Saturday, September 29, 2012

What's Your Number?

In spite of its mixed messages about female sexuality, What’s Your Number is surprisingly funny and even touching. Anna Farris plays Ally who hopes to find a date to her sister Daisy’s (Ari Graynor) wedding. After reading that most women who have twenty or more sexual partners never settle down, she is determined that her next lay be “the one.” To prevent raising the number of men she’s slept with, Ally enlists the help of her philandering neighbor Colin (Chris Evans) to track down her exes hoping they improved with time.

One of the film’s problems is its unintentional similarities to the superior Bridesmaids. The heroine has mixed feelings about a wedding, meets a man who encourages her to follow her artistic sensibilities, and struggles with unemployment. (“Struggles” is an overstatement; considering their financial situations, these characters have remarkable apartments.) Even the opening scene contains a gag that is nearly identical to one in Bridesmaids.

Still, the movie is more irreverent and amusing than most romantic comedies. Farris is hilarious as Ally, a young woman who makes many mistakes but never runs out of optimism. Evans is fairly appealing as Colin, the obligatory rogue with a heart of gold. Since he admits that he can hardly spend time with a woman without trying to sleep with her, she doesn’t consider him an option. Instead, she rendezvous with an assortment of ex-boyfriends and flings, played by a pleasing array of actors. A large part of the movie’s appeal consists of her awkward interactions with men played by familiar faces such as Joel McHale, Chris Pratt, Zachary Quinto, Martin Freeman, and Anthony Mackie.

The film also focuses on Ally’s relationship with her family. She feels out of place with her more conventional sister and perfectly coiffed mother, in spite of their close relationships. All this, of course, channels towards her inevitable lesson about love and being herself. Many women will identify with her grapples with relationship advice, the media, and questions about a “normal” modern woman’s sexual appetites. The movie touches on the thin line between giving someone a chance and trying to force a relationship.

Unfortunately, the movie undermines some of its more progressive themes. It certainly includes sexist stereotypes, not to mention weightism. Ally is meant to be a disaster, but she often looks perfect and is shot sexually. (To be fair, Colin is naked throughout most of the movie.) When it comes down to it, though Ally doesn’t fit into the film world, she is still a man’s ideal woman. She isn’t high maintenance, enjoys watching and playing sports (in one scene, she engages in a sexy one-on-one basketball game—in her underwear), and is up for almost anything.

There are definitely moments where the film crosses the line into poor taste. The whole thing is difficult to take seriously. The “comedic” music makes the movie feel as though it should have a laugh track. But What’s Your Number ultimately conveys the “life is messy: embrace it” message with (mostly) good-natured humor.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Wish You Were Here

Kieran Darcy-Smith's Wish You Were Here opens with a whirlwind tour of Cambodia. Four Australian tourists experience the local culture as they would an amusement park. Are they naive and entitled or just adventurous and free-spirited? Whatever the case, only three of them return home. Steph (Teresa Palmer) agonizes over the disappearance of her boyfriend Jeremy (Antony King). His absence hangs over Steph's sister Alice (Felicity Price) and her husband Dave (Joel Edgerton).

Alice must deal with this mystery as she teaches, cares for two children, and carries a third child inside. Price is generally excellent as the mostly contained Alice. She is the center of the film. King is likable if low-key as Jeremy, the mysterious businessman. Palmer's Steph is pretty but self-centered. Edgerton is painfully believable as the traumatized and increasingly erratic Dave. Tender moments with Dave and Alice's adorable and observant children as well as most character interactions are quite realistic.

Because of the story's non-chronological narrative, the plot feels a little thin. Too much depends on reveals, making many scenes more puzzling than intriguing. The audience sees characters react to events that are explained late in the film. This reduces the impact of the actors' work through much of the movie. The film also has several cliches about the "exotic third-world country." Dangerous natives, friendly children, and bright colors are all on display here. There is some subtle lampooning of these travelers, who are as dutifully somber visiting a memorial as they are gleeful when buying overpriced trinkets.

The camera attempts to convey a sense of realism while capturing a peaceful beauty that contrasts with the characters' internal lives. The soundtrack is lively and fitting, especially the haunting closing song "Bend With Me." Though Wish You Were here is a credible and sometimes harrowing psychological study, it leaves the viewer wanting something more.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Metropolitan follows the self-absorbed and well-intended

Allison Parisi as Jane and Edward Clements as Tom

Whit Stillman’s singular wit is on fine display in Metropolitan, his first and perhaps most famous film. Some viewers might not want to follow upper crust (or “UC,” as one character says) New Yorkers who dine, dance, and complain about their privilege. Others will delight in their alternately ridiculous and thought-provoking dialogue.

One Christmas vacation, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) stumbles into a crowd of socialites. He knows several of them, but his situation is decidedly middle class. Tom claims he doesn’t approve of their decadent balls, yet night after night he partakes in their soirees and late night discussions

These youths are prone to hyperbole and contradiction. One calls Tom “the phony of the decade,” while another calls a peer “one of the worst guys of modern times.” They don’t think twice about dismissing Charles Fourier’s utopian socialism. Initially obnoxious, their pretension becomes increasingly amusing and even poignant as they try to justify their existence. The awkward Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) breathlessly goes on about how their class is doomed. They have nowhere to go but down. What else are they to do but enjoy themselves and philosophize?

Along with the conflicted Tom and confusing Charlie, this group includes Cynthia McLean (Isabel Gillies), the “slut,” Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), the book lover, and the often passed-out Fred Nuff (Bryan Leder. They usually gather at homes of the sophisticated Sally Fowler (Dylan Hundley) or imperious Jane Clark (Allison Parisi).

The most memorable individual is Nick Smith, played by Christopher Eigeman. Like an Oscar Wilde character but with more conviction, Nick revels in defending the status quo and has an opinion on everything. Hypocritical, wise, passionate, dishonest—Tom says, “he’s basically a nice guy, I think.” Others believe Nick “could be really crazy.” He vilifies the titled Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), his apparent nemesis. Is this slander, or is Nick just more observant than the others? Nick might drive his friends crazy, but in a moment of crisis (real or imagined), they note that Nick “would know what to do.”

There are moments of pathos. Several characters harbor painful crushes, and both Nick and Tom come from “broken homes.” Nick uses humor to describe his step-mother’s malice, while Tom is in denial of his father’s indifference.

Christopher Eigeman as Nick

The cinematography is simple, and the music is appropriately whimsical. Because there is no plot, Stillman’s films can feel interminable. Eigeman is always spot on, but some of the young actors, most of them appearing in film for the first time, are rather wooden and awkward.

Still, this window into the lives of the self-absorbed and youthful rich contains great humor. While their manner of speaking may be unrecognizable to most audiences, these people are surprising in a way fictional characters rarely are. Only comparable to other Stillman personalities, Nick is a unique figure in cinema, as is Whit Stillman himself. 

Monday, September 10, 2012


Our heroes, Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace.
The gleefully bad Lockout is determined to have a retro look and feel. The film aspires to be a politically incorrect and formulaic B-movie. There is no need to rack your brain over its plot holes. The simple story takes place in the future, when almost everything is dimly lit. While by no means a good film, Lockout is still somewhat entertaining.

While investigating the conditions of a space prison (yes, a prison in space), the president's daughter Emilie (Maggie Grace) finds herself in the middle of a breakout. Officials send "Snow" (Guy Pearce), who is on his way to jail or worse after being framed for murder. At least one convict (Joseph Gilgun, clearly having a good time) is inexplicably obsessed with Emilie after spending a few minutes talking to her. Vincent Regan adds a little gravitas as the criminal ringleader Alex, but he, like the rest of these characters, is undeveloped.

Predictably, Snow and Emilie clash. Snow is sarcastic and tough as nails, as well as disrespectful and whiny. He is not particularly likable, but he is funny and has an edge. In the face of certain death, Emilie finds it strangely necessary to try to get to know him. Her character doesn't make sense, but at least she shows a little gumption and compassion. (Grace's expressions are somewhat puzzling, though, since she looks as though she's trying not to laugh through most of the film. Or perhaps she's just unable to hide her attraction to Snow?)

Snow treats her pretty roughly in the name of getting in and out, but their tension is one of the best things about the movie. Much of the acting is quite bad, including Peter Stormare's as the man who insists Snow's guilty. Lennie James is decent as a coworker supposedly on Snow's side, though he, along with everyone else, doesn't really seem to care about the potential deaths of hundreds. The end appears to be a half-baked afterthought, but a lot here is. Sitll, if you want to watch a movie late at night that doesn't take itself too seriously, Lockout isn't necessarily a bad choice.

Milk does a body good. One of our villains, Joseph Gilgun.

Friday, September 7, 2012


Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant

Lawless is an entertaining but uneven adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World, which was inspired by the author’s grandfather. Part gangster flick, part Southern gothic, and part Western, the story follows the three Bondurant brothers in Prohibition era Virginia. They are reputed for their survival skills and good moonshine. Local authorities don’t care. The oldest two brothers don’t think twice about beating aggressors with bare fists or brass knuckles. The youngest is eager but more of a lover than a fighter.

Occasionally, a gangster might stray into town to commit murder or a gang might try to rob the brothers. Otherwise, all goes smoothly until a lawman from Chicago swoops in and wants a cut. Denied this, he wages war against all bootleggers in the county, including the intrepid Bondurants.
Jason Clarke as Howard Bondurant

The atmospheric beginning captures the hard boiled life of our heroes in all its browns, from beards and clothes to ramshackle buildings. The detailed depiction is both accurate and the archetype of a mountain town in the early twentieth century: expect strong accents and tobacco spit (and blatant WHITES ONLY and COLORED signs, in case you forgot people were racist then). The evocative soundtrack is gorgeous if occasionally heavy handed. Landscapes are equally memorable, from a smoky mountainside to a kudzu covered wonderland.

This film takes its time in introducing its enjoyable characters before it veers off course. The acting is excellent. A surprisingly funny Tom Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant, the occasionally tender hearted but tough as nails ringleader. Jason Clarke does well with less as the haunted, constantly drunk Howard Bondurant. Shia LaBeouf is effective as Jack, the baby. Ambitious and foolish, the endearing Jack tries to swagger, but he generally reacts to violence the way most of us would—with pure terror.
The Bondurant brothers.

Jessica Chastain has little to do but look concerned and lovely like many women in Westerns, but Mia Wasikowska has a little more meat as the unattainable preacher’s daughter who catches Jack’s eye. She enjoys flirting with the love-struck, unsuitable Bondurant boy; her sly coquetry is highly believable. Dane DeHaan plays Jack’s sweet, innovative friend, and their relationship is predictable but convincing in its innocence.

Gary Oldman has a small role as a notorious gangster, and Guy Pearce plays Special Agent Charlie Rakes. Pearce is amusing but not exactly subtle. For example, when introduced, he walks up to the first woman he sees and leers at her for several minutes. He openly laughs in the faces of these “hicks,” as he calls them.  (The audience gasped whenever he unexpectedly appeared and cheered when he sustained injuries.)
Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes

As disturbing as Rakes can be, his villainy is somewhat diminished since the protagonists are as brutal as he is. Rakes may abuse innocents while the Bondurants torture murderers, but it’s difficult to get behind characters who mutilate people. The villain’s crimes are portrayed as sadistic and traumatic, while the main characters’ violence is often shown to be grim but funny and deserved.

The violence itself is extremely graphic but not always serious. The Bondurants are rumored to be “indestructible,” so don’t be surprised if characters recover remarkably quickly from life-threatening wounds. The theme of immortality is successfully played for laughs, but it could have been a statement about the Bondurants’ reckless youth and egomania.
Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska

An amalgamation of genres gives the film a unique feel, and a few surprises await viewers. But the story also contains numerous clichés that don’t serve the plot. One fears for the safety of a good natured but physically disabled character, and several women are raped because… they are women? At least one of the sexual assaults is shown off screen but does nothing to forward the plot or the victim’s arch. The act is hardly addressed, but then again, little of the violence here is.

The movie’s tone is simultaneously too lighthearted and too dark. Grisly though it is, Lawless is still a fun and well-acted film. It’s unfortunate that the movie doesn’t reach its promised intensity, reducing what could have been a rousing legend into a diverting yarn.
Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant

Monday, September 3, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" tries not to romanticize the heroine’s wild world of poverty and primal freedom. The six year old Hushpuppy lives in the Bathtub, a bayou community that lives off the grid. Trained by her father Wink to be self-sufficient, they live separately, surviving off of fish and a livestock, including chickens, goats, and pigs. The alcoholic, occasionally abusive Wink sometimes disappears for days on end, and Hushpuppy misses her long absent mother.

Still, like many children, Hushpuppy loves her father and revels in the Bathtub’s independence. She is told they are better off than those in the “civilized” world. The jubilant opening scenes feature unconstrained revelry. These citizens would rather live and die on their own terms than submit to the regulations of modern life. The plot itself involves melting icecaps, ancient creatures, and a tremendous storm.

Quvenzhané Wallis plays the adorable, strong, and sympathetic Hushpuppy. Her performance is perhaps the film’s greatest asset.  The rest of the actors are also excellent, including Dwight Henry as her father. Few films examine a messy father-daughter relationship, in which anger and love go side by side. Very few focus on characters who aren’t white and upper-middle class.

There are several very funny moments and imaginative scenes of whimsy. Hushuppy’s quiet yearning for a mother figure and the sense of community spirit powerfully pervade the film. Though sometimes distracting, the soundtrack conveys a sense of wonder. The beautiful environment is shot mostly with a shaky camera. (Why does destitution often call for a shaky camera?)

However, the film’s loyalties ultimately lie too obviously with the poor and rough heroes. The difference between their world and that of most American moviegoers is demonstrated in a scene in which they gleefully escape from a sterile, prison-like hospital to the bright colors of the Delta. In one troubling sequence, the Bathtub dwellers blow up a levy to reset nature’s equilibrium. How many people did this act kill? The film never addresses this.

The characters express a typical New Orleanian desire to expel sadness with celebration. But, as tough as their lives are, is repression really the best way to live? The idea of dying before being beholden to others is a very American ideal. But "Beasts" doesn’t address the more dangerous, long-term aspects of isolating children from the rest of society, teaching them to fear and loathe the outside world. Hushpuppy’s father has flashes of violence, but this plays into another stereotype about poverty: disadvantaged people tend to be violent.

Many viewers will either ignore or admire these undertones. This is understandable, as the movie is a coming of age tale rather than a political statement. As such, the movie is an original fantasy. But some will find the movie’s messages uncomfortable and ultimately unfulfilling.