Author Archives: Laura Pohlman

‘The Bling Ring’ Fails To Sparkle

I’d be lying if I said that Emma Watson wasn’t a huge factor in my decision to see The Bling Ring. Aside from her badass cameo in This Is The End, she had been conspicuously absent in my summer movie picks. Unfortunately, Sofia Coppola‘s latest production suggests Watson’s absence would have been preferable.

The stars of ‘The Bling Ring’. (via Business Insider)

For those of you who have not heard of The Bling Ring, it is about a group of pretty, rich people who rob slightly prettier, richer  people. That’s it. Sure, it’s stylish enough. Designer labels and trendy hip hop abound. But substance is elusive. There’s no commentary on morality or ethics, no case for viewer sympathy. Furthermore, the film does nothing to combat the standard mediocre portrayals of teens in media.

The characters are based on real people, but they function solely as vapid, reckless stereotypes. Their possible motivations for burglarizing–i.e. unstable home lives, personal insecurity, lack of self-esteem–are hinted at but not sufficiently explored. Meanwhile, their interactions never leave the range of “It was totally chill” and “Quit being a little bitch.” The Bling Ring is the type of movie that makes you feel sorry for those who took part in it.

Which brings me back to Emma Watson. Over the years, I’ve seen enough interviews and featurettes to attest to her intelligence and poise. While I’m reluctant to pigeonhole her as Hermione Granger, it was that role that convinced me she is capable of portraying characters with integrity and emotional depth. Needless to say, watching her apply lip gloss and talk about outfits (in a phony American accent) was disappointing. If she, as well as her young costars, had been given more opportunity to deviate from the shallow teen cliché, perhaps The Bling Ring would have been palatable.

As it stands, The Bling Ring is a forgettable film whose relative pointlessness is, in fact, the point. Viewers feel empty after watching it because the actions of those onscreen were empty. I’ve accepted that now. Kudos to Coppola for having me search for meaning where there is none.

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‘Twin Peaks’: What A Brief, Strange Trip It’s Been

Better twenty-three years late than never. (That’s how the saying goes, right?) It certainly applies to my latest foray into cult television, Twin Peaks. I was a wee tot when the series first aired, but the Internet gods preserved it for me.

On the surface, Twin Peaks is a murder mystery/cop drama set amidst the pines of the Pacific Northwest. Following the death of Laura Palmer, special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) comes to the aid of local law enforcement. Other notable characters like Audrey Horne, the Log Lady, and Garland Briggs round out the quirky band of townsfolk who help (and sometimes hinder) the investigation. The deeper the law men delve into the secrets of Laura Palmer and her loved ones, the further the show strays from its original format.

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Here we see David Lynch and Kyle MacLachlan giving their enthusiastic approval for ‘Twin Peaks’.

Stylistically, Twin Peaks is perhaps the most complex show I’ve seen. Creator and director David Lynch teases viewers with abstract scenes of scarlet drapery and distorted conversations, but he doesn’t fully indulge them until the  end of the series. What he consistently delivers, however, is a combination of parody and pastiche. Overwrought portrayals of love and loss call soap operas to mind, while Angelo Badalamenti‘s jukebox score lends a distinctly retro feel. In turn, these elements find harmony amongst snappy dialogue, shared secrets, and cups of coffee.

What I love most about Twin Peaks–aside from dorky dreamboat Dale Cooper–is its commitment to weirdness. Watching via Netflix, I almost could not believe it had ever aired on network television. The premise of the show is palatable enough; primetime is saturated with dramas that depict similar situations. But the show’s intent can be challenging to navigate.

One could reasonably approach the soapy scenarios with an earnest mindset. Yet, it seems more likely that Twin Peaks is an exercise in the uncanny. Often the characters are caricatures and the subjects are clichés; this only seems obvious when contrasted with scenes that break from convention. (In other words, it takes a giant in a red room to suggest that there is more than meets the eye.) Viewers must possess a fair amount of patience and mental acuity to stick with a show that leaves so much room for interpretation. If one is a fan of the cerebral and the supernatural, however, the journey is well worth it.

 

Note: Both seasons of Twin Peaks are available on Netflix streaming.

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Much Praise for ‘Much Ado’

Prior to seeing Much Ado About Nothing, it had been a couple years since I last sat down with The Bard. For a while, my life was filled with lectures, essays, and Sparknotes dedicated to the plays of Shakespeare. But as semesters passed by, so did my reference bank. I figured my failure to preserve those works would be detrimental to my evaluation of Joss Whedon‘s latest venture. Happily, I was wrong!

Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) engage in a battle of wits. [Image: The Atlantic Wire]

Much Ado is at once classic and cutting edge, a seamless blend of style and content. Black and white cinematography lends an air of sophistication and makes the amiable cast even more attractive. The film feels indulgent and sensuous, from its dreamy, lounge-room soundtrack to its glistening scenes of revelry. In contrast, the use of Shakespeare’s original dialogue stimulates the mind. (Baz Luhrmann may have done the same in Romeo + Juliet, but Whedon handles his source material with more finesse.) The actors–most of whom are beloved repeats from the director’s previous ventures–deliver their oft recited lines with unparalleled freshness and ease.

Verges (Tom Lenk) and Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) add levity as ne’er-do-well policemen. [Image: Wired.com]

Amy Acker beautifully renders the shrew-like Beatrice into an independent, multi-dimensional woman. Meanwhile, Alexis Denisof adds equal parts swagger and silliness to Benedick, the bullheaded leading man with a sentimental streak. Whether they’re exchanging verbal jabs or tender kisses, the chemistry between these two leads is effortless,. What’s more, supporting players like Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, and Tom Lenk contribute more than their fair share of wit and wiles. They prevent the story from drowning in melodrama.

Though the film brims with stylistic and theatrical integrity, perhaps the most impressive achievement is Whedon’s ability to cultivate a sense of familiarity. As I’ve expressed before, Shakespeare can seem a bit intimidating. Accessibility and applicability to the modern viewer is always a gamble. Yet, it seems that sort of uncertainty is what fuels Whedon’s projects. After all, one might also question the relatability of vampire slayers, superheroes, or struggling villains. Whedon asserts that all of these characters have stories to tell, and those stories hold universal appeal. In the case of Much Ado About Nothing, he proves that revisiting Shakespeare is worth the fuss.

 

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‘Portlandia’: A Work In Progress

I blame Netflix. For a solid year, Portlandia was present in my “Top Ten for Laura” list. A year is plenty of time for expectations to grow. Turns out it takes significantly less time for those expectations to wither.

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein as the volatile proprietors of Women & Women First bookstore. (Image: newstribune.com)

The first few episodes capitalize on novelty. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein write and portray an array of quirky Portland citizens, their feminist bookshop owners being the most engaging.

Unfortunately, after roughly three episodes of zany caricatures, the shtick gets pretty stale. Armisen and Brownstein tend to draw out or force feed the punchlines to their sketches, and they sully opportunities for satire with lackluster jabs at the counterculture.

Before I sound overly negative, I should throw Portlandia a bone. I powered through all of the first season in one sitting. I recognize this was not the wisest decision. Had I spaced out the episodes, it’s likely the cavalcade of parodies would have seemed less repetitive and more inventive. Certain shows are best when marathoned; others lend themselves to a weekly break between installments. Portlandia falls into the latter category.

Although Netflix’s “Top Ten” suggestion currently feels like a misjudgment, I have not ruled out watching the second season. I remain intrigued by Armisen and Brownstein’s undertaking. The pair could easily win me over if they simply put more trust in their raw material. The characters from which they draw inspiration require few modifications to be entertaining. I’m confident that Portlandia finds its balance in season two. But maybe I’ll give it a week before I find out for sure.

 

Note: Seasons one and two of Portlandia are available on Netflix. Season four is set to premiere in early 2014. Clearly I’m not the only one willing to dole out second chances. 

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Can’t Beat ‘The Heat’

It’s July, the midway point of summer. For those of you keeping track at home, I have watched sons make peace with fathers, celebrities face the end of the world, and monsters accept their personal differences. This week I was able to add a feminist flick into the mix.

McCarthy and Bullock bring ‘The Heat’–and the laughs–as an unconventional police duo. (Image: hollywoodreporter.com)

The “buddy cop” plot of The Heat is a familiar one. A strait-laced FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) comes to work on a drug case in Boston where she is paired with a local foul-mouthed policewoman (Melissa McCarthy). The two butt heads as they try to solve the case but eventually recognize each others’ strengths as crime fighters and as friends.

Like any film, The Heat is not perfect. It presents a weak portrait of people of color, makes cliché jokes about Boston accents, and includes a regrettable amount of anti-albinism humor. Nevertheless, The Heat has many other factors working in its favor. The script was written by a woman, and the soundtrack is full of female artists. The Heat also aces The Bechdel Test, which requires a film to include two named women who talk to each other about something other than men. The most obvious appeal, however, lies in the chemistry between McCarthy and Bullock.

Separately, these actresses are humorous; together, they are hysterical. Bullock’s traditional comedic approach is the ideal counter to McCarthy’s ad lib aesthetic. I found myself jiggling and crying from laughter multiple times due to their ridiculous rapport. Their mutual exchange of crassness and compassion makes a very strong case for more female-driven buddy comedies. The evolution of their onscreen friendship is an absolute joy to watch, one that is made even sweeter by their real-life  best friend status.

The chemistry and comedy in The Heat is enough to make it a must-see, but its message of empowerment will make it a must-own for me. The film carves out a place for funny, fierce (and, yes, fat!) females in pop culture. As someone who identifies as all of those things, I could not be more grateful.

 

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‘Monsters University’ Delivers Laughs, Lessons, and Likability

Monsters University combines two of my favorite things: Pixar movies and college. If that combo isn’t as big of a draw for you, no worries. The film is still worth your while.

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Mike and Sully weren’t always best buds. ‘Monsters University’ tracks their road to friendship. (Image: ign.com)

This prequel to Monsters, Inc. gives viewers a look into the lives of Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) before their career at Monstropolis’ mega corporation. After going on a pivotal field trip to Monsters, Inc. in his youth, Mike sets his sights on becoming a Monsters University graduate. His expansive knowledge of the art of scaring gives Mike an edge at the start of the program, but he is soon upstaged by Sully’s thunderous roar technique and prestigious family name. Their rivalry escalates until they find themselves competing on the same team during the university’s annual Scare Games. With a group of misfit monsters in tow, they learn they must work together to succeed.

Although the plot of Monsters University is somewhat simplistic, the film manages to win over viewers with its commitment to character development. Mike and Sully’s stories become more rounded; we get to know them just as the two get to know each other. Through the course of the film they show equal parts strength and vulnerability, humor and perseverance.

The motley brothers of Oozma Kappa (OK) toughen up for the Scare Games. (Image: youtube.com)

Mike and Sully are not the only monsters with whom we get acquainted, however. We meet Randy Boggs (Steve Buscemi) when he is still a gawky chameleon who wants to be part of the in-crowd. We also get acquainted with the brothers of Oozma Kappa, including Don (Joel Murray), the non-traditional student with a history in sales and Squishy (Peter Sohn), a multi-eyed creature with a good heart. Overseeing all of these students is the formidable Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), whose strict demeanor is as legendary as her all-time scream record.

Although the hijinks and personalities are plenty entertaining, it’s what we do not see that leaves the most positive impact. In typical Pixar fashion, Monsters University presents themes that are relatable and timeless: strive for your goals, celebrate your talents, and embrace the uniqueness of others. Those are messages that both monsters and humans can live by.

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Starting Summer With ‘The End’

This Is The End

Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel take the world’s worst trip to a convenience store.

I have a weakness for bro humor. I wish I could say this developed recently due to exposure to high school boys. The truth is that my appreciation for boorishness goes back long before my teaching stint. It’s only when I see movies like This Is The End that I realize just how lowbrow I am.

The premise is simple: Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel head over to James Franco’s housewarming party. While there, the end of the world begins. Safe in the confines of the fortress-like estate, the two friends band together with fellow survivors James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride.

SPOILERS

As expected, This Is The End takes full advantage of its R rating. People get impaled, crushed, and eaten. Survivors spend time getting high, roughhousing, and making cracks about their bodily fluids. Of course there are some line-crossing moments in this cavalcade of crudeness (rape jokes being the most distasteful example). Yet, for me, there were enough instances of badassery, bromance, and buffoonery to compensate for the parts that weren’t so agreeable.

These fellas get what’s coming to them in ‘This Is The End’.

First of all, Emma Watson makes a cameo that will cause any Harry Potter fan and/or feminist to cheer. There’s also a fantastic rap soundtrack, an appearance from a beloved boy band, a mock trailer for Pineapple Express 2, and copious pop culture references (especially about the actors’ own failures). In addition to all of that, This Is The End incorporates a surprising amount of heart. I went into the theater expecting nothing more than mindless humor; I came out actually caring about the characters’ friendships and fates.

What I arguably enjoyed most about This Is The End — aside from the aforementioned highlights–was its unique approach to the dystopian/apocalyptic genre. By executing the film as a comedy and by having the actors portray themselves, Goldberg and Rogen effectively buck conventions. When the box office is saturated with hackneyed dramas and thrillers, it’s refreshing to come across a film that’s willing to make fun of itself and its competition with equal gusto.

 

 

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“The Simple Minds Effect” or: How I Learned to Stop Teaching and Start Loving ‘The Breakfast Club’

Graduation is over. Underclassmen are taking exams and cleaning out lockers. The countdown on my chalkboard will soon be at zero. All of this means one thing: “The Simple Minds Effect” is in full swing.

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Shermer High School. It may be fictitious, but it’s real to me.

In case you were wondering, yes, I did just make that up. Nonetheless, I am convinced it is a real affliction. All this pomp and circumstance, the call for reminiscence. Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” has been playing on a loop inside my head for a week. I’m about one chorus away from loading up a station wagon and moving to Shermer, Illinois. (That is, if Jason Mewes hadn’t already debunked its existence.)

Naturally, my connection with Shermer and Simple Minds is The Breakfast Club. That Hughes‘ classic was supposed to be the last movie covered in my film class, but we ran out of time. The kids are bummed they won’t be seeing it; I’m bummed because I won’t be the one to show it to them.

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My forever style–and life–inspirations. (Photo: liketotally80s.com)

My fondness for The Breakfast Club goes back about seven years, when I was the age of my students. I was a sucker for all things witty and offbeat, anything that could distinguish me from my peers. (Strange I didn’t know the definition of “pretentious” then.) I took to The Breakfast Club like a lawn mower to grass. I lusted after Ally Sheedy’s grey tote and Molly Ringwald’s boots. I quoted the movie to friends until they broke down and asked to borrow my DVD.

Things change, things stay the same.

I still quote lines and covet wardrobes. I hold onto my DVD, quietly awaiting someone to borrow it. Yet, as my fanaticism has mellowed, my appreciation for the film has only grown stronger. I get it now. I get why Bender was so damn angsty, why Brian just wanted to shoot his defective elephant lamp, and why Allison showed up to detention on a whim. Their stories are built on common ground: the need for attention and reinforcement. They are too old to act like children, too young to be taken seriously. Thus, they are dismissed.

It’s this revelation that made my first (and probably only) year teaching high school so difficult. For starters, I was only 22 when I began. I felt like an older sister, not an authority figure. After listening to my coworkers talk about parenting, marriage, and employee benefits, I couldn’t help feeling a kinship with folks a little younger. Students talked to me about interesting YouTube videos; I told them about my cat. We exchanged goofy banter. Then, gradually, they shared more. I learned about their issues with school, their troublesome relationships. I heard about their raucous weekends and their resulting mistakes. I went from not knowing their names to knowing their lives. I hardly think this would have happened had I taken the Richard Vernon approach to education.

I maintain that I am not “Star Teacher” material. I suck at discipline, I hate taking grades, and I fail at keeping my potty mouth in check. Still, this year has been one of the most valuable of my life.  I revisited high school and survived. I resisted using “the simplest terms and most convenient definitions” to categorize my students. In turn, they showed their vulnerability, uniqueness, and character.  I cannot say if they learned from me, but I certainly learned from them. Even though I never watched The Breakfast Club with my class, I will think of them each time I see the opening credits.

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Well said, Bowie. Well said.

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The Mediocre Gatsby: 1974 Edition

Gatsby (Robert Redford) is a dish, but his film should be dismissed.

Few movies fill me with as much indifference as the 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. That’s not to say there are no redeeming qualities; the costumes are eye-catching and Robert Redford is hotter than the face of the sun. Still, my non-reaction of “Well, that was a movie” is something I cannot ignore. Especially since it’s not the first time I’ve felt it.

Before my decision to revisit Gatsby and its film adaptation this year, I had only fuzzy recollections from junior English class to tide me over. Art deco book covers, something about a swimming pool. I had read the novel, but I slept through practically the entire movie. At the time, I dismissed my sleepiness as an unrelated quirk. (English was my favorite class after all; imagine how often I dozed off in other subjects.) Turns out my Gatsby snoozing was more telling than I thought.

This week, I fall back on a tired piece of advice: When given the choice between a novel and its adaptation, choose the novel.

First off, Mia Farrow’s shrill and vapid portrayal of Daisy Buchanan makes her insufferable to watch. While Daisy’s abusive marriage and confused heart are poignant character points, Farrow’s performance is distracting. She seems spacey instead of dreamy, affected instead of sincere. A certain degree of wide-eyed wonder is appropriate for the role of Daisy; what viewers receive is parody.

Secondly, the film’s unrelenting pursuit of accuracy is so glaring it puts viewers on edge. While careful consideration of the source material is commendable, too close of an adaptation shows a lack of originality. From plot to dialogue, nearly every adaptable element from the novel was harnessed and spewed out onscreen. Gatsby clocks in around 140 minutes, but it feels more like 240. The gradual story development in Fitzgerald’s work translates to straight tedium in the film.

Furthermore, the literary dialogue sounds stilted and awkward. Nearly all cast members deliver their lines as if they were reading them. The only exception is Sam Waterson; his approach to Nick Carraway is more naturalistic. (Unfortunately, Nick spends most of the action as a hapless observer.) In trying to incorporate Gatsby’s every detail, filmmakers failed to evoke its spirit.

When combined, these flaws detract from a valuable cautionary tale of decadence, carelessness, and greed. In the time I spent struggling to watch the film, I could have read a sizable amount from the novel. If Gatsby enthusiasts require a fix before the new release on Friday, I recommend they forgo the feature and embrace the book instead.

 

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Desperately Seeking Moranis

There are certain movies that just stick with me. I have not seen Honey, I Shrunk the Kids in over a decade, but scenes of kids swimming in French onion dip and standing alongside an enormous Oatmeal Creme Pie still run through my head on a regular basis.

This past weekend, I saw Little Shop of Horrors for the first time and encountered that same sticking powerThe music! The colors! The abundance of goofiness! From Steve Martin’s sadistic tooth extractions to the sweeping refrains of “Suddenly, Seymour,” I was enthralled.

Moranis as Seymour in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’

One could dismiss my appreciation of these films as part of an undying affinity for the fantastic–both exhibit overblown caricatures and hyperreal settings. Yet, when one looks past the wackiness of these ’80s gems, there remains a significant common thread: Rick Moranis.

Moranis–arguably the king of bespectacled beta males–has some golden film credits to his name. In addition to the titles above, he’s also been a part of Ghostbusters, Spaceballs, Strange Brew, and The Flintstones. He became a ubiquitous figure by the mid-1990s.

Then he disappeared.

After scanning his artistic credits, it would appear that he has based recent projects on their level of anonymity or obscurity. Since the start of the 2000s, he has voice acted for children’s movies and written for a short-lived television show. He even released an album, “The Agoraphobic Cowboy,” in 2006 (which earned him an unexpected Grammy nod in the comedy category). While these projects are every bit as offbeat and creative as one might expect, many folks (including myself) hold out hope for an overdue return to the big screen. Moranis, however, has other priorities in mind:

“I’m a single parent and I just found that it was too difficult to manage raising my kids and doing the traveling involved in making movies. So I took a little bit of a break. And the little bit of a break turned into a longer break, and then I found that I really didn’t miss it.”

One can hardly disapprove of his decision to play the role of family man. Ultimately, he should be commended for taking a break when he did. His current elusiveness only increases my appreciation for his past visibility. (“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Right?) No matter how extended or how brief his hiatus, I can watch him rock Ray Bans and quirky sweater vests whenever I please.  That’s enough to appease any wistful fan.

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The Glory Days of Gore

Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers as well as several descriptions of violence and gore. If that’s not your thing, navigate to another article. I’ll try not to take it personally.

Gone are the days of the moldy-faced demon. (Source: www.blastr.com)

I don’t know why it took me so long to watch The Evil Dead. During my junior year of college, I lived with a friend who attended the live musical, read Bruce Campbell’s books, and coveted her boyfriend’s Army of Darkness t-shirt. This year, the IT guy at my workplace raved about Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic for months leading up to the release of the reboot. No matter where I turned, I saw evidence of the film’s cult followers. I decided it was time to join them.

Objectively, one could say the effects and storyline of The Evil Dead have not aged well. The gore occasionally looks a little too much like chocolate syrup, the bodily secretions too much like rice pudding. Cosmetics used for demonic effect often call to mind a Tammy Faye makeover gone awry. Yet, there’s something about its B-movie aesthetic that appeals to my sensibilities.

Through its innumerable campy chills, The Evil Dead reminds modern viewers—especially those accustomed to big budget, impersonal productions—that earnest filmmaking exists. Raimi’s attempts to scare and repulse are pure and unpretentious; The Evil Dead strives for nothing other than twisted entertainment. Often, that sort of straightforwardness relegates movies into a cinematic void. In the case of The Evil Dead, simplicity provides the substance. It makes the film worth appreciating decade after decade.

“It’s raining blood, Hallelu…” Wait. Are you serious? (Source: www.deadites.net)

Despite being produced by Raimi and Campbell, the new Evil Dead (in addition to ditching The in its title) fails to deliver the same charm as its predecessor. The plot is more developed, the effects more realistic, the violence more plentiful.

Overall, it’s just plain more. By the time the final skin-shredding, blood-spewing horrors take place, one feels slightly browbeaten. That’s because the outrageous happenings overwhelm instead of engage, isolate instead of invite. Somewhere within the process of modernizing the film, the filmmakers lost sight of what made the original so great.

If Raimi devotees are willing to wade through the gore, they might discover enough Easter eggs and homages to deem Evil Dead a worthy reboot. I wish those fanatics the best. In the mean time, I will look to Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness for another dose of hokey horror.

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