Grade C- | 1st Viewing
How much of what we love about another person is actually the person, versus what we have in our minds of them? We can’t be around our loved ones 24/7, and even if we could, we cannot be inside their heads. Our love of them pretty much consists of the responses we have within ourselves to whatever external stimuli we receive from them. When we are away from those we love—or anybody, really, even those we hate or are indifferent to—what we think about them is whatever impression they’ve left inside of us, and it will stay that way unless we choose to have a new idea about them or they give us something else the next time we see them. So, really, when we say we ‘love’ (or ‘hate’ or ‘despise’ or ‘enjoy mildly for relatively brief periods of time’) somebody, we are just vocalizing the particular ideas we have about them.
None of this is really dealt with in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Ruby Sparks, though the film does bring up these issues. As you may well already know, the film deals with a successful novelist name Calvin (a delightfully eccentric Paul Dano) who, while trying desperately to write a follow up to his freshman masterpiece, finds that one of his characters has inexplicably come to life. Since whatever he writes about this girl becomes true, he can control everything about her, and turn her into his idea of his perfect woman. There is so much glorious raw potential here. We could have a Vertigo-esque slow reshaping of a human into another, or a scathing exposé of how men in entertainment try to reshape women to their personal ideals, or examinations of several other thematic threads that present themselves. But we do not.
Unfortunately, screenwriter Zoe Kazan (who also plays Ruby, don’cha know) contents herself solely with simple matters of plot—which is quite a shame. If Ruby Sparks had tried to examine more than just its story, it could have been so much more than another trifling indie quirk. And the biggest problem with the story for me was: If Calvin is really such a prodigious author, is Ruby really the best he could do?
Grade B- | 1st Viewing
Ah, James Bond. Watching a James Bond Movie is like visiting an old, reliable friend. So you don’t want ol’ 007 to change too much between movies. There are things we expect from every Bond Movie, aren’t there? We expect a rip-roaring action sequence to start things off. We expect an opening credits sequence that plays like the dream version of the film we’re about to see, with a titularly–matching opening song. There will, of course, be a few conspicuous gizmos that will get Bond out of precisely-timed jams, one-liners galore, a larger-than-life villain to keep our protagonist constantly in check, and quaintly Disposable Women provided merely to deliver plot points and/or sex scenes.
Well, Sam Mendes’s Skyfall has all of those things. It actually fits the Bond Movie archetype perfectly, while neatly avoiding the pitfalls of camp, excess, and ridiculousness that plague many entries in the series. Javier Bardem shows us why he’s one of the best actors working today as the entry’s dandy villain, and Bérénice Lim Marlohe gives Skyfall’s Disposable Woman a fair bit of heart (though, as is his wont with many actors, Mendes has her overact a bit). But the real Bond Girl here is Judi Dench as M, who almost steals top billing from Craig.
But let’s not overpraise it. Skyfall is still a Bond Movie, and attempts to inject it with psychological realism are a bit forced/completely unwanted. Do we need to know Bond is an orphan? What—does that make him Bruce Wayne? Attempts to portray Bond as aging and past his prime add some needed suspense, but are we to believe the ‘reset’ button won’t be hit before the next installment? He’ll be back in his prime in no time. (That, or else Barbara Broccoli is turning James Bond into Matlock.)
In the end, Skyfall is like the winner of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show: not really too much better than any of the others, but a more perfect example of its type.
A friend of mine recently remarked that he’d never read a review of a movie to which I’d given an ‘A’ grade. I briefly explained why this is so, but promised he’d see one in the near future. This Quick Take is for you, buddy:
Grade A- | 3rd Viewing
Hitchcock’s ‘A’ films usually include some combination of Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious, and possibly Rebecca for certain critics. I unquestionably would add The Birds to this list. Simply at the level of craft, there are few better examples of how to slowly build dread in an audience. Consider the famous scene outside the school. As Tippi Hedren smokes a cigarette, nervously waiting for Suzanne Pleshette to finish with the young students, a single crow lands on the nearby jungle-gym. It’s just a single bird. Nothing incredibly remarkable. Then, a second one lands. Still nothing worth noting, not even when a third bird lands nearby. But then there’s that incredible shot, where Hedren turns around and we see hundreds and hundreds of birds, eerily stationary, threatening. It’s one of Hitchcock’s very best moments.
And this is what makes The Birds so much more than a simple horror/suspense film. When should we consider something a threat? When does it become prudent to take action against an adversary? When the seagull attacks Hedren early in the film, the characters don’t think too much of it; after all, it’s just one insane bird. Odd, but not improbable. But then more birds start attacking. It’s like the birds on the jungle-gym: one isn’t very weird, or two or three. But hundreds and hundreds are terrifying. Where is the line? When does a flock of birds go from mundane to harrowing? What is the number of that last bird?
One of the characters, in the midst of a horrific avian onslaught, accuses Hendren of bringing this apocalypse into town with her. “This didn’t happen until you came along! You’re evil!” Human beings seem impotent in the face of events they cannot explain, especially the more deleterious occurrences, and the natural impulse is to ascribe supernatural authority to those events. That’s why gay sex causes immense earthquakes and a lack of prayer in public schools causes Sandy.
The Birds is the perfect demonstration of these themes. And on a strictly surface level, it’s a powerful, electrifying horror film. So when you think of Hitchcock, don’t forget his late masterpiece.
What have you been watching?