Thursday, June 30, 2011

Toughing Out "Twin Peaks"

So after posting about the "Twin Peaks" pilot a few weeks ago, I watched the other twenty-nine episodes and came out with very mixed feelings about the whole series. "Twin Peaks" can be described as a combination of a soap opera and a crime drama, with some supernatural elements, bizarre humor, satire, and occasional horror in the mix. Very quickly the balance tilts toward soap opera, and the murder mystery at the heart of the series becomes only one storyline among many. I have no great love for soap operas, and tend to get frustrated quickly with the stereotypical plots based on characters having a multiplicity of affairs, unlikely plot twists like evil doubles and amnesia, and the good old game of "Who's the Father?" "Twin Peaks" manages to tackle every single one of these and more.

Twenty-nine episodes of "Twin Peaks" might sound like a lot to get through, but not when you're really only half-watching them. Whenever Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was onscreen investigating the death of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), I was happily engaged. However, I got fed up with some of the other stories, like the travails of poor waitress Shelley Johnson (Mädchen Amick), married to an abusive jerk named Leo (Eric Da Re), and having an affair with a hunky teenager, Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook). Shelley had my sympathies at first, but not after it became apparent that she really had awful taste in men and was too much of a featherbrain to extricate herself from any of the fixes she got herself into. Similarly, the super-strong, super-sensitive, one-eyed Nadine (Wendy Robie) was a fun running joke at first, but then she got amnesia and thought she was a teenager again, which led to her re-enrollment in high school. And there was also the endless saga of the lovely widow Josie Packard (Joan Chen), lover of Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), whose convoluted power-struggles with her sister-in-law Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) resulted in a tragic and rather awkwardly handled downfall.

I think, of all the side characters, the only one I was really rooting for most of the time was Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), devious daughter of the local, slimy business tycoon Ben Horne (Richard Beymer). Audrey was initially set up as a villain in the pilot, who greets the news of Laura's death with a disturbing look of glee that would seem to reflect deeper personality flaws. But soon after, harboring a fierce crush on Agent Cooper, Audrey infiltrates a sleazy gentleman's club to try and help with the investigation, getting herself into deep, deep trouble. Her sharp mind and sharper tongue made her a lot more fun to watch than the trio of teenagers also looking into Laura's death - brooding good-girl Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), Laura's boyfriend James Hurley (James Marshall), and Laura's cousin Maddy, who looks exactly like Laura and is also played by Sheryl Lee. Many of the minor, more unconventional characters like Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis), Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), and the beloved Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) turned out to be the most memorable.

The longer the show went on the more repetitive it got, like the Angelo Badalamenti score that seemed so moodily strange and interesting in the pilot, but started getting on my nerves toward the end. I remember a great, creepy shot of a streetlight that was used in one of the very early episodes, but got steadily less effective each time it popped up again. Much of this was due to the fact that "Twin Peaks" was made way back in 1990, and the production values for television simply weren't up to the level of what they are today. I'm sure it was one of the more impressive-looking shows of its time, from the intentionally retro set and costume design to the inclusion of a lot of fun little visual details - keep and eye on those donuts. But after twenty years, it too often looks exactly like the early-90s soaps it was meant to skewer. In addition, there was no small amount of studio meddling. David Lynch has stated in interviews that revealing the identity of Laura Palmer's killer in the second season came about only at the express orders of the studio, and may have lead to the show's early demise. I'm not so sure. The leisurely pace and constant digressions were becoming issues for me long before the truth about the murder emerged. The resolution of the Laura Palmer investigation and and the new storyline that was rolled out afterwards actually added some much-needed momentum to a meandering plot.

What kept me watching "Twin Peaks," though, was what people tend to remember the show for - the bizarre supernatural elements. The fact that there were these otherworldly, intangible characters running around like MIKE (Al Strobel) and BOB (Frank Silva), was utterly unique. I can see why "The X-Files" was often compared to "Twin Peaks," because both had lead FBI agent characters who had to take things like prophetic logs, surreal dreams, black magic, and possession by evil spirits absolutely seriously. The whole mythology of the Black Lodge, the White Lodge, and the Red Room is the most coherent explanation David Lynch has ever given us regarding the nature of good and evil, life and death, and the things beyond, that come up in his work so often. Thus, it provides an irresistible clue to interpreting some of Lynch's later films like "Lost Highway" and "Mulholland Drive." No wonder people have been puzzling over the trippy Red Room sequences for years. Oh, and the backwards-speaking dwarf (Michael J. Anderson) and the cryptic Giant (Carel Struyken)? Awesome.

I wish these darker, more interesting ideas hadn't been used so sparingly in "Twin Peaks." It often felt like whole episodes were swallowed up by leaden love triangles and small-scale local intrigues, with only a bit of fancy camera work or a bizarre visual to remind us we were watching "Twin Peaks." Did we really have to see a whole comedic subplot about Deputy Andy's rivalry with clothing salesman Dick Tremayne (Ian Buchanan) for the affections of receptionist Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson)? I actually liked the quieter romance of Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton), except that the third point in their triangle was crazy Nadine. Or maybe it was just because all these romances seemed to follow the conventional soap opera norms of the time. Everyone was shallow and prone to jealousy, men often flew into fits of violent, animalistic rage, and the women, aside from Audrey and Catherine, were too often passive or self-deluded. But then, the result of all of this was that a lot of attractive young women got victimized by older, desperate men, a theme that recurs in "Twin Peaks" again and again, most prominently with Laura Palmer herself. If the show had gone on longer, maybe the creators could have gone further with this idea - but well, bygones.

The good parts of "Twin Peaks" are worth sitting through the weaker material to see, and I'm glad I stuck it out all the way to the end of the series. In the last handful of episodes familiar faces like David Duchovny, David Warner, Heather Graham, Billy Zane, and David Lynch himself show up to play recurring characters. The cliffhanger at the end of the second season is a real shocker, and I wish we could have seen a resolution, even though I know deep down it was never really that kind of show. There is a follow-up film, "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," that I plan to track down soon. It's a prequel to the events of the series, so I know there won't be many answers forthcoming. Hopefully though, in a big screen format, free from the constraints of prime time television, David Lynch might be able to at least flesh out the story a little better. So many of the more unsavory parts of Laura Palmer's last days were mentioned in passing but left ofscreen - the drug use, the implied sex addiction, and whatever was going on with her parents, Leland (Ray Wise) and Sarah (Grace Zabriskie). Her story could easily benefit from being told on film.

In the end, "Twin Peaks" more than deserves its cult status and its place in popular culture. I've honestly never seen anything like it, aside from parts of Lynch's own movies. The television format helped in some ways, affording the creators more time in which to build up the story and explore a wider universe of different characters, but also hampered it in others. I remain intrigued, but also more than a little unsatisfied with "Twin Peaks." So many unanswered questions remain. Would the show have come off better if it had been a more limited miniseries? If it had been made in the current cable television Renaissance? If audiences hadn't lost interest in "Twin Peaks" as quickly as they became enamored with it? If we had never learned who killed Laura Palmer?

Hmmm... has anyone heard from that log lately?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I Am Unreasonably Irritated By "Aftershock"

"Aftershock" was easier to get a hold of than I thought. Small wonder, since it was one of the big blockbusters in China last year, the first real commercial Chinese film made for the IMAX format. Like most blockbusters, its big on spectacle, but otherwise a pure, over-the-top melodrama as only the Chinese can make them. I'm having a hard time not being cynical about this aspect of the film, because Western event films so rarely go for the full-blown, operatic, emotional fireworks on display here, it's almost off-putting at first when the leading ladies start wailing.

This is not to say that they don't have good reason to. "Aftershock" examines the impact of the great 1976 Tangshan earthquake on a family of four: truck driver Fang Da Qiang (Zhang Guo Qiang), his wife Li Yuan Ni (Fan Xu), and their twin children, Fang Deng and Fang Da, a girl and a boy respectively. When the earthquake strikes, Da Qiang is killed and the children are trapped in the rubble of their collapsed apartment building. Rescue workers tell the distraught Yuan Ni that they can only rescue one of the children, who are pinned under a concrete slab, because moving the debris to save one will surely crush the other. Yuan Ni refuses to choose at first, but faced with losing both her children, tells them to save the boy, Fang Da. It is only after mother and son are evacuated that we learn that the little girl, Fang Deng, miraculously also survived. Unwilling or unable speak, and assumed to be an orphan, she is adopted and grows up with a new family. The rest of the film follows the twins and their mother over next thirty years, and I don't think it's much of a spoiler to tell you that the finale witnesses their tearful reunion and reconciliation.

The earthquake sequences make for great IMAX-worthy set-pieces, but this is not a disaster movie. "Aftershock" spends the bulk of its running time in the strictly domestic arena, charting the impact of the earthquake on Li Yuan and the adult Fang Da (Chen Li) and Fang Deng (Zhang Jing Chu). Li Yuan is guilt-stricken by her choice, and spends decades blaming herself for the death of her daughter. Fang Da, left with only one arm after being rescued, has a rough time getting out from under Li Yuan's overprotective wing and making his own way in the world. More interesting is Fang Deng's side of the story, because it's not clear how much she remembers of the earthquake or her life before it. Both of the twins suffer rocky relationships and other misfortunes that can all be traced back to the tragedy and broken family ties. However the epic scope of the story and the relatively few characters don't mean there's much depth or nuance. The characters are cliche and bland, their motives and actions utterly predictable. Li Yuan is the saintly, tormented mother who can't let go of the past. The attractive kids have it rough but learn to endure.

What "Aftershock" is good at is playing up those big, cathartic, emotional moments. When Li Yuan begs the rescue workers to find some way to save both her children, and the actress really puts her lungs into it, I was tearing up, even though I knew on some level it was blatant emotional manipulation. I'm tempted to compare "Aftershock" to a Michael Bay film, except with crying jags in the place of explosions, meant to induce waterworks from the audience instead of adrenaline highs. And there I go being cynical again. Of course there's no shame in a solid three-hankie movie, and in the West we really don't see enough of them anymore. But considering the subject matter, the film's ambitions seem strangely limited and it is far more pandering to its audience than it needs to be. There were also a lot of little things that felt off, like the same actress playing Fa Deng from age eighteen to forty while never visibly aging a day. Or major relationships taking place almost entirely offscreen.

What surprised me most was the scarcity of context. Following only three main characters was fine for the story the filmmakers wanted to tell, but I was still left waiting for the camera to pull back and show the full extent of the damage to Tangshan, and the wider impact of the disaster on the community and the rest of the country. Aside from a few quick wide shots of rubble, this never comes. Lip service is paid to the tragedy quite often, but the main characters are whisked away from Tangshan, and time skips forward so quickly, we barely see anything of the aftermath. It is only at the very, very end of the film, that the creators acknowledge that hundreds of thousands died in the earthquake, leaving us with a final shot of the massive Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Wall that bears the names of the dead. And there is no mention of the political fallout related to relief efforts that led to the end of the Cultural Revolution, but I suppose that's really asking for too much.

If you're in the mood for some uplifting human drama, by all means, seek out "Aftershock." Be warned, however, that it really doesn't say much about the Great Tangshan Earthquake. And though I have few major complaints about the film, I still came away disappointed.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Where Are These 2010 Films?

I've seen nearly a hundred films from 2010 now, and I have that preliminary top ten list in draft, but it's still going to be a couple of months before some crucial titles from the 2010 awards season hit Region 1 North American DVD, and I can get my hands on them. These include Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner "Of Gods and Men," Palm D'Or winner "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," and Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner "In A Better World," all being released in July. A few oddball titles like "Barney's Version," "The Tempest," and "Jackboots on Whitehall" are also scheduled for DVD releases over the next few months.

Almost every film released in the United States in 2010 (that I have any interest in) should be on DVD by September. However, there are enough missing and delayed titles that I'm facing the frustrating reality that there are some I just won't be able to watch in any reasonable amount of time, and will have to leave out of the final tally. I'm a completist, remember, which is why it takes me so long to compile my Top Ten lists to begin with. A lot of this has to do with figuring out what counts as a 2010 film. Last year, after a lot of back and forth, I settled on pegging a film's release date to its date of release in its home country. So film festival screenings wouldn't count, and films stuck in distribution limbo like "Tucker & Dale vs Evil," which is finally going to reach theaters this fall, get a reprieve.

However, I've become acutely aware that there are a lot of interesting foreign films, like Abdellatif Kechiche's "Venus Noire" and Catherine Breillat's "The Sleeping Beauty," both released last year in France, that didn't get domestic distribution and aren't going to reach US DVD shelves any time soon. Unless they pop up on Netflix's Instant Watch in the near future, I'll have to leave them out. And I really should have seen the blockbuster Chinese earthquake film "Aftershock" by now, which did get a very small US release back in October, but there's no domestic DVD release plans that I can find. I can hunt down a Region 2 Asian DVD though - not hard if you're in the vicinity of a decent Chinatown.

Anime films present a bigger headache. There are at least three anime titles from 2010 that I'd love to see, including the latest Studio Ghibli film, "The Borrower Arriety." All of them are being prepped for US theatrical releases, but not until 2012 at the earliest because of the time required to create English dubs. That means subtitled versions won't hit Region 1 DVD until months after that. "The Borrower Arriety" is already available on Japanese DVD with English subtitles, but the price is about double that of a domestic DVD, not counting shipping costs. I hope to find cheaper versions dubbed in Mandarin soon, which is how I saw my earliest Ghibli films anyway. I may be a completist, but I'm also working on a budget here.

I could count 2010 films based on US release dates, I suppose, which would avoid the problem. But then we still have the case of "Tiny Furniture," an extremely well received independent film directed by Lena Dunham, that had a limited release back in November. It was so well received, in fact, it's being released on DVD by the prestigious Criterion Collection. The problem is that Criterion, due to their higher standards and unconventional release patterns, probably won't be putting the film on shelves until sometime in 2012. I really don't want to compile my Top Ten list without seeing it, but I don't want to wait until 2012 for Criterion either. But there's no other way to view "Tiny Furniture," no regular DVD release, no digital version available purchase, and no sign of it on Hulu or Netflix.

I know, I know. This is all my own fault, trying to impose some kind of logical order on a film distribution system that defies all attempts at logic. But it's these few remaining stragglers that are the ones that are in the most danger of being overlooked and unappreciated. And honestly, I kind of like putting out a really, really late Top Ten list when all the titles are actually accessible to anyone reading it, which you can't say of the ones compiled way back in November and December. What I'm probably going to end up doing is just picking an arbitrary cut-off date and pick my Top Ten from the films I've managed to see so far. Maybe it'll be October again, but I might push it back a month or two if an impending release for "Tiny Furniture" or "Sleeping Beauty" does pop up on the radar during that time.

While I'm waiting, I guess I should get going on 2011. So much to watch, so little time.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

8 Ways The Harry Potter Franchise Broke the Rules

As we weather the final wave of Pottermania for the foreseeable future, it's a good time to take stock of one of the most consistent and most lucrative film franchises of recent years. Warner Brothers' "Harry Potter" movies have been exceptional not only for their success, but for how they have often gone against conventional Hollywood wisdom.

1. Kids are Kids - A key decision in ensuring the longevity of the series was made early on. In the first film, Harry and his friends are eleven-year-olds as they are in the books, and young actors of roughly the same ages were cast to play them. This is why, seven films later, 21-year-old Daniel Radcliffe can still pull off playing 17-year-old Harry. Many other fantasy franchises haven't been so lucky. We've seen the heroes of "The Dark is Rising," "Percy Jackson," "City of Ember," and even "How to Train Your Dragon" aged up, in order to appeal to broader audiences or accommodate older actors. Very few, like the "Narnia" films, have followed the lead of "Harry Potter" and cast real children of the right ages.

2. And Brits are Brits - Have you noticed that there are almost no American actors in the "Harry Potter" series? Movie studios love to Americanize foreign properties and add international stars to their big blockbusters to help them play better to overseas audiences. There were rumors that Harry would be played by an American actor when Steven Spielberg was still being courted to direct the first film. Instead, all the major roles went to kids from the UK, to help preserve the very British character of J.K. Rowling's books. Moreover, the supporting and minor adult roles have been filled out by an impressive roster of British thespians, including Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, and Kenneth Branagh.

3. Age Appropriate - Compare the first and the last "Harry Potter" films, and you'd never think they were part of the same series. "Harry Potter" grew up with its audience and got a little darker and a little more serious with each installment until the last films were barely hanging on to PG-13 ratings. Other children's franchises tend to value consistency, playing to the same age range over and over again. "Harry Potter" is one of the few that gets weightier and more challenging with each successive film, instead of rehashing the same types of adventures and stories. When changing the tone or the style of a series, most opt to reboot the whole thing, like "Batman" or the upcoming "Spider-Man."

4. Departures from Formula - There are a lot of different series that have played fast and loose with their source mythologies over the years, but you don't see many that started with a very set formula and then completely undermined it in successive films. In "Sorcerer's Stone" and "Chamber of Secrets," Harry started out each year with the beastly Dursleys, then went to Hogwarts, played Quidditch, had an adventure related to the return of Voldemort, then triumphed in the end and went home. Every single piece of this plot structure is gone by film seven, except for a brief cameo by the Dursleys in the beginning. Gone also are little things like striped scarves, school uniforms, and the Hogswart Express.

5. Significant Delays - "Harry Potter" is one of the only franchises I can think of where the studios purposely delayed some of the finished films. The most notable example was "Half-Blood Prince," the sixth film in the series, which was pushed back from a Thanksgiving 2008 release date to summer of 2009, in order to ensure that Warners had a tentpole film that season. The decision was announced in August, creating fan backlash, since the marketing campaign was already in full swing and trailers had been released. However, the box office totals weren't affected in the slightest. The upside, however, was that the last few films have enjoyed longer production times and haven't been rushed to theaters.

6. Play to the Fans - Filmmakers are usually careful to ensure that each film in a franchise has a self-contained story and can be enjoyed independently of the others. If there's a plot detail or character relationship from a prior film that's going to be important, it will be reintroduced. This means new viewers can pick up a series without starting from the beginning. You might see in-jokes or call-backs to an earlier film, but nothing too confusing or difficult for newcomers to follow. The latest installments of "Harry Potter," however, not only assume that you've seen the previous ones and know all the important details already, but you're better off having read the books too if you want to keep up.

7. Designed to End - Who knows if Warner Brothers will push for sequels, prequels, or spinoffs in the future, but they should remember that a big reason why "Harry Potter" never lost momentum over eight movies was that the series was one big story. Every film was building up to the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort in the final chapter, and all the fans knew it was coming. Most franchises do not have the foresight or the source material to set something like this up, especially over so many movies. The upcoming final film is special because we know it's the last one. J.K. Rowling wrote no more books and the young actors have grown up and are ready to take on other roles.

8. But It Ends When We Say it Ends - "Harry Potter" has been such a consistent moneymaker, that the studio was looking for any way to make the series last a little bit longer, even though they were committed to staying faithful to the narrative of the books. So they made the extremely unusal decision to split the last volume into two films, creating an extra summer tentpole for themselves this year. Since that decision, the "Twilight films have also followed suit, with an impending two-parter finale, and "The Hunger Games" is threatening to. But after this, there are no more reprieves. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is the end of "Harry Potter."

Well, until the remakes anyway.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Oh PIXAR, Say it Ain't So

I don't think I need to tell anyone that "Cars 2" opens today, and that anticipation for it has not been high among the over-twelve set. The reviews have come in and they're bad. They're not remarkably bad compared to some of the other animated stinkers we've seen over the years, but they're awful for a PIXAR movie. On the RottenTomatoes review aggregation site, "Cars 2" is currently at 37% positive reviews. Before this, PIXAR's lowest-rated showing was the first "Cars" movie, that pulled in 74% positive reviews five years ago. And it seems that everyone else in the media can't stop talking about it - after eleven massively successful, well-received animated films, PIXAR has its first dud.

Scoffers may point out that the dismal response may be due to reviewers holding PIXAR to a much higher standard than films from Dreamworks, Blue Sky, and the other CGI animation studios. Surely this isn't fair. There's no reason why a commercial studio like PIXAR shouldn't capitalize on its sterling brand name and churn out an occasional mediocre sequel for easy money, without incurring so much scorn. The trouble is, of course, that sterling brand name only exists because PIXAR has built its identity around its reputation for quality. We expect "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Puss in Boots" ("Shrek 5," let's be honest) from Dreamworks, which has always billed itself as more cynical and profit-driven. PIXAR is supposed to be special, the animation studio that holds itself to that much higher standard. They're supposed to aim for more Oscars, not bigger paydays.

Sadly, there's every indication that "Cars 2" exists primarily because the "Cars" franchise generates billions in merchandising profits, far outstripping many of the other recent PIXAR films like "Up" and "WALL-E." The original "Cars" is regarded as one of the studio's weaker films, a passion project of director John Lasseter's that appealed mostly to the younger crowd. Most critics gave it a pass because you could tell it was a well-intentioned film, even if it wasn't a masterpiece, but certainly few were clamoring for a sequel. Moreover, it's long been part of the PIXAR narrative that they don't make sequels unless they have a rock-solid story for one. It's another way they distinguish themselves from the competition. Before "Cars 2" the only PIXAR sequels were "Toy Story 2" and "Toy Story 3," critical darlings that are often ranked among the best animated films ever made.

Now we have "Cars 2," and the narrative falls apart. I haven't seen the film myself, but I trust a lot of the reviewers who have come away from it disappointed, and I think it's safe to say that "Cars 2" isn't up to the usual PIXAR standard either in conception or execution. Even more worrying is what lies in the future for the studio. 2013 will bring a direct-to-video "Cars" universe spinoff called "Planes," being billed as something of a training project for a PIXAR satellite studio. Then comes a "Monsters Inc" prequel titled "Monsters University." There will be a new PIXAR original next summer, "Brave," which is already seeing some early marketing rollout. However, it's hard to ignore that PIXAR's output from 2010 to 2013 is going to end up being sequel, sequel, original movie, spinoff/sequel, and prequel. This may be a signal that the decisionmaking at PIXAR has taken a more finance-minded turn. Or to use the general parlance, they've sold out.

What happened? What is going on? PIXAR movies always do so well at the box office, surely they're not in any dire financial straits, are they? Well, the short answer is that the animation studio itself is fine. But there is the little matter of Disney, which acquired PIXAR back in 2006, which is why all the logos now say "Disney PIXAR" instead of just "PIXAR." Disney is a very different company from PIXAR, and financially they haven't been doing as well. I don't want to say that Disney is meddling with PIXAR, but the new partnership is probably a major reason why PIXAR has suddenly embraced franchises, which are less risky, easier to market, and present so many more opportunities for merchandising - where the bulk of the money for children's films usually comes from. PIXAR fans may have been perfectly happy with "Ratatouille," "WALL-E," and "Up," but Wall Street was aghast that the characters from these films were less kid-friendly, and thus couldn't be plastered on everything from soda bottles to underpants.

My hope is that PIXAR's current case of sequelitis is only temporary until John Lasseter can help get Disney's own animation divisions back on their feet, and they can start churning out the safer, more product-oriented properties, and PIXAR can go back to being the PIXAR we know and love. Sadly, it's awfully hard to put the genie back in the bottle, and all that easy merchandising money is going to be difficult to say no to. The more realistic outcome is that PIXAR is going to be much more sequel-friendly from this point out, like all the other studios, but it'll still hopefully be able to make its more artistically ambitious, less commercial films too. At worst, they'd become another Dreamworks, which wouldn't be such a bad thing. Dreamworks has made some wonderful films recently. If "Cars 2" turns out to be just an uncharacteristic bump in the road, there's no reason why the PIXAR brand couldn't still stand for first-rate, quality animation.

But I can't shake the sense that we've hit a turning point. I don't know if PIXAR - and the PIXAR name - are ever going to be quite the same again.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rewatching "The Rules of the Game"

Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game" is consistently ranked, by the people who rank such things, as one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. So back when I was just starting to take this whole pretentious movie fan thing seriously, I dove right in and watched "The Rules of the Game," but didn't get much out of it. Then I viewed it again, with similar results. That was about ten years ago, and I moved on to other, less challenging fare. But recently I've been watching and enjoying several of Renoir's other films like "French Cancan," "The River," "Boudu Saved From Drowning," and "La Bête Humaine," thanks to that Hulu Plus trial. So I thought I'd give "Rules of the Game" another go.

First, it's immediately apparent why film scholars and serious cineastes love the film. Technically, it's brilliant. "The Rules of the Game" is famous for many sequences making use of a deep focus technique to create a very large depth of field, so you can see the action happening in the foreground and background at the same time. Renoir composes his shots to take advantage of this, especially in the famous country estate scenes where he'll place a crowd of people along a hallway or in a series of connected rooms, so you can spot several different things happening at once. And if that weren't enough, the camera is also frequently moving, first looking down one busy hallway and then another, or following characters as they travel from one place to the next, or just peeking through an open door at figures barely visible in the distance. This all builds to a series of spectacular chase sequences where the characters dash through multiple planes of action, crossing from background to foreground and back again, disappearing and reappearing as they move through different rooms, creating more and more ruckus the longer they go.

And then there's the story. I think that one of the reasons I had such a hard time with the film originally was that I found it very difficult to keep track of all the characters, their relationships, and their motivations. The story follows a small party of the French upper class during a weekend at a country estate, hosted by the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) and his wife Christine (Nora Gregor). Both of them are having affairs, and some of their lovers have other lovers, and there's also a the contentious love triangle playing out among a trio of the servants. It was hard to follow who was involved with who, as Christine's mercurial affections would switch among at least three different lovers, and a few of the minor characters like the niece are barely introduced before they get in on the action. It didn't help that the first print I saw wasn't in the best shape, making it difficult to distinguish the male leads from each other.

This time I fared better, and could pay more attention to how the keen satire was mixed with broader humor. Though it follows the form of a typical love farce, "The Rules of the Game" offers quite a bit of social commentary, revealing the little intrigues and hypocrisies of the players, both high class and low. Two in particular help the audience penetrate their world. One is aviator hero André Jurieux (Roland Toutain), madly in love with Christine, who suffers for being an outsider and not understanding how love is conducted in high society. And then there is their lovable, jolly friend Octave, played with considerable charm by Jean Renoir himself, who gamely tries to shepherd the love affair along in spite of his own feelings. In separate chats with the Marquis and Marquise, he succeeds in getting Jurieux invited along for the weekend by cleverly appealing to their sense of etiquette and duty. Octave also has some of the best slapstick scenes, getting himself stuck in a bear costume for much of the last act.

However, the most enjoyable characters are the servants. They harbor their own prejudices and enforce their own hierarchies among themselves, mirroring their employers. Gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) is appalled that Marceau (Julien Carette), a poacher he's been chasing, is hired on as the newest household servant. And when Marceau starts making eyes at Schumacher's estranged wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost), resentment becomes aggression, which becomes murderous rage, which leads right into those wonderful chase scenes. The servants are allowed to be more emotional, more passionate, and more expressive. They suffer more consequences for their transgressions while the elites do not. However, as the tragic ending reveals, being low in the hierarchy of established society trumps not being part of the hierarchy at all.

I missed so much in my first viewings of "The Rules of the Game," and thought the story a far lighter and more flippant piece of work than it actually was. This time I could see the disillusionment, the cynicism, and all the darker implications. This time I could see why the film caused such an uproar in France upon its original release, and why it still strikes such a nerve with viewers. I'm not ready to declare it one of the all-time greats, but I suspect there's more in "The Rules of the Game" that I still haven't discovered, that may take another viewing or two to ferret out.


What I've Seen - Jean Renoir
Night at the Crossroads (1932)
Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)
Toni (1935)
A Day in the Country (1936)
The Lower Depths (1936)
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)
Grand Illusion (1937)
The Human Beast (1938)
The Rules of the Game (1939)
The River (1951)
The Golden Coach (1953)
French Cancan (1954)


What is That Director Up To? Part III

Continued from the last post...

Martin Scorsese - After "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," his big Christmas kids' film, Scorsese has been talking up a passion project, "The Silence." It has nothing to do with the Ingmar Bergman film of the same name, but rather the Japanese novel by Shusaku Endo about a Portuguese Jesuit sent to Japan in the 1600s. It's expected that Benicio Del Toro and Daniel Day Lewis will star, and we probably won't see it in theaters until 2013 at the earliest. Scorsese is also attached to gangster film "The Irishman" with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.

Steven Soderbergh - Soderbergh insists he'll be retiring, right after he finishes a Liberace biopic with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, and a film version of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." with George Clooney. Uh, no comment.

Steven Spielberg - "War Horse" the play just won a heap of Tonys, and some are already expecting "War Horse" the film to clean up at the Oscars. I predict impending fisticuffs with Terrence Malick and Woody Allen. He also has the "Tintin" mocap film coming out around the same time, and then his next project will probably be that long-awaited Abraham Lincoln biopic with Daniel Day Lewis. Honestly, though, the only upcoming film of Spielberg's I'm really looking forward to is something called "Robopocalypse," that's not even scheduled to shoot until next year.

Jan Švankmajer - The great Czech god of stop-motion animation expects his seventh feature, "Insects," to be completed around 2015.

Isao Takahata - How about a little anime news? About four years ago, we started hearing rumors that Studio Ghibli anime director Isao Takahata was working on a new film, his first since the 1999 feature "My Neighbors the Yamadas." There hasn't been much news since except a title - "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter." Like Satoshi Kon's final feature, "The Dream Machine," "Bamboo Cutter" probably won't be done anytime soon, but I'll be keeping an eye on both of them.

Quentin Tarantino - Have you heard about "Django Unchained" yet? I'm still trying to figure out what kind of 'sploitation the story of an escaped slave taking over-the-top revenge on his former master falls under exactly, but I'm sure Tarantino knows what he's doing. Well, I hope Tarantino knows what he's doing, or else we'll never hear the end of it. There's been a lot of news about actors being considered for the main roles, but the only lock seems to be Christoph Waltz as a German bounty hunter. Yeah, that's enough to get me into the theater.

Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis - I'm hard-pressed to described the plot of the novel/anthology "Cloud Atlas," that these three are currently trying to adapt, but I'll just say it's big and ambitious and has time-skipping historical and science-fiction elements, and it's been in the works for years. Production is finally supposed to get rolling this year, and a cast has been announced, led by Tom Hanks. I don't know what this one will come out looking like, but I am intrigued by this combination of talent and I wish them the best of luck.

And very quickly, Peter Jackson's still working on "The Hobbit," David Fincher's finishing up "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Tim Burton is filming "Dark Shadows," Chris Nolan's moving along with "The Dark Knight Rises," Darren Aronofsky is doing a pilot for HBO and trying to get that Noah's Ark film financed, Joe Wright is casting for "Anna Karenina," Sam Mendes said yes to the next "Bond" movie, and I still can't believe Jon Favreau is making "Magic Kingdom," or that Brad Bird is somehow directing the next "Mission: Impossible."

Oh, and Werner Herzog is heading back to the jungle with "The Piano Tuner," Wong Kar-Wai will showcase more love and regret in "The Grandmasters," Bong Joon-Ho is adapting the French comic "Le Transperceneige," Michael Haneke wants us to all cringe again for "Love," Pedro Almodovar just showed "The Skin I Live In" at Cannes, Richard Linklatter sent "Bernie" to the LA Film Festival, Roman Polanski's "Carnage" is due by December, and so is Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," and Lars von Trier still hasn't finished his damned USA trilogy yet, but I expect he will eventually.

Finally, I could find no report on the future cinematic plans of David Lynch, Mike Leigh, Jean Pierre Jeunet, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes, Hayao Miyazaki, Julie Taymor, Michel Gondry, Peter Weir, John Woo, Spike Lee, Olivier Assayas, Jonathan Demme, Terry Zwigoff, Henry Selick, or Edgar Wright. And I'm taking Kevin Smith at his word that he's done.

Too many more left off unintentionally, but we gotta stop sometime. Good night!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What is That Director Up To? Part II

Continued from the last post...

Stephen Frears - Next up for him is "Lay the Favorite, Take the Dog," a gambling film with Rebecca Hall and Bruce Willis. The plot synopsis over here makes is sound like "21" without the racebending. Frears hasn't had the greatest track record since the success of "The Queen," but he was always great with thrillers, like "Dirty Pretty Things" and "The Grifters," and I'm glad we're getting another one from him. "Lay the Favorite" should reach theaters sometime next year.

Terry Gilliam - Still working on "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," now with Robert Duvall instead of Jean Rochefort. Pray for him.

Paul Greengrass - I was worried that Greengrass would be stuck in director jail after the poor performance of "Green Zone." But after a couple of false starts and flirtations with projects like the "Fantastic Voyage," "Cleopatra," "Rush," and "Memphis," it looks like Greengrass may commit to "Maersk Alabama," about a scuffle between Somali pirates and Tom Hanks. Another "Bourne" movie is currently in the pipeline, but Greengrass doesn't have anything to do with it. Neither does Matt Damon for that matter.

Jim Jarmusch - One of the patron saints of American independent cinema is still around and kicking. His latest film has no title yet, but Tilda Swinton, Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska will be in it playing vampires. Yes, vampires.

Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman - These two are up to something. Nobody knows what, and as of December when they were making the rounds with investors there wasn't even a script yet, but those two are definitely up to something.

Neil Jordan - The man is busy with the "Borgias" miniseries right now, but his next project looks like it's going to be science-fiction film "Broken Dream" with Ben Kingsley, which has a long and interesting history involving John Boorman and River Phoenix that I won't get into here. Jordan is also attached to a bunch of other projects including vampire drama "Byzantium, horror film "Heart-Shaped Box," the supernatural "Our Lady of the Forest," and an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book."

Ang Lee - They're finally making "Life of Pi"! It already has a release date slated for next December! Yay! And then I remember Ang Lee's brain-spraining "Hulk" movie, and the fact that the studio demanded that this be shot for 3D, and I calm down. Still, "Life of Pi," an extreme survival story based on the beloved novel by Yann Martel, is one of those projects that has been in the works for what feels like forever, tossed from director to director until Lee was attached back in 2009. It's good to see it going forward at last.

Baz Luhrmann - I don't know how, especially after "Australia" underperformed, but Luhrmann assembled a killer cast for his new adaptation of "The Great Gatsby, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, and Isla Fisher in the key roles. What cinephile could say no to that? However, I have to wonder if Luhrmann is going to do a straight adaptation, or sex it up the way he did with "Moulin Rouge!" and "Romeo + Juliet." "Gatsby" starts filming in July, and will be released in 2012.

Terrence Malick - He's hard at work on a new movie with Ben Affleck. Shooting is finished, which means it should reach theaters in, oh, six to twelve years.

Nicolas Winding Refn - "Drive" with Ryan Gosling got great press at Cannes, where Refn picked up a Best Director prize. On his growing list of upcoming projects, is the remake of "Logan's Run," another of those films that seems to be perpetually in pre-production and just on the verge of getting made. And from recent comments, he seems to be making a play for the notoriously problematic "Wonder Woman" franchise too. You have to admire the man for his ambitions. And "Bronson."

Jason Reitman - Two upcoming films to watch out for. One is a comedy, "Young Adult" with Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt, which will reunite Reitman with "Juno" scribe Diablo Cody. It's expected to land sometime in the fourth quarter of 2011. Then next year he'll direct, "Labor Day," a thriller with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin that sounds very different from the dark comedies and wry satire he's done so far. This could be a good chance for Reitman to stretch a little and see what he's capable of. Fingers crossed.

I'll wrap up with Part III in the next post.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What is That Director Up To? Part I

I mentioned last month that there are several upcoming films that I am anticipating. The thing is, most of these are a long ways from their release dates, aren't being followed breathlessly by the general media, and frankly there's not much information available about them right now. Some of these films don't even have titles yet. This is because my excitement is really all about the directors, and most of the time I just want to know what they're going to do next. So let's see what some of my favorites have been up to:

Woody Allen - Continuing his European tour, he's off to Italy next for "Bop Decameron," and bringing along Jesse Eisenberg, Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page, and many more. He's planning to act again in this one, which may not be a good sign, but it's Woody Allen, and he's always had his ups and downs. But boy do the ups make up for the downs. I really have to go track down a theater showing "Midnight in Paris."

Paul Thomas Anderson - Anderson is currently filming "The Master" with Philip Seymour Hoffman, known in some circles as the Scientology movie. Not every story about a man creating his own religion is intended to be about Scientology. But hey, that's probably the angle the press is going to run with when the movie comes out next year, so who am I argue? After "The Master," will be an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel "Inherent Vice," for those of you who need more counter-culture detective stories in your life.

Wes Anderson - Recently spotted in Rhode Island filming "Moon Rise Kingdom," about a collection of various townsfolk in 60s New England, searching for a pair of runaway lovers. Good cast here, including Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Edward Norton. I expect to see a lot of slow motion, wide angle shots, long tracking shots, OCD set design, and Bill Murray. You know, if Columbia really wants to get "Ghostbusters 3" made with Murray, maybe they ought to consider giving Anderson a a shot at directing it.

Danny Boyle - Zombie fans rejoice. Boyle wants to make another installment of the "28 Days Later" franchise next, presumably "28 Months Later." No clue when he's going to get around to it, but my hope is that he'll bring A.R. Rahman along to do the score.

David Cronenberg - "A Dangerous Method," is described as a historical drama about the contentious relationships that develop among psychiatrists Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly). Obsession and madness are sure to follow, because it's Cronenberg. The film is set to premiere at this year's Venice Film Festival in September, but a trailer just popped up here. Cronenberg is currently in production on "Cosmopolis" with Robert Pattinson, due out sometime next year.

Joel and Ethan Coen - This astoundingly prolific duo wrote the script for the remake of "Gambit" currently filming with Colin Firth in London, wrote another for a film George Clooney is directing, and have announced they will adapt Michael Chabon's alternate-history science-fiction novel, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." But first, it looks like we'll be getting the "Untitled Coen Brothers Music Project." I have no idea, but I'm still pretty excited anyway.

Alfonso Cuarón - Very high on the list of upcoming film projects I'm dying to see is "Gravity," which you might remember was the film at the center of a casting kerfuffle last year. Nearly every high profile actress in town was rumored to be up for the lead after Angelina Jolie turned it down, and in the end the part went to Sandra Bullock. It started filming last month and we should see it sometime next year, I hope. This will be Cuarón's follow-up to "Children of Men," a film that does not get nearly enough love or attention.

Guillermo Del Toro - Uh... let's come back to him later.

Clint Eastwood - After his J. Edgar Hoover biopic with Leonardo DiCaprio, due out in December, Eastwood has announced he'll be helming a remake of "A Star is Born" starring Beyonce. Like "An Affair to Remember," this is one of those stories that tends to come back every generation, and there are already three versions of "A Star is Born," the earliest from 1937. For those who may be worried about Eastwood directing a romance, I will remind you that this was the man both behind and in front of the camera for "The Bridges of Madison County."

This is getting awfully long. I'll have to break it up into segments. Part II tomorrow!

Monday, June 20, 2011

A La Carte Cable?

There have been rumblings in the cable industry for a while now that the possibility of a la carte pricing for cable television is coming. What is a la carte pricing, you ask? Currently, the cable companies sell you access to channels by bundling them together, so you pay for twenty or fifty channels even if there are only five of them you want to watch. A la carte pricing means that you'd be able to pay for non-premium channels individually, or be able to access higher "tiers" of channels without having to buy access to the ones below them in the hierarchy first. Cable companies have staunchly refused to consider these options, because they make more money with more channels, and by creating all these hoops to jump through in order to access content.

However, with the new competition from the Internet, and much prodding from the FCC, those attitudes may finally be changing. Cheaper subscription services like Netflix and Hulu have led to prognostications of mass cord-cutting (I finally did last month). The Apple Itunes and Amazon stores selling new episodes of premium series shortly after they air means that viewers now have the ability to pay for some individual shows online, bypassing the cable system entirely. Six months ago, it came out that HBO was seriously considering making themselves available a la carte to those who didn't subscribe to the higher cable tiers, because of a steep decline in subscribers. If it did, would Showtime and Starz and all the other premium channels be far behind?

Some have suggested that a la carte pricing would mean that the vast majority of current cable channels will be wiped out, but I'm not so sure. Few people watch one or two channels exclusively, and most appreciate the ability to channel surf. For fun, I tried to work out which channels I would want to keep and which I would drop if a la carte pricing became available, and it was harder than I thought. We all have those one or two channels that make us cringe every time we flip past them. In my case it's the sports networks. But once I put those aside, it got harder to pick and choose. Like many people, there are some channels that I certainly watch more than others, but nearly all of them have a show or two that sometimes catches my interest, or has the broadcast rights to a movie I wouldn't mind seeing again.

For instance, I don't watch anything on Lifetime except "Project Runway," and I don't watch anything on A&E except "Hoarders." I have no interest in any of the original programming on ABC Family or the Disney Channel, but they both have libraries of older films with a lot of titles I like. Even MSNBC is watchable every couple of years, when NBC turns over a portion of its airtime to Olympics coverage. It was odd to realize, but I kind of like having access to channels that I don't actually watch very often - but I could. That's why I don't think cable companies would be in too much trouble if they did start offering individual channels a la carte. People are used to bundling and some would probably prefer the current system if offered the choice.

On the other hand, would I trade all of those rarely watched channels in for Turner Classic Movies or BBC America? You bet I would. And would extra channels be an easier sell if I didn't have to buy twenty more unwanted channels along with them? Most definitely. I suspect my viewing habits would change if a la carte became the new norm. For one thing, I'd spend less time surfing and more time actually enjoying the television I pay for. In fact it's already happening. Ever since I swapped my basic cable for Netflix, I've been consuming more media than ever, including television. And over the past few months, I've more or less built my own little schedule of regular programming out of the shows that are available online - "The Daily Show," "Frontline," lots of network programs, and a few independent Internet content providers like "College Humor" and "Channel Awesome." The only time I really find myself channel surfing anymore is when I'm traveling and don't have my usual broadband access.

Honestly, I don't know if a la carte pricing is enough to reverse the trend now. The concept of having channels at all may soon be obsolete as individual shows gain popularity on platforms that have little to do with the networks they air on. Is this the end of cable as we know it?

Only one thing is absolutely clear: I watch too much TV.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I Love That "Futurama" is Back

It took me a while, but I finally caught up on all the "Futurama" direct-to video movies and the first half of the sixth season, just in time for second half, which will premiere on Comedy Central this summer. While the first few episodes of season six were airing last year, I heard a lot of complaints about how the show just wasn't the same, and comparisons were made to the decline of "The Simpsons," which started to lose steam around its eighth season. I think a lot of this has to do with the "Futurama" direct-to-video films, which are now officially considered season five. You can't watch the films without getting the sense that the creators were trying to wrap up the show, and the end of the last film provides a natural place for the series to end. What could be left to tell after going out with such a bang? What could you possibly do after finally letting the show's main couple get together, revealing the identity of Professor Farnsworth's illegitimate son, and cramming every single character in the show's universe into a single shot?

So some feeling of regression was natural. "Futurama" came back to television after a boggling seven-year hiatus from regular series status and a quartet of epic-scale features, only to return to the status quo. They did acknowledge prior events - Fry and Leela became a couple, Nibbler kept talking, and so forth. However, this was keeping within the norm for "Futurama." One of the biggest ways in which the show is different from "The Simpsons" or "South Park" is that the characters can change and grow. The Leela we met in the first episode of the first season is different from the one crusading for mutant rights and being stood-up by Fry on their dinner dates in season six. They can't change too much, of course, because "Futurama" is fundamentally a workplace sitcom that relies on the regularity of the cast's personalities, but the differences are there.

I thought the ratio of good to mediocre episodes in season six was about the same as it had been in the first two seasons, and proved there were still a lot of places that the show hadn't gone yet. My favorites are usually the more heartwarming character-centric installments and the more cerebral, ambitious ones. "Lethal Inspection," gave supporting player Hermes a rare turn in the spotlight, and a glimpse into his unseen past. "The Prisoner of Benda" took the old body-switching concept to wonderful, ridiculous extremes, and episode writer Ken Keeler actually created a new mathematical proof in order to figure out how to logically sort everyone back into the right bodies at the end. And then there was "The Late Philip J. Fry," the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the Fry and Leela romance. As with all "Futurama" episodes, ever the weaker ones had their moments. "That Darn Katz!" allowed perpetual intern Amy to finally receive her doctorate. Alas, she ends up back at Planet Express, having no other job prospects.

Another factor that "Futurama" has against it is its age. The series premiered on FOX well over a decade ago, and was in reruns on basic cable for years. As with all television that garners a significant amount of nostalgia, its fans tend to mentally erase the weaker episodes and only focus on the highlights. People are always going to remember "Jurassic Bark" and "Luck of the Fryish," and compare the new episodes against them instead of "That's Lobstertainment!" This may be too much for even the most consistently brilliant show to live up to. However, after the season six episodes we've seen so far, I still see so much potential in "Futurama." The more diverse cast of characters and the science-fiction trappings allow for a wider variety of stories than "The Simpsons." And I don't see "Futurama" getting repetitive or bogged down in its own minutiae for a long while yet, not when we're still seeing little changes in the show's ensemble like Nibbler getting assertive with the crew and Amy revealing her brainier side.

Also, "Futurama" feels like a show of the current era of television, even though it's been with us for so long. The humor and references, even in the earliest episodes, have barely dated at all. In fact, it might have been a little too far ahead of its time back in 1999, which is why it took a while to catch on with mainstream audiences. I remember "Futurama" as the show that the geeks (myself included) were all into back in college, and now those geeks are running the world, everyone is obsessed with gadgetry, and more niche, tech-savvy genre shows have risen to prominence. "The Simpsons" is struggling to keep parodying a family sitcom landscape that largely no longer exists. "Futurama," oddly enough, has become the more timely comedy. You could stick GlaDOS in an episode somewhere, and no one would blink.

I'm sure that someday the cultural relevance of "Futurama" will fade away too. But not yet.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Thoughts on "The Tree of Life"

There can be no doubt that Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" is an Art film with a capital A. It tackles the big, transcendental, existential questions, such as the Meaning of Life and the Existence of God. The narrative contains the entire history of the universe, including a "Rite of Spring" style account of the development of life on earth, from amoebas to CGI dinosaurs and beyond. It announces these grand ambitions from the very first frames, which are set to narration explaining the two paths through life, The Way of Nature, and The Way of Grace. Then we are introduced to an aged father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain) grieving over the death of one of their three grown sons. One of the surviving brothers is Jack (Sean Penn), an architect in a faraway city. Learning of the death, he faces a crisis of faith, which frames the rest of the story.

These opening scenes are full of long, static shots and sparse dialogue, spoken almost entirely in whispers, mutters, and mumbles. The first twenty minutes of "The Tree of Life" are the most esoteric and difficult to get through, perhaps Malick's way of telling his audience that if they're not willing to commit to a film that wears its serious artistic intentions on its sleeve, perhaps they had better leave the theaters before going any deeper in. However, the softer dialogue and more meditative shots also have the effect of making the audience strain to listen a little harder, and pay more attention to what is happening onscreen. In this way, the viewer's senses are sharpened and ready when Malick decides to unleash the full aural and visual beauty of "The Tree of Life."

Because after all the mordant angst and the extended natural history lesson, the true premise of the film reveals itself – it's a history of Jack's early childhood years, as seen through the intense, subjective viewpoint of his memories. Natural and celestial imagery recurs, in order to maintain the themes set forth in the prologue, but otherwise the film is almost totally concerned with the Jack's development from joyous babyhood to troubled adolescence. We watch Jack, played by Hunter McCracken as a boy, wrestle with questions of morality, mortality, and maturation, guided by the conflicting philosophies of his parents. His mother, portrayed as a winsome Titian-haired Madonna by acting newcomer Jessica Chastain, represents the Way of Grace, of goodness and selflessness. The harsher, violent Way of Nature is Jack's father, an authoritarian, sometimes bullying figure who Jack and his two brothers clash with to a greater and greater degree as they grow older. You many never look at Brad Pitt in quite the same way after this one.

There is no shortage of cinema pleasures to be found in "The Tree of Life," but it takes a lot of work and a lot of patience to discover them. Malick's brilliance as a filmmaker is undeniable, but his execution doesn't quite match his ambition in the end. He fills the screen with all manner of stunning images, but I have to wonder at the way he chooses to present some of them. The more surreal bookend sequences felt unnecessary. Many of the nature shots are used oddly, or in such obvious ways as to border on cliché. While our first view of an elasmosaurus is stunning, the subsequent dinosaur appearances become a little silly. There is also a later scene during the denouement with Chastain and Joanna Going, playing Jack's unnamed girlfriend/wife, which looks like nothing so much as an interpretive dance sequence. This is really taking the whole lyricism approach too far.

Fortunately these missteps are few. The best segments are the ones that follow Jack discovering and exploring the world during his childhood, in a fiercely personal, nostalgic evocation of 1950s America. Malick captures the inner world and emotional reality of Jack by giving us a fragmentary, almost stream-of-consciousness-style narrative. As a baby, the camera is close to the ground, and the shots are shorter, more intimate and enclosed. As a boy, at play in house full of boys, the camerawork becomes chaotic and the pace sometimes quickens to a frenzy. Though I'm not about to start trying to decode the film for deeper meaning, the thought occurred to me that perhaps the POV of the camera was supposed to represent God, sometimes looking through Jack's eyes, sometimes a watchful presence hovering nearby.

The intensity of the images is bolstered by the soundtrack, consisting mostly of classical music pieces, including several themes courtesy of Alexandre Despalt, but also an impressive sound design. It is yet another way for Malick to remind of us of the presence of the natural and the divine. Chirping crickets and running water are the most prominent motifs, and the tone becomes ominous whenever they fall silent. The whispered dialogue is meant to convey the characters' inner, private thoughts, including several entreaties to God, though the name of the deity is only invoked directly once or twice. One of these is a brief snippet of memory where Jack's mother points up toward a lovely, cloud-strewn sky and tells her baby "That's where God lives," as the orchestral music swells. And it's such a lovely moment that you'd never question that Jack would remember it decades later.

The performances also deserve praise, though they tend to be overshadowed by the editing and cinematography. Pitt and Chastain are impressive, but the film really belongs to the younger actors - Hunter McCracken as the troubled young Jack, and Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan who play his younger brothers. There's not a single moment among the three of them that feels affected or emotionally false, and the greater part of the film follows them continuously. McCracken is particularly strong, as Jack's confusing darker impulses begin to emerge and his animosity toward his father grows.

In the end, so much of the effectiveness of "Tree of Life" comes from the unusually ambitious scope of Malick's vision. There are few filmmakers who would have the daring to conceive of such a difficult, demanding film, and fewer still who have the means and the skill to get it made. Malick is not on the level of Stanley Kubrick, though it is tempting to compare the two because of the similar imagery of "Tree of Life" and Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." However, I get the sense that Malick has aspirations beyond Kubrick, and the best moments of "Tree of Life" suggest that Malick has the capacity to surpass him. After five films, Malick has finally won me over, and "The Tree of Life," though very imperfect, is easily his greatest cinematic achievement so far.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Studios Rethinking Comic-Con?

I'm not going to make it to Comic-Con this July, though I had a blast last year. It was fascinating to see the studios using the event for marketing purposes, screening new footage, plastering promotional images everywhere, and churning up the buzz. Well, trying to anyway. I came away with the impression that some of the studios sent new movies and shows to Comic-Con that really had no business being there. Much of the marketing was ineffective, ill-considered, and may have even done more harm than good to some movies like "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," which suffered from overblown expectations, in part due to their Comic-Con antics. So it's not surprising that according to a recent New York Times article, several big studios have pulled out completely, including Dreamworks, Disney, and Warners. This means no previews of "Puss in Boots," no fuss for "The Muppets," and no teases for "The Dark Knight Rises." Even Marvel is waffling, despite the upcoming "Avengers" movie currently in production. Is this a bad thing? Not in the slightest.

A comic book convention is a great place to find passionate nerds, and can help to drum up interest in a particular property. However, there's no guarantee that by simply showing up with a shiny presentation that a new film or show is guaranteed a boost in awareness, and if there is an increase in chatter, reactions are not necessarily going to be positive. Over the past few years Comic-Con has been inundated with promotions for everything that might even have a peripheral connection to the comic-book world, ever since comic book properties started becoming big moneymakers at the box office. The marketing genuises completely took it for granted that nerds and trend-setters tend to be smarter and pickier than average, and they do not represent mainstream tastes. They might give the cold shoulder to media that will perform perfectly well with general audiences, and they might rally around niche titles that will fall flat anywhere else. Also, if presentations or new material are less than stellar, there's no hiding it from thousands of Internet-savvy nerdy nit-pickers. So once burned, it makes sense that they've gotten twice shy. Why risk the bad publicity? Or worse, being ignored?

I still think that Comic-Con is a fantastic venue for getting attention, especially for properties with existing fans. Say what you will about the performance of "TRON Legacy" at the box office last winter, but it was a film that I'm glad got made, and we wouldn't have it without Comic-Con proving there were still plenty of us who knew and adored the original. I'd love to see the studios keep testing the waters with in-development material, instead of trying to use the event as a tent pole in big marketing campaigns. Even though last year was my first Comic-Con, I got the sense that the movie promotions didn't have quite the same vibe as the rest of the convention. The Hall H films panels felt especially remote and impersonal compared to the others I attended - lots more hype, but not as much fun. All the attention from the media meant increased pressure on the studios, leading to flashy stunts, celebrity appearances, and other distractions. Sure, it was nice to see Will Ferrell and Tina Fey show up to plug "Megamind," but their panel felt entirely too scripted and didn't take advantage of the audience. And the point of the convention really is the audience.

The studios backing off for a while to regroup is probably for the best, but I'm surprised that so many are choosing not to send any titles at all. Some of it is cost-cutting I suppose, plus remorse from overspending in past years, and fallout from the failure of many films aimed at the Comic-Con demographic recently. Or maybe Disney, Warners, and Dreamworks simply don't have anything interesting to show us right now this year. But it would be an awful shame if this marks the beginning of an exodus of the major studios from Comic-Con, though. Even weaker showings can result in great, spontaneous moments you'll never get anywhere else. Last year the "Green Lantern" preview footage may have left some viewers cold, but the clip of Ryan Reynolds reciting The Oath to a junior "Lantern" fan during the Q&A was one of the highlights of the convention, and won him a lot of goodwill. In interviews, Reynolds claimed he thought the kid was a plant, and the moment had been set up by Warners.

It wasn't. It was just Comic-Con.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The "Human Condition" Trilogy

I've written before on how the lack of context can be frustrating when watching a film. In the case of Masaki Kobayashi's "The Human Condition" I had the opposite problem - I knew too much. The film trilogy takes place during the latter days and the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in WWII, and follows an idealistic young man, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), who is constantly challenged by the cruelty and corruption of war. In the first film, he tries to apply humanist ideals to managing a labor camp. In the second, conscripted into the army, he finds compassion toward his fellow soldiers has no place in a repressive hierarchy. Finally in the third, he becomes a POW in a Russian prison camp, which tests his Socialist philosophy. It is a monumental work of cinema by any measure. The three films together run nine-and-a-half hours in length, features haunting scenes of battle and human suffering on an epic scale, and can be seen as a sweeping condemnation of the Japanese wartime mentality. Upon their initial release in Japan, the films were viewed by some critics as anti-Japanese.

Watching the films as someone of Chinese descent, however, my views are inevitably colored by my own background. Throughout the first film, Kaji's naive attitude galled. Of course the Chinese laborers under his supervision would keep trying to undermine Kaji, no matter how much kinder than the other Japanese he was. Of course there would be resentment and bad feelings toward him for being associated with the hated enemy. The Chinese have never forgotten the war crimes and other atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII, and it's at the root of a lot of continuing acrimony between the two countries, that has only finally started to lift in recent years. It didn't help that there were some unfortunate caricatures among the Chinese characters, and not a single actor in the first film was a native Chinese speaker, despite a good chunk of the dialogue being in Mandarin. Listening to the actors mangle the lines of all the Chinese characters for three hours really wreaked havoc on some of the important subplots, and undercut many vital scenes. I'm not usually one to advocate for dubbing, but in this case I would have appreciated it.

So it was only late in the first film that I realized director Kobayashi was entirely on my side. "The Human Condition" doesn't shy away from showing the cruelty of the Japanese, and Kaji is soon forced to confront the hypocrisy of his position as he becomes involved in worse and worse injustices, and his high-mindedness brings about his downfall. This pattern repeats itself in all three films, with Kaji struggling not to compromise his ideals and humanity in the face of deeply corrupted systems of authority - the labor camps, the army, the burgeoning Communist movement - only to discover the limits of his own convictions. There are no happy resolutions, where Kaji effects any sort of lasting change in the behavior of the oppressors, no nationalist message that alleviates any of the guilt of the Japanese audience. And compared to the other Japanese media of the time, "The Human Condition" was very sympathetic toward the Chinese laborers and prisoners, who Kaji eventually finds himself agreeing with more often than his fellow countrymen. That the film was made a scant fifteen years after the end of the war is astonishing.

Nakadai is exceptional as Kaji, from his earliest scenes as a young husband with his beloved Michiko (Michiyo Aramata), to the final act of the last film where he is transformed into a grim specter of wartime horrors, struggling for survival far from home. Frequently he seems to be the only voice of opposition against tyranny and apathy, caught between conflicting loyalties to his nation and to his own morality. Nakadai manages to find ever deeper reserves of frustration, rage, and anguish as Kaji's fortunes decline. There's a lot of shouting and ranting in these films, especially in the second installment that takes place mostly in army barracks, where conversations can be carried out like screaming matches. It's hard on the ears, but the drama is thrilling. Many of the supporting players are also excellent, namely Kunie Tanaka as the weakling Obara, Kei Sato as one of Kaji's rare friends in the army, Shinjo, and Eitaro Ozawa as the sadistic labor boss Okazaki.

Much of the credit for the trilogy's effectiveness must also go to Yoshio Miyajima for his bleak, black-and-white cinematography, full of stunning wide-screen shots of barren wastelands and claustrophobic interiors. In the third film especially, where Kaji spends much of the film's running time trying to find his way back to his wife in Southern Manchuria, the unfriendly terrain becomes his greatest enemy, another oppressive force that cannot be reasoned with. The combat scenes are few, but excellently staged, especially the finale of the second film which ends with Kaji's unit facing the Russian army on the northern border.

Despite its flaws, the first of the "Human Condition" films is easily the most affecting due to its stark portrayals of human subjugation and moral dilemmas. One scene which can be seen a microcosm of Kaji's struggles occurs when the labor camp receives several boxcars of civilian prisoners who have been conscripted for labor. They arrive locked in the cars, starving and half dead. Kaji is aghast and frees them, unwittingly unleashing a tide of stumbling, desperate wretches who are driven by hunger to attack a wagon of food. Fearful that the prisoners will gorge themselves to death, Kaji tries to turn them back single-handed, even resorting to violence, only to be utterly overwhelmed by hundreds of starving men.

"The Human Condition" is a harrowing vision of human depravity that resonates far beyond its immediate context. There are few films that present such an intense look at the dehumanizing effects of war, and the madness through which it is waged. I still have many reservations about the trilogy, and there are some problematic elements that are difficult to overlook, but there's no denying the films' power and universal relevance. If you can bear to watch, they should be seen and remembered.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Unwrapping "Twin Peaks"

Over twenty years ago now, America went through Peaksmania, a brief but rabid obsession with the television crime drama "Twin Peaks." It was conceived in part by American film auteur David Lynch, who also wrote and directed several episodes. I never saw any of the series while it was airing, not being quite old enough for it, but I remember the cultural impact. Subsequent supernatural shows like "The X-Files" and "Eerie, Indiana" were always compared to "Twin Peaks." Parodies were everywhere. Even the "Darkwing Duck" cartoon got in on the action with a surreal "Twin Beaks" episode. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that the show was weird and a bit disturbing, but in a novel way that inspired endless fascination.

Soon enough I grew up into the pretentious film nerd I am today, and after getting my brains utterly warped by a viewing of "Mulholland Drive" back in 2001, I watched nearly everything David Lynch directed. For a long time now, one of the last unwatched titles on the list has been "Twin Peaks," along with its movie sequel, "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me." I just never had the time, the means, or quite enough curiosity to commit myself to tracking down and viewing the whole thirty-episode series. (My fatal flaw is that I'm a completist.) But now "Twin Peaks" is on Netflix's Instant Watch, so I'm all out of excuses. I watched the ninety-minute pilot last night and I'll definitely be back for more. Here are a few initial thoughts.

I never could reconcile the status of "Twin Peaks" as this massive popular phenomenon with the rest of David Lynch's work, which is often difficult and of very limited appeal. Wouldn't Lynch's signature surrealism and experimental cinematic sensibilities be compromised by the television format? This was 1990, remember, when you never saw television shows take the kinds of risks that they regularly do today. "Twin Peaks," to my delight, was well ahead of the curve. Lynch directed the pilot, which looks like a very typical murder mystery at first glance. The body of teenage prom queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is found one morning on the bank of a river, wrapped in plastic. This sparks an investigation in her home town of Twin Peaks, a tiny logging community just south of the Canadian border. The pilot spends a lot of time introducing us to various townsfolk, who we'll surely learn more about later.

But right from the start, there's something odd about the atmosphere, and a dissonance about certain elements. I found myself laughing incredulously as deeply emotional moments were accompanied by deliriously melodramatic music. I was prepared for weirdness, but I didn't expect "Twin Peaks" to be so funny and so subversive. It takes all the familiar elements of crime procedurals like "L.A. Law," and prime time soap operas like "Dynasty," and subtly mocks them, sometimes by taking certain tropes to their extremes, or highlighting incongruities by playing incompatible cliches against each other. There's a heightened, satirical quality to most of the characters, like Laura's ratfink boyfriend Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), and the chirrupy sheriff's receptionist Lucy (Kimmy Robertson). Some are just plain bizarre, like the eye-patch wearing Nadine (Wendy Hurley) and the briefly introduced Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson), who is notable for carrying around - you guessed it - a small log.

The show's best creation, however, is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, who comes to Twin Peaks to lead the investigation into Laura Palmer's murder. I'd seen MacLachlan before in Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and "Dune," and was not convinced of his charms. As Agent Cooper, however, MacLachlan is fantastic. The super-cool G-Man seems to have stepped out a Dashiell Hammett novel, often providing his own detail-oriented deadpan narration into a pocket recorder. MacLachlan's comic timing and dialogue delivery are perfect, especially as he waxes poetic about the cherry pie at the diner and the pristine natural scenery. He's working on such a different wavelength from anyone else in the show, Agent Cooper doesn't seem to be just from out of town, but from another planet entirely.

At the same time, there is something terribly unnerving about the way "Twin Peaks" breaks from form, and the tone can change from humorous to sinister without warning. One of the deputy sheriffs, Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), has a bad habit of crying at crime scenes, which is played for laughs at first. But then, later in the pilot, the camera stays on him during another breakdown, and suddenly it's not so funny at all, but a little frightening. And then there's the ending, shot with a jostled handheld camera and set to a soundtrack of shattering screams from Laura's mother Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), that takes us to the brink of all-out horror.

It's clear that under that veneer of civility and small town charm, darker things are lurking in Twin Peaks. Some of these secrets are fairly benign, like couples having affairs and teenagers defying parental authority. Others surely are not. "Twin Peaks" has a lot in common with David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," which explored the dark underbelly of suburban America. Based on that film, I expect the show to go to some very dark and terrifying places usually shunned by network television. I already know that supernatural elements are going to manifest sooner or later. Apparently there will also be a dancing dwarf. I can't wait to see how far Lynch and his crew are willing to go.

And I haven't even gotten into the cinematography, or the Northwestern setting, or the editing, or the donuts, or even most of the sprawling cast, which includes a young Lara Flynn Boyle looking remarkably like a "Heathers" era Winona Ryder. But this post has gone on long enough. While watching the pilot I had to marvel that a major television network actually had the guts to air this, to put something really challenging and original and David Freakin' Lynch in front of the unwary mainstream audience.

And I'm absolutely tickled that the American public went for it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Let's Try Hulu Plus

I find myself in the middle of a relatively uneventful week, so I've decided to use the Hulu Plus one-week free trial to mainline some of the Criterion titles I've been eyeing. So far I've watched six movies, and thought I'd share a few thoughts.

First, the selection for Criterion titles is great, though for some directors more than others. You get plenty of Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozu, but many other major names only have one or two featured titles apiece. The plan is to rotate the titles in the collection, so this may change. I found plenty to keep me occupied, though, including the early films of Jane Campion and Masaki Kobayashi's entire nine-hour "The Human Condition" (Ningen no Joken) epic. There is far, far more to watch than I'll be able to get through by the end of this week.

So far the presentation is decent. As advertised, there's only a single commercial at the beginning of each film, and the commercial never loaded properly so I was essentially watching a 30-second error message before each feature. I could easily pretend it was just another studio ident. I am not up to speed as I should be on technical details, but Hulu offered the ability to stream the films to a variety of different devices. Though some cineastes may cringe, I watched everything on my laptop (a 15" monster) and had no complaints about picture or audio quality. The restored version of Luchino Visconti's "Senso" was particularly magnificent. I wasn't thrilled about the automatic credit squeezing, though, a practice I've always hated seeing on television. And where there were no end credits, as in the case of Bergman's "Winter Light," the stream ended so abruptly that I thought the ending had been mistakenly cut off.

Where Hulu stands out from Netflix is in the organization and treatment of their Criterion titles. The collection has its own Hulu pages and categories, the featured directors have more comprehensive biographies, and there is more information available about each film. The supplementary materials are still few and sometimes difficult to spot, but are invaluable. All in all, it is much easier to identify and navigate through the offerings from the collection, whereas I'd had to rely on other sources to keep track of the same titles on Netflix. However, user-generated information is notably lacking. There are few reviews, almost no comments, and many titles don't even have star ratings, though the architecture for all of this is in place. Hulu may have embraced Criterion, but Criterion fans haven't embraced Hulu yet.

So would I subscribe to Hulu Plus? Probably. Even though the Criterions are the only thing I'm interested in right now, there are enough of them that they could easily keep me occupied for a few months. Hulu has also been making deals with other content providers to gain access to their film libraries. The Hulu front page has been touting the recent arrival of several Miramax titles to the site, including Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy." If Hulu can keep adding film content they way they have been recently, then I could see myself switching back and forth between the Hulu and Netflix services in the future.

It's all going to come down to content deals, I suppose. On that note, I should also mention Hulu's television offerings, which are frustrating, frankly. Hulu has always been largely built around television, but since the studios are still worried about online streaming cutting into their cable profits, few of the current basic and premium cable shows are available on Hulu Plus. These are the shows I'd be willing to pay for, and they're simply not there. Instead, Hulu has lots of network content, lots of reality shows, foreign programming, and classic television. A few odd titles have caught my eye, but not enough that I'd cough up a subscription fee for access, and certainly not enough to replace any other services.

Hulu Plus still has a long way to go. Hulu isn't as user-friendly as Netflix in a lot of ways, and having ads on a pay service at all still grates, but the site has shown a lot of improvement on every front since it first launched. And the way they've treated the Criterion films suggests they have the potential to be better. And as long as they're the only real competition to Netflix, it's in everyone's best interest if Hulu sticks around to keep them on their toes.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Getting Over Jennifer Love Hewitt

I wrote up a snarky blog post about Jennifer Love Hewitt last month, when I heard she was resurfacing on NBC's summer series "Love Bites," but decided not to post it. There are always those couple of actors and actresses who keep getting work despite constant mediocrity, that ping particularly strong feelings of disdain and resentment. How on earth is middling Actor X being cast in all these big projects, while brilliant, unappreciated Actor Y is toiling in obscurity? Jennifer Love Hewitt was always one of these for me, an actress whose appeal I just couldn't fathom and developed stronger feelings of rancor toward than I knew she really deserved. Now a Slate article analyzing data from Rotten Tomatoes has declared that the actress with the worst-reviewed films under her belt since 1985 is Hewitt, beating out such notable schlock luminaries as Carmen Electra and Paris Hilton. I could have taken this as vindication for my own dislike of Hewitt as an actress, but mostly I just felt bad for her.

In the late 90s, if you were a teenager or young adult, there was no getting away from Jennifer Love Hewitt. She was one of the breakout starts of the popular teen drama "Party of Five," and made the move to feature films with "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "Can't Hardly Wait." There was also a brief recording career, probably best remembered for a music video that consisted entirely of her meandering down a city street while wearing a scarf. She was hyped up to such an extent by the breathless media, which billed her as one of the hot new Hollywood somebodies, it was inevitable that she couldn't live up to expectations. I was happy to ignore her as best I could until I ran across her performance in the 2000 TV movie, "The Audrey Hepburn Story." I love Audrey Hepburn. Hewitt was terribly miscast and gave a very weak, mannered performance, made worse by an awful script. I actively did not like her after that, and every time I spotted her in a commercial or on a movie posted, it rankled.

But my real beef developed when she refused to go away. Other mediocre young actors of the time had short careers that burned out quickly, like Tara Reid, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Denise Richards. At some point Jennifer Love Hewitt became a name actress, someone inexplicably marquee-worthy who was considered a draw for years after her teen-idol peak. Her performances never seemed to improve, but she kept showing up in movies with decent visibility, like "Garfield" and "The Tuxedo," and eventually she ended up as the lead of the CBS supernatural drama "The Ghost Whisperer" for five seasons. I've never seen an episode, but it was described to me once as "Touched By an Angel" sans the Christianity. Not really my thing, but it filled a niche for the network and won over a good amount of fans. I hope this means she's finally become a better actress, though I'm not prepared to spend any time finding out.

Is my attitude toward her petty? Absolutely, but I fully admit that it's not the actress's fault. It was really the the overexposure that galled me, not anything Hewitt did. There are plenty of bad actresses out there who have committed far worse cinematic crimes. It was the filmmakers who kept giving her work, and the fans who happily overlooked her weaknesses, and the media that kept her name in the papers that I really had the problem with. They overhyped her when I was still hadn't figured out how to tune out the breathless, meaningless pop culture popularity chatterers yet. I let them get to me, which is the part of all this I still regret. Looking over Hewitt's filmography, I've seen a grand total of three of her fifteen films, one of which was "Sister Act 2" where she had a bit part, and only a few brief television appearances. So why was I ever wasting my time being irritated by an actress whose work I hardly even saw?

Looking at Hewitt's dismal record of Rotten Tomatoes scores, I think she ended up on the bottom not because of her lack of talent, but because she always played it safe. Her film credits are full of cheap B-movies and C-movies where she didn't have to do much but look cute, never straying too far outside her comfort zone. She never tried to build up indie cred, never left Hollywood, and never did anything remotely risky. And there's nothing wrong with that. Hewitt is a mediocre actress, but I suspect she knows her limits, and she clearly understood how to take advantage of all that early hype and fuss to keep the work coming. The fact that she's still around, trying to launch more television projects is proof of that. She's figured out what works for her, and made a career of it.

Good for her.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Another Year" is Well Worth the Time

Tom (Jim Broadbent) and and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a lovely older British couple, very happy and content with a grown son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), who they see often. Both are still working, he as a geologist and she as a counselor at the local hospital. However, as we follow them through a year together, they seem to be constantly surrounded by unhappy people. Visiting friends confess loneliness and depression. Tom's brother Ronnie (David Bradley) loses his wife and is estranged from his son Carl (Martin Savage). The film is split up into four segments, one for each season, and Mary (Lesley Manville), one of Gerri's co-workers, appears in each. It's her interactions with the family that are at the heart of the film, her compounding failures and miseries presenting the starkest contrast to Tom and Gerri's happiness.

"Another Year" seems like such a simple film at the outset, a small domestic drama made on a very modest budget, that could easily be adapted to a stage play. The characters lead quiet lives, and the events of the story add up to a series of casual encounters and small events - a funeral, a dinner party, and a barbecue. However, there is drama in abundance, and "Another Year" leaves viewers with plenty to think over and debate. It's been fascinating to follow some of the reactions to the film, because the characters and events can be read in so many different ways. Is Mary, a lonely woman Gerri's age, a hypocrite for rejecting the advances of Ken (Peter Wight), a similarly miserable friend of Tom's, in favor of flirting with the much younger Joe? Are Tom and Gerri being cruel when they introduce Mary to Joe's girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez)? In the end, is Mary's friendship with the couple helpful or hurtful?

Lesley Manville has been rightly singled out for her performance as Mary, that needy friend so many of us have, who always seems to be in the middle of some calamity. Though she means well enough, she has unreasonable expectations and is unwilling to let go of certain illusions. All the while, she blithely ignores harsh realities - until they catch up with her. We sympathize with Mary, as Tom and Gerri sympathize with her, but there's also an underlying unease to the relationship as Mary's behavior gets a little more familiar and a little more desperate with each encounter. Manville's ability to play so many different notes and emotions, to make Mary everything from lively to seething to timid without contradictions is extraordinary. She reveals the extent of Mary's unhappiness little by little, removing a few layers of her defenses at a time, right up to the final shot of the film. And it's a doozy.

The rest of the ensemble is likewise very strong. Peter Wight and David Bradley turn in small, but memorable performances as two solitary men dealing with their losses in very different ways. Broadbent and Sheen complement each other well, and make a great screen couple. They get a few scenes, some alone and some together, to suggest that Tom and Gerri are fundamentally no different from any of their unhappy friends or relations. They may initially seem like a perfect couple, but can't live up to the image, and of course should not be expected to. Imelda Staunton also makes a great appearance as one of Gerri's troubled counseling patients in the opening scenes. She only gets a few minutes of screen time, but her presence helps to set the tone for the rest of the movie.

Friendship dynamics are such complex things, but it's a rare to find a film that tackles them so directly. Director Mike Leigh is an old hand with stories about uncomfortable relationships, having given us "Secrets and Lies," "Happy Go Lucky," and many more. His movies tend to be hit-or-miss for me, but "Another Year" is definitely one of the hits. I love that Leigh totally upends our usual expectations about the film's subject matter. Not knowing anything going in except the bare bones of the plot, I expected a more conventional, sentimental story about getting older, overcoming hardships, and enduring tragedies. There's nothing so straightforward going on here. Instead, Tom and Gerri do the best they can to support their loved ones, but find it's not so easy to share their own happiness, and sometimes their efforts just make things worse.

And despite the homey settings and a few nostalgic conversations, there's precious little sentiment in "Another Year." That's nice to see in a film predominantly featuring older actors, who too often get stuck with soppy, uplifting pabulum. Since the bulk of the cast has done multiple films with Mike Leigh, who is one of those types who uses the same circle of actors over and over, here's hoping they all get together in the future to make another one like this, say in another year or so.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Decoding the Entertainment News Headlines

It used to be that if you wanted to get anywhere in the entertainment business world, you had to learn Variety-speak, the industry shorthand that made the trade paper's headlines nigh incomprehensible to those who weren't in the know. The rise of the internet and entertainment news aggregators has rendered this mostly moot. However, figuring out what's going on in Hollywood now may require a different set of decoding skills. Scrolling through the Google News Entertainment section this morning, I noticed that it was almost totally swamped by fluff pieces, but most of them are actually tied to substantive news if you dig a little. Here are some examples:

Are you in on Super8Secret#? - Entertainment Tonight tells us there's a Twitter-centric sneak peek campaign for the new J.J. Abrams science-fiction movie "Super 8." Buy a ticket via Twitter and you may be able to see the film early on Thursday, get concession deals, and avoid the spoilers.

What's actually going on: Despite good early reviews and the cachet of having Steven Spielberg's name attached, the buzz on "Super 8" has been soft. Paramount is worried that Abrams keeping mum on the film's secrets may hurt its chances at the box office. The preview screenings are being rolled out to try and drum up some more chatter going into opening weekend. Oh, and chalk up another attempt to exploit the power of Twitter.

Watch Meredith Vieira's Highlights From Working on 'Today' - OK Magazine provides a little context for Meredith Vieira's last day on NBC's "Today" morning show, which she co-hosted for five years with Matt Lauer after the departure of Katie Couric in 2006.

What's actually going on: Coming right on the heels of Katie Couric's departure from the anchor chair at the CBS evening news, the networks' game of musical chairs with their news personalities continues. The real eyebrow raiser is that Vieira is leaving "Today" months before her contract was due to expire, which has set of a storm of speculation about why she's choosing to vacate the co-host chair now, and what her future plans will be.

Laurence Fishburne Leaving CSI - This one isn't fluff and seems pretty straightforward, right? Fishburne is going back to his feature film career after three seasons on "CSI," though apparently he'll still be a recurring character next year. So who's filling the leading man slot now?

What's actually going on: The writing has been on the wall for a while now that "CSI" is in its decline, and Fishburne's departure may signal that the end is near. "CSI" entered a ratings slide after William Peterson left, and CBS is moving the show to Wednesdays at 10PM for its twelfth season. There, it will go head to head with another aging crime drama that is losing its marquee leads next year, NBC's "Law & Order: SVU." Yeah, Wednesdays are going to be kinda sad.

Kardashians, Kardashians, Kardashians - In case you haven't heard, reality star Kim Kardashian is getting married. Today, the news broke that some guy in Diamond Bar claims to have been in a relationship with her. Kim K has sicced her lawyers on him. The world holds its breath.

What's actually going on: "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" begins Season 6 on June 12th. Any time you see an uptick in interviews or stories in the media about a particular celebrity, it's either because they have something new to promote, there's been a major life event like a wedding or a birth, or they've done something they're going to regret. The Kardashians seem to regularly manage all three at once. Kudos, ladies.

Eight Minutes of 'Green Lantern' hit the Internet - Promotional materials for the upcoming "Green Lantern" film, courtesy of Entertainment Weekly. With less than two weeks left to go, Warner Brothers is pulling out all the stops, including the eight clips linked in the article. Yeah, that's eight clips of roughly a minute each, not an eight-minute segment of the film.

What's actually going on: Warner Bros and DC have fallen far, far behind Marvel in the ongoing war of the superhero franchises, with Batman the only DC Comics character who has managed to successfully anchor multiple films. They're going to try to relaunch Superman again next year, but first second-stringer Green Lantern is up to bat to test the viability of building projects around lesser-known DC characters and even a possible "Justice League" movie. Expect a steady stream of "Green Lantern" stories to keep awareness high as the studio moves into the final phases of the film's marketing campaign. There's a lot riding on this one.