Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Movie As Self-Indulgent As A Narcissistic Hot Fudge Sundae

The purpose of a chick flick is to become inspired (or at least entertained) by the lives of women we can all relate to. Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts) is the everywoman’s worst enemy.
If she isn’t laughing it up at high-end dinner parties with her fellow ritzy wine-sipping friends, she is being hit on by charming, laid-back actors (played by James Franco, of course) or wandering through her brand-new luxury home at night, wondering why she isn’t happy. That’s a good question.
She makes up her mind to divorce a husband that practically leaped out of every American woman’s fantasy land and spend a year living a life of pleasure, adventure, and self- discovery. First stop: Italy where she finds herself in a crumbling but dreamily romantic Italian apartment and learning to speak the language from none other than the cover-boy for every paperback romance ever printed. She maintains a steady diet of pizza, pasta, and gelato and makes it quite clear that she could care less about her rapidly expanding waistline. But she is still not happy with her life.
So she goes to India and then to Bali and along the way discovers her inner balance through deep meditation, long rides on her bicycle and just a dash of steamy romance with another soul-seeking divorcee. She learns to forgive herself while sitting on the rooftop of an Indian temple, the sun warming her flawless skin and making her stunning brown eyes glow. And she ultimately finds perfect happiness, love, and, of course, balance while speeding through dazzling blue waters on a wooden boat, in the arms of Javier Bardem, as the sound of billowing, spirit-raising music engulfs her like chocolate around a truffle.
This is not the kind of movie that lets its self linger for too long on the unappetizing bits of life, though that is what is truly at the heart of Elizabeth’s journey. Her lowest moments are romantically steeped in close-ups of her eyes leaking out perfect tears without so much as flawing her mascara. Of course there is the “I don’t need to love you in order to love me!” explosion/revelation with her boyfriend near the end, at which point she leaves him gazing wistfully out to sea, probably crying because that’s the kind of guy he is.
Julia Roberts is perhaps the only person who could play this role. She is the kind of woman who audiences always want to see come out on top. She has a smile that lights up the screen, and an exuberance that lends its self wonderfully to the breezy spontaneity of her character. It is the only thing that lets us feel happy for her while simultaneously succumbing to venom-spitting envy.
Elizabeth Gilbert lived every woman’s fantasy. One day she realized that she wasn’t content with her life, and decided to pack her bags and go on a whirlwind world tour. But because of its lurid optimism, the movie never captures her discontentment to begin with. And so we have a character doing something that we all wish we could do because she is mildly irritated with her “conventionality”…whatever that is. Even though the odds of her winding up in the Italian gutter, an empty bottle of 1997 Biondi Santi in one hand and an empty wallet in the other were not in her favor, we only breeze over any consideration of practicality and go skipping along to the next spaghetti montage.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ladies In Action Pt. 1: "Salt"

Move over Stephen Segal, Hollywood is undergoing an invasion of serious butt-kicking females. More and more, the heroes of pulse-pounding action thrillers are turning into heroines. Their mission: to shoot, kick, punch, run, and explode their way through two hours of film and give the audience a cardio workout in the process. Are we experiencing a cinematic wave of feminism, or is Hollywood catering to Americans who can’t get enough of bombshells playing with bombshells?
One thing’s for sure, these gals mean business. The latest woman to put the fatale back in femme fatale is Angelina Jolie in her new film, “Salt.” Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a renegade Russian spy in a plot that is so cliché and so well executed it nearly defines a genre.
All the usual suspects are here: Conspiring Russians, plots to assassinate government officials, friends who turn out to be enemies, bad guys who turn out good, and a heroine who always thinks on her toes and knows perhaps a little too much about the versatility of a fire extinguisher. The plot twists and turns in ways that only a really good action movie could get away with. And the chase scenes (which there are plenty of) will have you leaving the theater minus your fingernails.
Jolie’s beauty is not a matter of opinion anymore, so much as a fact. But like many other facts of the real world, “Salt” ignores it. You get the feeling that this is a woman who doesn’t mind a broken nail. Throughout the course of the film, Jolie gets beaten up, shot down, dressed as a man, covered in blood, sweat, and dirt, and generally put through hell, but she handles it like a pro, managing to give her adversaries a taste of their own medicine.
But like all hard-as-nails protagonists, it’s the troubles of the past that hardened Salt’s exterior. The wrongs done to her and her loved ones are what keep her and the film going full steam ahead. Though the story is a stretch, it latches onto a real emotional connection that even the most closed-minded audience members can relate to.
Pulling off unbelievable feats and making them believable is what makes action movies good. Pulling off unbelievable feats and making them entertaining is what makes action movies great. “Salt” does not underestimate its audience; it understands how we watch movies and utilizes that knowledge to institute perfect timing. It knows when it can get away with an implausible plot twist while upping our heart rates. Its aim is not to make the audience analyze, but to excite.
After watching “Salt” it seems like Angelina Jolie was born to play an action movie heroine. She has a catlike intensity that its self has enough to keep the energy up in a movie. Her movements overpower her good looks and keep us intent on what she will do next. In fact, if it came down to a combat between her and Stephen Segal, my money’s on Jolie.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Inception- A Maze Of Deception

Trying to follow the plot of Inception is about as easy as trying to follow a flea on a pogo stick through a forest of pine trees. It is also just about as brilliant as getting a flea to use a pogo stick in the first place.
My mind is not flexible enough, nor my column long enough to give a clear cut plot description. The story is a multi-layered psychological labyrinth of dreams inside of dreams, worlds paralleling each other, and a man whose job it is to navigate through it all. His name is Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his mission is to plunge into people’s minds to steal their ideas. This time though, he is on a different sort of mission. He must use dreams to implant an idea into the mind of a young heir, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to destroy his dying father’s empire.
Writer-Director, Christopher Nolan has created something that is so perfectly and infinitely logical that wraps its self around your brain before you can wrap your brain around it. Pulse-pounding action sequences keep us entertained while the intricate architecture of the film becomes more and more convoluted. Its saving grace is an emotional backbone that keeps the characters more accessible than the plot.
At one point in the film, Cobb explains to his young assistant, Ariadne (Ellen Paige) that we can never remember the beginning of our dreams, that when we first begin to dream, we always start somewhere in the middle. This is an accurate description of how the film begins, as well as a hint at how it will end. We are dropped into the middle of a maze and we trust that the film will lead us through. It does because it knows where it’s going, even if the audience gets lost along the way.
Nolan spent ten years writing the screenplay- and it shows. It appears nearly flawless; or at least tricks the audience into believing it is flawless. It deposits the audience at the end, confused and amazed, but willing to believe that it all worked out. With so many dreams, who’s to notice a little impossibility?
The driving force that guides the plot through its many twists and turns is Cobb’s obsession with his deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) who he believes is still alive in his world of dreams. Mal committed suicide because she was convinced that the world she was living in was an illusion and the only way back to the real world was to die. Cotillard is perfect in the role of the dreamy idyllic wife, tortured in the real world by an idea rooted in her mind.
Cobb’s relationship with Mal and Fischer’s relationship with his father are what make Inception work. The characters are less disillusioned by their surroundings than the audience is, but human connections are what keep them, and the movie at least somewhat grounded.
Inception is a doubtlessly brilliant piece of work. It weaves a story that is truly unique and impossibly challenging. It places before us a handful of talented actors playing relatable, intelligent characters. It maneuvers its way through a profound complex system of worlds without a glaring loophole. But it is baffling. It requires a second viewing or even a third or fourth to get a firm grasp on what is going on. It’s a good thing it’s worth it.