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Category Archives: Film

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, and Lenny Kravitz

Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt

Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Directed by Francis Lawrence

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And so we return, coughing at the dust, pulling cobwebs from our eyes, bursting with thoughts and opinions on Katniss Everdeen. It’s weird to me that Catching Fire is what finally got my fingers moving, because the first Hunger Games film left me kind of cold. I liked it well enough, it had some memorable moments, and an actually brilliant narrative trick in which the viewer is encouraged to cheer the “good” tributes only to be reminded that the Games aren’t actually a competition, they’re a bunch of children being forced to murder each other for the entertainment of the elites and the distraction of the masses. It’s not about winning. It’s about control. However, as a whole, the film had no staying power for me, and left me with no excitement about a sequel. Catching Fire changed that.

Catching Fire picks up a year after the first film. Although basically set for life with their winnings, Katniss still goes out into the forest, where she sits silently and shoots nothing, and Peeta spends long hours in the kitchen, baking endless bread. However, Katniss and her mockingjay badge have become a symbol of resistance in the Districts, so President Snow requires that their victory tour be a performance to pacify the restless and the oppressed, a believable pop idol romance to distract the people from their hunger and their hope. And if they fail, he will conclude that the Victors have become a liability to the State. Katniss and the defiance she inspires must be undermined or they must be destroyed, utterly, like District 13. And the way to do that is, of course, with a new, all veteran Hunger Games.

A coworker of mine pointed out that Katniss actually has little apparent agency. Her most important choice happened at the beginning of the first film, when she volunteered, impulsively and heroically, to save her sister’s life. Since then her life has been rapidly yanked from her control, and this only becomes more acute after she survives the Games. The President himself comes to her home to tell her she will put on a performance, or lose her family, her District, and her life. Effie and Cinna, delightful though they are, tell her how to dress and what to wear as she prepares to die. Hamich works around her prickly disposition to arrange alliances and conspiracies. And Plutarch Heavensbee, the new showrunner for the Games, literally and directly controls her entire future, with a complex and shadowy agenda. Not to mention that by simple virtue of being brave, compassionate, and good, she has become a hero to the oppressed. Then again, while Katniss doesn’t have control over sweeping political events or the Big Picture, that’s never been what she cares about. She hates the injustice she’s seen and had to be a part of, but what matters to her has always been the personal: Prim, Gale, Peeta. They are what drives her, what focuses her intense, brilliant anger into the sharp point she needs to survive. They are what make her fight.

I can’t say how it is in the books, never having read them, but taking the Big Picture out of Katniss’s hands also forces the film to focus on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. Though strained by Peeta’s unrequited love, they are bonded in adversity. They share the same psychic scars, and a unavoidable closeness. When Katniss wakes up screaming, it is Peeta who understands and comforts her. Linda Holmes at NPR has a beautiful analysis of the way their relationship defies typical Hollywood norms with regard to gender, but for the purposes of this review, I’d just like to focus on their relationship on its own terms. For all their estrangement, it seems clear that they would do anything for each other. Peeta has a mastery of interpersonal relationships and social politics that Katniss completely lacks, and he uses them to protect and support Katniss. He is sad, even bitter, after her rejection, but avoids behaving like Actual Boyfriend, Gale, who sulks and snipes like a petulant teenager, which, of course, he is. Katniss, for her part, takes responsibility for Peeta, who is not weak and is reasonably competent but clearly couldn’t survive without her. It is important to her that Peeta live. It is essential. She can control nothing else in the world, but she desperately needs to control this. She needs to make sure that Peeta survives.

I mention this because it is one of the core tensions of the film, but also because trauma, pain, and grief are the motifs of Catching Fire, the uniting narrative threads. You may have noticed from previous reviews that I think it’s important that action heroes, if they are truly going to be heroes, suffer terribly before they win. They have to feel things, not just physically but emotionally, and in a way that feels genuine. Less screaming and emptying your clip into the sky, more pulling shards of glass out of your feet while trying to convince your only friend that you are hanging in there. Ranging from the kind of vivid, hallucinatory flashbacks that movies have taught us are the hallmark of post-traumatic stress, to the more subtle look of pain that crosses Katniss’s face when she aces a marksmanship challenge and realizes how easy and reflexive killing has become, Catching Fire shows us just how costly our hero’s survival has been. And it’s not just Katniss. The  bulk of the cast are victors from previous games, brought back to be traumatized all over again by their government. They are broken and damaged, strange, eccentric, and angry. They invade personal space and strip naked in elevators, they’ve lost their power of speech and sit there, eyes rolling anxiously. Every single one of them is a survivor and a killer, from raging Johanna to gentle Mags. Is it any wonder that Hamich drinks? Or that Johanna, in one of my favorite moments from the film, tells the entire Capitol to go fuck themselves? They have all been forced to do, and be, terrible things. As Hamich says, there are no winners in the Hunger Games. Only survivors.

I liked Katniss in the first movie, but it’s really in Catching Fire that she starts to feel truly heroic, despite how much of that heroic image is out of her hands. She doesn’t actually want to be a hero at all. She seems incapable of seeing herself as powerful and transformative. She does what she does out of necessity, because it is her nature. Where others see her as strong, proud, resourceful, a potential leader, she only sees her own anger and pain and fear. This doesn’t diminish her. She is strong, resourceful, and in possession of a forceful, earnest nature and deep well of compassion that draw people, the best people, to her. And she has courage, in abundance. She has always been one to take on the world alone, and to sacrifice herself for others. All of these qualities combine to make her a hero, and her flaws, her temper and aloofness and Games-inflicted pain, make her one we can believe in and admire. After Catching Fire, I admire Katniss Everdeen. I think that’s a worthwhile quality in a hero.

This movie made me feel things. I came close to crying quite a few times, embarrassing my friends with my sniffles. It is an emotionally charged story about sacrifice, defiance, grief, pain, and betrayal. It is a well-executed film, and I can’t praise Lawrence enough for her ability to channel raw emotion in a way that breaks my heart. Despite its narrative flaws and somewhat ponderous length, Catching Fire managed to redeem a franchise that I was having a really hard time being excited about. I’m excited about it now. I’m committed enough that I feel justified writing over a thousand words about it, and there’s still so much to say. This is a film that causes emotions and thinking and conversations, with a compelling hero and an escalating conflict. It is what I love about watching action movies.

Pre-order on Amazon! Still in theaters, go see it!

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Tomboy (2011)

Starring Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, and Mathieu Demy

Written and Directed by Céline Sciamma

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Tomboy is the story of a young French girl named Laure who introduces herself to a new group of friends as a boy named Mikael. When watching the film, I found that when Laure was at home, surrounded by her family, I tended to use female pronouns, while when Mikael was playing with his friends, I tended to use male. I’ve used both pronouns in this review, because the film doesn’t make any definitive statements about Laure’s gender or sexual identity. While I certainly would understand someone reading this as a trans* film or a film about genderqueer identity, I’m reluctant to assign a label when the film declines to do so. I hope this doesn’t cause anyone injury or offense.

Laure is a tomboy. She dresses in shirts and pants, keeps her hair cut short, and has little interest in makeup or the more traditionally feminine toys her little sister plays with. Her family accepts this and doesn’t discourage her, even showers her with affection and love. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I haven’t been taught to expect this kind of family narrative when dealing with issues of gender or sexuality. Laure is their daughter, and they love her, and that is enough. But when they move to a new neighborhood, the first kid Laure meets mistakes her for a boy, and Laure takes this opportunity to become Mikael, the new kid in town.

What follows is a mix of summertime games, family love, and the constant risk of exposure, a potent blend of sweetness and anxiety which kept me simultaneously tense with fear and nearly melted with tenderness. Mikael makes friends, growing close with Lisa, the only girl close to his age in their group of friends, and struggles to maintain his new identity in the face of daily challenges. It is heartwarming and heartwrenching in about equal measure, making you cheer for someone you know must fail.

Laure’s family life is the sweetest and safest place, with scenes punctuated with such tenderness I almost couldn’t stand it. Sciamma got such a genuine and adorable performance out of her child actors, and Laure’s younger sister, Jeanne, will absolutely break your heart with cuteness. As Mikael comes closer every day to inevitable exposure, his home, and especially Jeanne, become a safe place, an unconditional place, where Laure can be herself without fear. Her parents love her, and her sister loves her, and they all want her to be safe from harm. This sense of safety makes it more bearable when Laure’s identity is exposed, but, in a way, it also makes it more painful. There is no more sanctuary.

I say “inevitable exposure” because it is summer, and classes begin in a few short weeks. Mikael is not on the rolls. Laure is. And the friendship of children is as quickly retracted as offered. Watching Mikael at play is like watching any young boy play soccer in a minefield. Everything could explode at any moment, and I watched with a knot in my stomach, knowing his luck couldn’t last, but hoping it would for just a bit longer. Laure likes being Mikael, maybe even prefers it. The way she looks at her newborn brother with something like envy, because he simply is born a boy while she has to do so much work, speaks to the happiness she has found in her new identity, and the bitterness of knowing that it cannot last. When the reckoning comes, it is shattering and humiliating, tempered only by the love we know her family has for her, and the strength Laure has shown throughout.

Despite its pain and anxiety, Tomboy feels like a hopeful film to me. It so perfectly captures the summer of childhood, with its innocently vulgar games of truth or dare, its petty humiliations, its quiet romances. Laure is an exceptional character, less pulling a con and more finding herself. And the story is ultimately one of love, even if that love is severely tested. Sciamma leaves the ending, like Laure’s sexuality, intentionally ambiguous, but I think there is hope in it. Laure learned something from her experience, and even if her experiment couldn’t last, she was changed by it. And, I have to believe, she is going to be okay.

Tomboy is instantly viewable on Amazon, or can be purchased on DVD at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Nathan Fillion, Riki Lindhomme, Spencer Treat Clark, and Ashley Johnson.

Directed by Joss Whedon

Adapted for the screen by Joss Whedon, from the play by William Shakespeare

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To start with, I apologize for the unannounced absence last week. I wish I could say there were reasons beyond general mental health stuff, but, you know, sometimes, this life…aw, hell.

I’ve never seen Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, so I won’t be comparing the two. I’ve also never read the play, so I had no idea what to expect, other than Shakespearean comedy. In addition, all of my understanding of Joss Whedon involves spaceships, superheroes, and slayers, so I didn’t really know what to think about him adapting Shakespeare in a modern setting. I’ve gotten pretty cynical about Whedon fans, who seem to always evaluate his work somewhere on the level of “OMG BEST EVAR”, so I go into each new Whedon project with an eyebrow pre-arched. These are all the expectations and lack thereof with which I sat down to watch this film.

But I’m just going to have to accept the fact that Joss Whedon is really good at what he does, and what he does is create witty, engaging, and emotionally affecting entertainment while still taking risks and making choices that somehow pay off against my expectations. Much Ado About Nothing is terrific fun and laugh-out-loud funny, and sincerely sweet. Sincerity, in fact, is probably the defining characteristic of this film, and it’s one of Whedon’s choices that pays off the best in the long run.

The overall plot, if you’re unfamiliar with the play, involves the visit of Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, to the house of Leonato, governor of Messina. The Prince is accompanied by Benedick, who disdains love; Claudio, who is immediately and obsessively in love with Leonato’s daughter; and Pedro’s brother John, who is a villain. Hilarity ensues as various players, chiefly Don Pedro and Leonato, set out to pair Claudio with Hero, the governor’s daughter, and more importantly Benedick, the confirmed bachelor, with Beatrice, with whom he shares a mutual loathing. Meanwhile, John (played pitch perfectly by Sean Maher of Firefly) conspires with his minions to derail all plans of marriage and alliance, humiliating his brother in the process. Why does he do this, you ask? Didn’t I say he was a villain?

Benedick and Beatrice are the first people we see, although in the opening scene neither of them speaks a word. They make up for it later, of course, but this quiet moment establishes them as our central couple. It is a moment of silence and nakedness before everyone puts on their suits, their masks, their swords and their wit. There’s a moment of adjustment once the dialogue starts, while the audience is unsure whether to laugh at the unfamiliar words coming out of Clark Gregg’s wryly smiling mouth as he looks at this Blackberry and says “I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina.” Amy Acker, as Beatrice, soon gets us into the rhythm of things, delivering her lines comically disparaging Benedick’s character in such a way that you can’t possibly miss her meaning. And once Benedick himself arrives, played by Alexis Denisof, the comedy kicks off for real. They have perfect comic chemistry as they trade barbs and insults that mask their romantic history – and, if Don Pedro has any say in the matter, romantic future – only to leave each other’s company and continue talking about their disdain for each other and for love and marriage at hilarious length.

Everyone is great in this, but Denisof deserves special praise for basically taking over any scene he’s a part of. His scenes with Acker are the standout scenes of the whole film, but his physical humor, his command of tone, everything about him shows that he is having a ball with this role, and he throws his entire self into making sure the audience comes along to the party with him. This is definitely one of those movies in which it is clear that everyone had a lot of fun just being a part of it. It probably helps that the plot involves what amounts to a week-long party, and everyone – everyone – is drinking, pouring a drink, or drunk, in just about every scene. Clark Gregg is entirely convincing as the delighted host, and he does a lot to set the tone of the film just by smiling and exchanging knowing looks with Hero or Beatrice. Even relatively minor characters get in on it, from Nathan Fillion as pompous, inept chief inspector Dogberry, to Leonato’s nameless aide, played by Joshua Zar, who is such a funny background presence in the film that I was surprised to realize that he didn’t even have a name. What all of this means is that even though the dialogue doesn’t always immediately translate into contemporary English, and some of the references are a little lost, the comedy is always apparent, and each scene is packed with touches that I can tell will reward future viewing.

Adapting Shakespeare for film is all about choices – what to cut, how to set the scene, the relative levels of sincerity and irony in each character – and Whedon’s choices make for an interesting film, including gender-flipping Conrade, resulting in a surprisingly sexy scene between Riki Lindhomme (of Garfunkel and Oates) and Sean Maher, and filming in black and white, which lends itself well to the film’s dramatic turn at Claudio and Hero’s wedding. Fran Kranz plays Claudio with almost too much obsessive intensity, and my sympathy for him is damaged badly when things go abruptly tragic. The way Whedon shoots the scene, with lots of motion and quick cuts, left me anxious and unsettled, and gave me a bit of mood whiplash after all the pratfalling of the scenes just previous with Benedick and Beatrice. This scene, and those after it, are played as straight drama, even tragedy, and while I suppose it helps us earn our happy ending, it feels very strange after laughing so hard in the first half. In a plot that hinges upon several layers of deception, perhaps it was necessary to take the dramatic scenes especially seriously, and have everyone’s emotions be utterly genuine, even if what motivated them was decidedly not.

Fortunately, this genuine feeling pays off in the end. The happy ending – it’s a Shakespearean comedy, I’m not ruining anything for you – is a relief, and the feelings that develop between Benedick and Beatrice wind up feeling more believable after tragedy forces them to lower their defenses and their masks. The scenes they share following the wedding are actually quite touching and sweet, and while I shouldn’t have been surprised that Shakespeare could write beautiful lines about love, I was surprised to find here, in this story, some of the loveliest romantic lines I’ve ever heard in a movie. Denisof’s Benedick expresses such genuine wonder at being in love that it is almost heartbreaking. Their next scene, in which Beatrice rages against the helplessness that she feels, as a woman in a patriarchal culture, to do anything about the wrong done to her cousin, is likewise a powerful bit of acting, the kind of acting and directing that takes an old thing – I had heard of this speech before, in other contexts – and makes it instantly and deeply understood in a way that I didn’t understand it before. I can’t say enough in praise of Acker and Denisof in this film, and the pleasant surprise of their romantic chemistry being as good as their comedic chemistry makes this film for me.

It’s not a perfect film, but it is a good one, and good enough that I owe Whedon an apology for approaching his films with so much cynicism lately. He is clearly on top of his game and very good at what he does, and has more than answered my doubts of how he could possibly update Shakespeare. His actors are terrific fun to watch, and even if the finer details of the story are a little hard to grasp at times, just letting Whedon and his players carry you on in a rush of drinking and witticisms and hijinx is a rewarding experience. Much Ado About Nothing is fun, funny, and a beautiful film, and a worthy adaptation.

Paul Williams Still Alive (2011)

Starring Paul Williams

Directed by Stephen Kessler

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Like Searching for Sugar Man, Paul Williams Still Alive starts out with a fan’s recollection of an idol from his childhood, the legendary Paul Williams, and a conviction that, because of how abruptly Williams disappeared, he must have died. When he finds out that isn’t true, he sets out to meet his hero. And that’s pretty much where the similarities end. This film isn’t about mystery, discovery, and wonder. It is about obsession and entitlement, about fame and redemption. As documentaries go, it is awkward, self-conscious, and adversarial in a way that is sometimes uncomfortable to watch. And through that tension, it achieves a kind of greatness, and throws genuine light on the humanity of its two subjects. I say two subjects because this isn’t just a “where are they now” documentary about Paul Williams; it’s also a revealing portrait of a fanboy who wants to be his idol’s friend so badly that he can’t help but make himself a part of the story.

This isn’t a music documentary. This isn’t The Fearless Freaks or Be Here to Love Me, exploring the growth of Williams as a musician, the history behind his songs, his struggles with fame, the psychology of an artist. Williams fans will be happy with the archival footage of classic performances, TV appearances, and even some strange and sweet home movies peppered through the story, but this isn’t a portrait of him as a musician. It isn’t really about the music at all. It’s about the man, and what he means to Stephen Kessler.

Steve very much wants to be a part of his hero’s life, so his documentarian’s distance is compromised right from the start. Steve isn’t shy about showing us that, either, in his false starts, the way he stutters and struggles with his questions, or interrupts Williams’s personal recollections to completely change the subject. It’s not that he isn’t interested in what he has to say, necessarily, he’s just much more interested in being there, interacting with Paul. It’s not long before Williams makes what might be called a fateful editorial decision to pull Steve in front of the camera, because as he put it, he can either play to the camera or pretend it’s not there, and Steve’s not letting him do either. We never forget the camera in this film, and neither do the subjects, and that’s part of why it’s so awkward. Often it’s obvious that Williams and everyone around him – his agent, his wife, his band  – are uncomfortable with having Steve around. Steve films awkward silences, uncomfortable glances, and multiple requests to put his camera down or turn it off, and he puts all of it in the movie. In one memorable scene, Williams, suffering from laryngitis, asks the house to dim the lights during his performance so that Steve can’t film him. Steve’s response: night vision. This closely follows Steve standing in the hall outside Paul’s dressing room, filming the door while he rehearses. That’s his self-portrait: awkward and obsessed, unable to help himself, unable to turn the camera off when Williams asks him to, because he’s afraid to give up the one excuse he has to be with the man he idolizes.

Kessler loved Paul Williams as a kid, and after his idol left the spotlight, he found himself fixated on a question: what happened to Paul Williams? The facts are easy enough to come by: after years of drug abuse that cost him his career and two marriages, Williams became clean, and has been sober for 17 years by the time Steve catches up with him. Somehow, though, that answer isn’t enough. Steve wants to know not just how one of the biggest stars of the 70s finds himself playing lounge rooms in Vegas and shows in the Philippines, but how he could be satisfied with that fall from grace. He keeps returning to this piece of his idol’s history, as if trying to bridge the missing time in their relationship. It’s obvious to anyone that this line of questioning is extremely unwelcome, and common sense says it isn’t wise or polite to ask an addict to relive the worst parts of his life and his addiction, but Steve tries it anyway. The climax of the film is some truly uncomfortable filmmaking, and a perfectly revealing moment, although probably not exactly of what Steve wanted. That moment, though reveals the strength at the core of Paul Williams, which is the films real reward.

We come to like Williams, throughout the film, and it’s one of the magical qualities of the film that Steve’s awkward, intrusive filmmaking somehow serves to show just what a likeable person Williams is. He keeps inviting Steve along, humoring his intrusive questions, bring him on tour with him even though no one else really wants him around. Williams is, as his superfans describe him at the beginning, an incredibly nice guy. But until this moment, you don’t really see how strong he is. Paul Williams is not a sad person, cast down from fame and defeated by life. He is someone who triumphed over addiction and went on to become an addiction counselor, who still sings and performs the way he wants to, who is married and happy with his life. Paul Williams is exactly where he wants to be. Paul Williams is a hero.

Steve’s role in the film wasn’t really emphasized in anything I read about it, so I wound up being a little surprised by the way the film played out, and often wasn’t sure if Steve knew what he was doing, if he was self-aware enough, as a filmmaker, to know how he was making himself look. But Steve knows what he’s doing. The scene where he gets to make Marrianne Williams, Paul’s wife, look like a ridiculous fun-ruiner in Vegas is funny, but more importantly it reveals just how manipulative, jealous, and obsessed Steve can be. It’s a perfect snapshot of a fan. But while snapping this angle on himself, Kessler also manages to capture a beautiful portrait of a faded celebrity, one that isn’t sad, or tragic, or tainted by Schadenfreude, but which is instead triumphant, celebratory, and kind. We get to see the strong heart of Paul Williams, and Steve gets to paint a portrait of himself with his hero. And the fact that this all appears accidental is what makes it brilliant. The fact that we can wonder, through most of the film, if Steve is aware of the film he is really making, then be left with a perfectly complete and honest portrayal of both an interesting celebrity and his obsessive superfan is, I think, an incredible feat. That achievement, as much as the character of Paul Williams, is what I think makes this film worth seeing.

It’s possible I’m giving Kessler too much credit, I suppose. But it’s certainly not more than Paul Williams gives him. And after this film, I think I’m willing to trust Paul Williams, and try to approach people, even apparently off-kilter and obsessed people like Stephen Kessler, with an open mind and kindness, ready to understand.

Paul Williams Still Alive is available on DVD and Amazon Instant.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, and Ben Kingsley

Directed by Shane Black

Written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black

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I, for one, am happy to live in a time when “superhero summer blockbuster” is a regular watchable occurrence. Marvel Studios has been doing good things with their Disney money, but the Iron Man movies are probably the best of the individual character franchises (although I accept that I’m in the minority for thinking Iron Man 2 was good). Iron Man is silly fun and ridiculous CGI and exploding nonsense and a hero who, comic book superscience aside, feels relatable and true in a way that’s difficult for alien supergods and World War II goldenboys to match. Tony Stark is a brilliant, insanely wealthy jerk who realized one day that, partly through his contributions, the world was a terrible, death-filled place, and then further realized that he was just enough of a brilliant jerk to change that. Like the other movies, Iron Man 3 doesn’t explore the implications of Iron Man vs. American military adventurism to the extent that it probably should, but the character of Tony Stark, played with unstoppable charm by Robert Downey Jr., remains the kind of action hero that I find compelling, and Iron Man 3 the kind of action movie that I enjoy.

The movie opens with Tony Stark’s voice, confiding in us. He reveals himself at his worst, as a young billionaire playboy who cared about no one but himself, and as a genius superhero still reeling from the trauma he suffered in The Avengers. Pepper and Rhodes are there for him as much as they can be, but ultimately only the threat of the Mandarin gives him something to hold onto, a problem he feels he can solve. The Mandarin is a mysterious terrorist mastermind who perpetrates horrific and untraceable crimes in apparent vengeance for all of America’s sins, past and present; facing that threat while under a bombardment of traumatic memories, fatigue, and anxiety attacks will push Stark to his limits. It’s really this internal struggle that makes the fight against the self-created monsters of America’s and Tony’s pasts so interesting. Although Tony’s damaged psyche is handled with the light touch that dominates all of these films, that vulnerability is part of what makes Tony Stark such a great hero. I recommend Linda Holmes’s excellent write up at NPR for more on this subject.

You may have noticed that I like it when characters suffer in stories. I’m okay with a character being the best at what he or she does, as long as someone beats the crap out of him, nails him to a tree, or buries her alive. I want my heroes to limp to victory on feet cut up by broken glass. I want my heroes to almost die. So when I say that about 90 minutes of Iron Man 3 is Tony Stark getting the absolute bajeezus kicked out of him by everything in the world, that is to say that I enjoyed it. It’s Iron Man, so the thrust is still toward entertainment and comedy, in the pulp comic book tradition, with little of the heaviness seen in the similarly bruising, but not quite as satisfying Dark Knight Rises. Though the Iron Man suit plays a significant role in the film (ahahaha just wait), for most of the story Stark is either without the suit or making do with a barely functional prototype. He gets kicked around by villains and explosions, and has to rely mostly on his friends and his brilliance to fight back. Whether Tony is suited up or just using his genius to macguyver weapons from spare parts and kitchen appliances, there is no easy victory for him.

A lot of people die in this movie, and while I don’t think it’s gratuitous, I thought the film could have taken this a bit more seriously. Beyond the fact that Iron Man kills an awful lot of people for a superhero, Manohla Dargis at the New York Times has, I think, some compelling thoughts on a tendency in contemporary action movies to exploit the realities of the post-9/11 world – the wounded veterans, the deaths of innocents, the industry of fear and its effects on our national psychology – for thrills and laughs. I’m not sure that hasn’t always been a part of this kind of fiction (although that’s doesn’t really mean it isn’t problematic) and I don’t agree that this makes Iron Man 3 a bad film, but this was where Iron Man 3 let me down a bit. Tony Stark and his friends and foes are fun and engaging, but there was something more to say about a villain who is a clearly being made into a reference to Osama Bin Laden, or about War Machine’s rebranding as The Iron Patriot and Iron Man’s stance against militant nationalism, and about wounded warriors from America’s foreign interventions being turned into weapons of mass destruction. The elements are all there, but what’s being said about them isn’t particularly clear. It’s kept very surface level, and I get the impression the filmmakers thought dealing with these themes more seriously might be a bit heavy for a summer blockbuster. The result is that these real world problems feel used for entertainment rather than meaningfully engaged with. It’s understandable, maybe, but disappointing.

For me, the characters redeem the shortcomings of the plot. The Mandarin is handled beautifully, speaking as someone who wasn’t really sure how the filmmakers would handle a character that is basically a classic racist stereotype. Ben Kingsley surprised me with how fun he was to watch, and Guy Pearce is pretty perfect as Aldrich Killian, Tony Stark’s shadow self. Don Cheadle is the perfect foil for RDJ’s silliness. And I feel like this movie really lets Pepper Potts shine, and illuminates her relationship with Tony, more than any of the others have. Laura Hudson has a great, if spoiler-laden, article up at Wired about the way the women in Iron Man 3 subvert typical gender roles for women in action movies. Although Pepper does inevitably wind up a Damsel in Distress, almost nothing about that situation goes as expected. Pepper Potts is a badass, and I have to say I kind of love seeing a happily married couple in an action movie in which the stress of supervillainy and a checkered past are just part of the chemistry, and not a relationship-shattering source of dramatic tension. Robert Downey Jr. carries most of the movie on his charisma, it’s true, but the supporting cast is what makes the story feel complete.

In conclusion, yes, Iron Man 3 is a summer blockbuster with all that that entails, including a problematic use of current events for comedy and excitement. But the Iron Man series continues to push against the expectations of its genre in its handling of women and of its protagonist, and is still the best of Marvel’s movie franchises. This movie is a load of fun, and even though that’s all I could really ask of it, it gives that little something more that makes for a good action movie instead of a forgettable one. Stay past the credits, if you are an Avengers fan and into that sort of thing, but I will warn you: there is a lot of CGI in this movie. The credits are…pretty long.

Iron Man 3 is available (for pre-order) here on DVD and Blu-Ray. Check your local theater listings for showtimes.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Garret Dillahunt

Directed by Debra Granik

Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini

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I think I postponed watching Winter’s Bone because it looked like it might be bleak and emotionally devastating. And it is. There is hope and sweetness, but they are bright spots in a beautiful, brutal world. Much like the noir detective searching for truth in a corrupt and diseased city, Ree Dolly navigates the treacherous, meth-corrupted backwoods of her home county, knowing that asking one too many questions might get her killed, but unable to walk away without an answer. Debra Granik’s movie does a spectacular job of pulling viewers into the grim story, and the performances of Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes make you believe in this place, this life, and these people. That’s what makes the fear, the violence, and the desperation so powerful. This is a powerful movie, skillfully crafted, and I feel like watching it again.

The story follows Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, a teenager whose meth cook father has gone missing, leaving her alone to take care of her two younger siblings and demented mother. The family is abjectly poor, forcing Ree to accept charity to keep the children fed, and to contemplate hard decisions to keep the family going. Although there’s a sense that she might be distantly related to some of her neighbors, it is clear that Ree is isolated and alone. When the sheriff comes to tell her that her father, Jessup, jumped bail and the family will lose the house if he doesn’t show up for trial, no one, not even her uncle, wants to help her. It’s up to Ree to find her father and save her family.

We immediately feel for Ree, and admire her strength of character. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is pitch perfect. Ree is strong, proud and prickly to those who try to stop her, and heartbreakingly alone. She embodies one of my favorite hardboiled detective virtues, that of the investigator that not only won’t stop, but can’t stop. No amount of warnings or threats of violence can keep her from the answers. At the same time, we’re not allowed to forget that she’s a young girl in an oppressively adult world. At one point, Ree turns to her mother and begs “What do I do? Please tell me what to do” and her mother says nothing, so mentally absent she can’t even comprehend her daughter’s desperation. Ree is so determined and brave that you can’t help but cheer her on, but she is also so alone that you fear for her as she goes to confront each new challenge. It is too much weight for a girl of seventeen to bear. There is a sense of drowning, overwhelmed, with no escape.

Her only other family is her uncle Teardrop, played with scary brilliance by John Hawkes, and he’s not helping. He may, in fact, be the first to really show us how far over her head Ree really is. When we first see him, he’s loading a gun, acting tough and all business, but the truth is that the path she’s taking scares him. That fear, I think, is part of what makes him one of the few people we come to trust, at least in part. We trust his intentions and motivations, because they are straightforward. Contrast this with the sheriff, played by Garrett Dillahunt. The law is an outsider, and even though Ree is alone, she greets the sheriff with nothing but venom. It is quickly established that we can’t trust the sheriff’s offers of assistance; we know instinctively, so closely are we inhabiting Ree’s world, that he doesn’t actually have her best interests at heart. Everyone who could help her is either actively working against her, untrustworthy, or too scared to do anything but warn her away. But Ree won’t scare. Because Dollys don’t run.

Implicit in every interaction Ree has during her quest is a threat, and when those threats turn into actual violence it is explosive and terrifying. Living in this constant state of tension, it’s no wonder that Ree longs to escape by joining the Army, hoping to use the substantial signing bonus to support her family. There is a perpetual fear of hope being snatched away, because this world is just not on Ree’s side. This world does not encourage hope, and attempts to escape can have deadly consequences. Failing to escape, however, can be just as bad, when the bondsman can take away your home, and there’s never enough to eat. Violence, and fear, and desperation are never overused in Winter’s Bone, but their cumulative weight, sometimes felt only after enough time has passed for some dreadful realization to sink in, settles over the viewer like a rain-soaked blanket, omnipresent and inescapable.

I found myself thinking, afterward, about pundits who criticized the Obama administration for working to get more people on government assistance, as if it were a campaign to cultivate dependence. When I look at this movie, it becomes obvious what that campaign is actually about. It’s about people like Ree, people who are vulnerable and living right on the edge, a step away from the abyss. I’ve been fortunate in my life to never have been so impoverished, so without support, that I had to contemplate splitting my family in order to live. I’ve never known the kind of hopelessness that Ree knows. And while this is a fiction, I have no trouble believing in people like Ree, whose lives are so fraught that they have trouble even believing in that kind of help. I think those who fight against government anti-poverty programs are exactly the reason so many people remain in poverty. They are the ones who take hope away.

Winter’s Bone is an absolutely beautiful film, which is strange to say, considering its content. It is startling, and upsetting, and bleak in the best possible way. The final image, and final implications, ought to break your heart, if you are remotely human. And it is absolutely worth it, for the brilliance of the performances and an immensely well-done tale.

Buy Winter’s Bone on DVD, Blu-ray, or Amazon Instant.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Starring Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton, Ronny Cox, Steven Berkoff, Jonathan Banks

Directed by Martin Brest

Written by Daniel Petrie, Jr.

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I’ve been watching action movies for most of my life, probably because action and its various subgenres – Action-Adventure, Sci Fi/Fantasy Epic, Superhero – are the sort of movies my dad likes. I have vague memories of so many car chases, so many missions to Vietnam, so many roundhouse kicks to the face, that the filmographies of Norris, Seagal, and Van Damme all kind of blur together for me. I remember them, though, with nostalgic affection in disproportion to their probable worth as films. And as a result, I return to the action genre over and over again, looking for something I can just barely remember, that feeling I had as a kid watching action movies on TBS in the afternoon with my dad and my brother.

I include this preface to say that I have opinions about action movies, formed over 20+ years of knockout punches, broken tables, and cars that explode when you shoot them. Action often asks you to turn your brain off and just coast on adrenaline and sexy, sexy violence, but, as you might have gathered from my Skyfall review, I expect more from my entertainment. Speaking as someone who has watched Samurai Cop twice, I can say that my expectations aren’t exactly excessive or consistently applied, but they exist. I can’t turn my brain off, at least not all the way.

So, Beverly Hills Cop disappointed me. It’s an 80’s classic, Eddie Murphy’s first solo starring role after partnering with older white guys in the much more entertaining 48 Hours and Trading Places, and it went on to be a box office success and spin-off two sequels, the first of which I remember being kind of fun even though it lacked a cameo by Bronson Pinchot. Axel Foley is a street-smart Detroit cop trying to take down a powerful drug kingpin who murdered his friend, while teaching the suits in the Beverly Hills Police Department how to do real policework. The comedy bits are pretty good, and you probably got the theme song stuck in your head as soon as you read the title of this review. It’s one of those 80’s action movies that you either saw years ago and loved or have a vague awareness of but no intention of seeing.

I don’t think there’s much productive I can say about a thirty year old film I didn’t particularly like, and if you liked it, I don’t have a particular interest in changing your mind, so instead of talking about what was wrong with Beverly Hills Cop, I’m going to talk about action movies I do like, and why I like them better. It’s probably not completely fair to compare an action movie from 1984 to movies made years later, but that’s the nature of culture and narrative art. We learn from the mistakes of those who went before us. You, of course, may not have the same expectations or value the same things that I do in action films. That, of course, is fine. Feel free to give your own take in the comments.

A lot of cops we see in action movies would, in real life, be terrible police. Damn protocol, the president has been kidnapped by NINJAS, and all these RULES are just standing in the way. So they do things that would ordinarily get them fired or killed, causing massive property damage, and they get away with it, because the bad guy gets dead. We can forgive that sort of break from reality, if it’s done well. If it’s not done well, the “hero” winds up looking like an invincible jerk and the plot fails to have any real tension. Take another 80’s action movie, Lethal Weapon. Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs is the loose cannon to Murtaugh’s By the Book, but he’s really more than that. He’s not fearless of failure or death because he’s Just That Good; he is outright suicidal, and his partner, notably, is not okay with this. This is what makes Riggs interesting, as he and Murtaugh fight it out with each other, take insane risks, and are generally mauled by the plot. Lethal Weapon hasn’t aged as well as it might have, in some ways, but when Riggs and Murtaugh are captured toward the end of the film, it’s brutal and tense in a way that the same scene in Beverly Hills Cop couldn’t manage. Murtaugh and Riggs are allowed to feel pain and terror, which makes them much more interesting characters to watch.

While we’re on the subject of buddy cops, let’s talk about a more recent film: Rush Hour. Chris Tucker as Detective Carter clearly owes a great deal to Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley. They both insist they work better alone, they both talk fast to get out of trouble, they both engage in unsanctioned undercover work. In fact, Carter’s undercover sting at the beginning of Rush Hour is so thematically similar to Foley’s entrance into Beverly Hills Cop that I have to believe the writers did it deliberately. Carter has all of these Foley qualities, including thinking of himself as a great cop, but everyone else – his partner, his department, the FBI, Inspector Lee – all think he’s a self-serving jerk. Like in Lethal Weapon, this creates tension, both as the hyper-competent Lee deals with a glory-seeking partner who is crooked and cocky, and as Carter starts to figure out how to actually be the good cop he always believed he was by right. I know some people roll their eyes at the idea of expecting character development from action movies, but I think it’s what gives the good ones their punch. Not every action star has to grow as a person by the time he walks away from the explosion, but I do think making us care about the protagonists as people ups the stakes in a way that no amount of fight choreography and pyrotechnics can.

Really, I think that’s one of the things that makes Die Hard my favorite action movie. Other than being clever, well-written, and funny, influencing action movies for the next decade, and making Bruce Willis an action star, it’s great because of the character of John McClane. He’s a cop, sure, but otherwise he’s just a guy, who hates to fly and misses his wife after the divorce. The thing I think most subsequent films lost track of is the essential vulnerability of John McClane. He’s cavalier and badass when taunting the villain, but he’s also scared and tired and hurting and just wants to go home. Half the guys he kills are killed in a complete panic, and he spends most of the movie trying to get somebody to come help so he can hide. John McClane doesn’t want to be a hero! Heroes get dead, and John McClane doesn’t want to die. That’s what makes him heroic, and that’s what makes Die Hard great in a way that so many other action movies have tried and failed to match.

The appeal of violence as entertainment has diminished for me lately; violence and death feel much more real to me as an adult, I suppose. Action movies are, by their nature, full of violence, although that can certainly span a spectrum from the sparking blows of the Power Rangers to Django Unchained’s thousands of blood squibs in terms of the graphic nature of that violence. Good action movies find a way to deal with that violence in a way that doesn’t trivialize it. Tarantino movies are so cartoonishly violent that they can be interpreted as a meta-commentary on violence in film, while the violence in Saving Private Ryan or HBO series like Rome or Game of Thrones is gory and visceral on purpose, fully intending that the audience should feel squeamish and uncomfortable. Although it’s a TV series and not really in the same genre as the movies I’ve been discussing, I think Breaking Bad is a great example of non-trivialized violence. That show explodes into violence pretty regularly, and it can have, at times, thrilling action sequences. But the deaths in those scenes are grim, and felt by the victim, the killer, and the viewer. Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, and even hyper-masculine DEA agent Hank Schrader are not left unscathed by either the violence they do or the violence done to them by others. I’ve enjoyed my share of movies in which the heroes are called to dispatch mobs of faceless goons with gun and sword, but those types of stories have to work that much harder to get me invested in the action. Breaking Bad, when it chooses to be violent, is like an action movie in which I actually care about the people participating in the shootout, and that makes it more satisfying.

Beverly Hills Cop struggled to hold my attention largely because it lacked these qualities. I should point out that I think the problems are primarily the fault of the script, which just doesn’t demand much from its neophyte action star. The studio wanted to capitalize on Murphy’s popularity, and Murphy wanted to break into a new kind of role. The result is a weak film that takes few risks and offers its star no challenges. The opportunity was there to emphasize the personal nature of Foley’s quest for justice, or the challenges he faces trying to win over the predominantly white cops in Beverly Hills. They placed Foley in a hostile city, in which everyone from the police to the mayor opposes him, but the filmmakers never really let us feel him struggle. I guess in the end that’s what I expect from action movies. It’s not about the explosions, the gunplay, the obligatory romance subplot; action for me is about revealing character through struggle. At their best, action films give us heroes we cheer not because they killed someone evil, but because they faced evil, and danger, and death, and they won. That kind of film is worth leaving your brain turned on.

Buy Beverly Hills Cop on DVD, Blu-ray, or Amazon Instant.