Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Art of Battle

What a rotten evening. Just moments ago, a dreadful storm erupted into my small town. It is pouring out there! I can't help but smile a bit, for a few hours earlier I declined an invitation to go to the Olive Garden with my mother and brother. Although they went without me anyway--to celebrate my upcoming trip to the nation's capital--I remain indoors, content and dry. As for that aforementioned trip: On Saturday, I leave for Washington D.C. to spend eleven days on campus at American University for a program called the National Student Leadership Conference. Very prestigious. There, I will be taking classes in professional news-writing as well as practicing journalistic skills for my future. It's a glorious opportunity, of course, and a stunning detail to add to the 'ol resume. As for this evening, I will provide you with three video clips (and very little reading, thank god) that demonstrate utter ingenuity of its kind. The following, as hinted at in the title, is a series of the greatest cinematic fight scenes. These are not the conventional sparks-and-fire fight scenes one would expect in such a list; I consider them the best solely because they are unorthodox. They are absolutely ingenious and, obviously, hilarious.

1. Ted

Now, let me start by saying that this is the funniest fucking movie of the entire fucking year. I think have jurisdiction in using profanity twice because it is, one, true, and, two, it makes up for the blatant snubbing at last year's awards shows. Seriously? Salmon Fishing in Yemen was better than Ted? It wasn't, and this fight alone can support that Ted is far superior to any candidate other than Silver Linings Playbook. What makes this fight so magnificent is how real it looks. Mark Wahlberg--the fantastic actor he is, who was also ignored--really looks like he is in pain as he battles his teddy bear. The visual effects here are just incredible, far more impressive than any other film of the action variety. And the laugh factor: 10 out of fucking 10.

2. Anchorman

This scene represents the overall hilarity of Anchorman. From beginning to end, it is completely flawless in both quality and, most importantly, timing. The fight sequence did not take too long, nor was it too outrageous to be considered valid in this list of the greatest fight scenes. While a man on fire, two horses, a triton, and the amount of artillery may be deemed "outrageous", it was just right. What is also emphasized here is the brilliance of an abundantly-casted crew: the comedic geniuses present here, as you have already seen, are unquestionable in status. The brief prelude before the battle was an excellent touch, providing several hilarious lines. ("Brick, where did you get a hand grenade?" "I don't know." Classic.) The whole fight, again, was excessive but in the finest way imaginable.

3. Pineapple Express

The first time I saw this fight, I could not control my laughter. I had to replay this scene several times to redeem myself and continue--that's how funny this is. While the fighting itself may be a bit played out, especially if you've already seen it, such as with the repetitive grabbing-and-throwing, the scene remains a great comedic feat. The highlight of this scene is definitely the moment when James Franco and Seth Rogen knock the bathroom door down, pushing Danny McBride into his sink and breaking it. Hilarious, albeit a tad exaggerated in length.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Young Adult

Happy Sunday everyone. I hope the summer season has fared well with you all thus far. It sure has for me, but then again it is too soon to tell. In case you were not already aware, I am at a student age, therefore the surreal feeling of yet another year being over still looms above my dome. Next year marks my final year at my educational institute (glittery word meaning "school") and I could not be more anxious. Is this what most of you felt with the clock ticking so fast? One moment, you're just entering the system as a student, and the next you're--well, you know. I shall soon be one of you! An adult, that is. And that's adult, with a stress on the first 'a'. Anyway, wow. That's all I can say for now.

The following post will scrutinize a film I have already seen and quite possibly discussed before. There will not be much scrutiny rather an excessive amount of flattery and repetitive exclamations of admiration. The masterpiece in question is Jason Reitman's Young Adult, and he has the immense privilege of being its remarkable director. In the past, he has attached himself to similarly mellow-yet-serious films such as Up In The Air, Juno, and (from what I have recently discovered) the sharply written and finely directed Thank You For Smoking. Evidently, he is the son of famed director-producer-writer Ivan Reitman, who contributed to a variety of films including but not limited to Ghostbusters and Twins. Although they share relations (odd way of saying they're father and son), they could not be more different as directors. The father helms goofy yet heartwarming comedies that have acquired the nostalgic genre "nineties comedy"; the son directs darkly amusing dramedies that have at their center a deeply disturbed character. The level of their instability varies, of course, and they are the sorts of mental illnesses that everyday people suffer, such as stress or mid-life crises. Previously, Jason Reitman has explored the taboo topic of teen pregnancy in Juno, which was written by the brilliant Diablo Cody who also penned the film in question, and the achingly prevalent issue of lay-offs and a bad economy in Up In The Air. Each film, additionally, had a charming realness, coordinated by the great script as well as fine direction, that gave its respective key character character. Whether it was bringing to life the typical I-don't-care pregnant-teenager--with the fuck-the-world mentality and all--or presenting a suave yet self-deteriorating man whom everyone despise (because he's the messenger who delivers the lay-off), Jason Reitman, with the help of the writer, develops the nucleus of the film that is the remarkable character. Those characters pale in comparison to the cinematic gem that is Mavis Gary, a thirtysomething alcoholic author who spirals through a major misconception of reality.

Mavis Gary is one of those conceited, callous prom-queen-bitches who many are, no doubt, familiar with. This is what the script tells us and what the film supports. In addition to an ugly personality, she is suffering a considerable lack of self-awareness, and this imbalance is portrayed with the utmost superciliousness by the flawless Charlize Theron. From the moment she locks eyes with the audience (as much as she can as to not look directly into the camera), she enraptures you with her unbelievable bravado and blatant lack of decency. Her contemptuous scowl is raw enough to make you shiver in her presence, as if she were genuinely judging you. Keep in mind that no matter how shitfaced Mavis will get (and there are more than a few accounts), and no matter how low she will fall in terms of desperation, you will feel inferior to her deep within because, like it or not, she is inherently better than you. Not because she is more successful, because she clearly isn't, but because she makes you feel that way with her supercilious manner and overall confidence. Throughout the film, she carries herself with cavalier predominance--just like she did in high school, I'm sure--and views her world and those around her with contempt. Despite her tainted reputation, she still considers herself the queen of her dinky little hometown, and even declares herself supreme in the pseudo-climax that is hard to watch (in a good way). I say pseudo-climax because the movie, as a whole, just flows with no solid framework other than the basic beginning and end; also, not every movie needs a adrenaline-rush of a climax. There are movies that just flow. Like this one.
Anyway, Mavis Gary. She is the sort of antiheroine that you find so irresistible that you force yourself not to like her--and you fail miserably. At least, I do. I absolutely love Mavis Gary, and how Charlize Theron portrays her. If she were not such a delusional, self-destructive person, I'd aspire to be her. That sounds awful, especially if you've seen the movie. But I can't resist, for she is awe-inspiringly audacious. As she writes the final book in a failing young-adult series, it's as if she narrates her own situation: She describes the cavalier psyche of a smug teenage girl, who is as conceited and lacking a grasp on reality as Mavis herself. After humiliating herself (repeatedly) in front of former classmates who once worshipped and/or hated her, Mavis Gary continues to carry herself with an unaltered delusion that she is It. The manner in which Charlize Theron portrays her character's ego is one where she does not overtly admire herself in the mirror or even outright say that she is better than everyone (well she does maybe once or twice). She moves with a self-important yet indifferent lack-of grace that suggests she is above her hometown and everyone in it. Whenever she primps herself for an outing, however, she makes it a strenuous process to make herself look amazing. In these scenes, she usually narrates her book, which provides pleasing mirror imagery; as she frets over her appearance (without actually fretting, because she's naturally gorgeous), the analogous story of her young-adult series protagonist unfolds. To simplify it, I suppose, thirtysomething Mavis Gary is blissfully stuck in high school, and it's all due to the unsatisfying result of her failed life since then. What I also love about the way Mavis was written is that she never completely loses her mind in a dramatic scene where she, perhaps, needs to be restrained. As abhorrent as she is as a person, she never "blossoms" into a monster or home-wrecker. She is depicted as a realistically callous individual and played with flawless conceit and insolence by the incredibly talented Charlize Theron.

Aside from Charlize Theron, there is an abundance to be in awe of in regards to the film. The story itself surrounds Mavis Gary as she strives to steal back her high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade, who is married with a newborn daughter. Patrick Wilson plays this steamy hunk who may have been all-that in high school, maybe even the prom-king-quarterback multi-threat idol of every girl's dreams; but now, he's a schlubby father and husband. He moves around like a ghost in the film, unaware of Mavis's blatant flirtations. I wouldn't be surprised if he were not aware that he was a father, but that's just how he was portrayed, I suppose. If he showed any perceivable emotion, the viewer may mistake that for restrained lust for his former high school flame. (Yet another intricate detail perfected by writer Diablo Cody.) Surely, you will question why Mavis returned to her hometown to reclaim this former-prom-king who had lost that certain charisma desirable to women. That answer lies in the downward spiral of Mavis's life: Her marriage collapsed, her career is plummeting, and she's become an alcoholic. So, she figures she revisit the past where she was the queen bee, adored and loathed by all. If the tables were turned, however, and Buddy went to Minneapolis to rekindle their relationship, Mavis would not even blink in reaction--because she's better than him and the dinky hometown he represents. It's all a matter of perspective and circumstances, and the age-old "virtue" of wanting what you can't possibly have.

During her visit, Mavis encounters Matt Freehauf, a typical "loser" in high school and therefore in life after that. Senior year, he was attacked by several jocks who thought he was gay, and he was crippled for the rest of his life; it was considered a hate-crime until he revealed that he, shamefully, was not gay. Isn't that ridiculous? Just because he did not satisfy speculation that he was among the popular breed of homosexuals, he was forgotten and labeled a "fat guy who got beat up". I'm just saying, brutal assault is brutal whether you're a minority or not. Moving on. Mavis, of course, does not remember Matt from high school because (duh) she was popular and he wasn't. They moved in different crowds, to put a sugar coat on it, yet that changes twenty years later when Matt is the one person who "understand" Mavis and her machinations. I quote "understand" because Mavis is not one to be understood or not, but one to be, shall we say, sympathized with? Alright then. Patton Oswalt, an actor who I ordinarily find repulsive, portrays the crippled Matt Freehauf with a palpable realness that does not warrant pity from the audience. Not once does he trip over his crutch, or require assistance of any kind. He is just a man with the unfortunate physical and mental trauma of an incident. Oddly enough, Patton Oswalt was enormously likable in the film, as both a character to feel sorry for by choice and as a surprisingly superb actor. In a film like this, acting does not demand histrionics or hysterics, rather the performance must be natural and, most importantly, mellow. Of course, inherent talent would certainly be lovely in accentuating the performance. I guess that implies Patton Oswalt has talent.
He and Charlize Theron, moreover, have agreeable chemistry, interestingly enough, though it is not romantic, nor is it indicated that they are amorous soulmates. (The awkward scene at the end may suggest otherwise, but please do not mistake that for anything other than the culmination of Mavis's desperation.) Matt represents a sort-of haven for Mavis Gary after a long day of delusional debauchery, where she and Matt get drunk off of his homemade bourbon. With his own glaring flaws, such as dwelling on the past and being unable to enjoy life, he is a perfect fit for Mavis. The two are an odd couple, indeed, the kind of twisted pairing made most refreshing by the brilliance of the script, directing, and actors.

Watching this movie was delightful the first time, and absolutely glorious when it encore presentation came around. My dad and I each noticed many additional features in the film that make it all the more gratifying. The way the fictional small town of Mercury, Minnesota is depicted, for example, is very keen on its demonstration of a typical dinky place that city-folk would detest. It resembles my own dinky small town, actually, with the scattered plazas and KenTacoHuts spread throughout. One image, captured by the astute eye of my father, is Mavis walking through the parking lot of Macy's, which is practically barren. This so accurately illustrates a small town, and it is this brief moment on the screen that validates the combined craft of the writer (who incorporated this image) and the director (who brought the scene to life). That may seem inconsequential to most, but to true connoisseurs of cinema, is is very much appreciated and noted as sheer mastery. Young Adult captures the undeniable longing for the golden era of one's life--whether it is childhood, high school, or beyond--and the painful delusion people are trapped in to recreate those good 'ol days. Mavis Gary embodies this prospect with disdainful pretension and, as beautifully portrayed by Charlize Theron, who was regrettably snubbed by the Academy, biting cruelty. I feel like I'm repeating myself. Then again, I did warn you that I quite possibly would. Although deemed an "indie movie", this is anything but. Sure, it has that indie feel to it, but this is much more than that. This could be argued to have a place among extraordinary pictures like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, for it dwells upon the central theme of the film with sheer intimacy and attention to minute details. Young Adult has the pristine quality of near-perfection, captivating its audience with seemingly meaningless elements that are anything but. A

P.S. I'll be doing the letter-grade thing.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Stunning Tragedy

Good morning. Today--well, two days ago to be more accurate--marks a truly devestating event, one that causes the ordinary individual to take account for this little thing called life. James Gandolfini, an actor renowned for his work on The Sopranos and several films, passed away from a supposed heart attack while on vacation in Rome. That's the capital of Italy; a few people don't know that. I found out about his death yesterday when I was talking with my dad about current events. He mentioned it as if I already knew, which, in all fairness, I should know considering my pseudo-intelligence of the cinematic universe. I was stunned by the news, thinking it to be a mistake or misconception on my dad's part. How could James Gandolfini die? He was only fifty-one, and it is just so out-of-place and unexpected. This event brings me to reminisce about Heath Ledger's death, back in 2008. Nearly six years ago. Time flies. As shocking as that was, for he too was too young to die (though not as young) and it was out-of-place and random, his passing was not as upsetting and unfortunate as James Gandolfini's. While that may be cruel to compare the intensity of my reaction to certain deaths, it is nonetheless true. Heath Ledger died of a drug overdose, and I highly doubt it was "accidental". Call me cruel, but I feel it was a, dare I say, publicity stunt. Awful for me to think so, but he received an Oscar posthumously shortly thereafter. Just a twisted thought.

This is not about him. I am here to mourn the tragic loss of James Gandolfini, a man I really did not realize how much I appreciated him until this sudden occurrence took place. I didn't watch The Sopranos, so, unfortunately, I cannot look fondly back on what must have been his greatest achievement. For his role as Tony Soprano, he received three Emmys and one Golden Globe, as well as the recognition of being one of the best Mob characters on television. (Or only Mob character on television. Really, who else is there worth mentioning?) I remember James Gandolfini for his lesser roles in film. By lesser, I do not mean less important or inferior, rather I am referring to his status in film. People may recognize him on the silver screen, but only as Tony Soprano. Not me. I know him as James Gandolfini, the lovable "big bear" of a man who brought a smile to my face in films such as The Mexican, where he portrayed an adorable yet intimidating hitman who bonded with Julia Roberts; in Surviving Christmas, where he played a disgruntled yet warm family man who tolerates a (rotten-acting) Ben Affleck; and in Get Shorty, portraying the aptly named "Bear", who was an affectionate father despite his career as a bodyguard to the Mob. He was a kind man, from what I've read in recent articles, who was absolutely nothing like the violent, vulgar Mafia boss he portrayed on television. James Gandolfini was a fine gem of an actor, one that I will miss dearly and sincerely.

Condolences to his friends and family, who knew him for the warm man he surely was.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Soderbergh Syndicated

There is really no meaning behind the title, other than the purpose of using the lovely tool of alliteration. This post, if you haven't deduced already, is about the indistinguishable director Steven Soderbergh. In the past week, I've seen two of his films for the first time, each distributed in the same year Two-Thousand. Why use numbers when you can spell? Beyond being the same age, these two films (which I will reveal in a moment) have the honor of being nominated for Best Picture, as well as winning a statuette each. Another nomination went to the director himself. That's right: Steven Soderbergh was nominated twice in the same category in the same year. And he even went home with an Oscar that night for one of his films--the superior one, clearly. Alright, now to share what you will be reading about, or won't be reading about if you decide the topic is not to your palette of amusement. The first is Traffic, an intense drama surrounding the drug world and the many pawns that play in this seedy, grimy stratosphere; then there is Erin Brockovich, a serious yet predictable (due to age) drama about a white-trash single mother who lands on a golden goose of a criminal case.

Traffic - Everyone is privy to the war on drugs. That should really be surrounded by quotation marks: "war on drugs" is simply a device created by the government, and proliferated by the media, to smother the cries against drugs. If the government wanted to "defeat" drugs, they would be annihilated; but as this remarkable film shows, the government does not want drugs to disappear. It stands as one of the most profitable markets in the world, and the United States most certainly does not want to miss that monetary action. Look at me, the wee rebel, speaking out against The Man. Not God. It's raining. Anyway, this is about a movie, not the real world, although it is a movie about the real world. The film is an outstanding collage of stories about individuals immersed in the seedy drug world in some way, whether directly or indirectly, and their interconnectedness that so superbly resonates within itself. In other words, Steven Soderbergh managed to mesh each story together in such a wonderful way that makes the entire production a soothingly flowing piece of cinema. One may even call it masterwork. Why not? The casting is great, and the acting is even better. This fine director formed a sensational cast and instructed them beautifully, making for acting excellence. This is the director's duty, of course, and when their film is enhanced by the presence of sheer talent--which is amplified by the director's own vision--needless to say magic is being done. Dear me, I am quite the flatterer. Let's take a glimpse at the talent. Michael Douglas portrays a conservative judge who has been given the demanding title of "drug czar" as he is embroiled in the "war on drugs" that involves a first-hand encounter with drugs in the form of his daughter. Indeed, the irony would be humorous if it weren't so heartbreaking. His daughter (played by unknown Erika Christensen) becomes hypnotized by the supposed allure of drugs in such a devastating process, from harmless experimentation to undeniable necessity. The actress's performance was phenomenal, for an unknown, I might add. Watching her spiral down into the depths of drugs is agonizing to behold, yet I am mesmerized. Sympathy, most likely, but maybe also curiosity as to how drugs assume control over a human being, an honors student no less.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is the center of another story, playing the very pregnant wife of a drug lord. As bloated and sensitive as she must be in her condition, she demonstrates inexorable tenacity as she supports her own family while also endeavoring to have her husband exonerated. She does this by ordering a hit on the star witness against him, which is not exactly proving his innocence but it is working for the release of a father and a husband. All the more impressive is Catherine Zeta-Jones herself, pregnant as she is, providing a marvelous performance through solemn determination and, quite simply, talent. It's a crime that she was not nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year, but she'll luck out two years from then. Seeing her true talent here stirs feelings of longing and disappointment as I consider what she has become now; referring to her most recent turn in Playing for Keeps, I must say that Catherine Zeta-Jones has lost something. Another story surrounds two DEA agents as they protect that star witness that is targeted by the drug lord's wife. Not as interesting as the other segments of the film, this portion takes a look into the effects of involvement in the drug business and what can happen when you try to abandon that identity. The lesson here is that once you're in, death is the only exit.
The last story takes place in Mexico with Benicio del Toro as the centre. He portrays a corrupt cop with a conscience who is pulled into the "war on drugs" by a seemingly legitimate government official. Of course, he isn't, and Benicio del Toro slowly learns that fact as he discovers the keen connection between government and drugs. Morality struggles ensue. I admire the authenticity of this segment, as everyone speaks Spanish and not English with an accent. Also, the tint of these segments are a grimy yellow, which distinguishes American scenes from Mexican ones. (Scenes in Los Angeles are a normal tint, while scenes in Ohio with the drug-addicted minor are a morose blueish hue. Another appealing aspect, thanks to Soderbergh.) For his performance, Benicio del Toro received the Best Supporting Actor award, and I wouldn't be honest if I said I agree with that assessment. Throughout the film, he sulks around in a way that suggests that he doesn't have a hold on his surroundings; if he were playing a drug addict, I would be convinced. But that is not the case. Critics applaud his performance, calling his character "the heart of the film" and basically a shining gem of Hispanic craftsmanship. Mentioning his ethnicity was crucial, for he is Hispanic, is he not? No racism here. I just watched Malcolm X, mind you. All Benicio del Toro proves to be in the film is a nice guy with slurred speech and a disturbing beer belly, and that does not warrant Academy prestige. In its entirety, Traffic is magnificent from its heated exposition to the intense chaos during the climax--then again, altogether, the film is a climax of sheer entertainment, keeping you engrossed in all benign details. And, of course, the main attractions. Steven Soderbergh demonstrates, once again (since I've said it before), brilliance in the role of the director, illustrating the immersive screenplay by Steven Gaghan onto the screen, much as a painter caresses his canvas with art. Now, how many times has that expression been used? What we have here with Traffic is a distinction of a script, for the same director in the same year will prove to produce an entirely different movie, in more ways than content.

Erin Brockovich - Almost as iconic as Pretty Woman, this film, also starring Julia Roberts, is among the ranks of notoriety when it comes to performance. Otherwise, there really is nothing unique or even magnetizing about Erin Brockovich. It begins and ends with a real estate case involving the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, a true story by the way, and the woman who investigates it: Erin Brockovich. That name singularly has a familiar ring. I once thought that it was the name of the very same Pretty Woman, the prostitute in the movie. But that was Vivien. The only similarity these two characters share is a penchant for revealing attire, but other than that, Erin Brockovich is a no-nonsense woman with a vivacious drive. Once she grasps that pro-bono case, she abandons her role as mother and even human being just to "crack" the case. What the case entails is inconsequential, but needless to say it was an enormous deal at the time. She did manage a movie deal after all. While the case is unbelievable (as in I cannot believe that it actually happened), it is not enough for even a foundation of the two-hour movie. Here is where we encounter the distinction of the director. In one year, a director makes two movies, both incredibly different from the other in matters of not only plot but acting and feel. By feel I am referring to the reaction of the viewer, how they feel, which in turn determines their overall reception of it--whether they enjoyed it or not. With Erin Brockovich, I found myself scoffing in ridicule of how simple everything was, from the susceptible victims of the real estate case to Erin Brockovich's bumbling superior, who proves to be a mediocre lawyer. The actor himself--Albert Finney--is abominable in nature, meaning that I just do not like him. This stems from my viewing of Murder on the Orient Express, where he portrayed Hercule Poirot as a repulsive swine. As the only lawyer at his own law firm, he dwindles in comparison to Ms. Brockovich, shadowing her throughout as if he were learning, which he probably is. Albert Finney was, also, nominated that year for Best Supporting Actor, which brings me to slightly accept Benicio del Toro's win.
The sole cynosure of the picture lies in the actress who portrayed the titular character: Julia Roberts is the glowing centerpiece of this production, and she alone carries the film from the very beginning. As a single mother, she accurately portrays the effects of the labors of being hard-working white-trash in her brazen demeanor and ability to stand her ground in notable defiance. (I'm faltering in my choice of words, but you can form a coherent image of her character yourself.) Julia Roberts is, truly, a sensational actress. For some reason, there was a period where she was not so appealing to me, but now, without question, she is one of the greatest. And one of my preferred actresses, along with Michelle Pfieffer and Kate Winslet. There is just some likable quality about her; when she graces the screen with her presence, she dominates the screen in a way that allows herself to shine and her talented cast (if they are talented) to cooperate with her, and shine themselves. She, undoubtedly, received the Best Actress statuette that year, and, by golly, she deserves it! Overall, the film was merely adequate for it lacked an enduring quality that allows films, like Traffic, to remain relevant and entertaining years later. In only thirteen years, Erin Brockovich has grown stale and predictable, engaging my father and I to mock several elements of the film. If anything, watch the movie for Julia Roberts, as she, unlike her background, has not faded with age.

Two films. One director, one year. How can they be so strikingly different? Aside from the obvious factor of plot and genre, there really should be no excuse as to why one movie is incredible in comparison to the other, which is bland. This study has drawn me to the importance of the script. That is the only considerable variable. Steven Gaghan composed a fantastic story with energy and a power of context that brought the film to life on the screen; Susannah Grant, however, seemed to be writing a newspaper article, for Erin Brockovich severely lacked a factor that lures its viewers to the drama unfolding on the screen. The script is important, despite myriad oppositions, and this comparison reveals that significance. As the director, Steven Soderbergh outlined each scene with the ingenuity of a cinematic wonder. The evidence of his feat is evident in the acting: with his guidance and vision, Julia Roberts and the ensemble of Traffic were able to perform to the utmost of their talent and give the audience someone to watch in awe.