Monday, May 30, 2011

The Bridesmaids Review

     I'm not one of those guys that refuses to see a film with a female-driven story with actresses talking about their menstrual cycles and relationship problems. I refuse to see films with female-driven stories with those issues that suck, which--unfortunately for many women and their poor men who get dragged to these piles of feces--is the majority of movies about weddings and finding your one true love. Thankfully, I could tell that Bridesmaids was one of the good ones, one of the ones that was made for the viewer's benefit and not the economic bottom line. Starring and partly written by SNL's Kristen Wiig (who is starting to turn heads in films such as Paul and MacGruber), Bridesmaids is a great success for a few reasons: the film shows the true comedy, emotions and insecurities that all women feel when their friends are getting hitched, it does an amazing job of dealing with the entire eclectic mix of women that get introduced (and keeping them distinctly original and separate in character), and Wiig's performance, which is both emotional and physical, is one of the most honest I've seen in a comedy.  Above all, Bridesmaids solidified my thinking in that most weddings (and more specifically wedding planning)--no matter the who/what/where--bring out the worst in people.
     Wiig portrays a girl named Annie, whose cake shop has gone under since the beginning of the economic recession. She's been best friends with Lillian for years and years, and they get together often to drink wine, read Us magazine and talk about how weird penises are, especially when a man rests them on their face while sleeping. Annie's also involved in a one-sided relationship with Jon Hamm, who beautifully plays a rich, douchey, even more sex-obsessed version of Don Draper. She's down on her luck, stuck in a limbo of emotionless sex and a dead-end job at a jewelry store (the setting for some great scenes due to her brash honesty about relationships and friendship to love-drunk customers). What could be Annie's rock bottom? That is a question that constantly gets raised and then one-upped throughout the film, starting with her best friend Lillian's engagement.
     You see, Lillian has been best friends with Annie forever, but ever since meeting her soon-to-be-husband, Lillian has also becomes friends with Helen (her husband's employer's wife), a rich bitch that is clearly trying to drive a wedge in between Annie and Lillian's long-term friendship. Helen, portrayed in an extremely cunty (but effective) way by Rose Byrne, needs everything to be perfect. She is also in the wedding party (Annie is the maid of honor), but she is one of those people that loves planning every little detail of any major event. As Helen consistently tries to steal Annie's ideas about the engagement party, bachelorette party, and the wedding itself, drunken jealousy, dirty looks, insecurities and anger reach a boiling point of hilarious hijinks.
     Back to Wiig: the movie is great because of her. Yes, there are many highlights from the other members of the bridal party, but they are usually a little more obvious and over-the-top than Wiig's honest and insecure performance of a woman who feels left behind in a world of successful careers and loving relationships. The key is that both men and women can relate to her plight. Every human experiences some form of jealousy and self-consciousness during major events (like a wedding), and sometimes we just want it to be over and done with. And although, as the film reaches a higher and higher minute in runtime, the movie does subscribe to some of the same old tired tropes that many women- or wedding-centric films rely on (specifically Wiig slowly realizing she wants a sweet and generous man instead of just a misogynistic fuck-buddy), Bridesmaids puts smiles on faces and warmth into even the most skeptical of hearts.     (A-)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Netflix This:

Blue Valentine
     Realism is unbelievably important when making a good film about the highs and lows of a marriage or relationship. To raise above the general bullshit chick-flick films about empowered women and princely men, a filmmaker must tap into much deeper emotional wells to make sure that the viewer relates to the man or woman--the good aspects or the bad. I'm talking about the tiny things that occur during an argument, a joyous occasion, or spontaneous sex: a disappointed look that hurts much worse than a punch to the head, an exclamation of tearful laughter, or the slight breath that escapes during a moment of pleasure/pain. Blue Valentine, a film by Derek Cianfrance and starring the great Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, succeeds not only because the wonderful actors involved, but particularly because of these small moments that truly make you feel like you're witnessing the full spectrum of events in a relationship, including make-ups, break-ups and cunnilingus.
     The film basically portrays a marriage that maybe wasn't meant to be. It isn't told in chronological order, so the scenes skip between before, after and during the courtship. Blue Valentine starts off close to the end chronologically, and it's a great way to begin because of all of the questions that are raised: you see, normally we see Gosling as a hip, slick, well-dressed gent in nearly all of the films he is in. But from the first moment we see him in Blue Valentine, he's chubbed up, has a receding hairline, wears glasses that resemble a pedophiles, and--best of all--wears a black sweatshirt with a picture of an eagle on it, similar to something a 5th grader or a mildly-retarded amateur bass fisherman would throw on in the morning.  Clearly, the love between Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) is not what it once was. They have a daughter, and are just going through the motions, with Dean being a house painter who starts drinking The King of Beers around 8 A.M. on weekdays, and Cindy working as a nurse with a sketchy Doctor co-worker. The film then jumps back in time from there, depicting many events throughout their once loving now hating relationship.
     This film works much better than other similar films because of one reason (a reason that causes all of those little realistic moments that the viewer can relate to): the improvised nature of the script and the film in general. Much of the film was unscripted, with Gosling and Williams improvising their dialogue between each other on many occasions. Many of the fights seem extremely honest and real (and may be tough to watch for some people); for instance, there is a great scene that includes an incredible back-and-forth between Dean and Cindy about a former lover that Cindy sees in a liquor store that is especially poignant. Also, one of the better scenes of the entire year of 2010 involves Dean and Cindy both losing their shit inside Cindy's workplace. There's a reason for this naturalistic approach: prior to filming some of the more intense fights between the couple, the director had Gosling and Williams rent a home for a period of time and only have the money that their character's income would produce. They had much more time to represent a real couple with real problems than many other actors.
    One of the small problems with the film deals with the question, "what exactly went wrong?" Maybe it's my sexist subconscious speaking, but I feel like Dean didn't really do anything wrong to deserve the hatred that Cindy feels for him in specific scenes during the movie. And if you agree with his point of view, it's hard to see what more he could do. Blue Valentine, although clearly about a relationship, can more specifically be described as a cautionary tale about some people who can just, simply, fall out of love. The excitement that is felt at the beginning of a relationship can quickly morph into something more destructive: the slow decline of hope of what is still to come.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Netflix This:

The Staircase
     How do we really know is someone is guilty or innocent of a murder when looking at a blood-filled crime scene, if evidence does not exist? What if there was no murder weapon? Is it time to reexamine our justice system? Is it time to reexamine the faith we put in the intelligence of a random jury to come to the correct conclusions? These are just a few of the questions that are raised in this intense and immensely entertaining documentary. The Staircase, consisting of eight 45-minute episodes (a commitment, I know), is one my best Netflix finds in a very long time. Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (who won an Oscar for best documentary in 2001), the film follows the life and murder trial of author Michael Peterson, who in 2001 called 911 and hysterically screamed that his wife Kathleen had fallen down the stairs.
     To fully immerse yourself in The Staircase, it's best not to know too much about the specifics of the trial and absolutely incredible information, finds, and coincidences that happen throughout the long process of the investigation. So I will avoid too much information here, and if you're interested in seeing the 6-hour documentary, avoid information about it everywhere. A 6-hour documentary about the mysteries and suspicions of a man tried for murder may not seem like that great of a time, but you would be wrong. The Staircase's 6 hours were culled from 300 total hours of footage and basically offers a full purview of the defense's preparations and intricate strategies in defending Michael Peterson. It also shows the influence of the press in regards to their biased opinions on aspects of the trial.
     It's pertinent to know the basics: Michael Peterson calls 911. His wife has supposedly fallen down the stairs. Her blood alcohol content is .07, and she also has Valium in her system. The problem, as you can see in the picture to the left, is the severe injuries that Peterson's wife sustained in the supposed fall (and yes, the film does show every aspect of the trial, including graphic crime scene and autopsy photos of Kathleen). She has a fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage and extremely severe lacerations on the top of her head. Much of the film deals with the competing conclusions from two separate blood pattern analysts. (Where's Dexter when you need him?) Obviously, the prosecution uses the vivid and graphic images of the injures and poses the question, how could these injuries be from a fall down the stairs? The defense's opinion is the she fell backwards coming up the turn in the stairs and repeatedly continues to fall while slipping on her own blood. Michael Peterson has no blood splatter on his clothing, there is no cast-off  blood from swinging a weapon up and down or side to side, and there is no murder weapon to be found. As I stated before, these are just the basics. Numerous insane happenings and coincidences dig the mystery deeper and deeper, and they involve the the home life of Peterson and their many children, the missing murder weapon, the questionable motives and sexuality of the people involved, and another similar death that turns the case on its head. By the time Episode 8 starts (titled "The Verdict"), your nerves will be on edge, whether you think that Peterson is guilty or not. Above all, it's about a case that goes far beyond whether a man killed his wife on a narrow and dark stairwell, and it rises to a war between the defense and prosecution and the truths and lies they use to influence a jury.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Short Update

     Here's a quick blog update for any of you two or three people who read these film-based writings: as you may know, right now I do occasional blog posts about Netflix movies that you can stream instantly to your computer or device. I have found this to be too limiting when deciding what film to write about. Yes, there are obviously some good--and even amazing--films on Netflix instant, but it's just extremely hard to find the time to seek them out when I also get 2 hard discs at a time as well (not to mention going to the actual movie theater and watching Movies On Demand).
    So from now on I have decided not to restrict myself to just instant movies (and probably people didn't even notice anyway), and I will be recommending any movie that I see from any format that suits my fancy. It should make for write-ups on much better films than previously, since I am no longer confined to the chains of  the movie prison that is Netflix Watch Instantly. Expect a new post soon...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Already Craving More Thor

     It seems that in this great country that we live in, summer blockbusters have been arriving to our cinema screens earlier and earlier every year that passes. This year's first huge hit, Fast Five, was released on the 29th of April, and it's fair to say that its huge opening weekend numbers signified the beginning of a long and prosperous summer blockbuster season. And this means one thing: we're going to be seeing a plethora of previews and clips that show men (or creatures) from comic books (and graphic novels) kicking ass and saying sometimes-cool-usually-lame catchphrases into the (probably 3-D) camera lenses. If you're more niggardly (that word is not a racial slur, my less-intelligent readers) than I am in regards to what films to see in the movie theater, trying to decide what superhero-based film to see can be like wading through a river of shit with the occasional fresh and scrumptious corn kernel. Luckily--I am here to report--Thor, with the title character portrayed in a star-making turn by Australian Chris Hemsworth, is more tasty morsel than piece of shit.
      I was excited to see Thor in the sense that I hadn't been to the theater in about 14 days, which for me is an extremely long time; however, after witnessing the trailers, I wasn't sure how great the movie would be. But what happened is the best thing that can happen when one pays $9.50 to see a film: pleasant surprise. It's all a bit confusing at first if you are not familiar with the mythology of Thor. The film starts out on Earth, where Thor is discovered after he is transported by some sort of Terminator-style portal. Fortunately without Arnold's naked ass. Thor switches gears quickly, after just a few minutes, to show us a long sequence of events that lead to him landing on Earth. You see, Thor is from another realm called Asgard (a porn film title parody in the making), where the Asgardians have been waging war with the Frost Giants for centuries. The Frost Giants are scary, big, badass creatures who can freeze people and things in place and then shatter them, which makes for some extremely cool special effects. Thor's dad, Odin (acted beautifully by Anthony Hopkins), is the king of this realm, and basically sends Thor to Earth in an act of humility (Thor had recently attacked the ice creatures in an act of aggression), to show him that being cocky and aggressive isn't the right way to be King, which Thor is first-in-line to become. He also strips Thor of his legendary weapon, a hammer, as it is also sent to Earth, and Thor must earn the right to wield it again. Rereading this paragraph, I know it sounds kind of lame and corny. But with the Shakespearean themes of love, humility and troubled families, the incredibly cool, loud and original special effects, and the interesting direction of Kenneth Branagh, Thor's quality rises above the poo wave of previous below-average superhero incarnations.
      What Thor is, at it's quickly beating heart, is a fish-out-of-water story that is both humorous and light-hearted. Thor gets banished to Earth, but he has been living in the realm of Asgard, where people talk in a form of arrogant-royal-English. It adds up to great comic relief when he is found by three scientists, the most important of which is played cutely by a pre-preggers Natalie Portman. When Thor's stomach growls, he states, "I need sustenance!" When he's done with a coffee in a diner, he shatters his mug on the floor and states that he needs another. He's a strong and cocky man that thinks he deserves whatever he wants at any given moment, due to the fact that he is royalty in the other realm. That's not to say he can't be sweet and lovely when he wants to be: the film switches back and forth between Thor's family troubles in Asgard and the budding relationship between Thor and the smitten Natalie Portman. It shows that Thor has human qualities that all of us have experienced, and it grounds the film in at least some sort of reality that is relatable.
     I haven't even explored the family drama between Thor and his brother that is the essence of much of the plot, and I won't here. To watch the drama is better than to explain it. Thor is just the fourth movie that Marvel has produced on their own (after the two Iron Man films and the lesser The Incredible Hulk). They have clearly hit their stride. Thor hits you like the blunt head of a hammer: it's interesting, original, and the special effects are unlike anything I have seen recently. Branagh's direction, specifically the friction of family that echoes his previous Shakespeare efforts, works much better than expected in the superhero genre. Above all, it's entertaining, which is the key to creating successful summer blockbusters.     (B+)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What You'll Want to be Watching:

      Upon my weekly viewings of Season 2 of Justified, one of the better televisions shows to be released within the past 2 years (also with its Season 2 finale in a few days, and we all know Raylan is gonna bring some Hell to Mags and the Bennett clan), I have seen a number of advertisements for a quirky little comedy called Wilfred. The ads are short but amusing and funny. FX network's new comedy starting this summer, Wilfred, come to find out, is actually an American remake of a semi-popular Australian show, which--after HBO's amazing Australian series Summer Heights High--is just what viewers should be asking for: a show that's funny while also interesting and weird, something that could be called the anti-Two and a Half Men.
     The story is simple but has plenty of potential: Ryan is a young man trying to be successful in today's world to no real effect. He is depressed and feels like there is no point anything at all. (I swear this isn't about me...).  Ryan forms a promising relationship with his neighbor's dog, Wilfred.  Unfortunately (or fortunately) for Ryan, the entire world other than him sees Wilfred as the cute little dog that he is, but Ryan sees Wilfred as a vulgar and brash Australian man dressed up in a cheap dog suit. Hopefully, Hilarity ensues. According to many different synopses of the series, Wilfred leads Ryan on many different funny and existential adventures that help him discover the humor and happiness of life.
     It's quite easy to be skeptical. As one can see from the picture at the top of this blog post, Frodo himself (Elijah Wood) is the main star other than the dog. But I think that Wood gets a bad wrap as a little pussy hobbit with homo-erotic tendencies. Did you see him stand up to the scary Macaulay Culkin in 1993's The Good Son He was also creepy as fuck as cannibal killer Kevin in Sin City. I think he can pull off sad and depressed, due to the state of his career as a whole. Some might say that remakes of shows are never as good as the original, and that's generally a true statement (For instance, the British The Office is far superior to the dumber, less clever American version starring the one-note Steve Carell). But this remake also stars Jason Gann as Wilfred, who co-created and starred in the original series. So the talent is still there. Let us hope that the laughs are, too.