Billy Gray

Archive for February, 2008|Monthly archive page

Dive Alive

In Uncategorized on February 28, 2008 at 9:43 pm
Dejectedly surveying the NYU-strewn wreckage at Botanica, my friend Dan and I decided to hop over to Milano’s next door. After navigating one of the narrowest bars we’d ever encountered (made all the more treacherous for Dan by his yoga mat, which ran perpendicular to the bar both physically and philosophically), we found a mellow, amber-lit back area with a smattering of two-tops. Initially thrown off by the Shania Twain song blaring over the speakers, we ordered drinks and quickly remedied the music situation with Pixies and Joy Division tracks via the Rolling Stones-laden jukebox.

Milano’s is a classic dive, with grizzled old vets who have likely been glued to the same barstools long enough to function as art installations, a cash-only policy, pungent, saloon-style bathrooms and practically sepia-toned photographs of legendary patrons (and requisite Irish flag) festooning the walls. It’s the type of place where you’ll hesitate to order anything more “refined” than a whiskey, though eye-rolling was kept to a minimum when Dan asked for a Pinot Noir. Located in boutique-ridden Nolita, it’s an old warhorse that has defiantly bucked the relentless gentrification that has engulfed the area. Drinks are cheap ($5 a pop with additional discounts during happy hour) and are served from 8 a.m. (!) through 4 a.m.

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Babies Everywhere

In Uncategorized on February 21, 2008 at 9:57 pm
Following in the wake of Knocked Up, that other pregnancy movie, two newish releases have been riding different waves of hype: Juno (to Oprah, blockbuster status, the Oscars) and the Romanian 4 Months, 3Weeks and 2 Days (to the Palm d’Or, Film Comment dissections and sustained runs at Los Angeles and New York arthouse showcases).
The former tells the story of quirkily named, sixteen year old Juno (Ellen Page), who discovers she is pregnant after a tryst with Bleeker (Michael Cera). Antics ensue as she befriends the uber-yuppie couple (played by Jennifer Garner and a creepy Jason Bateman) that wishes to adopt her unborn child.

Juno has been lauded for its “freshness” and its convincing hipster dialogue. But I found the “hip,” “young” dialogue strained and cloying and off-the-mark. Despite an ever-widening gulf between me and my teen years, I am virtually certain that the adolescent parlance on display in the film resonates with few of its teenage viewers. Slightly less offensive but nearly as irksome is the incessant use of folksy alternative guitar-strumming throughout. There is nothing wrong with this kind of music, but it is best enjoyed in moderation and makes for a dull soundtrack when there are no alternatives to be heard.

The (strangely unheralded) strength of the film to me was its quiet moments, particularly those involving Jennifer Garner, who, frankly, stole the show from Page. Garner’s reaction to Juno telling her character she’s lucky not to be the pregnant one is priceless, as is the scene in the mall when she desperately wishes to feel the baby kick. I wish there had been more of these scenes. There were plenty of opportunities for their inclusion: the scene in which Juno reveals to her parents that she is pregnant is one of them. Instead, it struck me as false and oddly truncated. Also disappointing and unrealistic is the lack of focus on the torment and unease that a pregnant sixteen-year old would undoubtedly feel at the hands of high-school peers. Juno has enough bright moments to make it a worthwhile rental, but is wholly undeserving of its praise (especially that egregious Best Picture nomination) and media-dubbed “importance.”

Veering in the opposite direction of Juno is Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months…. It has no soundtrack or cheeseburger telephone to promote. The dialogue eschews showiness and is often purposefully banal. And the film itself is alternately bleached and murky. Most strikingly though, it does not revolve around an accidental pregnancy’s coming to fruition, but rather its agonizingly deliberated termination. As Otilia, Anamaria Marinca is in nearly every frame of the movie as she loyally aids her friend Gabita Laura Vasiliu in obtaining an illegal abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania. She is phenomenal. In one sustained shot we see her at a dinner party, surrounded by inane conversation, with an agonized, shell-shocked expression as she ponders the fate of her friend, and her own choices, after leaving Gabita alone in a seedy hotel room.

While strenuously unsympathetic and apolitical (it could easily fuel the fires of both sides of the abortion debate), 4 Months… does not treat its characters or milieu with kid’s gloves. Dr. Bebe, the abortionist, is a monster. Gabita is not particularly bright. And the communist society portrayed within is overwhelmingly bleak, with everything (from cigarettes to sex to abortion) is commoditized in a brutal barter economy. Despite an ambiguous ending that would never have passed muster with the Juno test audiences, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days nonetheless stays with the viewer far longer than its Hollywood counterpart.