…and the quest to see everything

Posts tagged “America

Super Size Me


I first watched Morgan Spurlock‘s Sundance hit Super Size Me some time within my last two years in high school, possibly during my Media Studies class where all we did was watch movies. Or maybe was it in Ethics class. The director has a weird reputation for me now, seeming like some attention-grabbing, condescending liberal to end all condescending liberals. The fact that fellow (and possible rival) liberal Michael Moore is no longer on the spotlight doesn’t help to take any heat off Spurlock. In the film, he goes on this thirty-day experiment of only consuming the foods and drinks is on the McDonalds’ menu, agreeing to be ‘Super Sized’ when asked. But at least, I suppose, he wasn’t drinking or smoking during those thirty days.

He points the camera mostly to himself, renting a car to cut his physical activity and exercise. Being ‘strung out on ham’ and complaining about the diet’s effects which I couldn’t really see. This ‘performance’ part of the movie sticks out in the eight years between the first and second time I’ve seen this, being one of three documentaries that occasionally lifts my willing suspension of disbelief. Super Size Me‘s popularity has also prompted him to do a cable series called “30 Days” where he convinces Americans to place themselves within different shoes for thirty days, like an Islamophobe to Muslim Michigan or himself to prison. I don’t remember anyone else watching this show.

But I can admit that I misread Spurlock as a filmmaker and person. He explains that he was raised in West Virginia and as a tall, athletic man with weird facial hair, he makes sense both as a New Yorker and as a middle American, just like the people he visits and interviews to get the McDonalds experience in different states like California, DC and the fattest state of Texas (I suppose that with the knowledge of the physical state of the latter state, if there was another Civil War the gun-less, pacifist Union might still win).

And it’s not all just him hogging the camera. Yes, the B-roll of ‘fat’ Americans both young and all makes me feel like I have to poke fun of someone as part of experiencing this movie. But as one of many ‘experts’ in this film says, it’s better to convince someone to stop smoking or drinking than to tell someone to go on a diet. A black lung or liver is a state that people get themselves into, as opposed to obesity that might be genetically inherited. But the States has become the world’s fattest country and the proves this by letting these experts speak, whether they be general practitioners (doctors), dietitians, civil litigators, ‘cooks’ in American public schools and surgeons. He also makes statistics about American obesity rates and the dynamics of the food market both fun and scary to look at between watching him get queasy after a Big Mac.

Let’s also look at how the film perceives women. Two thirds of the doctors he consults before and during his experiment are women. There’s also his girlfriend, whose complaints about his sexual worthlessness during those thirty days. She’s also an archetypal vegetarian, attempting to use the experiment as a way of convincing him that meat is hazardous to one’s health even if it’s within or outside the McMenu. She has also planned a detox diet for him after his McDonalds month and I’ll just be bitchy and say that he could have planned his own detox.

Spurlock narrates in the beginning that most of his memories of his mother was her cooking food except for those special occasions when his family would eat out. Which is no longer the case in most families in America and he shows a food court that replaces the dinner table. It’s almost as if there’s a warped mind somewhere thinking that the country’s obesity problem is rooted on mothers who no longer toil for their families’ dinners. That we can return to equilibrium again if we put women back in the kitchen. He thankfully never says that. Instead he goes on for five minutes about an overhaul and regulation of fast food ubiquity, getting rid of many cola vending machines, introducing real food that’s inaccessible to places in the States and cracking down on fast food corporations. Too bad he’s just preaching to the choir.

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In praise of Mirren and Coughlan


You might know her as The Queen or as Supt. Jane Tennison whoever but I will always remember Helen Mirren in the first movie I’ve seen her in, playing the title role in Teaching Mrs. Tingle. She’s the stereotypical teacher from hell, 90’s bowl cut, angry American accent and all.

Some film geeks might herald 1999 as a banner year but it was also a part of that decade, seeing the release of many teen movies. We have the headlining adult in this film but where do we get the young stars to get my attention? Why television, of course! At the time Katie Holmes, also coming out with Disturbing Behavior, was then one of successful “Dawson’s Creek” alums. There was also “7th Heaven’s” Barry Watson.

ph. Dimension

But let me present you Marisa Coughlan. While Leigh Ann Watson (Holmes) and Luke Churner (Watson) are ‘going to school or home so they won’t look suspicious,’ they assign Jo Lynn Jordan (Coughlan) to Tingle watch. So ‘aspiring actress’ Jo reenacts famous scenes from classic movies, passing the time. At one point she has to pretend to be Tingle when the married Coach Wenchell (Jeffrey Tambor) comes over, Jo sounding more like Isabella Rosselini instead of Mirren. She has to wear Tingle’s clothes and perfume, coming too vulnerable and close to the dark side.

I find one scene interesting, when Tingle finally makes Jo into believing that Leigh and Luke are having an affair behind her back and Jo readily believing anything she has to say. For argument’s purposes, Jo is being a bad actress in front of Tingle, saying the words ‘You’re lying’ so insipidly but the latter can’t see it. I don’t know how intentional this is on Coughlan’s part, or that writer-director Kevin Williamson can’t transition from one part of the scene to another, but I’ll call this subversion. Points for Miss Coughlan.


The Last Starfighter


The Last Starfighter was playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of their 80’s thingamajig every Saturday at 2. They’re also doing Gremlins today and Back to the Future, if they haven’t done it already. The looks of the star of The Last Starfighter reminds me of Armie Hammer, so if necking with Leonardo di Caprio in movies don’t work, he has a sci-fi reboot waiting for him! Oh wait, this guy plays twins too?

Let me explain. Alex Rogan lives in the 1980’s in some trailer park in California or the Southwest that isn’t as trashy as the one in “Trailer Park Boys,” there’s a video game outside the diner of that trailer park. He exceeds the top score, he gets sent in outer space because of this seemingly inconsequential achievement. A Beta version of him is sent down to take his place to keep the residents less suspicious, even if he mopes around and doesn’t like it when his girlfriend licks his ear.

He’s not the greatest actor. He doesn’t particularly sell me when he doesn’t want to be a starfighter. He has this wide-eyed inflection when he learns something new about outer space. But he does capable service to his double role, the original is sometimes angry both about his old and new predicament, Beta Alex takes the Earthlings with a humourous stride. And he has great timing when acting against himself too. I’ll also point out the deadpan ridiculous of Alex’s girlfriend and the rest of the trailer park residents, the most embarrassingly stereotypical acting from a black person in between Oscar Polk and the Wayans Brothers and the fake British inflection camp of the space villains because apparently there’s no other way to act out the latter. The enemy alien has a red space monocle snapping into place once in a while. The last time that happens, he says his last words “We die,” and he dies. It’s priceless.

As an 80’s sci-fi movie, the effects are pathetic compared to today’s standards. The space battles feel like the video game he plays back home, but with blocks and lasers. The good thing about the terrible, early stage CGI era is that the crew would actually make sets for the interior spaces outside Earth. The sets are well thought out and make sense for their contexts. Half of the film also takes place in and near the trailer park. The effects in this part economical like a shooting star, a sign that an enemy has landed. We see the tacky decorations of the kooky old trailer park residents, the truck with the token sexually rambunctious but not destructive cowboy friend and non-speaking token Asian friend and so forth.

There’s also something I like in the composition of this shot of Alex’s anguish, vegetation, sign, diner. There are a lot of contrasts that play well together, both earthly and magical. There’s also another shot where the good aliens parade Alex around the dark surrounding s suggest nighttime but actually mean the film can’t afford a night sky or special space traffic lights.

This film came out in 1984, a banner year not for the Academy but for genre films. The Terminator also came out this year.


Marwencol


So this guy Mark Hogencamp of Kingston, NY get ‘queer-bashed,’ leaving him brain-damaged, but comes out of it with the best revenge – better artistic skills and penmanship than me? I’m not saying with schadenfreude that his skills as an artist should be as stalled as mine, but not fair, world.

Hogencamp is as multifaceted as the aesthetic of the fictional town he has created with his two hands, Marwencol, a portmanteau of his name and the two most important women in her life, Mark, Wendy and Colleen. The film, as much as it is dedicated towards his fictional world, also focuses on the man who has created it. He talks normally except for stressing the words ‘angry’ and ‘drink,’ two of his past vices. He’s honest about the porno tape that an old VCR has eaten up or other revelations about his views and practices on sexuality as revealed through the real world and his fictional one. The film lets us watch the man evolve.

Significant portions of the film is devoted to showing storyboard stills of Mark’s stills of the WWII dolls placed in both the town he’s physically constructed, both within 1/6th scale, and seamlessly within natural settings. I’m gonna nitpick and say the the zippers seem larger than scale, but that’s about it. His friends say that he expresses his anger through the dolls, an admirable action because of how he does it. He carefully paints the scars and bullet holes into the body of these dolls instead of attacking them. At first this feels like he’s staining those dolls until we see the effect he successfully conveys, making the violence look like the dolls have inflicted them on each other, as certain plot points of Marwencol’s story go.

Those stills are more colorful than the less glamourous people like Mark and certain townspeople of Kingston, NY from whom some of the characters in Marwencol are based on. No human Barbie dolls and war hunks in Mark’s real world, which make them more special since the film lets us see the beauty that Mark sees in them. These people are interviewed one by one, their reactions to his art as unabashedly honest as the fiction Mark creates. His best friend says that he’s ‘partaken in battles and come out on top,’  Marwencol then becoming a balance between communal fantasy and a symbol for the wars Mark endures to be healed.


Casting: Freedom


The news about Jonathan Franzen was picked up locally – he and his new novel “Freedom” had moved around for a book tour with a stop at Toronto two months earlier and meant everything to the city now – because of his appearances at the IFOA. According to very flattering reviews in the city’s alternative weeklies, Franzen made an epic splash tackling both the professional and private lives of the fictional Berglund family whose story spanned from St. Paul to Washington. While the blogger was wallowing with self-pity because of being unable to pay for tickets to see someone who was practically a living literary genius, the blogger contended with reading the 500 plus page tome by himself months later, and realized that the first thing he was thinking about was who would play the characters in a movie version which MAKES HIM A PRIME SUSPECT RIGHT? Then again, a film version would be in the spirit of the ambition in this book, and regardless the parts that were in Joey’s perspective, which is practically Franzen channeling Bret Easton Ellis, and even if certain plot points are revealed twice, the book can compel and break the hearts of the readers each time.

The blogger kept thinking about what it would have been like if this movie was set in the late 1980’s with a cast like Danner-Redford-Goldblum, or Kristine Sutherland (Buffy’s mom)-Kline-Goldblum, or a mid 1950’s cast consisting of Taylor-Hudson-Dean. But what is done is done. The blogger will give a set of names that also depends on which director the movie version would make the film, and how ambitious and cool-headed this director is.

JESSICA BERGLUND. Walter and Patty’s intelligent, ethically sound older daughter. She’s daddy’s girl but their relationship isn’t as poisonous as Patty and her brother Joey’s.

My choice. Emma Roberts. It’s weird casting a younger actor who’s only more than ten years younger than the actors playing his parents. The only thing I’ve seen her in is the trailer for It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Hope my instincts aren’t off.

CONNIE MONAGHAN. The girl next door to the Monaghans. She’s an outsider from the neighborhood and Joey’s girlfriend.

My choice. Kristen Stewart. This girl’s probably going to be too cool for school after On the Road is released or when, by lucky stars, she gets the role of Kate for the new East of Eden. But as much as I liked her in The Runaways, when you read about a character that’s feral and sexual and has no ideas of her own, who else could I have thought of?

LALITHA. The young woman of Indian descent who has two passions – anti-overpopulation and her boss, Walter Berglund.

My choice Freida Pinto. The book describes Lalitha as having round features like Aishwarya Rai, who isn’t on the age range as the character. There’s a calming sense to her performance in Slumdog Millionaire, and the sexual element is obviously in there as well.

JOEY BERGLUND. The wonder boy who’s rebelling from his parents through sexual relations with Connie Monaghan and through Republicanism.

My choice. Anton Yelchin. This’ll be a jump from Yelchin, whose foray into science fiction films make him seem benevolent and dorky. But young minds can absorb. Plus he can still pretend to be in high school, depending on what the film wants him to be. The only questions are how he’s going to look with blonde hair and a little beer weight?

RICHARD KATZ. Truncated from the hardcover’s leaflet thingy, he’s an outre rocker and Walter Berglund’s best friend and rival. But what is he still doing in the picture?

My choice: Unknown This is a cop-out, but every source material has a role that’s hard to cast. It’s better for a casting director to scour the earth and find someone out of a thousand people other than saying Depp or Bale or Leo. Colin Farrell might do if he looked the part.

WALTER BERGLUND. As a nature lover, working for Big Coal becomes the career move that gets him in the New York Times. Has Freudian rivalry issues with his best friend, his son, his father and brothers.

My choice: Paul Rudd. Ageless Paul Rudd. We need someone sincere to open up to Patty as he talks about how mean her best friend Eliza is Sure he hasn’t done drama since The Object of My Affection, but you can’t lose that kind of training. His comic side might help reduce tensions in many scenes while arguing with Joey or his wife Patty and will help him while thinking about overpopulation statistics and going ballistic on a pill-addled speech that goes viral, pre-Youtube days. Thinking about Paul Rudd made me realize what a funny character Walter is.

PATTY BERGLUND nee EMERSON. The basketball star turned perfect housewife to bored, drinking housewife who wallows in self-pity and writes her autobiography for therapy.

My choice: Michelle Monaghan. ‘I’m 34. I’m a baby,’ Monaghan says in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang five and a half years ago. Although she looks more mature in Somewhere, the blogger is sure she can still fit in as a young blonde girl in a college basketball team and eventually transform herself into an older Washington housewife. She has the hardness in her voice to nail ‘Did Walter ever tell you I slashed Blake’s snow tires?’ and humour and goodwill to bring Patty to our sympathies.


Neverending Christmas: Gremlins is Black


So watched this movie last week at the Underground, had some spiked apple cider, met Sasha, entered raffle, not win anything from raffle. Also, there were short theatrical and musical performances. The former from the Underground staff, the latter from a band with a front girl who sounds like Feist. Thanks girl, I was rooting for me being the hottest person in that room.

I remember the chair scene, I remember a mall instead of a department store. The sequel probably ends in a mall. I haven’t seen the sequel since my childhood.

ph. Warner

Apparently the gremlins is black. Stripe with his mohawk doesn’t register as black to me. I guess their ‘blackness,’ in a ‘Renaissance’ perspective of the word, has something to do with the second rule, as light can be seen as whiteness, something that the gremlins can’t live under. The gremlins don’t even register as Chinese, since the parent gremlin does come from China. Ok, thinking about the raciality of the gremlins almost made my head explode. I was this close to comparing them to ‘Muslims,’ or at least how ‘red’ America perceives them.

Nonetheless, the racial reading of the film roots from that despite Christianity’s strength, there’s still an anxiety that Christmas, in its ever-evolving form, won’t be celebrated ‘traditionally,’ whatever our understanding of that is. On that note, maybe it’s not a racial but about generational differences, that the multiplication and transformation of the gremlins are the fault of a curious, young man.

Why is the school open on Christmas Eve? The science teacher wouldn’t have died if he didn’t work. I guess it builds on the childhood assumption that teachers line in school. For some reason, schools in Reagan-era America actually had enough funding to indulge their teachers to make their own research and the facilities that go with them. Also, ooh, black on black violence.

Also, the retired Phoebe Kline nee Cates. She made Jessica Alba seem like a Shakespearean actress.


Juno


ph. Fox Searchlight DVD

Juno, its eponymous hero and the actress who plays her, Ellen Page, probably have slightly maligned reputations by now. The movie and character would be seen as aloof and jokey despite of her pregnancy, and the actress almost got typecast as the leading star of the indie pack. My ‘job’ is to tell you the readers that there’s much more to the film. I caught this movie four minutes in, and Juno’s in real distress, convincingly telling her best friend (Olivia Thirlby) on the other side of the hamburger phone that she’s a ‘suicide case,’ revealing her situation. But yes, she does deliver on the humour, so relax. It’s eight minutes in and she’s already covered pop culture references and ironic ebonics, and sells her lines efficiently. She understand exactly what she’s experiencing, by this part of the movie anyway. And there’s her and the movie’s conundrum during unexpected pregnancies – the slightly depoliticized choices of keep, adopt and abort. When she chooses to give up her child for adoption, she has to deal with the new characters as well as ones already in her life.

And no, the characters in Juno don’t all talk alike, with their different rages of old, conservative – both gentrified and not – Americana and new, snarky Americana. Even bit parts have their own ticks, just like every human being in a fictional universe like this one we live in. A lone pro-life protester who shouts that all babies want to get ‘bornd,’ or a goth, sexually active receptionist.

Speaking of quirky, there’s a bit of focus on the characters’ material possessions and moments of privacy. I already mentioned the hamburger phone. There’s the discarded living room set, the picture of prince Charles in Juno’s cheerleader best friend Leah’s room, love interest Paulie Bleeker’s (Michael Cera) maroon and yellow outfit combination while he’s putting deodorant between his thighs. While we’re at Paulie’s shorts, by the way, let me just say that yes, cinematographer Eric Steelberg isn’t Wally Pfister nor Roger Deakins, but correct me if I’m wrong, he did bring the most eye-popping movie in an otherwise sepia tone year. Brenda’s (Allison Janney) obsession with dogs, adopting prospective Mark Loring’s guitar. Again, my fascination with these objects root from my boring decor. Mark’s wife Vanessa’s (Jennifer Garner) contradiction of bourgeois chrysanthemums and Alice in Chains tee are given the same light of individuality as the possessions of the working class characters on the other exit on the highway.

Yes, Bleeker’s a nerdy jock anti-stereotype and Leah encourages her best friend’s new sexuality yet still cool enough to join a rock band. However, the movie has clichés. Product placements. Juno’s short body trying to walk opposite everyone else’s direction. Juno’s stepmom Brenda warning of something that’s gonna happen and being right. Speaking of which, I would like to congratulate the internet for not ruining the movie.

Despite her wit, thank God she isn’t always the smartest person in the film, where the adults also show her things that are as she says ‘beyond her maturity level.’ She has her flaws. She crosses the line with the people in her life, using the word ‘gay’ – Leah does too. Page is nonetheless amazing in this, giving more than expected for the role. There’s something even in the way Juno runs up the stairs to the bathroom that shows how inventive and physical she is in a role that’s more script-based. If there is a flaw to her performance, it’s her voice that usually isn’t this nasal. She also ends most of her snarky lines with a lower tone, reminding me of how a younger Jorja Fox would speak.

And who says the women’s picture is dead? Diablo Cody sprinkles her script with well-written female characters. As Leah, Thirlby supports her and moves furniture for her. She also does the best readings of the word ‘pants’ and ‘I know, right’ in the history of cinema. Vanessa’s slightly frosty demeanour ventures for need to have a child with sane amounts of caution. Janney plays Brenda as a sap with a Kristen Wiig outfit yet knows how to eviscerate anyone like she does in “The West Wing” in probably the film’s best scene. All three equally convince the audience that they’re the best parts of this movie in their moments onscreen.

The male supporting cast does wonders in this film too. J.K. Simmons as Juno’s dad Mac reinvents himself as the balanced, supportive parental cool from whom she gets her sense of humour from. Bateman as Mark Loring tries his best both to support his wife’s wishes to adopt while holding on to the youthfulness that Juno’s sparked within him. Cera knows how to convey anxiety only through his eyes – his face doesn’t move but it doesn’t need to. And despite seeing her at her worst, Cera’s Bleeker gives her the moment of tenderness when she needs it.

The trailers on the DVD include 27 Dresses who co-stars Jonathan from “30 Rock,” The Savages which I should have seen instead of Sweeney Todd and a digital copy promotion thing that ties-in with promoting Live Free and Die Hard.