Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What-to-Watch Wednesday - The Nines (2007)

If a movie gives me something to think about then I can forgive it almost any flaw.  Such is the case with The Nines, a film that ponders some rather deep existential matters even if its efforts aren't 100% successful the whole time.

The film stars Ryan Reynolds in three different roles that seem to be in three different stories, but they are in fact connected in a single narrative.  The film's events though are disjointed and surreal, leaving the viewer wondering what is real and what might be the product of a deranged mind.  What remains consistent in each story is that the Reynolds' character starts to see his world unravel in some way.  There are also two characters who continuously pop up (played by Hope Davis and Melissa McCarthy) and engage in a tug-a-war in which they try to keep him away from the other.  Their actions are what result in each world starting to come apart.

The mystery behind what is happening slowly reveals itself, and the answer tackles some rather big issues about the nature of existence, of how we determine the reality in which we find ourselves.  It also ponders the relationship a creator has with his creations.  Does the creator owe any allegiance to that which he has created?  Is he free to destroy that which he creates simply because he was the one who created it in the first place?

Writer/director John August tackles these questions in a story that functions as a show business allegory on one level but evolves into something much deeper and profound as the "rules" of movie storytelling are slowly and systematically ignored to reveal hidden truths beneath the surface.  Like David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, The Nines brings attention to itself as a movie by breaking the rules it establishes at the start and isn't afraid to confuse the audience with inexplicable dialogue and random jumps in time and space.  Unlike Mulholland Drive, however, The Nines isn't cynical and has, in fact, a great deal of heart at its core.

And that is where the film loses some of its power by being a touch too sentimental about its subject matter.  It doesn't quite make the leap into brilliant satire because it feels the need to give its characters some closure.  But, you know, that's okay.  By the time all is said and done, the audience has connected enough to the characters, even as they continuously change, to want them to find some sort of happy ending.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Did HAN and BOBA FETT and MACE WINDU Survive?

So, Jeff had me help out with this one.  Look for me playing a smarmy Disney executive.

I really like this one because Jeff shows his strong, acerbic view on some of the more "extreme" aspects of Star Wars fandom.  I can't say I agree with him 100%, but he is a good enough friend that I am okay with him being completely wrong sometimes.  Haha!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lessons From a Comic Book: Rising From the Shadow

My first entries in this series focused on two of DC Comics' Big Three (Superman and Wonder Woman), so the natural assumption would be that the next one would examine Batman.  However, I came of age reading comics when Batman was pretty uninspiring as a hero.  Certainly, he was cool (and still is), but he was being depicted in the comics as something of a sociopath with a dark and unwelcoming personality.  There was little kindness in him, no sparks of warmth that would take the edge off his more intimidating characteristics.

I've written about this portrayal before, and I still say it damaged the character most noticeably in how it limited what could be done with him in the comics.  Fortunately, such has not been the case with the supporting characters of the Batman mythos.

Although I never read any of the core Batman comics on a regular basis, in the 1990s I found myself reading two books that were considered part of the Batman-family of books: Nightwing and Birds of Prey.  Nightwing was the first solo book for Dick Grayson, who had long since dropped his Robin identity to forge his own way as Nightwing.  Birds of Prey focused on two female leads (a rarity even in today's comics), one of whom was Barbara Gordon aka Oracle.  At the onset of each title's run, the books were being written by legendary writer, Chuck Dixon, who took the characters in directions that carved distinctive identities for each of them.

Nightwing had long been considered the most popular super-hero to not have his own book.  DC Comics seemed noncommittal to the idea of giving the character a solo book until a costume change and a successful mini-series effectively poised the character to carry his own series, beginning in 1996.  Immediately, the series distinguished itself from the core Batman books through its look and content.  In Scott McDaniel, the book had an artist that highlighted Nightwing's acrobatic movement and a fighting style shown from angles that made the action look truly death-defying.  All of this was placed within the context of a story about a young man making his way in a strange city, determined to forge his own path.

In contrast, Oracle was a character born out of tragedy.  Barbara Gordon had her career as Batgirl ended when the Joker shot a bullet through her spine, turning her into a paraplegic.  From this horrific experience, she created the identity of Oracle, a computer and technology expert who functioned as a powerful information broker for DC's metahumans.  Still, she was little more than an occasional supporting player until a succession of one-shots and minis paired her with the equally under utilized Black Canary.  The popularity of the pairing paved the way for an ongoing series in which Oracle functioned as mission coordinator while Black Canary was the field agent in their partnership.

My reading life has taught me that sometimes certain books find you when you're ready to read them.  I've come to believe that such was the case with Nightwing and Birds of Prey.  I was reading both books at time when my life was stalled - I had left college, was working some dead end jobs, and had no clear prospects to get on track to a real career.  Obviously, my choices were very much in contrast to what Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon were accomplishing with their lives.  And, on a certain level, their active stories served to highlight how mine was going nowhere.

I won't be so melodramatic as to say that reading these comics galvanized me into taking some drastic action with my life and finally getting it into gear.  It took a series of circumstances and a lot of much needed life experience for that to happen.  However, I think I can honestly say my reading these books kept me from becoming too complacent in what my life had become at that time as well as helping me not lose focus on my long-term goals, even though many were telling me to give them up.  

Like Dick and Barbara, I, too, felt the pressures of living up to the expectations of my parental figures and wanted desperately to be accepted on my own terms and for what I wanted to be.  At times, I understood all too well what it was like to be part of an all-encompassing family that left little room for individuality and where there was an expectation to fit into the common narrative of the other members regardless of whether or not that narrative fit into the one I was writing for myself.  The balancing act that Nightwing and Birds of Prey achieved on a regular basis taught me it was possible to have one's own space while also fitting into a larger context.  One doesn't necessarily have to reject one in order to have the other.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Movie Crushes

Clockwise from top: Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman,
Black Lively in Age of Adaline, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's
A couple weeks ago, I watched Age of Adaline for the first time.  It had been sitting in my Netflix queue for the longest time, and my rotation of receiving movies on DVD (a much slower rotation than my viewing of streaming movies) finally brought Age of Adeline to the top of the list.

When it arrived, I let it sit for a few days until I had an opportunity to watch it.  To be frank, I didn't have a burning desire to see it right away.  From everything I had heard about the film, it sounded like very predictable fare.  But, I was interested to see Harrison Ford in it as he had gotten some good notices for his performance.  And, I wanted to see the actor who plays Ford's character as a young man, as he is supposed to have an uncanny impression of both Ford's mannerisms and voice.

However, when I started watching it, what I did not expect was to witness a revelatory performance by Blake Lively, whose most notable roles thus far have been in the awful Green Lantern film and the TV show, Gossip Girls.

As the movie went on, I was drawn to the grace and maturity Lively projects as a woman who has inexplicably stopped aging.  I couldn't take my eyes off her whenever she was on screen.  Not only is she incredibly beautiful in the film, but her performance was so soulful that I can say without hyperbole that I was deeply moved emotionally.  Everything about me as a man was fully charged by how this character spoke, how she walked, and how she always seemed to be holding back a little something from the other characters as well as the audience.

In short, I was crushing on the character of Adaline in a major way.  And, I want to make a clear distinction: I was indeed crushing on Adaline, not Blake Lively.  I'm not so deluded as to crush on someone I haven't met, and I am smart enough to know that an actress's performance in a film in no way represents who she is as a person.  Plus, she's married to Ryan Reynolds, so there is no way I could ever compete with that.

Still, I was crushing, and it made me think back to times when I had similar feelings wash over me when watching movies.

My first true movie crush occurred when I was fifteen years old and watched Pretty Woman for the first time.  Julia Roberts was a relatively unknown film actress at the time, who had garnered some success with her performance in Steel Magnolias.  But, it was her role as Vivian in Pretty Woman that propelled her to super stardom.

The first time I saw Roberts walk out in that red formal gown was the first time I was truly charmed by feminine beauty and grace, albeit slightly awkward grace as Vivian is defined by a somewhat gangly and uncertain demeanor.  The shapeliness she has in that dress, though, the gentle womanly curves she displays, all had me enthralled.  And that laugh.  A guffaw really, when Richard Gere pretends to close the jewelry box on her hand.  A genuine and honest reaction which would hearten most men and give them a resounding sense of accomplishment should they succeed in making a woman laugh like that.

I wouldn't be dumbfounded in such a way again until I watched Breakfast At Tiffany's a few years later.  The casual elegance of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly sitting in a window sill singing "Moon River" filled my heart with something I can't quite express, a longing maybe, some sort of ache.  Holly emerges briefly framed in that window, her guard down, dressed in a sweater and slacks, and manages to be more enchanting than she has thus far been in the whole film.

The simplicity of the scene is an enticement in and of itself.  It makes the mystery surrounding Holly seem within reach, knowable.  Personally, I am most taken by the dust rag in her hair.  So commonplace, so ordinary, yet she wears it as some kind of crown, an accessory to her natural beauty and style.

As I write this, I know that it is very easy to think I'm just spouting on and on about some movie stars I think are hot.  True, I find Hepburn, Roberts, and Lively to be very beautiful women, but my crushes are more than some expression of libidinous desire.  They are about the projection of my own emotional needs onto these fictional characters, and what qualities I respond to in a woman.  Not a reality based reaction by any stretch of the imagination, but I do find it fascinating how we can become emotionally attached to people we see in a movie.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Teacher of the Year (2014)

"In my class on Monday, it's Wednesday."

This line when delivered in Jason Strouse's Teacher of the Year was one of several times I guffawed during my first viewing of the movie.  It's a ridiculous line that makes no sense.  However, when it is said and how it is said - and by whowraps the line's absurdity in a rhetorical stylization I have become all too familiar with as a teacher.

The real power of Teacher of the Year is that, just like that line, it is a clever satire with a heart for the ridiculous.  Even in its most outlandish depictions of public education, there is a kernel of truth that will strongly resonate with teachers who have been in the profession for a while.

Take for instance the spineless administration, the useless guidance counselors, and pointlessly competitive teachers featured in the film.  All are cartoonish and exaggerated portrayals, but any long-term teacher will see qualities they recognize and have encountered at some point in their careers.

The film's authenticity comes from the fact that Strouse (who both wrote and directed it) is a high school English teacher himself.  Or, at least he was at the time the film was made.  As such, his writing and directing, although over the top at times in how they approach the subject matter, show a sharp insight into the joys and frustrations of public education.

The story follows Mitch Carter, an English teacher at a California charter school, who has just been named State Teacher of the Year, as he navigates the ins and outs of being an educator.  In faux-documentary style, the film reveals Mitch's personal feelings about his career as well as those of his colleagues.  We learn that Mitch is a good, dedicated teacher, one who truly deserves the honor he has been given, but he has slowly become disillusioned by the state of his profession.  When a lucrative job offer comes his way, he is torn between a career that is personally fulfilling and one that would mean more financial security for him and his growing family.

It is the film takes a serious tone towards what teachers are thinking and feeling.  Some moments, particularly during the interview segments, are cringe-worthy because they are too real.  It is in these moments that Strouse manages to capture a variety of teacher voices and attitudes, all of which ring true on some level, ranging from the young energy of new teachers to the grizzled, been-there-done-that stillness of the veterans.

Everything about Teacher of the Year shows a precision and craft that are not only needed in true satire but also make for a damn good film.

What-to-Watch Wednesday - The Nines (2007)

If a movie gives me something to think about then I can forgive it almost any flaw.  Such is the case with The Nines , a film that ponders...