Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cross-Country & Cross Cultures

Disney has just released McFarland USA, a feel-good film about the power of sports to transform not only the participants, but also an entire town. Kevin Costner plays Jim White, a disgraced football coach who takes the only job he can find after his temper gets him fired - teaching at the high school in a predominantly Mexican-American agricultural town in central California. His students are indifferent to education, knowing that their future - and their present - lies in the fields that surround the dusty town. They pick from dawn until the school bell rings and return to the fields as soon as school lets out for the day - and they have tremendous stamina, speed, and (yes) grit developed from years of such a back-breaking schedule. White (yes, the name is both accurate and ironic, as the White family appears to be just about the only Caucasians in the entire town) sees an opportunity in the fleet-footed students and gets approval to start a cross-country team.

It would have been easy to make McFarland a tale of the Great White Savior rescuing the youth of a dead-end town through the power of sports. Fortunately, McFarland is more nuanced that that, although it takes some liberties with the truth, as these types of films so often do. White's got problems of his own and the film does a nice job of showing White's own missteps as he learns to swim in these unfamiliar waters. The culture of this town is so unlike anything the White family knows, but that in no way means it's inferior. Two lovely scenes illustrate my point here - first, when Jim White receives a housewarming gift of a chicken and later, a gorgeous scene in which the community (primarily the women) come together to throw Julie White a quinceanera with all the trimmings after Jim admits that he sort of forgot to even pick up a birthday cake for his daughter. The residents of McFarland are proud, hardworking people and it's good to see those values celebrated instead of disintegrating into a shouting match about immigrants and just who counts as a "real" American (a discussion I feel the Cherokee and Sioux [among others] might have some rather strong opinions on).

McFarland is a feel-good sports movie in the best tradition of the genre (I'm looking at you, Hoosiers and Remember the Titans). I found myself muttering, "Dig! Dig!" to cheer on the runners during the race scenes and I so wanted a happy ending for these kids. It's a solid effort - Costner inhabits the role of Jim White with ease and grace while both Carlos Pratts as Thomas Valles and Ramiro Rodriguez as Danny Diaz are particular standouts. McFarland is a lovely reminder that sports really can be a true source of character-building and justifiable pride. Go see this one. It'll make you want to lace up your sneakers and go for a run, even if it's just around the block. And whatever you do, don't leave before the epilogue.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

50 Shades of Grey - Why Crying "Red" Won't Help

I'm still churning from this movie. 50 Shades of Grey, which is E. L. James' all-growed-up Twilight fanfic, complete with the Edward character being even more of an insufferable jerk, hit theaters just in time for Valentine's Day, and wow! is our society in trouble.

Let's be clear - no matter what anyone writes or says, this movie is going to make tons of money, which means the next two books will also lurch onto the screen. There is no safe word that can save us from that, but let me try anyway.

First off, contemporary American society has a nearly completely screwed-up attitude towards sex. We use it to sell everything from clothing to beer to tires, yet we're oddly puritanical. We fuss over what information about their own bodies should be given to high schoolers yet hard-core porn is available in the privacy of our own homes with a few mouse clicks. Romance is a gigantic genre and 50 Shades tapped into a huge segment of the population who hungered for the escape of steamy fiction that came with tasteful, non-bodice-ripped covers and the perceived privacy of e-readers. So a story about a virginal English lit major who trips over her own feet and a self-assured, powerful tycoon with a playroom outfitted in the style of Early London Bordello crossed with Churchill Downs sold upwards of a hundred million copies.

50 Shades is not the worst or most damaging movie I've ever seen. That being said, this is not a good movie (it contains dialogue wooden enough to carve), nor does it depict a healthy relationship. And that's what I really got upset about. I got aggravated at the Twilight books for their depiction of obsession as a sign of love, 50 Shades does the same thing. Christian Grey is an emotionally-damaged man. That's sad, but it's no reason to fall into the trap of thinking that the love of a good woman can change him. He engages in the obsessive, controlling behavior of a stalker and that doesn't change based on his material wealth. Girls and ladies - hear me well on this. Men who show up without warning and insinuate themselves into your life through their personal presence or the giving of outrageously expensive gifts are not showing you affection and love - they're exhibiting control and disdain. (Selling your car without asking you if you'd like him to do that is another whole level, by the way.)  Ana Steele is a virgin when she first meets this man, whom I'm willing to bet is described in the books as "intense" or maybe "smoldering." Amazed, he sets out to "rectify this situation." Run.  Just - run.

The sex scenes? Quite frankly, they're a bit boring. Lots of lingering shots of writhing female body parts and Dakota Johnson biting her full lower lip in what may be another homage to Twilight, where Kristen Stewart seemed completely incapable of doing much else. Also, please do not think that you understand dominant/submissive relationships from watching 50 Shades. It's another thing the movie gets wrong, wrong, wrong. Honestly, if you want sexy scenes in a bad relationship that should never be emulated, go with another "Gray" and watch 9 1/2 Weeks.*

In short, 50 Shades is not hot, sexy, or a romance. It's a supporting narrative for a restraining order. The fact that we, as a society, seem to have trouble distinguishing between the two scares me to my core.



*Seriously, Mickey Rourke's character in that movie, which features one scene that I remember lo, these many years later, is named "John Gray."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Of Space and Sea

Two new releases this week that, at first glance, couldn't be more different, but upon deeper reflection, actually have a funky commonality - both Jupiter Ascending and Spongebob Squarepants: Sponge Out of Water address the issue of (ready for it?) - capitalism. Both, by the way, are also well worth seeing.

 First up, Jupiter Ascending. Brought to us by the Wachowski siblings, Jupiter is as visually-stunning as anything this daring pair of filmmakers has ever brought to the big screen. While I haven't always loved everything the Wachowskis do, I've always admired their willingness to take on huge-scale, original projects and take no prisoners in their efforts to translate Big Questions onto the screen. The first Matrix movie was ground-breaking in its depiction of a world in which reality cannot be trusted and in Cloud Atlas (I wrote about that one back here), they created a world in which lives and storylines crossed repeatedly without being restricted by race or gender. I think Jupiter is a stunning film and I predict it'll be one that gets bashed out of the gate and re-visited with much kindness later. Jupiter asks its audience to think - to actually ponder and consider some things that are fantastical, amazing, and downright weird in a few places. The cast is strong - Channing Tatum has a role he can sink his teeth into and Mila Kunis does a credible job in bring to life Jupiter Jones, who was born with a destiny but doesn't seem willing to do anything to make it happen. There is so much going on in this film and some will find that too challenging; I found it refreshing.

The universe is this film is ruled by simple supply and demand - most commodities are no longer in demand; the only thing left is - time. And human essence can be harvested and packaged to provide that time to the very few wealthy and powerful enough to pay for it. In the universe of this film, Earth is nothing more than a farm and we're the herd. When the population reaches the point beyond which the planet can sustain it, it's time to be harvested. This is space opera at its finest - big, big, BIG! and not afraid to go even bigger. The film's release was pushed back to give more time to post-production and, quite frankly, I don't think the studio quite knows what to do with this film, but I'll tell you this much - if you enjoy seeing a movie that'll make you think while taking your breath away with its lush visuals - go see this one. (Plus, there's a scene that'll make you realize that bureaucracy is with us until the ends of the earth.)

And completely on the other end of things - Spongebob. I'll admit that I went into this nearly totally unaware of the Spongebob world. But the theater was PACKED (I had to sit in the second row, which is really closer to the screen than I prefer, but what can you do?) and the audience loved this. I was right there with them, too. The plot doesn't really matter, but I'll tell you that seeing Antonio Banderas playing a diabolical pirate bent of becoming the most successful food-truck proprietor on the beach is probably worth the price of admission alone. When the secret formula (again, supply and demand) is stolen, the hi-jinks begin. The film has a breakneck pace and groan-worthy puns are interspersed with so many allusions (the use of "The Ecstasy of Gold" is especially nice) that I'd have to put this film up in my personal list of "whoa, this movie is trippy" films - and that's without even getting into Bubbles the Dolphin. The humor is kid-friendly (a few gross jokes about seagull poop is about as raunchy as it gets) and the film is just flat-out fun. February is grey and dreary - let go of your sensible, late-winter self and go see this one.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

More Walter White!

Yes, Breaking Bad has ended its run and Better Call Saul is gearing up to explore the transformation of James "Jimmy" Morgan McGill from young, possibly-idealistic lawyer to the criminal criminal lawyer Saul Goodman - you ARE making plans to watch that, aren't you?  But during last Sunday's Super Bowl, Walter White re-emerged.  Sorta.



And then a friend sent me this remix, which I've barely been able to stop playing.  Enjoy, but be warned - it's not entirely safe for work (or to be played around small children, but it's Breaking Bad, so you knew that, right?).




Better Call Saul is getting some extremely good buzz - click here to see what I mean - and watch the trailer. This could be a show worth watching!


. . . and it's so big it needs two nights for the premiere! Plan to tune in Sunday, Feb. 8 and Monday, Feb. 9 at 10:00 Eastern!

Want to know more?  Click here for loads of details from AMC!


Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Yes and a Warning

Black or White hit movie theaters this weekend. I wasn't so sure about this one - Kevin Costner's track record has been a bit spotty as of late, but Octavia Spencer tends toward the fabulous, so in I went. The film is not without a few problems - Jeremiah's (played the always reliable Anthony Mackie) speech to Reggie about his being a stereotype came across as a little pat to me - but the film is willing to tackle some tough issues without being After School Special-simple. Truly, the issues presented here are not black or white. A quick summary - Elliot (Kevin Costner) and his wife have been raising their bi-racial granddaughter since birth - their daughter died in childbirth and the father is addicted and shiftless. However, he comes from a good family who values hard work and when Elliot's wife dies in a car accident, Rowena (the paternal grandmother, played by Octavia Spencer) decides that Elliot can't raise the child alone and sues for full (not shared) custody.

I saw this in a crammed theater and the audience loved the twists. Elliot has money and can provide a host of creature comforts that Rowena can't, but she has a house full of children closer to Eloise's age and family matters. Both of them genuinely love little Eloise and want what's best for her - they just disagree on what that is. Reggie (Eloise's father) is a screw-up of the first order, the black sheep in this motivated, close-knit family, although you sense that he really does want to be a loving, responsible father, but he has absolutely no clue how to do that. And Elliot and Reggie have a couple of things in common that won't look good in open court.

I'm going to single out Paula Newsome, who plays the judge presiding over the custody case. She's to-the-point, but also compassionate and droll, so her character got several of the bigger laughs in this film, which always tinges the serious issues it's taking on with humor. And keep your eye on Mpho Koaho, who plays Eloise's tutor. He's going places. Not necessarily a big screen must-see, but Black or White is a solid effort and a gem to find in the doldrums of late winter, when studios often dump their stray dogs on screens across the land.

Speaking of stray dogs, I also saw The Loft this weekend. No, I'm not including a link. Or a picture. Or much of anything at all. (We were the only two people in the theater, which should have told me something.) The actors deserve better and goodness knows the movie-going public deserves better for their hard-earned cash than this contemptible mess of "Bros Before Hos" that is being foisted on you. It's not enough to not go to see this film, as a humanitarian gesture, you need to pull people who are thinking about going to see it out of the ticket line. They'll thank you later for saving them seven bucks and 108 minutes of their life. Seriously, in the first five minutes, I was stunned at one of the film's basic premises, which seemed to be "All of us are successful, well-off men, yet none of us have ever, in 20 years, watched enough Law & Order to know to ask for a lawyer when a dead blonde winds up in our shared love-nest." And it goes downhill from there. And when it reaches rock-bottom, it starts digging. Please stay away.