Friday, October 23, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are, Zombieland

Wow, I just browsed the new cinema listings for the coming weeks, and am slightly overwhelmed! I haven't had much time for the movie theater of late, and wonder how I will ever fit in: Amelia, Cairo Time, The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D, Astro Boy, The Invention of Lying, and A Serious Man - alas, it appears that I have missed The Informant. I feel like I have to construct some kind of matrix to compare the virtues of the films and, in particular, how important it is to see them on the big vs the small screen.

Amelia is definitely a priority in terms of big-screen impact, Astro Boy may well lose any interest on the small screen, and Nightmare 3D, of course, can only be experienced at the multiplex. But there is another class of films to consider also: A Serious Man and Cairo Time sound marvelous, but am I likely to search them down to view at home if I miss them? Decisions, decisions, decisions...

On the other hand, if you are in Halifax and want to go to a movie, drop me a line! In the meantime, here's a taste of what I have been watching.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009) (Park Lane) Over the past few days I have talked with a few people about the children's book Wild Things is based on, only to hear that the average individual seems to have read it "about a 100 million times." Was I deprived as a child? Am I somehow lacking for not having entered this imaginary land as a tyke?

In any case, this lack of childhood exposure did little to blunt the intensity of the pleasure I derived from the film. In the first 10-15 minutes, as Max (Max Records) is buffeted by the trials and tribulations of childhood - including stormy relations with a teen-aged older sister and a single mom trying to date - I was astounded by how powerfully the scenes evoked my parallel emotions of joy, disappointment, love, hate, fear, loneliness, jealousy, and determination. Max is awash in a maelstrom of feelings and ideas that seem to rule him and to resist any attempt at restraint.

After one confrontation too many, Max runs away, hops on a sailboat, and after a dark night of the soul spent pounded by wind and waves, finds himself on an island inhabited by large, furry, humanoid approximations of birds, goats, and a menagerie of other creatures. More interestingly, however, each of these creatures seems to personify one of the emotions that Max is subject to in his everyday life. For example, there is Carol (James Gandolfini - brilliantly "cast"), who represents impulsive, petty rage; Judith (Catherine O'Hara), who personifies petty jealousies and vindictiveness; and Douglas (Chris Cooper), who is loneliness and exclusion.

These ultimately symbolic but physically furry creatures are living in chaos and misery, and quickly install Max as their king, electing him with a mandate to bring them happiness. Period. At first all is well, with everyone laughing and playing and sleeping together in a big warm pile, but jealousy, loneliness, exclusion, and petty rage are, of course, just around the corner. And Max, of course, is no more able to reconcile the personifications of these emotions than he is able to rule his own.

As one may expect, Wild Things does not end with the protagonist vanquishing the antagonist. Max's final lesson - and the lesson so many of my peer's apparently learned decades ago - is that his emotional depths and heights cannot be overcome, but must be accepted. In this sense, the film's message reminded me very much of a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat I attended in India, which taught the value of equanimity: recognize, acknowledge, and experience the conflicting storm of emotions and thoughts, but do not allow them to rule you.

In terms of film craft, Wild Things is beautifully made. Carol, Judith, Douglas and their peers are presented as slightly scruffy, life-sized teddy bears that evince an interesting melange of human and super-human characteristics, and are subject to wild emotional swings that are amplified by super strength that allows them to leap great distances and hoist (and hurl!) very heavy objects. The island itself is similarly a mixture of real and fantasy lands that allows fine-grained middle-eastern dessert to border rugged northern rocks and scrub trees.

I imagine that very early production meetings for Wild Things were alive with debate over whether the film should be animated, live action, or a blend of the two. I am glad that live action ruled the day, as it somehow made the film more immediate for me, grounding it - oddly - as something that could really happen - the wild things are strangely human for all their outlandish shapes and size.

I was moved to applaud by the end of Where the Wild Things Are, which touched me deeply and left me feeling warm and encompassed in a moment of comfort and goodness that somehow entirely eluded me during 10 days of 14-hours-per-day seated meditation...

Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009) (Park Lane) We never planned to see Zombieland, but upon arriving at the theater, it seems that Internet listings had misled us, and it was our only option. Decision made.

Despite my high regard for Danny Boyle's zombie horror masterpiece 28 Days Later, I can't say that I am a huge fan of the genre - to put it plainly, I was apathetic about Zombieland going in.

I have mentioned my thoughts on Woody Harrelson before - he's in a large number of great films, but they generally are not great because of him. I remain lukewarm on Harrelson and apathetic about Zombieland after having spent 90 minutes watching blood pour from zombie mouths, bullets, axes, and gardening shears dispatch the undead, and romance flourish for a loser and a "hot" survivor.

That being said, I did not dislike Zombieland and even enjoyed it for the most part, succumbing to some genuine belly laugh inducing moments, particularly when Bill Murray made an unexpected appearance. Overall, however, I have to conclude that I am not the target audience for this particular film - all power to you if you are!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, Where Eagles Dare, Wall Street, New in Town

Well, it's been a while, n'est pas? Apologies, but I have been fairly busy of late, what with hectic days at work, consulting projects at home, the commencement of my French class, and lingering projects around the house that must be done before the full brunt of winter descends upon us. Primary among these projects - and the one you would think would not be subject to procrastination - is the need to reassemble my heating ducts to fend off increasingly cold morning temperatures. Brrrr...

This hasn't left much time for movies either. I think that I have set a new record for not visiting a movie theatre. The Halifax Film Festival has come and gone, and I, lamentably, made it to only one screening. I've watched the odd film at home, of course, and will take this opportunity to update you on a few of them.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (Jan Kounan, 2009) (The Oxford) It is 1920, the dawn of one of the greatest eras of indulgence in modern western history, and a young Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) is attending the Paris debut of Igor Stravinsky's (Mads Mikkelsen) opera The Rite of Spring.

Chanel and Stravinsky sit in the concert hall amid a high-society crowd that is increasingly shocked and outraged as the music swells and the performers begin to shake and sway, shrugging off centuries of tradition in orchestration and dance in favor of the cacophony of the already full-fledged modern age that the privileged class is not yet reconciled with. This is an epic moment that is emblematic of the clash the traditional and modern that had permeated art and public discourse since the Victorian Age - Chanel, whose fashion and fragrance would be emblematic of the modern age, and Stravinsky are immediately and inextricably linked by their eager acceptance of the new age.

From this moment of well-documented history, the film moves rapidly to well-documented rumour: "In 1920, she was introduced ... to world famous composer Igor Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring), to whom she extended an offer for him and his family to reside with her. During this temporary sojourn it was rumoured that they had an affair." (Wikipedia)

The two court each other slowly and deliberately, brushing and then moving apart in a dance of seduction played against the backdrop of Chanel's emerging aesthetic: black and white wallpaper prints in elegant but sharp geometric lines; simple, almost austere fashions that render the feminine form powerful yet breathtakingly elegant in a world of puffy, impractical couture; square, solid, yet somehow delicate furniture that foreshadows the emergence of art deco; and sculpture and even fixtures that recall Auguste Rodin or even Ayn Rand.

This beautiful but edgy backdrop and the intensity of our hero and heroine combine to build a delicious tension that is finally released in a sexual union that feels like the first torrent of rain in a thunderstorm - the intertwining of bodies, and specifically Mouglalis' beautiful, powerful, long legs and arms somehow echoing Chanel's distinctly modern aesthetic while in the throes of passion.

From that moment, unfortunately, the film just sort of falls apart. Carefully constructed and strictly defined characters that made virtues of personal power and self expression devolved into aimless individuals just looking for the next opportunity to rut. The film was no less beautiful to look at, but quickly became tiring to engage with: a case in point is a digression in which we travel to Paris to witness the creation of the scent that defines the era, Chanel No. 5, played out as a boring and mundane affair that strips the powerful symbol of any resonance.

I can't even begin to describe how aggrieved I am to write this: I was astounded by the beauty and power of the first hour of this film, but by the end of the second hour I was treating it like a catalog: "nice suit, I wonder where I can get one" or "exquisite lamp, maybe I should redecorate my place in art deco".

Where Eagles Dare (Brian G. Hutton, 1968) (Home) Speaking of taking moments of history and spinning flights of fancy that bear no relation to reality, Where Eagles Dare follows a crew of allied spies sent into Nazi-occupied Europe to rescue the pilot of a plane that has crash landed in the Alps. Eagles delivers in exactly the area where Coco and Igor falls flat: it establishes a fictional world, drawing its characters and setting the "rules" by which they will play, and then sticks to those rules so that everything makes sense within the world of the film - the backdrop is rife with inaccuracies, but the structure of the film is sound. Minute for minute, Eagles delivers a rollicking World War II action adventure film that makes the most of its cast of suave secret agents, menacing Nazi's, double agents, imposing mountain-top fortresses, rat-a-tat gunfire, and spectacular explosions.

Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987) (Home) I will paraphrase the CBC Radio Program The Current: Wall Street portrays the greedy, money-obsessed bankers of the mid-1980s who played with people's lives and livelihoods like toys, and shows us how much things have changed since then: the cell phones have gotten much smaller." In powerful, career-defining performances, Michael Douglas and Charlie and Martin Sheen give us a peek inside the sleazy side of high-finance that I firmly believe is essentially realistic - but hopefully the exception rather than the rule.

New in Town (Jonas Elmer, 2009) (Winnipeg) I have been sorely remiss with regard to New in Town and apologise sincerely if you have gone out and rented it before I had a chance to warn you: this is a dismal failure of a film with nary a redeeming quality. Renee Zellweger was a star for about 10 minutes due to Bridget Jones's Diary and co-stared in some pretty good films (think Cold Mountain and Cinderella Man), but really her star faded fairly quickly (think - and shudder - Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason).

Based on the film New in Town, I surmise that Zellweger's response to her waning moment in the sun has been: crash diets (frighteningly skinny), botox overdose (face like a death mask, that seems to sag at points, perhaps in between treatments), and a painfully pathetic "star vehicle." The movie New in Town is the film equivalent of TOXIC WASTE - avoid at any cost!