Delayed Reaction: ‘Boy A’

Boy A is a British film that came out in 2007, but one I just saw the other night. Its title refers to a court practice of hiding the identity of a child defendant – Boy/Girl A, Boy B, and so on. After all, there is always the chance that they will be released as an older teen or young adult – out back into the world after being deemed “rehabilitated,” and no longer a harm to society. (It should also be noted that, while it completely stands on its own, the movie’s plot seems to share some similarities with the horrific James Patrick Bulger case in Liverpool of ’93.)

Andrew Garfield plays our Boy A, and he is amazing. I mean, indescribably so, although this did not come as a surprise. It’s intriguing to me that an actor who has excelled at so many smaller, dramatic, and emotionally heavy roles will be the new Spiderman in the reboot series. (I’m sure he’ll do a great job, but it’s just a whole other world of showbiz.) I hope that no one forgets how heartbreaking and impressive he was in Never Let Me Go (his performance being the best part of the film) and The Social Network (for which he was robbed a Best Supporting Actor nod at the Oscars), and Boy A, which he received a BAFTA for.

Garfield’s characters real name, as a child, is Eric Wilson. We first meet him during the opening scene of the film where he is about to be released from prison. His rehabilitation worker, Terry, asks him what his new name will be to embark on his new life. Already, we know one thing: Eric’s past life cannot be known; it’s a huge, dangerous secret. And then we come to know another thing, as Eric responds with grateful smiles and nervous laughter, “I can’t make up me mind!”: Boy A is innocent. Or, at the very least, no longer a harm to society, fully rehabilitated.

He chooses to be called Jack Burridge, and off he goes into the world of 9 to 5, new friendships, and a brand new romance (with much help from Terry all the way).

As Jack starts his new life and tries to neglect his old one, the audience does not. We are instead in a position where we see Jack’s new, stable life paralleled by his childhood and the crime he was imprisoned for. The reveal comes steadily but surely, the flashbacks eloquent and paced very carefully. We see Eric failing at school, his mother dying of cancer, his father wretched and verbally abusive, being bullied and beaten up by older kids, and then finally befriending Philip – a clear troublemaker with an unusually rough demeanor for a kid. Nonetheless, he likes Eric and he stands up for him. The crime that is committed is perceived to be carried out by the both of them, equally, but the flashback scene to the actual tragic incident doesn’t fill in all the blanks for us. We find out what happened, realize that Philip (as predicted) was the leader in the crime, but we do not find out which crime Eric is guilty of – assisting in the murder of a schoolgirl, or never stepping in to stop it.

The way the film unravels, it seems as though Garfield’s portrayal of the adult Eric (now, of course, Jack) is supposed to speak to his involvement in the crime. Jack is quiet, easily flattered, surprised by other people’s kindness and yet very kind himself, nervous but gentle, naive and literally sheltered, desperate to love and even more desperate to be loved. There is nothing about him that yells “murderer,” but there is definitely something that whispers “follower.” For an actor to go off of a child’s uncomplicated performance and come up with all of this, continuing the journey of this human being in such a complex way, is truly remarkable to watch.

Garfield may have us rooting for him, but the film is not as sympathetic. Though Jack starts out leading a very positive second life (in which he even saves a little girl from a car crash and becomes the town hero), the media gets word of his new identity and the whole country seems to be ravenous to snatch it away from him. The story shoots off from one about a rehabilitated child criminal to one of a young adult running from his past and from the public that wants him to pay. It’s a story about one’s privacy, and if one deserves it after being tried for a very serious crime before he could be considered a teen. It’s a story that makes us question if second chances in extreme cases like these are really possible, and if so, for how long?

No matter what the answers are, or if there even are any, this film – beautiful and delicate when it could have easily been exploitative and harsh – is worth the watch.

Michelangelo Antonioni: Man vs. Manmade

“I have never drawn, even as a child, either puppets or silhouettes but rather facades of houses and gates. One of my favourite games consisted of organising towns. Ignorant in architecture, I constructed buildings and streets crammed with little figures. I invented stories for them. These childhood happenings – I was eleven years old – were like little films.” – Michelangelo Antonioni

The 4th anniversary of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s death was a few days ago on July 30th. If you have followed my posts, it may be clear by now that I am in love with Antonioni’s work, especially the “trilogy” of the early 60s (L’avventura, La Notte, L’eclisse). These black and white films were incredibly dark, isolated, rich and yet lost, just like the characters inhabiting them. There is a haunting kind of romanticism about all three.

The above quote by Antonioni himself describes perfectly an essential running theme in all of his films: his unique emphasis on architecture, portrayed as always overpowering the people. The director made a point to frame the characters with huge, modern buildings looming over them – maybe menacingly, maybe without any intention whatsoever.

It was meant to illustrate how lost and vulnerable the characters were – man vs. manmade. At some point, each of them appears dwarfed by large structures that are often not beautiful nor remarkable, but overwhelmingly immense and stable. These composed shots reveal the dreadful truth about humans, how small and fluttering we are.

Death of the Chick Flick: What ‘Bridesmaids’ Accomplishes for Women, Comedy, and Hollywood

Written for and originally posted at Gozamos.

By now, you’ve probably heard a lot about the new comedy, Bridesmaids. It’s been called The Hangover for women and there’s a hilarious but disgusting food poisoning scene that you should really look out for (as if you could miss it). Now that the movie is out in theaters and opened in second at the box office (with Thor in first), the real question is: What does this successful comedy with an all-female cast mean for women and the future of film?

It seems a shame that in 2011 this is still up for discussion, but it’s true that Hollywood has been churning out tons of successful “bro” comedies lately, and somehow leaving plenty of room for dramatic female roles and little room for good, solid female comedies. On average, the most you’re going to get in that arena in a given year is another Reese Witherspoon rom-com – not exactly gut-splitting.

Bridesmaids is not only hysterical, it’s genius both dramatically and comically. It’s not “pretty funny for a chick flick” – this time, it sets the bar. The script was co-written by Saturday Night Live star Kristen Wiig (who also stars in the film as the lead and Maid of Honor, Annie), and Annie Mumolo – an improv actor and screenwriter who makes a brief cameo during the airplane scene.

By no means is Bridesmaids a film that will be used in Women’s Studies classes, but it is definitely the first since Mean Girls (2004 film written by and starring yet another Saturday Night Live star, Tina Fey) to truly succeed as a female-led blockbuster comedy that appeals to a general audience. The latter part is the most significant: for a female comedy to land as high as second at the box office, it must have universal appeal, and it must also surpass the bemoaned stamp of “chick flick.” (Read: men won’t voluntarily and excitedly run to a “chick flick,” and many women nowadays won’t either.)

Here’s the thing: the Bridesmaids plot is exactly as the title suggests. It’s a film about women in a bridal party (the bride is Lillian, played by Maya Rudolph) going through the standard, albeit sometimes cliché motions leading up to a wedding. While sitting in the theater before the movie, I looked around and realized that yes, indeed there was a pretty equal amount of men and women in the audience – and it was packed. Tons of men were here to see a movie about a bunch of women and bridal showers and bachelorette parties, and not because their girlfriends and wives dragged them.

But how and why? While the film is about gals and girly things, the jokes in this movie are too funny for anyone not to laugh regardless of gender. Wiig and Rudolph are already regarded as a few of the funniest women in comedy today and the supporting characters and numerous conflicts only make them shine more. Wiig’s performance is one of the most impressive parts of the movie as she transitions with ease from comedy to drama throughout.

Sure, scenes like a gross but roaring-laughter-inducing food poisoning scene at a bridal store help. However, Bridesmaids works for a general audience because it doesn’t have to rely on the gross-out jokes. Additionally, while Lillian’s other best friend, the wealthy and proper Helen (played by Rose Byrne) is competing with Annie for the power over the wedding festivities throughout the whole film, there are no cat fights just for the sake of humor. Real motives and feelings propel every funny aspect of the movie. The wedding events drive Annie and Lillian apart and challenge their longtime friendship. Meanwhile, Annie is falling apart professionally and personally, it explains her actions when she, say, starts destroying the flamboyant decorations at the bridal shower thrown by Helen. In Bridesmaids, believable human emotions and the valid complexities of friendship lead to many hilarious, over-the-top, but essentially plausible outbursts, fights, and mishaps. There’s a realistic storyline to Bridesmaids that strengthens its outlandish, shocking comedy.

These women are not only funny, but they feel real – something very welcome after too many stock, shrill, unremarkable female characters in romantic comedies. The dialogue between the characters – especially Annie and Lillian – is something that most women will find true to life. Thus, the whole film feels accessible: neither women nor men will find the friendships and situations out of reach or unbelievable. (After all, men can recognize realistic women characters too, you know.)

Simply put, there is no one scene where only women “get the joke” and men are left clueless. Everyone is clued in, which is no easy feat for a movie written by and revolving around women. Bridesmaids is overall a refreshing success and a big step forward for female comedies in Hollywood. For all the boys clubs and The Hangovers in the movie business, Kristen Wiig and company have overcome the stigmas and impressed all kinds of audiences – from feminists to men who love bro-coms to the most respected of movie critics.

On the official poster for the film, the very top quote from a movie critic reads in bold, pink letters: “Chick flicks don’t have to suck!” This is undoubtedly Bridesmaids’ most important contribution to the industry and to audiences. In the past, a movie with this plot could have and did suck. But this time, with all the elements of comedy and female power combined, the opportunity was seized, and it was universally awesome.

New German Cinema: ‘When we behave, nobody cares, but when we are bad, nobody forgets.’

I took a class called “New German Cinema” at the end of my freshman year of college. It was designated as a “seminar” credit, and I enrolled because I knew I was interested in becoming a film major at that point. I think I saw the words “cinema” and “German” and thought I’d get a nice overview of European film, or actually, any film that was ever set in or around Germany.

Those were my naive expectations going into it. What New German Cinema turned out to be was a movement from the 1960s to the 1980s aimed at creating “quality” film, almost like a German version of the French New Wave. What constituted as quality varied, but was predominantly quieter, more challenging, more artistic-oriented, and much, much more “on the outskirts” than mainstream film.

The professor, a wickedly smart but brutally bitter and jaded man, set out to unnerve and stir us with films by Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The teacher being a a firm hater of all things Hollywood (with choice words for Spielberg), the “New German Cinema” seminar took me in as an impressionable 19-year-old who thought movies were generally cool and magical, and then spit me out as a doubtful and suspicious film school kid, scarred for life in ways good and bad, for now movies would never look the same again, would never serve the same purpose as previously believed.

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) was the first film I ever saw of Werner Herzog’s, shown in this class. I laughed and laughed, and felt bad and crude for laughing, but kept doing so, couldn’t help it, and then there came a distinct moment where I stopped suddenly as it hit me, sucking in air to cease the laughter: Oh, wait, it’s not funny, and it never was supposed to be. In fact, it’s disturbing, fucking frightening.

I cannot think off the top of my head of another film that got this reaction out of me. Whatever you thought it was, you were wrong, and Herzog had the last laugh, as he usually does.

When we behave, nobody cares, but when we are bad, nobody forgets.

The little people in Even Dwarfs shout this during their rebellion against their ominous superiors. Perhaps the filmmakers of the New German Cinema movement were shouting this at all of Hollywood, to all mainstream audiences, trying to violently shake us awake.

The End of the World as Lars von Trier Knows It

As a fan of Lars von Trier, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and pretty much any “wedding movie” with a dark premise (don’t ask), I’m excited about this. Salon writer Drew Grant already referred to it as Rachel Getting Married meets Donnie Darko,” which seems fair, at least from this trailer.

Either way, von Trier’s upcoming film Melancholia looks like a departure in story/plot for him, while still retaining that “beautiful-but-uncomfortable-and-slightly-ridiculous” quality he (usually) pulls off so well.

The Wikipedia page for this movie says:

Trier has said that he considers all of his previous films to end happily, and that this will be the first with an unhappy ending.

Oh yes, of course, because Dancer in the Dark was basically the Wizard of Oz of our time. I wouldn’t expect anything less from this smart ass, insane, and genius filmmaker.

Celebrating Bertolucci

I think that I used to love Hollywood movies. I remember great phases and moments. But, unfortunately, now is not the moment.

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci turns 70 today, with 45+ years of masterful contributions to cinema. As the above quote suggests, Bertolucci has spent his career fighting Hollywood cliches and hackneyed plots. He strongly resists any kind of censorship, and he refuses to play it safe. This is what makes Bertolucci worth studying in film classes, worth admiring above the rest.

One of the visually stunning shots in "The Conformist" (1970)

My two favorite films of his are The Conformist (1970) and The Dreamers (2003) – both films that are simultaneously unnerving and magnificent. The former is a political drama revolving around Fascism, and the latter is an art film about sexual and political revolution of youth in Paris, 1968.

Still from "The Dreamers" (2003), in a scene referencing French New Wave film "Band of Outsiders" (1964, Godard)

Though very sexually graphic and at times disturbing, The Dreamers is especially amazing to watch given its numerous references to famous art films before and of the time of the 1960s. (Credit is of course also due to Gilbert Adair, writer of the novel the movie was based on and the screenplay itself.)

All great filmmakers remain film students throughout their entire careers. They never stop learning, and they move forward while looking back. Bertolucci is a prime example of a filmmaker who has never ceased to be a student of film, and because of his adoration for the craft, he is among the most adored.

Champagne in a Can

Sofia Coppola “canned champagne.” Yes, it really is the best thing in a can. Go buy it at your nearest alcoholic beverages depot now. It’s a tiny pink can filled with bubbly sparkling wine and even has a tiny pink straw attached, picnic-ready. So obviously, I drank all 4 of my 4-pack while watching the Oscars this year. Someone online said to me, “I hope it’s better than her movies.” And if you could hear a guffaw over the internet, I swore I heard one.

Susanne Bier got up there later and accepted the award for Best Foreign Film, awarded to her work, In a Better World. An intense lover of modern Danish film (it’s a specific type of love, I guess), I was shocked (thought Biutiful would win, honestly) but excited. I love all of Bier’s films and felt them all under-appreciated, so this was big. While she gave her speech, I cheered for her, alone on my couch, as everyone in the Kodak Theatre resounded in a unanimous, stiff and silent, “Who the fuck is this?”

Sometimes, I vote for someone in a petty or serious poll just because she’s one female choice out of a handful of male choices (Please note: Sarah Palin is exempt from this juvenile logic of mine). The “girl power” in me says this is not wrong at all, that it is actually 150% right, the most right I could ever be. The other part of me isn’t sure what’s so moral about blindly becoming the cheerleader for anyone with a vagina. But, sometimes, I do it anyway.

In the Barry Jenkins film Medicine for Melancholy, the main female character asks the main male character if he’s ever wondered what her t-shirt means. It reads, simply, “loden.” He shakes his head “no.” She explains to him that she does this for a living – she prints t-shirts with the last names of female directors on them. Hers in particular is a tribute to Barbara Loden, film actress and director of Wanda (1970). Mostly, this scene inspires me – women recognizing and honoring other women’s achievements, out in the open for all to see. It’s kind of cheeky, in a way. But then there’s the tail end of this whole sentiment, where I picture this young woman walking around in these t-shirts lauding lowercase last names that no passersby recognize or care about.

Jo (Tracey Heggins) and Micah (Wyatt Cenac) in Medicine for Melancholy

When Tina Fey accepted her more-than-deserved Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, she said poignantly: “I do hope that women are achieving at a rate these days that we can stop counting what number they are at things.”

Which leads me to wonder: If women’s achievements in predominantly male-dominated roles – especially in the world of entertainment – inspire and encourage a certain group of women, then does it matter if these achievements are whittled down to mere numbers or vaguely cool t-shirts to the rest?

Oh hell, let the men figure it out. Bring me some more champagne.

Live Tweeting the 2011 Oscars

I’m not sure what’s dorkier – live blogging or live tweeting an awards ceremony…but nonetheless, I’ll be live tweeting my comments on the 2011 Academy Awards tonight! Last year, it was extremely stressful and distracting to keep up with Twitter and updating the blog (yes, I’m actually being serious), so I will just be leaving comments there! And by “comments,” I mean, mostly catty observations and unnecessary outbursts of joy and/or anger.

So if you have a Twitter or you’re just looking to browse, feel free to check out my tweets here!

Why ‘The Social Network’ Should Win Best Screenplay Oscar, and Then Some

People have said a lot of things about The Social Network. That it’s sexist, that it’s not true to the real story, that it makes Mark Zuckerberg out to be someone he’s not, etc. But the one thing no one really can say is that it’s bad. It is widely accepted as a brilliant film directed by David Fincher, starting with a one-of-a-kind script by Aaron Sorkin that seems to remind us of the power a screenplay can and should have. Even the actors are in awe of it to this day, rarely ever going an interview without mentioning how great the script was to begin with.

“Dialogue” is the buzz word you hear most often when there’s talk of Sorkin’s screenplay. This praise followed shortly after we watched the film and witnessed these young actors rattling off witty conversations we all wished we could come up with in real life. (Especially the famous “9 pages of dialogue” opening scene.) Then they released the PDF of the screenplay online just before the Oscars (indeed, it’s up for “Best Adapted Screenplay”), and now all that’s left to do is sit back and marvel. Because it’s one thing to hear good dialogue; it’s another to get straight-up schooled by a master.

While reading, I was only at page 28 when I realized that it’s not Sorkin’s style alone that sets it apart as an amazing script. What struck me is that he doesn’t just write, he navigates – and flawlessly at that. It is loud and clear how the film needs to play out, how the actors need to deliver even a mere one or two words, when the camera is supposed to move, where exactly the editor is supposed to cut, but in an advanced kind of way that is more precise and frantic than most writers could envision – however, it remains a smooth ride throughout nonetheless.

Sorkin may sound self-deprecating in interviews, but the writing knows better: Within its pages, Sorkin is like an assured, knowledgeable tour guide who can talk while walking backwards without tripping once. Not even once.

If the whole Social Network package is a well-oiled machine, then the script is the machine, with everything else happening to fall into place as “the oil,” helping it work as it was meant to work. In the end, everything was delivered the way it was intended. There’s no second-guessing or doubts between the pages, and it’s as effortlessly captivating of a read as it is onscreen. Sorkin’s writing voice is as confident as his main characters, and the result? The Social Network as a complete film struts in such a way that you can’t blame it. This should not only win the Academy Award this year, it should set the standard for the rest of the film industry.

As for the best part? This did it for me:

‘In the Bedroom’ Bares the Human Soul Like No Other

The trap has nylon nets called ‘heads.’ Two side heads to let the lobster crawl in. And inside, what’s called a bedroom head holds the bait, and keeps him from escaping. You know the old saying: ‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd?’ Well, it’s like that. Get more than two of these in a bedroom and chances are something like that’s gonna happen.

In the Bedroom (2001, directed by Todd Field) is a film that encapsulates several things within one well-maintained tragedy. On the surface, the title refers to the “bedroom” or interior of a lobster trap. When catching them, no more than two lobsters can be held in the trap compartment. If a third is added, they start to become violent and attack one another. Tom Wilkinson’s character, Dr. Matt. Fowler, describes this in a fishing boat off the coast of Maine. This description becomes a metaphor for actual violence as well as emotional chaos between the characters.

After a looked-down-upon love affair between Fowler’s son Frank (Nick Stahl) and Natalie (Marisa Tomei) ends in an unexpected, horrendous twist, he and his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) struggle against and with each other to come to terms with everything that has happened and the future of their family. The performances are all unbelievably good and heartfelt. The pacing is slow at times, but completely engaging all the same. It’s a movie that should take its time in order to unravel very carefully, which it does.

What sounds and looks like an intimate movie about love and relationships becomes something much more complex and disturbingly honest. It bares the human soul at its most conflicted, its most determined, its best, and its worst. The thing about this movie is that as dark as it may be, once its over, you never expected it to take you on the journey that it eventually did. Even though it came out ten years ago, the journey is worth experiencing again and again. All other tragic dramas should take note.