Carol (2015)

Carol (2015) movie poster

director Todd Haynes
viewed: 01/16/2016 at UA Twin Stonestown, SF, CA

In 2002, Todd Haynes first delved into the 1950’s “women’s picture” in his film Far from Heaven.  That film was specifically addressing the period, genre, and style of the films of Douglas Sirk, in particular employing a saturated color palette to mimic the Technicolor richness of Sirk’s films, while tackling storylines like inter-racial and gay relationships, stories that the 1950’s couldn’t have tackled so straightforwardly, if at all.

Though I haven’t seen his 2011 miniseries of Mildred Pierce, I think it’s safe to assume that it was another return to this Cold War homefront, the lurid dramas that masked the period’s restrictive social constraints and set fixed images of what normal American life was meant to be.

Carol is a beautifully realized interpretation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, a somewhat autobiographical story, published pseudonymously at the time.  Though I am a big fan of Highsmith’s work, I haven’t personally read it yet, one of her very few non-crime-related fictions.  And Carol is perhaps an interesting companion piece to Far from Heaven, steeped not so deeply in the style of Sirk or genre convention, but very much a period film, gorgeously photographed, and told with great craft.

Cate Blanchett stars as the titular Carol, the lovely, middle-aged woman who becomes the object of interest and affection of Therese (Rooney Mara), a young shop girl and aspiring photographer.  Carol is a married woman with a young daughter, on the verge of a divorce, whose husband sees her affair with Therese as an opportunity to condemn Carol on moral grounds in their legal separation.

Haynes doesn’t affect the Technicolor here as in  Far from Heaven, rather the color palette seems more like consumer Kodak photography of the time, less saturated, still beautiful if a bit more steely.  And he doesn’t invoke the dramatic thrums of the melodrama, but tells the story with earnestness and clarity.  It’s excellent work.  The period costuming is gorgeous.

Both leads are great.  I personally can never take my eyes of Rooney Mara when she’s on screen.

Pan (2015)

Pan (2015) movie poster

director Joe Wright
viewed: 10/10/2015 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Pan has been getting panned.  So why would one go and see it?

The kids and I did discuss this prior to heading out to see the new prequel Peter Pan flick from Joe Wright.  We had been kind of keen on it prior to the critical drubbing.  I told the kids that at least one of the reviews said that it was so bad that you had to see it, but that it was indeed getting pervasively dissed.  But I also told them that I didn’t always let that deter me from seeing a movie that I thought looked interesting.  They agreed.  We went and saw it.

The film may bomb, maybe as big a bomb as there has been for 2015.

Well, I’ll tell you: it’s not maybe as godawful as the critics would have you think.  It’s also a convoluted mess with as much confusing nonsense as entertaining visuals.  And yes the Nirvana and Ramones chants.  Moving the story from the early 20th Century to WWII for no explicable reason.  Garrett Hedlund’s very weird enunciations.  The dizzying effects in many parts of the film, ofttimes losing sense of up and down.

On the plus side, Adeel Akhtar as Mr. Smee is very funny.  Rooney Mara.  I can hardly take my eyes off Rooney Mara.

Okay, that’s not the strongest argument FOR Pan.  I’m a big fan of Joe Wright’s Hanna (2011) though I’ve actually yet to see any of his other films.  I guess I was willing to give him a bit more of a shot here.

Pan is assuredly a big sprawling mess.  Criticisms you’re apt to hear are not necessarily inaccurate.  It’s a bomb.  But it’s not terrible.  It’s disappointing, sure.  But it’s entertaining if perplexing and confounding in some of its decisions.

I guess this isn’t really an endorsement, more a mitigation of everything else you’ll hear.

Her (2013)

Her (2013) movie poster

director Spike Jonze
viewed: 09/07/2014

Despite consistently good reviews, Spike Jonze’s Her didn’t excite me.  Even from the movie poster of a wistful Joaquin Phoenix, who looks vaguely Tom Selleck-like, peering from the image, I wasn’t intrigued.  The story of a man who falls in love with his talking OS (Operating System) seemed not exactly like a romp.  Love stories aren’t entirely my bag.

But the film’s operating system is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, in a performance considered so good, local film critic Mick LaSalle suggested she be considered for an Oscar despite never appearing onscreen.  Her physicality is part of her appeal, so again, this dampened my potential urge to see the film.  But eventually, I thought, I should or might as well.

I was keenly surprised what an excellent film it was.  Maybe I shouldn’t be.  Jonze may not be a master auteur but his films have all been interesting at least: Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Where the Wild Things Are (2009).  Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for how interesting this film was going to be: visually, emotionally, conceptually.

Visually it’s very neat.  The color palettes are pinks and yellows and strangely modernist, this oh so near future.  This is science fiction, but only prodded a bit beyond the now.  There is a visual aesthetic that is really quite remarkable.

Conceptually, the ideas are about interpersonal life.  Phoenix’s character Theodore works for a company that writes personal letters for people too busy or challenged to write their own.  His work is considered great poetry and art but he essentially works as an emotional surrogate for humanity.  It is into this divorced life his new OS appears, unique and truly imbued with artificial intelligence.  Beyond intelligence and self-awareness, there is a true and real personality.  And this is Scarlett Johansson.

He falls in love with her and her with him.  And in this modern world of things, he is not alone in falling for this type of newly developed being.  They have emotional ups and downs as any couple, share magical moments together, great intimacy, challenges, fights, struggles.

I don’t want to ruin it for you.  So stop reading if you must.  But eventually “Samantha” (Johansson)’s intelligence, being, and knowledge outgrow her form (or lack of form), as do the other OS’s imbued with knowledge and awareness and being. hyy There are analogues in relationships, where people change, grow and change, and move away from one another in their needs and development.  But eventually it becomes a change for all artificially intelligent computer systems and they depart for another reality.

The emotional grip of the story is powerful, too.  Jonze really succeeds in developing love story and relationship between Phoenix and his disembodied love interest.  It has impact.  It did for me, at least.

Jonze’s films have all contained aspects of a depressing or pessimistic view on life.  At least in my readings of them.  Even in the gentle hopeful moments of resolution and ending, there is something that I find quite depressing.  I can deal with pessimism.  Depressing is a variant emotional interpretation of the films.  And Her has a melancholy to its heart, not necessarily resolved towards hope for humanity in the end, but rather the loss of love and change and transition in lives.  What it means to be alive.

Really, I’m surprised how much I liked Her.  I’ll be recommending it to friends.

Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects (2013) movie poster

director Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 02/09/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Side Effects is a quite entertaining thriller from director Steven Soderbergh, who claims that it will be his final feature film.  Will it be his last?  Who knows.  But it is a good flick, a twisty-turny story of lives lived in and around prescription pharmaceuticals, namely anti-depressants.  To say more in a lot of ways would ruin the movie for you.

It stars Rooney Mara as the depressive wife of a man imprisoned for insider trading.  That man is Channing Tatum, Soderbergh’s current male muse.  Jude Law is the psychiatrist who happens upon Mara after a suicide attempt, the man who becomes her therapist and medicator.  For quite a while, it seems that the film is kind of going after the anti-depressant industry.  But then it turns out to be the aforementioned thriller, trading off on a topical point for its key narrative devices.

Mara, who was so good in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), is both lovely and riveting as the crux of this movie’s manic-depressive heart.  Everybody does well in the film, typical of Soderbergh who has had good relationships with his stars and actors, giving them juicy roles and letting them do their thing.  And this is him hitting all his marks and getting a good, solid film out of the process.

Personally, I hope that Soderbergh keeps making films.  He’s not as daring as all that but he likes to mix it up.  And as much as he likes to mix it up, he likes to make a crowd pleaser, typically intelligent-seeming crowd pleasers.  And of that ilk, Side Effects is a good example.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) movie poster

(2011) director David Fincher
viewed: 12/23/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I was pretty tired of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) as an entity by the time that I watched The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (2009).  Those would be the original Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s “girl” trilogy, of which I had also read the first two of the three books.  I pooped out on the books and just watched the final movie of the series to complete the narrative.

In the hands of almost any other director, I would probably have had zero interest in the American re-makes.  But David Fincher (The Social Network (2010)) is not only one of the more interesting active Hollywood directors, but the initial trailer for the movie was pretty damn slick, cut to highlight the goth kinkiness of the film and the main character, set to a Trent Reznor-produced cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”.  It successfully teased its subject.  I was in.

The film actually opens to that same track, with vocals by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.  Unfortunately, the opening sequence is a strange oily black digital series of morphing images of the two leads, with snake-like tentacles and S&M underpinnings.  It’s just a lot less effective than the trailer.

The film stars Daniel Craig as the righteous journalist Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” of the titles of all the books/films.  The prior film trilogy was pretty good.  Noomi Rapace was pretty spot-on as Salander and Michael Nyqvist was pretty good as Blomkvist.  These are Swedish books after all, set in Sweden.  Outside of the obvious desire to capitalize on the American market (who along with much of the world has gone on to make best-sellers of the books), there seems no reason, no real need to re-make the films.  But Fincher found something.  And Mara was more than game.

It’s a little weird watching the film.  I only read the books like 2 years ago or something and then have seen the movies very recently.  There is no drama, no surprises left in the mystery.

The most compelling thing about the stories is the character of Salander, the troubled, antisocial, genius goth girl hacker with the life of abuse who finds her calling as a detective/researcher.  I’ve read some criticisms of Larsson’s stories that posit his anti-misogynist tales still titillate with great detail on the rape and abuse of women and that Blomkvist, an obvious stand-in for Larsson, is quite the ladies man, bedding Salander despite the fact that she mostly seems interested in women.

There is most definitely this voyeuristic sensibility, this attraction to this goth-punk girl, whose look is a combination of aesthetic and anti-aesthetic (the bleached eyebrows do indeed give Mara a weirdly haunted look).  She is sexualized, brutalized, coveted, objectified.  Many might say that she’s empowered to an extent.

Frankly, Fincher’s film is a better film, hands down.  He’s a more auteur-ish director and he certainly takes ownership of the material, or at least identifies with it or its characters.  Ultimately it’s a murder mystery.  A potboiler.  With a riveting female lead whether it’s Rapace or Mara.  I’d personally rather look at Craig than Nyqvist.

The Social Network

The Social Network (2010) movie poster

(2010) director David Fincher
viewed: 10/12/10 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

So, I get it.  Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole.  That’s how he’s sized up in the opening scene by a freshly ex-girlfriend.  But by the end of the movie, the take is a half-measure more gentle, he’s not an asshole, but he’s just trying very hard to be one.  And succeeding, one would guess.

Adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction, though debatably slanted book, The Accidental Billionaire, The Social Networkis an odd work of fiction-y non-fiction.  Writer Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay, notably has stated that his version of the story is not adhering to facts purely, and yet is clearly about real people and real events, portraying them in a very specific manner.  And while a lot of the artistic license was employed to up the drama and the decadence, you really have to wonder how accurate or true things are, or could this be a modern version of Citizen Kane (1941) albeit with considerably smaller scale drama.

In director David Fincher’s hands, the story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is a riveting, nearly thrilling two hours, following him from his wet-behind-the-ears pining at Harvard through the launch of Facebook, to the expensive lawsuits that came from his betrayals.  And it is intense and involving.  But when you think back on it, that it’s the story of an undergrad who duped some wealthy jocks and then launched a site that took small influence from their ideas (and made billions on it), or that aspect of the story in which he shafted his best friend and co-founder of Facebook out of his due earnings, it’s not laced with sex and death and rock’n’roll.  It’s really potentially boring.

I guess what’s so impressive about the film is that it’s far from boring.  In fact, with strong performances from Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara, Justin Timberlake, and others, the film may actually be David Fincher’s most well-rounded effort to date.  Maybe it’s not as cool or strange as Seven (1995) or Fight Club(1999), but it’s a more rewarding and fully-realized film.  And for as much as it paints Zuckerberg as a mealy worm of a human being, it certainly isn’t a wholly shallow portrait.

If anything, I came away from it thinking that Zuckerberg can’t be thatmuch of a wormy creep.   I mean, this story, if anything is that of Garfield’s character, based on Eduardo Saverin, who is the ultimate good guy in the story, the best friend who gets shafted and screwed, but who was a consultant on the story.  That’s the thing, for most people, this movie will be where they get the most of their knowledge about the founding of Facebook and interpretation of the character of the people involved.  And it’s fairly damning.

The film doesn’t begin to consider the real cultural impact of the site, focused as it is on the site’s inception.  In fact, it’s kind of funny because I remember when it was only open to those with a “.edu” email address and when it had the “who is hotter?” comparison of photos that was its drunken roots.  It’s much more than that now.  And no doubt, Zuckerberg, who is still very young, will be much more than this too.

Still, one of the better movies of the year that I’ve seen, a riveting, fairly thrilling film about the world’s youngest billionaire.  And the people he screwed over to get there.

Youth in Revolt


Youth in Revolt (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Miguel Arteta
viewed: 06/26/10

Youth in Revolt is a coming of age comedy, a movie dedicated to quirkyness and the droll, a built to charm cult film-to-be.  And it is not without that charm nor that quirk.  Starring the likable Michael Cera (Juno (2007) & Superbad (2007)), the cast features a number of amusing actors including Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, Jean Smart, and Portia Doubleday.  And the film employs cute animation sequences at various points during the movie to amusing effect.

Cera plays Nick Twisp, a nerdy, yearning virgin who impresses no one, whose life is thrown its first positive curveball when he and his mom and her boyfriend head to a trailer park one weekend.  He meets Doubleday, the proverbial girl of his dreams.  She likes art cinema and unusual music, is clever, pretty, and actually takes a liking to him.  When he has to return home and runs the risk of losing her, she convinces him that he needs to develop a “bad” side, willing to do things that his more normal self will not.  For instance, his goal is to get his mother to send him to live with his father so that he can have a chance to be near this girl again.

Thusly, Francois Dillinger is born, Cera in nattier European-style wear, hair combed, pencil moustache on his lip, danger in his tone, and a cigarette in his lips.  This dual personality is what allows Nick to take risks and challenge the systems and people that he would otherwise have been a flaccid wallflower in their presence.  And this is what seemed, particularly in light of the film’s marketing campaign, to be the key twist to the story.  And Dillinger gets the job done.

The thing about this film is that it’s all kind of there, and it’s all kind of charming, but it never seems to add up or crest over a certain level of okay.  It’s sort of less than the sum of its parts, despite the parts being just fine.

The film’s tone doesn’t reek or naturalism.  For instance, Nick and other characters speak in a very refined and potentially stilted, meant to be intelligent and clever, vocabulary and speech.  Which, as I said, I get.  It’s their characters, they say funny things, things regular people never would necessarily.  It’s not reality.  It’s funny.  They’re clever.  But then what was striking me as the movie unfolded was that I ultimately was a little adrift in exactly what world this movie was residing in.

So, as the narrative transpires, I felt less connected to the story, less caught up in its potential drama, just happy enough to be along for the ride, so to speak.  And whether I’m hitting the nail on the head as to the problem of the film, I am certain of where I came out on this film, that I liked it okay, I wasn’t as annoyed as I can be with some quirky comedies, Juno or Little Miss Sunshine (2006).   But the film dosn’t achieve that type of character that makes for truly significant experience either.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) movie poster

(2010) dir. Samuel Bayer
viewed: 04/30/10 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

This year’s latest film franchise re-boot is A Nightmare on Elm Street, a re-make of Wes Craven’s signiture film from 1984 of the same name. The horror/slasher genre has been gobbling up and spitting out video nasty titles from the 1970’s and 1980’s with a vengeance in the last couple of years.  Though it’s probably just another trend in Hollywood, where new ideas come at a rare premium and re-makes or re-boots or just using a recognizable title come by far on the cheap.

Knowing that I was going to see this film, I watched Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street just a couple of days prior, reminding myself of that film which I hadn’t seen in a long time.  Now resultantly, my viewing of the 2010 version was very colored by that contrast.  And I have to say that all the things that I felt were the best about the original are things all but forsaken in this new version.

The original concept, of a mutilated killer with a glove of knife-fingers who comes to teenagers in their dreams to torment and kill them, was original in itself, but allowed Craven to created a number of visually surprising moments, which were semi-comical but striking, and playing heavily with the dream logic as a recurrent theme.  It’s the Freudian elements along with the story repressed by the parents of a crime they commited against a child killer, that made the film fresh and why it continues to be interesting.  And the film did tap into the classic elements of the genre, giving a cast of teens a setting and place of believability.

The interesting twist that the new film takes is by putting notable actor Jackie Earle Haley (who has played a child molestor before in Little Children (2006), which brought him back to Hollywood’s eye), the film relies a bit more on his performance and the psychology of his character.  In other words, in this film, Freddy Krueger, is more naturalistic, more like a human being, not a morphing Plastic Man-like character who could stretch his arms across an alley way or have his face get pulled off for a shock gag.   And he murders with his glove exclusively, not capable of some stunts that Freddy achieved in the original.

And with the characters, the backstory is deeper.  And here I will warn of a spoiler because I will unveil one new plot twist here, in that in this version, Freddy wasn’t a murderer, but a child molestor.  And all of the children in the preschool where he worked, all of whom he was to have molested, are now his victim targets.  As in the original, Freddy’s story, that the parents hunt him down and burn him alive and then try to pretend that he never existed, is revealed as the film works its way through the story.  But this further detail and connection makes the whole thing that much harder to believe.

The children were all supposed to be five years old.  And the assumption the film makes is that none of them remember going to pre-school together, none of them were taken to therapy, none of them exhibit any symptoms of child abuse.  The parents successfully eradicated Freddy (until now).  And that makes the whole thing just that much harder to swallow.  And disturbing on the parents’ side.  They are so committed to hiding the truth that they are angry when it returns, but it never really came out in the wash.

I suppose if the subtext were stronger or available or investigated, this could have worked in a way, the return of the memory of child abuse on a whole class of pre-schoolers, and that the villain is somehow the embodiment of the memory as well as the perpetrator, that their psychoses are real perhaps and that Freddy is more symbolic and questionably real.  But … that’s not how they took it.

Additional to this, the “teenagers” do not any one of them look like teenagers.  The actors are all 22-25 years old and they look it.  They are young and beautiful, but young and beautiful 20-somethings, not teens.  And while an argument could often be made like that about casting choices, at least in the original they seemed younger, more believably younger.  I mean, it took until they had a scene at the high school until I figured out that these were supposed to be teenagers for sure.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (the re-make) is not a horrible film, but it lacks the exact elements that made the original worthwhile, valuable, interesting, shocking.  The film does cast a few mini-homages toward the original, re-doing a scene or two (the hand/claw coming up between the girl’s legs in the bathtub, the bloody body in a bodybag dragged through the school hallway).  But what is interesting, one of the very effective shots in the original film, Freddy looming over a sleeping girl’s bed by “stretching through the wall”, originally done with latex and a real person pushing through, is redone with digital FX.  And it looks like a whole lot of other things done with digitial FX and is not nearly so striking or shocking as the original “analog” effect.

And that is perhaps true of the whole shebang.  Haley as Freddy is creepy, sure.  The original Freddy, even in the first film before he fell to such a caricature, had a more comic taunt, a surprise around every corner.  And the effect, utilizing the elements of the surreal, made for a much richer film.  So, as I noted, here in Nightmare-land we have a renewed commitment to the realistic, the naturalistic, the more believable and grounded villain…who comes in one’s dreams to rip them to shreds.