Monday, December 17, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 12/15/2012

Young Adult (2012, Jason Reitman) ** (C-)

This review contains spoilers.

A narrative mess redeemed in part by some nicely timed character moments and some sharp performances, notably Theron as Mavis, a former prom-queen sociopath/psychopath stalking a high school boyfriend to escape her failing job as a writer, and particularly Patton Oswalt as the nerd-loser from that same high school with whom she forms an entirely likely (given independent comedy tropes) friendship. I'm about to be harsh, so it's worth saying that the interplay between Oswalt and Theron is a frequent source of enjoyment, as is the understated way that new information about Mavis continues to shed light upon her decaying situation.

The big problem is that apart from Oswalt's hate-crime crippled Matt, none of the characters work as recognizable people at almost any moment. Director Reitman tries to create a realistic world (objects believably distressed, interiors believably cluttered), but as much as Theron tries to make Mavis understandable (if not relatable), Diablo Cody's script makes here into such a cartoon monster that she defies credulity within that context; a more plastic mis en scene (think CITIZEN RUTH) would probably have suited her better. Meanwhile, it's impossible that everybody around Mavis would be so completely blinkered to the fact of what she is and what her motives are, beginning with ex-boyfriend Buddy, a perfectly nice married family guy whose obliviousness to Mavis's clear advances makes him seem unfathomably dumb. A clumsy final-act reveal tries to reverse this effect but fails in pretty much exactly the same way (but on a smaller scale) as in a Shyamalan flick, which is to say that it seems clever until you think about it for more than three seconds.  No, nobody up to that point had been acting out of pity toward her, or if they were, then they're even more Machiavellian than Mavis, which they aren't. Also, if they were acting out of knowing pity, why make a point of showing the wife's other band members actively suspicious of and loathing her as clear counterpoint to Buddy's oblivious wife? Also, if they were acting out of knowing pity, why did Buddy allow Mavis to kiss him?

So what's this movie's point? Mean people wind up having mean lives? A final scene with Matt's sister is framed as a sort of "brave" anti-statement of purpose, but even there the idiot-character problem presents itself. Does Matt's sister really believe Mavis will take her to Minneapolis, like what, a refugee getting on the last helicopter out of country, or something? Does she think that she can't go to Minneapolis without Mavis? Is she not aware of other cities to which she could go? She's wearing scrubs, so it would seem she has some fairly transferable skills. Are we really expected to accept somebody capable of such ugly but open-eyed disgust toward their own modest environment but so stupid as to see no other way out but to be carried from thence like a pet Pomeranian by some near-stranger? Why is everybody in the movie a numb-minded dummy?

These are the sorts of questions this movie had me asking. I think it's safe to say I found it disappointing.

 Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu) **** (A)

"Quietly devastating" is probably an overused term in criticism, but it's appropriate here. Ozu lets the line play out for a long time before starting to reel it back in, given the rigid politeness of Japanese society, it takes a while for each tiny petty indignity to reach a total, and to realize just how methodically terrible the children are being to the parents. It's not until a simple tracking shot reveals the elderly couple sitting outside in the sunlight, where we're invited to realize they've been sitting, probably for the entire day, because they've nowhere else to be, that it finally coalesced for me. We're saved from miserablism by warm performances (particularly Ryu and Higashiyama) and a dialectic more complex than "these kids today, why I oughta . . ." Ozu slowly makes larger points about society and modernity, showing Tokyo less as a city, and more a routine from which even slight variations are an inconvenience hardly worth pursuing. Furthermore, the parents also are clearly complicit in their own neglect; their polite reserve is so impenetrable and self-negating that it approaches parody, and when forced to contend with the distracted businesslike nature of their city-dwelling offspring, they prove true the old adage about slight, passive-aggressive forces meeting extremely moveable objects.

Ozu's compositions are fantastic, particularly the interiors, which create a sense of subliminal claustrophobia by rarely shooting from the room where the action is. This is a story largely seen from the next room over, as though each space can't hold both the observer and the observed. (I don't think we get an exterior shot until the final act shot in the country.) The main complaint I have mainly involves me as a viewer; since the 'action', such as it is, is largely based on meticulous subtlety, my near total ignorance of postwar Japanese culture (and Japanese culture in general) led to an ever-present suspicion that I was completely missing gentler shades of nuance that would be easily accessible to another. Might be worth breaking out the Criterion commentary track for another viewing.

Love, Actually (2003, Richard Curtis) *** (B)

A Whitman's sampler of romantic comedy isn't really the worst way to do the genre, given that most concepts that drive it can't support a sustained narrative. Dipping in and out of what seems like at least a dozen of them makes this effort essentially free of extraneous padding (i.e., nobody is pushed into a pool, no couple spends half the movie separated over an idiot misunderstanding, no montages), and if you don't like the story you're watching, no fear, another one will be by in five minutes. The quality of each segment varies widely, and is largely based on the skill of the actors involved. Best is probably Emma Thomson and Alan Rickman's surprisingly nuanced sketch of marital infidelity, though Hugh Grant's turn as the bachelor Prime Minister in love is breezily and Britishly enjoyable, almost in direct proportion to how completely ludicrous the political element is. Other bits are...less fortunate (Colin Firth does his best to salvage an eye-rolling premise; a snippet in which a loser finds sex galore in Wisconsin seems airlifted in from a much broader comedy), but at least the integration of the various stories into a larger narrative is handled with a light touch.

A Christmas Story (1983, Bob Clark) *** (B+)

Notable for its depiction of childhood as a bewildering and occasionally terrifying struggle, meaning that it admirably manages to be totally anti-sentimental even while taking a nostalgic and generously funny look back at a previous era. Given that Ralphie is frequently a totally self-involved, if benign, little crapper, and given that I nevertheless totally identified with him and felt the immediacy of his petty problems, it's feels like one of the more honest filmed depictions of what it's like to be a kid. The fact that it's one of the uglier-looking movies in captivity (until recently I assumed it was just an 80s era TV movie, which is what it looks like) only adds to the warty charm. The only real sour note is the ending "fa ra ra ra ra" bit, which reminds us that this movie came from a Hollywood era only months away from serving up Long Duck Dong and Short Round.

Interesting (to me) side note, which will be longer than the actual review: Most of the jokes appear to have entered the Princess Bride/Holy Grail zone at this point; that is, morphed from repeat viewings into a sort of cultural/generational shibboleth, to the point that the surprise needed for humor has long since gone, even though we still appreciate the jokes as genuinely funny. ( You know what I mean, I think. I don't laugh out loud anymore at "I fart in your general direction" or "it's only a flesh wound", and neither, I hope, do you.) It's a weird sort of canonization, requiring aficionados to quote large chunks of the movie to one another, that happens to some classic funny movies but not to others. It's totally annoying, right?. Now let me repeat the entire Miracle Max bit to you while you nod indulgently.

Giant (1956, Stevens) **1/2 (B-)

Entertaining-but-bizarre lurching sprawl of a movie that never seems to figure out what it wants to be about, but it's at least beautiful to look at as it meanders around, trying on subjects themes, which include: A tumultuous requited love story, a second tumultuous unrequited love story, a picaresque family history, the loss of the great cattle ranches to the incursion of Big Oil, and the uneasy segregation/slow integration of races in early 20th-century Texas. I'm trying to think of another movie that seems to have ended simply because, well, we're at 200 minutes, so I guess this may as well be the end, huh? Jett Rink is arguably the worst of the three (damn, only three?) James Dean performances, but I'd also say it's the most intriguing in its occasional lecherous meanness, and his juxtaposition (as well as uber-young Dennis Hopper, all adolescent and moon-faced) with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor serves as an interesting look at The Way Things Were meeting The Shape Of Things To Come.

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