Back in August, I was asked to participate in the Women Write About Comics roundtable about the 2013 summer blockbusters. I forgot to post it here. Enjoy my ramblings and some very insightful discussion from some very smart ladies.
Much Ado About Nothing
Directed by Joss Whedon
As much as I enjoy films and though I am a Torontonian, I rarely attend the Toronto International Film Festival. I went once about ten years ago and watched a movie called Chinese Coffee starring Al Pacino and Jerry Orbach. I can't remember much about the film, which probably means I was "meh" about it, and I wasn't into seeing the stars.
This year, however, my in-laws got me tickets to see one of the most anticipated geek fests out there: Joss "Avengers" Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing. (Thank you, John & Rita!)
I was thrilled to be attending the world premiere of this movie. Not only was the director present (SQUEE!) but so was the entire cast, including Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, Tom Lenk and a bunch of other Whedon alum. (SQUEEEEEEEEEE!!!!)
I am totally biased when I say I loved this film. For one, I love pretty much everything Whedon does, I love the actors he chooses, and I love Shakespeare. So really, this was a no contest SUPERAWESOMESACKOFWIN for me.
It's a beautifully done in black-and-white movie, filmed over 12 days in Joss Whedon's gorgeous home. Shakespeare's play is quite light and quirky, but Joss does his thing and digs up the darkness beneath the subtext while ensuring a healthy dose of laughs. He called it "romance noir," which was quite apt for the small but bursting-with-life production.
My husband and I were ecstatic about this show, and so was the rest of the audience. I heard one woman in the restroom say she only came because her daughter wanted to see it--she'd never heard of Joss Whedon and didn't enjoy Shakespeare, but she said, "I LOVED this film!"
High praise, indeed.
Silver Linings Playbook
Directed by David O. Russell
The second film we saw, again thanks to the in-laws, was Silver Linings Playbook, starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro. The film, based on a book by Matthew Quick, is about bi-polar man (Cooper) who has just been released from a mental health institution. He moves back in with his quirky parents while he tries to put his life back in order and win back his ex-wife. An off-kilter neighbor, played by Lawrence, agrees to help him if he'll enter a dance competition with her. It's a movie with deeply flawed characters and lots of dark humor. Lawrence and Cooper get to stretch their acting muscles in these roles, and they play off each other quite well.
Overall, I enjoyed the film. Cooper does a bang-up job being obsessive and broken, while Lawrence plays prickly and vulnerable without being sappy. There are some hard-to-watch moments, especially if you've ever had to deal with mental illness, but the story is heartwarming and triumphant.
And yes, the stars and the director were there. Was I impressed? Not as much, considering the act it had to follow. Still, this was definitely a TIFF to remember.
Take This Waltz
Directed by Sarah Polley
I wasn't sure what I was walking into when I got advance screening tickets to this film. Set in Toronto, Take This Waltz is about a young married woman who is infatuated with her neighbor across the street and endeavors to start an affair with him. Though played with great aplomb by Michelle Williams, there was something...icky about the whole scenario. At it's heart, though, lies the truth: that even shiny new things get old. And while I couldn't drag my attention away from the inconsistencies of the Toronto geographical landscape (sorry, Sarah, I know you live here, too), I did leave the theater thinking about the movie a lot, which is rare for me.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
It's kind of an old, but classic tale: a male stripper with a heart of gold just needs a chance to turn his life around. Meanwhile, he guides a lost nineteen-year-old thrust (ahem) into the world of male stripping and plays Obi-Wan to his er...very naked Luke. (Yeah, that went somewhere I didn't want to go...) I went for the sheer camp factor, but instead, I got some really awesome dance performances. The sexual aspect of the stripping faded quickly for me. Channing Tatum has some serious talent and gets to show it—and his fabulous abs—off in this wildly fun but sometimes sobering movie. Good times were had.
The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Finally got around to seeing this movie, mainly due to my current obsession with Jeremy Renner. It was everything the critics promised it would be: taut, intense, unflinching, with performances that had me wanting to curl up into a ball and hide for a while. Renner was at once stunning and terrifying in the role of Sgt. James. If nothing else, this movie will make you appreciate the hell our troops go through.
The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by Christopher Nolan
This was the nearly perfect cap to Nolan's Batman trilogy. My only gripe about it is that the writing for most Batman movies always comes off as a little campy. But part of the appeal of superhero movies is the absurdity that surrounds masked crusaders. I don't want to have to think too hard at a movie featuring a guy who sounds like Scooby-Doo flying around in a cape. Which is why I exited that theater with a big smile.
I won't go on too long about how much I ABSOLUTELY LOVED Marvel's the Avengers—enough to see it twice in theatres, and for my husband, three times. Suffice to say Joss Whedon got it all bang on, made me care about characters I knew nothing about (Hawkeye, Black Widow) and even made me like the Hulk. I hate the Hulk. Two separate movies and they still couldn't get the franchise going, yet somehow, I loved him in this.
But I promised not to wax on, so I won't. Instead, I present you The Avengers, in order of bangability:
#1 Thor, God of Thunder, son of Odin.
Skills: Super strength, wields a magic hammer. And we all know hammers really stand for.
Bangability factors: Chris Hemsworth's bulging muscles speak for him. With that smile and those locks, old school chivalrous affect plus godlike stamina, Thor is the ideal bedmate. I'd take this guy to my high school reunion.
#2 Captain America, aka Steve Rogers
Skills: Super strength and speed, wields a shield made of vibranium-steel. Imagine the possibilities...
Bangability factors: Like Thor, Chris Evans's physique is impressive, but his wholesome, boyish virgin factor makes him extra appealing to me somehow. Which disturbs me a little. I just want to make him salute the flag and cry while singing "The Star-Spangled Banner."
#3: Iron Man, aka Tony Stark
Skills: Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist with a flying rocket suit.
Bangability factors: Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, played by Robert Downey Jr., and he's got a wicked beard and a wickeder sense of humor to boot. Many would argue he ought to be my number two, especially compared to vanilla Steve Rogers, but the fact that Stark's with Pepper Potts and his obsessive compulsive tendencies kind of turn me off. Great for a one-night stand and a few ostentatious "it's not you, it's me" gifts, but that's just my opinion.
#4: Hawkeye, aka Clint Barton
Skills: Master of archery, martial arts, acrobatics.
Bangability factors: I knew nothing about Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye before this film, save for the minute or two of footage from Thor. But wow, do I ever want to see this guy get his own movie, or costar in one alongside Black Widow. The guys sinewy arms and laserlike focus on the mission shine through. Apply that to the bedroom and I'm sure he'd have me bull's-eyed.
#5: Loki, the Trickster, stepson of Odin
Skills: Super strength, telepathy, magic abilities.
Bangability factors: Okay, so technically he's not an Avenger, but look at him. Tom Hiddleston is irresistibly charismatic in this role. As one character aptly put it, "He kind of grows on you," even though he's really a conflicted and kind of pathetic character. But imagine what he could do with the power to manipulate your mind. You could have him AND all the rest of the Avengers with you...
#6: Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff
Skills: Superspy. Particularly good actress.
Bangability factors: She may be the only woman on the team, but she proves herself to be an equal among these powerful men, leveraging her foes' underestimation to her advantage. She's smart and fearless and doesn't back down from a fight. If I had to have a lesbian experimentation phase in my life, I'd be honored and thrilled if it were with Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow.
#7: The Hulk, aka Robert Bruce Banner
Skills: As Banner, genius-level intellect; as Hulk, nearly invulnerable, can take flying leaps, smash.
Bangability factors: Mark Ruffalo's performance was adorable, but he still managed to keep the simmering monster visible beneath his trembling nerdy exterior. Yes, I still put him dead last in this series because, let's face it, while size matters a little, I'm not sure I could go one round with the Hulk without needing serious physical rehabilitation afterwards.
#0: Nick Fury
Skills: He's motherf***ing Samuel L. Jackson. All he needs to do is be badass.
Bangability factors: He's number zero on this list because, chances are, he's already f***ed you and left. Because that's how S.H.I.E.L.D. operates, motherf***er.
The Secret World of Arriety (2010)
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Based on the book The Borrowers by Mary Norton, this charming tale about tiny people who live off the leavings of household inhabitants is beautifully brought to life by the wonderful Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
While not as exciting as some of Miyazaki's other works, the film is reminiscent some of the older Studio Ghibli movies, with a focus on domestic details and the not insignificant trials of everyday living. The art and scenery are lush and gorgeously painted, and there's little a child would find frightening. A must see for Miyazaki fans, naturally.
Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Directed by Drew Goddard
Joss Whedon's much-anticipated horror/slasher flick does not disappoint, blending classic horror tropes and plots with Whedon's trademark wit and sociological insight. I can't give out many details about this movie without spoiling it. Suffice to say, if you're a fan of Whedon, you should go see this.
Shattered Glass (2003)
Directed by Billy Ray
The true story of former disgraced journalist Stephen Glass is one that every journalism student should watch. Hayden "Anakin Skywalker" Christensen plays the erstwhile Glass, who fabricated many of his stories and eventually got caught. It's a cringeworthy precautionary tale, and watching Christensen really flex those acting chops as a charismatic pathological liar makes you realize how wasted he was in the Star Wars franchise.
The most highly anticipated movie adaptation of the bestselling series by Suzanne Collins will likely be reviewed by better than me, and more thoroughly. But I thought I'd give my impressions here.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read the books...well, why haven't you???
Overall: I enjoyed this film. It managed to distill all the important parts of the book into a 142 minutes, and included more in-depth looks at the universe that were not included in first-person narrative of the novel. There was lots of action, enough world-building to understand the basics of Panem, and lots of great performances by the main cast, who really brought the characters life.
The Good: Jennifer Lawrence played Katniss with aplomb, capturing her conflicting emotions, her coldness and her laserlike focus. Josh Hutcherson grew on me very quickly. He was convincing on many levels, and his likability and chemistry with Katniss will make it hard to root for the other guy when the inevitable love triangle comes into play. Gale didn't get a lot of screen time, but what I did see, I liked.
The scenery and sets are terrific, the costumes are fantastic, the writing sharp and not overexplained. It's an easy movie to watch and like.
The Meh: President Snow as portrayed by Donald Sutherland lacked any real bite. He's supposed to be scary, but he just came off as lukewarm. Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz, did not make much of a splash, and part of that, I figured, was because his assistant stylists who are a constant, chattering presence in the book didn't appear much in the film. Likewise, we didn't see much of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), another key figure. I can only imagine some of his best scenes are on the cutting-room floor.
The Bad: Excessive use of shaky-cam and quick cuts made many of the more horrific sequences easier to film/stomach and kept the film PG-13-friendly, but they got tiresome. Not quite Michael Bay-tiresome, but I was definitely googly-eyed by the end.
Since this franchise is going to be spread across four movies, I felt there needed to be more contrast between the Capitol and Districts. An overreliance on CGI didn't ground me in the excess of the Capitol--things were just a little too blue screened at times, and as colorful and fanciful as the costumes were, the transition between District 12 and the Captiol was too jarring. The costumes, while beautiful, were used almost too much. I really wanted to see the banquet scene from the book.
I also felt they could have gone a lot darker. As has been pointed out on Twitter, it's a strange world in which a movie about kids killing each other in an arena bloodsport gets a PG-13 rating, while a documentary about bullies gets an R for swearing. The horror of the Hunger Games was well done, but they could have gone two shades darker and really hit the nail on the head. I can only hope the sequels will be a little more unflinching in their treatment of violence.
The Conclusion: This may be one instance in which I recommend reading the book before watching the movie, only because it's a great book, and it translates fairly well. I'll go see the sequels, no doubt about it. Hats off to the cast and crew. I look forward to Catching Fire.
Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Holmes faces off against his nemesis Professor Moriarty in this sequel starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Jared Harris as Moriarty. The plot is relatively simple with its various Doylesian twists, and the actors deftly portray the world's most famous detective and his sidekick. Though the aesthetic is bang on, the high-def motion capture cinematography pretty to look at and refreshing in that thank-god-this-isn't-Michael-Bay way, I wasn't absolutely enthralled. In the end, though, everything is nice to look at, and there's enough action and story to keep you awake. A good matinee flick for everyone.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
This Cold-War espionage flick based on a John le Carré novel stars a whole bunch of terrific actors, including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, and a bunch more. Oldman plays a veteran MI6 agent forced out of retirement to track down a mole within MI6's ranks. It's a long, slow, plodding kind of movie—you won't find any fast-paced chase scenes or heart-thudding action, but it suits the hold-your-breath mood of the period, and the film's crescendo pays off.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Ever since I heard that former women's MMA champion Gina Carano would be starring in this flick alongside Channing Tatum, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas, I was stoked to see what she could do. Carano's character, Mallory Kane, is a secret agent on the run after being set up by her former employer for the murder of a Chinese dissident. With the focus on her, it leaves the heavy hitters with very little to do, but that's the magic of this movie. With so many stars, Carano has her work cut out for her. But you root for her because she is a strong and capable woman surrounded by men conspiring to beat her down. She is the instant underdog who doesn't need to prove anything, but is going to anyway because—and here's the tagline—they left her no choice. If anyone else had played Mallory, this flick would have flopped.
Carano is brutal, unrelenting, and completely physical in this film. Every fight scene is genuine, with long shots and unflinching hits with plenty of nods to her Muay Thai and MMA training. It's very satisfying to see a woman who is strong and beautiful without being plastic or glamorous kick serious ass. I applaud Soderbergh for making this movie. Not once do you see Mallory pose, boobs and ass sticking out, wearing skimpy outfits or using her sexuality to get what she wants. She is smart, efficient, and goes after what she wants. No TSTL moments here. I would have liked to see more from the male characters (who doesn't want to see more Michael Fassbender?) and there isn't a lot in the way of character arcs or dialogue, but otherwise I enjoyed this film thoroughly.
Directed by James Bobin, 2011
Even if your total exposure to the world of the Muppets has been in a few old reruns of The Muppet Show, this movie is fantastic. It's hilarious and heartachingly nostalgic, with exactly the right amount of schlock and zaniness. Jason Segel and the writing team did a bang-on job of recapturing what made the Muppets so special. Plenty of fan nods and celebrity appearances round off this perfect Muppet escapade. It doesn't get better than this.
There Will Be Blood
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007
I'm really late to the game with this flick, but I finally watched it on DVD. I really didn't get this movie. Daniel Day-Lewis puts on a terrific performance, there are a few interesting clashes between his character and his devout nemesis Eli--played creepily well by Paul Dano--and the cinematography and scenery is beautiful, but otherwise, I didn't feel like there was much to the story or characterization. I didn't care about Daniel's motives, didn't understand or perceive the changes to his character...didn't really care about anything. I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, and it didn't. There were no real stakes, as far as I could see, and the conflict was minimal. Overall, a bit of a disappointment. Not exactly cheery holiday viewing, either.
Conan the Barbarian
Directed by Marcus Nispel, 2011
Jason Momoa's muscles star in this reboot of the classic Barbarian franchise penned by Robert E. Howard. The writing is...well, I'm not sure there was much writing involved. I could pretty much predict every single line out of Conan's mouth ("I don't want your gold...I want your head!") and though the field was left wide open for jokes, fandom nods and even--gasp!--character development, most of the film is devoted to a crimson-colored splish 'n' splash. There was a lot of fighting, and people in Conan's universe are apparently walking water balloons filled with blood. Blunt force trauma? BLAMO! Blood gush! Sword slice across the shoulder? SPLOOSH! Ruined your new armor! Got a paper cut? SANGUINE TSUNAMI! Rewrite that paper, Billy!
I did rate this above the critically acclaimed There Will Be Blood, however, because JASON MOMOA. ABS. RIPPLING TORSO. THOSE ARMS. THOSE EYEBROWS. With a special appearance by his shapely, muscly butt! (That alone should get people flocking to Netflix...)
Also, I've become a sucker for Stephen Lang, one of the only GPILFS on my list of Older Men I Might Procreate With If The World Ended.
A very fair and nice review of Her Son's Hero from a fellow MMA fan, Asia Morela. She makes some very interesting points about self-defense, self-control, MMA and violence. Your thoughts?
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
by Amy Chua
I've been struggling with this review because it's impossible for me to judge the book without inserting my own life experiences. And, frankly, some of them are very angsty.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is the brutally honest memoir of a Chinese-American mother raising her two daughters the "Chinese" way. Chua is careful to point out that not all Chinese or Asians do this, just as not all white people raise their children the "Western" way. The book got a lot of press and criticism after an excerpt was posted in the Wall Street Journal. After reading the whole book, the descriptions of the harsh treatment Chua imposed upon her daughter while practicing piano were probably taken a little out of context. Because there's no way I could have read this book without an enormous grain of salt.
Tiger Mother is not a parenting book. In fact, I'd go as far to say it is the antithesis of a parenting book. While the author time and again tries to show us how well-balanced and successful her daughters turned out, and how her personal sacrifices of time and sanity paid off, I personally cannot, with good conscience, recommend her impossibly demanding strictures be applied to anyone being raised in a Western society.
And so, I read this book with half a mind reminding me that this book could only be part satire, with Chua playing the role of moaning martyr mother. She talks very little about the details of her own upbringing except to say "this is how I was raised, and look at how great I am!" It makes me wonder exactly she left out. Still, it's an engaging read, but definitely not for the easily enraged who think that children are precious and must be shielded from life at all costs.
I should probably mention that tigers are known to eat their young. This is not one of the facts Chua includes in her book.
From My Point of View--Being Raised the "Chinese" Way
In my experience, Chua's outlook is not an uncommon one among traditional Chinese parents. Harsh discipline, withholding praise, comparing children, and verbal reprimands that border on abuse, all in the name of making stronger, more successful children is something I grew up with, and something many my friends grew up with. The efficacy of these methods remains in question largely because the idea of success is entirely subjective. If we don't become concert pianists, doctors, lawyers, bankers or productive mothers, if we don't earn tons of cash at the expense of our happiness, then what, exactly, are tiger mothers striving for when they force their kids to practice piano three hours a day and deny them playdates?
While there's lots to be said about not giving today's kids enough rigid structure or discipline and letting them run wild and become spoiled ingrates, there's just as much to be said about dictating every minute of your kids' lives, all while telling them they're worthless, garbage, that they'll never amount to anything, that their siblings are better than them, that you'll abandon them at the orphanage if they don't do exactly what you tell them to do, etc.
I was raised between the two parenting styles. My parents owned their own business, working eight-hours a day, seven days a week, 364 days a year. My mother was a stay-at-home mom who went to work with my father once my sisters and I were in full-time school.
My impression of the time was that we didn't have a lot of money, but were more than adequately provided for. We had a Nintendo system and a piano. My mom did try to get us to take up piano and violin. She wanted her daughters to grow up cultured, knowing classical music and reading books. But with her long working hours, Mom didn't have all the energy and enthusiasm Chua had. She certainly didn't stand over us and make us play until we cried or chewed on the piano keys.
Piano and violin lessons petered out after a couple of months. The truth was, none of us had the patience or the passion, and I think Mom realized we wouldn't work at anything we didn't love. We were bright, energetic, and impatient to learn more and move on: not ideal candidates for the strict Suzuki methods our teacher ascribed to.
The "Chinese" method of parenting came mostly in our academic studies. I would get 99% on my tests and still Mom and Dad would demand, "Where's the other 1%?" Part of me was always hurt by that question, but another part of me knew they were kidding. Mostly. Still, I strove for that perfect 100% and was always disappointed when I made that one error. Frustrated though I was, I never fought the system, never told them how irritating it was to be asked why I wasn't perfect. Maybe that's why being a writer suits me—because I'm used to criticism. 8 P
Reading Chua's account opened my eyes only a little. Living in a Western society where every after-school special hammers home the idea that your parents love you unconditionally has allowed me to believe that is, in fact, the case. I know my parents love me because they haven't abandoned me at an orphanage. And though they never told me they were proud of me, though we do not hug or phone each other just to talk every week, I know they love me, and I love them.
Chua loves her daughters, and they love and respect her and what she did for them. That much is clear in the book. But I'm not sure the same can be said for all Chinese-raised kids and their parents.