Glimpses Musicals Edition Part 1: “Hairspray” and “Mamma Mia”

“Hairspray”

Newcomer (no more) Nikki Blonsky is charming as Tracy Turnblad, a curvy dancing machine with a dream to appear as a dancer on the Corny Collins Show, the most popular local program in small town Baltimore. Hairspray is, in essence, Blonsky’s time to shine, and she does– going from doe-eyed teenage girl to grooving vixen in a span of an hour. John Travolta is charming yet awfully awkward as Edna, a role that he probably only got because of his previous experience in Hollywood musicals. He makes a brave effort, but just can’t cut it in the role of charming mother. The awkward dance he shares with Christopher Walken brings cringes instead of eager chills– never a good sign. Michelle Pfeiffer has gone a long way from the hot girlfriend in “Scarface” back in 1983– at least she’s got the chance to flaunt personality in this movie. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to flaunt. I would laud her for singing, but she doesn’t have the best chops. It was a smart decision on her part to stay with acting, but not exactly the best decision to opt for a singing part when her singing voice isn’t her top asset. Efron goes from modern-day Bolton to sixties-era hottie as Link Larkin, Tracy’s love interest,  a part that is pretty much written for him. Pre-Pitch Perfect Brittany Snow is a formidable background character here, playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter Amber with the needed mix of spice and sugar. Snow has better chops!

What I enjoyed most about this movie were the breakout acts– Broadway actor Elijah Kelley as Seaweed J. Stubbs and his sister Little Inez… these guys are what gave the film its much-needed charm. In some twist of fate, they mirrored their roles: super talents unrecognized in the face of A-List acts. It would’ve been nice to hear (see more) from these acts after 2007… another entertaining bit? pre-Lohan Amanda Bynes playing innocent repressed child Penny, Seaweed’s doe-eyed love interest.

Splotched with bits of charm and corniness, Hairspray is a lively, on your feet flick based on one of Broadway’s more happier iconic musicals. If you’re looking for a sandwich movie or something to do that won’t stress you out but keep you positive, then Hairspray is the movie to watch. It has its serious bits and its happy bits and its cheesy bits in relatively edible proportions. Trust me, you won’t cop out.

“Mamma Mia” 

When you’ve been nominated for an Academy Award (or two, or three..), perhaps you’re allowed one or two bad films as fillers in between your best works. This is the case with Meryl Streep, the Oscars’ most nominated thespian who has received more than 10 nominations for her acting throughout her career. Mamma Mia is her ‘bad film’.

Streep plays single mother Donna Sheridan, and her daughter Sophie is Amanda Bynes, who at the young age of 20 has decided to get married. Sheridan busies and stresses herself out in preparing for the event, while in her quest to discover who her dad is, Sophie invites three of her mother’s former flames, played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skaarsgaard. Chaos ensues when Donna discovers their presence in her hotel, making for some much-needed fun fodder set to the dated (yet classic) sounds of ABBA disco music.

Meryl does what she can with this part– she gets to have fun (singing and dancing) and kissing, playing Donna Sheridan’s charming mom role quite well. Seyfried is just blah as Sophie, who makes up for her so-so work in this movie with an overload of singing parts (she isn’t the best singer, but better than Michelle Pfeiffer that’s for sure). Firth and Brosnan look like they’ve been unwillingly transported from another film to a deserted land to play their parts (a scary way to look, mind you). Pierce makes an effort to sing but falls flat, making for one of the film’s many cringeworthy bits.

Disco is classic and iconic in its own right, but its a genre of music that can’t always be over altered without losing its defining musical characteristics. I can’t be too sure, but perhaps that became one of the things that hindered modernizing the movie. Nevertheless, they did an okay job with the singing and the arranging. Still, it wasn’t enough to bring disco into the new age and make it ‘cool’– can’t say they wanted to do that, though.

Just like any other bad but no-so bad movies, Mamma Mia has its mix of good and bad parts. Overall, it isn’t a pleasant watch, to be honest. One could do better by watching the original movie instead of this modern remake, and save oneself almost two hours’ time of sitting through a number of strange arrangements, cringeworthy singing, and awfully screwed up moral compasses.

 

 

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Glimpses: Short Reviews of “Goodfellas” and “Million Dollar Baby”

Just One of the Guys: Goodfellas 

After pushing myself through three Godfather installments and three hours’ worth of Scarface, Goodfellas seems like a less intense crime caper. In some way, it is. Instead of concluding with a bloody end, Goodfellas does it differently. Based on the true story of mobster turned whistleblower Henry Hill (Ray Liota), the movie deals with his story– going from teenaged mafia lackey to experienced smuggler in a span of three or so decades. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci costar as Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito, respectively, fellow smugglers Henry meets on his way to the top.

Just like any other crime film, Goodfellas deals with its own unique form of organized crime. But the time and place are the same– the fifties and New York City. Instead of a strong, punctuating instrumental, Goodfellas makes good use of some very good rock in order to set it apart, making some musical movie magic in the process.

Despite his good looks, Liota is no charismatic protagonist. Nor is his voiceover halfway pleasant than it is intended to be. De Niro and Pesci give the film its much needed personality, with Pesci playing a character that echoed Tony Montana in his no nonsense use of the ubiquitous mob word f@$k (you know what I mean). Again, women play second fiddle here. Henry goes from his awkward blind date turned wife Karen to first mistress Janice to second mistress Sandy (an underutilized Debbie Mazar). Thankfully, some acting standouts emerge here– Lorraine Bracco’s turn as Karen Hill could almost have been the inspiration for Jennifer Lawrence’s role in American Hustle almost a decade or so later.

Goodfellas is a welcome relief from cookie cutter mafia films in the sense that it dares to be creative, employing elements that would seem out of place in crime film classics. Its use of dual voiceover, breaking the fourth wall and a catchy rock soundtrack are risks that don’t work for everyone, but are risks to be applauded nonetheless. These elements weren’t employed to their optimum levels, but hey, it’s not like Scorsese cut out the essentials in exchange for these oddities. The blood is there, the gore is there, and so is the  drug use. Mob film junkies will be freaked, but they will, at some point, feel at home. This is Scorsese, after all.

 

You Got Me There: A Review of “Million Dollar Baby” 

I owe the biggest apology to Clint Eastwood. Honestly, I didn’t expect much from this movie and I pegged it to be just another Rocky-esque sports drama that decided to turn things around with a female lead. In fact, I found myself pleasantly surprised it even took home accolades at the Oscars– including Best Picture. ‘Is it really THAT good?’ I wondered back then.

Well, needless to say I was wrong. I’d rather not go deeper into the plot because I want those who haven’t seen it at all to be just as pleasantly surprised as I was when I watched the movie from start to finish. Ladies and gentlemen, this is more than just a sports drama– trust me.

Since I don’t want to go into the plot, I’ll just talk about the acting. Eastwood is still as manhid as ever– it seems like he’s embraced his typecast role as mean old man to the point that he’s actually willing to put himself in the part in his own movie. Needless to say, he’s a better director than an actor here. Morgan Freeman is another one who seems to have gotten his typecast part down– it would be too early to say, but he could give James Earl Jones a run for his money in the voiceover department. I would’ve wanted to know more about his character, though– Freeman may embrace the background roles, but he doesn’t always deserve them. Swank is real as real should be as Maggie Fitzgerald, playing her with so much realness and reliability that I could almost call her one of my favorite actresses. I love how raw and real she is as Maggie Fitzgerald– it reminded me a lot of how Lupita Nyong’O managed to transcend the movie screen and reach me emotionally as Patsy in 12 Years A Slave. Swank played Maggie with the same kind of gripping emotion.. and I loved every minute of it. I wasn’t too fond of the Southern accent though, but it was the least of her problems  (Al Pacino sounded much worse trying to be Cuban in Scarface, to be honest).

I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again: this is MORE than just a sports drama. It may deal with a fighter’s rise to the top of the ranks and to the top of her game, but it also includes much more elements that set it apart from the Rocky movies of this world. Themes like family, religion, death and morality are dealt with at some point during the film, brought out at just the right moment in order to give them time to simmer and boil. In short, it’s a more complex movie– one that goes beyond the punches, the wounds, the wins, and the terribly cliche fight quotes.

Plus: Swank makes the female sports lead a worthy headlining star, a formidable precursor to later characters like Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games), Tris (Divergent), Jasmine Francis (Blue Jasmine), and so on.

Gritty, Dirty, Raw Violence in “Scarface”. PLUS: Some Casting Notes

Scarface isn’t a classy film. Littered with profanity, open violence and shear grit, it’s one of those movies that could sometimes require a strong stomach for those who aren’t used to gritty movies. Al Pacino plays the ‘white trash’ version of Michael Corleone in this movie,  street-smart Cuban immigrant turned drug dealer Tony Montana. Besides Pacino, the film has no other A-list acts, save for a then unknown Michelle Pfeiffer playing Tony’s druggie wife Elvira Hancock. Steven Baeur plays Tony’s fellow immigrant and best friend Manny Ray, while Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays Tony’s sister, Gina.

Everything about this movie is so very 80’s– from the garish opening font to the annoying drawl of the score to the ancestral synth pop (origins of today’s EDM). Costume design gets it right with the suits, the glitter, and the cleavage dresses (later seen on Amy Adams in American Hustle). Even the set design echoes the period perfectly. For any aspiring set/costume designer looking for a good film as inspiration for an 80’s time setting, this is the movie to look to. It was, after all, made in the 80’s.

A film that’s almost three hours long shouldn’t have plot holes and an excuse not to develop character relationships, yet Scarface doesn’t. Tony and Elvira’s relationship lacks even a smidgen of genuine chemistry. Yes, we get that Elvira may be the type who seems willing to just throw herself from one drug dealer to another, but that doesn’t give the film an excuse to allow her to go from being totally ignorant of Tony to marrying him willingly in a span of three months.

Honestly, Pfeiffer is bland in this movie. She played the ornamental role well but she just didn’t have much to do. Mastrantonio isn’t the best, but she’s got more to work with than Pfeiffer. Steven Baeur should’ve had more chances to speak up, but that just wouldn’t be fitting of his character Manny. Besides, he had his moments.

I need not state the obvious, but yes, Pacino is the star of this movie. It would be wrong to compare this to his work as Michael Corleone, but I have to admit the similarities are there, save for Corleone’s classiness and his choice to become legitimate. But Tony has the fun that Michael doesn’t: he handles the weaponry in Scarface, and gets to play in several scenes in the movie. One particularly iconic scene involves Tony and his “little friend”: a powerful machine gun that starts off the movie’s bloody denouement. On the other hand, Michael is educated and he gets the chance to grow old and have a family. Tony doesn’t seem to give a crap about that. He’s more of a fatalistic anti-hero, one that does more wrong than right. I haven’t seen nor read much Al Pacino interviews, but it seems to me like he had more fun playing Tony Montana than he did Michael Corleone. The role may be less respected, but it is still considered a classic in its respective genre.

Scarface is an acquired taste type of film. Rooted in its decade and its genre, it contains elements that don’t necessarily transcend to the majority of the movie going audience. But if there’s one thing to remember, it’s that it does what it’s supposed to do almost flawlessly. Guns, coke, blood, women..Scarface plays with these elements and uses them excessively to the point of shear exaggeration. Any crime film fan fond of mobster/drug tales would be madly in love with this movie. Can’t say I am, though.

 

Postscript: On Casting Choices 

When Memoirs of a Geisha was released back in 2005, there was some controversy surrounding the casting of non-Japanese actresses Michele Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in roles meant for Japanese women: geishas. Why is it that the same uproar never surrounded Andy Garcia’s casting as Italian Vincent Mancini in the third Godfather when he’s Cuban-American and not Italian? Or Al Pacino’s case in Scarface when he played a Cuban guy when he’s Italian by blood?

Perhaps it was because of the roles that Ziyi and Yeoh were set to play. Geishas are an important and valued aspect of Japanese culture, and the Japanese probably wanted this to be respected even by Hollywood film producers.

Forgive me for stating the obvious there, but it was something that I just wanted to wonder aloud about– and I’m curious to know what other people think about it. Is it really a matter of culture? You be the judge.

 

 

Some Notes on the Godfather trilogy

It would be considered a dishonor of sorts to simply write the Godfather trilogy off as a set of films to randomly review. Having been honored by several film institutions and critics alike as some of the best films ever made (save for the third one), writing about these films would require a certain level of additional interpretation (or at least that’s what I believe). This entry will involve certain aspects of the standard reviews I write up for the films I’ve seen throughout the summer, but will be different in all other aspects. You’ll see why in the succeeding paragraphs.

The Plot

The Godfather trilogy tells the multigenerational story of the Corleone crime family. It’s main protagonist, Michael Corleone, starts off in the first film as a doe-eyed collegiate, eager to have nothing to do with the ‘family business’. By the time the third movie comes about, Michael is a successful and accomplished man who has cut himself off from his former mafia ties in the hopes of becoming truly legitimate.

The Notes

Noir Descendant 

There are traces of film noir left over in the Godfather– from the crisp three-piece suits to the gritty dialogue to the guns, these movies are clear descendants of these fatalistic black and white movies from the 1940s. Even the depiction of the female characters as clueless housewives or sexpots is borrowed from this genre.

Anti-Feminist 

Speaking of feminist depiction, the trilogy is far from friendly to the opposite sex. There are only two mainstay females in the movie: Connie, Michael’s sister (Talia Shire) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). For the first two films they’re either portrayed as clueless and sometimes mentally unstable. There’s no indication of them playing an equal part in the family business dealings, and only their marriages and their children are considered important. It is only in the third film when Connie gains her footing– in the first film she’s an abused wife, in the second, a negligent mother. Kay Adams is a more stable character, yet one that seems to submit to Michael’s whims too quickly. She marries him in the first movie despite having not seen him for so long, and continues to stay loyal to him despite the things that have happened. Kay’s daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola in the third film), seems to do nothing more than be promiscuous towards her cousin. There isn’t much substance and personality in her character, and she’s horribly one dimensional.

Perhaps the lack of a modern female character can be explained by two things: time and genre. The film is set in a period before the emergence of strong female characters, and to include one would be severely unfaithful to the setting. Secondly, gangster films have never been female friendly– most are what some people like to call ‘sausage fests’.

Family Centered 

Despite it all, the Godfather trilogy teaches a number of positive lessons about the concept of family. Although their methods are somewhat severe, and decision making in some aspects of the movie are questionable, there is much emphasis made with regards to protecting one’s family and children.

Even if they are engaged in work that may keep them busy, there is still some effort by the men to involve themselves in family affairs: Vito attends his daughter Connie’s wedding in between business meetings and makes it in time for the memorable moments; Michael is present during his godson’s baptism and his son’s Communion celebration and travels to Sicily to see Anthony’s debut in an opera house. Their connections with their children are strained and few, yet the connection is there. Save for Sonny’s case, there is no instance of philandering or negligence on the part of the father figures in the film: Vito and later, Michael.

Michael himself emphasizes in the movie that he made certain decisions in the hopes of protecting his family from harm. I was initially quite put off by the fact that the women are kept unaware of the family’s business dealings, but looking back on it, perhaps this was a method to protect them if ever something wrong happened to the entire family.

As mentioned earlier, the methods and decisions made were to an extent, quite extreme, yet the silver lining is there. Beyond all those rash decisions (Carlo and Fredo is all I’ll say, I need not spoil it any further), there are some good points. One particular quote pretty much sums it all up: “A man who never spends time with his family can never be a real man.”

Dullest Actress Ever 

I’ve seen enough films to be brave enough to say that Sofia Coppola is the dullest actress… ever (I’m thankful she opted to be a filmmaker). Her appearance in the third installment is said to be one of the main factors that turned it into a bad movie. She may have had the look back then, but her acting just didn’t cut it. Her flirtation scenes with Andy Garcia were so cringe-worthy in the third film, not to mention her monotonous drawl of a voice, I really don’t understand how she got the part (some allege nepotism). All I can say is that this was one of the low points of the Godfather saga, one that could’ve been fixed had an actress who exuded sufficient personality, charm and brains been selected instead.

Some Thought, Please! 

One thing I admired about the film was the thought that went into certain decisions. Yes, they weren’t exactly the most legitimate, but they weren’t rash, either. Before seeing the Godfather trilogy I had gotten used to murder in movies being action-packed and noisy, not quiet and pre-planned. There’s a lot of planning that goes into death in the movie– from the murder of Don Ciccio in the second movie to the deaths that litter the last minutes of Godfather Part III, everything has been thought out. This habit of planning is something that Michael is shown to take quite seriously– he berates his protege/nephew Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) in the third film when Vincent plans a murder without his approval or knowledge. Rashness is shown to lead to negative consequences, as seen in the case of Michael’s older brother Sonny.

The lesson here is short and simple: think things through before you proceed; rash decisions can lead to rash consequences.

Food, Food, Food

One of my favorite scenes in the movie (now one of my favorite film scenes EVER) is the part in Godfather 1 where Peter Clemenza (one of Vito’s old friends), teaches Michael how to make a rich Italian spaghetti sauce. Another favorite scene is the part in the third film where Connie watches her godfather Don Altobello die from eating  poisoned cannoli.

There aren’t much specific scenes in the movie about food, but there are a number of eating scenes in the movie (perhaps Coppola’s way of showing how important food is in the Italian culture).

P.S. I’ll be trying to cook that Italian sauce recipe in a few weeks or so, watch for updates! 🙂

Final Words 

For someone who hasn’t seen a lot of gangster movies, the Godfather was a surprisingly good introduction to the genre. Although, I have to say that I was more psyched about the family dynamic aspect that I saw as compared to the whole mobster concept that the trilogy is about. One thing that really put me off was the role of women in gangster movies… they’re portrayed as equals in the familial sense, but restricted to the house and the home. It made me wonder why things were that way… and inspired me, in a way, to try to reverse things in my favor.

P.S. You’ll see what I mean… soon! 😉

 

 

 

Rock Bottom Personified In “Blue Jasmine”

Woody Allen’s second ticket to the Oscars is a far cry from Midnight in Paris, the legendary director’s earlier, yet relatively recent Oscar entry back in 2011. Rambunctious, angry and tired, Blue Jasmine tells a darker, sadder story… one that doesn’t end in a pleasant walk in the rain set to Parisian jazz. From start to finish, Midnight in Paris is a pleasant film– location shots captured at their most gorgeous make the film seem to make the film more like a love letter to the country punctuated by well-chosen Parisian-esque instrumentals. The same hint of glamor exists in Blue Jasmine, but is not paid tribute to in much the same way. Instead, Allen chooses to play with contrasts in his latest work, pitting scenes of Jasmine Francis’ fairytale past with her dreary, unpleasant present.

Blanchett is the film’s neurotic lead Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis. A former trophy wife turned obvious nutcase, she moves in with half sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) at the start of the film after things fall apart for her in New York. Jasmine’s husband Hal (a perfectly cast Alec Baldwin)  turns out to be a philanderer instead of a philanthropist, a thief instead of a businessman, and the government has taken everything: leaving her with less than a fourth of what she used to have while living the high life. Jasmine struggles to adjust to her less than glamorous new life, which involve taking a job in order to support herself and having to deal with the worst people. She gets a second chance at a good life when multimillionaire Dwight (a surprising Peter Skaarsgard, haven’t seen him act in a while), falls for her, but things fall apart once more when she runs into her sister’s ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay)  while shopping for an engagement ring.

Many critics have called Blue Jasmine a career best for  Cate Blanchett. As someone not familiar with her extensive filmography (I saw her last doing a pretty bad impression of a female Nazi in the rusty Indiana Jones reboot), I have to say that it’s one of her better films, and definitely a step up from her role in the Aviator a few years back. Blanchett may not have went down the ‘physical transformation’ route, but did a surprisingly good job of looking like an absolutely convincing nutcase (I wouldn’t be surprised if she prepared for the role by seeing a few Real Housewives episodes). Her transition from high life to rock bottom, when seen on film, is logical and not contrived, real and not forced. Hawkins’ Ginger on the other hand, is a  shaky, unsure geek who needs to keep her bra strap hidden. She lacked any visible chemistry with the boys cast as her adoptive children (so what if they were adopted), and seemed to be on the verge of perpetual tears. The point may come in the film when she goes from flat to round character, but its so short-lived and cut off that it becomes forgettable. So what if in real life she’s a well-educated,  put together Briton with a polished accent? I wasn’t that big a fan of her portrayal of Ginger. Dice Clay lacked the screen time to shine, but had some potential to snatch a supporting actor nod as Augie, Ginger’s ill-fated ex husband who also happens to be one of Hal’s victims. Baldwin plays his ‘bit’ part in the film well, but seems an uncharacteristic choice to commit suicide in prison (thankfully, Allen made the smart move of not showing this scene in the film). Peter Skaarsgard is the gem of the film. He may share bit part duties with Baldwin but he shines as Dwight, exuding the sophisticated charm of his character quite well (I’m surprised he never appeared on Gossip Girl).

Woody Allen’s skillful use of contrast in storytelling is a hallmark of his rare talent. By juxtaposing the appropriate flashbacks of Jasmine’s high life with their present day counterparts, he avoids the exhaustion that comes with predictable trips to the past. Instead, the flashbacks become a part of the story’s framework, effectively weaving together the past in order to explain the present. No scene is unnecessary, as it seems like each frame has been carefully chosen to tell a complete story in the most concise way possible. The film even starts and ends with the same scene: Jasmine talking to herself while sitting next to a random person, further emphasizing the storybook effect that the film seems to be going for.

Blue Jasmine is probably one of the shorter entries to this year’s Academy Awards.  Brief yet packed with plot, it is a film that comes in and does its job no questions asked: leaving the viewer satisfied with a complete story in less than two hours (a rare feat in the era of films that have become notoriously long). It’s acting successes are not ensemble efforts: instead the film owes due credit to a laudable lead and well-casted support roles. Writing wise, it features on spot dialogue flawlessly brought to life by Blanchett onscreen, but is not a standout Allen script (although they still nominated him for an Original Screenplay Oscar).

Not the best but good enough, Blue Jasmine is perfect for the filmgoer tired of Hollywood’s lengthy offerings and desperately in search of an entertaining film for half the size.

 

 

Manliness, Consumerism and Confusion in “Fight Club”

No matter how well made a film adaptation may be in terms of capturing the atmosphere and characterization of a good book, nothing beats reading the book first before watching it on film. The book provides the reader turned viewer with an army of pre-context and understanding of the story even before he/she steps into the theatre. This pre-understanding allows the viewer to accurately judge the quality of a film adaptation, utilizing their book knowledge in being able to assess quality in terms of context, casting and depiction.

Fight Club is one of those films that could be better understood if the viewer chose to read the book before seeing the film. It’s one that doesn’t fit into a specific genre, with characters that are as ambiguous as the film itself. This lack of clarity can mislead the average viewer into losing interest in the movie, thus the need to read the book in order to better grasp the story, its characters, and the need for a rare addition in most Hollywood films: a voiceover.

The movie tells the story of an unnamed narrator (Edward Norton), an average 9-to-5 kind of guy with an interest in IKEA and the inability to sleep (read: insomnia). He finds a cure for his lack of sleep in participating in clubs that cater to former alcoholics, addicts and cancer patients. Things are going pretty well for our nameless lead until one session, when he encounters Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) a fellow ‘faker’ who throws our lead’s rhythm off course. He develops a dislike for Marla and ends up negotiating session times with her as a form of compromise (so that they don’t bump into each other and expose one another as fakes). On a routine plane ride, Norton’s character meets his most interesting ‘single-serve friend’ so far: Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a soap salesman with a number of odd jobs to boot. Durden and the lead become friends on the flight, and the lead (Norton) shacks up with Tyler after his apartment explodes. A post-beer parking lot brawl turns into ‘Fight Club’, an underground form of ‘therapy’ that becomes a male-only form of respite and recreation and evolves into ‘Project Mayhem’ an anti-consumerist terrorist organization of sorts bent on the destruction of the champions of consumerism: material things, credit card companies.. you get the idea. The narrator tries to stop Tyler’s plans, but instead finds out that things are more complicated than they seem.

Norton is a less mainstream choice yet a perfectly pathetic lead. He’s a good cast up until the point where we find ourselves wondering whether he’s capable of a bad side (the answer: naaaah). Pitt looks like a male model gone wannabe badass in look and sometimes in attitude. He’s a far cry from the hypermasculine Hollywood actors of today: Pitt is slim where Tom Hardy is big and buff and boorish  (Putting the two side by side will provide enough room for comparison).  A particularly ironic scene has Norton point out a Gucci underwear ad to Durden, sarcastically quipping: [nonverbatim] “so that’s what a man looks like?”. Durden agrees with the same level of sarcasm, and yet here he is: chiseled and all. Strange. Bonham-Carter is the sole feminine presence in the film, an unpretty, cigarette-toting hot chick who is far from the standard female hottie. Her screen time is sparse, but she makes the most of it.

Punctuated by a fast-paced score that sounds more like the precursor of dubstep or EDM, Fight Club (as mentioned earlier), is not a cookie cutter film. One prominent interpretation (found in Wikipedia of all places) sees the movie as neo-noir, with Norton’s character as the fatalistic lead, Pitt as the villain, and Bonham-Carter as the obvious femme fatale. Other interpretations are discussed extensively in a surprisingly detailed Wikipedia article, but the one that seems most obvious is the neo-noir aspect. Gritty setting, dark lighting, all the well-known film noir stereotypes, the movie has it all. Yet how does one explain the consumerism aspect– the narrator’s former addiction with IKEA and his subsequent disdain for all things material? It is at this point we go back to square one… and the genre under which Fight Club falls once more becomes a mystery.

This is where reading the book comes into play in order to provide a better understanding of the story. Since I haven’t read the book myself, all I can do now is offer interpretations based on the content presented in the film (not always as substantial as some may think). Yet there’s one thing I can say about the film. At it’s core, Fight Club is a coming of age story for the clueless twenty something. At the start of the film, the narrator lives a monotonous life: office job, bland furniture, routine existence… he’s the epitome of the average guy. Yet the change manifests by the end of the film. Norton’s narrator is a changed man: gutsier, bolder, braver… he’s grown up. Beyond its layers of themes and noiresque  narratives, Fight Club does a stellar job of presenting the coming of age for the clueless man in an incredibly relatable way. There’s a reason men gravitate to this film. It uses very male things in its quest to present such a story, doing away with the mushy dialogues, ugly tears and hugging characteristic of films geared toward a female audience. There’s definitely nothing more traditionally male than balls, blood and brawls, and Fight Club deals a lot in those aspects.

At the end of the day, Fight Club is one of those movies that can only be characterized as an outlier in the world of conventional Hollywood, a cult classic perfect for the Guys’ Night In.

 

 

A Rollercoaster of A Film: “Man of Steel”

The recent advent of successful superhero films has included a number of iconic, yet not necessarily mainstream characters. These people used to be just a part of the comic book fan’s rabid imagination, yet they are currently among the most popular– case (s) in point: Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow… you get my drift. Yet one of the more iconic superheroes has yet to have his film heyday in the style of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. That is, until Man of Steel came along.

Zack Snyder’s reboot of the Superman franchise sees the iconic hero take a turn for the ‘dark side’. Instead of presenting the eponymous hero at his best and brightest, Snyder  (with help from Dark Knight director Chris Nolan), explores the inner conflicts that Clark Kent is forced to contend with. From a traumatic encounter with his inability to focus his powers to a near-death incident that forces Kent to display his abilities, Snyder paints a picture not of a hero, but of a gifted, yet human man– forced to contend with the immeasurable strength within him. These humanizing tactics almost make us forget Kent is a unique human , up until halfway into the film when he encounters his true father Jor-El (a badly coiffed Russell Crowe), dawns his iconic suit (modernized and darkened appropriately), and accepts his role as Superman. The caped hero’s main enemy in this film is a man from his home planet Krypton, General Zod: a rebel turned prisoner turned revolutionary bent on rebuilding Krypton atop the ashes of a fallen Earth.

Snyder’s choice to do away with a linear story line may confuse most first-time viewers, yet the action suffices to keep them firmly in place and patient enough. Some confusion may occur throughout the first few minutes of the film, thanks to the Krypton part that sets Man of Steel into motion. Flashbacks come like unnatural hallucinations, and leave us wanting to know more. Ultimately, the viewer comes to forget all these unresolved aspects as the second half of Man of Steel kicks off the action part. This is the movie you’ve been wanting to see– a reimagined, badass Superman and a formidable villain: what more could you ask for?

Hunky Brit Henry Cavill leads the cast as Superman.  A strong, attractive presence onscreen, he looks the part almost perfectly. The same can’t be said of his acting, though. Cavill may be an experienced thespian, having starred in mainstream films and a Showtime series alongside fellow European Jonathan Rhys Meyers, yet he lacks the inherent intensity of another Brit actor turned superhero– something that could have added much depth to his ‘darkened’ role as the red-caped lead. Amy Adams does her duty as Lois Lane, yet it feels like she’s been forced into situations that aren’t even supposed to include her. So that’s the level of access granted to a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter! (Or, Lane may just be a case study for aspiring journalists: children, this is how hard an award-winning journalist works). Applause to her, though, for portraying arguably one of the more headstrong Lois Lanes in Superman film history. An oddly coiffed Russell Crowe does an okay job as Jor-El, yet he’s forgettable in the part. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner play better, more memorable parts in the film– standing out when they’re supposed to be standing back. Michael Shannon plays the monotonous Zod, a single-minded character that leaves Shannon no room for really exploring depth in his part. Morpheus himself (Lawrence Fishburne) plays Lane’s editor at the Daily Planet Perry White.

The first few minutes of the film could easily have been cut to make way for a shortened prologue and other scenes. It would’ve been nice to see more of young man Kent’s life before he decides to ‘suit up’, but all we’ve got is almost an hour’s worth of disconnected flashbacks and flashes into a disheveled Kent’s journey that are meant to suffice as a run through of Clark Kent’s childhood, teenage years and ‘adulthood pre Superman’. Thankfully the actors that populate this sequence are formidable: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are arguably too talented to be relegated to the ‘old parent’ role. But they do it with experience and with enough class that the confusing bits feel more comfortable than expected. That’s what great casting looks like.

Man of Steel is a confusing roller coaster of a film. One part drama, one part flashback trip and two parts blockbuster action movie, it does a surprisingly good job of meshing together oddball elements to create a watchable, enjoyable film that actually did extremely well at the box office (it’s the highest grossing Superman film of all time). The quality of casting and filmmaking that went into creating the mismatched parts of Man of Steel is what made up for the strangeness in scene and narrative that may seem quite confusing at first. This is what made the film (and the reboot) as successful as it was.

Kudos to Warner Brothers for great choices in director and cast– I’m can’t wait for the next one.