Saturday, December 17, 2011

Start Fresh — Waitress

START FRESH! This one is destined to be a closet classic.

This is a fun film for most ages and a great date flick!

Owner Joe's words, "Start fresh," come as a welcome tonic to the beleagured waitress Jenna, played endearingly by Keri Russell in this colorful film about relationships, affairs, and pie diners.

Jenna makes pies. Every emotion, every situation can be expressed in a pie. There's the "I hate my husband pie" and a dozen others shown lovingly made in the story. There's a reason she hates him: Earl, played by the eminently convincing Jeremy Sisto, is one of those moron husbands you love to hate.

Contrast him with the charming and easily lovable Dr Pometter (Nathan Fillian), and you have the chemistry for a great storyline, complete with sarcastic commentary by diner owner Joe (Andy Griffiths), and salted with the other waitresses' flings and love pursuits.

Cheryl Hines, Keri Russell, Adrienne Shelly
The real-life untimely death (see NYT story) of actress and director Adrienne Shelly brings an interesting and nostalgic element to the film. I wish she could have made more films like this one. Its unusual blend of humor and deep emotion is rare.

The film presents a harsh and unforgiving working-class world with a light touch, where we can cheer for the underdog and enjoy a sexual tryst with Jenna and then recognize that eventually she must move beyond it and find her true self. That kind of journey is worth any film's and any viewer's time. 

If you love pie, by the end you'll be salivating...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

High Altitude Hubris — Margin Call

Watch the faces. The whole range of human emotions is there, seething just below the conformism of corporate suit-and-tie glass office protocol. Rage, guilt, remorse, greed, raw power, and a deeply inhumane utilitarianism. This is the contribution of Margin Call: a sort of "12 Angry Men" look at how a room full of very powerful people interact and thereby influence the rest of the world.


OVERALL: Recommended

This is one of Kevin Spacey's best. The rest of the cast is, well, marginal. Demi Moore in particular is not convincing, either miscast or misdirected or both. Jeremy Irons does well at the aloof, swoop-down-from-the-helicopter heights of arrogance, but otherwise his performance isn't all that memorable.

What I like most about the film is its metaphors. In one scene they stand on a balcony overlooking a precipitous drop. "It's a long way down," one shudders. The impending collapse of the financial system seems to hover with them on that ledge.
The film ends with the sound of a shovel, as Kevin Spacey digs a grave for  his dog. That scene anchors the film in the real world and provides some physical contrast to the high-altitude hubris of the skyscrapers. The film treads a good line here, showing us a personal side of this otherwise un-empathetic portrayal of Wall Street.

Be sure to watch the clip of Demi Moore and Simon Baker in the elevator, with a janitor in between them. The irony here is delicious: it may be the best scene in the film:

Solid plot, great storytelling, and moves along well and gets to the point of the financial crisis: the selling of literally nothing, and the digging of a large grave we are still climbing out of.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

OSCAR PICK — Best Picture — Moneyball

Don't be fooled by the title. This is not really a story about money or even baseball. Nor is it merely about Brad Pitt being a likable cock (though that type truly belongs to him like it used to belong to Robert Redford.) This is a subtle story about finding out who you really are, along with the battles, losses, humiliations, and ultimately the peace of finally coming to terms with yourself.

Depth: 5
Acting: 4.5
Plot: 5
Originality: 5
Entertainment: 5
Demand on Viewer: Mild-Moderate

Overall: Highly Recommended

A relevant and timely premise: what to do about making due? With little resources, and against the establishment belief that the Oakland Athletics are all but a minor league farm team, General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt) is compelled by a passion for baseball and winning to redraw the map. He recruits a shy, pudgy Yale-graduated economist named Peter Brand (played very skillfully by Jonah Hill, whose amusing stoic face is a nice foil for Pitt). Together they pour over the statistical data in hopes of understanding how to maximize his lower-tier recruits. He fields a team of individuals who cannot hit or field as well as any single player recruited by wealthier teams such as New York or Boston. Beane expects that as an aggregate they can beat the odds (a bit like predicting overall traffic patterns in a city without knowing what any individual driver may do.)

So far sounds like a snoozer—something for only "backwards-K" scoring junkies—but be reassured, the film skillfully avoids becoming top-heavy with stats. Indeed, this is one of Moneyball's most remarkable qualities, that it lifts out of this potentially boring subject a deep and lively story about human choices, with plenty of good solid competitive sport sprinkled in for fun. Credit goes to director Bennett Miller and the author of the book on which the movie is based, Michael Lewis.

Start with passion: the gravitational pull of the old way requires a healthy dose of it. Beane has plenty, and it comes out in endearing and idiosyncratic ways: shoving twinkies and popcorn down his throat between phone calls, clicking the game on and off as he pays attention from a distance, wheeling his truck around empty lots trying to clear his head. The most interesting form his passion takes is in the scenes with other people, as he tries to cajole, reason, push, and joke his way around them. A memorable example comes in a locker-room display, when the team, shocked into silence, hears Beane say, "THAT is what losing sounds like."

The opening draft meeting rings true immediately, as a group of seasoned older men tut-tut Beane. Having been in this position myself frequently as a pastor (dreaded "council meetings"), I recognize a universal archetype here: the individual against the (older) institution. There are human tensions created by that relationship that cross all businesses, organizations, and causes. Near the end of the film another team owner expresses this sentiment very powerfully. That dialogue is worth the price of the film, and watching through to that moment promises to be very satisfying.

Against this backdrop and giving the story its profound originality is Beane's relationship to his daughter. He has made choices in his past based on money; now he must come to a different place. The way the film interweaves his own history in baseball with his decisions about his daughter is truly unique. Here is an archetype: a man reflects on past failures and realizes who he is. No tearful scenes, but for those men who recognize their own story, there may be moist eyes.

The performances by Pitt and Hoffman (A's coach Art Howe) are good, though not among their best partly because they have set the bar so high previously. Fortunately they both have the maturity and gravitas to carry off the roles. The movie does suffer a little from their notoriety: one keeps thinking, "That's not Billy Beane, that's Brad Pitt!" However, without their names on the cover, the story might have suffered what the Oakland A's did: de facto relegation to the minors because of lower visibility.

I recommend this film particularly for anyone in a position of leadership or management (the way Beane has to climb all the way down the ladder and understand his players is instructive), and anyone trying to navigate the sometimes impossible straits of family vs. career. Several metaphors, including an especially vivid about one trying to get past first base, highlight these themes in a way everyone can understand and relate to.

Moneyball has moreover something very salient to say to a culture obsessed with both money and sports. As we follow Beane's story, we are led to face several truths about money. It needs to be understood and reckoned with as a controlling force, but ultimately we are free to choose beyond it. Money and sports are only the tip of the iceberg. What does any of this mean? is Billy Beane's question, and one we could benefit from asking more often.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Climbing Down into the Cosmic — Take Shelter

Do dreams predict? Or are they simply the inner workings of our minds? Is there such a thing as prophetic revelation? Or just another name for schizophrenia?

View Trailer!

OVERALL: Recommended

Take Shelter is a well-crafted story about an ordinary man's extraordinary visionsWhat he sees  are storms: grand apocalyptic warnings about some undefined future.

He decides to take odd preparatory measures, such as building an underground storm shelter and protecting his deaf daughter from her dog. At the same time he seeks help from the family doctor and a local counselor, recognizing that he may have something hereditary. To his own dismay, his inner struggle spills out into his family life and even his community. He is forced to reckon with himself and his fears in unexpected ways. By the end we are left with an uncertain conclusion about the nature of his visions, but certain that they have led him to conquer some of his inmost fears.

The cinematography is gorgeous; the film is worth seeing for that alone. See it on the big screen if you can; the images of the storms are shot to invoke an awesome beauty and power, hard to recapture in a smaller format. During one especially vivid moment in the film, the main character Curtis (Michael Shannon) stands watching a lightning storm paint up the whole sky. He asks, "Is anyone else seeing this?" The answer is a paradoxical yes, because we the viewers do see it, but no one else within the story does. We are brought to feel his isolation and frustration of feeling like the only one given to see clearly.

Michael Shannon's expressive, angular face is memorable as he portrays the crabbed, pensive, and wordless struggle many men have. His character traces what seems often to descend at that time of life: the mid-life-crisis. The story as a metaphor about that transition point, what Richard Rohr calls "the second half of life." According to Rohr such transitions always involve descent: a "climbing down" into ourselves, our deepest beliefs and fears, our family influence, and ultimately our identity and place in the universe. The symbolism of Curtis going into the storm cellar, and of being confronted with the decision to leave it, is a powerful archetype and it gives the film an unusual profundity and universality.

The trouble with the mid-life crisis is this: does it cause a radical change of inner visions or is it produced by those visions? Curtis thinks his visions are objective. He sees his friend try to kill him in one dream, and as a result Curtis takes self-protective actions. The friend turns into an enemy. By believing the prophecy, did Curtis make it self-fulfilling? Or did the dream indicate something already present in the friendship, an underlying cold spot that Curtis could not see consciously? Either way, the film does not let him off the hook; he is held responsible, morally and otherwise, for his response to the visions. 

One of the biggest strengths of this film, paradoxically, is its realism. Its most penetrating and disturbing questions happen to be the least supernatural. What would you do, for example, if your trusted neighbors, friends, and relatives abandoned you or attacked you when, in their judgment, you went outside their accepted norms of behavior? Such "friendships of convenience" can easily collapse under the pressure of values conflicts, broken taboos, or sincere attempt to follow one's (idiosyncratic) dreams. What happens if familial, cultural and societal "glue" starts to be undone by a vision? But this undoing is consistent with apocalyptic prophecy—by its very nature it tends to challenge and threaten the status quo.

"One man's vision is another man's nightmare."An illustration of this prophetic threat and resultant cultural divide happens at an awkward Sunday after-church lunch, when a family member brusquely says, "We missed you at church." By this one brief, very convincing scene, the film manages at once to disassociate Curtis's prophetic revelations from traditional religion, and to introduce the idea of a spirituality not explainable either by science or the institutional church. 

One further great aspect of realism in the film is that it never overdoes the dream sequences. In a way that makes them even more disturbing, the visions are brief, understated, and leave most to the imagination. Little details like the expression on someone's face or an off-color drop of water evoke a terrifying sense that everything is off balance. The rest plays out in reality, through spare dialogue and suggestive devices (the rhythmic sound of the dangerous pile driver, the omnipresence of wind in the trees, ghostly light or reflections coming through windows.) 

I have had predictive dreams.  It is sometimes an eerie and other times consoling experience. For years I dreamt of returning to an office where I had formerly worked, and then it came true in a very unexpected way. I once dreamt about lightning, a wide beam altering everything in its path. Very soon afterward my life exploded with a sudden change (not literally involving lightning, of course). How to explain this? Our minds are capable of many more things than we understand, perhaps even including the prophetic and the supernatural. Take Shelter reminds us of the power of our dreams, the need for careful response to them, and that if we are to be led through difficult storms, it may only be through the cosmic, symbolic and (fearfully) divine language of visions.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Hidden Inside the Host — Contagion

Contagion resembles the virus that is its subject: if there is a misstep anywhere, it is hard to identify. From the opening scene's unnerving shots of all the things we touch and thereby communicate disease, the visual medium is employed to great effect in service of the plot and message, and this deft and sure handling continues right through to the end. 

DEPTH: 3.5

OVERALL: Recommended 

Often when films are as star-studded as this one, everyone seems like they are only trying to out-act each other (a good offender, for example, is the Jack Nicholson film The Departed). Not so in this case. Kate Winslet is plain and even unattractive in many an unsmiling scene, yet still showing remarkable grace in dealing with ungrateful and uncooperative colleagues. 

Matt Damon continues to demonstrate his pliability as a stammering average guy who feels three steps behind an incomprehensible series of events. His display of emotion, when it finally comes, is thus absolutely convincing. 

Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow contribute much as well, and maybe the most carefully portrayed of all is Lawrence Fishburne's character Ellis Cheever, at the helm of the Center For Disease Control (CDC). 

Deserving of special mention is Jennifer Ehle, who resembles a young Meryl Streep and shows as much finesse, as well as John Hawkes, who completes the circle of understatedness as an unassuming janitor.

The plot is tightly woven and maintains a good balance between global and local perspective. The difficulty is that it is like seeing a well-known play: you already know the plot before you start. Everyone gets sick, and there must be a difficult ordeal. 

One very effective device for keeping tension and surprise within this otherwise obvious and transparent plot structure was to open with "Day 2," keeping the initial contraction part of the investigative diagnostic mystery, hidden until the very end.

Contagion never succumbs to the temptation to portray overly gruesome or gratuitously sentimental scenes. Instead we are brought to a genuine grief over the loss of life and a real fear at the possibility of an outbreak such as this. A remarkable surprise in the film comes after the discovery of a vaccine, as nightmarish scenarios continue to play out in cities unable to cope with basic law enforcement, food distribution.

"How's your Dad?" ":(" Consistent with the realist goals of the film, the texting locates the plot in real time. Simultaneously it develops the agenda of freelance journalist and blogger Alan Krumweide (Jude Law). His message is that the uncontrolled internet is more help to people in a time of crisis than the tightly controlled, traditional and bureaucratic such as the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO). The CDC and WHO are portrayed to regard the internet with the vague suspicion an outdated generation often has for technology and change. The film persuasively argues that the ways our institutions are currently set up to handle a major global disease outbreak are inadequate.

Nevertheless, the people within those institutions are capable of moral heroism. Two touching scenes near the end highlight the selfless sacrifice of the caregiving and medical professions we rely on for help when we are sick. These scenes give the film a human touch and round out the detached clinical side of disease control.

If there is anything that falls a little flat it is the regulatory government-CIA character who interrogates Jude Law, and a perhaps slightly overwrought kidnapping plot line in Macao (maybe a little too close to "24"). 

However, like the virus, these defects are fairly well hidden inside the host of an otherwise great film.