Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Runaways (2010)

Rock biopic The Runaways is a special film. It's my favorite Dakota Fanning movie, but I like it for different reasons, so it would probably still be one of my favorites even if it didn't star Dakota Fanning. But, I'm glad that it does. Not simply because she's my favorite actress, but also, casting her as Cherie Currie was truly an inspired choice (and the same can be said for Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett). I can't imagine anyone doing a better job in the role than she did. This film really is the trifecta - it stars Dakota Fanning, it's a good movie, and the subject matter is right up my alley!

But it's a funny thing: after watching over a dozen movies starring Dakota Fanning over the past few weeks, this is the one role where I was least conscious that it was Dakota I was watching throughout the movie. (Needless to say, I was, however, still drawn to her fantastic performance and amazing looks). There could be any number of reasons for that. You might say it indicates that her acting is better in this movie than all the rest. Or maybe it's because she's not playing the "precocious brat" (not my personal choice of words) type of role she's best known for. She does seem to have a lot more innocence in this role, in spite of the fact that, while still just fifteen, she gets mixed up in a world of typically adult vices - namely, all the sex and drugs that come with rock stardom.

But if you ask me, I think it might have to do with the vintage '70s look Dakota takes on in this movie - particularly her feathered hair (which is right for the role, but I like Dakota's normal hair better) and heavy makeup. Or, even the fact that Dakota is not playing a fictional character this time, but an actual person, for which there exists a context independent of Dakota's performance. Lastly, it might simply be the fact that Dakota is no longer the child we all remember her as being. Yep, it's remarkable the change that has occurred in the three short years (or so) since Dakota's other sexy music-related role - Hounddog, in which she discovered the blues. And in The Runaways, she gets to experience the rock 'n roll lifestyle.

"Listen. Rock and roll is a bloodsport, it is a sport of men. It is for the people in the dark. The death cats. The masturbators. The outcasts who have no voice, no way of saying, 'hey, I hate the fucking world! My father's a faggot! Fuck you, fuck authority, I want an orgasm!'"

So who were The Runaways? They were the band that launched Joan Jett's music career. If you ask eccentric record producer Kim Fowley (inspiringly performed by Michael Shannon in the film), they were a conceptual rock project. Joan's idea was to start an all-girl rock band amid a scene utterly dominated by men. Kim Fowley picked up on the ingenuity of that idea and ran with it. Joan wanted an outlet for her musical talent, and Kim seized the opportunity to essentially pimp the band on the novelty of it being an all-girl rock group. And the group thrived on that short-lived balance between the two forces of women's lib, and women's libido. But it wasn't a stable balance.

The women's lib aspect is what makes the band historically significant. The Runaways didn't last long, but they did prove that girls could rock. They weren't actually the first all-girl rock group, as Suzi Quatro, who was a large inspiration on Joan Jett, had a band with her sisters about a decade prior. But the Quatro sisters (in their band The Pleasure Seekers, later Cradle) didn't attain the recognition that The Runaways did - Suzi was better known for her following solo career, with a backing band that included guys. But the important thing is that there was substance to The Runaways' rock act - real, quality music performed with real rock 'n roll energy - and that made an impression.

"What the hell are you wearing?"
"I'm thinking with my cock."
"More like, boner."

"You're basically ready for the peep show circuit, all you need's a porn name."
(Uh, hello? She's the Cherry Bomb!)

Nevertheless, the band's image was saturated with the ooze of women's libido. This had something of a two-pronged effect - attracting the attention of men by tapping into their sexual fantasies, as I'm sure Kim Fowley anticipated, but at the same time giving people a chance to criticize the band as a novelty act - chicks who were worth looking at but not listening to. Clearly, this wasn't true, as they were a very competent band, but that didn't stop people from tossing around those complaints. Maybe they were just feeling insecure, seeing teenage girls performing what they considered to be a man's role, but you could expect that hearing comments like that would lead the band members to start resenting their sexualized image.

"Pretty soon you'll be opening for us."
"Opening your legs, maybe!"

I'm pretty sure this issue has been exaggerated to enhance the dramatic conflict in the climax to this film adaptation of The Runaways' story (which is based on lead singer Cherie Currie's memoir, Neon Angel - which I highly recommend). This is somewhat unfortunate, because from my perspective, I view women's libido as being part of women's lib, and an integral element of The Runaways' formula. In the film, tensions in the band come to a head based on a sexualized photoshoot engineered by Kim Fowley as a clever publicity stunt. Cherie, who is hardly to blame for falling into Kim's trap, as it were, is berated for publicizing her crotch instead of the band's music. Granted, there's also an element of jealousy between the rest of the band, who, to varying degrees, resent Cherie being the face of the band, despite not necessarily being the best musician in the group. But the intent is clear when Joan (via Kristen Stewart) bemoans the fact that those sexy pictures are all the band's going to be remembered for. (It's notable that the pictures from that photoshoot, taken for publication in a Japanese magazine, are a lot harder to find today than the band's albums).

"They just showed up at my house with cameras, what was I supposed to say?"
"You could say I'm the singer in a band, not Linda fucking Lovelace."

But it doesn't have to be one or the other: sex or the music. After all, the success of The Runaways was a combination of factors, including both sex and music. If they weren't so sexy, would they have been as successful? How many genuinely good bands fall by the wayside because they can't find an audience? It's true that a novelty act will grow stale, but a song without a hook doesn't get much airplay. You're allowed to have both - style and substance; in fact, it's the groups that have both that tend to go the farthest and be remembered the longest. And what's wrong with having a sexy image, anyway? Especially in the sleazy world of rock 'n roll. You're right, it would be selling the band short if a fan liked them only because they were hot - but the band would similarly be selling people short for assuming that if a fan likes their looks, then they're not sophisticated enough (or too distracted) to appreciate their musical talent.

Case in point: yours truly. I think the band is totally hot - both the real band, featuring Joan Jett and Cherie Currie and the others, and the movie band, starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart and the others. And I also think they're an amazing band, from a musical standpoint (by the way, Kristen and Dakota both did a great job singing their parts in the film). What more proof could there be than this: during the movie, I had to pause it and go pick up my guitar to check the fingerings I use to play some of The Runaways' songs after watching the way Kristen played them (I can't say how accurate her playing was supposed to be, but I do believe she was coached by Joan Jett on the set). So you see, my sexual interest in the band doesn't have to cloud or obstruct my interest in their music. In fact, it makes me that much bigger a fan, because I can enjoy both listening to them and fantasizing about them, too! And that's just my point, the sexual aspect is a bonus, not a liability. There is often a thin line between rock gods and sex gods. That goes without saying for male rock stars, so why should it be different for female ones? (That's where the inconsistency of anti-sex "feminism" comes into play - it's female empowerment only so long as you suppress your female sexuality, which is, after all, nothing but a tool the patriarchy uses to subjugate women. Bullshit.)

As good as this film is, it's not above criticism - though I would argue that its flaws are insignificant compared to its better qualities. The biggest complaint a Runaways fan might have is the inaccuracies in the story. But seeing as this is a motion picture dramatization, that really comes with the territory. You shouldn't watch The Runaways expecting to get the real story, you should watch it to have a good time. If you want the former, check out Edgeplay, which is sort of a documentary via interviews with the various members of the band (excluding Joan, unfortunately). Another complaint fans might have is that in spite of the movie's title, The Runaways focuses on Joan and Cherie to the exclusion of the rest of the band - and even Joan's later success is glossed over, so that it's less of a Joan Jett biopic than a Cherie Currie biopic. But that's because it was based on Cherie's memoir, after all (perhaps they should have used Cherie's title - Neon Angel - for the film, but you can't argue the strategic/publicity advantage of calling it The Runaways). But if you can get over these quibbling facts (they don't bother me), The Runaways is a whole lot of fun. And as you could expect from a rock biopic, it has an outstanding soundtrack!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hounddog (2007)

The first thing to be said about Hounddog is that it has generated tons of controversy, being the film in which beloved child actress Dakota Fanning gets raped. There's a lot to say about that alone, but most of it has been said elsewhere. My position is that it is only a movie - a fiction - and nothing to get overly worked up about. Furthermore, of all the 12 year old actresses in modern cinema history, Dakota is the one who was most likely to have been mature enough to take on the role - a task that she accomplished in spades. And if you've heard anything about her commitment to the role, she was not only okay with the nature of it, she was actually very supportive of the entire project.

So no, there was no abuse or exploitation of any kind involved with this film, regardless of what you might have heard from the puritanical zealots. In fact, the director herself invited the feds to investigate, and they gave it a big ol' thumbs up. The rape scene itself is a "disappointment", in terms of being rather underwhelming after all of the hype it has generated (which was never the point). And here's a piece of fun trivia you can throw in the face of anyone who doesn't understand the term "acting" - not only was Dakota not actually raped on the set, she wasn't even naked. Want proof? It's right there in the scene itself! One has to wonder whether that "goof" was left in there intentionally to spite the film's critics.

"It's not really happening. It's a movie, and it's called acting." - Dakota Fanning

So moving on, there are thankfully some people out there capable of looking past the hysteria. But it seems to me that a lot of them have come to the conclusion that, while Dakota's performance is noteworthy, the film overall is pretty mediocre. What's disturbing is this trend I'm noticing in people explicitly advising against seeing the film, like as if they're afraid of what others might see in it. Talk about silencing the director's voice. Is the film really so uninspired that it's not worth "wasting" your time on? Well I don't agree. I think you should go see it and make up your own mind about it. Moreover, my personal opinion is that the movie is really good; in fact, it's one of my favorite of Dakota Fanning's many feature films.

So what does Hounddog have going for it? Well, it's a story about a young girl's discovery of the healing power of the blues. Kind of a preteen Black Snake Moan, which is another movie I liked. The southern setting is beautiful (if rustic), and the warm, summery atmosphere is a climate I can really appreciate. And visually - well, you've got Dakota looking fantastic.

(No worse for the sweat and grime. :p)

I think a lot of people get upset about this movie not just because of the rape itself, but because it's one of Dakota's sexiest roles - at just twelve years of age. In the opening scene, Lewellen (Dakota's character) convinces a boy to play "show me yours" with the promise of a kiss. She spends the entire film running around in a minimal amount of clothing. She goes swimming in her underwear. She writhes about in bed. And there's no doubt of the sexual connotations of her hip-shaking Elvis impressions. These are all perfectly natural behaviors for a poor, sexually curious, Elvis-obsessed girl of 12. So why do they make us uncomfortable? I suppose it's because we either think sexuality is damaging to a young girl, or that it's dangerous. Both of these approaches are represented by two of the villains in the film.

Exhibit A: Lewellen's grandmother. She's a very religious, anti-sex type. She sees Lewellen's burgeoning sexuality as if it were a poison in her soul, and she wants to protect her from it, to preserve her childhood innocence for as long as possible. So she forbids the girl from entertaining those devilish thoughts, and from hanging out with boys. What does this accomplish? It doesn't prevent Lewellen from being victimized, but it does add another layer to her suffering - the guilt of sin. Plus it totally destroys Lewellen's innocent romance with Buddy, which could be interpreted as a catalyst leading to her abuse, as well as to the further breakdown of their friendship afterward - leaving Lewellen utterly alone to deal with her pain. With all this in mind, why do we still stress the importance of purity and chastity? Perhaps it's because we see the danger in sex, and we want to protect our youth from it.

"You think she's yours, her daddy thinks she's his."
"And you think she's yours?"
"No, I don't. I don't think she's anybody's. Only person she belongs to is herself."

Exhibit B: Wooden's Boy. He is an older boy from the neighborhood, lacking moral scruples. He gets wind of Lewellen's burgeoning sexuality - just as we, the audience, do - and, disgusting creep that he is, marks her out as a target for rape. I think this is an important point, because we tend to want to follow this script. We see rape as the inevitable result of a young girl's precocious sexuality. So when the director forces us to participate like voyeurs in this girl's sexual awakening, we feel guilty, as though we are condoning the ensuing rape. As if the director were inviting us to rape Lewellen with our eyes. Simply watching the film, and passing it around, becomes an act of support for the rape.

But this belief relies on that presumed connection between a young girl's sexuality and her victimization. Why are we so insistent on that point? That any lapse in purity and chastity is tantamount to violent assault? Talk about a harsh deterrent. Are we really suppressing kids' sexuality to protect them from rape, or are we using the fear of rape to suppress kids' sexuality, knowing that they will soon grow to become the next batch of adults in charge of running society? The villain here is the rapist. Do we hold the girl responsible for the sexual predators she attracts? Do we blame her sexual precocity for the abuse? Is it the fault of the girl's guardians for not successfully keeping her chastity belt locked tight? To say so would be akin to justifying rape as a punishment for impurity. And that's unforgivable. Rape is never justified.

The solution is simply to sever the tie between our notion of a young girl's sexuality and abuse. If we stop viewing her sexuality in the context of abuse, then we stop going out of our way to ensure that abuse is always present. Where it is present, the perpetrator is easy to single out. Where it's not, there's no room for criticism. The villain is Wooden's Boy, not Lewellen. Wooden's Boy is guilty for raping Lewellen. Lewellen is not guilty for expressing her sexuality. And neither are you guilty for witnessing it. And neither is the director guilty for depicting it. It's not something that has to be locked up in a vault, hidden from the world, so that we can all pretend it doesn't exist (like that would accomplish anything worthwhile). And this story is not one that ought to be suppressed. The director's voice has every right to be heard.

And that is truly the point of this film. It's a story about a girl finding her voice after she's had to endure a traumatic and personally devastating event. Her love of Elvis is silenced when it is perverted and used against her. She has to reclaim her sense of identity, and self-worth, and rediscover the value of the music she once cherished - by going to its roots. And she doesn't accomplish this by blaming herself, least of all for things she couldn't control. She learns that hardship is not the end of the world. And with guidance from a wise snake charmer, she learns to take the metaphorical poison inside of her, and turn it into a well of strength. She uses it to enrich the depth of her soul, which she pours into the blues she sings. And in that way, she gains the ability to impart her experience to others who may be down, as she once was, in order to lift their spirits, too. And that's the true meaning of the blues.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Double Dakota Feature: Trapped (2002) & Nine Lives (2005)

Kevin Bacon stars in Trapped as a man with a plan - the perfect kidnapping. But of course something goes wrong - otherwise there wouldn't be much of a movie. Dakota Fanning plays the scared little girl who gets kidnapped, a couple years before her similar role in Man On Fire. Comparisons between these two titles are inevitable. I liked Man On Fire better; its story had more pathos. And Dakota was more memorable, having more time to develop her character, with less focus on being the terrified victim. But Trapped isn't bad. It's less about the grief that ensues after a kidnapping, and more about the protracted struggle between good guy and bad guy as the plan gradually plays out. In that sense, it's a bit more contrived, but for the sake of crafting an entertaining plot, I presume. It all builds up to an exciting climax that involves more carnage than may be reasonable, but just as much as an audience could hope for.

Nine Lives is a different kind of a film. I would describe it as a reflecting pool, wherein you gaze as you contemplate your struggles in life. It features nine loosely-related stories about nine different women, and the struggles they have to go through. For example, one woman is separated from her daughter while in prison; another woman faces up to her abusive childhood; another deals with her anxiety directly preceding a mastectomy. They are all very human stories, and largely depressing. But that is life, and if there's a lesson to be gleaned, it's not a convenient or patronizing one.

Initially, as the film played out before me, I thought to myself, okay, these stories are going to weave together in some way and head towards a conclusion - but it's not entirely that straightforward. You don't really get a whole lot in the way of closure. But then, it seems to me that the point of this film is not about the specific details of the characters' lives, but rather the overarching themes - the kinds of themes we experience ourselves in life. Sacrifices we make, the importance of family, losses we suffer, the need to overcome grief...

It's not a very happy story, but if you can get into it, it's really well crafted. I read that each of the nine individual chapters was filmed in a single shot; which is entirely believable, because I recall lots of panning in lieu of cutting from one scene to another. It's really remarkable thinking back on each of those scenes, considering the distances covered in some of them. And it gives the film a really unique and compelling style. It's also fun to look for the superficial connections (in addition to the deeper thematic connections) between the segments - characters featured in one segment that might show up elsewhere on the side.

All of the actors put in a good performance. Dakota's role was relatively short, in the final segment, but nevertheless unforgettable. She was a veritable ray of sunshine, even in spite of the cemetery setting. I would have liked the entire length of the movie to have featured her, but well, that wouldn't have suited the story. Ah well. I guess this feeling suits the nature of her role, after all. This really is a beautiful film, though that's coming from someone who thinks suffering (of the psychological variety) is a fascinating thing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Descent: Part 2 (2009)

I had the good fortune of seeing The Descent several years ago during one of my periods of going to see horror movies in the theater. It was one of the best movies I saw that year. When Part 2 came out, I pretty much ignored it, figuring that it was more or less a cheap cash-in sequel. But the perfect opportunity just came up, so I sat down and gave it a watch.

The Descent: Part 2 requires suspension of disbelief on a number of issues, and there's a lot of light in that cave for it being underground, but there are also some good moments that make the journey worth it. There are some predictable plot elements, but also some exciting surprises, so in spite of being derivative of the first movie, I'd say it's still worth seeing. It's not as good as the first, but if you liked The Descent, you will no doubt enjoy watching Part 2.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)

I'm gonna try not to say too much about Phoebe in Wonderland, because it's just the kind of movie you should watch for yourself. Provided it's the kind of movie you like to watch, which isn't going to be the case for everyone. It's a drama, for starters. And it's about a young girl who appears to have a mental problem of some sort, that makes her particularly prone to breaking rules, and causes her considerable distress. The part is played amazingly by the enchanting Elle Fanning, who totally carries the film. The girl, Phoebe, finds some solace in playing the lead part in her school's production of Alice in Wonderland, and finds something of a kindred spirit in the unconventional drama teacher. Meanwhile, Phoebe's parents try to deal with her at times problematic attitude, reluctant to admit that there's anything clinically wrong with her.

The great thing about this movie, for me - aside from Elle Fanning, who is every bit as gorgeous and charismatic (not to mention talented) as her sister - is both that it deals with the difficulty of living and coping with a mental disorder, and that it takes its stance firmly in the camp of us eccentrics, who are often harassed and our lives generally made miserable by the normies, who not only make up the majority of the population, but also dictate how society runs. Unfortunately, eccentricity and mental illness are often not far apart (and there is much more to be said about that). I think that probably a lot of people wouldn't relate to this film the same way I did, and apart from the question of whether or not it's a good film (and I definitely think it is), may or may not simply like it like I did. But for what my opinion is worth, I unhesitatingly give it a full 10/10.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

Tonight was the anticipated release of the new J.J. Abrams project, produced by Steven Spielberg, and starring Dakota's lovely sister Elle Fanning - the film titled Super 8. It's rare that I go out to see a movie on opening day (or in the theater at all) - not because I wouldn't like to, but because I can't afford to. But I figured that considering my current obsession with Dakota Fanning, it would be insane to pass up the opportunity to see this exciting new film her sister is starring in. Plus, I've been hearing good things about it.

Having now seen it - and gone to unusual lengths to get to the theater - I can say that it was definitely worth the effort. Hype doesn't tell me anything because every movie gets hyped up, and not every one deserves it. But forget what people are saying, this movie is a lot of fun. It has something that so many films lack - style. It's funny, but not in the way that the comedy is forced. The conversation is natural, and you laugh because the characters are genuinely funny, and also genuinely charming. But this isn't a comedy, and that's why it works. The humor makes watching the film a fun experience, but it's not what you're there for, you're there for the story.

What I didn't realize about this film until the last minute is that it's actually a retro '70s throwback film. And that's where a lot of the style comes into play. It's not over-the-top in the same way that an exploitation film is - like the recent grindhouse throwbacks: Planet Terror, Death Proof, Machete, etc. But it has that same kind of freewheeling love-of-the-cinema atmosphere. And it does go over-the-top in a few humorously ridiculous action scenes. And since the story within the story is about these kids directing a homemade movie of their own (a zombie film), that really drives home the point that this is a movie created by people who really love making movies.

Elle Fanning is really great in this role. But the rest of the cast - especially the main gang of kids - all hold their own in creating a lovable ensemble. I fear this may be a rather strong statement, but I'm tempted to say that Super 8 is The Goonies of the 21st century.

My brother was worried that the movie would turn out to be a lot sappier than the trailers (that I saw) suggest. There is some drama in this movie, but it's sweet, and it doesn't take away from the excitement, or the action. There's room for feelings in a movie like this; if you want a brutal two hours of film with no morals and no sensitivity, there are other titles to suit that bill (many that I've seen, and many that I've liked). But this movie, this movie is about having a good time.

I could say some things about the monster, but I'm hesitant to spoil anything. I'll try to be discreet, but as usual, if you really don't want to be spoiled, skip ahead to the next paragraph now. I'm tempted to call this film sort of a Cloverfield Jr. My standards for monsters in monster films are pretty high. Rarely do you get something as terrifying as H.R. Giger's xenomorph, or as horrific as John Carpenter's The Thing. I would rate the monster in Super 8 as falling short of being truly impressive, but good enough to hold the story. After all, this is less of a horror movie than a sci-fi thriller.

For those concerned about this being one of those shaky-cam found-footage type films, it's not like that at all. The production values throughout the film are solid.

In short, you should definitely go out and see this film. It's not just a good movie, it's a really fun movie to watch. And that's something you don't see every day.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Double Dakota Feature: Sweet Home Alabama (2002) & Uptown Girls (2003)

It's funny, I remember seeing the trailers for Sweet Home Alabama when it came out, but I never saw the movie. Personally, I think that song is overrated. Everybody loves it, but you hear it so much, and it's truly one of Lynyrd Skynyrd's poppier songs. I like a lot of their music, but not so much that song, although it's inevitably become the de facto rock anthem for Alabama.

As for the movie itself, it's a kind of annoying story about an upcoming fashion designer in New York City who has to head home and confront her rural roots after her boyfriend (the mayor's son) pops the question. I say annoying because there's this whole conflict between city manners and country ways - and not to disparage either one, but the lovely Reese Witherspoon (who plays the lead) gets caught in between and can't seem to decide between them, when it feels like the answer should be simple. But I guess those complications are what make the drama, and I'll admit, I was taken in by the romance that influences the final decision (even if it's pretty cheesy).

Dakota's role in this film is minuscule. She plays the 10 year old version of Reese's character, and only features for a couple minutes at the very beginning of the film. But, it's a romantic scene that involves a kiss during a lightning storm!

I wasn't sure if I'd like a movie titled Uptown Girls. Not because I have anything against uptown girls, but every time I read that title, the song gets stuck in my head - and it's not really my type of music. But it turned out to be pretty good. The charismatic Brittany Murphy plays the grown daughter of a rock star, living like a modern day urban princess, until her financial sponsor skips town, and she has to learn to fend for herself. She gets a job looking after a severely uptight, germophobic child played by Dakota Fanning. The child, nicknamed Ray (short for Lorraine), lacking much parental affection, has adopted an unusually adult demeanor, whereas the rock star's daughter, Molly, herself still behaves like a child. The two don't get along at first, but they have a lot to teach one another.

I hate to admit that, this time, Dakota's character crosses the line from adorably precocious to downright annoying, but then, that's her character. She's still adorable, though, and I love her sarcasm and cynicism. And Brittany just lights up the screen. I'd have to say these two actresses really make the film, which turns out to be an amusing (and a little bit touching) dramedy. But the interaction between these two characters is where it shines. And the film culminates in a surreal theater performance that involves a squad of tiny ballerinas carrying electric guitars. Yeah. I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it myself.

"Why are you buttering my plastic scone?"

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Double Dakota Feature: The Cat in the Hat (2003) & War of the Worlds (2005)

I wasn't expecting The Cat in the Hat to be all that good - and it wasn't - but it wasn't quite as bad as I expected, either. In the beginning, seeing the wacky world of Dr. Seuss brought to life in 3D was actually exciting (I love that all the girls wear dresses with super poofy petticoats). But once the cat showed up, the comedy devolved into slapstick-style shenanigans, which isn't my cup of tea. I regained some interest after some semblance of a plot appeared, but it didn't change the fact that the cat was possibly the weakest aspect of the film.

Now, I'm sure Dr. Seuss was some kind of creative genius, but I haven't dedicated my life to his collected works, so my faith in humanity doesn't hinge on the success or failure of this cinematic adaptation of his story. And it's been many years since I've actually read The Cat in the Hat, so I'm not in the best position to critique the differences between them. But when the cat shows up, he delivers a line that seems to sum up this film's approach, which I suspect is where it deviates from the original book's modus operandi:

"I'm not so good with the rhyming. Not really. No. ...Look, I'm a cat that can talk. That should be enough for you people!"

And at that point, we go from creative wordplay to plain silliness. The cat is played by Mike Myers (the actor, not the bogeyman), and it's probably a testament to his iconic brand of humor (or, depending on your perspective, his poor acting skills) that you can really tell it's him even under all that ridiculous makeup. But while I think Austin Powers is comedic genius, The Cat in the Hat is much less inspiring.

Even so, it is a charming story, if simplistic. I bet most of the flaws can be overlooked by anyone who actually enjoys this particular brand of humor - assuming they're not hung up on the feeling that this movie stains Dr. Seuss' legacy, as many apparently are. And Dakota Fanning is (unsurprisingly) darling as the exceptionally bright little girl with control issues. "Jenny's not my friend anymore. She talked back to me so I ordered her not to speak to me." Ah, Dakota. It's a testament to her charisma that I felt watching a movie of this type was actually worth my time in the end.

I had wanted to pair The Cat in the Hat with Hansel & Gretel, but I couldn't find the latter, so I dug up War of the Worlds instead - in spite of the fact that I had already seen it, back when it first came out. But I decided it would be nice to have a chance to re-evaluate Dakota's performance in the movie, since the first time I watched it, I didn't even know who Dakota Fanning was (hard to believe, I know :p). And besides, it's an entertaining (if not perfect) film adaptation of a truly classic story, so it was exciting to see it again after several years.

I don't know how I overlooked Dakota in this movie before, because her performance is really strong. But I guess there is less opportunity for her natural charisma (and confidence) to shine through when her role dictates that she act like a very frightened little girl. And for once, the epic scale of the movie itself has a tendency to overshadow Dakota's character, so that it becomes more of an alien movie that happens to feature Dakota Fanning than a Dakota Fanning movie that happens to have aliens in it. Nevertheless, amidst all the chaos and the terror - and my suspicion bears out that this is at least as much a horror movie as it is a sci-fi movie - Dakota still manages to make an impression. (Even grimy and covered with dirt, which to me recalls the character of Newt in that other, classic sci-fi/horror/action flick - Aliens.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Robin Trower - The Playful Heart Tour (2011)

Looking back, I'm actually surprised that this is the third time (and not the second) that I've seen Robin Trower in concert. Not that that's anything remarkable - he is one of my favorite guitarists of all time, after all. But it just goes to show, I'm not a newbie concert-goer anymore - I've been going to concerts for almost a decade now.

But this was a brand new venue. I've actually avoided coming to this venue in the past (Robin Trower and Joe Bonamassa both have done shows there that I've skipped), because it's a little farther out of my way. But it's a nice place, and it's not too hard to find. Fancier than the Rex Theatre I've seen Trower at in the past, and more on par with the Carnegie Music Hall of Oakland that I saw Joe Bonamassa in earlier this spring. My seat was up in the balcony, but in the front row (not unlike at that Joe Bonamassa show), so that I wasn't super close, but I at least had a good view of the action.

I was actually a little rushed getting out to The Palace Theatre, thinking the show was going to start promptly at eight ("the circus starts at eight, so don't be late"), since there was no mention whatsoever of an opening act on the ticket. I got there just after eight, and a rock trio was playing. I have no idea who it was. Looking back at my records, I had no idea who the opener was for the last Robin Trower show I saw either, so I guess that's just Trower's thing. Anyway, they were alright. The guitarist was a show-off, and he was good, but the sound was kind of off, to my ears.

Robin Trower opened with a surprise - a song that I was very happy to hear, Confessin' Midnight. I still maintain that despite the greater popularity of Bridge of Sighs, For Earth Below is the superior album. And I am thus always grateful to hear Robin perform tracks from that album in concert - and I like that he does, because it shows that he recognizes that album's brilliance as well.

The next surprise I got was the third song in the setlist. Robin introduced it as a track from the In City Dreams album. I was at first dismayed, because that album's not quite on par with his first three - but I should have trusted Trower's judgment. It was the track Somebody Calling, which is a fantastic funky rock number that I absolutely love. And it sounded great in concert. One of the highlights of the show.

Following that was a double shot of title tracks - first For Earth Below, which sounded really sublime in the instrumental coda, and then Twice Removed From Yesterday. Then we heard the usual Day of the Eagle into Bridge of Sighs combo. Even though I've heard them live before, it was interesting to hear them from the perspective of having played them myself semi-regularly. So instead of just listening and being impressed, I can actually pay closer attention to how the song comes together, and where Robin plays the different riffs, and how he works out the solo. Of course, I can only follow so far, but it's still interesting - I've picked little things up here and there that way, before.

I don't want to be a downer, but Bridge of Sighs wasn't as sublime as it has been in the past. I don't know if it's because of the way Robin played it, or just because I've heard it a few times already, and its magic is wearing off. Notice, I'm not saying it was bad, just less magical. It still sounded great. But afterward, the band kicked into Shame The Devil, another track from For Earth Below - and one of my favorites. I was really excited to hear that one, though it seems like they cut it a little short. Oh well.

Funny story, before I went to the concert, my brother asked me if Trower was promoting a new album, and I mentioned The Playful Heart. He asked me if it was any good, and I mentioned that there was one song on it in particular that I really liked. I decided that there was no way he'd play that particular song at the concert, because these guys always do the hit songs, skipping the ones that are truly the best, musically. Strike two - I really shouldn't doubt Trower. He played only one track from his new album throughout the concert, and it was that one track that I liked the best - a song called The Turning, which has a sublime instrumental coda.

Yeah, that's kind of a motif in Robin Trower's music - instrumental codas (that are often sublime). It's funny, in a lot of songs, the band would go through the first half, and then Davey Pattison (returning vocalist from previous concerts I've seen) would walk off the stage for the second (instrumental) half of the song, only to come back for the next song.

After the crowd-pleasing Too Rolling Stoned, the band finished out their set with Little Bit of Sympathy - in my opinion, one of the best set-closing songs ever. I was actually a little surprised when I heard it, because I knew it had to be the last song, and it felt a little early. The band played for a good hour and a half all told - I guess I was spoiled by Joe Bonamassa's long set in March, but then he actually didn't have an opening act.

The whole encore production ("walk off the stage pretending to be done, even though every single person in the audience knows you're gonna come back and do an encore") was kind of silly. I thought to myself, if I was in their place, I wouldn't go through all that silliness just because people expect it. I wouldn't walk off the stage pretending I was finished unless I actually believed I was finished - and encores would be encores, not closing mini-sets. But then I thought, if a band did that, then after they were finished, the crowd would expect an encore (because that's what they've come to expect), and would probably riot if they didn't get one. So I guess the band's hands are pretty much tied. They have to jump through those hoops because that's what people expect them to do. It's kind of sad, and I wish there was a solution for it.

The encore consisted of two songs. The first was the only song of the night I didn't recognize, and the second was Daydream. Daydream is my favorite Robin Trower song bar none. And it still sounds fantastic live. It's a beautiful song to start, and it suits Trower's tone and technical style of playing guitar perfectly. Though I feel he may have set the bar for it too high on the live version from his Live album from the seventies, with those impossible sustained notes. You can tell the whole audience is expecting to hear a repeat of that performance, but sustain is a hard thing to control. Nevertheless, the song sounds fantastic even when it doesn't reach those heights, and while you're busy wishing for the stars, you find that you've settled in cozily among the fluffy clouds.

Confessin' Midnight
Lady Love
Somebody Calling
For Earth Below
Twice Removed From Yesterday
Day of the Eagle
Bridge of Sighs
Shame The Devil
The Turning
Too Rolling Stoned
A Little Bit of Sympathy

Rise Up Like The Sun

Friday, June 3, 2011

Double Dakota Feature: Charlotte's Web (2006) & Dreamer (2005)

I don't usually go in for talking animal movies, but like I've said before, I'll watch anything with Dakota Fanning in it. At least it's live action, and not (fully) animated - that's where I draw the line. And anyway, it's Charlotte's Web. I remember reading that story too many years ago in school. Not the best story I ever read for school (I recall A Day No Pigs Would Die being a little bit more...visceral), but it's a nice one. Too nice, maybe. It's a really sappy story. The pig was really cute, though (I can't believe I just said that), and Dakota was (of course) even cuter. Especially in the pretty yellow dress and red ribbons she wore at the fair.

"Ewww! You look like a giiirl!" *pow* "An' I still hit like one."

It's weird, this is a children's story, and you want to believe it's all fun and happy, but it's really a sad story, isn't it? I had this heavy feeling through it all, because I knew how it was going to end. After all, it's a pig's desperate attempt to avoid becoming breakfast. I even cried when (spoiler) died. I like the theme of looking past stereotypes to see the good in 'people', but honestly, I can't find the good in spiders. Charlotte is a wonderful human being, but in real life, spiders are creepy. But then, animals don't act like people in real life, so you can only take the comparison so far. I imagine this film would be a satisfactory supplement to the novel.

Part 2 of the "Dakota befriends animals" program features Dreamer: Inspired By A True Story. In it, Dakota plays the daughter of a racehorse trainer (played by Kurt Russell), who ultimately gets her chance to race a horse of her own, literally against all odds. It's a very touching story, and a bit more mature than Charlotte's Web. Kris Kristofferson plays Dakota's character's grandfather, and a surprisingly convincing father to Kurt Russell. The horse in the story, Sonador (Spanish for "Dreamer", 'Sonya' for short) is a sweetheart.

Dakota really shines in this role, as a little girl with the confidence to teach others the value of holding on to one's dreams. Of course, at the risk of spoiling the [fairly predictable] ending, things go impossibly well, which has the double effect of making it a highly inspirational story, but at the cost of making it less than relatable in real life. Still, if you like inspirational stories (and despite my cynicism, I enjoy watching things go right for people on occasion - especially if it's Dakota), this one'll probably be an exciting ride. And, to repeat myself (though I'll never get tired of saying this), it's worth watching for Dakota's performance alone. She's just so incredibly charismatic. I love her can-do attitude in this one.

"Are you gonna spend your life shovelin' horse squat for shakes?
Or are you gonna get back in the game?"

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Double Dakota Feature: Hide And Seek (2005) & Fragments (2008) [Bonus: Cutlass (2007)!]

"Daddy can't save me now."

I was excited when I discovered that there was a real bona fide horror movie among the list of films Dakota Fanning has starred in. However, my first impression was that I didn't like that she had darkened her hair, and I was a little disappointed that she was not her usual chipper self. Nevertheless, I was very impressed; she makes a totally convincing creepy child character. Proof that she's not just a pretty face, but a great acting talent as well. And her morbid look actually did grow on me.

As for the movie itself, it was genuinely creepy. I hesitate to say too much, as it is a mystery/thriller, and I don't want to give anything away for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. (So if you really don't want to be spoiled, you might skip ahead to the next paragraph now). But I have to mention that despite looking like another cliched "is it an imaginary friend or a ghost" plot, it actually turns out to be something I wasn't expecting. Even if they did stoop to using the lamest trick in the horror filmbook - the cat jumping out of the closet. Honestly, I can't tell if horror films are still doing that in earnest, or if it's a joke, or just an homage to the genre. Anyway, I won't hold it against the rest of the film, and besides, this one makes up for it via the inclusion of a different and much creepier cat-related scene.

So, Hide and Seek is not the greatest horror film I have ever seen (granted, I have seen quite a lot), but I liked it. Bob De Niro (;p) is pretty good in it, too, in something of a more sensitive role than I'm used to seeing him in. But if for no other reason (and there are others), it's worth seeing just for Dakota's performance. She manages to make depressive mental disturbance so very endearing.

"Whatchu drawin'?"

"You, dying."

Intermission: Cutlass (2007)

Cutlass is a short film written and directed by Kate Hudson, who I can't help remembering as Penny Lane in Almost Famous. It features an all-star cast, including Dakota Fanning in her most outrageous role yet - a normal teenage girl. She wants to buy an expensive guitar (a vintage '79 Gibson Hummingbird), but her mom is reluctant - until she recalls her own teenage years (her younger self played by a totally hot Kristen Stewart) when she wanted desperately to buy an expensive car (a 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass). The film's only 16 minutes long, but it's a lot of fun, and features other stars I haven't mentioned, so definitely, it's worth seeing if you can get your hands on it.

"It's not just a guitar, it's my life."

Fragments (a.k.a. Winged Creatures) is a heavy film. It's a shame it's so depressing, because Dakota looks absolutely amazing in it. Unfortunately, though, I found her character to be a bit annoying, but then, I understand that the point of this film is to show the characters in what is decidedly not their best moments.

Expanding on that, the film tracks the aftermath of a random diner shooting, and examines the unique way in which each of the survivors deals (or avoids having to deal) with the trauma. One man, who is shot and survives, tests his luck at the slots. A girl who lost her father (Dakota's character) turns fervently to religion. A boy refuses to say a word after the incident. A doctor desperately clings to his ability to help people. And in the process, we learn a little bit about each of these (and other) characters.

But it's not easy to take in. These characters are acting under considerable stress, so the logic behind their actions is not always obvious. And the film can be kinda subtle on certain points. But watching these characters deal with their emotions is, to me, interesting. But not easy. It's not a very happy experience, and there isn't much of an uplifting message, even at the end. The process of recovery is a very slow one, but for many people in life, this is something they have to endure. That's what I believe this film is about.

I would show you a thousand screenshots. I really would.
So don't tempt me. :p