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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