Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nog Sees Up in the Air

If we are to believe most critics, Up in the Air is like some long-lost Billy Wilder classic, an old-fashioned star vehicle (Clooney!) that perfectly combines seemingly light comic banter and romance with real substance. Well, it isn't that good (you can't put it right beside The Apartment on your DVD shelves and consider them interchangeable), does succeed in many ways. The premise is interesting: Ryan Bingham spends his life largely "up in the air", (the title!!), flying around and firing people for large corporations, and he's come to prefer the limbo-like world of airports and hotel rooms to a world that requires real human connection. The scenes of various people speaking to the camera about losing their jobs work very well, fluidly moving through various tones. This being a Hollywood film, however, the narrative must largely concern Bingham's realization that he truly desires a world with more stability (meaning he must realize that what he really wants is to settle down with Vera Farmiga, who is very good in this role). Bingham's change is probably a bit abrupt, but the film does reveal that the one-to-one connection of firing someone face to face is essential to him (he finds video firing intolerable), so presumably his essential loneliness is meant to be a part of his character from the beginning. Yet the Bingham we see in the film's first half seems to be having a hell of a lot of fun flying around and casually banging Farmiga and eating big meals on the company dime, which seems to weaken the emotional impact of the film's final scenes a bit. Still, the film does a nice job of reminding us that romantic comedies don't neccesarily have to be completely empty-headed. It will be nominated for Best Picture (likely winning) and, in a weak year, I won't quibble with the choice.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Nog Sees Avatar!

Well, the first question one must answer about Avatar is this: Did it fuck your eyeballs? (as the fanboys have been saying for about a year regarding its visual majesty). Well, yes, it's amazing to look at. There's a lot of detail in every frame, from the spacecraft interiors to the landscapes of Pandora to the many creatures, and the 3D-depth enhances these aspects without calling undue attention to itself (rarely does shit fly out of the screen at you). Still, amazing as it all looks, visual majesty alone only takes you so far, and you're ultimately left with a none-too-subtle tale of American imperialism with a none-too-subtle environmental message. The film's primary visual and philosophical cues seem to come from Native-American culture (you can't watch the Na'Vis on their horse-creatures with their bow and arrows and not think of Native-Americans), and Cameron combines this with contemporary military lingo from the "war on terror" (shock and awe, pre-emptive strikes), which I guess is meant to suggest a sort of cyclical view of history with the oppressors constantly seeking to displace/eliminate other cultures to get what they desire (in this case, something called "unobtanium," which sounds ridiculous as all hell but is apparently an actual scientific term). Silly as it sounds, this could work, maybe, if one truly cares about the characters, feels the love story, gets caught up in the action scenes. But I was only sporadically involved, enjoying the look of the film but caring very little about what was actually going on and looking forward to Piranha 3D, whose pre-Avatar trailer promises good old-fashioned sex-and-gore 3D exploitation in which a school of piranhas will fly directly into your face!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nog Sees Precious!

The old white folks in the matinee screening I attended of Precious booed and hissed at Mo'Nique, playing Precious's mother Mary, as if she were an old-fashioned mustache-twirling villain. And she is certainly a terrifying, even despicable person who physically abuses her pregnant (by the husband/father, for the second time), overweight, illiterate, 16 year old daughter Precious. But I suspect a different kind of (less white) audience would understand that Mary, as much as Precious, is also a victim in the sense that she's absorbed the dominant society's messages for so long that she's practically become the thing she's always been told she was: basically a savage who thinks of nothing but the basic pleasures of food and sex (and television). Precious too has absorbed these messages, but she deals with them differently: basically by retreating into her mind and escaping the worst of her abuses through a fantasy world in which she takes center stage (literally). This is a world that her environment and the media has never revealed to her (watch for the scene where she watches an old film on television: though she's able to superimpose her and her mother's faces on the white actors, what she sees is simply a more civilized version of the same cycle of abuse she's locked into).

Yet the film, bleak as it, is ultimately about Precious's attempts to escape her circumstances, through the help of a few good teachers and counselors. We see, in several scenes early on, that she's always had a spark of defiance. In one of these moments (which has sparked some controversy) Precious orders and steals and eats an entire bucket of chicken. Now director Lee Daniels certainly knows he's treading on thin ice here with the old "black folks eating chicken" stereotype, but the point seems to be that Precious, even in her despair, is already finding ways to empower herself by, in a sense, both consciously playing--and even enjoying--the role she's expected to play. I suppose the film follows a somewhat traditional, learning-equals-power, formula as it progresses, but it rarely feels overly manipulative and never sugar-coated (the confrontations between Precious and Mary are intense and brutal). In a strangely meta moment late in the film, we see one of Precious's fellow students trying to interpret what it means when a protagonist's environment in a novel is described as "unrelenting." The student, not at all sure and not offering the expected answer, says something along the lines of this meaning that the protagonist keeps on moving along and moving along. We're not sure where Precious is headed, exactly, in the final moments of the film, but she is in motion, and we're meant to see that as both hope and progress.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Nog Watches Eastwood's Invictus! (That Sounds Weird)

Reliable as Santa Claus, Eastwood these days can be counted on to pop up around Oscar-time with a new film (or sometimes two, as in the case of last year's The Changeling/Gran Torino combo or a few years back with Flags of Our Fathers/Letters From Iwo Jima). It's comfort food for grown-ups who have no interest in sexy teenage monsters or Jim Cameron's tall blue 3-D aliens.

I can see how some will immediately reject Invictus's seeming embrace of every sports and racial-harmony cliche (I rolled my eyes a few times), but there's still intelligence at work in Eastwood's study of forgiveness (a new topic for him, as the NY-Times points out, after a career focused almost entirely on the notion of revenge). The first half of the film, dealing primarily with the recently freed and newly elected Mandela (Morgan Freeman, who else?) is particularly interesting. We watch the man's machinations as he figures out how to use South Africa's run to World Cup rugby victory as a shrewd attempt to heal the country's still-festering racial divide. Was this run to glory really as important to the country as the film posits? I don't know. I doubt it. But it works cinematically as an interesting focal point, although the film's last half, a more traditional underdog-sports film, is less interesting. Matt Damon's captain of the rugby team is not a particularly compelling fellow as a character, and I'm not sure Eastwood has any particular facility for shooting rugby matches or even a full understanding of the sport (I know I still don't know what the fuck was going on on the field!). But of course the point is ultimately not what's going on on the field but rather the effect it has on the country. Mandela explains early on that he doesn't see his maneuverings as "political" calculations but rather as "human" ones, and we're left with an appreciation of a leader who always truly has the best interests of his country at heart.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nog Watches "Three of the Greatest Actors of Our Generation" in Brothers!

I found Brothers compelling and intense while I was watching, but it didn't really resonate for me afterwards. However, as an old-fashioned acting showcase (starring, according to one of its trailers, "three of the greatest actors of our generation"), it's mostly enjoyable. Tobey Maguire pretty successfully transcends his geeky, Peter Parker/Spiderman image as Sam, a damaged, unstable veteran of Afghanistan, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman share some nice, natural moments together as Sam's brother and wife, who bond while Sam is believed dead at war. I think the film wants to say something very complex about identity (and perhaps the original Dutch film did? yes, this is a remake), but the ideas don't feel completely coherent. We certainly see a reversal of identity between the two brothers, as the "nice" brother Sam is forced to become cruel at war while the "bad" brother, Tommy, assumes the unfamiliar role of stand-in father and husband. But there's a more interesting idea at work regarding Sam that never fully gets off the ground: it seems that war not only changes him, but literally remakes him (his family simply does not know him upon his return). Ultimately, there's nothing here in terms of substance we haven't seen done better in films like Coming Home or even the more recently (unfairly neglected) In the Valley of Elah, but I'd say the actors make it worth a look (and director Jim Sheridan coaxes incredible performances out of Sam's two young daughters: perhaps they'll go on to become the "greatest actors" of their generation!).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Nog Walks The Road!

Reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a visceral experience: you can taste the sweetness of what might well be the last Coke in America and smell the flesh of a baby being roasted on a spit by roving cannibal hordes (when I taught the book a few years ago many of the students said it made them cry and gave them nightmares). John Hillcoat's long-delayed film version is appropriately bleak--the cinematography believably conveys the look of a grey, ash-covered, burnt-up American landscape--but without McCarthy's remarkable prose, things can get a bit repetitive. After all, the only plot is this: man and boy (nameless) head south toward the coast after some unspecified disaster that destroys the land and kills most everyone. Hillcoat (possibly at the behest of studio dictatorship?) attempts to balance out the narrative by fleshing out the backstory of the man's wife (the novel offers only a few paragraphs), a decision that's probably meant to make things (slightly) more audience-friendly but ultimately adds very little. Also questionable is the voice-over (perhaps also an attempt to break up the potentially monotonous plot): at times the narration maintains McCarthy's archaic, biblical intonations ("The child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God then God never spoke"), but at other times feel smoothed-out and unecessary. Viggo Mortensen offers strong work as the man and Kodi Smit-Mcphee is mostly good as the boy (he looks remarkably like Charlize Theron, as the wife/mother). Most viewers will feel that the despairing experience of the film isn't worth it (art should make us feel good, damn it!), but the film is worth seeing and, despite whatever concessions may have been made to help it find an audience, still feels pretty uncompromising.