Saturday, December 19, 2009

Twilight Review: Part II

In case you missed Part I, catch up here!

So. What is it that makes Twilight click with almost all ages of a primarily female audience? Perhaps one explanation is that despite Stewart's impassive rendition of the lead role, Bella remains a relatable main character. No longer living with her mother and unable to communicate freely with her single father, she strikes a chord with the millions of viewers who are also the products of broken marriages and may be struggling to maintain a bond with their parents. Slightly awkward, introverted, and somewhat lonely, Bella also speaks directly to women who may feel similarly self-conscious or insecure, whether they are currently experiencing or looking back on the emotional roller-coaster that is adolescence. Her athletic ineptitude, tendency to slip on ice, and altogether clumsiness is what makes her endearing. Young girls can look to her for hope that they need not be exceptionally attractive, talented, or part of the most popular cliques in school to find someone who will love them unconditionally. Meanwhile, through Bella, older women can reconnect with the younger versions of themselves and indulge in reliving their teen fantasy of finding their "one true love".

Especially when that fantasy comes in the perfectly sculpted form of Edward Cullen. Brave, beautiful--albeit dreadfully face-painted--and hopelessly enamored with Bella, Edward is what every girl wants and every wife or mother can remember wanting. His appeal is enhanced by the very fact that as a vampire he is, for all intents and purposes, off-limits. As it is often human nature to yearn for what we cannot have, Edward is the ultimate object of desire for whom to pine. His complete devotion is made even more attractive by his selfless commitment to sacrifice his own sexual impulses and longings for Bella's safety. Although she implores him to make her a vampire as well so that they can spend eternity together, he refuses, understanding that doing so would only devalue her existence. A symbol of the mom-approved virtues of abstinence and unwavering loyalty, Edward embodies qualities that are rare to come by in this day, making him that much more of an ideal lover in the eyes of female audiences. Despite the occasional disagreement girls may have over his ashy looks, then, Edward, with his admirable character and morals, remains the perfect guy.

Further contributing to Twilight's appeal is the pairing of two genres. Vampirism purists may not appreciate the tweaking of the theme; however, Hardwicke seems to use the modern-day context of the alter the traits of vampirism so as to work in its favor. While some features, such as the undeniable sexual undertones and implications of mortal danger, are retained, Twilight's vampires do not don dark capes or bear overgrown fangs like their counterparts in films past. Instead, dressed in normal human clothing and each blessed with striking good looks, the Cullens are much more accessible to audiences who may be wary of or unaccustomed to traditional depictions of vampires. This more viewer-friendly treatment, coupled with the ever-reliable concept of ill-fated love, results in a winning combination. As seen by the popularity of classic tales such as Romeo and Juliet or even the relatively recent Titanic or Moulin Rouge, the idea of individuals from two drastically different worlds finding soulmates in each other is timeless. It resonates with female audiences who relish the emotion-filled journey of an eternal romance; Bella and Edward become the latest addition to a long history of lovers who, knowing that theirs is a risky and likely doomed relationship, are nevertheless willing to face anything to hold on to it. Wrought with the very real human battle of the heart versus the mind, Twilight's use of this tried and true formula seals the film's potential for success.

Finally, while one would prefer for the film to stand on its own, it is impossible to conclude a discussion of it's appeal without recognizing that it is due in large part to the branding of the Twilight series and the loyalty of its readers. With over 21 million fan sites, countless cast interviews in print and on screen, and memorabilia that range from Edward-themed underwear to tattoos bearing the Cullen crest, it has been impossible in the last two years not to encounter some representation of how saturated the media and society have become with all things Twilight. Not only can the expanding franchise nourish existing obsessions, but it can spark new ones as well, sweeping the unassuming bystander into the craze*. As such an all-consuming aspect of popular culture today for teenage girls in particular, it is almost as though a passion--or at least a familiarity--for the Twilight books and films is required for them to conduct their social lives without becoming outcasts among their peers. The marketing of Twilight has also led fans to become attached to the characters even outside the realm of the series: they inform themselves of the actors' personal lives; join "teams" devoted to Robert, Kristin, or Taylor; go to bizarre lengths to enter contests that will win them a day with the cast; and begin to see themselves not just as viewers but as part of the Twilight ensemble. It is this extensive audience investment, fuelled by the multitude of media outlets that feed their obsession, which augments Twilight mania and sends the public flocking into theaters to see their favorite stars in action.

Thus, despite the film's woeful lack of cinematic brilliance, Twilight's ability to engage female viewers with its relatable story, clever use of genres, strategic casting, and shrewd marketing allows it to secure its place as the premier love story of its time and win a fan base that is as faithful as Edward is to Bella. As a result, no matter how terrific or terrible the remaining films may be, Twi-hards are here to stay and will ensure that they are destined for the same--if not more--success.

*Apparently my cynicism has reached a point where ample views of vampires and werewolves with washboard abs have no effect on me, thus allowing me to escape from said craze unscathed.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Twilight Review: Part I

Until recently, I had little reason to watch Twilight for a number of reasons. Not having read Stephanie Meyer’s novels of the saga, I was blissfully ignorant of their seemingly addictive effect and thus had zero motivation to assess whether director Catherine Hardwicke’s film adaptation lived up to the apparently thrilling yet heart wrenching story offered in the book. Also, I have seen a grand total of one other vampire film in my life, and was hesitant to use the little free time I do have watching a movie in a genre that I clearly do not know much about. Third, I am a 23 year old graduate student with no particular attachment to Robert Pattinson, not a giggling pre-teen—or her mother, for that matter—who feels compelled to squeal at the very glimpse of his scruffy haircut in a magazine. However, over the last year, as I witnessed girls of various ages around me drop like flies in their obsession over the film and franchise, my curiosity got the better of me. I therefore justify my first Twilight experience with a review of the film and, in a "part 2" post, some ideas as an objective viewer as to why it has appealed to such a widespread, mostly female demographic.

Initial apprehensions over my unfamiliarity with the books disappeared almost instantly as I realized that my illiterate 3-year old cousin could have followed the plot without much problem: shy, attractive Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart) abandons sunny Arizona for the drizzly chill of Forks, Washington, where she finds herself inexplicably captivated by shy, attractive classmate Edward Cullen (Pattinson), who seems determined to maintain his distance. After Bella’s relentless prodding into the secret behind his mysterious demeanor, he reveals that he in fact belongs to a family of “vegetarian” vampires who restrict their diet to animals rather than humans. However, Bella’s scent is especially alluring for Edward, leading him to simultaneously fall in love with her yet doubt his self-control around her. The more he warns her to stay away, the more she yearns to be with him, until the two are so besotted with each other that even his potential as a bloodsucking killer is not enough to keep them apart.

While the basic premise is easy for us non-Twi-hards to understand, Melissa Rosenberg’s screenplay and Hardwick’s direction are still sloppy enough to ensure that unless one is familiar with the books, they will be baffled by the lack of development of much of the story’s elements. For instance, although scenes between Bella and her father are mostly halting conversations over burgers at a local diner, hardly any attention is spent on exploring their obviously awkward and impersonal relationship; they are as clumsy in their interactions at the end of the film as they are at the beginning. Taylor Lautner as Jacob, Bella’s childhood friend, has a total of about five minutes of screen time, leaving us puzzled as to why he is in the film at all and rendering him quite unnecessary. While ample time is devoted to fellow classmates’ pursuits for prom dates, the love story between Bella and Edward blossoms so fast that it appears forced. Their entire relationship seems to progress over the course of a week at most, so that when Edward insists that Bella is his “whole life now” or she claims that she has fallen “completely and irrevocably in love with him,” the declarations come across as ridiculously melodramatic rather than romantic—especially considering that the lovers are seventeen years old. Clearly, the film stumbles into to one of the classic traps of novel adaptations, attempting to cram in so many disparate components of the book to please fans that it is eventually unable to come together as a cohesive, flowing narrative. It is irksome to feel as though, in order to understand or appreciate the movie, one must surrender to the cult-like society of obsessive Twilight fans; Hardwicke unfairly assumes that we will either have read the series or will stay tuned for the sequel—neither of which should be a criteria for simply wanting to enjoy a film.

As for those who are unfamiliar or uninterested in vampire films, they really need not worry—the genre seems to be used merely as a disguise for what is essentially a teen drama, skewing quintessential features of vampirism in order to portray the Cullens in an idealistic light. While sunlight is usually fatal to vampires, in Edward’s case its effect is to give his skin a brilliant glimmer, which only makes him more beautiful to Bella. His vampirism is portrayed more as an exotic addition to his good looks than an actual threat to Bella’s life. There is not a single mention of holy water, crucifixes, or even garlic; the traits of classic vampirism are further distorted by the Cullens’ various eccentricities, such as Edward’s mindreading skills or his sister’s ability to foresee the future. Vampirism is used here simply as a reason for Edward to restrain himself from giving in to his desire for Bella; had it not had anything to do with the film, we would still be left with basically the same story: a determinedly chaste adolescent romance. Thus, viewers expecting another Nosferatu or Dracula will be utterly disappointed by Twilight’s lukewarm allegiance to the vampire genre.

Even more disappointing, however, is the depressingly abysmal acting put forth by virtually every character in the entire movie. Stewart broods her way through the film with exactly one facial expression, delivering her lines without the slightest hint of inflection. Robert Pattinson’s intense staring and grimaces of love-induced anguish come across as constipated rather than passionate. In a film centered on the romance between two such young people, actual chemistry is crucial for us to respect and believe their emotions. Add to that the fact that one of the lovers is a vampire, and it becomes even more important that they play their relationship convincingly enough for us to take them seriously. Yet, there is such a dismal lack of spark in Bella and Edward’s interactions that his insistence that she is like his “own personal brand of heroin” is laughable*. With a supporting cast of overzealous high school classmates, parents who try too hard, and not-so-scary rival vampires, the entire film becomes an exhibit of embarrassingly amateur performances.

So what is it that makes Twilight click with girls everywhere? Stay tuned for my attempt to answer that question in Twilight Review: Part II

*not to mention a leading contender for "Stupidest Movie Line Ever."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

After attempting to kill Sarah Connor in the first film, the Terminator is back--except this time he's been reprogrammed to have a change of heart. Returning from the future, his mission now is to prevent a bigger and meaner cyborg--the T-1000--from killing Sarah's son, who will one day be at the helm of the war between humans and machines.

For die-hard fans of science fiction*, it's easy to see how Terminator 2: Judgment Day is quite the pioneer in terms of its special effects. The film is composed of spectacle after spectacle, from cyborgs morphing into human beings to elaborate fight scenes involving raging fire pits and exploding trucks. The CGI of the film deserves credit, as it's hard to imagine anything prior to 1991 that achieved such sophisticated, awe-inspiring images. In terms of visuals, Terminator 2: Judgment Day undoubtedly delivered, and had me optimistic that perhaps this wouldn't be another run-of-the-mill science fiction debacle.

That hope dwindled, however, with the realization that the film's narrative abounds with gaping plot holes. While the fact that it's science fiction allows leeway for unrealistic events, screenwriters William Wisher and James Cameron seem to feed off the film's precursor, using its success to tamper with the logic of the story and get away with it. Why else, for instance, would it go unquestioned that although John eventually destroys the T-1000 and the microchip that creates all cyborgs, there still somehow remains the risk for a future war between humans and machines? Or that, although Sarah is stabbed pretty forcefully by the T-1000 during the climax, she's still quite able to remain alive, escape its clutches, and even try her hand at gunning it down? The only, albeit unsatisfying, way to reconcile such issues is to accept that this genre, by definition, doesn't need to account for much realism.

Nor does it appear to pay much heed to the quality of acting. Edward Furlong as the unruly, 14-year old John Connor is agonizingly irritating, overacting to the point where no longer do we care that he will one day rescue the human race from total destruction, but we almost hope that the T-1000 will get him. Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually in an ideal role here, because lucky for him, playing the Terminator doesn't require any actual acting. Instead, it relies merely on having physical strength and a robotic demeanor, both of which come to him naturally. His few attempts at humor and sensitivity are awkward at best; while they may have been included to give him more of a paternal image in terms of his relationship with John, it's all the more disconcerting to imagine that a machine is being made to take the place of a real person--which, on second though, may have been an intended effect, a warning of sorts that society's obsession with technology may be taking over human relationships. Only Robert Patrick's portrayal of the T-1000 is satisfying**; aloof and unapologetically brutal, he passes off perfectly as a soulless machine whose only goal is demolition.

Worst of all, though, is the sheer length of the film. Halfway through, it turns into one big chase scene that gets extremely tiring to watch. The T-1000 is supposed to be indestructible, the ultimate threat to the cozy family unit that Sarah, John, and the Terminator have become. Although we catch on to that pretty much within the first 30 minutes, Cameron seems determined to pound it into our heads. Thus, for more than 2 hours, we are subjected to watch the T-1000 repeatedly get shot, blown up, and disintegrated into puddles of liquid metal, only to fuse back together and resurface without a hint of a scratch on its human-like exterior. While the images are striking indeed, the lackluster performances, ludicrous plot, and unforgivably long runtime eventually overtake the visuals, making Terminator 2: Judgment Day much less enjoyable than it had the potential to be.

*i.e. NOT me

**and he doesn't even have any LINES! That should tell you something about the rest of the performances.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fatal Attraction

*Just a little opening caveat: The next few films I review may strike you as really random or really outdated. I agree. My explanation for that is that they were required screenings for a grad school course, and since I have considerably less time to watch the latest theatrical releases at the cinema, these films are pretty much all I have to work with at the moment. Hopefully I'll be back with newer stuff next semester!*

Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction has the makings of a riveting thriller: strong actors, an original story (for it's time), aesthetically sound cinematography...even the hauntingly beautiful tunes of Madame Butterfly work well to accompany the building of suspense in many scenes, allowing us to forgive the blatant plot similarities between the film and the opera. Still, somehow, somewhere, something goes incredibly wrong. It all starts off intriguingly enough--attorney Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) indulges in a one-night stand with seductive Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) while his trophy wife, Beth (Anne Archer) and daughter Ellen are away for a weekend. Yet he soon realizes the terrifying consequences of his mistake when Alex turns obsessed and willing to resort to any means to make him hers.*

What's admirable about the film is that each actor manages to make his or her character sympathetic to some degree. Although you'd love to despise Douglas for his infidelity, he seems to genuinely regret the affair, as is evident in the way he overcompensates for his actions by suddenly turning into the perfect husband and father immediately afterwards: giving into the repeated requests of his daughter** for a pet rabbit, agreeing to buy the suburban house that his wife loves--we grudgingly understand that despite his mistake, his loyalties lie with his family and he may be getting dealt a rougher hand than he deserves. Anne Archer also wins us over with a sensible performance. While she's blithely unaware of anything amiss for the majority of the film, she doesn't come off as foolish; only trusting, as any wife should have the right to be. Most surprising, though, is that even Glenn Close earns our sympathy (well, at least until about two-thirds of the way into the plot, at which point you're alternately appalled and amused--more on that in a bit). In spite of her pathological tendencies, she portrays her loneliness with a vulnerability that manages to be fairly heart-wrenching, particularly when shots of her sitting alone by her lamp, flicking the light on and off, are juxtaposed with those of Douglas surrounded by his family and friends. However, the sympathy quickly wanes in the third act, when Lyne seems to lose interest in giving her character any nuances and lets her psychotic impulses take over.

Here's where the film slides downhill, going from thrillingly disturbing to ridiculously melodramatic and choppy. The scene where Close "kidnaps" the kid seems to have been inserted at random, while Douglas' confession to his wife is given far less consideration than it warrants. Anne Archer hardly has a chance to explode into an enraged outburst before the scene is rapidly cut short; the next time Douglas and Archer interact, things are back to being hunky-dory without the need for conversation or reflection on why they've found themselves in this situation at all. The film rapidly turns into a sequence of silly chases where we're made to wonder who will destroy whom first. Worst of all is an ending that is just too easy, and all-too reminiscent of the famous bathroom murder scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Surely there must have been a better way to conclude the story than to simply kill off the offending character without any real psychological exploration into her motives.

I know that over the years, the film has achieved iconic status, and for those of you who loved it, I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade. But for me, there are just too many loose strings in the plot to really appreciate it. We're given barely any information about Alex's past; had there been some more exploration into her backstory, we would have been able to better understand the reason for her disturbed mentality. Additionally, it's difficult to believe that a character as decent as Dan--loving father, successful lawyer--would actually be unfaithful. Had there been some initial indication of dissatisfaction with his relationship with his wife, the affair would have been more credible, as we would have understood that there was a deeper reason behind it than just the allure of an attractive woman.*** Thus, while entertaining and, admittedly, capable of maintaining one's attention till the last frame, Fatal Attraction ultimately falls short, giving way to excessive and over-the-top violence, and ruining its potential to be taken too seriously.

* I mean, really, any means. Not to spoil the plot, but boiling pet bunnies is pretty extreme.

**did anyone else not realize until about halfway through the film that the kid was, in fact, a girl? I think I was distracted for a good 45 minutes of the plot because I was too busy trying to figure that out.

***and I'm sorry, but I'm really pushing it when I say Glenn Close is alluring and attractive.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A bit of a filmography...AKA I'm copping out because I don't have a movie to review this month.

My earliest memories include sleepovers at my grandparents' home, where my older sister and I were sent every other weekend for “quality time”. Without my parents to act as mediators of the conversation, our dinner table exchanges were usually amalgams of halting, ungrammatical Gujarati and fragmented English, neither generation sufficiently fluent in the other's language of choice. Our communication was awkward at best--until the plates were cleared away and we would troop behind my grandfather to a large cabinet, inside which lay rows of video cassettes, neatly nestled in colorful sleeves and arranged in order of descending height. With ceremonial solemnity, my sister and I would scour the shelves to select which Bollywood blockbuster would serve as our viewing pleasure that night. Thus marked the beginning of my fascination with film, which in turn, became the foundation of a relationship with my grandfather that erased all boundaries of age or language. With their intricately choreographed dance sequences, extravagant sets, and larger-than-life stars, these films took us to a place where we could reach a comfort level that didn’t rely on verbal eloquence. We’d get swept up in elaborate melodramas with the same wistful wonder, indulge in slapstick comedies with the same childlike mirth. My grandfather’s passion for them was infectious, and it was through him that I was first exposed to the genius of Satyajit Ray, the legend of Raj Kapoor, and the iconic celebrity of Amitabh Bachchan. Even years later, when my grasp of Gujarati had improved considerably and coherent conversations were no longer impossible, we preferred to let films speak for us. To this day, Indian cinema has remained my connection to him, as well as to the country I’m a native of, but have never lived in.

At the same time, I couldn’t ignore the community amidst which I did live. Growing up, anime took up a considerable portion of my evening television quota. At home, it wasn’t uncommon that an episode of the Full House might be followed by an hour of Sailor Moon*. My love for these quintessentially Japanese cartoons came in handy at school, where though my circle of friends included nationalities from Greece to Indonesia, my Japanese peers tended to fraternize amongst themselves, finding comfort in cultural intricacies that the rest of us weren't privy to. With anime, I was able to break through the shell that they had built around themselves, becoming a welcomed member at their lunch tables--and consequently, acquiring new friendships, a better grasp of contemporary Japanese vernacular and ultimately, some sense of belonging in an otherwise exclusive society.

My exposure to Hollywood began early, thanks to the foreign satellite dish installed in our apartment building, through which my mother would tape whatever late-night film she deemed appropriate enough for my sister and I to see**. As we got older, countless trips to the local video rental store, along with occasional splurges at the theater with friends, kept me updated on the industry's latest turnouts and gave me numerous--albeit occasionally glossed over and dramatic--snapshots of life in America, where I expected to eventually study. Along with my
interest in Indian films and Japanese anime, I developed a love for the classical narratives and technical finesse of American movies; once again, it was film that educated me in many of the trends, values, and conventions of a nation that, until that point, I had felt a flimsy connection to.

Looking back, I’ve become intrigued by my relationship with film, and have begun to seek ways to build upon it further. Attending a lecture given by Michael Moore on his controversial Fahrenheit 9/11, writing essays on the socio-economic motivations of the French New Wave***, touring popular filming locations during a summer program in London: my endeavors have only augmented my fascination with the kaleidoscopic nature of the medium-- the way in which, from various angles, films can be viewed as social commentaries, technological innovations, or vehicles of globalization. These ventures have allowed me to connect briefly with not only the cultures contiguous to my background, but those extending to peoples, areas, and issues that had once seemed alien and inaccessible to me.

And yet, I’m aware that I’ve only just begun with my ventures into the world of film. My next step is graduate school, which I’ll be starting this September; a two-year program at the New School from which I hope to gain a more sophisticated, refined grasp of cinema as cultural artifact. Only then can I expect to one day inspire others to regard it with a similar respect: to approach it not just as mindless entertainment that we passively observe, but as a stage for meaningful and eye-opening discourse in which we can actively participate.

*the adventures of a group of teenage girls, middle school students by day and magical defenders of the universe by night. Watch it. It’s awesome.
** Adventures of a Baby Sitter, My Girl, Home Alone….it’s really because of Mom that I wasn’t a total social outcast when I came to this country ☺
*** okay, okay--that one was because my film history class, junior year of college, forced me to.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You

Maybe it was the cute little trailer promising that this would not be just another typical chick flick. Maybe it was because Valentine's Day was that weekend. Maybe it was that chilly wintry air that my friends and I used to classify as "boyfriend weather" in high school. Honestly, I've stopped looking for a reason; all I can say is that I'm a girl and sometimes I have to act like one--which is why, a few weeks ago, I found myself nestled in a midtown theater with good friend and fellow Michigan Film alumnus Maria, ready to finally discover why He's Just Not That
Into You.

Two hours and nine minutes later, I emerged from that dark auditorium without the foggiest idea. Far from being an expert in the field of romance, I had hoped that the multiple interconnected storylines of a group of Baltimore-based 30-somethings would provide some enlightening insight into matters of the heart--and abridge the "fine print", if you will, of male-female interaction in the era of Facebook and MySpace into explanations that made sense to both the Casanova and the romantic novice. But while HJNTIY undoubtedly has some witty one-liners and moments of thoughtful observation, it ultimately tries just a bit too hard and ends up being reminiscent of, though greatly inferior to, its British precursor, Love Actually.

But that's not to say that there weren't some entertaining and surprisingly pleasant performances. As clueless as her character is, Ginnifer Goodwin pulls off Gigi (a young copywriter on a perpetually unsuccessful but increasingly desperate lookout for Mr. Right) with a vulnerability that makes her at least slightly endearing in a role that would otherwise have come off as just head-bashingly annoying. Justin Long, as the smarty pants bartender who coaches Gigi through her dismal romantic pursuits, appears egotistic and predictable. Yet, he plays Alex with a certain charm that definitely caught me off guard, even managing to illicit an involuntary and teary-eyed "awww" out of me after his monologue at the climax of his story*. Jennifer Connelly delivers one of the few believable portrayals in the film as the victim of an unfaithful marriage while Bradley Cooper is appropriately despicable as her cheating husband. As for Scarlett Johanssen, as beautiful and talented as she may be, I miss her Lost in Translation days when she was able to impress us with her subtle yet striking performances, not her seduction scenes. With similar roles in Match Point and Vicki Cristina Barcelona, and sultry cameos in Justin Timberlake videos, her enchantress acts are getting rather old; I suggest she detours fast before being completely typecast as the "other woman". The rest of the ginormous cast, though competent, aren't particularly memorable. Ben Affleck is wasted in a blink-and-you'll-miss-him role, playing Jennifer Aniston's commitment-phobic boyfriend, while Jen herself seems stifled in a role that doesn't appear to have much depth. Likewise for Kevin Connolly, whose character (which can be summarized as the male version of Goodwin's) could have been omitted altogether. And Drew Barrymore...let's just say that while she does get to voice a great speech about the frustrating complexities of modern-day communication**, she should have stopped acting after E.T.

My understanding is that this film intended to break down relationships for its female audience, to debunk antique myths and misconceptions of dating decorum and provide honest, no-nonsense guidelines for how guys' minds really operate in an attempt to relieve girls of hours of torment over silent phones and empty inboxes. And what it actually did, to some extent (for me, at least), was the exact opposite. I was never one to agonize for very long over such frivolous things as the frequency of a potential suitor's text messages or the fact that he added me as a friend before I added him. But now, I fear that the obsessive dissecting of conversations and endless picking-apart of infinitesimal gestures by Gigi and gang has left me on the verge of becoming a neurotic basket case myself. I wouldn't be surprised if, after paying my Sprint bill over the phone tomorrow, I hang up convinced that even the way the machine-operated voice asks me to enter my pass code "means something".

I'm still slightly confused over the credibility of some of the claims that the film puts forth, and would really like to know whether it was accurate in terms of conveying the way men truly think--what do you say, guys? Is it, as we girls have believed for generations, a sign of
infatuation when you pull our pigtails on the playground or does it in fact mean that you genuinely hate us?

On the other hand, some of the lessons imparted seem to be kind of obvious. I mean, if your last five relationships have consisted of nothing more than Skype conversations--without webcams!--clearly, there was no future. And if a guy doesn't call you after a first date, of course he's not that into you. I don't need a bunch of exceptionally attractive celebrities (who've probably never experienced that humiliation in the first place) to tell me that.

So basically, I paid $12 for a whole lot of eye candy, though still none the wiser when it comes to deciphering the psyche of the alien-like male counterparts that we women happen to share our planet with. Next time my girly instincts strike, remind me that my eyebrow place is just around the corner.

*I know, I'm such a sap.
**Which, anyway, should be credited to screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein-not to Drew.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Great Debaters

If you read my last post, you've probably surmised that for me, the acting is what makes or breaks a film. And lately, between my hesitance to shell out $12 at the theater and the dismal selection of alternatives on television*, it really feels like it's been too long since I was treated to an authentic, hard-hitting performance (and no, Christian Bale's hissy fit doesn't count).

Fortunately, my Netflix queue seemed to pick up on my thirst for true talent, and I was delighted that this week's red envelope supplied an abundance of it in the form of The Great Debaters. When you've got Oprah as one of your producers, you know that the film is probably going to come with some sort of social or moral lesson. And when that message is being relayed by powerhouses like Forest Whitaker and Denzel Washington--who also took on the director's role here--there's no way it won't come across loud and clear. Based on a true story, the movie follows the journey of a motley group of students, the debate team from all-black Wiley College in 1930s East Texas who, under the mentorship of Professor Melvin Tolson, battle racial discrimination and sexism to cap off an undefeated season with a national championship.

All right, so the premise does bear a striking resemblance to the formulaic plotlines of sports movies past where the underdog triumphs in the end-- except that in this case the footballs are swapped for encyclopedias and locker room speeches are replaced with eloquent soliloquies featuring poetry by Langston Hughes. But here, the sheer fervour with which it is conveyed makes it possible to forgive, even celebrate, the predictable message. Taking on the role of poet and professor by day, sharecropping union organizer by night, Denzel Washington just is Melvin Tolson, achieving a perfect balance of intellectual poise, paternal discipline, and inspirational persistence in the respective layers of his role. The minister father of one of the debaters, Forest Whitaker is pretty much perfect as James Farmer Sr. His contentious relationships with both his son and Tolson at first leave his character susceptible to an antagonistic label, but he ultimately injects his portrayal with such sympathy and integrity that you end up understanding and admiring him for his quiet courage.

And while I wasn't disappointed by two of the biggest talents in Hollywood, I was pleasantly surprised at how they stepped aside to let the young actors comprising the team shine. Denzel Whitaker*** as James Farmer Jr., the youngest member of the ensemble, emerges as the real hero. Expertly pairing the emotional turbulence of adolescence with a wisdom that extends beyond his 14 years, Whitaker plays Farmer with an intriguing combination of youthful energy and grounded maturity. Nate Parker is fiery, intelligent, and unapologetically outspoken as Henry Lowe**, and Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Booke, the first ever female debater on the team, is especially impressive when tackling the subject of racial integration in schools, with bold yet dignified delivery of arguments that enables her to hold her own both along her male teammates as well as against her white opponents. Clearly, that the actors are arguing about issues that probe so deeply into their personal histories has motivated such heartfelt performances.

I've been reading reviews complaining that the topics on which the debates are held are rather unoriginal--civil disobedience, feminism, racial discrimination, etc; okay, I concede that they aren't issues that don't already appear to have been beaten to a pulp. But again, the power with which the team makes their rebuttals breathes new life and validity into the seemingly "cliche" subjects. Remember that this is set in the 1930s, when equal education was an audaciously progressive idea and speaking out against white patriarchal society was considered unthinkably bold. Moreover, some subjects may not be as outdated as we think; for instance, as much as we'd like to believe that
recent events have cured America of all forms of racial prejudice, a more realistic look**** (see both article AND comments for my point) shows that America has yet to truly acknowledge a history of discrimination that still retains much of its sting today.

Yet for all the nerves it might hit with its unflinching portrayal of the brutal injustices of the Jim Crow era and beyond--including a particularly disturbing scene involving the aftermath of a lynching--in the end, the film puts forth a positive message, that of a race being able to rejuvenate their own spirits and prove their worth. Through dedication, passion, and unrelenting energy, a team rises above circumstances against their favor to emerge as winners. Although it may sound trite, for me, The Great Debaters is ultimately a story offering hope--and I don't know about you, but right now, I'll take as much hope as I can get.

*Honestly, I don't CARE if Kim Kardashian broke a nail and it worries me that other people do.
**And it doesn't hurt that he's more than a little good looking.
***No relation to Washington or Forest. But wow, imagine the pressure, going through life as an actor with a name like that.
****and the fact that most major award events conveniently failed to recognize this well-deserving film

Friday, January 16, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

--a little note before I begin: Unlike traditional reviews, I've chosen not to include a summary of the plot here, as I'm assuming that by this point everyone and their pet dog has seen--or at least read about--the movie. For those of you who for any reason have been living in a black hole for the past two months, here's a nifty link you may know about that will get you up to speed.-

Given my lukewarm reaction to the much-hyped Slumdog Millionaire, I deliberately planned not to write anything about it lest I got attacked in my sleep by die-hard fans of the film. But when Danny Boyle* and gang exuberantly swept up a whopping four Golden Globes at last weekend's event, I figured, heck, they can afford a not-so-positive review amidst the majority of genuflecting critics and public. So here's my two-cents on this year's sleeper hit--Slumdog lovers, you have been warned.

I'm exaggerating. It's not as if I hated it, or that I thought it was badly made. On the contrary, the film is a visual treat. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle blows you away with simultaneously breathtaking and appalling panoramas of the urban contradiction that is Mumbai, be it two young brothers bolting through the squalid slums of Dharavi as they attempt to flee a raging riot, a rusty train hurtling through lush landscapes, or towering skyscrapers rising above their impoverished surroundings. With its slickly cut montage sequences combined with a verite approach that would make Vertov proud, the movie is a stylistic marriage of romantic escapism and gritty realism.

Then again, I could be watching an Optimum Online commercial and still be entranced if its background music was composed by A.R Rahman. Although I've always been in complete awe of his brilliance, the man has outdone himself here. From the hauntingly poignant melody of "Latika's theme" to the intense and exhilerating drumbeats of "Oh..Saya", the score of Slumdog deifies Rahman to new levels of musical godliness--now there's a Golden Globe well-deserved.

Which is more than I can say for the recipients of the other three awards. As far as the screenplay goes, I agree that Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A wasn't exactly Hemingway and didn't provide much to work off of in terms of memorable dialogue, but I was hoping that Simon Beaufoy could use some of the wit he displayed with The Full Monty to whip up something at least halfway innovative. Instead, Slumdog is a textbook case of cliched beats and lines that often left me cringing and squirming to a point where the guy sitting next to me at the theater was probably kind of frightened. I mean, really--Latika: "And live on what?" Jamal: "Love." And that's supposed to be more gripping than the script of Frost/Nixon.
Seriously, Hollywood Foreign Press? Seriously??

Ironically, it's the children in the movie, without any acting experience whatsoever, who steal the show. With their heartbreaking innocence, the "young" Jamal and Salim deliver the only truly genuine portrayals in the film (I'm guessing that actually having lived in Dharavi has something to do with that.) As for the real actors: Dev Patel, bless his cute-as-a-button self, needs to decide on an accent. Half the time he seems so preoccupied with keeping his British articulation to a minimum in order to come across as more "Indian" that the whole thing blows up in his face and he just ends up appearing confused and completely out of character. Anil Kapoor**, on the other hand, is so much in character that I was surprised Mr. Boyle didn't tell him to tone the blatant overacting down a bit for fear that he'd have a stroke on set. And unfortunately, Frieda Pinto has little to offer apart from a charming smile and good hair. Now, if I was paying attention in my Film 290 class, I believe the director is largely responsible for drawing out believable depictions from his or her talent. One simply can't expect me to buy that Mr. Boyle got a better performance out of this cast than Sam Mendes did out of Kate Winslet or Leonardo DiCaprio. Please.

Nor did he succeed in adapting the novel to create a believable story or credible characters. Older brother Salim sways irritatingly between protective affection and traitorous contempt for Jamal. Also, I'm sorry, but kids don't come out of the most destitute slum in India with an impeccable grasp of English. They just don't. And there's no way that one kid witnesses his mother's murder, escapes being blinded by gangsters, loses his lover twice, scavenges his way through childhood, and gets unfairly beaten up by corrupt policemen--and even if he did, it's highly unlikely that he'd come out of all that with the heart of gold that Jamal apparently possesses.

I don't mean to be the party pooper here. Having grown up on some of the most ridiculous of Bollywood blockbusters, I'm all for indulging in the occasional idealism or extravagance of a fairy tale plot. But there's a difference between "feel good" entertainment and naive misconstruction, and at many points it seems as though Boyle has taken his audience to be a group of fools, ready to accept anything as long as it's punctuated with a cute dance number***.

So although I can't deny the feeling of pride that came over me as I wached a film based in India garnering such praise at the Golden Globes****, let's be realistic here. A hackneyed storyline and overkill acting does not a Best Picture make, and as applaudable as its intentions were, this just isn't the movie of the year. One can only hope that future juries realize this before the next batch of awards --read, the Oscars--are handed out and Slumdog Millionaire once again walks away with accolades that belong to a cast and crew that truly merit it. And now if you will excuse me, I'm going to go buy a baseball bat to keep beside my bed tonight.

*I had pictured him to be a youngish, well-built stud of anEnglishman--I mean come on, we're talking about the guy behind the teen cult-creating Trainspotting here! Imagine my surprise when this guy scurried on stage to claim his statuette.

**Now this is an actor I've watched since I was about three. He's got some exceptional films and incredible performances to his credit and I wanted so much to like him in this movie. But I only got so far as 5000 rupees before I wanted to wring his smarmy neck.

***Although you have to hand it to Dev Patel here--the boy can move!

**** Right. As if I had anything at all to do with making the movie.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Happy New Year!!

Not to be all Bridget Jones about life, but there really isn't a better time than January 1st (or 10th, in this case--got hit with a serious case of the lazies for the first week of the year, which probably doesn't bode well for my resolution to start this thing) to begin a blog, no? After spending the latter half of 2008 fumbling my way around New York in a haze of post-undergrad confusion, finding--then quitting--an internship, then landing myself an even less satisfying one that kept me inadequately occupied for a mere two days a week, I was turning into the sort of person I always prided myself on NOT being; waking up at 11am, going to bed past 2, and whiling away the hours in between watching Giada whip up yet another mascarpone-laden dessert or checking my facebook wall about 38,769,508,621 times a minute in the hopes that SOMEONE would deem me worthy enough to write to. After noticing a sizeable imprint on my secondhand couch and developing serious concerns about discovering mold on my fingertips, I decided that the pathetic madness had to stop. So. I got myself back on those other web-based beacons of hope for us poor and unemployed film majors, bagged a second internship at a casting company, made a 10-day escape to India, escaped BACK to NYC when I realized that accompanying my mother to every sari shop in Mumbai wasn't my idea of a vacation, experienced my first new year's eve in the Big Apple, and am generally feeling rather pumped up for 2009.

This year I'm determined not to set myself up for failure with a series of unrealistic expectations that leave me a) broke*, b) stuck in an apartment filled with half-finished household projects**, or c) put off by anything male that moves***. Which brings me to the motivation behind this blog. Along with a slew of other resolutions (going to bed before midnight and FINALLY getting my driver's license at the embarassingly old age of 22, to name a few), this time I want to put my four years of studying "Screen Arts and Cultures" at the University of Michigan to use while awaiting the results of my grad school applications. While I would love to be known as the next Roger Ebert ten years down the line, I admit that right now I'm a bit of a chicken when it comes to putting my views out there in writing for the world to see. Not to mention that neither of my unpaid internships really cover weekly visits to the Angelika. And so, in a humble effort to revive the art of film criticism that Ebert himself claims has given way to "
lascivious gossips, covering invented beats", I'm recording my own appraisals of pretty much any film or television piece that inspires me to write: Bollywood, Hollywood, artsy flick, commercial blockbuster--anything is fair game here. Although I in no way claim to possess the literary aptitude of my sister--whose prose is reaching a level that, in my opinon, is beginning to make Sukhetu Mehta look like Dr. Seuss--I'm going to give this a shot. Therefore, this entry serves primarily as an introduction to what will, with any luck, become a veritable treasure trove of meaningful, profound cinematic reflection. Or, at least, just a reservoir of my random musings over the films I've seen, both past and present. Stay tuned.

* SO CLOSE to setting up that cardboard box in Central Park.

**For instance, I've yet to purchase window drapes for the one-bedroom I signed a lease for last June.
***I'm not elaborating on this one.