- Winter's Bone (2010) - I was a little nervous going into this film, because the warm critical reception that a film might receive when it's a come-from-behind surprise from a virtually unknown writer and director can seem overblown a year later, when it's a universally lauded Oscar nominee starring one of Hollywood's up-and coming actresses (basically, the reason I was so disappointed by The Kids Are All Right), and because its description--Applachian teenager Ree Dolly must track down her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father or lose her family's house, and meets with resistance from the local mob--seemed so rife with opportunities for cultural tourism and poverty-chic. It was this sense that I was being invited to gawp at the quaint customs and funny accents of poor rural folk that soured me on the second season of Justified, whose overarching plot borrows quite heavily from Winter's Bone (though the season improves towards its end), so it was a relief and, ultimately, a pleasure to discover that the film avoids all of the inherent pitfalls of its premise. Though it is driven by the poverty and insularity of Ree's world, Winter's Bone neither romanticizes that world, nor does it make it exotic. It achieves this by locking us thoroughly into Ree's point of view--to which end Jennifer Lawrence's unflinching performance is an integral component without which the film would have failed completely.
Ree spends the film tramping up and down hills and through forests as she tries to determine where her father is and why the local criminal element wants to stop her asking questions about him, and an important subplot involves her teaching her younger brother and sister important survival skills--how to hunt, clean their kill, and prepare food from it--but Winter's Bone is subtle enough, and Ree, who takes the world she shows us for granted, is a powerful enough presence at its center, that the film never feels like a guided tour. As she draws closer to the criminals who know where her father is, Ree is repeatedly confronted with the attitude that she has done something wrong by working with the law and going outside the community, even though that community is happy to see her and her siblings thrown out of their home. What's interesting about Winter's Bone is that Ree herself doesn't dispute the notion that what she's done is wrong, but rather insists that her obligations to her brother and sister take precedence over her obligation to remain stone-faced in the face of threats from law enforcement. The film, in the end, isn't one about a rebel or an outsider, but about a girl who plays by the rules and uses them to her advantage, even when those rules are designed to keep her down and seem cruel and restrictive to the audience. The arc of the film is Ree's acceptance--as the abandonment of both her parents becomes more obvious, and as her dreams of escaping to the army grow more distant--that she will likely never leave her home, and this is depicted as neither a tragedy nor a triumph, more an acceptance of the fact that though Ree could have a better life, she is well-suited, through breeding and upbringing, to the one she has, and can even be happy in it, at least for a time.
- Tangled (2010) - Disney's latest fairy tale film suffers from two comparisons--with 1989's The Little Mermaid, still one of the studio's finest films, to which it owes several conceptual debts, and with Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods, which also imagines the story of Rapunzel as that of the relationship between a domineering and overprotective mother and a child who wants to see the world, but does so with greater complexity (not to mention much better songs). Nevertheless, and despite a weak third act, the film is a lot more enjoyable than I expected it to be, and at points--mostly involving physical comedy on the part of animal characters, such as Rapunzel's pet chameleon and the palace horse who inadvertently sets the film's plot in motion when he chases Flynn, a thief, to Rapunzel's tower--it is absolutely hilarious. Rapunzel herself is a wonderful character, a winning combination of naivete, pluck, terrifying competence, and fear of a world she's had so little to do with. It's a surprise and a relief to discover that despite the much-derided decision to retitle the story in order to appeal to boys, and promises that the film would Flynn's story as much as Rapunzel's, that she is still its heart and that Flynn's story is really about his choice to put Rapunzel at the center of his life (in fact, I actually found myself wishing that Flynn were a little more central to film, since his growth from shallowness to openness felt a little perfunctory). Tangled is still a long way from Disney's heyday of Aladin and The Lion King, but it's a step in their direction--the first one I've seen in a long time.
- The Adjustment Bureau (2011) - This is one of those films that seem perfectly inoffensive while you're watching them, then become unbearable when you give them a moment's thought. The story itself, in which an up-and-coming politician (Matt Damon), falls in love with a free-spirited dancer (Emily Blunt) only to be informed by agents of the titular bureau that their fates take them apart from each other, is well done. The revelation of the amount of the control that the adjustment agents have over human existence isn't belabored, and the fact that Damon's character quickly learns the rules of how they operate, and figures out how to manipulate those rules and outsmart his pursuers, is quite entertaining, especially as it leads to some nicely done chase scenes. The love story is affecting, though more on Damon's side than Blunt's, whose character is not quite a cipher but also not nearly as developed as his. The problem, and the reason that The Adjustment Bureau's message is finally so self-contradictory, is that the filmmakers decided to make the film a story about free will versus predestination rather than one about choice.
Damon's David is informed that he has the chance to become President and make real change in the world, but that Blunt's Elyse, who brings out his impulsive, immature side, isn't the partner who can take him to that august position (if nothing else it's refreshing to find a story that doesn't treat the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as an unalloyed good). Elyse, meanwhile, could become a famous dancer and choreographer, but her career will die if she marries David. This has some very potent real-world resonances--should you give up your career to enable your partner's? Does the answer to that question change if your partner has a chance to change the world for the better (one of the film's interesting notes is that Elyse, for all that she affects David negatively, supports him politically and is distressed when he jeopardizes his political career on her account)? Is it right to give up that chance to make a difference for love and happiness? The Adjustment Bureau never really engages with any of those questions, and most unforgivably, for most of the film's run it's only David who is even aware of their existence. Elyse only finds out about the Bureau's existence in the film's final minutes, and it's doubtful that she has the time or presence of mind to fully grasp what she'd be giving up by staying with David. Instead, the film plumps for the same solution that Hollywood always chooses when it pits free will and predestination--it chooses both. We want our characters to be destined for greatness, but also to have achieved that greatness on their own (for example, the sweeping romance between David and Elyse is revealed to have been just as predestined as the futures that they choose to reject, but the film encourages us to embrace it as a genuine expression of their "true" feelings). The film's ending cops out by not forcing either David or Elyse to choose between love and their dreams, but also not offering any loophole to the obvious problems posed by their opposed paths in life, and its sense of triumph thus rings rather hollow.
- Thor (2011) - Presumably thanks to Kenneth Branagh at its helm, the latest Marvel superhero film gives off a definite Shakespearian vibe, as Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ruler of Asgard (where, despite what the film's trailers might lead you to believe, the bulk of the story takes place) banishes his son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) for being immature and bloodthirsty, while his other son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) schemes against both of them. That a superhero film tells something other than the by-now stultifying origin story comes as a breath of fresh air, but the similarities to Henry V are only a few microns deep, and the family saga quickly turns muddled and nonsensical. If Odin thinks of Thor as an impetuous child, why is he getting ready to hand over the reins of Asgard to him at the film's opening? And why does he want Thor to make peace with a race that the film treats, in its first two acts, as straightforward antagonists, then forgets about as soon as Loki emerges as a full-fledged villain? Most problematically, the film can't decide what to do with Loki, who is alternately a conflicted antihero with legitimate grievances against his father and brother and an evil overlord, and who expresses loyalty to both Asgard and its enemies without giving any final indication of which side he's on. It certainly doesn't help that for most of the film Loki comes off as more savvy, and a more competent ruler, than his brother.
What saves Thor is first the fact that Hemsworth and Hiddleston are able to wade their way through the mess of conflicting motivations and illogical plot twists and get to the core of their characters--both come off as likable but very flawed, and their sibling relationship is believably loving yet fraught with competition and resentment. Secondly, the film works because it intersperses the Asgard scenes with ones on Earth, in which a now-human Thor is a fish out of water who attracts the attentions of both SHIELD and a comely astrophysicist played by Natalie Portman. These not only leaven the po-faced Asgard scenes, but are very funny in themselves, and make a much more convincing argument for Thor's heroism and his potential as a superhero than any of his posturing against Loki and the frost giants. I don't want to oversell Thor, which is very silly and falls apart at the lightest touch, but for a movie conceived mainly as a lead-in to next year's Avengers film (by now so overstuffed with characters that it's impossible to imagine even Joss Whedon making something watchable of it), it's a lot more fun than it has any business being.
Regardless of the film's modest but undeniable attractions, I also have to say a word about screening formats: if you're lucky enough to be able to choose the number of dimensions you'll be seeing Thor in--because of the greed of Israeli film distributors, I was not--I urge you to pick 2D, and if that's not an option then to wait for the DVD. I can't recall the last time I had as unpleasant a viewing experience as I did with this film, which was so murky that I spent the whole two hours squinting at the screen, and left the theater with my eyes burning and tearing up. The sooner this godforsaken and pointless technology dies yet another death, the better off moviegoers will be.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Recent Movie Roundup 13
A few more films before the full force of the summer blockbuster season comes upon us.