“mother!” (dir. Darren Aronofsky) – Hell is other people and also you

Poster for "mother!" (2017 film)

After watching Darren Aronofsky‘s complete filmography, if there was any remaining doubt in my mind that he takes a perverse satisfaction in mentally torturing his characters, it’s gone now. Characters aren’t real. They can’t feel anything except what an author feels on their behalf, so to watch their ordeal rendered through the visual, auditory, and acting talents of others is ideally an insider’s look at what the author was experiencing when they wrote it. And if all of these disparate players do that original vision justice, perhaps the audience will understand what it’s like to be that grand auteur – and in so doing, better understand themselves. All of that presumes that art is both forthcoming and self-aware, and this is not always the case. Sometimes, art says as much and more about the time and society in which it is created than about the author’s own proclivities (this is how we come to enjoy light propaganda like American Sniper). Or perhaps the author doesn’t know themselves as well as they think – and their creation is a lens through which to glimpse the truth of that creator, whether or not he understands it himself. I’ll never really know, but I’ve seen enough of Aronofsky’s work to believe I have the measure of the man. Darren Aronofsky is the destroyer of worlds. But with mother!, he is venturing firmly into Lars von Trier territory, destroying a world that I’m not certain was worth creating in the first place.

His latest victim is Grace, a woman played by his real-life romantic partner, Jennifer Lawrence, who is married to a much older, critically acclaimed poet, Eli (Javier Bardem). The couple lives in Eli’s childhood home, which was previously gutted by fire, and which Grace has been expertly renovating ever since the couple got together, while Eli struggles to overcome his writer’s block and write more poetry. His previous work is acclaimed enough to have granted them a comfortable life, but he has long been unable to produce anything new – whether at the writing desk or in the bedroom. Their house is in the middle of an oddly pixelated field and woods, seemingly without a road nearby, and we never see Grace venture past the front porch. The couple’s lackadaisical home life is upended by the arrival of a mysterious unnamed couple, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. Harris initially arrives with a story that he had mistaken the house for B&B, and Eli generously offers to let him stay the night. Even as this initial pretext falls away, this will be the first of many times that Eli displays inordinate generosity toward strangers at his wife’s expense (and without even discussing the matter), and it’s honestly one of the most difficult aspects of this film to explain to people who haven’t seen it. Couples routinely disagree, and sometimes make commitments that the other must live up to even if they’d prefer not to. It can be a source of tension, and hopefully the couple works it out. That’s the mundane stuff of family dramedy. This wasn’t that. This was a shared, grandiose delusion of every character in this film besides Grace that everything about this situation is just fine, even as it quickly and destructively escalates. More people arrive, more damage is done, more items are shared, and Grace is persistently the only one reacting like a human being, pushing back, asking questions, and acting genuinely baffled that people are treating her so poorly. She’s not Marge Simpson, dealing with a comedic buffoon. She’s Skyler White, dealing with a sociopath. Her reaction is correct, and everyone else’s is wrong.

After watching how thoroughly Lawrence’s character was abused in Passengers, a film which seemed completely unaware of the reality it was creating and which strove to be a conventional romance, I was nervous going into this one. But Aronofsky’s hand is most deft here when it comes to his treatment of Grace as a character, and Lawrence’s performance is about the only thing that makes the film bearable. Almost without exception, every frame centers on Grace, and the camera floats within just a few feet of Lawrence. This is a mix of over-the-shoulder and in-her-face, creating a cinematic POV that invites the audience to become complicit in its invasiveness. As the viewer, you’re standing too close, facing the wrong way in a stuffy elevator, and the movie is happy to let you linger there. And Lawrence nails this character, even as I struggled with how much to sympathize with Grace as the film goes on. She seizes whatever petty control that she can as her husband laughs and smiles and hikes and drinks and chats with the new arrivals. She grits her teeth and tries her best to ignore Pfeiffer’s character getting day-drunk, interrupting her work, and asking invasive, leading questions about her sex life and plans to have children. She stares back at each fresh outrage, tilts her head, and politely pushes back – even as Lawrence’s beleaguered eyes and increasingly steely voice demand to know why any of this is happening. And the script hands Grace a few fleeting moments of agency in the first act. Harris’ character continuously tries to smoke in the house despite Grace’s admonitions, and she seizes an opportunity as Harris vomits in the bathroom from too much whiskey, shoving his Zippo lighter off the back of a dresser where it won’t be found. After she resolves to throw the couple out once and for all (and Eli is uncharacteristically occupied for a moment), she hurtles their wet laundry – abandoned in the washer for her to finish – onto the floor. These moments sound petty as I summarize them, and this is one of the other things that is hard to explain about this film. Every scene seeks to make Grace bleed from a thousand cuts while whistling a happy tune and saying everything is alright. These minuscule victories are some of the only cathartic moments that the film has to offer, offering meager hints of the inevitable scream that must issue from her mouth before the film is over, if we’re ever to feel anything besides pity for this wretched creature: None of this is okay, and all of these assholes need to leave, now.

Michelle Pfeiffer in "mother!" (2017 film)

Pfeiffer is positively wicked in these scenes, nailing the perfect balance of passive aggression and personal invasion. She’s here to stay at your house for precisely as long as she’d like, and she’d really appreciate it if you’d stop being such an entitled bitch about it, thank you very much. I’m borrowing a bit of the film’s language here, but honestly, it was hard not to think of Lawrence’s own experiences with the public’s invasiveness as I watched what happened to her character (particularly in the third act). And this is where mother! left me torn as to whether it was all worth it, and what it was all for. The film fully embraces its dreamlike storytelling – time lurches forward imprecisely, scenes mash into each other, and the world becomes a living nightmare as Eli gleefully deals with the consequences of his renewed fame and public appreciation. Kristen Wiig briefly appears as Eli’s publisher, in possibly the most disturbing work she has ever done. And as the whole repulsive spectacle unfolded, I lost the thread of precisely what this film was trying to say about the cost of creativity.

It seemed to be dancing on the cusp of three ideas:

  1. Creators must constantly share of themselves to the adoring masses, and in so doing, lose themselves.
  2. The public should probably stop acting like a pack of entitled cannibals and make something of their own.
  3. Creators have a destructive effect on their loved ones, with the fictional worlds that they create inevitably coming from the sublimation, neglect, and destruction of their real lives.

These ideas are all over the place, and for much of the film’s third-act Saturnalia, I found myself wondering whether this was an exercise in self-awareness or egotism on Aronofsky’s part. I haven’t said much about Bardem’s performance here, and that’s for two reasons. First is that Bardem succeeded in making Eli both delightful and repulsive to me – a figure who can conjure up the finest words to promote, justify, and reinforce the most despicable acts that the world has to offer. Second is that I don’t really know how much of an avatar Eli is meant to be for Aronofsky himself. Much of the film’s conflict is over whether or not this couple really cares about each other, as Eli’s persistent neglect of Grace in favor of a gang of strangers is repeatedly justified on the grounds that the experience might help him create more art. Talking with these people, Eli argues, is better than talking to her, because at least they’ve got something novel to say. This is Grace’s lot in this film – not merely the put-upon wife who grapples with her husband’s ingratitude and straying affections, but also a flagging muse, cast against her will as a man’s source of creative light, useless and thrown away as soon as that light has faded. And it doesn’t fade with a wimper. I found myself simultaneously reveling in the film’s excesses and wanting to warn others not to expose themselves to it for the sake of their sanity. This isn’t the best rumination on creativity I’ve seen – not even the best this year. And even while Aronofsky is at the top of his technical craft, I still can’t answer definitively whether his latest exercise in creating, enslaving, and agonizing an innocent woman was really worth it.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Advertisements

2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

Best Actress

#5: Michelle Williams – Marilyn Monroe, My Week With Marilyn

Michelle Williams in "My Week With Marilyn"
Warning: This write-up will be chock full of backhanded compliments.

With a deeply flawed script and unlikable lead character, the core performances from Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branaugh are basically the only reasons to see this film – and it is a testament to the strength of these performances that the film is actually quite worth seeing. Williams brings a complex vulnerability to the titular icon that I found simultaneously appealing and fascinating, despite not having any previous knowledge of Marilyn Monroe besides her well-known (and highly sexualized) cult of personality. The film relies pretty heavily on the unspoken understanding that Marilyn Monroe is a figure of unquestionable appeal, but Williams’ performance manages to sell this appeal to a much greater extent than the film’s script and story ever does. She presents a difficult, tortured, and uncertain actress in the thrall of a surly acting teacher and under near-instantaneous hostility with her new film’s intense and egotistical director. While her relationship with Branaugh’s character is never much more affecting or complex than a sitcom clash, her romance with Colin Clark owes all of its poignancy to Williams’ performance and chemistry with co-star Eddie Redmayne, whose uneven turn might otherwise have ruined the film.

#4: Rooney Mara – Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"
As I mentioned on our “Ladies’ Night” podcast, I was wary about seeing Rooney Mara in this role, because the only other performance I knew her for was The Social Network, in which she is, for lack of a better description, nice and normal-looking. These were both red flags for ruthless cyberpunk heroine Lisbeth Salander, but Mara completely acquitted herself in this role. The highest praise I can give to this performance is that I didn’t once think of Noomi Rapace while watching it. Mara’s performance is both fearless and original, bringing a tender edge to a character that is subject to some rather horrific abuse and dubious sexualization over the course of the film.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #15: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, “Young Adult”

#3: Bérénice Bejo – Peppy Miller, The Artist

Bérénice Bejo in "The Artist"
What can I say? I’m a sucker for actresses playing actresses, and Bejo is a total charmer as up-and-coming talkie actress Peppy Miller. Her chemistry with Dujardin is impressive (even with the film’s silent format to muddy the critical waters), and I found their relationship appealing even as a long-term friendship, despite the film’s half-hearted attempts to paint it as a romance. To see these two friends deal with their competing careers amid the inexorable fall of silent cinema is the heart of this film’s appeal, and is surely the most affecting element of a film that could have been slight and insubstantial otherwise. Bejo’s performance served an essential role, challenging the obstinate artist George Valentin with both the new cinematic medium and the actress’ undeniable charisma within it.

#2: Kristen Wiig – Annie Walker, Bridesmaids

Kristen Wiig in "Bridesmaids"
My description of this performance may skew toward the non-specific (I haven’t seen seen this film since theaters), but I can say this with total certainty: Kristen Wiig is a star. Cinema is dreadfully short on believable depictions of female friendship, and Wiig manages to craft several solid (and starkly contrasting) rapports with co-stars Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, and Melissa McCarthy. Her “anti-chemistry” with Byrne is particularly impressive, leading to some of the most striking moments of comedic tension in the film. This is a complicated mess of a character (although not quite as much so as my #1), and surely one of Wiig’s finest creations.

#1: Charlize Theron – Mavis Gary, Young Adult

Charlize Theron in "Young Adult"
Speaking of messes, Mavis Gary is the most fascinating trainwreck of a character I saw this year (and she had some serious competition from Mel Gibson). If there is a female equivalent of a manchild, this is surely it – Gary is nothing short of a delusional and self-destructive alcoholic, and Theron managed to bring a wickedly black sense of humor to the character. Her ruthless give-and-take banter with an equally strong and sarcastic Patton Oswalt is an absolute wonder. This is a character that should be utterly unsympathetic, and yet by the end, she completely drew me in, even as the character learns very, very little from her experience.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #15: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, “Young Adult”

Honorable Mentions:

  • Rinko Kikuchi as Naoko in Norwegian Wood
  • Atsuko Okatsuka as Atsuko in Littlerock
  • Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre

Best Actor

#5: Jean Dujardin – George Valentin, The Artist

Jean Dujardin in "The Artist"
From my review:

Jean Dujardin is forced to convey a great deal of emotional nuance through Valentin’s slightest glance or gesture, and the film resorts to techniques and shots that, in any other film, would have seemed incredibly manipulative. There’s a scene late in the film when Valentin confronts a room full of his old belongings, covered in sheets. As the music swells, he dramatically rips down every sheet, revealing the vestiges of his former success, finally staring heartbroken at a prized full-body portrait of himself in a tuxedo. His tears come forth, and Ludovic Bource’s score swells to overpowering heights, just as it does in many other scenes. But somehow, the tense crescendos of music that punctuate this film manage to craft a believable emotional arc of their own, even lacking the additional tones of a wailing, tormented man’s voice. The score supplements the visible emotion and physicality of Dujardin’s performance. These scenes worked, and in this medium, they seemed entirely appropriate.

#4: Ryan Gosling – Driver, Drive

Ryan Gosling in "Drive"
It would be easy to say that Gosling is doing very little in this performance (and many people have), but this understated performance is exactly what the taciturn unnamed driver needed in this film. The driver is a vision of restrained and intense masculinity, seeing himself as equal parts valiant knight and unattached mercenary. As this veneer starts to crack over the course of the film, the stakes of the story rise palpably. This is completely Gosling’s film, and his overpowering chemistry with Carey Mulligan led to one of the most bizarre and operatic romantic beats I’ve ever seen on film.

#3: Michael Fassbender/James McAvoy – Erik Lehnsherr/Charles Xavier, X-Men: First Class

Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy in "X-Men: First Class"
Each of these performances is individually strong, with Fassbender’s intense and ruthless physicality contrasting nicely with McAvoy’s poise, charm, and control. But what makes this film work is the relationship between the two – the yin and yang that is so central to both the development of Magneto as a character and the film’s powerful climactic moment. This is an intense and complex relationship – utterly unmatched on screen this year, and it owes heavily to both actors’ performances. More on their individual performances in my review.

#2: Mel Gibson – Walter Black, The Beaver

Mel Gibson in "The Beaver"
From my review:

This performance may be hard to write about, but it was even harder to watch. The beaver persona strikes a comedic note at first, but these beats seem increasingly out of place as the film descends further and further into Walter’s insanity. Whenever Walter is forced to speak in his own voice (without the jaunty British accent), Gibson conveys such intractable discomfort and crippling hopelessness with every syllable that you wonder how Walter has managed to stave off suicide thusfar. His mere existence is a punishing chore. At the beginning of the film, I wondered if I would be able to judge this film without pondering Gibson’s real-life persona. By the end, I forgot Gibson entirely and found myself nearly weeping for the increasingly pitiful creature that is Walter Black. This performance may be unpleasant to watch, but it is certainly one of Gibson’s finest.

#1: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Adam, 50/50

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "50/50"
There is a precarious balance of tone at work in this film. Adam is a young man who has been struck with cancer, and a performance that hits too many hopeless notes would have easily driven audiences screaming from this film. Gordon-Levitt’s comedic performance is nothing short of remarkable, engaging in both credible friendly banter with co-star Seth Rogen and bringing a constant barrage of levity that the film sorely needed to avoid falling into crippling hopelessness. And yet, when the character is forced to confront the fragility of his present existence, Gordon-Levitt delivered once again. Adam’s confrontation with mortality is one of the most powerful and resonating aspects of this film, and Gordon-Levitt brought an intensity to the struggle that I haven’t seen since Andrew Garfield in Never Let Me Go. He is sympathetic, memorable, and hilarious, and to hit all of these beats in a single performance is an astounding achievement.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #13: Jonathan Levine’s “50/50”

Honorable Mentions:

  • Super-duper-honorable mention: Michael Shannon as Curtis in Take Shelter (saw it too late to qualify)
  • Patton Oswalt as Matt Freehauf in Young Adult
  • Ed Helms as Tim Lippe in Cedar Rapids
  • Ewan McGregor as Oliver Fields in Beginners
  • Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan in Shame


2011 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2011)
2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress
2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

Greg Mottola’s “Paul” – An overstuffed road trip

For some, Paul might provoke a sense of nostalgia. It is chock full of so many elaborate and perfectly executed pop culture references that you’ll spend far more time knowingly chuckling than actually laughing. It has all the ingredients of a solid road-trip comedy – Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are a pair of unabashed nerds who take an RV across the American Southwest in search of gorgeous scenery and all things UFO. Halfway to Roswell, they run into an honest-to-goodness alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Oh, and did I mention that Pegg and Frost, the beloved comedic duo from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, also wrote the screenplay? And that they secured director Greg Mottola, whose last film made my Top 10 of 2009?

With all of these players involved, I am baffled as to why Paul is staggeringly unfunny for most of its runtime. The first 15 minutes, in which we get to know Graeme and Clive, are downright tedious. Pegg and Frost have their usual rapport, but their naturalistic banter is saddled with an overabundance of scatological humor and enough gay jokes to overwhelm Adam Sandler. Pegg and Frost’s relationship definitely got stronger as the film went on, but this first act was bad enough that I found myself wondering if, in a world where I hadn’t seen their prior collaborations, I would have bought them as friends at all.

Nonetheless, the film becomes truly enjoyable as soon as Rogen enters the picture. Rogen’s voice performance is hilarious and raunchy (like Rogen himself), and the repartee between Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (which allegedly contained a great deal of improv) is definitely where Paul is at its strongest. And that’s just what this film needed! Bring these giants of geek comedy together, and just let them be funny with each other. Instead, there were far too many scenes that dragged on for just a bit too long in the service of gags that aren’t nearly as funny as the movie thinks they are. When Paul brings a bird back to life with his E.T. mind-magic and then eats it, I chuckled (at least, I chuckled when I saw it in the trailer). But did it merit such an awkward pause in both story and comedic timing? Not at all. And there were a dozen other gags that felt just as expendable.

I’ve omitted some characters thusfar. Jason Bateman plays Agent Zoil, the ruthless man-in-black who is doggedly pursuing Paul. And I must say – this is one of Bateman’s finest performances. Bateman is the consummate straight man in every comedic project, and to see a straight-man who is heavily armed and committed to tracking down and killing every comedic character in the bunch is frightening and hilarious. Kristen Wiig is also in the mix as Ruth, the daughter of a Christian fundamentalist, and quasi love interest for Graeme. I don’t have much to say about this character – mocking religious nuts is pretty passé (and a bit too easy), and Ruth and her dad were perhaps the most extreme indications that this script was written by a pair of Brits who only had an eye for American caricature. The film simply felt overstuffed with both one-note characters and underused comedic talents (including Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Jeffrey Tambor, Jane Lynch, David Koechner, and one more I won’t spoil), who had very little to do with their brief screen-time except make the audience wonder why they showed up.

The most frustrating thing about Paul is that there seems to be a truly great road-trip adventure film at the center of it. Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (and eventually Wiig) are an affable group, and the wide open spaces and scenery look gorgeous (can’t go wrong with the American Southwest). Blythe Danner shows up as Tara Walton, the adult version of the little girl who first discovered Paul’s crash site, and I must say – this is a backstory that deserved more screen time. This film teases the kinds of strong relationships found in E.T. and Close Encounters, but seems too timid to actually embrace them. Every time it comes close, it wastes time on a throwaway line or shot-for-shot scene remake of one of those films instead. Comedy cannot survive on referential gags alone, and Paul‘s focus on them is entirely to its detriment.

FilmWonk rating: 4.5 out of 10

Sidenote: Kudos to the effects team that designed the alien Paul. This was a perfect fusion of reality and CG character design, on the same level of realism as District 9, but with a much more cartoonishly designed alien (which makes it even more impressive).

2009 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actress

#5: Marcia Gay Harden – Brooke Cavendar, Whip It

Marcia Gay Harden in "Whip It"

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It (review), was an adept entry in the sporting genre (in this case, roller derby), made even more effective by some impressive casting and rich characters. The great Marcia Gay Harden plays Brooke Cavendar, an overbearing mother who puts constant pressure on her daughter, Bliss (Ellen Page), to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball. Bliss, meanwhile, would rather throw elbows and knock out teeth on the derby track. Brooke is an apt parallel to overeager football dads, but Harden’s performance is far more layered than such a stock character would normally require. Even as she steadfastly refuses to consider her Bliss’ wish to continue with roller derby, her concern for her daughter’s wellbeing shines through. She is stubborn, imperfect, but utterly well-meaning, and Harden’s strong performance contributes to making this one of the most engaging relationships in the film.

#4: Diane Kruger – Bridget von Hammersmark, Inglourious Basterds

Diane Kruger in "Inglourious Basterds"

As I said in my review, I’m seldom disappointed by actresses playing actresses, and German actress Diane Kruger was no exception. As she knocks back champagne and disarms an entire tavern of soldiers with a single laugh or smile, she harkens back to a time in which celebrity meant something altogether different for an actress from what it means today. And as her true role becomes apparent, she portrays her fictitious vintage film-starlet-cum-saboteur with exactly the right blend of elegance and ruthlessness.

#3: Rinko Kikuchi – Bang Bang, The Brothers Bloom

Rinko Kikuchi in "The Brothers Bloom"

Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi first came onto my radar with her fantastic performance as a deaf student (and nearly the only interesting character) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel. She returns in Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom as another less-than-verbose character… We are told that the brothers’ sidekick and demolitions expert, Bang Bang, speaks about three words of English, and indeed, this is about all we hear from her during the film. Nonetheless, Kikuchi’s brilliance at physical comedy and remarkable range of facial expressions make her one of the most memorable and hilarious characters in the film. If there’s one thing Javier Bardem showed in No Country for Old Men, it’s that a character with very little dialogue can still be quite compelling. With her performance in this film, Kikuchi has proven this true once again, and further proven that such a character doesn’t have to be a daunting psychopath.

#2: Kristen Stewart – Em Lewin, Adventureland

Kristen Stewart in "Adventureland"

Kristen Stewart is either a brilliant actress or a one-time fluke. Here’s what I had to say about her eight months ago when I first saw Adventureland:

As much as it pains me following my experience with the abominable Twilight film, the moment has finally come when I must admit… Kristen Stewart is a damn fine actress. I can only speak to my reaction, but during every moment of Emily’s screen time, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Stewart, in an incredibly nuanced and visual performance, managed to convey such a compelling sense of desperation and longing in every scene (both with and without [Jesse] Eisenberg) that I spent the entire film simultaneously rooting for and pitying her.

As Dave Chen from /Film points out, there is a “massive gulf between her on-screen charisma, and her off-screen persona”. Since Adventureland, all I’ve really seen from Stewart is a considerable foray into celebrity, and an understandable, if unremarkable return to her principal moneymaker. At this point, I must reserve judgment on whether she’ll prove a strong actress after she has left the Twilight franchise behind… Nonetheless, this is one of the most brilliant performances I’ve seen this year, and I have absolutely no qualms about praising it.

#1: Vera Farmiga – Alex Goran, Up in the Air

Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"

“Just think of me as yourself, but with a vagina,” says Alex to Ryan (George Clooney), with whom she has just shared a casual hotel fling. In my original review, I said that it is only with the character of Alex that the film comes dangerously close to contrivance. She is almost a total mystery – we know that she lives a similar life to Ryan, spending much of her time flying around the country, but we don’t really know much else. And yet, Farmiga’s performance and chemistry with Clooney completely make this romance work. While we don’t learn much about her profession, we do learn a great deal about her as a person. This character is somewhat of a mirror, acting as both a female version of Ryan and an older version of his colleague Natalie (Anna Kendrick). But in her interactions with the two, she offers some remarkable insights. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Alex and Natalie swapping their respective versions of the ideal man. Farmiga’s monologue in this scene is just fantastic. Even as she is saying some pretty provocative things (e.g. “Please, let him earn more money than I do”), her delivery includes all the hesitation and reflection that comes with such a deeply personal question as one’s ideal match. On the surface, this scene simply highlights the difference in perspective between women in their 20s and 30s, but it also provides a mountain of subtext for the film’s central romance between Alex and Ryan that gives the film immeasurable rewatch value.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Alia Shawkat as Pash in Whip It
  • Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem in Whip It
  • Lorna Raver as Sylvia Ganush in Drag Me to Hell
  • Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette in Public Enemies

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

Week in Brief: “Whip It”, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”

whip-it_poster-690x1024

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, is the story of Bliss (Ellen Page), a 17-year-old girl who takes a shine to roller derby – the sport in which ladies both lovely and terrifying skate around a banked oval track throwing elbows and attempting to collapse each other’s lungs while passing their opponents’ crumpled bodies to score points. The title refers to a technique whereby one or two skaters act as an anchor to in order to “whip” a teammate past them – a slingshot maneuver designed to greatly increase the teammate’s speed around the track. When I saw this and similar maneuvers put forth in the later matches of the film, I couldn’t help but think of the “Flying V” of The Mighty Ducks. Indeed, Whip It ends up falling somewhere between a Disney sports film and a Texas football tale, and even without the other story trappings, it would be an admirable entry in the sporting genre.

Bliss’ mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) puts constant pressure on her daughter to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball, and is naturally appalled to find out what her daughter is doing with her spare time. The parallels to overeager Texas football dads aren’t exactly subtle, but this subplot worked well for me, owing largely to Page and Harden’s performances, as well as that of Daniel Stern as Bliss’ father.

When confessing her secret sporting life to her parents, Bliss proclaims, “I am in love with this!”. This line was in the trailer, and Page delivered it with such earnestness that it was almost solely responsible for my interest in this film. The story of a teenager in love who doesn’t need to wallow in brooding, misunderstood angst was strangely appealing to me, and Page’s performance delivered on every bit of promise from this line.

And yet, Bliss is not an unrealistic or idealized teen. She acts bratty and selfish at times, and is ultimately put in her place a bit for it. She partakes in a romance with a local guitarist, for no clear reason other than because he’s (omg) super-hot. This storyline initially seems pointless, but pays off rather well in the end, and treats us to a bizarre, but entertaining underwater makeout scene.

The supporting cast is solid, with great performances from Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”), Zoe Bell (the Kiwi stuntwoman from Death Proof), Andrew Wilson (Idiocracy), and Kristen Wiig (“SNL”) – who proves her acting chops even without her signature comedic deadpan. The great Juliette Lewis is also effective as a rival derby player.

The only real weak link in the acting – with the exception of Jimmy Fallon as an absolutely repellent announcer – is director Drew Barrymore. I was conflicted about her presence as an actress in this film; at times, it seems self-indulgent. Barrymore plays a member of the derby team – basically a non-character, lacking any defining characteristics beyond her nom de guerre (Smashley Simpson). I can’t comment much on her performance, since she doesn’t really do much acting, but she does bring the same convincing physicality to the derby sequences as the ladies above (granted, I have no idea how many of the stunts were actually done by the actresses). There’s seems to be no reason for her to be in this film except to join the fun, but I can’t fault her too much for it.

As a freshman filmmaker, Barrymore’s direction is not mindblowing, but she has done a fine job. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman brings the same sort of semi-grainy look that he’s used in every one of Wes Anderson’s films, but it works fine here. The camera starts off tight and claustrophobic – focusing on a one or two players at a time, intermixed with POV shots (seemingly from a camera on skates), but as the film goes on, the shots get wider, and we see more and more. The direction kept the action coherent, built the matches’ interest as the film went on, and brought an adequate measure of intimacy and earnestness to the character moments.

The empowering message of “Be Your Own Hero” is ever-present, but not overwrought. If there’s one message the film conveys best, it’s that roller derby looks brutal and immensely fun, and it’s wrapped in enough solid character work to make this a memorable film.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10
_______________________________________________________________________________________

Poster for "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

Every once in a while, a film comes along that challenges Pixar’s well-earned dominance of the animation market. A film with a solid story, compelling characters, and gorgeous animation. Last year, it was about a panda that wants to learn kung fu. This year, it’s about a scientist who builds a machine that turns rain…into food.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor who has built a myriad of bizarre inventions since childhood, from spray-on shoes to a monkey thought translator. His latest invention is a machine that can “mutate the genetic formula of water to turn it into food”. And that’s about as detailed as the science gets in this film. Lockwood’s lab is designed very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic, complete with a set of blast doors painted onto a curtain. And just like Calvin, all of the science he develops is immensely fun and borderline magical.

Lockwood lives on a drab island town in the North Atlantic called Swallow Falls, which had previously survived solely on its sardine industry. This industry collapsed when it was discovered – and announced in newspapers the world over – that “Sardines Are Super Gross”. While the town makes an ill-conceived attempt to revitalize through “sardine tourism”, Lockwood’s invention accidentally blasts into the sky (as crackpot inventions are wont to do), and he discovers that it can be programmed remotely to make the skies rain down any food the townspeople want like manna from heaven.

Also in the mix is the power (and food) hungry mayor (Bruce Campbell), a beautiful weather intern (Anna Faris), Lockwood’s disapproving father (James Caan), an aging former sardine mascot (Andy Samberg), and an alarmingly speedy cop (Mr. T). The casting is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Sony appears to have learned a lesson from Dreamworks’ failures. You can’t just pack a film with movie stars and expect them to do well as voice actors. These actors (even Mr. T) feel very much at home in their parts.

As for the character design, it seems quite deliberately cartoonish. Flint Lockwood looks more or less like Jon Arbuckle, with a nose easily half the size of his head. His father’s eyes aren’t even visible under a huge bushy brow and above an equally monstrous mustache, and Mr. T’s cop sports an inverted mohawk (a line shaved down the center). This is in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film takes place in a sort of heightened reality, and yet the island of Swallow Falls feels every bit like a real place, from its initial shroud of gloomy gray mist to its eventual golden glow amid a shower of falling cheeseburgers. The weather and atmospheric effects are incredible, and the food looks delicious.

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

The film could have stopped there, but it goes on to showcase some remarkable visual wonders and absurdities. There are depictions of food and food-related wonder and peril that I never could’ve imagined before this film. What does a sunrise look like through the shimmering golden walls of a palace made of jello? How do the children play in a town covered in giant scoops of ice cream? What does it look like when huge animate gummy bears hop onto the wing of a plane and start ripping out wires like a pack of gremlins? I could go on. By the end of this film, you will know all of this, and more.

The film is written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, two of the writers of CBS’ brilliantly funny sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother”, and this film has many similarities to that show. In addition to the rapid-fire jokes delivered throughout the film, it also showcases several well-conceived running gags, each of which has a hilarious payoff by the end. It also balances the humor, which is unrelenting and hilarious, with some solid character work. There’s Sam Sparks, the weather girl, afraid to show how smart she really is, and ‘Baby’ Brent, the former sardine mascot, unsure of what to do with his life in adulthood…

There is also a very well-conceived relationship between Flint Lockwood and his father. Tim Lockwood is a simple fisherman, afraid of new technology, who can only communicate meaningfully with his son in the form of fish-related metaphors. As Flint unveils his fantastical machine to the townspeople, this relationship becomes imbued with subtle shades of the creative destruction wrought by new technology on old industry. The relationship keeps these shades while confronting one of the most basic questions between father and son: Is Tim proud or appalled by what Flint has accomplished?

It is largely through this relationship that the film tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but it keeps this to a very basic level. This treatment of the film’s message seemed well-suited for such a lighthearted romp of a film, but it may feel to some like a missed opportunity. To such individuals, I would simply say this: not every film needs to be WALL-E. This film deftly acknowledges the implications of its grand premise, and then leaves its audience to ponder them further if they desire. This, along with the myriad of smart running gags, will ensure that this film rewards repeat viewings. This is a gorgeous, intelligent, and family-friendly piece of animation, sure to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. It respects its audience and will leave them begging for more.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Special thanks to Devindra Hardawar from the /Filmcast for recommending this film, which I would probably have overlooked otherwise.