Lita On Film

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It’s Complicated (2009)

In Film Reviews on June 26, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Find this review on ManhattanMovieMag.com!

Nancy Meyers is a Hollywood powerhouse.  Not only does she write, produce, and direct her own films, she has a level of power and control over her work that is rare even for a man.  The fact that she’s a woman makes her such a singular entity that the outer vapidity of her films deserves a second look.

Think about Meyer’s first blockbuster What Women Want (2000), in which Mel Gibson suddenly develops the ability to read women’s minds, and tries to get in touch with his “feminine side” in order to reconnect with his teenage daughter.  The outer implication of the film is that what every woman really needs is just to find the right man (yawn) and her problems will be solved.  (Also, all women are insane.)  But think about the actual action of the film: we see Mel in many compromising positions—shaving his legs, applying mascara and donning pantyhose.  In a very obvious way, the film is giving us a queer, subversive picture of a major movie star in the same breath as it props up the oldest of Hollywood stereotypes.

With that in mind, It’s Complicated becomes much more interesting than it first appears.  The story follows Jane (Meryl Streep, fabulous as ever) a 60-ish divorcee who runs a glamorous bakery business and feels the inexplicable need to expand her already enormous kitchen.  Alec Baldwin is Jake, her ex, who is unhappily re-married to a much younger and more annoying woman (Lake Bell).  The two are brought together by their son’s college graduation, during which they both become aware that the spark that brought them together hasn’t quite gone out.  They have a drunken tryst in a chic Manhattan hotel before everyone heads back to verdant California, where things are supposed to get back to normal.

They don’t, of course, and things get complicated indeed when Jane and Jake start sneaking around.  Even as her attraction to her milquetoast architect Adam (Steve Martin) grows, Jane finds she can’t tear herself away from Jake, even when he misses dates and invades her privacy.  Eventually things come to a head and Jane throws Jake out for good, but not before they share a last wistful moment on a garden bench (her garden is even more preposterous than her kitchen).  For all their sophomoric shenanigans, the last parting of Jane and Jake is surprisingly…adult.  The film ends with Jane and Adam restarting their relationship as her house—an analogy for her life—gets ready to expand.

What makes It’s Complicated interesting is the fact that it maintains a staunchly middle-aged perspective most of the time—possible exceptions include Jane’s get-togethers with her other middle-aged friends, which feel completely contrived and uncomfortable.  For example, Jake’s new wife Agness is obsessed with getting pregnant, and her attention to fertility and associated matters is portrayed as maniacal.  Jane’s three adult children, on the other hand, are blond, beautiful, and pretty much self-sufficient.  Jane represents the best things about aging—the Good Life—while Agness, with her pretentiously spelled name, represents the worst of being young.

As with all of Meyers’ movies, this film takes place in a totally unrealistic fantasy world.  Everyone drives a nice car and has a huge house, and there’s not a non-White person to be seen.  It’s like recession porn; for 90 minutes, you can immerse yourself in a living Pottery Barn commercial, where none of the characters ever has to worry about petty things like health insurance or making rent.  But perhaps this backdrop is necessary in order to keep the film’s focus on bending the Hollywood rules about aging.  Meyers seems to think that if we’re going to confront such an enormous taboo as Sex after Sixty, having the characters decked out in Brooks Brothers and Eileen Fisher might make it a little more palatable.  However, for all its faults, it’s hard to remember the last time an older woman was portrayed in such a positive way outside of another Nancy Meyers movie—that alone makes It’s Complicated worth seeing.  Just don’t watch it with your parents.

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To Age or Not To Age (2010)

In Film Reviews on June 20, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Find this review on ScreenComment.com!

Director Robert Kane Pappas, best known for his documentary Orwell Rolls in his Grave (2003) has strung together a new film about the controversial science of anti-aging.  I say “strung together” because despite the wealth of footage and resources he has to draw on, To Age or Not To Age is disjointed, poorly edited and difficult to sit through.

Clearly fascinated by his subject, Pappas fills most of his 93-minute run time interviewing the various talking heads on both sides of the anti-aging debate.  In one camp are scientists from MIT, Harvard, and other top institutions who extol the benefits of slowing down or delaying the aging process at a cellular level.  In the other are artists, skeptics and “regular people” (society folks from the Hamptons, where Pappas is based) who wonder aloud about the philosophical and ethical implications of prolonging human life.

The science portion of the film is actually quite fascinating.  First we meet the father of anti-aging science, Dr. Larry Guarente, at MIT.  A rare academic who can translate the arcane into the comprehensible, Guarente explains that he and his lab have discovered that the secret to thwarting age lies in a particular set of genes. By impeding these genes and slowing down the aging process, a panoply of diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s are practically eliminated.  Once you get past the jargon, it’s pretty compelling stuff; if To Age could be turned into a one-hour Nova episode, it would be great.

Naturally, there is competition and intrigue among the scientists—in particular, Dr. Aubrey de Grey, who argues that humans could live to be 1,000 or even 1,000,000 years old, personifies the thin line between science and evangelism, and makes people on both sides uncomfortable.  Other scientists discuss their inner turmoil about finding God, testing drugs and working for giant pharmaceutical companies.

However, after the initial laying down of pro and con arguments Pappas struggles to keep the film moving, and the last 30 minutes drag noticeably.  One irritating technique that he employs repeatedly is to insert text between live-action scenes—and then to layer his voice over it, so the audience is both reading and being read to at the same time.  This would be slightly less annoying if the narration and the text matched precisely, but they don’t.  Similar technical glitches with editing and soundtrack detract markedly from the point the film is trying to make.  Though his grasp of his subject and the access he’s gained to leading scientists are impressive, Pappas’ film fails to captivate.  One wonders why, if he had the resources to make the film in the first place, he didn’t simply hire an editor.

Please Remove Your Shoes (2010)

In Film Reviews on June 20, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Find this review on ManhattanMovieMag.com!

Everyone can relate to the singular combination of apprehension and humiliation that is the modern airport experience.  Not only must you display your personal items to everyone in the vicinity (Prescriptions! Underwear! Tampons!) but you are forced to make the walk through the metal detectors and the gauntlet of wand-wielding agents without even the dignity of shoes.  Everyone wonders, at one point or another, whether all these charades are actually doing any good in keeping us safe.

Please Remove Your Shoes would succinctly answer no.  Through extensive interviews with ex-Air Marshals, government officials and reporters, this documentary examines the advent of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) in the wake of 9/11, painting a disturbing picture of waste, inefficiency, and abuse of power.  The former Marshals, several of whom have specific expertise in aviation-based terrorism, describe a “nonexistent” security system before 9/11, and a bureaucratic nightmare after.

The TSA is supposed to bring together intelligence and aviation security know-how in order to thwart future terrorist incidents.  It is the government body responsible for all the scanners and gel/liquid bans and other brouhaha that travelers now have to deal with.  However, the film’s interviewees repeatedly emphasize how the TSA exhibits the worst sorts of inefficiency: people with no experience are promoted for being “yes men,” intelligence isn’t shared because the agency wants to one-up the FBI and CIA, and huge amounts of taxpayer dollars are spent on technologies, such as bomb-sniffing scanners, that can’t even perform the functions they were designed for.  Most disturbingly, the ex-Marshals tell us, when they perform routine tests in airports in which they plant bombs and other suspicious materials in their luggage or on their persons, they are almost never caught.

Though there is a whiff of conspiracy theory zeal in some parts of Please Remove Your Shoes, overall the film is surprisingly straightforward about its mission.  Instead of resorting to political snarkery—which would be pretty easy in this context—the filmmakers keep things moving and stay on message.  Indeed, the filmmakers’ decision not to include footage of the actual 9/11 attacks demonstrates that they don’t feel the need to resort to scare tactics in order to get their point across. The end result is polished and professional looking, with great cinematography and editing.

Anyone who wants to get an inside view of our not-so-friendly skies will find Please Remove Your Shoes very informative.  But be warned: it may make you think twice before you catch your next flight.

For more information about this film, visit pleaseremoveyourshoesmovie.com.

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In Uncategorized on June 18, 2010 at 8:51 am

Find me on Twitter, @LitaOnFilm!   Happy tweeting!

Splice (2009)

In Film Reviews on June 13, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Find this review on ManhattanMovieMag.com!

The buzz about Splice has been almost universally positive.  Manohla Dargis of the New York Times described it as “a lot of unnerving fun,” and David Edelstein, on Fresh Air, lauded it as “a strange and wonderful brew!”  I agree wholeheartedly with these assessments…but only as they apply to the first half of the film.

Let me explain.  The film starts out entirely in a good direction—we’re introduced to Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), glamorous scientists working on the bleeding edge—literally—of biology.  (Already we’re surrounded by horror movie lore: Clive is a reference to Colin Clive, the actor who played Dr. Frankenstein in the 1931 classic, and Elsa refers to Elsa Lanchester, the actress who wore the wig as the titular Bride of Frankenstein.)  They’re hard at work synthesizing new life forms, and the beginning of the film delves right into all sorts of squishy, uncomfortable subjects like abortion, infertility treatment and the grey area between a “bunch of cells” and an actual being.  The dialogue may be a little stilted but there’s just the right mixture of tension and introspection to make things interesting.  So far, so good.

Inevitably the two scientists experience a fall from grace, which in this case is brought on by their ill-advised decision to mix human DNA in with one of their experiments.  The resulting creature, Dren (“nerd” backwards) comes into the world violently, injuring Elsa in the process—a sign of things to come.  As Dren evolves from being tiny and rodent-like to being obviously part human, it is clear that Elsa harbors an affection for her that goes way beyond scientific interest.  By explicitly linking the feminine with the biologically transgressive, Splice harkens back to some of the great horror/sci-fi films: Demon Seed (1977) and The Brood (1979) are the most obvious examples, but the film alludes to everything from the Frankenstein series to the Alien films to another Cronenberg masterpiece, The Fly (1986).

Unlike Cronenberg’s films, which stayed true to their cringe-inducing purposes to the bitter end (and became legendary in the process), Splice makes a violent turn about halfway through, refocusing on Dren as a proxy child at the center of an Oedipal merry-go-round and abandoning its initial concern with much more interesting subjects, like, you know, the nature of being human.  Instead of exploring the social consequences of creating a semi-human hybrid, the film devolves into a bizarre, futuristic soap opera; Clive becomes attracted to Dren, and Elsa’s dormant maternal instincts reveal themselves to be alternately tender and so cruel that she seems like a transplant from a Brian De Palma film.

In fact, De Pama is an apt figure to invoke here.  I’ll spare you the details of how everything ends—my theater laughed through the last half hour, so you can bet it wasn’t good—but suffice it to say that the moral of the story turns out to be yet another cautionary tale about the dangers of women in general and motherhood in particular.  Think Carrie meets Alien, but…bad.  Director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) and executive producer Guillermo Del Toro had all the elements in place to make the next great horror/sci-fi film, or at least the next passable one.  Instead Splice ends up being its own special hybrid: half great, half awful.

Double Take (2009)

In Film Reviews on June 11, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Find this review on ScreenComment.com!

How do you describe a film that’s part narrative, part documentary, and part essay?  Video and visual artist Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take (2009), a multifaceted oevre, falls into all these categories and more.  Following the success of his 2005 video installation Looking for Alfred, Double Take is a continuation of Grimonprez’s meditation on the many incarnations of Hitchcock, both those created through his own work and those that remain embedded in our pop culture lexicon as a sort of ghostly afterlife.

As the title suggests, Grimonprez is fascinated by doubling, a major theme both in Hitchcock’s work and cinema at large.  Recall the creepy scenes between Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (1951), the two Kim Novaks in Vertigo (1958), or the almost supernatural Norman Bates, who has subsumed his double entirely.  In this film, Grimonprez cuts between the real Hitchcock and a professional Hitch impersonator, and that’s just the beginning.

Double Take weaves together a fictional account of Hitchcock meeting his own double, a timeline of some of his best-known works (roughly ’57 to ’63), and another less orthodox timeline that explores political and technological events from the advent of television through the Nixon/Kruschev Kitchen Debates.  Along the way, Grimonprez draws parallels between Hitchcock’s fear mongering (for entertainment) and the US Government’s (for the greater good, ostensibly, during the Cold War).  The Birds becomes an allusion to Sputnik, and Kruschev is suggested as a double for JFK.  We are treated to a veritable time capsule of postwar paranoia, and it’s worth noting that the footage Grimonprez has gathered for the film is staggering in both quality and scope.

The deeper you get into this experiment—and the less you try to divine one particular meaning from it—the easier it is to read Hitchcock’s work as a “double” of contemporary world events, thinly cloaked in the illusion of narrative.  Those familiar with the myriad psychoanalytic readings of the Hitchcock canon might argue that this is a somewhat cheap trick; the films are veritable Rorschach tests of cinema, and can be read successfully in any number of ways.

However, what makes Double Take so fascinating is that Grimonprez shies away from precisely that sort of pontification.  He presents these comparisons for our consideration without forcing the point—and indeed, some of the footage he brings to the project doesn’t seem to belong there at all, leaving the viewer adrift in the director’s experiment.  But it’s precisely this lack of feeling anchored in a traditional narrative structure that opens up both Hitchcock’s work and his persona to a whole new set of interpretive possibilities.

Double Take is playing through June 15th at Film Forum.