Saturday, February 28, 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Love is a dangerous game. It's a nerve-wracking, devastating affair full of desperation, anger, regret, and a pain so indescribable that all the music in the world has never captured it all. At least, that's what love represents when you lose it. Breakups and unrequited love generally result in a sort of emotional fallout, the kind that leads a man to spill his secrets to the barkeep before drunkenly singing "their song" to a room full of increasingly uncomfortable patrons. The reminiscing doesn't come until later.

Joel Barish hasn't reached that stage yet. At the start of the film he's dealing with a nasty break-up with Clementine (Kate Winslet), a free spirit who conflicted greatly with his own withdrawn persona. Jim Carrey takes all that manic energy he usually forces upon the audience and buries it under layers of nervousness and an empathic sense of shame. Already reeling from the end of their relationship, Joel gets another sock in the gut when he learns that Clementine went to the experimental medical firm Lacuna, Inc., which specializes in memory deletion and reconstruction, to erase the relationship from her mind.

Dejected and enraged, Joel rushes in and demands that Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) perform the same procedure on him. That'll show her. Even though Lacuna is inundated for the Valentine's Day season, the doctor pencils him in and tells our hapless protagonist to go home and collect anything with a sentimental attachment to Clementine. He returns to the office, sits in a special chair, and Mierzwiak's assistants, Patrick and Stan (Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo), get to work.

And that's where any possibility of describing the plot in words ends. Director Michel Gondry has always been someone fascinated with the wavy line between dreams and reality, but that was before he partnered with modern legend Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman too deals with the bizarre and fascinating line between dreams and awareness, and the two prove to be a formidable team. The result is a film that continuously pulls the rug out from under you just as you managed to get back up after the last time.

As the process erases Joel's memories, we see his dream personification wander through each memory, constantly upended as the world literally crumbles around him. As the process whisks him into each subsequent scenario Joel finds himself forced to confront the memories he paid to have erased, and he slowly reaches an epiphany: eradicating Clem from his mind will erase the only happiness he ever knew. Eventually he manages to convince the Clementine from his memory of what's going on and the two essentially try to outrun the universe that caves in around them.

Then things just get weird. Joel, in an attempt to "protect" Clem (this is dream Clem, mind you), he runs into older memories, regressing into his childhood while Clementine stares on in bemusement. Editing isn't normally the filmmaking aspect one focuses on with a romantic comedy-drama, but Valdis Oskarsdottir had his work cut out for him when he made a film written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry. Images jump, buzz, fade and warp like a hyperspeed music video, yet the style never gets in the way of the deep human understanding Kaufman and Gondry convey.

That understanding ultimately is what propels the film from being just an interesting experiment into one of the all-time best romantic films ever made, and certainly one of the ten best of the decade. Joel's not the only one with issues; the real Clementine must deal with the confusion left by suddenly removed memories, while a mysterious subplot involves Lacuna, Inc.'s secretary (Kirsten Dunst). Patrick's got something up his sleeve as well. Each of these stories adds levels of intrigue and depth to a story already overflowing with both, and it ensures that repeat viewings are rewarding.

Eternal Sunshine is one of those films I have trouble writing about, not only because I want everyone to experience it for themselves but because I worry that I'd only get lost in my platitudes. So perfect is every element -- the editing, the direction, the off-the-wall yet piercing script, the acting -- and so expertly and originally are they arranged that it stands on its own island. I can't imagine anyone having the balls to try to duplicate it, because it's so singular any attempt to build on it will immediately be seen as a ripoff. It boasts career-best performances from Carrey and Winslet, and at the very least all the other actors put in excellent work. Kaufman's script might lack the ambition of his later opus Synecdoche, New York and the wit of Adaptation, but he injects such a knowing sadness and hope into the film that he finally proves true the saying so many dismiss as pithy: 'twas better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Clint Eastwood started directing his own films as far back as 1971's Play Misty With Me, but even his acclaimed films received their accolades more for Clint's on-screen performances and their stories than his direction. The common consensus is that he began to hint towards some skill with a camera starting with High Plains Drifter, but for my money his 1988 biopic of legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker is where he finally became a serious filmmaker in his own right rather than simply an actor who directed himself. Bird lays down a great deal of groundwork for the musician biography that became so popular in recent years while sidestepping a great deal of the clichés that came with the genre.

The first thing you'll notice about Bird is its structure. Most biopics arrange an artist's life in fairly linear fashion, filtering out the detritus to pinpoint the hubs that propelled the person forward from obscurity into fame, from fame into decline, from decline into redemption, etc. Then, of course, the filmmakers throw all the filtered-out stuff back in in an attempt to provide context to the big events, picking out the choicest bits of tabloid-fodder and using it ostensibly to give us a "deeper" look into the artist's life and creative process.

Eastwood, at least, does not lie to us. For 2-1/2 hours, he takes you deep into the heart of Parker's drug and alcohol addictions, focusing on them so unsparingly and for so long that finally we begin to understand the man, but not his art. No, the director is smart enough to know that drugs, creative beneficiary that they are so often called, may help create art at first but will ultimately destroy it. Bird is less a biopic of one of the greatest musicians in American history than a searing portrait of a junkie headed towards oblivion.

In that sense, we do not spend a great deal of time on Parker's extraordinary music, though of course we get many scenes of him in smoky jazz clubs, blistering ahead with equally vital jazzbos such as Dizzy Gillespie, the man who essentially made Parker. Eastwood went back to the old mono tapes of Parker's standards, had the sax solos separated out, then bolstered until the fill the screen with their power. Most credit Parker with "inventing" (no form of music is ever really just made from scratch) the bebop subgenre, in which smooth melody largely fell by the wayside in favor of fast tempos and harmonic improvisation, and these piercing, impossibly crafted solos show a true genius at work.

Most of the story takes place in the last few years of Parker's short life. The excellent Forest Whitaker portrays Parker as a fundamentally good man forever plagued by the terrible mood swings and bouts of depression brought on by his heroin problems. When we do flashback to his early life, it's chiefly brought on by the reminiscences of his peers. We hear the Robert Johnson-esque tale of Parker's early performances, where he was so bad that drummer Jo Jones threw one of his cymbals on the ground to stop Parker from making that dreadful racket. Humiliated, Parker retreats to the shadows for months to practice. When he emerged months later he was 'Bird.'

The rest, however, follows a the cycle of an addict: Parker gets hooked, winds up in rehab, cleans himself up, then someone offers just a little drink or just one hit, and it all starts over again. Each time Parker's loyal wife Chan (his last partner and the only one shown in the film) knows it won't last, but that can't suppress her happiness. She's smart enough to know that drugs are a part of Charlie as much as his saxophone, but she's too lovestruck to get herself out of the relationship.

Interspersed with this constant stream of brutal honesty, Eastwood throws some humor in there. Parker meets Red Rodney, a trumpeter who aspires to Parker's skill with the sax, and before long Rodney gets hooked on heroin with the implicit understanding that he did so to be like his idol. The two forge a friendship and Rodney joins Parker's quintet. The problem? They have to tour in the segregated South, so the band takes to calling Rodney "Albino Red" to avoid any problems. Later, the quintet winds up at a Jewish wedding of some of Red's friends, and somehow wind up the wedding band. The result is a hilarious sequence in which the quintet slowly turns Jewish standards into bop improv sessions, to the delight of the guests.

But those moments of joy are few and far between. Eastwood uses his stark camera style to bathe the world of nightclubs and dives in heavy shadow, always highlighting how grim Parker's future will be. As the film progresses, Parker's jaw-dropping solos slowly morph into a sort of jazz funeral for himself, upbeat with a hint of deep sadness and resignation. I suppose you could dismiss the film as a anti-drug message, as Gene Siskel did, but I think it's more than that. Eastwood simply films from the point of view of an addict; for him, the music went from being the focus of his life to a distant second to the drugs. That is the greatest tragedy of Parker's life, and putting that on-screen instead of a Hollywood-ized martyr is what makes Bird very close to a classic.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

A tragically lesser-known work from once-masterful director Francis Ford Coppola (let's just leave the post-70s work out of it, shall we?), The Conversation's only flaw was in its release. Coppola made the film after the success of The Godfather, and the film premiered in the same year as The Godfather, Part II. The man could have defecated diamonds at a press conference and we'd be talking about that less all these years later than the first two Godfather entries. However, The Conversation stands as perhaps Coppola's tautest film, and one of the best thrillers ever made.

Gene Hackman gives the performance of his career as Harry Caul, a legend in the surveillance industry so revered by his peers and so self-confident that it took me nearly all of the film to realize how terrible he is at his job. He manages to record an adulterous couple in a park using a brilliant microphone set-up that no-else would have dreamt up, only to get personally involved with the case and even lose the tapes. He triple-locks his doors, yet his landlady manages to get in to leave him a present.

Caul also suffers from intense fear of people and a desperate need for privacy, ironic considering how me makes his living. When he's not pouring over his tapes, filtering out all the distortion and background noise. "All I want is a nice, fat recording," he says to his assistant Stan (John Cazale). Well, I say "assistant;" Caul never lets the poor man in on his methods, never shows him the tricks of the trade. I'm actually unsure what it is that he does; Caul's can't even trust the only man who has the slightest idea what Caul does and how he does it.

The two are hired to spy on this couple by the woman's husband, a wealthy business executive (Robert Duvall), who remains unseen for most of the film. Ergo, he entrusts his proxy Stett (Harrison Ford) to deal with Caul. Stett acts curt and sinister from the start, and only gets worse as Caul's neurosis begins to seep into the film. Caul refuses to give the tapes to Stett,and soon he sees the man everywhere he goes. On the recording, he notices the wife's lover tell her "He'd kill us if he had the chance," and he fears that the husband and Stett will murder the two if he relinquishes the tapes.

Late in the film, Caul attends a surveillance expo, where all the names in the biz meet and perversely discuss their profession as if it were any other business. His chief competitor, Moran (Allen Garfield) demonstrates a new bugging device that turns the victim's (let's just call a spade a spade) phone into a microphone without ever needing to modify that telephone. Stan works for him now after finally getting sick of Caul's attitude towards him, and Harry asks him to come back to work for him. Why I can't say. Moran somehow convinces Harry to bring him and some guests back to his workshop.

Here Caul comes alive for the first time; Stan brings up the park job and Harry beams at his own ingenuity. For a man who hates strangers, he sure does like to be the object of adoration. But he turns back into his usual self when he finds that Moran bugged him as a joke, and throws out all the guests except a woman who seduces him. When he wakes up, the tapes are gone.

The film then takes a step in a strange direction. Caul dreams of the adulterous woman he tries to protect, and divulges to the apparition revealing moments of his childhood. The word 'caul' means one of two things: a spider's web, appropriate for a thriller, and a thin covering that surround the fetus to prevent it from drowning. Caul tells his vision of a moment when he was very young where his mother left him alone in the bath and he nearly drowned. Caul also wears a flimsy, transparent raincoat throughout the film, regardless of the weather. From this dream we can figure out why Caul doesn't trust anyone, and why he's always so depressed.

As the film heads towards the conclusion, it suddenly kicks into overdrive, complete with downright hallucinatory visions. Caul heads to a hotel to try to warn the two lovers, only to hear terrible screams and see blood splash against the window of his adjacent room. He sneaks into their room later and flushes the running toilet, only for blood to surge out and flood the bathroom, sending Caul into a psychotic episode.

The film then ends on a shocking twist, one that hammers home Coppola's message, that simply spying on someone's conversation divorces it from context and, often, inflection. The entire film rests on which words are stressed in just one sentence and the dire consequences of misinterpreting them. Coppola wrote the script way back in the 1960s, but the film opened amidst the fallout of the Watergate scandal, and the parallels are just too good to simply dismiss as coincidence. Coppola surely didn't intend it, but The Conversation represents the paranoia and resentment created with the realization that someone could listen in on your most private moments at any time.

Ultimately, though, The Conversation is, apart from one of the most intelligent and unpredictable thrillers ever made, a attempt to capture sound: how we perceive it, how we interpret it, how it builds in our minds more than any other sense. Sound is probably the most difficult aspect of the movies to criticize and analyze, as it is the element that has to seem more natural than anything else. Even when disturbing and unexpected noises suddenly fill our eardrums, we believe them because the rest of the time we hear normal footsteps, normal insects, normal speech. The Conversation flips all that on its ear, and uses perversions of what we expect to hear to leave in a state of constant distress, begging for a release that only comes when the film has fully drained us of energy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bram Stoker's Dracula

Of all the old monsters, Dracula was always my favorite. As a kid I thought he was too cool to be frightening, what with the ability to turn into a bat (I haven't grown out of being easy to please). Then, as I got older, I picked up on the overt sexuality of the character, his appearance and mysterious demeanor. Not to mention his method of feeding, which Bram Stoker extrapolated from its folklore roots into a take on the sexual repression of Victorian society. It gives the monster more layers, to me, than any other classic creature, more even than the notions of ostracizing, mob mentality, science and the issue of "playing God" that Frankenstein's monster conjured.

Gary Oldman does his best to capture the various aspects of this dense and allegorical character, but he's fighting an uphill battle: against the script, against the direction, certainly against the other actors. He might as well have played Sisyphus, because he has to keep dragging everything up with him until we break through with a moment of adequacy before Oldman pauses to get a moment all his own and the whole damn thing comes crashing down again.

We first meet Dracula as Vlad the Impaler, a warrior who marshals Romanian troops to a victory over a staggering invasion of Turks in 1462. He returns home triumphant, only to find his beloved wife dead from suicide upon receiving false news of her husband's death. Enraged that the Church he defended condemns her soul to hell, he vows to use all the powers of darkness to bring her back.

Four centuries later, law firm clerk Jonathan Harker is dispatched to Transylvania to settle Count Dracula's latest real estate acquisition. Keanu Reeves portrays Harker as an apparently-American man trying to sound British and failing. At least if I think of it that way Harker becomes a half-assed metaphor for a pressure to conform to one's surroundings rather than a showcase for terrible acting. When Harker arrives at Dracula's castle, he seems to accept the rather frightening creatures who populate the area and the bloodthirsty count with no reflection. The Pope doesn't have that kind of faith.

Dracula spots a photograph of Harker's wife, who looks just like his own, and he departs for England to seek out the reincarnation of his beloved. To keep Harker from interfering, he traps the hapless clerk with his "brides" (Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu and Florina Kendrick), who leave him weak by drinking his blood and engaging in orgies. Now, I do my best to suppress my piggish man instincts, but sometimes I see something so shamelessly exploitative that I can almost identify with the thought the average guy will have watching this scene: "I'd let them drink my blood for that." I'm sure this scene is supposed to engender tension, but really it comes off as nothing more than pure titillation.

The rest of the film plays out as a sort of battle between Harker and Dracula for Mina (Winona Ryder), like a romantic comedy with a lot of blood. Mina herself finds herself torn between the two: on the one hand she loves her husband, and on the other Dracula uses all sorts of mysticism to awaken her past life. It creates a character in great sexual confusion set against the repressed Victorian ideals, a character that requires some serious chops. Sadly, Ryder isn't up to the challenge, though -- with the exception of Reeves -- I'm hesitant to blame any of the excellent cast for their work here. They're simply too boxed in by a terrible script that understands the themes of Stoker's novel, a script that the writer says he worked on since 1977. That's scarier than anything in the film.

Finally, there's yet more of Francis Ford Coppola's gradual descent into mediocrity. Now, the film does boast some incredible old-school effects; Coppola refused to use digital techniques, and the film has aged incredibly well because of it. However, he takes some big risks and they often fail; Dracula's story is of course soaked in blood, but Coppola literally dumps the red stuff around so much I began to wonder if I was in a modern art exhibition. At one point one of the vampire brides recoils at the cross around Harker's neck, only to wave her hand and make the cross disappear. Well what's the point, then? Why even establish the cross as a weakness if they can just banish it to the nether dimension? Coppola's life post-Apocalypse Now would make a far more interesting movie than anything he's cooked up since, and Bram Stoker's Dracula only stands out as one of the more noble failures of a once-great filmmaker.

Monday, February 23, 2009


I tend to have problems with plays adapted for the film. Obviously this is not a blanket statement, since so many writers have moved a story from the stage to the screen, but often they leave me cold. Why, though? Most of these adaptations sport incredible casts, and many members of those casts perfected their performances by actually appearing in the original play. The writer often adapts his own play, and the sets flesh out the limitations of the stage into something that can add weight to the acting. So why, then, do I have such a hard time with adapted plays?

Doubt, at the onset, at least, seems like it will defy my expectations. It opens with Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) delivering a subject on the title of the film, remarking how doubt "can be a bond as strong as certainty." Moving amongst the children in the back of the cathedral is Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), hissing at the restless kids to straighten up, and already you can sense she doesn't care for the new priest.

Streep moves through the film with a look of perpetually concealed rage. She monitors the class of the cheery, sweet Sister James (Amy Adams), whose students act up a bit thanks to her leniency; after class, Aloysius offers tips on how to get control of the class. "You're too innocent" she tells Sister James later, and one need only sit back and bask in the irony of such an indictment of a nun. One day Sister James tells her superior that Father Flynn called young Donald Miller into the rectory, and when the boy left he acted...strange. The elder sister's eyes flash with fire and narrow. "So," she sighs with malice, "it's happened."

While Sister Aloysius plots to take Flynn down, Sister James must cope with the thought of a man she admires being a molester. She effectively personifies the doubt of the story, as she finds herself torn between the two factions: when (circumstantial) evidence comes to light, she sides with Aloysius. Yet she also notices Flynn's kindness and Aloysius' obvious hatred of the reform Flynn brings with him, and finally levels her own accusation towards the sister: "You just don't like him." Playwright John Patrick Shanley essentially structures Doubt around Sister James, so the responsibility of subtle rests on Adams' shoulders, and she pulls it off magnificently.

Think of her role in these terms, the performances of Hoffman and Streep take on an entirely new context. Sister James represents the average Catholic caught in the middle of two opposing viewpoints of Vatican II: on one side the welcoming new face of Father Flynn, which carries with it the sudden suggestion of molestation that would later tarnish the Church's image, and the old school fire-and-brimstone clergy of Sister Aloysius. When the two figures finally confront each other, the maelstrom of emotions that might normally seem like the usual stage-to-screen overacting works, and it's one of the most memorable scenes of the year.

Complementing these three incredible performances is a brief but scene-stealing appearance from Viola Davis as Donald Miller's mother. She has to go toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep, and the consensus for once is right: she more than holds her own. Her impassioned speech adds layers to the story and only pulls the truth farther from our grasp. Davis adds a human face to three otherwise symbolic figures, which makes her unessential yet welcome.

True to form, Doubt never lets us know what really happened. Oh, there's a clear winner, but we learn something about the method that the character took to best the other, and it raises more questions. Did the loser acquiesce out of guilt, or fear of accusation? Both Flynn and Aloysius know the power of doubt and how it could rip the parish apart, and with Sister James, the parish stand-in, in the middle of it, we'll never learn the full truth.

All the Real Girls

Having seen all but Undertow, I'm just about ready to name David Gordon Green as my favorite modern director. He combines Terrence Malick's visual acuity and his dialectic narratives with a focus on the normal day-to-day of people, creating films that do not adhere necessarily to the visual style of cinema verité (i.e. he doesn't follow his actors around like a documentarian) but arguably feel far more real. With his superb debut George Washington, he established himself as a name to watch, and his follow-up All the Real Girls only confirmed his position as one of America's most vibrant young filmmakers.

As with George Washington, All the Real Girls charts the lives of a small group of friends growing up in the South as they try to figure out what they want from life through semi-philosophical musings that somehow never seem out of place coming from the mouths of uneducated kids. Though the main characters in George Washington were black and here are white, it feels almost like a natural progression of the lives of the children in the debut: just as 12-year-old Nasia found herself in love for the first time, so too does 20-something Paul.

Paul (Paul Schneider) lives in a small town in the rural South, a town too small to contain his womanizing ways. He's slept with over 20 women, leaving only a few women in town remotely his age not to know him Biblically. Yet Paul has no real attachment with any of his conquests; one jilted lover mentions angrily that he dumped her after a few weeks without warning. His buddies -- the most noteworthy being Tip (Shea Whigham) and Bust-Ass (Danny McBride) -- view their friend as a demigod, a paradigm of virility.

But that all changes when Tip's young sister Noel (Zooey Deschanel) returns home after spending the last few years at boarding school. 18 and still a virgin, she soon falls madly in love with Paul. Paul has slept with every other woman in town, but he does not do the same with Noel. No, he understands that this one is special.

The film reaches a crossroads at this point; it could have very easily gotten lost and taken the well-trod path of films that use this sexual tension as the summation of the plot. Happily, Green is too smart for this, and he instead focuses on the deeper meanings and feelings of young love. Interestingly, Noel is open to sex with Paul; early on, she admits to Paul that she's a virgin "but I trust you." The look on Schneider's face comes rather close to one of terror in this moment; at last a man in a film understands the power he holds over a woman, and chooses to abandon it because the implications unsettle him.

The two bond so closely that their love manages to pierce that detached cloud that surrounds Green's film. He may take a cue or five from Malick's directing style, but Green's movies contain a great deal more humanism and sentimentality. Paul and Noel's relationship genuinely moved me, and struck me as a real relationship instead of a movie one: you know the kind, the ones that form through montages of everyday activities that become overblown for lame gags in order to show us a couple falling in love. Noel and Paul have no such montage; they hang out in this dreary little town and just remark on what about the other person captivates them, and every conversation brings them closer.

That does not mean that, like Before Sunrise, there is no conflict. In fact there are two. One is nearly mandatory: Tip, who used to revere Paul, now resents his friend and his ways for getting close to his sister. Another occurs around 2/3 of the way into the film, and it's too devastating for me to spoil even if this film was 40 years old. It wrenches things apart over the course of a few agonizing scenes; where once the relative silence around the actors let the sweetness take root naturally, now it highlights the quiet destruction of the notion of true love. The most rending of these scenes occurs in a bowling alley where even less is said than usual, and everything is communicated through body language and terrible silence.

Green is so completely focused on the relationship of his leads that he pays little attention to the other characters. Nevertheless, they all have their moments. Tip could have easily been the outraged older sibling, but we see glimpses into the pain he's feeling over the situation and suddenly the protests of all the older brothers in films don't seem so childish. Paul lives with his mother (Patricia Clarkson), which only shows how empty his prior "accomplishments" really are. She works as a birthday clown, because she knows that people will fork over money to please their kids far more than Wal-Mart will pay overtime. Bust-Ass mainly gets a lot of laughs, but he has a role to play in the tragedy of the final act.

If I said All the Real Girls ended on a high note, I'd be lying through my teeth, but it doesn't necessarily leave us depressed either. Green said in a DVD supplement that he wanted to make a film where things didn't just work out because people were in love, that love alone isn't always enough. He also remarked upon the necessity of making the film as a young man, before he looked back on the youth of this film with either jadedness or nostalgia. I agree; what he instead imbues the film with is the sense of loss that can only be conveyed in the moment. It is not filtered through the perspective of a person who moved on from heartbreak nor a sort of Gatsby character who never got over the pain; rather, we feel the agony of heartbreak as it happens, as well as that sense of hope -- be it futile or not -- that reconciliation is possible.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

A poster on one of the forums I frequent once described Forgetting Sarah Marshall as the "Apatow-produced film most like Freaks and Geeks." That only adds to the laundry list of reasons why I desperately need to sit down and watch that show. Of all the major works of Apatow Productions (and the lesser ones too), I find myself returning to Forgetting Sarah Marshall the most often, as it offers not only a slew of laughs but the most honest romance to ever grace one of the production company's films.

Jason Segel (who wrote the film) stars as Peter Bretter, a television composer who creates not music so much as -- as he terms it sardonically -- "tones." Chiefly, he works on the hit show Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime, and he's dating the star of the show, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). Well, at least he was, as she visits him at the beginning of the film to break up, saying that she's met someone else. The break-up sends Peter into a tailspin of one-night stands to forget Sarah, but to no avail. Finally he strikes upon an idea: head to Hawaii for a week or so to get away from it all, only to find himself in the same hotel as Sarah and her new beau, rock star/professional Lothario Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

From this comedy of errors comes a story about heartbreak, moving on, the awkwardness of relationships, and puppet musicals. Strap yourself in, it's a wonderful ride. As Peter copes with having to face his ex -- and with neither party willing to "run away" to another hotel -- he meets a group of tourists and locals who all get in big laughs and help propel the story. There's the zonked-out surfing instructor (Paul Rudd) who takes Peter out on the waves for the day and doesn't remember who he is by nightfall, the conservative newlyweds trying to consummate their marriage without offending the Lord, the kindly bartender who enthusiastically invites Peter to come snorkeling to watch the turtle mating season. All off-kilter little weirdos on an island just foreign enough to the average American (even though it's a damn state) to make them plausible.

While there, Peter meets Rachel (Mila Kunis), the receptionist, who pities Peter's state and even gives him a room free of charge because of it. The two socialize and even go out on pseudo-dates, and we begin to learn what both of them, and indeed all the characters, seek in this sunny paradise. Rachel, like Peter, came to Hawaii in order to forget a broken relationship, and remained there when it didn't work. Seeing how happy the move off the mainland made other staffers at the hotel only hurts more. Even Sarah, I think, visited Hawaii to squash any lingering guilt over dumping Peter, or at the very least to continue her fantasy getaway with the rock star.

What sets FSM apart from the other Apatow Productions is that it finally gives the women in a voice. Apatow placed Catherine Keener's character on a sort of detached pedestal, and made the women of Knocked Up flat and boring in order to set them apart as "mature." And we won't even get into how ridiculous it was when Jonah Hill somehow got with Emma Stone in Superbad (and that was after he passed out and accidentally smashed her in the head). But Segel lets each character have its own pathos, warmth, and killer humor. Yes, it's still two beautiful women essentially battling for that mountain of a man, but for once the women don't seem like afterthoughts tossed in amidst the improv.

But even without the pathos, this would still be the best film to come out of the ruins of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, as it by far the funniest. Superbad and Knocked Up, funny as they are, suffer from excruciating lulls in the middle when the characters head into situations obviously designed for a joke. Now, Chaplin did that and he's the greatest comic director of all time, but that was then and two-reelers aren't exactly the rage anymore. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, on the other hand, features dialogue that rarely plays into its location (save for discussing Hawaii), so the jokes flow smoothly and the story never sags. Not to mention that the lines are almost all screamingly funny and real, mixing awkward humor with Allen/Smith style monologues and even broad moments like the over-the-top brilliance of the Dracula musical (I wish they'd made a full version of this and put it on DVD).

When I revisit the films of Apatow and his ilk, I usually find myself spotting glaring flaws that can be overlooked on a first viewing but grate like missed notes in a recital when you're no longer in a room of people laughing over lines and generally ignoring everything else. The two exceptions I've found to this are Pineapple Express, which works because it doesn't try to be deep, and this film, which tries to be deep and succeeds. It has the power that a great romantic film must have, the ability to carry you along to unknown places you can't wait to visit, just as you do when you first meet someone special. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is simply one of the best comedies in a decade, and one of the most knowing.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

The more Bergman films I watch the more I find myself arriving at one conclusion: Ingmar Bergman makes psychoanalysis in film redundant. Anyone who even thinks of examining part or all of the human condition is at least indirectly ripping him off if not outright stealing (see: Woody Allen, though this isn't meant as a slight). Anyone who doesn't almost certainly made a terrible film. His films do not so much examine the existential quandaries of existence so much as dive head-first into the mind itself, and the results are often bleak. However, his 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries offers a rare and (unlike the tacked-on ending of Through a Glass Darkly) unforced nugget of hope.

Bergman uses the film to follow Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom, in a masterful performance) as he travels from Stockholm to Lund in order to receive an honorary degree from Lund University after 50 years of practicing medicine. At first he plans to take a plane, but at the start of the film suffers from a nightmarish vision of a driver-less wagon bearing his own coffin, and this prompts him to take a car instead. If this were made today we'd have to listen to the umpteenth joke about plane safety vs. car safety, but I can't say I blame him for being shaken.

Accompanying Isak is his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who drives the car as Isak slips in and out of remembrances, dreams, and nightmares. The two speak about life and Marianne's relationship with Isak's son. Not long after, Marianne admits that she does not care for Isak very much. This moment of frankness hurts the man, and it only furthers his feelings of life wasted and depression.

Bergman presents Borg's dreams in a then-unique manner: he offers no visual clues to distinguish between reality and hallucination. "What if you could make a film about this that you just walk up in a realistic way and open a door," the director wondered, "and then you walk into your childhood, and then you open another door and come back to reality, and then you make a turn around a street corner and arrive in some other period of your existence, and everything goes on, lives." Isak interacts with figures from his childhood, bringing to light old joys and great regret.

The most prominent of these figures from his past is his cousin Sara (Bibi Andersson). The symbol of his youthful passion and vigor, Sara ultimately becomes the turning point in Isak's life when she informs him that she's marrying Isak's brother. We see the old man relive this conversation with his vision, and the pain etched on Sjostrom's face is almost unbearable. Sara ends up in the car later with two friends, and she brings with her all the freshness and exuberance of youth back into Isak's life.

Bergman never lets his metaphors and philosophical musings get too dense to be examined, but he certainly never condescends to us. After Sara and her friends join the ride, Marianne picks up a married couple after they two parties are involved in a near-fatal accident. But their vicious bickering eventually becomes too much, and Marianne dumps them out on the roadside. Near the end of the film, Isak suffers his most disturbing nightmare: he finds himself in a medical cross-examination lead by the husband. Suddenly unable to remember anything about medicine -- he even diagnoses the husband's conscious wife as deceased -- Isak is found incompetent and the husband harangues him for being passionless and crippled by regret. Where Sara and co. brought back a touch of Isak's youth, this couple only reminded him of the failures and misery of his life and marriage after Sara married another man.

Some of you might be wondering when that "hope" I mentioned shines through here. Isak and Marianne finally arrive in Lund, and Isak has a sort of epiphany. He sighs "I am dead. Although, I am alive," a reconciliation of his bright youth with the regrets of his adulthood and the fears of his twilight. It's not exactly a Hollywood ending, but it gives Isak a sense of inner peace without invalidating the dark personal quest that brought him here. It offers a sense of hope for the man, which is lighter than we normally get from the director. Bergman even throws in a joke or two this time: when Isak finally makes it to Lund after all of his visions and nightmares, a woman says to him warmly, "A nice drive is relaxing, isn't it?"

Before Sunrise

The best romantic films are always the simplest, aren't they? Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, Chasing Amy, they all keep the conflicts within the bounds of realism, even with the exaggerations and hyperbole of comedy. There's very little funny about actual romance, of genuine "true love," so the best filmmakers do not attempt to inject it with some ill-fitting "wackiness." Richard Linklater's 1995 opus Before Sunrise adheres to this formula, and the result is one of the greatest depiction of love ever made by someone not named Woody Allen.

Plot-wise, Before Sunrise is about as simple as it gets: American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets French Céline (Julie Delpy) meet on a train bound for Vienna, and spend the next 12 hours walking around the city, talking. Talking about what? You know, stuff. Personal information, world views, tastes, whatever the rambling conversation touches upon next. Along the way they meet a few people, but this is the story of these two people and these two alone.

But do not let this simplistic plot description fool you: Before Sunrise offers up some of the most gorgeous and real love I've ever witnessed in a film. Jesse and Céline do not speak in the witticisms and guarded soliloquies of Kevin Smith and Woody Allen, preferring instead to stumble through a conversation the way normal people do: sometimes they hit upon an idea they can wax almost poetic on for lengthy stretches of time, and sometimes a moment ends in an awkward lull of uncertainty. But those lulls only make the film bold, as you can't help but feel Linklater wrote them that way.

As Jesse and Céline walk through Vienna, we see one of the most beautiful cities in the world as they do: in tiny bursts. Linklater does not pan over the gorgeous landmarks or the city as a whole, he ambles into cafés and street shows. When we do get larger snapshots of the city's beauty, it blends with the characters' story so as to seem simultaneously mundane and profound. Linklater paints such a vivid portrait of the city that you'd swear he lived there. He basically takes an extraordinary city and makes it ordinary, which makes perfect sense when you consider the character. Neither of them are Italian, both are learned and arty but not pretentious, and neither of them stand out in the town. Jesse and Céline do not represent archetypes because they sum up too many people to fit into one classification.

Peripheral characters waft in and out of the isolated world of these two, mainly helping the new couple towards their next moment of insight. A fortune teller and two street performers seem as friendly, warm and inviting as the city itself. There's also a beggar who asks not for money but a single word, which he will then construct into a poem. Céline settles on the word "milkshake," as good a word as any. These minor figures, like Jesse and Céline, seem less like characters than abstracts, a part of the moment rather than something that stands outside it.

The film ends not with wild passion and the acknowledgement of true love, but with the more pragmatic realization that in the morning both will be back on a train heading towards their separate lives. Then the story takes one last turn, a simple vow that offers hope to their relationship even as we sense it will not be honored. But that does not make the film any less sweet, only more real. Then again, I must be at least somewhat wrong about my pessimism since Linklater finally made a sequel in 2004 (which just jumped to the top of my list of films to watch).

Before Sunrise is the kind of movie that would not only have not succeeded, but failed infamously had the pieces not been so meticulously crafted to look spontaneous. It takes a lot of gall to make moments intentionally boring, but Linklater structures everything so well that it only adds to the entertainment. But, of course, a great deal rides on the actors, and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are so perfect for their roles that their conversations seem completely natural and improvised. Jesse and Céline ultimately strike me as the kind of characters who almost realize that they're in a movie, and both are smart enough to hate all the clichés. Therefore, they rebel against them, and we're lucky enough to be carried along while they do.


Most biopics fancy themselves as insightful exposés of their subjects, revealing looks into the pathos and addictions and flaws that drove men and women to greatness. But Bennett Miller's Capote is that rare beast, a biopic that works on more than one level. We like to say that certain figures symbolize more than themselves -- and that's certainly true in a few cases, such as protest leaders -- Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman craft a moment of Truman Capote's life into one of the great statements on art and the artist.

Capote charts the life of the famous author hot off the heels of his breakthrough novella Breakfast at Tiffany's. Suddenly the fame-hungry artist was the toast of the town, and the artistic community couldn't wait to see what he did next. Capote opens a paper one morning to find a news blurb about the brutal killing of a farmer and his family in Kansas. The story captivates the author, who convinces The New Yorker to send him and his childhood friend, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), to the small town to further investigate.

This trip would eventually result in Capote's acknowledged masterpiece In Cold Blood, and the film documents the author's excruciating creative process as he attempts to understand what drove lead convicted suspects Dick Hickock and Perry Smith to their crimes. By the end of the four-year struggle to coax all the information he needed out of these men, Capote had been driven to despair. Miller and Futterman craft these events into a bleak depiction of the creative process and its effect on the artist.

Capote enters this small town as the stuck-up, effete city intellectual but, with the help of Lee, ingratiates himself into the community. Before long he gets interviews out of anyone of even minor relevance. But he finds himself fascinated with Perry, visiting his cell at every opportunity and forging a deep level of mutual trust. One could argue that Capote, openly homosexual in a time when it was simply not discussed, developed a sort of crush on Smith, but I think that's oversimplification. The artist simply had a chance to meet and speak with his muse, the creature who held within him the possibility for Capote's success.

This complex relationship informs the great tragedy of the story, the conflict between moral responsibility and artistic responsibility. Perry eventually divulges what happened believing that Truman will take this information to an appeal, that by confessing and getting the facts straight Capote's novel will prove his salvation. The problem is, Capote realizes that the only way his book can end is with the execution of the two killers. To those who consider real history to contain spoilers, look away for a moment: the two are indeed hanged, and Capote says he wished he could have helped them but couldn't, only for Harper to see through him. Miller and Futterman fill this give-and-take between artist and subject with crippling despair and revulsion, fuelled by Perry's growing realization that the man he trusted is using him, even if that man doesn't like it.

Of course, the best possible thing the director and writer could have done was cast Philip Seymour Hoffman. He does indeed get dressed up to look like the author, and he affects a perfect recreation of Capote's voice, but anyone who really cares about film knows that imitation matters little. The best depictions of real figures on-screen transcend merely mimicry and bring a revisionist portrait of that person. Hoffman subdues Capote's wild flamboyance to bring to light the immense pain he felt as he condemned someone close to him to death in order to receive artistic acclaim.

Capote is a figure whose persona far outweighed his literary work; for example, I knew the image of the flamboyant, tiny Southern homosexual long before I knew he wrote In Cold Blood or Breakfast at Tiffany's, which I only knew as films at first. But that quest for fame destroyed him; text at the end reveals that, though Capote continued to write, he never published another book after In Cold Blood, and that what he did write never received the acclaim of his magnum opus. Capote uses this knowledge to show how artistic drive can ultimately eradicate the itself in the quest for success. The fact that it boasts two of the finest performances of recent years is just icing on the cake.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Spun is just about the unlikeliest movie you'd expect to be saved by its actors, but it's easier to understand why when you look at the list of names attached. To aid writer-director Jonas Åkerlund in his foray into the altered states of drug usage, he amassed a hell of a cast, all of whom play their parts with admirable subtlety and understatement, which seems strange when you view the film as a whole.

Where Trainspotting and Requiem For A Dream dealt mainly with heroin, Spun attempts to capture the world of the meth addict, the poor white trash who don't have the money for a "luxury" like smack and settle for cheaper highs. Ross (Jason Schwartzman) stands in the center of this kinetic story; he buys his stuff from Spider Mike (John Leguizamo), who always argues with his girlfriend Cookie (Mena Suvari). Ross meets another addict, Niki (Brittany Murphy), the girlfriend of "The Cook" (Mickey Rourke), who runs the meth lab that supplies Spider Mike. This small group of acquaintances moves fast enough to capture all the actions of an Altmanesque ensemble cast, and they do so with aplomb.

Over the course of a day, Ross goes all over town, intersecting with the characters as they slip in and out of manic states and even crazier situations. He picks up a stripper in order to perform naughty activities, then leaves her bound and gagged on his bed when Cook calls up asking for rides. The only reason I can think for why he does this is that he's so zonked out that it must make sense to him, as there's nothing overly nefarious to his actions. Meanwhile, in one of the movie's funnier moments, cops raid the home of user Frisbee and his mother, believing them to be the ones with the meth lab. What makes it so funny is that a Cops-style camera crew comes in with the mother is watching their program.

Ross' trips with The Cook are particularly illuminating, if for no other reason than they allow Mickey Rourke to pave the way for his '00s comeback. The Cook is a supporting character, but he walks away with the entire film. Spun seeks to capture the despair in the lives of all this poor white trash, and The Cook is the only one out of all of them who truly understands the pain that they all seek to forget, and manages to balance the dark comedy of the film (his rant on the virtues of pornography gets the biggest laughs of the whole thing) with flashes of masked pain.

My main problem with the film, though, is that the director shifts so much attention off the actors and onto the myriad of edits and trickery of the camera. Not so much building off of the kinetic styles of Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting as stealing them outright, Åkerlund retreads over a great deal of cinematic innovation and turns it into a black comedy, albeit not half as dark as Danny Boyle's classic. Supposedly the film set a Guinness World record for the most number of edits in a film (over 5,000); I don't know if that record stands, but either way the sheer number of repetitive tricks gets old fast and the director is just lucky he scored a cast that could keep things moving.

The thing about drug movies, even the comedies, is that they tend to have a viewpoint. Stoner movies place marijuana on a pedestal, while Boyle and Darren Aronofsky used graphic imagery and inventive techniques to thrust us into the nightmare of the average user. Then there's Spun, who stands in the middle, unsure in which direction to move. It certainly doesn't endorse drugs like all the pot movies, but it also plays the comedy too lightly to really warn people off meth. The worst that happens to these kids is that they look strung out and have bad teeth. We don't see real consequences until the end, and that is too sensationalized to leave an impact. I still recommend the film on the basis of its acting (especially Schwartzman and Rourke), but don't expect a very intelligent document of a very real problem in America.


When I reviewed Kirk Cameron's Fireproof for my school paper, I incurred all sorts of hate mail for being a despicable atheist liberal. Now, in their defense, it was a piece of rank amateurism that took out my hatred on the audience for wildly applauding base misogyny, but let's just let that piece fade into the obscurity where it belongs. The only reason I bring up this point is because at least now I have just a fraction of (circumstantial) evidence that I'm not just a card-carrying heathen, as I have sat through Religulous.

Helmed by Borat director Larry Charles and starring Bill Maher as the "intrepid" interview, Religulous seeks to get to the bottom of what makes everyday people believe in what Maher deems "nonsense." Charles constructs the film around interviews between Maher and a myriad of representatives from the "Big Three:" Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It's a bold move that could have resulted in a little insight into faith, one that didn't make a statement either way but instead focused on what people saw in God.

What we get instead is a 100 minute diatribe against people who would have the audacity to believe, a craftily-edited middle finger to the people kind enough to grant him an interview. Initially, the shtick is kind of funny: Maher visits a small service conducted in a trailer, conversing civilly with a group of Christians who might stereotypically be seen as close-minded and trigger-happy. Maher admits to him that he simply "doesn't know" whether there's a God, but doesn't feel like living life as if there is one. Yeah, he takes a few digs at some Bible stories, but overall there's a respectful tone between both parties.

Later, Maher meets with a televangelist dressed in lavish clothes and gold rings to confront the man on how he consolidates the teachings of Jesus with this garish lifestyle. This target is ripe and deserving of mockery and hard-hitting confrontation, but Maher treats him mainly with kid's gloves. Why does Maher go so easy on the man, especially when he treats many other people in the film as though they're the town idiots.

It doesn't help matters that Maher and Charles so thoroughly edit the film to make themselves look like genius in simplicity as they wade through the sea of morons, the messiahs of science. Most of the people Maher interviews offer up uninformed opinions and generally speak of the Bible as literal truth, and he stops just short of openly insulting them in order to prevent any tussles. When he tries to get into the Vatican and the Mormon Church, he is of course turned down, which he treats with a sort of smug self-validation of his own intelligence. But when Maher interviews actual scientists and intellectuals who are religious -- including the head of the Human Genome Project -- he cuts those interviews rather short. Hmmm...interesting.

I cannot tell a lie, I did laugh a great deal throughout the film. Maher and Charles edit in all sorts of footage to juxtapose with Maher's questions and his subjects' answers, and though the result gets old fast the technique gets a few big laughs, the best of which occurs when a preacher speaks of how, when a boy said he'd kill himself for a woman he loved, the preacher told him to love God that way instead. The scene promptly cuts to a terrorist driving a van into a convoy and blowing it up. Extreme gallows humor, yes, but damn it that's a pretty good dig.

The rest, however, is just preaching to the choir. An interview with a theme park Jesus offers up a surprising bit of insight when the man explains how God can be the Trinity by comparing Him to water and how it can exist in three stage: solid, liquid, and gas. It's so good even Maher has to cut away to an admission of this, albeit it in a van after the fact rather than to the man's face. At a certain point in the film, it becomes readily apparent that, when backed into a corner, Maher spits out the exact same rants on "talking snakes" and Jonah and the whale, ironically adhering to the same dogmatic empty-headedness for which he mocks his targets.


When I hear of a movie in the pipeline based on a novel, I occasionally squeeze in the space to read the novel beforehand. I don't recommend this; reading the novel only sets up the inevitable disappointment, You know the one: the "they RUINED the book!" rant that serves more to announce to the world that you actually read than to offer film criticism. But I couldn't resist checking out Chuck Palahniuk's Choke, as it had been on my list anyway. What I got was just about the most demented, graphic satire I'd ever read, an joke on both Catholicism and the complexity of sexual relations. I also discovered that there was no way in hell this could be translated into a rated film. I was half-right.

Writer/actor Clark Gregg gets his directorial debut with Choke, which at least shows he has gumption if nothing else. Yet Gregg has a clear understanding of what Palahniuk tried to say, and it keeps the film largely on topic even when it has to cut much of the graphic material. That's a good thing, as the massive ellipses formed by the omission of the author's descriptions leave the remaining content episodic.

Gregg scored his biggest coup with Sam Rockwell. When I read the novel, the image in my head of Victor Mancini wouldn't match Rockwell in a million years, but the minute I heard his name attached I knew it would work. He plays Victor with all the tortured Oedipal confusion that existed on the page, and he never misses a note. The story never reaches the emotional depths beneath its smutty surface, but Rockwell conveys the omitted feelings.

Victor, a medical school dropout, works in a Colonial America-themed tourist trap as "the backbone of Colonial America," i.e. an Irish indentured servant. When he gets off work, he heads to a nursing home to see his dementia-addled mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), who never recognizes her son and gossips about him to who she believes is her lawyer, or an old friend, or whomever else Victor is today.

When not at work or the nursing home, Victor amuses himself through one of two ways: sex and choking. Let me explain. Victor's complex relationship with his deranged mother, illuminated in tragicomic flashbacks, clearly resulted in a great deal of nervosa and psychosis, which manifests itself in sex addiction. As for the choking, being the backbone of Colonial America apparently doesn't pay enough to put food on the table, so Victor concocts a plan to go to restaurants, choke and be rescued by patrons, who get such a rush out of it that he can write them later and convince them to send him money. In Victor's twisted mind, he's creating "saviors."

All of this plays out in a jumbled yet oddly coherent fashion -- more coherent than the free-form novel, certainly -- as each aspect of the story has threads that can connect to other ones. Victor's savior complex pours into the care of his mother when Dr. Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald) translates Ida's diary and learns that Victor might have a possibly connection to Jesus Christ. Victor and Paige's relationship offers a moment of understated sweetness, as it hints towards the first stability of Victor's love life, a fact that becomes deeply ironic when some of Paige's secrets are uncovered later.

Choke is the kind of film that suffers from a number of flaws -- in this case, they're unavoidable because of the nature of its source -- but overcomes them with a great number of right choices. Besides Rockwell, all of the actors play the characters in ways that dont' exactly fit into the people we see on the page but work magnificently. Huston captures the tragic madness of Victor's mother in a way that defies convention of the usual near-death figure. Macdonald's performance might seem off for people who've never read the book, but her character makes sense when certain tidbits come to light late in the film. Combined with a great mixture of choice dialogue from the book and seamlessly-added lines from Gregg, Choke may lack much of the bite of the novel, but set apart from its source (as all adaptations should be), it's a deceptively filthy comedy that betrays a moving personal drama.


I looked over my other reviews for Clint Eastwood's films, and I find that I bring up the fact that I just can't fall in love with the man's films like everyone else does. I tried to figure out why, and the best answer I can come up with is that I'm almost genuinely sorry; I wish I could will myself to love his films, because they have so much brilliance in them, and I so admire Eastwood's gift for understatement. But, with the exception of Letters From Iwo Jima, everything he's done in the last decade has seemed a to me, like the pieces don't exactly fit into his formula. Perhaps no film embodies that as well as Changeling.

Based on the, amazingly, true story of the kidnapping of Walter Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders of 1929, Changeling recreates the story of Christine Collins, a tortured soul who found herself pushed around by the corrupt Los Angeles Police Department for months. Collins, a phone operator, left her nine-year-old son at home one day to go to fill in for an absent . When she returns home, her son is missing. After five months of failed police investigation, Police Chief James Davis announces proudly that they've found the boy. To balance out all the negative criticism, Davis and Captain J.J. Jones stage a press event to reunite parent and child. Christine rushes towards the incoming train, stands shaking with emotion, then stops cold when a boy steps off the train. "That's not my son," she says with a strained whisper.

The film starts to move in strange ways from here, all in the attempt to capture the full horror and plain weirdness of the facts. The problem is, it has to become a new movie every time you get used to the one you've gotten. First it's a kidnapping thriller. Then the police force an impostor on the mother just so they can save face, and it becomes an L.A. Confidential-like indictment of police corruption. When she tries to tell the press about this, the cops throw her into a mental ward, and now we're watching One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest. There's even a horror movie in here. It's just too much and not even Eastwood's minimalism can keep it from getting out of hand.

Not helping things is Angelina Jolie, who has been marvelous and subdued before, but seems to be mugging for an Oscar nod at every turn here (mission accomplished!). Now, I think that people are being perhaps too harsh on Jolie; mugging though she may be, she does have a hell of a time trying to sort out the various moods that the film runs through. When you get right down to it, she's about as understated as she can possibly be. Nevertheless, the film picks up whenever Jolie isn't on screen, and especially when Eastwood gets out of his gussied up version of period-L.A. and rambles around the dusty ranch in Riverside County where a grisly truth is uncovered.

Speaking of L.A., how did Eastwood approve of the look of his characters? Costume designer Deborah Hopper and set designer Adrian Gorton clearly did their research for the times, but it looks like they built sets and shot them the same day with actors wearing costumes that just came out of a sewing machine. When Kurosawa made Seven Samurai, he made his actors, even bit characters and extras, wear their costumes home in order to get them dirty and therefore look real. These sets, these costumes, they aren't lived in; they look like movie sets and movie costumes, and it distracts greatly.

For all its faults, however, the film comes very, very close to entertainment. When J. Michael's Straczyinski's well-researched script click into place, Eastwood roars ahead with certainty. But these moments are far too spaced out in between stretches of boring convention and forced exposition, and it leaves the whole thing feeling whop-sided, and that's discounting the uncomfortable juxtaposition between Eastwood's restraint and the over-the-top nature of the very facts. Nevertheless, apart from Jolie and John Malkovich (who sleepwalks through what was an unnecessary role to begin with), the actors understand that Eastwood films work best when you undersell it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Battlestar Galactica — Season 1

It's almost wrong to call this a "re-imagining" of the original Battlestar Galactica. The original essentially condensed the mania of Star Wars into TV form, producing fey versions of our beloved Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in a straightforward narrative about noble, womanizing (I'll get to this later) heroes fighting the cold robot villains. The show was the most expensive of its time, and ABC canceled it after one season, only to bring it back with Galactica 1980 after a then-unprecedented fan campaign that bombarded the studios with letters. It too got axed, and fans made do with conventions and the occasional call for a re-boot over the decades.

Then Ronald D. Moore and David Eick pitched a re-imagined miniseries, one that would both pick up after the events of the original show while basically shifting the characters forward into this future as if they had started there. Some genders were changed around, and voilà: new show. After the three-hour miniseries proved successful, a full series was ordered, with a first season of 13 episodes. The result was the greatest piece of science fiction television ever created and one of the greatest shows of all time.

Set 40 years after the humans and Cylons signed an armistice, Battlestar Galactica starts out with the return of the Cylons, some of whom now look human. One of these models, a blond designated Number Six, seduces Dr. Gaius Baltar, the most brilliant human mind in the Twelve Colonies, into giving her access to the defense software he's developing for the Colonial Fleet. She installs back doors in the programs, and, when the time is right, effectively shuts down the humans' defenses as the Cylons appear and nuke everything. As all this happens, Batlar learns just how culpable he is in all this, and it drives him to madness.

The only battleship that survives this genocide is the outdated Galactica, a relic of the war with un-networked computers. Apart from all the pilots and military officials, new President of the Colonies Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) stays near the ship on her transport Colonial One. Formerly the Secretary of Education, she was the highest person in the line of succession after the Cylon attack killed nearly everyone in the government, yet she immediately establishes a commanding presence and proves a strong leader. Even Baltar manages to find himself on the Galactica, plagued by visions of Number Six, leading to a number of comical and a few deeply profound moments. All of these people -- even, to a certain extent, Roslin -- come under the umbrella of Commander William Adama, the de facto leader of the military.

Edward James Olmos gives undoubtedly the best performance of his excellent career as Adama. He plays Adama as sort of the grandfather who also happens to have been a Marine: he's kind and supportive to his men and women, but proves to be resourceful and commanding in battle. His relationship with his son Lee (callsign Apollo) is turbulent as Lee blames his dad for the death of his brother Zak. Adama's guilt over that death may be why he so tenderly cares for ace pilot Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, who was engaged to Zak. First and foremost, Adama is an officer who breaks all the stereotypes about how high-ranking officers don't care about the men and just focus on the glory, and it makes him an endlessly fascinating character.

In the aftermath of the attack a rough census places the human population at around 47,000, and Cylons, accidents, and natural deaths lower that number every day. But what makes Battlestar Galactica so interesting is that it openly asks us a sobering question: "Does mankind deserve to be saved?" People still steal, murder, rape; Lee even has to deal with a prison riot orchestrated by Tom Zarek, a charismatic ex-terrorist who now has his eye on political power. The first season only hints at the barbarism later exhibited on the show, but it makes you wonder whether the survival of mankind would matter at all as the ships jump through the vastness of the universe searching for Earth.

The other aspect of the show that makes it so damn interesting is the advent of the humanoid Cylon. Spirituality plays a big part in the show, and the Cylons themselves have a religion. These human models crave humanity with every fiber of their being, and what better way to confirm they have souls than to believe in God? Their plight works on two levels: 1) the fact that Cylons can infiltrate human society adds a post-9/11 bent, and 2) it mines the depths of Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? and of course Blade Runner. The quest for Cylon "humanity" provides an understated juxtaposition to mankind's struggle to maintain its own.

I feel as though I haven't discussed a great deal of the show; I originally wrote one hell of a long review going into most of the episodes and just generally gushing, but it sucked all the fun out of everything. Battlestar Galactica is a show that can be endlessly analyzed and debated, but to do so would require the incorporation of the events of subsequent seasons, and would bring the whole thing into massive spoiler territory. Not to mention, I'd be here all damn week. Suffice to say, BSG is one of the most philosophically rewarding and scientifically plausible (muted sounds in space, an adherence to realism even when starfighters are blasting each other in space) pieces of fiction -- be it television, film, or literature -- ever created, and there isn't a weak moment to be found in the three-hour miniseries or the 13 episodes within. For my money, the first season is one of the 20 best I've ever seen, and whether you like science fiction or not, you owe it to yourself to give this show a shot.

The Player

People often like to say that a director or an actor couldn't have made a certain movie of theirs when they were younger, that experiences (particularly hardships from the system) shaped a new mindset that informed the film. A good example would be Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler, a performance that had so many echoes in his own life that the line between player and part just about disappeared. Kurosawa himself has said that he could not have made his late masterpiece Ran as a young man.

The Player, contrary to a great many opinions I've seen, is not such a film. Robert Altman would have gladly taken a knife to the veins of Hollywood in his mid-70s heyday, when he was already considered "box office poison." It was the system itself that needed time to change in order for maximum effect. Had Altman gone after the creative titan that was New Hollywood, he would have seemed like a whiner, a sore loser who took his poor box office receipts out on the studios that allowed his genius free rein. But after Star Wars and the various hits of Steven Spielberg ushered in the wave of the blockbuster on the heels of the crumbling excesses of New Hollywood, the studios overhauled themselves back into safe, pedestrian hit-backers.

It is this Hollywood that Altman savages, the Hollywood that finally threw him to the wayside in the 80s after the commercial "failure" of Popeye. He establishes immediate distaste for this system in an epic, near-8-minute opening shot that references other great tracking shots by both style and even in name on-screen. Altman drifts over a sea of actors, many playing themselves, who all speak of projects they're working on while the producers gab on the phone for the next hit.

We meet Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a producer who spends his days fielding pitches. Writers and lower-level producers rush to him and sell him on their movie, in 25 words or less. If Griffin likes it, he takes it to the executive; he can't approve money for a film. So why the middle man? Well, the president can't hear every pitch of course; just as the sergeant and not the officer always seems to be in charge of the troops in a war film, producers like Mill really make the movies. The pitch-men live in fear of him, as he can kill their movie before it ever even comes close to a deal. If he likes it, it's almost a guarantee.

This stress leads some writers to take drastic measures. One day, Griffin receives a postcard that contains a death threat. Soon, he's inundated with the things. The postcards come from a writer; Griffin heard his pitch and said he'd call, but never did. Griffin's done this so many times he can't remember who it could possibly be. He convinces himself that a crazed, pretentious writer named David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio) is behind the threats, and agrees to meet him and approve his movie. But Kahane gets drunk and starts berating Mill, and the two eventually start fighting until Griffin accidentally kills the writer.

The rest of the film plays out as a merciless thriller, as Mill must continue to work, continue to receive death threats and contend with a murder he covered up. We plunge into the emptiness of Hollywood when a pretentious British writer pitches a paranoid Mill on Habeas Corpus, a segregation-era legal thriller with "no stars, just talent" and "no tap Hollywood ending." He makes sure to spout these phrases constantly to Mill, who says he likes the idea even though he knows how terrible the script is. Then he rallies with a clever notion: convince the president to back the film, dump the project on a rival producer, only to swoop in and tack on an upbeat ending to "save" the film, thus ensuring a promotion. Nice to see that fear hasn't crippled his business acumen.

What Altman and writer Michael Tolkin are saying with the film is that Hollywood, as with America as a whole in the 80s, fell into deep and unrestrained greed. Just as Nashville predicted the personal isolation of the 80s that would eventually manifest in the fragmented relationships of Short Cuts, The Player reflects the times, the avarice implicit in Reaganomics that only widened the class gaps. But it's not just the executives filling this role; Whoopi Goldberg plays a detective investigating Kahane's murder, but she spends a great deal of time wondering if capturing the killer is worth losing the dark comedy of letting it all play out.

The Player, as with any good piece of satire, only gets funnier the more you know about Hollywood. I imagine I would have barely found it amusing it all three years ago, and the more I read over memoirs and histories and the more I watch movies I imagine this will only get funnier. The film could easily have been little more than an excuse for actors to get together and bite the hand that feeds while patting themselves on the back (and there is an element of that to be sure), but with Altman's cynical yet human hand at the helm The Player becomes much more. Its characters are despicable but fleshed-out, and they serve not only as indictments of a system that castrates art but as an emblem of the negative side of capitalism. This is simply one of the finest offerings from one of the all-time cinematic geniuses.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Johnny Handsome

Walter Hill's Johnny Handsome has so much going for it that I just can't fault it when it trips ten feet from the finish line and wretchedly crawls across the finish line. It's both his and Mickey Rourke's last film of the 80s, and a sort of last gasp for the both of them, though Rourke finally climbed back on top with Sin City and of course The Wrestler. Rourke alone should alert you to the necessity to watch this film regardless of its overall quality, as the man quite simply walked away with the 80s as far as I'm concerned.

Rourke stars as the titular character (née Johnny Sedley), a small-time career criminal who ends up on the bad side of a botched heist and spends the rest of the film plotting his revenge against the people who sold him out. He got his nickname due to the horrible facial disfigurement he's suffered since birth, scars that both swell his head and force him to speak with a lisp. Later in the film, Johnny recounts how, as a child, a young boy ripped off his jack-o-lantern mask on Halloween and said "Johnny don't need no mask," and Johnny responded by beating the poor kid senseless. Rourke brings all his tortured soul to the part, and only makes this creature even more wretched and pitiable.

An older man named Mikey looks after Johnny and includes him in his robberies. For a particularly big heist, Mikey recruits the help of two pieces of street trash, Sunny and Rafe (Ellen Barkin and Lance Henriksen, both of whom play just about the best scumbags you could ever hope to find) in order to pull things off successfully. The robbery goes bad, and Rafe ends up killing Mikey, while Johnny gets captured and sent to prison.

While there, a Lt. Drones (Morgan Freeman) mocks him and his looks but, after an inmate stabbing leaves Johnny in the hospital, a doctor (Forest Whitaker) takes pity on the man. Believing that Johnny's life choices are the direct result of the shame he feels from his disfigurement, he offers to reconstruct Johnny's face and to hire a speech pathologist to rid him of his lisp in order to provide a fresh start. After a few weeks of painful surgeries, we see Mickey Rourke's beautiful face freed from all those prosthetics.

Soon Johnny gets paroled and finds a job and even starts going out with a girl who loves him (Elizabeth McGovern), but there's only one thing on his mind. Drones correctly guesses that Sunny and Rafe would never recognize the new Johnny, and sure enough he hatches a plan to win the couple's trust with another robbery that would get him close to his foes. He even toys with them at first to make sure they don't see it coming; "There's something familiar about him," wonders Sunny after Johnny tells the two that he knows them.

For such a short film, it plays out with a great deal of tension and suspense. Until the ending that is. I won't give it away, but some characters suddenly get smart while others don't think at all, and the short length suddenly becomes very, very apparent. The film runs barely over 90 minutes, and the final bit unfolds after an hour and a half has passed. I can't really say why the ending doesn't stick with me other than the fact that it seems to thoroughly clichéd as to be interchangeable with any number of "guys trying to break out of lives of crime" stories. Hell, Mickey Rourke himself built his career in the 80s on films that had endings too similar to this.

Nevertheless, the film remains a must-see on the basis of its fantastic opening heist sequence and the acting performances of Barkin, Henriksen and Rourke. Rourke in particular knocks it right out of the park; he puts so much pain into the role that it breaks through even the prosthetics and only magnifies on his actual face. I think the film was written with any actor in mind, but when Rourke took the part and made it his own suddenly the short running time became noticeable. For my money, his portrayal here is in his top five performances, and for that reason alone you should track this above-average piece of 80s noir down; I believe the DVD is being reissued soon anyway, so you're in luck.

Run Lola Run

I was looking forward to watching this movie. My film teacher decided it was good enough for class (though he did show Donnie Darko, so I find his judgment a little suspect), and I've heard all sorts of good things about the movie. Imagine my surprise, then, when the lights came down in the classroom and I had to sit through the longest 76 minutes of my life.

Run Lola Run concerns itself with its titular character (Franka Potente), who receives a frantic phone call from her boyfriend at the start of the film. She was supposed to pick him up after he made an exchange for a local crime boss, but someone nicked her moped so she never came. Well, poor Manni had to take the tube, and he accidentally left a sack full of 100,000 Deutschmarks on the train when he ran from cops. A homeless man picked up the bag, and now Manni has to come up with 100,000 marks before crime boss Ronnie meets him for the payment.

What results in a visually inventive yet ultimately dull piece of flash that's so preoccupied with creating an original film that it does not bother to make it good. Lola agrees to meet Manni in order to prevent him from doing something silly like robbing a store, and her 20-minute run repeats two more times, each with wildly different outcomes based on the tiniest variations. When Lola accidentally runs into a person or near a cyclist, we see snapshots of their futures, and these futures play out indirectly as a response to their interactions with Lola.

But those aren't the only tricks writer-director Tom Tykwer uses to add flash to the story: he intersperses Lola's runs with animated stretches, film references, and total asides to background characters. For him, Lola is running so fast that she break the very properties of physics, even though she still moves realistically. When a run ends in tragedy, he fades to red, shows us a tinted flashback, then starts the whole thing over again.

Now, the point of the alternate storylines is, of course, a simple take on the butterfly effect, that old theory that the tiniest interactions have the most drastic consequences. You know, a butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing, and the distortion in the wind magnifies until a thunderstorm hits San Fransisco. Every time Lola begins her run something minor occurs in the beginning animated segment, and it generally informs the new direction her run will take her.

You could also argue that Tykwer is making an argument for the idea of predestination and fate with these runs. When Lola runs past a cyclist the first time and we see his future, we see that he eventually crashes, falls in love with the nurse who helps him recover, and the two live happily ever after. The second time Lola passes him, we see that he becomes a bum. Everything is all a game of chance, and our lives all depend on the tiny interactions that make them up.

What I took from the film, however, is that Tykwer simply proves that film has no consequences, that emotional involvement is pointless because it's all based on the whims of its creators. Run Lola Run is its own trilogy, the same idea repeated three times with just enough variations to make them "different;" even characters can come back from death if people love them enough. I suppose that could be a meta-statement of sorts, but really it just comes off like Tykwer only had enough material for a short film and decided, logic be damned, to just repeat the thing three different times.

Any enjoyment you might take from this film can be directly attributed to editor Mathilde Bonnefoy, who offers up a veritable feast of quick cuts and visceral editing. However, I couldn't help but wonder how a film only 76 minutes and filled with such an action-packed style could be so boring. Most if not all of the blame falls upon Tykwer, who tried to write funny lines and failed, derailed its interesting structure with some pointless shots that strip the film of its urgency, then forcing us to sit through these flaws two more times. The actors do a pretty good job, but at the end of the day if a thriller is going to risk thrills by taking itself this seriously it better have the substance to back it up. Run Lola Run simply doesn't.