors’ natural comic timing and delivery.  It’s an utterly ambitious effort from Wright, shooting for the moon.

The film’s Achilles’ heel (all superheros have their kryptonite, I suppose) is that outside of the wistful pinings of Scott for Ramona, there is no real emotional punch to accompany the huge, flying, slow motion cartoon battle punches that the characters throw.  Love stories are typically emotionally involving, and that is something that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World really doesn’t do.  It’s all surface, all in the moment, flashes of vibrant design or visual humor.  And while this lack hurts the film, keeps it from being as brilliant overall as it is in its design and humor and general visual aesthetic, it doesn’t slay it, crash it out into the ringing shower of tokens or coins.

The audience I saw it with, mostly who looked younger and more on the hipster side, were pretty enthusiastic.  They cheered it when it ended.  I spent much of the film really in awe of the wit and effects, but left the theater a little less fulfilled than perhaps the others.  Still, this is one of the more interesting films of the year, and more than that, and perhaps based mainly on it’s style and aesthetics, this film also feels very “modern” (I wish I had a better word here).  It’s a film that pushes visual aesthetics in a new way, because the film is probably far more post-modern in its eclectic pull of influences and references, but it’s also something that feels new and not just a regurgitation of things that have come before.  And that, if nothing else, is argument enough in its favor, no matter its rather lacking emotional depth or meaning.

Sweetgrass

Sweetgrass (2009) movie poster

(2009) directors Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
viewed: 08/17/10

Sweetgrass is an ethnographic documentary about sheep-herding cowboys in Montana.  The visual anthropology/ethnographic documentary angle (a film style or approach that reaches back to Nanook of the North (1922)) is that the film attempts to capture a long-standing practice by Norwegian-American sheep ranchers, driving their flock of 3000 sheep through public lands in Montana over the summer months, allowing them to graze, and then bringing them back in for the winter.  And while that practice and agreement went back for generations, the film documents the final trip in which these cowboys took these sheep across the public lands, having worked an agreement with an environmental group to no longer follow the practice for a number of reasons.  So, the documentarians looked to capture something culturally significant and unique.

What’s most amazing about the film is its attempt to capture and not to overtly comment on the events or to illuminate them or instruct about them.  There is no narration, no music, no intertitles (until the very end).  What the audience is given is the imagery.  The sheep themselves, the cowboys themselves, the amazing Montana mountainous landscapes, and the actualities of their work, shearing sheep, birthing sheep, caring for the dogs and horses and mules with which they work, building their tepee tents, fending off bears, and struggling through the long summer with long days and challenged sleep.

The challenge of photography or documentary filmmaking is that of objectivity or the attempt at objectivity.  Sweetgrass was made by a husband and wife team, who both work at Harvard University in the field of cultural anthropology, so the dedication to a non-intrusive scientific recording of the people and events is a clear goal.  However, one of the great truths about such an endeavor is that objectivity is impossible, challenged from every selection of a shot, framing of an image, editing of a series of scenes.  Objectivity can be striven for but is a bit of an illusion.

Well, those are the philosophical facts about the approach, but what is achieved is no less remarkable.

Clearly, a film about sheep-herding in Montana, with only incidental dialogue, no real narrative, no music, no instruction than the images and sounds recorded, is not going to be a film that everyone will gladly sit through, much less enjoy.   But to me, it is just short of amazing.  The experience of the film is amazing, immersing and involving, almost Impressionistic it’s so experiential.  While it’s not “like being there”, one is forced to work one’s way through the scenes and images, make sense of them, feel and interpret them.  It’s a singular experience.

What’s also interesting is listening to the directors’ commentary for the film afterward because there is so much information that they have, facts about the sheep, about the historical significance of the sheep run, realities of the events (things you cannot know just from the images).  It’s very enlightening.  But it’s enlightening after having seen the film and experienced it directly.  It illuminates the complex nature of documentary, of how adding facts, stating facts, offering insights to instruct the viewers more, how changing that is to the interpretation of the whole.  At first, I was merely a little curious to hear what the filmmakers would say, but as it wore on, I became more and more interested in hearing about their process.

For a film about Montana sheep-herding cowboys, you could almost joke that it’s like Brokeback Mountain (2005) without the gay love story.  It is the milieu.  But more than anything, it’s a very pure form of documentary, something strangely beautiful and striking, grand but not grandiose.  It’s really quite something.

The Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Lisa Cholodenko
viewed: 08/14/10 at the UA Stonestown Twin, SF, CA

The Kids Are All Right is more than alright, it’s pretty darn good.  A “dramedy”, if you will, about a contemporary family, a modern conundrum set with easily recognizable characters and issues.  Very funny, at times painfully awkward and awkwardly painful, this is one of those films that will doubtlessly be around come Oscar time. 

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are a lesbian couple on the verge of an emptying nest.  They have two children conceived through artificial insemination (each mom carried one of the children) from sperm from the same donor, the older of whom, their daughter Joni (played by Mia Wasikowska), is about to go away to college.  Their son, Laser, played by Josh Hutcherson, is a typical 15 year old, bumming around with a friend who is not the best influence, but yearning a bit for some male presence in his very female-heavy life.   It’s Laser who prods Joni to secretly seek out their biological father out of curiosity.

Their father is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who runs a local organic restaurant, rides a motorcycle, and exudes an easy laid-back cool, which belies his otherwise rather never fully matured adulthood.  The kids, who are very “all right”, with Joni as a high-scoring scholar and Laser as a successful team sport jock, are very clean-cut and innocent, and are taken with their biological father.  And he is taken with them.  It’s a part of his life that has never come to fruition and these two lovely, intelligent kids bring a great spark to his life.

All the performances in the film are very strong, helped in no small part by the fact that co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko gives all the characters depth and believability.  They are all charming and lovely and flawed, and more than anything, they ring true.

What happens next, I’ll warn you, is a mild bit of a spoiler, so if you want to just go see the movie, you need not read on.  But I want to discuss a thing or two about the full scope of the story.  What happens next is that Paul is accepted into their world, a little begrudgingly by Bening’s character, the more serious of the two moms.  Unfortunately for all involved, Moore’s character accepts him a little too readily, all the way to his bed and into a rather passionate brief affair.  And this, as it’s discovered by Bening, forces the nuclear family to pull together to survive this threat to its health and to reject Paul and send him packing.

The beauty of the story is that all the characters have their issues, but those issues are not crippling typically.  Bening’s Nic is a bit controlling and she drinks too much wine.  Moore’s Jules is a little flaky and insecure.  Ruffalo’s Paul is sweet, kind, and charming, but follows his masculine Id, when he should know better.  The kids…, well, the kids are all right.

The point is that the film tells the story of a contemporary, perhaps modern version of the nuclear family, a real, recognizable group of characters, who represent a healthy and “normal” American family.  And yet, like any family, they are vulnerable to the challenges of life, of enduring the marathon of marriage, of insecurities, mistakes, short-comings.  And the story arc makes utter sense, even in their utter rejection of Paul after the affair and their attempt to heal and draw together again, even as Joni is off to university.

It’s a little hard not to feel kind of bad for Paul.  He gets some pretty harsh treatment from Nic when he tries to apologize to Joni and Laser, hoping to maintain something with these biological offspring.  He needs it.  His life, as happy-go-lucky as it’s been has been lacking this element to give it meaning, which is something he has come to realize.  But, at least as far as the movie follows the story, he’s lost it.  And the rejection, as I said, makes sense, even in its harshness, particularly from Nic, but it’s still a bit of a bummer to see him unresolved and unhappy.  He’s no villain.

But that’s part of what gives the film its “truthful” or “believable” character.  While I wouldn’t call the style “naturalism”, I would say that it has a true sense of the world.  Cholodenko’s characters are fully rounded and the story has poignance, particularly one might say in the present given the battle over gay marriage going on not just in California (but particularly in California).  The poignance is perhaps in that this film isn’t at all “about” gay marriage (doesn’t mention it once), but rather in that it portrays the story of a family unit, not simple and idealized, but shown with its cracks and fissures as well as its strengths.