Thursday, July 29, 2010

2012 (or how I learned to stop thinking and love disaster)

2012 (2009)

Directed (and co-written by) Roland Emmerich

Cast includes
John Cusack as Jackson Curtis
Amanda Peet as Kate Curtis
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Adrian Helmsley
Danny Glover as President Thomas Wilson

Running time: 2 hrs 38 mins (to paraphrase the movie's tagline: You were warned!)

Watched alone on DVD, early morning July 27, 2010

I got this movie from RedMailMovieRental (yeah, you know who I mean, but I'm trying for no free press) because my parents say the preview and said they would like to see it. I'm a sucker for an easy way to please my parents, what can I say. While my parents initially watched it without me, I thought I'd pop it in and watch it before I returned it. For those who don't know what this movie is about, it's pretty simple: The world is going to end and a mostly decent guy who's come up short with his family goes to heroic lengths to save them and others that they stumble upon along the way. This time the world is being destroyed by... um, I'm not really sure, but I think it's mostly the earth's tectonic plates/crust shifting, causing volcanoes and earthquakes and tsunamis. And the governments all over the world have pitched in money, artwork, rich people, and good genes to make some huge ships to save enough of humanity to rebuild society, but of course only a few people know about it and the plan only saves a small percentage of people.

I'd like to take a really quick sidebar to say that I never have, and probably never will, claim to be consistent in my little reviews of movies. As of right now, I'm not a professional film critic nor am a professional film scholar. And, not that I have to tell my RL friends but, my mood and events at the time really effect how I see any and all works of art. Also, for me, I try to take into account what the movie is trying to accomplish vs what I think it accomplishes, in addition to if I think the movie is good as a film, as a work of art. For example, I think that Inception was a better, more thought-provoking, more beautiful, more crafted film than 2012, but I also know that wasn't what 2012 was trying to be. On the other hand, as cheesy and emotionally obvious as 2012 could be, I still felt something during it, almost cried a couple times, whereas I didn't feel that emotion investment in Inception. I just wanted to be clear that I do not claim to be consistent. Or rational. Ever. Just take that into account.

So back to the movie. As I put the movie in, I saw the running time and thought, "Oh, shit. What have I gotten myself into? This is going to be so long and tedious and ugh. Oh well. What else am I doing?" Early on, I noticed things in the movie that just.... wouldn't happen. In one scene, though much later in the movie, one of the US bigwigs going to the ships, in semi-rural China, gets a call on his cell from his friend in India's cell. This is after most of the US and probably Europe has been wiped out. Um... I don't think so. Ok, so things like this and other too-coincidental incidents made me just throw all notions of "I know I need to suspend a bit of disbelief but it still needs to be realistic" out the window, so I just enjoyed what it was, CGI-destructo-fest. At which point, I actually enjoyed it. It was pretty good CGI of things we'll never see, as even if this scenario played out, there's very little chance we'd see all the things we do in the movie before we died. So if you want to enjoy a disaster action movie and are willing to suspend all disbelief, this is a pretty good movie. Later on that morning, I realized that day would have also been my grandmother's birthday. I really think she would have enjoyed this movie. While she complained about them making movies "too loud" these days, she always really liked action movies, even action movies these days, though she often "tutu"-d the crassness and everything-out-there-ness of most comedies and dramas "these days," after maybe 1985 or so. This movie is probably definitely for those people (like my parents and my grandma) who always asked me why I couldn't just enjoy the goddamn move, why did I have to think about it.

BUT I do want to touch on something that a few critics pointed out at the time the movie hit theaters. Though I can't remember who it was, I do remember the movie being called "disaster porn" by one critic. I will readily admit that while I watched the movie, I thought that more people in the movie should be more sad that almost all of humanity and all land-based creatures were dying, often in really horrible ways. There were times during the movie when I was sad about the general loss of life happening, even when the movie wasn't pointing that out, was instead pointing out all the really cool action happening. I completely understand what that critic meant. On the other hand, there are many things I enjoy, in all kinds of different weird ways, seeing, but would never ever ever want to happen in real life. Yeah, I got a kick out of seeing Los Angeles destroyed with all that cool CGI, but I no more want that to happen than I want people to be able to navigate my dreams or even for Kristen Bell and Josh Dumiel to find happiness and love together. I love a good horror movie, but I don't actually want killer bloodsucking vampires in real life or ghostly/demonic possession or spree/serial killers. That is one part of the thrill of movies, for me and for many other people as well, so I'm trying not to write this "disaster porn" off too quickly.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Orphanage

The Orphanage (2007)

Spanish film - both in language and location

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona

Cast includes
Belen Rueda as Laura
Fernando Cayo as Carlos
Roger Princep as Simon
Geraldine Chaplin as Aurora (yep daughter of "that" Chaplin)


So I watched this last night and I'm still thinking about it. Overall, I did really like it, as it built the suspense, didn't use cheap scare tactics (that much), and didn't give definative answers to the "supernatural or not" question until the very end. The story is this: Laura and her family buy the orphanage she grew up in to turn into a home for special needs children. **Spoilers after here** Her and husband's son is adopted and is HIV+. When they move to this new place, their son has two imaginary friends, but he quickly gains six more. At the welcome party for the new home, the son disappears. Laura blames his imaginary friends. Big surprise - the people around her start to think she might be a bit crazy.

Here's what is bothering me: The wrap-up, "happy" ending, is Laura committing suicide. She gets what she wants, to be with her son again. Now, I know why, in the context of the movie and everything that is revealed, this makes a sort of sense and leads to what is probably the happiest ending possible for everyone involved (except Laura's now-widower husband), but I still feel uneasy about the ending of a movie that leaves suicide as the best option. For those who know me, it should be obvious why I feel this way. Of course, this has nothing to do with the merits of the film as a film, but it still effects how I view the movie.

But, for the most part, good, suspenseful, not overly gory, subtitled horror film.

Walk Hard

Walk Hard : The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

Directed by Jake Kasden

Written by Judd Apatow and Jake Kasden

Cast Includes
John C. Reilly as Dewey Cox
Jenna Fischer as Darlene, Dewey's second wife and soulmate
Tim Meadows as Sam, the drummer, who always ends up paying for the drugs
Kristen Wiig as Edith, Dewey's first wife
and a crap ton of cameos of different actors playing different famous rock figures

The movie is a mockumentary, following the life of Dewey Cox, a rock singer/guitarist, from his start in the 1950s to his redemptive re-discovery in the 2000s, with all the trappings of rock stardom along the way: multiple wives, children, legal battles, drugs, the evolution of his music, and interacting with other actual rock stars. If you've seen Ray and/or Walk the Line, you know the territory. With a few quick exceptions (That's Amore), all the songs on the soundtrack are originals, hilarious but fitting for the eras they represent.

Even though this movie can go a bit overboard at times, I really enjoyed it, laughed quite a bit. You know, I actually think it's probably my favorite Apatow movie so far. Usually, my biggest problem with Apatow movies is the schlubby male protagonist who I never believe could pull in the hottie he ends up with and their relationship is usually the main focus of the movie. In this movie, while I know it's an obvious, over the top parody of rock biopics, hell of the life-arc of rock musicians in general, I believe that Dewey can and does do these things because I've seen the other biopics, know that other musicians' lives did follow this path. Though, on the other hand, because it is such an in-your-face parody, I don't need to believe that this could happen, know that it can't happen, that it's just an exageration of real life. It worked for me, especially when many of the "parody" movies lately have been so mind-numbingly stupid, just throwing together bits from all the latest popular movies and real-life celebrity scandals in the loosest possible story. I definately recommend this, especially for people who know the evolution of early rock'n'roll and don't mind it lampooned a bit.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

District 9

District 9 (2009)

Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Cast includes
Sharlto Copley as Wikus van der Merwe
lots of cgi aliens

I just watched this movie earlier today on DVD. When it first came out last year, I really wanted to see it, thought it sounded very unusual. But I think that this was definitely a case for me where ignorance might have been bliss, as I've read so many commentaries and blog posts, especially questioning whether the racial allegory was really as redeeming as it might seem on the surface, that it ruined the cool, new factor of it all. Then again, I also made the mistake of watching it with my folks and my step-dad was kinda a spoil-sport. Boo. Just Mom is a much better movie companion.

Alright, so for those of you who don't know about the movie, here's the plot. An alien ship comes to Earth in 2001 and hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa. After three months of nothing happening, the government busts into the ship, finds severely malnourished aliens, who they shepard into a holding area, which quickly becomes fenced in, militarized, and then slums called District 9. For years, there is a sort of stasis, with the aliens living in their district, scrounging for trash and cat food, but never really doing anything to leave. While most of the humans consider the aliens the lowest of the low, no one in the government or the company in charge of relating to the aliens (which is primarily a weapons manufacturer who want to take advantage of alien technology) seems to know how to get them to go back home. Hell, no one seems to even be trying to learn the alien language, though the aliens seem to understand ours. Things come to a head when it is decided that the aliens must be moved out of their current slums into a specially built refugee camp hundreds of miles outside of the city. While serving the evictions, a dweeby bureaucrat becomes "infected" and starts to turn into an alien. He teams up with an alien trying to put a ship back together to go home to solve both their problems.

I think that, in the beginning, what made this movie different was that it falls into the category of oppressed alien movies, which is a smaller category than the scary aliens who come to Earth to take over and kill or enslave humans category of science fiction movies. Now, originally, I was going to add the word "sympathetic" to "oppressed aliens," but I think this is another place where the movie tries to do something it thinks is great, but it misses the mark for some people. The movie presents the aliens as more of a worker bee class, who resort to base instincts when they don't have a command presence, so they steal (not that they have an opportunity for legitimate work), fight, and scavenge. This behavior makes it difficult for many to root for these aliens to live in free society. This is often used as the excuse to segregate and hold back those of other classes and races, "Look what they do in their own neighborhoods? Look at how many of them are criminals?" without taking into consideration the lack of legitimate opportunites. Especially coming from and setting the film in South Africa, I'm sure that the writers and director were acutely aware of this. But sadly, the film never really changes that view of the aliens. The alien who helps Wikus, named by the government Christopher Johnson, only works to be the exception that proves the rule, the smart black or poor man who makes good and gets out. In the end, the aliens are still just rabid, destructive animals that must be herded together, far away from humanity. (And, yes, there is a name that the humans call the aliens, one that the movie even calls a derogatory term, though all the characters use that term thereafter. As I see that word, in the coontext of the movie, as the same as other words used to refer to other minority groups, I will not use it to refer to them any more than I would use the n-word.)

I think the bigger theme, one all too common in scifi movies these days, is how much bullshit everyone will accept from the government, large corporations, and the mainstream press, so that it is easier for them to go on with their everyday life. But that's not really anything new.

Oh, but I did really like the aliens. The farther we get away from humoid aliens in movies, the happier I am. I recently read an article that said scientists have found higher levels of methane loss than there should be on Mars and one of their hypostesis is that there may be methane based lifeforms on the planet. (FYI: Lifeforms on our planet are carbon based.) Reading that made me wonder how methane based lifeforms might look different from us and what other elements could be the basis for lifeforms. Hmmmmm.......

So I'm not sure whether or not I recommend it. If you've read this, you can decide for yourself. Just don't blame me either way.


Inception (2010)

Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan

Cast Includes
Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb
Ellen Page as Ariadne (perhaps after her)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur
Tom Hardy as Eames
Ken Watanabe as Saito

I'll try to avoid major spoilers, but, as the commercials have been pretty big on visuals but light on plot, I'm not sure I can avoid not giving anything away.

As for plot, I think Tim, the movie blogger behind Antagony & Ecstasy, really gets it perfect: "Here's the story: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master thief with a shady past, given an opportunity by mysterious businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) to redeem everything he's ever done, and in the process reunite with the children he left in the U.S. when he was forced for shady reasons to flee the country. Saito's offer includes completing an impossible mission, for which Cobb must assemble the best team ever compiled for such a mission. Everything else is just details." Ultimately, at it's heart, this is a heist film and a con film. It being set in a world of dreams and dreams within dreams adds amazing visuals and the undercurrents of what is really real versus what is just a dream, but that is all just icing on the cake for me.

Hmmmm, I guess I don't have a great deal more to say about it than that. I think I need another viewing. I was impressed visually. I thought the action was good. But....I'm still left kinda deflated. Maybe it was the movie since then, which i'll get to in the next post. I think I just need to watch it again..... I think if you saw Dark Knight and weren't disappointed by it after the hype, you'll probably be good to see this movie and I'm not really sure that the large visual pieces will translate as well to your tv, so you might want to catch it while it's on the big screen, even if it's at a cheaper twilight show.

Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone (2010)

Directed and co-written by Debra Granik

Cast Includes
Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly
John Hawkes as Teardrop
Kevin Braznahan as Little Arthur
Garrett Dillahunt as Sheriff Baskin

Saw at twilight showing at local art house theater July 14th, 2010, along with a dozen other people, mostly senior citizens

I thought this was a great, low-budget mystery movie, with something very real at stake. The movie is set in The Missouri Ozarks, not the partying by the lake area of the Ozarks, but the backwoods area that most people think are backwards, where many people live on and off of the land and woods. Especially when the small towns can't offer enough employment and those who live off of the land and the woods can barely eek out a living, these rural areas become havens for all kinds of illegal trade and creation. During prohibition, this meant moonshine. Nowadays, it means meth. Seventeen year old Ree lives with her nearly catatonic mother and a younger brother and sister in a small cabin surrounded by what her uncle calls "hundred year old woods." She has quit high school to take care of them, though she obviously values their education, quizzes them as she walks them to school. She dreams of going into the army, not to get away from her family, but to use the sign on bonus to care for them and to take them out of the Ozarks with her. She's a fairly straight arrow in a bad situation which soon gets worse. The local sheriff lets her know that her father is due in court the next week, but no one can find him, which is now Ree's problem since her father put up their house for his bail. Now this tough girl must find and confront her father's known associates, many of whom she's related to, in at least a distant way, and all of whom are involved in shady illegal activities that may come to light if Ree finds her father. All the while, Ree also tries to figure out what she'll do if, when, she loses the house and her family has no place to live. I thought this was a very good movie, harrowing in a everyday, down-to-earth way, just a young poor woman, struggling on the edge of homelessness, pushing against other people who were once in a situation like hers and chose illegal means to make a living.

Not that it's difficult for me to find something in a movie to relate to, but this movie did make me wonder how close my life might have been to this movie if just a few decisions were made differently. Now there were four people, two hetro couples it appeared, sitting in front of me, who "oh my" and "ugh"-d during scenes of backwoods life, like Ree showing her brother and sister how to skin a squirrel, so they could eat if something happened to her, or she wasn't around. I got he distinct feeling that these four sixty-something suburbanites felt they were above eating any such thing. Now I have eaten squirrel and I'm pretty sure it was killed by a family member. I've also eaten rabbit and quite alot of deer. After a bit of being a brat as a kid, I've gotten over not eating something because I thought I was too good for it. This would go double if I was in Ree's situation. Which is a situation that is pretty close to situaitons that some of my relatives have probably had. Much of my maternal grandfather's family still live in and around a small town in Southeastern Missouri where my grandfather's parents built their house. But none of these relatives have log cabins and large plots of land. Those who do have their own property live in a trailer on a small plot of land. I remember going to a funeral for one of my grandfather's brothers several years ago, before my grandfather passed. Afterwards, we went to my grandfather's sister's house, a trailer which could have been pretty nice if it didn't have too many people with too many clothes and school books scattered everywhere. My great aunt was taking care of four or five (or more maybe) of her grandchildren because their parents couldn't due to alcohol or drug addictions. Now what would happen to those kids if, when, my great aunt dies? Last I had heard, from my grandma, before she passed, my great aunt was taking care of even younger children, a baby or an infant that her youngest daughter had given birth to while she was clean from cocaine, before she got hooked on meth, the meth that my great aunt said was ravaging the area faster and more thoroughly than alcohol or any other drug had before. Watching this movie, especially watching one character who's face reminded me so much of my own grandfather, hollow, grisled, with that beak-nose, I wondered how my life might have been different if my grandparents had moved back to that small town after he got out of the army, if my grandfather had made it a regular habit to drink as much as his brothers, if, if, if. But a different decision here or there can change so much. Things might not always look so great right now, but I know that I am fortunate in so many ways, fortunate that my life isn't tougher, isn't closer to that edge. I just gotta try to be thankful for that more often.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Gasland (2010)
Documentary by Josh Fox
Watched on July 4, 2010 at home on HBO OnDemand

(post written longhand on July 12, 2010, while on vaca and away from my computer)

I've put off writing about this because I thought time would bring clarity but it has really done the opposite. I'm more ambivalent than ever.

Gasland is a documentary by Josh Fox, following his fourney to understand how hydraulic fracture natural gas drilling has effected the lives of people who lease their land to be used to frilling, as Fox himself is asked to do in the beginning of the film by a natural gas company hoping to frack for gas in Pennsylvania near the Delaware river. With the aid of colorful but simple graphics, he gives an overview of the hydralic fracturing processes and the largely unregulated and not completely retrieved chemicals used. The audience is also treated to footage of Fox's efforts to contact first well-known figures in major natural gas drilling companies in the US, then just someone, anyone who will talk to him, but he never really gets anywhere. Instead, he relies on local reporting, both in print and on television, in locales where drilling has been going on for years to guide him to locals who might talk to him. The audience follows Fox as he meets and gets to know families who's natural gas contaminated well-water can be lit on fire as it comes out of the tap, who have physical illnesses (usually either neurological problems from water toxicity or respiratory problems from chemicals that have evaporated into the air), who's water wells have exploded. These average, working-class folks, hardly people who are anti-corporations or anti-oil and gas (at least before these things), cheerfully show Fox their homes, land, and animals, most relating their stories with a mix of "if you didn't laugh, you'd have to cry" attitude and a sense of disbelief that no one, not the government or the companies, either will or can help them. They also allow Fox to take water samples from their wells. Fox also attends a NY state congressional committee meeting on opening up more land in NY state for drilling in which the men from the natural gas companies testify again and again that it has never been proven that their drilling processes harm the groundwater or the people, animals, and plants around the drilling sites. If I remember right, there were four representatives from the natural gas companies and only one environmental scientist, who was largely ignored when he disagreed with those in the oil company reps. He also talks to the head of the department of environmental protection in PA who steps around much of Fox's questions but does admit that compromises must be made so that people get the energy they want while we try to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Also, while he won't say that the wells people claim are contaminated are actually contaminated, the bueracrat won't drink any of the water from any of the wells that Josh Fox as collected during his travels. In the end, Fox has no real hard answers, though the knowledge that he gains leads him to decide against leasing his lands for any future drilling, no matter how much money they offer him.

By the end of this movie, I was overwhelmingly sad. Not mad, which is what I would have been in previous years, as I'm sure the filmmaker might have anticipated, a sense of righteous indignation that might drive the audience to push politicians and bueracrats to tighten and enforce regulations and to pull back our energy use. Nope, just really sad. And completely helpless. How can I actually change any of this? I don't live in a drilling area. I doubt I could convince my parents to switch from natural gas to another energy source, not that it would help as electricity here is made from burning dirty coal. I have no say in PA or NY where the current debate on to frack or not to frack is happening. Sure, I can vote on representation in and from my state but is there any chance that anyone who is pro-regulation and strong oversight really win in a conservative area in a conservative state, especially given the current pro-corporate stance of the Republican party? If that person did win, would they be able to get any laws through? The same, and then some, goes for the president.

I recently read an op-ed article in the NYT in which the writer suggested that we should think less about whether we want kids but more about if the world needs more kids, that it would be nice for individuals to forstall a kid or two to help not contribute to worldwide overuse of resources and to overpopulation. The writer specifically stated that he didn't want a mandatory government program of any kind, just a voluntary thoughtfulness. Now, I'm pretty sure I do not want any children, for a variety of reasons, but, though I've usually kept this to myself, I've also questioned the wisdom of growing the world's population, especially as we worry about how our way of life harms the planet and the population. So I'm on board with the guy who wrote the op-ed. But after watching this movie, feeling so sad and helpless, I wondered if just not having kids wasn't enough? How about a mass die off? Sometimes this happens to animals accidentally - their population grows too fast for the area they live in to sustain them, their waste pollutes their water supply leading to illnesses, etc. The black plague is often credited with thinning the human population in Europe, but large wars also help humans thin our own herd.

Ok, ok, so I know that by now you are saying, "A mass die off is too extreme. It could lead to genocide, since the majority would pick a disliked minority group to do most of the dying, or people with the 'worst' lives, whether through discrimiation or socioeconomic situations, would volunteer, creating a defacto genocidal situation. Plus, we are working as hard as we can on new energy sources and we can always cut down on our use. And it's not like you're the epitome of environmentally friendly." And I'm not. But I guess I have a harder time staying motivated for these things when I see larger forces working against it. There are people working on 'green' technological advances, but those companies in Gasland, and other large corporations, who make their huge profits on non-green, dirty energy sources, have more money, more lobbying power, more clout with politicians on both sides who have recieved large campaign contributions from them, and can quickly buy off the little guys who are hurt. They have a vested interest in keeping the energy status quo and blocking green energy and I feel helpless in the face of that. There was a day when I would have found this documentary a call to arms. Now I feel that I can't help the situation in a big picture way and I continue, in my own little way, to make it all worse, just by my everyday living.

A friend recently told me that, to her, in many instances, ignorance is bliss and that's why she doesn't watch the news. She doesn't worry about going into a neighborhood that others have told her are "bad" because she doesn't want some crime stat, or someone's opinion of what a bad neighborhood is, to get in the way of her living her life. Somedays, I do wish I could be more like that.

Gasland's movie site