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The Lies Our Memory Tells: A Review of “The Affair”

Grade: A

Showtime’s newest drama, The Affair premiered last night with a cast of deeply-complex characters and a riveting new format. The pilot episode tells the tale of Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) as they meet for the first time and, as the show’s title gives away, will soon become entangled in a complicated love affair. The two meet when Noah, along with his wife and four children, head to Montauk for the summer where they’ll be staying with Noah’s well-off and forever-pompous Father-in-Law (John Doman). Stopping first for a bite to eat after just arriving in town, Alison is the waitress at the local diner blessed with the task of taking their order.

Affair1 The story starts off from Noah’s perspective. He’s recounting events to a man who is questioning him. We’re not sure who the man is, but it seems like a police interrogation and we get the feeling that a lot of time has passed. We know not what crime he’s being questioned for. As Noah recounts events we watch him interact with his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), in a seemingly happy marriage, battle with his children of all differing ages and angst-levels, and try his hardest to calmly and coolly get his family all packed up and off to their grandfather’s.

Noah’s family is nothing if not chaotic. As if his son orchestrating a pretend suicide attempt before they leave the house, and his eldest daughter’s refusal to eat anything over 10 calories isn’t enough, the family-drama culminates at the diner when his youngest daughter begins to choke on a marble at the table as they place their breakfast orders. Amidst panic from the family and with Alison watching on in fear, Noah is able to beat on his daughter’s back and dislodge the item she was choking on.

The event has clearly traumatized Alison. Noah takes notice and does his best to comfort her and assure her his daughter is fine and there’s nothing to be upset about. But their interaction doesn’t stop here. Later, he runs into her again on the beach. She is flirtatious with him and asks him to walk her home where they take a look at her outdoor shower. There, Alison asks him if he’d like to try it out. When he declines and insists he should be getting home, she undresses in front of him and climbs in for a shower of her own. A bit rattled, he avoids the situation and heads for home, but not before witnessing Alison and a man who turns out to be her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), fighting with her in the driveway vehemently, violently dropping his pants, and forcibly bending her over the hood of his car.

Episode 101The screen goes black, and part two begins—Alison’s story. We start off at the morning of the same day. Immediately, the tone is much more somber and Alison seems considerably more damaged than she did in Noah’s recounting of events. Cole, on the other hand, is not the menacing man Noah has led us to believe either. He’s troubled by something, surely, but eager to please his wife which turns out to be a difficult task. We get the feeling that his attempts to win her over have been falling flat for quite some time. We soon learn that they lost a child recently and that today would’ve been the little boy’s birthday.

Alison, too, is recounting the events to some sort of detective and we can tell that much time has passed. Right away, as soon as Noah enters her story, we as viewers realize that their memories differ in complex ways. As an onlooker, this subtle reveal is riveting to watch. The table-chaos when Noah’s family places their order at the restaurant is different than it was in Noah’s recounting of events. When Noah’s daughter starts choking, it’s not Noah who heroically saves her, but Alison who beats her and dislodges the item she’s choking on. Noah, for the most part, idly stands by as Alison takes charge. The two continue to interact because Noah comes back to Alison again and again as a way to thank her for saving his daughter’s life. And later, on the beach, it’s Noah who is coming on to Alison. It’s Noah who asks to walk her home. It’s Noah who asks to see her outdoor shower, and it’s Noah who asks to try it out. Alison is taken aback by his behavior. Noah even goes so far as to kiss her on the cheek in a way that upsets Alison and she tells him to leave. The shirt he is wearing is different than in Noah’s retelling. The dress she remembers wearing is less revealing than he recalls. And the sex against the car that Noah witnesses between Cole and Alison is still violent, yes, but Alison asked for it be that way, preferred it that way, and the event followed an intimate conversation between Alison and Cole about the pain associated with the loss of their child.

Both Noah and Alison recall events in strikingly different ways. Who is right? How does that change things?

affair2The show is able to offer an enticing study on memory and the impermanence of our recall. It’s a study on the lies we unintentionally tell and how remembering wrong, even inadvertently, can forever change the tenor of events. Still, the ways in which we twist things in our minds often make sense. Of course Noah would perceive Cole as this awful, menacing, rapist of a husband. He’s going to have an affair with this man’s wife—anything to make that act seem better, to make it seem as if someone is benefiting in the seemingly selfish act is something he’d cling to. And of course Alison would remember herself as being hesitant to his coming-on, unwelcome even. She’d want to believe that it wasn’t her choice to start an affair, that she wasn’t looking for that. She wants to believe her innocence so she remembers it that way. Noah heroically recalls saving his daughter and defending his family—the ultimate protector. He’d like to think of himself as the one keeping everything together, as someone they’re dependent on, especially considering we know he’s certainly disrupted his family’s life with the affair he chose to have. By hearing both sides of the same story, the characters immediately become more complex and we learn more in the short one-hour we’re given than we would otherwise. It’s a refreshing and brilliant way to break down a character’s motivations, fears, and hesitations and the show’s creators, Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, deserve a bevy of kudos for coming up with it.

This idea goes even beyond the characters on the screen. The defectiveness of memory is universal and it’s something the show forces us to acknowledge. Sometimes our memories fail. Do we admit our shortcomings ever? Of course, but we tell ourselves little unintentional lies. This idea is a fascinating concept in the context of something as complex and “he said/she said” as an affair. It’s a perfect move that the writers have made. There’s a police interrogation. Blame for some nameless crime is certainly being pointed somewhere. What better way to create intrigue in the audience than to make us wonder who of our narrators we can trust? Whose memory is most accurate? I’m curious to see what format the show will continue to follow. Will there continue to be such discord between sides of the story, or will Noah and Alison gradually find common ground as their lives become more entangled? Will their memories become “truer” as we get further in time and closer to the time of the interrogation? Will each episode be told in two parts like this or was this just the way to get the ball rolling? Can the showrunners keep it up without the format becoming cumbersome? And, better yet, what else is there left to reveal? Why are the police in the mix? Who is the father of the kid Alison tells the detective she must pick up? And what happens to all the other players involved?

A long list of lingering questions is a good sign of a successful pilot episode. They certainly have me hooked.

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Time Heals All Wounds: A Review of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Grade: A-

There are stories that need to be read and there are stories that need to be viewed. There are stories better told through written words on a page, and stories best suited for the screen. Of course, some overlap, some are appropriate for either medium, but there are certain stories that can reach a whole new depth when the creator chooses the correct canvas to paint it on.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a story built for the screen.

Eleanor1Why? I’ll tell you, but first, an example: Atonement is an outstanding film directed by Joe Wright and adapted for the screen from an equally-impressive novel by Ian McEwan. There’s a scene in both the novel and the film where the main character, Briony—a nurse during World War II—tends to a wounded soldier moments before his death. She has never met him before, but she’s keeping him company until he breathes his last breath. In the book, we are given the character’s inner thoughts. I remember reading the moment when the boy, confused and incoherent, asks if she loves him and she says yes with the accompanying explanation, “No other reply was possible. Besides, for that moment, she did. He was a lovely boy who was a long way from his family and he was about to die.” A simple, seeming inconsequential thought, but this passage stuck with me as a reader. It amplified the entire scene. It gave it even more weight than a scene with a dying soldier would on its own. And although the movie did employ the use of narration at times, there was no narration in this scene. We’re asked to watch Briony watching a man die and we, as viewers, are supposed to come up with our own ideas of what must be going through her mind. In the novel, we don’t have to ask—we just know. Would I have assumed she’d reach the same realization about his family at that moment on my own? Maybe not. Do I need it to appreciate the scene? No. But that moment alone was what made it memorable for me. This particular scene functioned better in the novel than it did on the screen because the event is so emotionally charged that the character is thinking multiple thoughts at once. We need and want to know Briony’s specific thoughts. We need to be steered in the right direction or else risk not imagining her thinking what the author intended us to.

Eleanor Rigby, on the other hand, is a character entirely shut off. Her “disappearance” is both literal and metaphoric. She is emotionally withdrawn. Film works best for her story because she doesn’t want to share what she’s thinking, she doesn’t even know what she’s thinking, she doesn’t even want to talk. She’s pure evasion. We’re better clued into her inner turmoil by watching her, not by hearing what’s in her head. Her thoughts are intentionally sparse which is why her story is so well suited for the screen. We gain more access to her by watching her because she’s unwilling and incapable of giving us anything more.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (directed by Ned Benson) follows the lives of a married couple, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), whose relationship has just lost the final thread it was hanging from. Once blissfully in love, things have taken a turn for the worst—Eleanor has disappeared and Conor is desperate to find her and fix the relationship in whatever way he can. We, as the audience, are intentionally kept in the dark. We know something major happened to propel the downward spiral, but we don’t know what—mostly because both characters refuse to talk (or think) about whatever it is that went horribly wrong.

Eleanor2jEleanor is all about avoiding. She moves back home to live with her parents following a failed suicide attempt and we learn very early in that she doesn’t want to talk about whatever it is that made her jump from that bridge. She wants to escape. She’s disappeared not only literally from her old life, but inside her head as well. The number one rule of storytelling is that each character has to change. They need to progress, they need to start at one place and end up somewhere else. The filmmakers know that in order for us, as the audience, to see Eleanor’s growth and progression we need to be treated just like everyone else in her life who try to help her but can’t. We need to be in the dark. We need to try to find clarity and fail. We need to feel we’re making headway and then hit a dead end. We need to feel just as helpless as she does in order to understand her journey. For that reason, the filmmakers intentionally and artistically keep us in the dark. We have no idea what Eleanor’s thinking. And it’s awesome.

This approach to storytelling is what makes this film fascinating. Eleanor won’t give us her interior thoughts, she refuses therapy sessions, she doesn’t want to talk, she avoids any situation that may make her discuss what happened. To heal, she needs to just exist. We have to feel aimless with her, but we also have to feel a slight progression. We have to feel her getting out of her hole. But she can’t tell us anything to give us any clues that she is progressing because that’s her whole problem—that she can’t pinpoint her pain or her recovery. We have to watch her struggle, but we also have to see her evolution. So we’re left to map her progress in different ways—in brilliant subtle cues. Slowly, we get more and more details. We learn that she lost a son and that this is what set her off, this is what she can’t recover from. We gain insight not from what she speaks, but from how she interacts with her nephew, the telling glance at a photograph she spots hidden away in a closet, what she chooses to tell her equally-damaged professor (Viola Davis), and what she does the few times she willingly pops back into Conor’s life. It’s slow and it’s calculated, but every small action she makes deftly shows us where she is at mentally.

The story is impeccably underwritten in the very best way. You feel smart when you watch this film, you feel like you’re in on the secret, like you solved the puzzle and it’s because the filmmakers trust that the audience is clever enough to read their subtle cues without needing Eleanor to have one major outburst, or one telling therapy session that will articulate everything we need to know. They force us to do the analytical work. We don’t need all the fluff. Eleanor isn’t about the fluff. She’s real. She’s passive, but she’s actively passive and we just need to wait it out with her.

The beautiful realization you come to when watching this film is that healing is not always about talking. It’s not always about doing. Sometimes, it’s just about time. Sometimes, it’s just about waiting it out. There is no recipe for grief. Eleanor never really comes right out and shares her story, her struggle. She talks to no one. She listens to Professor Friedman and that seems to help her more than anything, but Friedman has no idea what she’s actually going through. The only one she talks to is Conor and perhaps that’s because she doesn’t have to share much with him—he knows the details without her having to communicate because the loss was theirs together. She admits to her father when she refuses the therapy he’s set up for her, “I don’t want a reminder that something is wrong” and she tries constantly to avoid any such reminder. So she floats. She meanders. She doesn’t know how to fix herself. We don’t know what she needs either, but we watch as she gradually is able to pull herself out of her funk. She needed to disappear, she needed to just exist. And ever so slowly, ever so subtly, and ever so seamlessly we’re left with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, she’s through the worst of it.

And for the viewer, that progress is more than enough.

The Eternal Pairing of Music and Breakups: A Review of “Begin Again”

Grade: A-

Music and Breakups have been together since Samson and Delilah. It’s an amicable pairing. They complement each other perfectly— Mr. Music is the soothing savior to Ms. Breakup’s destructive rage. The duo are like two peas in a pod and nothing will break them apart. Pints of coffee ice-cream and rebound make-out sessions with strangers may briefly catch Ms. Breakup’s eye and distract her, but in the end she’ll always come back to her one true staple when she needs to feel better— music.

The louder the better, the greater the anthem. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

begin againWho hasn’t, in the midst of relationship destruction, turned to Beyonce’s “Irreplaceble” as a pick me up? Or Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”, Adele’s “Someone Like You”, or Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”? Whatever your fancy, music and breakups go hand in hand. They always have. The music industry can thank relationship blunders for 90% of their songs and 90% of their profits. The two “just get each other.”

Director John Carney (Once) understood this eternal pairing of music and breakups very well, which is exactly why his latest film, Begin Again—a break-up movie/musical—manages to hit all the right notes.

In the film, Greta (Keira Knightley) has just broken up with her soon-to-be-famous boyfriend of five years, David Kohl (Adam Levine). The two were a talented writing duo, but David has chosen fame (and a hot assistant at his label) over her. After a friend drags Greta on stage to sing one of her own songs at an open mic night in NYC, she catches the eye of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a “former” music exec equally down on his luck. Dan decides Greta is the next big thing and to get the attention of his label that has lost faith in him, the two begin work on an outdoor album recorded in myriad locations throughout the city. For Greta and Dan both, this opportunity is a much-needed fresh start sure to reap leagues and leagues of benefits.

Cue the folky/pop music.

Break-up movies are easy to mess up in the same way that romantic movies are. Too many feelings. Too many opportunities for cheesy lines. Too many opportunities for sappy tears, cliché “just dumped” boxes of his junk, and sloppy rebounds. But the biggest hurdle to cross is that romance and breakups are about feelings—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and depicting these emotions on film without simply telling the audience how the characters feel in a string of sappy clichés is the challenge. Movies need to show and not tell. We don’t want to see the characters whine, but we want to understand why they might be whining without having to sit through their blubbery tantrum.

Thankfully, with Begin Again, Carney has expertly found a way to have us perfectly understand what the characters are thinking and feeling without them having to tell us—he makes them tell us through song.

The characters are songwriters. It’s perfect! It’s fool-proof. All the things Greta would confide in a sappy monologue she can now perform—the words she sings are the truths she’s feeling. And it’s not melodramatic. And it’s not driven into us until we’re forced to get it—we just get it. We get what she’s feeling. We get what she’s thinking about. We get where she’s headed next. We understand because of the words she sings and the ways in which she sings them.

The most satisfying moment in the film where this happens is when Greta comes home to discover that David has just won some sort of “Best New Artist” award. His image is plastered all over youtube and he thanks his adoring fans for their support. Naturally, Greta reacts by throwing back some whiskey and writing a song. The next shot we see is of her iphone, duct-taped to a pole like a mic, and David Kohl’s name on the front of the iphone screen. And then she starts singing. She pours out her heart, telling him everything she’d wanted to say but didn’t get the chance to—in a simple, succinct ballad sent straight to his voicemail.

And we get it. We get exactly what she’s thinking, what she’s doing, and how far she’s come with this drunken act of defiance. It hits us like a gust of stale subway air blowing up our dress and exposing us— exposing us to the vulnerability and the truth of the act we’ve all lived before. Because we’ve all had times where we’d kill for this moment. The chance to say what you need to say to the one who did you wrong in a way that is neither dramatic, crazy, or desperate. We never have to shake our head at Greta’s behavior or slap ourselves on the wrist for having done the same thing ourselves. We’re neither embarrassed for her, or uncomfortable, or cringing at the cheesiness that other, lesser movies may have created. We just get it, without Greta having to speak a word.

In this way, the complicated situation of a breakup becomes simple, pure, manageable, and easy to deconstruct despite its apparent complexities. And the perfect pairing of music and breakups gets us there seamlessly.

 

 

 

Let the Moments Seize You: A Review of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”

Grade: A

Sometimes, we count on a movie to pull us out of something, out of ourselves, out of our rut, our emotional hole, or funk. Sometimes, we lean on the stories we hear and watch more than we should. We expect them to mirror our own lives perfectly so that the act of relating to the story makes us feel better. By relating to someone else’s tale, we feel normal. By seeing the characters come out of their low points, we know we can and will come out of them too. We see the bigger picture for what it is—bigger than the present.

BoyhoodRichard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, the Before Series) has teamed up with long-time collaborator Ethan Hawke (who plays Mason Sr. in the film) for a movie that’s the first of its kind. Filming a little each year over the course of twelve years, the film follows the actual growth of its characters and the physical evolution of its actors. The story centers around Mason (Ellar Coltrane) who starts out an adorable six-year-old boy in trouble for trying to make rocks into arrowheads using a pencil sharpener and spending too many hours gazing out the window at school. By the film’s completion, he’s evolved into a full-blown adult, just as contemplative as he was in the beginning of the film, but entering the next great phase in his life: College. We follow the family through all their ups and downs—all their moves, career changes, and new and failed marriages. Hawke’s Mason Sr. evolves from a wild, absentee, young dad to the tamed, mini-van driving father of a new baby. All the while, Mason’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arguette) makes mistake after mistake in her oftentimes fruitless attempts to make life better for her two children. We get the family’s whole history and every physical transformation without the makeup, fat suits, or multiple actors often clumsily employed in a drama in order to depict the passing of time. No miscast younger versions of the title character. No caked on stage makeup. Linklater’s Boyhood is different. It’s special. His characters have grown and evolved as the actors have—every gained pound, grayed hair, and alternating style.

And we get to watch the transformation.

Despite the spectacle of this film being both ingenious and the first of its kind, my initial reaction after leaving the theater was of slight disappointment. I guess I was looking for a little something more relatable in Boyhood. Relatable to my experience. Thankfully, this feeling was only my initial reaction. After thinking it over, I changed my mind completely and my feelings of letdown were immediately replaced with awe. I wasn’t approaching the film in the right way. I wanted a film that was entirely my childhood experience with all its specificity, angst, and thrill. I wanted to leave the theater with a new perspective on my past from having watched someone else’s. I wanted this film, like many have in the past, to provide answers to my own questions. To boost my spirts. To offer clarity where there was none.

BoyhoodUnlike Mason, I was not born in the late 90s. I didn’t grow up with divorced parents. I never had to deal with alcohol or physical abuse in my family. I wasn’t ever lazy in school. I didn’t party as hard as the average teen. I didn’t have a cell phone before the age of 15. I didn’t ever live in Texas and have to state the Texas anthem after the Pledge of Allegiance each day in class (a scene in the film that got a lot of laughs from the audience). For a story about growing up, I was upset that Mason’s coming-of-age was so different from my own. I was upset that I couldn’t relate directly to his experience. But then I noticed something: Throughout the entire film, the movie audience knew just how to react—just when to laugh, just when to coo, just when to cringe, just when to sigh—and I realized that this audience was entirely relating to Mason’s story. The entire film, to them, was an inside joke they were thrilled to be let in on. And this was not an audience of all 18-year-old boys, like Mason. This was a mix of males and females, twenty-somethings and teeny-boppers, the middle-aged and the senior citizens. If they could laugh, if they could sigh, if they could identify with Mason’s story, why couldn’t I?

And that’s when I realized I was approaching the film all wrong. The film’s goal wasn’t to make you identify with the specific events that happened to Mason, but instead it sought to make you relate to the act of experiencing experiences. Your experiences. The string of experiences that make up a life. The moments. Yes, Mason’s coming-of-age story was not my story, but despite this, I did play trampoline games with my siblings when I was young, as Mason did. I did blow bubble-gum bubbles as big as my face and wait for my sister to pop it. I have cried over a bad haircut. I have bonded with my father over The Beatles. I have ordered queso at 3 am after a night on a college campus. I have moved far away from home. I have seen endings come and wondered why.

By filming one story over the span of twelve years, Linklater is expertly able to create a comprehensive study on human life. Specifically, the pace at which life flies by. What I came to realize is that Boyhood wasn’t so much about the things that did or didn’t happen to Mason in his life, the story was about how life, in general, is made up of these seemingly inconsequential memories. It’s about the timing of the events. The pace of life. The changes. The amount of changes. The speed of the changes. The footprint those changes leave. Linklater captures this unseen, abstract idea of growing-up. The actual feeling of it. And he does this by cramming twelve years into just under a three hour movie. This makes perfect sense. When we sit back and recall our life’s story, our major memories, we don’t list them all, we only have our key moments. And they’re the key moments that have made up a life that, in a blink of an eye, has come and gone.

And that’s something we all can identify with – the ever-morphing past, present and future. The string of events and memories and instances that make up a life and the complex ways in which those memories are plotted and sewn into the fabric of our lives. No two childhoods are the same, but despite what happens to us in our individual growth, the progression of life, the very act of growing up, is universal. We grow. We identify with the fluidity, the constant change, the inertia of life. Despite what happens, we’re always moving. And life and childhood and adulthood fly by and it’s only the key moments, the key glimpses into a life that may seem inconsequential (like bowling without bumpers, and drinking our first beer) that make up who we are and who we become. Our memories become an epic movie with fast cuts and holes and quick scenes. And we choose to remember the ones that explain who we are in the best way. As Mason and his new friend theorize at the end of the film (albeit a bit stoned in the mountains), it’s not the moments we seize that matter, but the moments that seize us. We all have a lifetime of moments. It’s what we make of them that shape us. It’s those individual moments, whatever they are and however they’re strung together, that make all of our coming-of-age tales one in the same.

An Unconventional Study of Human Relationships: A Review of Spike Jonze’s “Her”

Grade: A

Spike Jonze’s none-too-distant future is a world oozing in coral hues, baggy 70’s-esque fashion, rampant train travel, and technology “comfort food” that’ll soothe your broken heart better than mama’s mac and cheese ever could. Inventive video games, voice-activated email, minimalist (yet cozy) design…it’s a future that seems inviting, safe, and efficient. It’s a future we’d root for and hope to see into fruition. Still, despite the world’s gumdrop exterior, beneath the surface lurks a scentless plume of unsettling loneliness. Is the world itself to blame, or does it simply reflect human nature?

HERSpike Jonze’s beautifully fragile film Her tells the tale of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a mopey employee of a personal letter writing service whose marriage with wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) has recently ended. Bored with his daily schedule of work, video games, phone sex, repeat, Theodore installs the new upgrade for his personal OS and his life is forever changed. His new Siri-esque assistant, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), evolves the more he interacts with it, and before you know it, Theodore has fallen in love with the compassionate, supportive voice on the other end of his earbud.

Unlike Lars and the Real Girl and other non-human/human relationships in films in the past, there is nothing awkward about the relationship Jonze has created between Samantha and Theodore. Yes, Theodore’s in love with his computer, but she seems every bit as real as the next woman and offers him everything a relationship would—support, motivation, sex, conversation. The only thing she lacks is a body and while this deeply bothers Samantha, Theodore is hardly affected by it. He’s happy with her.

What is marveling about the world that Jonze’s has created is how he has shaped a setting where this relationship between Samantha and Theodore is not only plausible, but accepted by its audience. It’s not difficult to see our current technology evolving into something like Jonze’s OS, but when we imagine it ourselves, it’s disturbing and something reserved for the creepy man who lives by himself at the end of the cul-de-sac. Samantha and Theodore’s relationship is not creepy, it’s authentic, and its authenticity is exactly what draws the audience to it. Their relationship is as true as anything any of its viewers have experienced. Samantha’s insecurities about what she provides in the relationship, her bouts with jealousy as Theodore meets his ex-wife, as well as her urges to “talk it out”, ring true to any female’s romantic worries. The way she wakes him in the middle of the night just to hear his voice and say goodnight, and the way she checks in when she detects anything off in his voice, is perfectly reminiscent of the female role in a relationship. As the relationship takes a turn for the worse, and the audience can detect its unraveling, the film becomes more and more difficult to watch because of its relatability. When Samantha asks Theodore if they can talk but she wants to wait until after work when he’s home, we know what’s coming. We’ve all been there before. We sympathize with Theodore and Samantha not only because we know the feeling, but because we’re rooting for them too.

her-movie-2013-screenshot-laughingJonze’s world is striking, specific, and unique. The setting is mostly colorless except for beautiful pops of coral pastels throughout. The clothes aren’t gaudy or flashy, but simple. Los Angeles is more futuristic, but also cleaner, sharper and in some ways, plainer. The clothes reference 70’s fashion of the past but with a twist, and the décor features lots of warm woods and clean lines. Each and every frame is recognizable as Jonze’s Her and it’s this perfectly envisioned mise-en-scène that gives the viewers a space to place Samantha and Theodore’s story in their minds where it’ll haunt long after the credits roll.

This lasting world is familiar while being new. It’s cozy while being distant. It’s inviting while also being unsettling. The romantic relationship is simple despite its complex creation. Jonze’s film is a compilation of contrasting ideas which only aids in its truth. It’s this grey area that makes up our current world. It only makes sense that a similar, future world would also be masked in opposing elements.

Similarly, Jonze’s process of blowing up and complicating the idea of romantic relationships actually permits him to strip them down to their purest forms. A relationship between a lonely, yet functional, man with his computer is a complex idea, but the progression of this complicated relationship, in the end, allows the audience to contemplate why we need romantic relationships at all. What purpose do they serve? How do we benefit? What do we gain from the pairing? If not for procreation, can’t we obtain the same joy from any sort of relationship—human or otherwise? Isn’t joy all we’re really looking for and when we have it shouldn’t we hold onto it as long as we can? Or do we need something more?

Jonze’s Her gets closer to answering these questions than any film I’ve seen to date. The film is so much more than simply a movie about a man and his computer, and it’s exactly the type of complicated film we could use more of.

Essential 3D, but an Inessential Story: A Review of Gravity

Grade: B-

As a viewer who hasn’t quite jumped aboard the 3D bandwagon, there are times when 3D works and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is one example. All too often, 3D it’s just an excuse to create some buzz and hike up the ticket prices. It needs to have a function. Did the three-dimensional iceberg in Titanic in 3D create more suspense? Not really. Did Andy giving his toys away in Toy Story 3 hit you harder when the box he’s packing them away in protrudes from the screen? No. It’s unnecessary. It does nothing to support the story. 3D, if it’s used to tell a story, needs to have a function. 3D has a function in Scorsese’s Hugo (read my Hugo review here). It coincides with the enchanting, snow globe of a world that Scorsese wanted to create—a world you need to feel like you are inside to understand. More importantly, this 3D world needs to be felt and seen in order for Scorsese to use it to preach to the power of cinema. In a movie that so lovingly tells the tale of film in its very silent, black and white beginning, 3D was a way to show exactly how far cinematic-storytelling had come.

Until Gravity, Hugo was the film I pointed to when I needed to show 3D done correctly. The difference between the two films is that Hugo could’ve survived as a film without the 3D element, Gravity absolutely could not.

3D has never been more necessary in a movie than it is in Gravity, but it’s necessary in a different way than in Scorsese’s Hugo. It isn’t for theme. It isn’t to mirror lessons taught in the story, but it’s used to enhance the entire experience and plant you firmly in the chilling mise-en-scène. In order to feel for Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she’s left entirely alone in outer space, you have to sense what it must feel like to be that alone. To feel it, we have to see it. Being lost in space is not a situation that the average human is privy to. Despite being separated from your parents as a child in an amusement park, or lost alone on a dark highway, or on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, we’ve never been as lost as Ryan is in this film. We can’t begin to imagine how she feels. To experience her fear and desperation, we have to get as close to her eyes as we can, we have to see what she sees.

Black. Bleak. Hollow. Nothingness.

3D helps achieve that sensation better than 2D ever could. We feel like we’re in outer space.

That being said, where the film strays is in its story. The film’s characters are lacking, and the filmmakers know it. They know it and they know they don’t need it. It’s not necessary to make George Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski, well developed. We know so little about him. We know he’s a natural leader, we know he’s calm in crisis, we know he likes to tell his tequila-tales of debaucherous nights past, but apart from that we know nothing. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone is no different. We know she lost a child, we know she likes to drive at night to escape the pain from that ordeal, but is this enough to make us like her? Are a few jokes cracked by Matt back to Houston enough to make us root for him? Is this enough to make us care whether he lives or dies? It isn’t. But it’s George Clooney. That voice we’ve known since ER, that face, that grin, that silver hair. We see him, we hear him, and it doesn’t matter what he’s saying—we’re rooting for him. The only problem is we’re rooting for George Clooney, not Matt Kowalski, but we trick ourselves into thinking they’re one in the same. Can you blame us? We’re protective. We don’t want anything happening to our George. Why worry about a multi-dimensional character when your audience will like him no matter what as long as he’s played by the right actor?

What would we have if the character wasn’t played by George Clooney? What about Matt Kowalski would make us remain as invested if he was played by some nameless actor? Nothing. The story is too sparse. And mirroring the setting’s bleakness to the plot, I’d argue, was not the filmmakers’ intention. There just isn’t enough there. Especially not with the characters, and not with the plot either.

The whole time I was watching Gravity, I was thinking how the story would function so much better as a short story. I know that contradicts my “necessary 3D” claim, but plot-wise, the short story medium would make the plot more acceptable. There are conventions we accept for film and there are conventions we accept with literary fiction. When we’re watching a movie with two blockbuster stars, we expect certain things. We expect a “happy” ending. We expect a resolution. We expect a grand, action packed, race to the finish. I’d never dream of knocking cinema, but there are certain things that a written story can get away with that a film cannot. Call me a cynic, but I didn’t want a “happy ending.” I didn’t want a resolution. I wanted a true, brutal lesson about the bleakness of space, about the different levels of loneliness, about desperation. I wanted them to make bad luck appear somehow poetic with subtle back story, inner monologue, and a strong sense of what’s going on in the character’s heads. But I didn’t get that. A short story could’ve provided that without the audience feeling gypped by the ending. Do I appreciate that they allowed the audience to fill in the blanks, that they didn’t bombard us with backstory? I do. But then they had to go and get conventional. They had to make us chant “Girl power!” at Sandra’s success and leave the theater feeling like we, too, just battled for survival and won. They had to take us on a ride. They had to give us that Hollywood ending. And I was left shaking my head, awed by the 3D spectacle, sure, but wondering if a smaller, bleaker story, with richer characters (and without Clooney and Bullock) might have given the film more of that lasting punch it so desperately needed.

More than anything, I was left with an unanswered question—Who is Ryan Stone? It’s a question I should never have to ask. It’s a question the filmmakers surely didn’t want the audience to have to ask. We just need a little bit more.

Unexpectedly Different, but Still “Woody Allen” at its Core: A Review of Blue Jasmine

Grade: A-

Judging by the sold out showings and the throngs of people lining up around the block to see Woody Allen’s new drama Blue Jasmine, I think it’s safe to say that the 77-year-old (and one of the few remaining true auteurs) still has it.

A crowd-pleaser that’s already generating early Oscar-buzz, Allen’s Blue Jasmine will likely join the ranks with his other critically-acclaimed classics. Still, this one has a unique flair all its own.

It’s no secret that Woody Allen is my favorite director, favorite screenwriter, favorite filmic-mind. I adore his unique style and storytelling perspective, and I’m continually spoiled by his one-film-a-year ritual that repeats like clockwork. I’m familiar with his style—his quirks, his film motifs—and what struck me the most while watching Blue Jasmine was how this film blatantly strays from Allen’s norm.

The film follows Jasmine (played expertly by Cate Blanchett) who must leave her NYC life of luxury and move in with her little sister (Sally Hawkins) after her husband (Alec Baldwin) swindles away their fortune and hangs himself in prison. In her new home in San Francisco, she aims to recreate herself in a much-less-lavish setting, all the while popping Xanax between panic attacks as frequently as she passes judgment on her sister’s less-than-optimal dating history.

Allen is known for making the settings in his films characters of their own. What would Midnight in Paris be without Paris’ cobblestone streets? What would Annie Hall be without Annie’s New York driving or Manhattan without shots of the Queensboro Bridge? The setting for each of Allen’s films has always been so pivotal that the same storyline couldn’t be set anywhere other than where it is. This is not the case for Blue Jasmine. San Francisco just happens to be where the characters eat and breathe (or pop pills as the case may be) and other than the passing comment, “If you can’t fall in love in San Francisco, you can’t fall in love anywhere,” we hardly even realize San Francisco is where the film takes place. This is strange for an Allen film.

Similarly, Blue Jasmine strays from the Allen canon with its lack of art and cultural references that usually ooze from the characters’ mouths. In Blue Jasmine, the only references to art are the high-fashion brands that Jasmine clings to from her past—her Louis Vuitton luggage and all her leftover designer duds from her previous life. A Woody Allen film without a scene in a movie theater or an art museum? A Woody Allen movie where you don’t have to laugh along with the crowd as you fake understanding of the reference he makes to some author or philosopher you’ve never heard of, or pat yourself on the back when you actually do understand? His characters always want to outdo each other with their knowledge of extraneous information, but in this film, Jasmine’s only real quest is to outdo everyone around her with her ability to choose an advantageous partner and to appear as if her high-status has never wavered.

Despite these major differences from Allen’s usual films, Blue Jasmine still has the complex characters that we’ve come to expect from him. Blue Jasmine may lack the humor and the multiple storylines of Allen’s other classics, but he is able to create characters, as always, who straddle the grey line between right and wrong in the same moment they teeter between likability and abhorrence. It’s this expert balancing-act that makes Allen’s characters complex while insuring the films themselves are a joy to watch.

As is the case with Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in Match Point who tries to get away with the murder of his mistress, Allen is able to surprise the audience by making them root for a person they’d normally despise. The pleasure of watching his films comes from our almost subconscious realization that he’s turned a switch in us, that despite a character with irredeemable qualities and chastisable actions, we find ourselves rooting for them. Suddenly, the audience discovers they’re crossing their fingers for an unfaithful murderer as is the case in Match Point, or supporting a creepy relationship between an older man and child (Manhattan and Whatever Works) despite never expecting we would before.

Allen’s themes and characters are never black and white and this couldn’t be truer than it is of Blanchett’s downward-spiraling portrayal of Jasmine. The characters may be unlikable, but we care for them. We may hate what they do, but we always understand why they do it. Often, as is the case with Jasmine, their actions are entirely based on their extreme level of desperation. For whatever reason, desperation is a quality we can identify with. It’s a quality we understand. Watching Blantchett in a mesmerizing performance as Jasmine splashes and flails in the metaphoric hole she’s dug and is drowning in, we can’t help but sympathize with her struggle. She knows of the mistakes she makes. She’s made the bed she lies in, but her mistakes are human ones.

Woody Allen achieves with Blue Jasmine what he does in all his films, he has the audience going in expecting to feel one way about a character or an action, builds that up like a sand castle, and then amazes us when he shifts everything and the castle still stands. He opens a new perspective, and as outlandish as the events may be, they’re still real, relatable and always keep us thinking.

Our intellect stays turned on. As always, Allen makes sure of it.

Just A Taste When We Need A Whole Bite: A Review of The Way, Way Back

Grade: B

Quarters for Pac-Man, water slides, station wagons, clambakes, Candy Land board games and bikes in coastal beach towns—what more could be offered in order to illicit the warmth and nostalgia of childhood summers? Filmmakers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash bring to life summers of childhood past in their film The Way, Way Back. We feel the angst, we feel the summer ease, we feel the water slide burn on the back of our legs and the salty humidity in the air, but THE WAY, WAY BACKwhat do we feel for the characters?

The film follows 14-year old Duncan (Liam James), a socially-awkward teeny-bopper plagued with poor self-esteem who is forced to spend the summer with his mother, Pam (Toni Collete), and her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), at his summer beach house. Carell’s Trent is a ruthless prick who takes a particular liking to beating Duncan down a peg in the name of brutal honesty—bullying him in ways he deems necessary for Duncan’s social well-being. In the opening scene he tells a passive Duncan, keen on keeping to himself in the rear-facing backseat of Trent’s Station Wagon, that on a scale of 1-10, Duncan is a 3. With this admission their dynamic is set and the film’s central hurdle is established: make Duncan see he’s worth something. Duncan finds solace in a summer job at a tacky water park where one of its lifelong employee’s Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes it upon himself to break Duncan out of his shell. As would be the case, by the end of the summer Duncan emerges sans-shell, new and improved, with a sense of self-worth and a summer chock-full of memories.

The film is about self-discovery. Specifically, self-discovery through the people we encounter—our relationships. This is especially the case when you’re fourteen, when your parents are divorced, and when a new father figure comes into your life, and it’s only further complicated when you’re in the middle of adolescence with all the sweaty palm, angst-bucket indecision that looms over every zit and growing pain. Duncan doesn’t have it easy, but he also doesn’t have it much different than most.

In a story about relationships—Duncan’s relationship with his mother, Duncan’s relationship with his father we never see, Duncan’s relationship with Trent, with Owen, with the girl next door, not to forget Pam’s relationship with Trent and Owen’s relationship with his will-they-won’t-they love interest Caitlin (Maya Rudolph)—it’s critical that those relationships are well explored. Unfortunately, Faxon and Rash only scratch the surface on these relationships.

I think it’s intentional on the filmmakers’ part to not delve too deep into the characters’ dynamics with each other. It’s ambitious. It’s a subtlety that I really want to be able to get behind and root for, but I can’t. As hard as they try to straddle the line between showing us just enough and holding back more than a little, they end up showing too little. I commend tThe-Way-Way-Backhe filmmakers for attempting to draw blood with just a scratch to the surface, but I’m not sure they ever break the skin. We get tiny bits, the first layer, of so many relationships which is nice and refreshing and keeps the film from teetering into a preachy after school special, but at what cost?

In their attempt to be subtle, to not drill the dynamics into us, to not plague us with backstory, angst and indecision, we lose the characters. We know their roles. We know a couple adjectives to describe them: Duncan—timid; Pam—submissive; Trent—asshole. We know a thing or two about their relationships with each other—Duncan hates Trent; Trent hates Duncan; Pam doesn’t really love Trent but desperately wants the relationship to work; Duncan sees through the farce and wants his mom to own up. But by giving us just a taste—just a taste of the cheating scandal between Trent and Pam, just a taste of  Duncan’s experience with his divorced parents, just a taste of Owen’s slacker ways ruining all previous chances with his co-worker—we don’t have enough to say yea or nay on the whole meal. We need bigger bites. Don’t bloat us, Faxon and Rash! Don’t make us sit pained on the couch after feasting, but give us more than a sample if you expect us to really feel for the lives you’ve created.

We get tiny vignettes, a brief allusion to the bigger picture, but not enough to make us feel like we know where the characters are  going or are rooting for them to succeed. Maybe Caitlin and Owen will finally get together for real. It’s safe to assume Pam will leave Trent after no-longer-passive Duncan talks some sense into her. But Pam’s final move from the passenger seat beside Trent to the rear-facing backseat with her son as the car sails down the freeway, and Duncan’s bold sprint through parking lots as he escapes the dreaded Station Wagon, would hit home so much harder if the dynamics between the characters had been layered a bit more. Just a few more details, a little extra exploration and we’d truly understand when Duncan sprints from that car what he’s thinking, what he’s fighting for and what he’s losing by sitting one second longer in that backseat.

We do get it. We do know Duncan. But in the filmmakers’ attempt to be subtle we lose the opportunity to know Duncan that much more.

And don’t we want to know our main character as best as we possibly can? Don’t we want to at least think we do?

Sacrificing Pace for Heavy-Hitting Themes: A Review of Star Trek Into Darkness

Grade: A-

Pace is what made 2009’s Star Trek a block buster movie wonder. Few movies have kept me that engaged and that enthralled from opening credits to close—the plot expertly-woven, the characters dynamically-charged, the action meticulously-timed and the drama perfectly-dosed. Not once, did I find my thoughts drifting elsewhere. Not once, did I wonder how close to the end we were. As a Trek newbie at the time, The Enterprise had me hooked. I said it then: “Star Trek is the best movie of 2009.”ap_Star_Trek_Into_Darkness_nt_130516_wblog

Its long-awaited follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness, doesn’t pull back the reins. What J.J. Abrams and company aimed for in Kirk and Spock’s sequel is in many ways bigger, deeper and heavier than what came before. In a word, it’s ambitious. Unfortunately, in achieving that level of ambition, the film lacks the cleanliness of the first movie, losing some of the narrative-ease, impeccable-timing, and cohesion of our initial introduction to Abram’s re-envisioned Trek world.

Despite this, what Star Trek Into Darkness is able to achieve is worth applauding. Perhaps the plot isn’t quite as pristine or the pace as rapid-fire as it was in the first, but it aims for so much more with its complex, historically-relevant topics. Whereas the first film was about friendship, loyalty, and respect, the second takes it up a notch, swimming in a shark tank of heavy-hitting themes.

In the sequel, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads his crew on a perilous journey in seek of a super-human terrorist, Khan (played by the very-crafty Benedict Cumberbatch), who not only threatens their way of life, but whose capture has the potential to ignite a full-on Klingon war. Khan must be stopped, but like a bomb ready to detonate at any second or with any wrong pull of a wire, every move they make is littered with high-tension and the potential for a detrimental ripple effect. A premise like this allows the film to take its narrative deeper, moving beyond the surface themes of friendship, loyalty, and logic versus passion, and delving into richer questions, more historically and politically-charged themes (like the original TV series was known for), and all around deeper, richer, and more chilling prose.

Star TrekFear. Terrorism. Honor. Morality. Revenge. Pride. All while mirroring the historical truth of American wars, American leaders, and American tension. How one man set on destruction and glory can start a war. How another man’s emotions can lead to illogical, immoral action. How often does emotion get in the way of these high-tension issues? What is right and wrong? Can a villain be a foe and a friend? And the most important: Who do we trust? What do we live for? How do we choose who should lead?

The wrong person in charge, the wrong answer to the question, the wrong emotion taking the forefront and an uncontrollable war can be unleashed. We’re all walking in a room filled with gas and one wrong flip of a switch can change everything we’ve ever known.

But, regardless, a switch must be flipped. Who do we trust with the task?

I don’t know about you, but Abrams has me convinced. I’d go with Captain James Tiberius Kirk.

Spock can help.

The Untold Bigger Story: A Review of The Impossible

Grade: B

Viewers flock to certain films when they’re in need of an escape—an escape from the typical 9-5, from the drama, for a distraction from that relationship-tiff, bout of hypochondria, or pending financial crisis.  Period pieces are usually my escape films—far enough from my reality not to trigger any thoughts that will unveil the curtain on my “Escapist Movie Experience”, but still interesting enough to keep my attention. For me, it’s usually The Duchess, or Gattica—for whatever reason.Wave The Impossible

Then you have the films that are difficult to get through. Contrived plot, abysmal acting, a god-awful wig you can’t stop noticing. These are films that follow the Three Act Structure so perfectly that you can call out scenes as they happen, “and this is where she tells her husband she’s leaving him.” We want the Three Act Structure because it’s a formula that has been proven to work, but we want it only if we have to dig a little to find it. Innovation, even if formulaic, is still far more interesting than a romantic chase scene in an airport, or on a bridge, or yelling up declarations of love at an apartment window exactly twenty-two minutes before the credits roll.

And then some films are difficult to get through for an entirely different reason. They’re jam-packed with so much emotional turmoil, tension, and non-stop beating of the main characters that the audience longs for a break from the vice on their chest. They’re a challenge that’s rewarding because you feel something. They’re rewarding because you conquer it with or without tears and you feel better at the end because the bruising pain has subsided.

These films are all well and good, but they’re perfect if you feel all that anguish and learn something. They’re perfect if you feel that pain and it leads to something larger—a greater truth.

Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible about a family vacation in Indonesia in 2004 when the tsunami hits, is a grueling 114 minute long struggle through one family’s traumatic experience as they’re poked, beaten, and torn apart by the devastating natural disaster. It’s a challenge to watch, in the good way, but it’s far from perfect.

Cinema’s purest intention is to make us experience—we watch movies because we want to feel something. But I think it goes a step further than that. What we really want to feel when we sit down to watch a movie is truth. We want that truth to surprise us, popping up where we didn’t think we’d find it, turning a switch in us.Impossible

With The Impossible, the audience certainly feels, but what we feel most is the cold wind whistling through the gaping hole cut out of the “Big Picture.” Yes, an effective story needs to be scaled down, you can’t aim too big or everything gets lost in the chaos, but when dealing with true events, you have to address them in a way that doesn’t leave a sour taste in the audience’s mouth. I enjoyed The Impossible, I thought it achieved what it set out to, but I felt guilty liking it, because I couldn’t stop thinking about how far from reality this story was for so many people left suffering (and still suffering) from the devastating events.  There is so much left unsaid, and the way this family’s peril is so perfectly resolved feels like a slap in the face to all those who had it just as bad if not worse, but whose solution was no where near as easily achieved as it was for the family in the movie.

What complicates this critique is that the film is based on a true story, but the question I raise is: Should we tell this story? It’s a harrowing tale of a family that overcomes extreme odds. It’s a miracle that things work out for them as easily as they do, but my problem with it is that this is, as far as I know, the only mainstream film on the 2004 tsunami and what the film doesn’t tell is so much heavier than what it does.

We are asked to sympathize with this family, and there’s no arguing that during the film, we sympathize, but when it’s over and everything’s tied up in a perfect little bow (a bloody bow, but still a bow) do we still sympathize? Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts offer near-perfect performances. Their children played by newcomers Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergast are as adorable as puppies falling asleep in your hand. The cinematography and special effects when the tsunami hits are breathtaking and traumatizing all at once, but despite all of these praiseworthy qualities, the film’s subject is off.

In the end, they’re still an all-white family struggling in a largely poor, non-white, non-western culture. They are wealthy. Wealthy enough to go on holiday in a fancy Indonesian resort with a fully-stocked fridge and fedex’d-in Christmas gifts. Oh but wait, we’re supposed to worry about them because McGregor’s character, HThe_Impossible-3enry, is a little bit nervous about his job security right before the tsunami hits? His wife, Maria (Naomi Watts), is currently a non-practicing doctor—are we really concerned for their well-being? And yes, their experience is awful, but in the end (Spoiler Alert) they’re all safe and sound, all reunited after a series of this-never-could’ve-happened-to-the-real-family instances of the separated family members’ paths nearly crossing, only not to, only then to in a grand tear-jerking reunion.

And it’s moving. And it’s powerful. But their harrowing experience is over. Their kin are all intact. They are popped on a plane and air lifted out of there, back to their home that is still dry and in the ground, and their lives are still together, while they leave nothing short of a war-zone beneath the plane’s propellers. And all the remaining poverty, hunger, bloodshed, death, cleanup, shredded families, and devastation that the people on the ground face are left behind—their stories untold. And we’re left to believe that the situation is handled, is manageable, is solved, because the Indonesian locals as skinny as bamboo chose to lend a helping hand to Maria and her son, likely saving her life, while theirs are still in shambles.

Yes, everything’s fine. It’s manageable. Sure it is.

Isn’t there a bigger story left untold? Don’t we owe it to history to represent the “Big Picture” as accurately as we can?

There are true stories and then there are truer stories.

The Impossible is a true one.