Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Maggie 2010: Four Films and Half A TV Show Season

#56. The Big Lebowski

What can I say about TBL that hasn't been said a million times before, by other people who've also watched the Coen Brothers classic a dozen times? There's something soothing about "checking in" with "The Dude" (Jeff Bridges), a ratty robe-wearing philosopher of chill (and decent bowler) who coasts contentedly through life until he's mistaken for someone else and gets his rug pissed on by thugs. Seeking recompense from the millionaire said thugs were actually after, The Dude finds himself in the midst of a tangled web of family schemes. John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Julianne Moore flesh this film out with characters and lines just as fiercely quotable. What makes The Big Lebowski so timeless and re-watchable? If I had a witty, pat answer to that I think I'd be doing The Dude's meandering sermons a disservice. Suffice it to say, if you haven't seen it, you're missing out; and if you haven't seen it again, you're still missing out.

#57. The Wicker Man (2006)

I have watched many films with vile and absurd arguments about the evils of womankind. Some I would consider exceptional works of art, but the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man most assuredly is not. If not for the ridiculous acting of Nicholas Cage, and an utterly notorious sequence of multiple flashbacks, I doubt this film would have any measure of a following; as it is, when the need arises for a party movie people can slip in and out of watching, a film the group can laugh at together no matter how varied their cinematic tastes, The Wicker Man easily tops the list. In this sad offering by Neil LaBute, Nicholas Cage plays a traumatized detective, Edward Malus, who heads out to a private island after receiving a letter from an ex-lover informing him her daughter's gone missing. Conveniently, Malus' trauma (if real) involves witnessing a little girl blow up in his face, so now he's more than primed to do anything it takes to unravel the mysteries of this neo-pagan community and its brutish, man-hating ways, so long as it means sparing another little girl from certain death. The outcome? Well, women are evil: what can I say! You'll just have to watch (with booze -- lots of booze) and find out for yourself.

#58. Ong Bak II

Good martial arts films are best shared; not so good ones, even more. Huge fans of Ong Bak, Wendy and I embarked on a night of Ong Bak II, which takes viewers back to the beginning of the legend. The year is 1431, and some serious feudal warfare has made an orphan of one Tien. He's eventually saved by Chernang, king of the Garuda Wing Cliff bandits, who was impressed by the poor kid's fighting spirit when made to wrestle a crocodile for slave trader sport. Rough life? Oh, it gets rougher: as Tien trains and grows (into older Tien, played by Tony Jaa), the burning need for vengeance pits him against the reigning tyrants and a ridiculous number of back-to-back enemies for some good ol' fashion muay thai mayhem. There are broken knees and flying knee kicks abounding, but the story's twists and turns are a little flimsy, with a slim, cursory love story tossed in and a couple disappointingly fleeting scenes tying into the elephant bonding that made Ong Bak so fantastically epic. With fight scenes changing location and time of day without much coherent direction, and an ending that feels half-hearted at best, I'm left wondering if Ong Bak 2 is just one big build-up to Ong Bak 3, which picks up where the former left off... and perhaps involves Zombie!Tien? The trailer is ambiguous, to say the least. Will I watch Ong Bak 3? Of course. Will it, like Ong Bak 2, be a let-down compared to the original? Most definitely.

#59. Saved!

Another jaunt down memory lane for me: When I first saw Saved! I couldn't help but laugh at the flimsy return of Macaulay Culkin to "acting," yet maintain a measure of deep respect for the approachability of a high school film tackling the pitfalls of close-minded religiosity. In this 2004 piece, Jena Malone plays Mary, a good Christian who has sex before marriage because she thinks God wants her to save the soul of her boyfriend, Dean, who's confessed to her that he's gay. Her senior year kind of goes downhill thereafter: Dean's sent away for special treatment anyway, Mary discovers she's pregnant, and the grief she feels at these events ultimately leads to her unintentional ostracization from "friends" like Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) and self-isolation (out of fear of rejection) from new love interest Patrick (Patrick Fugit). On the plus side, Mary falls in with Jewish misfit Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother, Roland (Culkin), and learns there's still room for life after pregnancy and social disgrace. Truly, the best part of this film is the fact that everyone in this film, regardless of faith, has lessons to learn -- even the principal and Mary's mother. And though this film conforms to pretty much all the conventions of a high school drama, it does so with levity and even a little flair. What more can you ask of this genre?

#60. United States of Tara, Season 1 Disc 1

This series is one I've been dying for some time to watch, and the first half of the first season does not disappoint. In it, Toni Collette does an astounding job playing multiple personalities, all of which inhabit one Tara Gregson, who suffers from Disassociative Identity Disorder. Besides being Tara, wife and mother of two teenagers, Collette also plays "T", a fifteen-year-old with attitude who unsurprisingly gets along well with Tara's teen-aged daughter, Kate (Brie Larson); "Buck", a biker dude who smokes, loves bowling, porn, and fights, and regularly (albeit oddly tolerantly) upbraids Tara's youngest, Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) for being gay; and "Alice," a '50s housewife who bakes, wants to give Tara's husband, Max (John Corbett), another child, and is generally conspiring to take over Tara's head-space entirely. Tara's just gone off her meds at the series' start, in order to work through the issues that have made all these different identities necessary for her. Her family has mixed reactions: Max and Marshall are supportive, Kate is embarrassed, Tara's sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) simply doesn't believe the condition is real, and Tara's parents doubt her fitness as a parent herself. What truly sold me on this series early on wasn't so much the antics caused by Tara's "alters," but the impressive depth applied to all the other characters in this series: Marshall is enduring the highs and lows of life as a gay teen with nary a pause in sight to cope with the fact that he is gay; Kate deals with odd-ball relationships in the way only a teen-aged girl ever really does, Charmaine's got inadequacy issues up the wazoo, Max doesn't always plot the wisest course through his actions (although to some extent he's still playing the role of Sex and the City's Aidan with his uber-nice-guy routine), and even Tara's therapist owns up to being a little out of her league with Tara's condition, because shock! In real life therapists rarely encounter this condition, so of course they're not going to be DID wizards right off the bat. In short, from just the first eight episodes I have to say I'm exceptionally impressed with the measured approach The United States of Tara takes to this condition, contextualizing the difficulties of DID within the scope of complications already felt (to some extent by everyone!) in the mere process of being alive.

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