Friday, June 29, 2012

Your Sister's Sister and Brave (along with a brief mention of Rock of Ages)

          Women of the World, Unite!  (and men too, as long
        as you prove worthy of the task)
                  Review by Ken Burke        Your Sister's Sister

Sometimes the road not taken intersects with the chosen path, leading to difficult decisions like these that arise from a very plausible variation of a “family feud.”


If it’s not Scottish feminism, it’s crap … bear crap maybe … although, if so, it’s in the palace as well as the woods in this tale about independence vs. family bonding.

            You’ll note that I’m using a lot of movie posters as illustrative images in this posting in an attempt to convey a lot of references in a compressed manner, just as I hope to do the same with the words accompanying the pictures (OK, we know that’s not going to happen so let’s just move on to the analysis).  Truly there’s not a lot that needs to be said (But when has that ever stopped me?) about either one of the female-focused features under primary consideration here (although the shorter asides on two others further down in the review are decidedly more male-centric), not because these are stories primarily about women coming to terms with their life situations (and the needed cooperation from key men also involved in those lives) but because they resolve their quandaries in a clear fashion once the conflicts in their stories have been established.  In Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister the guy, Jack (Mark Duplass), may seem to be the prime mover in the film, but for me the critical action taken is by the second “sister” in the title, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt)—actually a half-sister from a roving father, which explains why Iris, raised abroad, has an English accent unlike Hannah—because if she hadn’t made a crucial strategic calculation then there truly would be nothing happening here except a long night’s conversation over a bottle of tequila, an uneventful morning after, and maybe a quiet little declaration of attraction by the first “sister,” Iris (Emily Blunt), toward morose Jack, still trying to shake the sorrow of his brother Tom’s death a year after the fact.  In fact, Jack’s ongoing depression is what leads to best friend (and former lover of Tom) Iris’ offer to Jack to hibernate for awhile in her family’s island cabin.  (So that once again, as with Safety Not Guaranteed [Colin Trevorrow—see review in my June 21, 2012 posting if you like], we find Duplass in the general Seattle area and the eventual object of affection by a very alluring woman [in this case, the charming Blunt who’s been screen-active this year—if interested, see my reviews of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lasse Hallström, posted March 22, 2012) and The Five Year Engagement (Nicholas Stroller, posted May 12, 2012)—much to my delight, although I’m starting to see some steam rising from my wonderful wife, Nina’s, furrowed brow so I’d better schedule that annual Godfather trilogy DVD-fest soon so she can get her Pacino fix].)

            Jack, traveling by bike and ferry, arrives in the woods only to find lesbian (not that her orientation normally makes a difference but it will soon have relevance in this story) Hannah already in residence, recouping as well from her recent termination of a long-term involvement.  After some snarky opening chatter they become more simpatico, more inebriated, and more willing to have a fling of their own, somewhat betraying the growing but unstated feelings between Jack and Iris but more blatantly betraying Hannah’s innocence in the matter (and better justifying her willingness to get shagged by a guy) when we find out later that she poked holes in Jack’s condom because she was just looking for an opportunity to get pregnant, a critical reason for her breakup after 7 years with ex-girlfriend Pam.  Once Iris arrives the next day to surprise Jack, then learns of both the previous night’s hay-roll and the real reasons behind it (including Jack’s feeble attempt to substitute Hannah for Iris in his addled mind), the normally chilly Northwest climate turns frigid for all concerned.  As noted above, now that the set-up is in place and the fur is flying (but not nearly as much fur as we’ll find later in Brave), the real weight of the film comes in how each of these characters deals with the circumstances that he or she has helped to create. (Or as Paul Simon sings in “Gumboots” from his astounding 1986 Graceland album, “I said breakdowns come And breakdowns go So what are you going to do about it That’s what I’d like to know,” and even more appropriately for how this film plays out, “You don’t feel you could love me But I feel you could.”)

            Slowly, the sisters reconnect after Jack goes off to camp in the deeper part of the woods, finally taking out his frustration on his innocent bike after it throws its chain.  Once the expressed anger allows him to get his feelings clearly to the surface he returns to possibly finalize things with Iris and Hannah but finds that forgiveness is the order of the day, although I still contend that Hannah is the one with the most egregious action of the bunch, both because she set out to snare an unsuspecting guy into fatherhood—not that this doesn’t happen:  I’m aware of one of my own acquaintances doing the same without ever telling the limited-usage guy she was pregnant nor telling her child who the father is (although, in Hannah’s defense [as well as with the real woman I’m referring to], she had no intention of involving him in the child’s life, but some might say that’s egregious as well)—and because she knew that her sister had at least very protective feelings for this emotionally-damaged guy and would object to Jack being unknowingly used for her serendipitous scheme, as is the case in the film.  Jack shares some blame, not for bedding a willing adult female, despite the assumed likelihood that this is a one-off (so to speak) opportunity with an “Ah, what the fuck?" (again, so to speak) lesbian but for consciously (drunkenly, true, but still conscious enough to ejaculate—a feat in itself when inebriated [I speak from experience there also.  Never mind.]—therefore conscious enough to know the who and why of his situation) living out his unrequited passion for his dead brother’s ex-girlfriend through her lesbian sister (and when you write all that down and re-read it a couple of times he seems even more of a slimeball for doing it).  Well-intentioned Iris didn’t previously contribute anything to be ashamed of but then she adds to the mix her instant rejection of both sibling and (intended-to-be-more-than) best friend for their transgressions, pushing both of them away so fiercely with no attempt at immediate (or even soon-cooled-off) dialogue that she’s not fully innocent either, although it’s her rather easy acceptance of Jack’s delayed expression of love for her (and his willingness to be part of Hannah's baby’s life, if asked—and if, in fact, she’s even pregnant; despite popular misconception, being lesbian doesn’t automatically make you psychic) that brings this short-ish film (90 min.) to a warm, desired conclusion.  Obviously, the goal of the story is to get Iris and Jack together, along with bringing some peace to Hannah’s life, which happens, perhaps too facilely but still in an emotionally acceptable manner in a film that primarily is valuable for its sense of honest interactions and dialogue among sincere but troubled adults.

            As noted earlier, Jack is a key player here and his self-revelations are difficult for him to admit to, but the pain of his brother’s death has obviously overwhelmed him even while forcing him to confound the glowing memories his friends have of Tom by revealing that this seeming saint was once a more selfish guy who consciously made himself over as kinder in order to win over those friends and provide more opportunities for himself.  Blurting out all of that inner turmoil at the 1-year memorial for Tom alienates Jack from the rest of the pack, so he’s able to have a more effective dialogue about his troubles when he and Hannah get simultaneously tight and loose while sharing their agave juice (I love the "fluid" nature of our language).  But even more intimate, without the need for trauma to bring forth meaningful admissions, are the shared exchanges between Iris and Hannah throughout the film, allowed by a lifetime of such private trust and sisterly care, making their estrangement all the more painful for both of them (although, as even close siblings genuinely do, they have ongoing interchanges that show some sibling-rivalry meanness such as Iris sneaking some butter into vegan Hannah’s mashed potatoes just for a[n unappreciated] laugh).  The easy way in which they pass information one to the other is a valuable aspect of Shelton’s screenplay, ringing true to the best types of family relationships (or so I’m told by Nina, who as a middle sister with two on each side [along with an older and younger brother] experiences that kind of long-nutured intimacy while I as an only child with no connection even to my few cousins have no immediate knowledge of such).  Although the ending may be too easily resolved for some (see for details on why noted San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle says “The last 20 minutes become a self-indulgent wallow”), the authenticity of how these 3 interact is extremely effective (even LaSalle agrees that, up to 65 min. in, Your Sister’s Sister “is on track to becoming one of the best films of 2012”—a remark that dangerously offers itself up as out-of-context overall praise for an ad) in the simple manner by which these characters speak their confused minds.

            Any why should that be worthy of so many stars, you might ask, when you could just sit in the lobby of the theatre and hear real dialogue in passing without having to pay $10 to listen to professional actors deliver seemingly spontaneous lines?  For me it all comes down to context:  If I want a big-budget movie to deliver based on its massive but well-commanded technological awesomeness (Avatar [James Cameron, 2009], The Avengers [Joss Whedon]) I’m willing to overlook genre tropes and plot improbabilities; if I want something with genre expectations but more depth either in thematic implication (The Dark Knight [Christopher Nolan, 2008]) or character development (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [David Fincher, 2011]) I’m willing to recognize that the narrative still must meet certain conventional resolutions; if I want to just appreciate that real life with its uncertainties and contradictions can be crafted into something that distills ordinariness into insightful explorations of how difficult it is to be human let alone humane then I’ll accept that the situations may not be the stuff of high art but the reshaping of them can be (Pariah [Dee Rees, 2011], We Need to Talk about Kevin [Lynee Ramsay, 2011], the former reviewed in my Feb. 5, 2012 and the latter in my March 11, 2012 postings).  This last option is what’s working for me in Your Sister’s Sister even though it dramatically leaves us hanging at the end with the expectant threesome looking at Hannah’s pregnancy test indicator but a cut to black before we learn anything (and if you haven’t learned to expect my spoilers without constant warnings, my apologies, but that’s how the game is played here at Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark).

            From female-sibling interactions (and the man important to them both) in Your Sister’s Sister (a nice title in that it’s semiotic implications of who is being referenced—the line comes from the drunken conversation between Jack and Hannah, where Iris has primacy in the statement/title because she’s the non-present one whose absence is crucial to the other 2 for different reasons; Hannah becomes a complex revelation as the deceptively semantic linguistic structure of being the second “sister” [even though she’s older] leads to her important actual presence with Jack; and Jack has an implied command of the situation by being the one who speaks the play of words which defines the 2 women—shows subtly the dynamic relationships among the 3 leads in the film) we move to a story of mother-daughter interactions (and the man important them both, husband/father King Fergus [voice of Billy Connolly]) in the latest Pixar/Disney animated feature, Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell).  While this movie doesn’t match the heights achieved by the very best of previous Pixar triumphs (The top one for me being Toy Story 3 [Lee Unkrich, 2010], with its marvelously optimistic ending where Woody, Buzz, and the other toys are passed on to a new generation of childhood as Andy goes off to college and his quest for adulthood, better following the maturing-hero path explored by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces [1949] and Karen Armstrong in A Short History of Myth [2005] rather than maintaining a frustrated community protector attitude as explored by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence in The Myth of the American Superhero [2002], an insightful explication of how post-9/11 vigilante mentality has negated the Campbell monomyth [seen nicely in Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000)] and instead encouraged the continuity of the stunted sacrificial savior that we see especially in the Batman films of Christopher Nolan [with The Dark Knight Rises set to conclude his trilogy less than a month from now].), it does a great service by presenting us with a strong female protagonist who challenges hidebound tradition and contributes to the betterment of her kingdom even as she has to help undo a crisis that she’s inadvertently created (again, a parallel of sorts with Your Sister’s Sister).  Princess Merida (voice of Kelly Macdonald) of the fiery red locks has an equally fiery personality that aids her in maintaining her independence from an expected forced marriage to a top clansman’s son but creates unintended problems when the attempted strategy to serve her own needs backfires (she and Hannah of the above film would have a lot to talk about someday, when Merida is old enough to break out another bottle of that tequila).

            Merida, defying the wishes of her mother, Queen Elinor (voice of Emma Thompson, a marvelously regal Brit in her own right), focuses more on her archery skills than her lessons in arts and etiquette (and she’s damn good with a bow; if she were to be transported from past to future to compete with Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games they’d both likely make it to the finals but their likely mutual respect would probably lead to another tie rather than either of them being felled by the other).  She has no desire to fulfill the traditions of her storybook-era Scottish culture where she’s to be wed to one of the goofy offspring of her father’s affiliates (the one second from left in the photo looks suspiciously like San Francisco Giants’ pitcher Tim Lincecum; you have to wonder if Pixar’s Emeryville location right across the bay from AT&T Park has anything to do with that—thanks to Nina for the observation).  Instead she goes roaming into the deep forest (she probably passed Jack, sulking in his little tent, wishing he could work some magic on Iris) where sprites lead her to the home of a witch (voice of Julie Walters) who secures a spell into a little cake with the intention of making Elinor change her mind about the necessity of the impending nuptials, thereby freeing Merida to make her own choices if she ever meets a guy that means more to her than her faithful horse.  Unfortunately, her demanding mother doesn’t mean enough to her at this point in the story for her to be more precise about the desired spell, so when Merida simply asks for something that will change her fate she ends up with Mom sampling the cake and turning into a bear.  Now this isn’t the traditional Disney talking bear (see The Jungle Book [Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967] if you want ursine equal-footing interactions with humans) because the Queen has her consciousness but walks, talks, and acts like a wild bear to everyone but Merida, leading to big trouble when obsessed bear-hunting King Dad (just like Ahab, Fergus lost a leg to a huge beast, Mor’du the huge, angry bear who we later learn is also the result of another of that witch’s spells because he mistakenly asked for physical power without specifying how it would be manifested—the witch must have gone to law school the way she twists around her verbal contracts).

            A lot of slapstick action interrupts the more intimate aspects of this movie, probably a necessary device to keep the kids engaged, as I noted when watching the youngsters at my screening who were getting restless during the mother-daughter verbal sparrings (maybe it was just too familiar to sit still through) but became glued to the screen when the men started bashing each other around (that will soon become familiar as well, kiddos; you’ll be able to watch it on the TV news 7 nights a weeks), but just like there’s a serious message in WALL•E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) to balance out the silly physical gags there’s a serious statement here also about how Queen Elinor is simply a woman of her time, trying to help her daughter deal with the limited social options she has both as a woman in a warriors’ world and a noblewoman with obligations to her subjects (one of which is to provide the dignity and sense of reason needed to stifle the clansmen’s constant skirmishes).  Like all good mothers she’s always loved her daughter dearly, even if in an over-protective manner (cheer up, Merida, it took me a lot longer than you to finally understand that about my now-departed Mom) so that her narrow focus was no more mean-spirited than Merida’s fierce individuality (definitely nurtured by her dad as he waits for his triplet toddler sons to grow into his vision of proper macho princes); they just needed to understand each other a bit better, which they do after the spell is broken by Merida’s actions to keep the hunters from mistakenly skewering Mom, helping bring about the destruction of Mor’du (although bear Elinor gets most of the credit there), and her final admission of love for the ever-devoted Queen (as the witch said, “Look inside.  Mend the bond torn by pride,” which referred not to sewing up a sliced tapestry but to the softening of a heart hardened by the seemingly irrational demands of the world [rather than hardening it, as with the 1981 Quarterflash song, more appropriate to Rock of Ages noted below]).

            Merida’s story gets more convoluted with the bear spell scenes than the trailer would imply and replaces the anticipated scenes of her athletic prowess (at least with a bow and arrow) with plot twists that are more about questioning her quest for independence (although she does convince her parents and the nobles to end their arranged marriage tradition, a situation that might resonate with children from Morocco to China today as this film inevitably finds its global audience on DVD), but ultimately it tries to teach children that their parental-imposed restrictions aren’t always just the result of power displays and that heroic actions often come in unanticipated ways in times of unanticipated crisis.  (This tale might also subconsciously teach a lesson about getting a written contract whenever you do business with a witch—and be sure to pass it by your legal team—but that may only be useful for those who make devilish bargains for political gain.  It may also slyly remind boys to keep their hands away from where they don’t belong as I observed when the key to Merida’s bedroom is secured by Maudie the maid between her ample breasts in an attempt to keep the rebellious girl in the castle while the suitorhood crisis is being resolved; the little guy close to me said “Eww!” at the sight of something nestling in Maudie’s bosom so maybe it’ll be awhile before he tries to copy such an action with one of his future classmates.)  Whether you find the tale of Brave to be empowering or not (Merida shows as much guilt as love in her sobbing statements to her about-to-become-a-bear-forever-upon-the-second-sunrise mother, but this is what it takes to break the spell), you can’t help but be mesmerized by the computer animation in this movie with its spectacular renderings of hair texture (for both Merida and the bears), castle and forest environments, flowing waterfalls, etc.  It’s hard to know now what competition Pixar will face for the feature-length animation Oscar next year, but Brave should bode well for them unless box-office matters more than cinematic quality (at this writing Brave has hauled in a bit over $66 million domestically but that pales compared to Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted with $157 million; the two are almost even in critics’ scores with both at 76 at Rotten Tomatoes, Brave at 69 and Madagascar 3 at 59 with the Metacritics tabulators, and both at 67 according to Movie Review Intelligence, so we’ll just see how these two or any others end up several months from now).

            Turning briefly from the estrogen-fueled stories reviewed above to a passing comment on something completely different we find ourselves with Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages, based on a Broadway musical with book by Chris D’Arienzo and songs from a bunch of ‘80s standbys including Journey, Styx, Pat Benatar, and many others.  Set in 1987 this musical movie is the shallow story of a bunch of shallow people including a young woman, Sherrie (Julianne Hough), along with a young guy, Drew (Diego Boneta), both aspiring musicians working at L.A.’s Bourbon Room and hoping to someday have the fame of notorious hedonist Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise).  Along the way you’ll find lots of other big names in the cast including Alec Baldwin as the financially-challenged Bourbon Room owner, Russell Brand as his goofy second-in-command, Paul Giamatti as Jaxx’s scumbag agent, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the Christian activist determined to shut down the devil’s venom spewing from the Sunset Strip (although we find out she’s really just a jilted lover of Jaxx from long ago).  I only mention this one if you either have any fondness for this music (which generally I don’t; for me the ‘80s were largely the inescapable Madonna and Michael Jackson if I listened to contemporary hits but more often I made attempts to find oldies stations that would take me back to the ‘70s and beyond [even today listening to my local ‘60s-‘70s-80s station I find it’s the ‘80s tunes that I recognize the least]) or are willing to see it lampooned along with the inhabitants of the rock world of that time, as everyone is climbing on each other to see who can get the furthest over the top with no one taking any of it seriously except when Cruise is on stage doing a terrific job of channeling Axl Rose or anyone like him from this era (for a really interesting side trip see Def Leppard’s video praise of Cruise at [along with a BP-sponsored ad promoting the resurgence of the Gulf Coast; I guess we’re clearly beyond the post-irony days of the early post-9/11years]).  It’s clearly an alternative for those of you not so keen on Your Sister’s Sister or Brave (especially if you diet is deficient in big hair, leather, faded denim, really short skirts, or polyester), although I’m not advocating testosterone as the better hormone, just one found in more abundance here—as you’d expect in a movie about the hard-rockin’ lifestyle where women are more relegated to being waitresses or strippers than appreciated performers (although Mary J. Blige gets some effective screen time with “Shadows of the Night,” Harden My Heart,” and “Any Way You Want It”).  This is energetic and wacky funny, but if I were actually rating it I’d say only 2 ½ stars of 5 because it’s ultimately such a slim slice of silliness.

            As for an actual 5-star film, which happens to also be testosterone-driven and clearly steers in a different direction from the two primary subjects of this review, I’ll recommend another recent DVD re-acquaintance, as long as you’re ready for its NC-17 sex scenes (no shown genitals but none needed to get the point across [once again, so to speak]), Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 Last Tango in Paris.  (With both director and male lead nominated for Oscars, but neither were likely to win against George Roy Hill’s immensely-popular The Sting [which took Best Picture and Director] and Jack Lemmon getting his long-overdue Best Actor honor in John Avildsen’s Save the Tiger [Brando had no chance anyway after refusing his statue the previous year for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather]; for me, no one could touch Brando in Last Tango that year [and very few performances ever will match such quality, except for Brando’s other major loss for A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951; even as much as I like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen [John Huston], there’s just no comparison)], but even more galling is that Ingmar Bergman was nominated for Best Director, along with producer for Best Picture and writer of Best Original Screenplay, for his stunning Cries and Whispers, yet received nothing for it, while his superb actresses [especially Harriet Andersson and Liv Ullmann] weren’t even nominated nor was this masterpiece in contention for Best Foreign Language Film [not that I’m complaining too much about the win for François Truffaut’s Day for Night; there were a lot of worthy contenders in 1973].  At least Sven Nykvist won for Best Cinematography in Bergman’s film.)

            If you (and I) haven’t already forgotten that I began the above paragraph praising Last Tango in Paris, I’ll get back on point with effusive praise for this devastating emotional assault that makes the brutal Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011; see my review in the December 20, 2011 posting if you like) seem mild by comparison.  Brando, as a recent widower who comes across Schneider when both are considering an empty apartment, embodies the psychological and physical damage inflicted in the name of first mindless passion and then reawakened love in a film that makes for a devastating viewing experience but one trumping everything else mentioned in this review combined (except for Cries and Whispers, an equally stunning, debilitating experience to watch, but only if you’re willing to put your soul on the line and see if you can survive the encounter).  If you’re not yet ready for the confrontation of Last Tango (with possibly the most powerful scene being Paul [Brando] berating his dead ex-wife as her body lies in state; and you can make all the butter jokes you want to try to soften the impact of what can be argued as a rape scene, given the ambiguity of the “relationship,” but that clash of wills and bodies is as overpowering for the viewer as it is for Jeanne [Schneider], the recipient of Paul’s cruel attempt at connection [I’d better not even imply a pun with that comment]), you might want to build up slowly with admirable interpersonal offerings such as what you get with Your Sister’s Sister.  But after you’ve acquired a little emotional immunity I highly recommend that you consider plunging into the deep end with Last Tango in Paris (but please distract the kids with Brave until they’re well into high school before you even consider letting them join you in watching it).

            If you’d like to know more about Your Sister’s Sister here are some suggested links: (in truth, this is almost everything essential about the film, but if you can’t see the whole thing this is a reasonable substitute) (a 32 min. interview shot at the Toronto Film Festival with director/writer Lynn Shelton and stars Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass)

            If you’d like to know more about Brave here are some suggested links:

            If you’d like to know more about Rock of Ages here are some suggested links: (a whole cluster of trailers, featurettes, interviews, etc.; knock yourself out)

            If you’d like to know more about Last Tango in Paris here are some suggested links: (an in-depth [what else would you expect?] from Pauline Kael) (opening scene from the film, 3:20) (collage of various images from the film set to music, 9:46; helps give you a sense of it but doesn’t substitute for the real thing)

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

          Is There Anybody Going to Listen to My Story?
                                             Review by Ken Burke
Incisive witty dialogue, unpredictable plot situations, plus an unusual blend of romantic comedy and time-travel add up to a great film, with Juno-Young Adult reverberations.

            Before I even get to my usual avalanche of diversions (Be still, your beating hearts!), I’ll begin with a different diversion brought on by my taking stock, on this first day of summer (at least when I wrote this; the posting is another matter entirely, due to the “sophisticated software” of Google Blogspot—hey, Thought Police, back off with that Delete All button!), of where I’ve evolved with these reviews since beginning them 6 months ago in mid-December and now having imposed 34 postings and 68 reviews on the world, including this one.  Within this time I see that I have essentially agreed with at least the majority of other published, notable colleagues on 38 of my 63 film reviews (the other 5 were of the Academy-nominated Live-Action Short Films, to which I gave individual reviews but others did not)—at least if you separate out the various colleagues who are tallied for Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, or Movie Review Intelligence into their various clusters (because of those 63 films there were only 7 times where the tallied critics in each of those clusters came to the same consensus across the 3 groups: Melancholia, Young Adult, A Dangerous Method, Wanderlust, Mirror Mirror, The Five-Year Engagement, and Prometheus; if those more famous folks can’t agree amongst themselves any better than that, why should I care too much about how my numbers stack up against theirs, although by noting that it happens about 2/3’s of the time—at least with one of those prestigious groups—I can at least see that I’m not totally out in critical left field [and speaking from a baseball perspective, this is a faulty metaphor anyway because right field is the more obscure one, at least in terms of number of balls hit thereto]).  Further, of my other 25 non-harmonious reviews (at least in comparison to the folks in the big leagues, to keep playing on the baseball metaphor), 17 of mine have been lower than theirs, so again I don’t feel like I’m giving anything away to the cinema artists of the world.  In fact, of my total 68 reviews I’ve given 4 stars just 19 times and my coveted 5 stars only once (to the magnificent revival of Abel Gance’s 1927 classic Napoleon, presented at Oakland’s Paramount theatre with full Polyvision and a live orchestra for this multi-hour triumph last spring).  All of this got me thinking, especially when I asked myself, “Why only 3 ½ stars for Wes Anderson’s witty Moonrise Kingdom [reviewed in my June 14 posting, back on another favorite national celebration occasion, Flag Day] but 4 for what seems at first glance to be the equally funny Safety Not Guaranteed from Colin Trevorrow?”  Are my tastes and decisions as murky as Jackson Pollock’s 1947 Full Fathom Five(Could be, given that the painting—shown above on the left—and I were created in the same year.)  But there’s a bit more to it than that for me, Pollock, Moonrise Kingdom, and Safety Not Guaranteed.

            You see, not only am I very stingy with handling out 5-star ratings, reserving that level for only what I consider the very best thereby skewing my comparisons with other critics, many of whom would (and did) give their top 4-star evaluations to both Moonrise Kingdom and Safety Not Guaranteed, but I’m also picky with the ranking of 4 stars because, auteurist that I often am, I sometimes penalize established artists a bit for not transcending their earlier triumphs, even if the current work floats notably above the sludge that defines most of the movie market.  Case in point with Mr. Pollock:  while many consider his most famous images to be those “drip paintings” from roughly 1947 (beginning, for many art critics, with Full Fathom Five) to 1953, with 1952’s Blue Poles (directly above) being the culmination of those “splatter shots” (with one of them parodied as an unrecognized drop cloth in Baltasar Komákur’s action-fest Contraband earlier this year), and there being many undisputed priceless masterpieces of this type of art produced in these years, I still can’t consider all of them equivalent in final composition and impact so if I were having to rate these paintings (Now there’s an idea for a blog; where’s my trademark lawyer?) I couldn’t give all of them the same ranking, even though any one would sell on the open market (or the black market as was the case in Contraband) for more millions than I will ever see in my lottery-less life.  Similarly, with Wes Anderson, I think that Moonrise Kingdom is a precious, enjoyable, funny, well-acted, and well-shot example of contemporary cinema from a singularly creative source, much better than most of what I see on a weekly basis.  However, for me it’s the kind of approach I expect from the stylistically-secure Anderson (just as were Pollock’s carefully controlled splashes and swirls from his highest period), yet it’s not fully of the caliber of something somewhat similar that he did over 10 years ago with The Royal Tenenbaums, which also mixed the foibles of somewhat insane (older) adults and precocious (adult) children in a manner that I think will hold up a bit better over time than Moonrise Kingdom despite the high praise handed out by current reviewers for Moonrise (Rotten Tomatoes—94, Metacritics and Movie Review Intelligence—both 84; just for comparison, Tomatoes critics gave Tenenbaums an 80, Metacritics a 75 [film not archived with Movie Review Intelligence because they didn’t begin until 2009], scores that would be equivalent to the 4 stars I’d give it [on my 5 = 100% system]).

          In essence, while I thoroughly enjoyed both Moonrise Kingdom and Safety Not Guaranteed I admit that I subjectively have lower expectations for virtually-unknown director Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly than I do for Anderson (unfair as that might be in a perfectly objective world; wake me up if the Prometheus or any other deep-space vehicle ever gets that far from our subjectively-driven planet), so that I can not only be taken more by surprise by their hilarious film but I’m also not arbitrarily hindering them with the previous-accomplishment baggage that unfortunately burdens artists in any medium, making it difficult to rise above their earlier triumphs (although, with Pollock as an example, it’s always possible as I’ll note below with some brief references to a couple of films made after the 1960s—the latest decade for any of my All-Time Top 10 [see my March 30 posting on Napoleon. etc. for the specifics] that easily earn my precious 5-star praise).  So, with all of that extensive background foregrounded here’s the actual review of Safety Not Guaranteed for anyone still reading (sounds like the crickets are still awake at least).

            With assurances to my wonderful (beautiful, intelligent, creative, just-retired-with-lifetime-medical-benefits-that-include-me [OK, now I’ve forever lost the anti-pension crowd]) wife, Nina, that the next statement is purely hypothetical, I could watch anything with Aubrey Plaza, even if it weren’t nearly of the quality of Safety Not Guaranteed (Even though I doubt that I’ll actually reconnect with the several films of hers that I haven’t seen     [I don’t get the impression that she’s that critical to any of them nor do any of them sound that critical to me, except in the critically dismissive sense, and once was enough with her sharing screen time with Adam Sandler in Judd Apatow’s 2009 Funny People], while my available time just hasn’t expanded enough yet for more weekly TV shows, although if she’s also this good in NBC’s Parks and Recreation then I’ve got even more reasons than Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari to try to schedule this one in next fall).  As the interestingly-named Darius in Safety Not Guaranteed, Plaza adds crucial elements to both the romantic comedy and time-travel aspects of this largely-unpredictable, howlingly-funny film.  Her character begins as a post-college, generally-depressive, not-exactly-a-slacker-but-just-barely-better intern at the fictional version of actual Seattle Magazine, where she gets a chance to enliven her life a bit when sent on assignment to help investigate the story behind a guy who takes out a newspaper ad looking for “Someone to go back in time with me.  This is not a joke.  You’ll get paid after we get back.  Must bring your own weapons.  Safety not guaranteed.  I have only done this once before.”  As things evolve, Darius is better suited than her co-conspirators to get close to this assumed-to-be-nuts guy, not because she initially believes in his mission but because she can fake the attitude needed to gain his trust better than her jerk reporter-boss, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson, better known to many for his role as Nick on Zooey Deschanel’s FOX TV series, New Girl—another one I’d watch if more time permitted, but more for Zooey than him although he's quite effective as both of these characters).

            The assumed nutcase, Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass, another guy I should know more about [Damn! I keep feeling like the Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976) over-30 termination squad is going to take me away before I can even finish this review] from his independent film acting/directing/producing work, but I just haven’t mustered up enough enthusiasm to get me to The Puffy Chair [2005], Baghead [2008], or Jeff, Who Lives at Home [2011, although Nina did see this one and highly recommended it, but there was that time factor thing again, and we’ll probably see him in Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister anyway]) is clearly a troubled, paranoid soul with delusions about many things—including the true circumstances of his lost love whom he wishes to set things right with by travelling all the way back to … 2001—although when Darius tracks her down for an interview we find that his reality doesn’t mesh much with hers, so who knows what a return trip might yield for him if she wasn’t that connected with him to begin with.  However, despite his many flaws, he proves to be more intriguing to Darius than she ever intended; soon she’s not only trying to probe his inner motivations but is also helping him rob a science lab that has necessary devices for his time machine.  Along the way she begins to find value in his unhinged, survivalist personality, eventually falling for him and choosing to accompany him on the time trip, even though she has to overcome the anger that results from what she perceives as outright lies about the ex-“girlfriend.”

            By the time the actual departure takes place—but their disappearance from the here and now is all you get for a conclusion, as this film is much more about exploring the personalities of those who would embrace or reject time-travel than it is about showing its consequences (go rent the Back to the Future series [Robert Zemeckis; 1985, 1989, 1990] if you want to take literal chronological leaps)—she’s ready to journey with him, not because they need to return to the past for romantic purposes but instead to hopefully prevent the sudden, random death of Darius' mother in 2001, the defining event of her despondent life ever since.  (While my upcoming speculative questions about time-travel are beyond the scope of this very short [86 min.], seemingly inexpensive film, I have to wonder if/when our new lovers get to their destination they might inadvertently merge into their younger selves.  If so, she’d be 14 then, and he’d be just a little older, so if that were the case then they’d benefit from seeing Moonrise Kingdom before they leave the present because they’re probably also going to be dealing with running away from protective parents [once Darius' mom's fate is changed], but maybe there'd be no problem with Kenneth's family because he seems to have been raised by wolves.  Or maybe their young adult selves will just save Mom, then return to the present and get on with their newfound lives.  Or maybe they'd be able to co-exist with their even younger selves—assuming they’d have any interest in such conundrums, and if so they'd better also watch the temporal mindfuck film Primer [Shane Carruth, 2004, a big indie hit at Sundance that year just as Safety Not Guaranteed was this year—in order to remain who they are now but steal 11 years from the space-time continuum.  [Mr. Einstein, could you come over here and sort this out?])  But whatever happens after their time-jump finale, they’ve now merged as soulmates, leaving us to applaud their existential bravery and speculate on the myriad possibilities of what comes next for them.

            What likely won’t be coming anytime soon for Jeff (Remember him from a couple of paragraphs ago?) is any sense of adult responsibility, at least based on the actions he distinguishes himself with throughout Safety Not Guaranteed.  Like Mavis Gary (the recently ubiquitous Charlize Theron) in Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (from late last year; see my review in the 12/21/11 posting), Jeff’s main reason for taking the assignment in Ocean View, WA is to hook up with an old flame, but at least Mavis wanted to reacquire her ex for a permanent life move whereas Jeff just wants more hot sex from a woman whom he assumes will still look like she did as a teenager some years ago.  Even when he does locate Belinda (Jenica Bergere) he’s immediately put off by the reality that she’s aged a bit (as has he, seemingly unbeknownst to him); when he does finally approach (and bed) her, he seems to make a mature move by wanting a serious relationship with her but only from his perspective as he expects her to drop everything and move to Seattle with him.  She’s not interested in following his whims without at least some conversation about it, so he leaves in a huff, noting that he’s “going by choice,” his standard exit line.  Even when he was just entering the return-to-Ocean View scenario it was with crass dismissal and stereotyping, saying that of the several available interns he’ll take the “lesbian” (Darius, seemingly because she wasn’t involved with a man at the time and had a sour attitude toward life) and the “Indian,”  Arnau (Karan Soni), to whom he offers “professional” advice only in the sense of getting him laid by an available young woman simply because Jeff’s concept of manhood has yet to evolve beyond those long-ago Belinda blowjobs.  Yet, even Jeff may find some hope now that he’s witnessed the time-machine departure of Kenneth and Darius, along with corroborating testimony from the government agents tracking Kenneth—not because of any interest in his time-travel device but because his lab thefts tag him as a possible spy—therefore it's possible that he might write a superb article on how our universe has been changed by a simple employee from Grocery Outlet/Bargain Market, forging ahead with fierce determination and a healthy dose of self-induced delusions.  Or maybe he’ll just go back to the nearest Ocean View bar and see what this generation’s version of Belinda might bring.  He’s that kind of guy in that kind of film, good for us if not for him.

            For me, Safety Not Guaranteed has the unexpected impact and biting wit of Juno (as with Young Adult, directed by Jason Reitman, 2007, with Picture, Director, and Actress all nominated for Oscars and Diablo Cody winning for Best Original Screenplay [she also wrote Young Adult]) as well as the delightful screen presence (ease up, Nina; we’ll soon be watching Al Pacino again in our annual Godfather marathon) of Aubrey Plaza, as independent and charming in this current film as Ellen Page was in the previous one.  I couldn’t recommend Safety Not Guaranteed more highly, at least within my afore-elaborated arbitrary limit of only 4 stars for the wonderful but not quite timeless cinematic moments that it provides.

            But to prove that there are some films that do belong in my hallowed 5-star (or even 4 ½-star, although I’m not quite sure what falls there yet; maybe the wonderful Bride of Frankenstein [James Whale, 1935], with its delicious mix of horror and humor, or the original Star Wars [George Lucas, 1977] or Raiders of the Lost Ark [Steven Spielberg, 1981] which are classics in their own right but not fully “timeless cinematic moments”) realm, I’d like to note 2 that I bring to your attention solely because they’ve just recently re-crossed my viewing path on DVD, Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 Autumn Sonata and Sam Mendes’ 2008 Revolutionary Road, both of which, for me, should have been the Best Picture winners in their respective years but that was not to be.  Bergman’s searing encounter of Charlotte Andergast, a haughty world-famous-pianist mother, and Eva, her married-to-a-country-pastor-while-bearing-the-responsibitity-of-caring-for-her-disabled-sibling angry daughter, is still powerful to watch, not only for the incisive dialogue written by Bergman and directed by him in an intimate, intentionally discomforting manner but also for the flawless performances by screen legends Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann (not as legendary to non-art-house moviegoers as Ingrid, but an actress who nevertheless deserves to be discussed in the same lofty league as Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep).  For some cinephiles Autumn Sonata may bring up the hard-to-call-it-a-classic-when-the-artist-has-done-such-signicant-other-work discussion with which I began this review, especially in Bergman’s case with The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966), Cries & Whispers (1972), and Fanny and Alexander (1982), but for me Autumn Sonata belongs in that hallowed group, even though it’s smaller in scope but just as powerful as the others.  Motion Picture Academy voters didn’t agree in 1978, not even nominating it for best Foreign Language Film, although they did see fit to nominate Ingrid for Best Actress (lost to Jane Fonda for Coming Home [Hal Ashby]) and Ingmar for Best Original Screenplay (also lost to Coming Home’s team of Nancy Dowd, Waldo Salt, and Robert J. Jones; Michael Camino’s The Deer Hunter took Best Picture that year).  But, hey, what do they know compared to my brilliance?  I encourage you to see for yourself.

            Jump ahead 30 years (I think that Kenneth and Darius can help you with that) and you’ll find another 5-star winner from me, Revolutionary Road, which also is more impressive in my eyes than to the Academy voters.  Despite my choice of this film for Best Picture it wasn’t even nominated for that category; in fact, Best Supporting Actor for Michael Shannon (see the long clip noted below), Art Direction, and Costume Design were its only contending options in the year of Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle) and Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan; and the pubic outcry was much louder for the omission of the Batman film for Picture and Director contention, thus leading to the expanded options today for up to 10 nominees for Best Picture).  At least Kate Winslet was honored that year as Best Actress, but for The Reader  (Stephen Daldry, also nominated for Director along with his film for Picture), so she didn’t have to compete with herself as did Jessica Lange in 1982 when she lost for Frances (Graeme Clifford) as Best Actress but won as Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, also nominated as was his film, but that was the year of Gandhi [Richard Attenborough] and Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice [Alan J. Pakula]).  Despite the Academy's snubs, Revolutionary Road gives us the intense, heartbreaking 1950s story of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit-ish Frank and April Wheeler, an originally devoted couple who lose themselves in their era and its stifling expectations, but this film didn’t have the same Academy resonance as Mendes’ 1999 American Beauty (Best Picture, Director, Actor [Kevin Spacey], Cinematography [Conrad L. Hall], and Original Screenplay [Alan Ball]) so Revolutionary Road seems to be regarded by some in the industry as a lesser work, but it’s Blue Poles for me (you may have to re-read the first couple of paragraphs for that to make sense) and still one of the best films I’ve seen since 2001 (where we assume Darius and Kenneth ended up, if his engineering is better than his charisma).  I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these viewing options, no matter how many stars they’ve racked up with me or anyone else.

            If you’d like to know more about Safety Not Guaranteed here are some suggested links: (an 8-minute review done by a couple of reasonably well-informed guys [although the story doesn’t take place in northern California, as they state] after they had just seen the film at Sundance before there was a lot of other information all over the Internet; ultimately, they’re as wordy as I am but from a much younger perspective if you’d be interested in their views)

            If you’d like to probe back into the past via seeing a classic older film (1978) here are some suggested links for Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata: (a 10:39 clip from the film that shows its quiet but increasingly intense confrontation between mother and daughter; the power of the scene comes through quite well and gives you a great opportunity to decide if you could stand to watch 90 min. of this scorching intergenerational encounter, but it’s a bit distracting visually because the slightly wide-screen format has been compressed into traditional 4x3 ratio which gives this clip a “squeezed” look)

            If you’d like to go back just a bit to the past with a great 2008 film, but one that then takes you even further back than Safety Not Guaranteed’s 2001 destination with a searing trip into the land of 1950s aspiring middle-class American lost souls, then here are some suggested links for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road: (4:25 clip where it all falls apart and all the leads really shine, especially Michael Shannon as the “crazy” but honest Americana accuser and DiCaprio as the defensive—but “caught”—accused; this is absolutely the essence of the film despite its many fine other moments)

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