Archive for August, 2011

(spoilers abound)

Can one moment spoil an entire film? Forgetting Sarah Marshall puts that question to the test.

Here’s a comedy I like with a single bum note, one that makes me question the whole affair. The moment — a throwaway line uttered by Mila Kunis — comes during the movie’s otherwise sweet final minutes. It lands like a poison pellet, tainting everything around it. Let’s view it in context of the entire movie, to understand why the line feels so off.

I’ve written before about cinema as a tool to define “normal” versus “abnormal” behavior. Movies, when they want to, can offer photorealistic glimpses into another world, not the world as it is. They can shatter our social norms. Or they can choose to solidify them. Cinema’s verisimilitude is a gift and a weapon. Filmmakers can harness the medium’s unique qualities — namely, the ability to craft a lifelike replication of our surroundings — to challenge the status quo or reaffirm it.

This has consequences. The characters on screen, the decisions they make, and how the film treats them as a result — these things all convey real messages to us as viewers. Because on the cinema screen, a hippie is never just a hippie. Depending on how he’s portrayed — a waste of space, a paragon of idealism — the film can’t help but tell us how to view hippies as a whole. On the road, some of us might spot bad drivers and draw conclusions about their ethnicity or sex. We do the same for trends we see on the screen. We see examples and extrapolate. We do this in varying, unpredictable ways, depending in part on our own media literacy. Of course, films and TV don’t indoctrinate or brainwash us. But, like no other medium, they can urge us to feel certain ways about specific lifestyles, ethnicities and orientations. That’s why we refer to stereotypes on the screen as “irresponsible.”

In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Mila Kunis’ Rachel embodies one such lifestyle. She’s a laid-back, live-for-the-moment kind of girl. Kunis has little worry for material wealth and other signifiers of self-betterment. She likes it in Hawaii. It suits her personality. The continental U.S. may have more practical career and educational opportunities, but those things don’t concern her. In Hawaii, she hurts no one and brightens the lives of her friends and coworkers. She lives a tranquil life — amiable if unambitious. (more…)

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This review first appeared on Quarantine the Past on November 16, 2009.

“All of life’s questions and answers are in [the film],” Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Bloodsaid in 2007. “It’s about greed and ambition and paranoia and looking at the worst parts of yourself.”

Taken out of context, as I’ve done so here, that sounds like a self-flattering synopsis for his own movie, doesn’t it? Those words — greed, paranoia, ambition — trigger distinct images in my head, namely ones of Daniel Day-Lewis browbeating a gangling zealot in a bowling alley. But Anderson isn’t talking about his movie; he’s talking about his favorite movie, The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

I mention this because, as with Quentin Tarantino, Anderson is a filmmaker guided by his cinematic obsessions. He hails from the “video store” or “VCR” school of American indie cinema. That is, he learned his craft through osmosis, by exposing himself to tape after tape, DVD after DVD, of the classics. Films like The Treasure of Sierra Madre comprise the foundation of his filmmaking powers. (more…)

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