28 January 2007

The Illusionist

Written & Directed by: Neil Burger

A good magic trick ought to astound spectators into wondering, in vain, “how’d they do that?” In The Illusionist, Eduard (Edward Norton), stage name Eisenheim – read Eisenstein – performs some pretty amazing sleights of hand, but it’s pretty obvious to the film audience how he’s done them: CGI, of course. Magicians are great diegetic stand-ins for filmmakers as both are, see the title, creators of illusions and manipulators of the human eye, but Burger only makes it evident that this might be his point near the end of his otherwise convoluted and thematically muddy film.

Eisenheim is in love with Sophie, some Duchess or other played competently by the dumb-faced Jessica Biel. Sophie loves him too except she’s kinda, like, you know, pre-engaged to this Prince dude. Anyway, they’re from different classes, so in turn-of-the-century Vienna it’d never work. Not since Aladdin has the screen seen such a penetrating examination of the ossified class systems of the Old World; don’t you dare close your eyes.

Just kidding – watch most of the movie blindfolded and you won’t miss much. Burger is too distracted by too many ideas, letting his mind wander from political intrigue to religious allegory to the ontology of the photographic image, but never thinking about any of them long enough to make them interesting. Do filmmakers, qua magicians, have a moral obligation to enlighten rather than distract? Can the dead live forever, on film? The film barely asks these questions, and many others, let alone ever try to answer them.

With the irritating aesthetic sense of Masterpiece Theater, Burger is only interested in telling his rather dull story so that he can get to his big twist finale. Up to that point, however, he seems intent on using everything in his bag of tricks to suck you out of the narrative, most of all making very familiar actors use awful accents. (Paul Giamatti, whom I expected to stick out of a period piece as laughably as Dustin Hoffman in the trailer for Perfume, is surprisingly the most convincing. Norton’s performance is as impressive as Eisenheim’s tricks, especially in scenes where he keeps his mouth shut, while Rufus Sewell lets us know, tiresomely, that his character, the aforementioned Prince, is angry by shouting all the time.) The twist itself is strange and confusing; I understand what happened, but still not how.

Neither, I suspect, does Burger, nor does he care. When Giamatti starts narrating in voice-over in the film’s final act you may remember that the film began with a framing device, but more likely you’ll think Burger has simply given up. You may as well, too.

19 January 2007

Conversation(s) with Other Women

Anyone who successfully labored through Mike Figgis' Timecode should find Conversation(s) with Other Women a breeze because, since the screen is only divided into two, it’s only half the work. There’s no denying that an entire film presented in split-screen is essentially gimmicky, but Canosa uses his trick effectively and, most importantly, it’s an entirely appropriate approach to the story. Of course there’re always two sides to every story, particularly a romance, but rarely is that ever demonstrated so literally.

Aaron Eckhardt, as Man, never ceases to impress me as an actor; he can deliver an awkward courting line as trite as, “that’s an interesting theory!” so naturally and genuinely that you think he, and not his character, must’ve really been trying to get into the pants of Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Woman. Man approaches Woman at a wedding reception and offers her a flute of champagne. Wait, hasn’t he done this before? Didn’t they meet last year at Marienbad? Or was it Fredricksburg? As their conversation continues, and they move from the party to a hotel room, it becomes clearer and clearer that they know more about each other than they’ve been letting on. As if aware that we’re watching them, or that Alberto Gonzales may have the room bugged, they speak in a code unknown to us but fully understood by them.

That the whole thing unfolds in bifurcation is going to forever relegate the picture, if it's lucky, to a footnote in film history textbooks – “an interesting formal exercise” – but despite its flagrant artificiality, which the dialogue often acknowledges (“the illusion of effortlessness requires great effort indeed”), it still manages to retain an affecting love story. It's a moving meditation on the unstoppable forward momentum of time and the melancholia it leaves in its wake.

As Canosa points out – several times – on the DVD’s special features, split-screen has traditionally been used to show two spatially disconnected actions occurring concurrently. In this film, however, it’s anything goes. The two frames do, though rarely, employ their traditional function, but they are also used to show the present vs. the past; the real vs. the fantasy; and, more often, just simply Man vs. Woman in the same place at the same time. Man and Woman are deeply disconnected from one another by circumstance and time, and yet simultaneously are deeply connected by the past; it’s only fitting, therefore, that they are almost always on-screen together, yet still separated.

Directed by: Hans Canosa
Written by: Gabrielle Zevin

16 January 2007


Some people wanted to think it would never happen, and some people still refuse to admit that it has, but, let's face it, it was inevitable: Pixar made a flop. After an unbroken string of animated masterpieces, from Toy Story to The Incredibles, they’ve unfortunately produced a forgettable failure.

While visually stunning and up to the animation standards we’ve come to expect from Pixar, the undisputed leader of contemporary animation studios, Cars has a lot of problems. First of all it tries too hard to pander to Middle America and the Nascar contingent. The film depends too much on a fascination with, and fetishization of, automobiles that’s above the head of anyone who rides the subway. Also, the script is as hackneyed and clichéd as the worst of children’s movies can be, although in fairness there are a good number of yuks along the way.

I’d happily overlook those problems, though with a disappointed heart, but ultimately what can’t be excused is the film’s generally sloppy construction. Owen Wilson voices Lightning McQueen, a vainglorious racecar who, on his way to the big championship race, gets lost and winds up in the small, humble town of Radiator Springs. The second act, in which McQueen is forced to adapt to his new situation, is unbearably predictable and drawn-out, as though Lasseter et al. are seriously trying to create a sense of tension as to whether or not McQueen will grow as character.
Will he learn valuable lessons in friendship, teamwork, and modesty? As McQueen is "stuck" in Radiator Springs, so too is the film. For the first time in my life I seriously considered walking out of the theater, deciding instead to squirm in my chair and just wait for the damn thing to end.

On a hopeful note, the trailer for the next Pixar film, Ratatouille, looks very promising. Hopefully this will be an isolated miscarriage and they’ll soon return to form. After all, the short at the beginning of the film, One-Man Band, was, as is Pixar's praxis, phenomenal.

15 January 2007

The Truman Show

I feel somewhat guilty about writing a disparaging word regarding The Truman Show, an admittedly intelligent and entertaining film, particularly after recently doing so amongst friends and being met with bitter resentment. However, I feel the film unfairly retains a reputation as an enlightening film, which warrants a brief discussion and dismantling.

The Truman Show does a lot of things right but ultimately it’s, like The Matrix (which comparatively does very little right), philosophically vacuous. Adapting solipsism to the age of reality television, presciently before its ubiquity on basic cable and network television, Niccol and Weir tell the story of the titular Truman (Jim Carrey) whose entire life has unbeknownst to him been broadcast twenty-four hours a day on his very own dedicated television network. Everyone, from his neighbors, friends, co-workers, and wife, is a paid actor “in on it”. The ratings are huge, and the jocosely presented product placements draw-in magnanimous revenues.

After seeing it in class as an undergrad, I remember a fellow student lambasting the film for attempting to criticize the standard modes of Hollywood filmmaking while adhereing to those very same methods. I understand the point, but I think it’s misplaced. The Truman Show has a lot to say about religion, consumerism, corporatism, and the relationships between art and commerce and art and life; the problem is that it never actually says any of it. Rife with potential critique, the filmmakers never allow any of the big ideas to penetrate the film’s slick and somewhat self-applauding surface, relegating them instead to the nether regions of subsubtext. The audience will see in the film what they will, but in itself it says next to nothing other than, like an attention-starved child, “Look at me!”

Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Andrew Niccol

Welcome to Sarajevo

Welcome to Sarajevo opens with a happy family blithely preparing for a wedding as a cheery pop song plays on the soundtrack. While I picked up my phone and began dialing my travel agent to book a trip to Bosnia, the family hit the streets, where the mother promptly received a midriff full of lead. I put down the phone.

A few scenes later, some reporters at a hotel bar are making a toast when a bomb explodes and rattles the walls. No one is injured, but by now I had taken the phone off the hook and hid it in the closet. Winterbottom ensures that the film is relentlessly grim and depressing, though he's careful to eschew the melodramatic. Nearly every peaceful scene of dialogue is followed or interrupted by some act of violence, and every time the characters are static, which is rare, the camera moves wildly around them. After all, war never has a moment of peace; it never stops.

Michael, played by Stephen Dillane in an extraordinary performance, is an English war-correspondent for ITN, stationed in Sarajevo during the civil war of the early 1990’s. After covering a forgotten front-line orphanage every day for a week, and having his stories bumped from the lead because the Duke & Duchess of York are having marital troubles, he takes it upon himself to try to help the kids.

Any movie about saving orphaned infants from a war-ravaged country is bound to end up inherently manipulative, but Winterbottom and Boyce aren’t exactly aiming for subtlety. The “Sarajevo” of the film is convincingly rendered as a nightmarish hellscape, a city where potentially deadly sniper-fire is as ubiquitous as broken faces and dilapidated buildings. Despite the film’s blatant artificiality, it possesses a visceral verisimilitude, thanks at least in part to the ceaseless violence, juxtaposed video footage, and affecting supporting performances by native Yugoslavians.

A pop music soundtrack serves as an ironic counterpoint to the on-screen violence, as well as point-out the relative and nearly insulting complacency of the West. Unlike many similar films, more than a fair share of the proceedings pays attention to the plight of the oppressed, not merely using it as a backdrop for one white Westerner’s personal growth. While specifically about Sarajevo, the filmmakers have also fashioned a broad anti-war movie that should stir connections in the contemporary viewer’s mind to other modern human rights crises, from Rwanda and Darfur to even present-day Baghdad. Ostensibly, however, it is an accessible film more about people than politics;
it’s another movie about a time when we did nothing and someone else did something.

Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce


Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead (and the voice of Beavis), offers up a dire prediction: at the current rate, by 2505 the stupid shall have inherited the earth. That’s the premise of his new comedy, anyway, in which Joe (Luke Wilson), the averagest man alive in 2005, finds himself five hundred years in the future when an army experiment goes awry. Because of unchecked breeding amongst the dim-witted, Joe now finds himself – by far – to be the smartest man alive, and consequently he’s appointed Secretary of the Interior.

I mean, these people are really stupid, but Idiocracy’s best joke is the title itself, as much of the film’s target audience won’t be able to pronounce it. (Believe me, I worked in a video store for years, and there’s going to be a lot of awkward young men asking for Idiot Crazy and other comical variations.) It’s a mean-spirited film of the Stardust Memories variety, though subtler and more subversive perhaps, as it attacks the very knuckleheads paying to see it. Judge, with co-writer Etan Cohen, are laughing at Dax Shepherd’s character when he is introduced cachinnating at a television program titled, Ow! My Balls!, in which a protagonist has his testicles relentlessly pounded. Much of the audience is bound to be laughing with him.

Despite some memorable scenes, such as Wilson's visit to the cinema to see the future's biggest blockbuster Ass, a continuous ninety minute shot of an individual's posterior, Idiocracy's central premise, that America is on the path to self-destruction by celebrating its lack of intellectual curiosity (to put it nicely), is consistently undermined by over-appealing to the audience's baser comedic desires. The message gets so watered-down it starts to disappear. While subversive media like Borat and South Park sneak a clever mixture of the low-brow and the satirically critical into the mainstream, Idiocracy, which incidentally probably would've functioned much better as a short film or television series (at only seventy-nine minutes, it still feels too long), tries so hard to get the idiots in the door it almost forgets that it's trying to make a point. I find it difficult to believe that anyone but the choir will understand the sermon, so why bother making it so profane and scatalogical? To scare off the people who may appreciate it, and attract those who probably won't?

As the credits roll, I'd expect the majority of the audience to snicker and think, "Dax is right, Luke Wilson does talk faggy," rather than be inspired to read a book. If I'm coming across as a bit supercilious, I'm only following Judge's lead; his dystopic future feels repugnantly familiar, and I only wish he'd gone further. As it stands, he's got the nail, he has a hammer, but he doesn't put the two together.

Directed by: Mike Judge
Written by: Mike Judge & Etan Cohen

13 January 2007

Beowulf & Grendel

A potentially interesting, revisionist retelling of the Beowulf myth suffers from its uneven execution – the film doesn’t pull itself together thematically until the third act, which may be too long to wait. Much of the film drags along due to poor pacing -- there is very little, but much needed, action while it takes over an hour to develop a strong philosophical core.

Grendel, the formless monster of the epic poem, is here humanized, or rather troll-ized; that is, the filmmakers set out to make him a complex character with real motivations. By doing so they ultimately make a powerful, and aptly timed, statement about the nature of violence and war. When Beowulf finally slays the murderous Grendel, the act carries no pretensions of heroism.

The film is a bit vulgar, though no necessarily offensively so, in its violence, sexuality (even Grendel is given a sex-scene) and anachronistic use of strong language. The visuals, from the locations to the costume and set design to Jan Kiesser’s cinematography, are impressive; an impressive visual sense alone, however, does not a good film make.

Gerard Butler, as Beowulf, and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson as Grendel, both perform well, but it’s Stellan Skarsgård in a supporting role as the Dane King who steals every scene that he’s in. Sarah Polley, on the other hand, as the resident village witch sticks out like a digital wristwatch and ruins every scene she appears in.

Director Sturla Gunnarrson tried to make an Icelandic, Middle Ages A History of Violence, but despite a strong cast, crew and concept can’t cohere it together into the great film it could have possibly been.

Brazil: The Director's Cut

Not quite as straight-faced as Blade Runner, nor quite as farcical as Sleeper, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a dystopian fable of a future overrun by oppressive technology and menacing bureaucracy, falls somewhere in between. It aims to make a serious point about totalitarianism (particularly relevant as it features a misguided war on terrorism) while having a good time doing it. And after all, how serious can a film aim to be when Michael Palin plays the torturer?

Gilliam, who made his mark as the creator of the absurdist animations on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, brings that same visual sense, and sense of humor, to this live-action feature. The very talented and exceedingly likeable Jonathan Pryce stars as a bureaucrat slowly sucked-in to subversive activities when he meets a woman (Kim Greist) that resembles a recurring character in his dreams as an archangel. Robert DeNiro, who receives second-billing, appears on-screen less than Marlon Brando in Superman.

The film is packed reel-to-reel with strikingly inventive imagery that can hardly be described. Gilliam has a truly original, personal, and unique visual style that can so impressive at times as to be eye-popping. Ultimately, it’s the film’s downfall; aside from the uneven pacing (an apparent requisite for “director’s cuts”) the film’s optical barrage becomes a bit exhausting (particularly at 142 minutes!), like listening to three Mozart symphonies in succession, and it takes center stage in the film over, say, a coherent narrative.

Like Blade Runner, it’s heavily influenced by film noir in its lighting and production design; despite all its contemporary razzamatazz, it has a very old-fashioned feel – Jonathan Pryce seems to be channelling Jimmy Stewart in the way he cocks his hat. The film also pays homage to Orson Welles’ The Trial, particularly in its thrilling final reel (if you can muster any more thrills at that point).

All in all it’s a gorgeous, intelligent, well-intentioned flop.

The Departed

What makes Scorsese known as a great director is not merely his knack for storytelling, character, and setting, but his use of the medium. In his greatest moments, like the fast-motion black and white of Raging Bull, or the voice-overed slow motion of Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead, he expressed his themes through personal stylistic flair, through the images on the screen. His latest film, The Departed, has a great story and screenplay about an undercover policeman who infiltrates the mob, while a mole for the mob infiltrates the police force. It is a strongly cynical portrait of America in which the crooks and local and federal governments are all in cahoots. It also has a fantastic cast from which Scorsese gets a collection of exceptional performances, particularly those of Jack Nicholson, who stops short of literally chewing the scenery but not the flies buzzing about his head, and Vera Farmiga.

But it’s not a directatorial tour-de-force as one would hope (or have been lead to believe from the critical praise), and for that it is a disappointment. Scorsese sits back and plays it by the books, trying to let the screenplay fill the leading role that he himself would usually play. Well, Sidney Lumet could have done that – this is a Scorsese film, man! Whenever he does try to add a little personal flourish to the proceedings they feel half-hearted, as though the film were directed by some young imitator. It is only in the final reel (of many reels) that the film approaches greatness.

In the end, the film is a real let-down – not because it isn’t good, because it is, but because it could’ve been great.

Kill Bill Vol. 1

Quentin Tarantino is nothing if not a pop-culture junkie and tributary filmmaker, and this, his insistently dubbed “fourth film”, drives that point home as strongly as any of his other movies. Whereas his last film, Jackie Brown, was something of an homage to blaxpolitation with foxy Pam Grier in the lead, Kill Bill Vol. 1is a veneration of the martial-arts flicks beloved by Mr. Tarantino – the film opens with a retro title informing us the film is in ShawScope, a nod to the Bros. Shaw – with a bit of spaghetti western, Japanese anime, and Hollywood musical tossed in.

The enceinte Uma Thurman, whose character’s real name is intentionally bleeped from the film giving her the airs of an Eastwoodian (wo)Man with No Name, is left for dead with the rest of her wedding party by her former assassin associates led by the titular Bill. (The scene seems a tribute to an early scene from Once Upon a Time in the West, an impression buttressed by the scene’s expansion in the subsequent Kill Bill Vol. 2.) Miraculously, Uma has survived a hell of a beating as well as a bullet to the head, and awakens months later from a coma, soon thereafter setting out for revenge on those who killed her unborn daughter. Thurman’s performance, especially the scene in which she awakens from her coma, tearfully clutching at her now depregnated stomach, establishes her firmly as one of her generation’s finest actors, although she doesn’t often get the parts to prove it. (The Producers?)

For a live-action American film, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is incredibly violent. But, while the opening shot – a long, static take of Thurman’s pre-bullet battered and quivering face – is repulsive in its frank verisimilitude, the rest of the film’s violence is as heavily stylized as a Road Runner cartoon. The first post-credits sequence, a badass suburban catfight between Uma and Vivica A. Fox, is filled with garishly saturated colors and cartoonish whoosh whomp sound effects. The martial-arts have been amusingly Americanized, as the weapons are kitchen knives and frying pans, coffee tables and cereal boxes. In this scene, or in the one in which O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) decapitates a business rival and blood gushes from the neck like water from Old Faithful, one is not so much horrified by the exaggerated violence as they are bemused.

The film’s most violent sequence is the climactic set piece – a nightclub blood-bath – that becomes so bloody as Uma battles over eight dozen masked Japanese swordsmen that the MPAA notoriously and ridiculously insisted the sequence be presented in black-and-white. (This marks, I’m pretty sure, the first time the color red has ever been deemed unsuitable for viewing by anyone under the age of seventeen without a guardian.) The scene’s tension is amassed as masterfully as it is in a Leone climax, culminating in a final showdown with O-Ren that looks like it was shot on the MGM backlots, perhaps a Japanified set from The Bandwagon?

Movie musicals and action films have a similar structure, as both include choreographed breaks in the straight drama. But while a well-done musical number or action sequence drives the narrative forward, in Kill Bill Vol. 1 the action sequences are the plot, and the few scattered scenes of dialogue merely serve to propel the violence forward.

Say what you will of Tarantino as a person – for example, that he’s an intolerable flamboy – but his filmmaker’s instincts are impeccable. The film’s frenetic polystylism is executed excitingly and engagingly, imbued with a sincere coolness without a drop of disrespectful, tongue-in-cheek irony. Tarantino has commendably fashioned a piece of stylized pastiche that remains utterly personal and original.

12 January 2007


First, it should be noted that Borat begs to be seen in theaters – it functions at its best as a shared social experience. About a week after its initial, limited New York release shows were still sold out all over town, as they had been all week (and this was on a weeknight mind you.) We had to do a bit of theater-hopping before we found a showing with available tickets, but even then we had to buy them two hours in advance. Forty-five minutes before every showtime at the Village East, long ticketholder lines stretched down Second Ave. and around Twelfth Street – Borat is a cultural happening!

During the previews, members of the audience repeatedly called for Borat, as though his creator, Sacha Baron Cohen, were anxiously waiting behind the screen to make his entrance. As the opening credits finally started to roll, applause erupted as though he had.

The Borat segments of Da Ali G Show, Cohen’s HBO series that had its origins on English television, were always the cleverest. Just the sound of Borat’s voice is enough to start an audience giggling – college kids have been doing impressions at parties for years ("Niiiice"). When that accent is complemented by masterfully crafted broken English (see the film’s subtitle), precise comedic instincts and a frank expression of prejudicial inclinations, the result is so hilarious that it's easy to overlook the potentially offensive content.

The film disguises itself as a documentary, following ersatz Kazakhstani telejournalist Borat Sagdiyev as he interviews Americans for the ostensible purpose of, well, accumulating cultural learnings for make benefit his audience back-home. He decides to leave New York, where they are scheduled to do their filming, and travel to Los Angeles (by car and not by plane, just in case the Jews "should...repeat their attack of 9/11") so he can meet, and marry, Pamela Anderson. On the way he creates an American road movie unlike any you could've even imagined.

Whereas Borat’s bigotry is consistently conspicuous, his American interlocutors’ is generally not. Americans nowadays are more surreptitious with their prejudices than they were in the past (George Allen aside) -- the film’s success is in coaxing them out. Much of the humor though, such as the already famous nude wrestling scene between Borat and his producer, is not political; many scenes are played merely for hilarity’s sake.

But much of the film’s humor derives from Borat’s blunt racism (and sexism), not in virtue of itself necessarily but because of the responses it elicits. While anti-defamation leagues have criticized the film for its nonchalant chauvinism, it’s the heart of the film’s satirical commentary. Borat is not just funny, it's intelligent. When Borat asks a Southern gun dealer what the best gun for killing Jews is, he gets not one but two straightforward recommendations. Similarly, when he asks a car salesman how fast an SUV would need to be moving in order to kill a group of gypsies, he is given an honest answer: about forty miles an hour. He is even able to rouse a stadium’s worth of rodeo spectators to enthusiastically applaud the prayer, “may George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq.” The film borders on the terrifying, but not because of Borat – he’s obviously kidding, but the man at the rodeo who suggests that lynching homosexuals is something “we’re trying to get done in this country”, or the drunken fratboys who advocate a return to slavery, are not.

While it’s possible, as Anthony Lane worries, that the film may be misunderstood or misappropriated asatircally by denser audiences, that only further validates the film’s display of American culture as forever entrenched in racism, whether blatant or slightly hidden below the surface. After all, when Borat mistakes an Oliver Hardy impersonator in Hollywood for an Adolph Hitler impersonator, it is not so much due to his own anti-Semitism as it is that, based on his experiences hitherto, he expects it of Americans. That isn’t Cohen’s fault, it’s ours.

Wild at Heart

David Lynch is a very personal filmmaker and as such he provokes very personal reactions from the audience at large. (When Wild at Heart won the Palme D'Or at Cannes it was met with a fair share of scoffs. Roger Ebert, in his haughtier moments, is a particularly vociferous detractor.) In some he inspires cultish fealty, and in others anything from indifference to antipathy. What both sides often tend to overlook however is Lynch's demonstrable talents as a formal filmmaker.

One of the things that usually attracts, or turns-off, viewers is Lynch’s unique sense of humor. The dialogue and performances are hilariously stylized and exaggerated, and to quote them doesn’t do them justice (although I’ll try: “did I ever tell you this jacket’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom?” See it doesn't work.) But the exaggeration functions as the foundation of a larger cinematic framework.

There have always been some film theorists who’ve compared the film-going experience to dreaming (as both involve immobile individuals experiencing vividly in the dark) but Lynch seems to have really taken it to heart. His films are often set within a dreamscape where everything is not only exaggerated but also irrational and frightening. Wild at Heart is no exception – it’s set in a fantasy American landscape in which innocent, well-intentioned young people are under threat from vast criminal conspiracies. (The same could be said of much of his other work, such as Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Dr.) Lynch's driving philosophy has never been more pithily recapitulated than it is in this film: "the world is wild at heart and weird on top."

Wild at Heart plays out as a road movie, populated by a series of freaks and weirdoes exceptionally played by a company of well-known actors (like Willem Dafoe) and Lynch regulars (like Jack Nance). Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are two young lovers who embark on a romantic adventure, hotly pursued by Lula’s dangerous and disapproving mother and the gangsters she hires to find them. The film has abundant references to classic American popular culture, from the soundtrack (at one point Sailor stops the action so he can sing Elvis' "Love Me" to Lula) to the dialogue ("I wish we were somewhere over that rainbow") to the intertextual references. It’s a nightmarish, contemporary Wizard of Oz in which the Yellow Brick Road has been supplanted by the interstate.

Lynch underscores it all with a complex editing structure that leaps back in time and is rife with visual metaphor (particularly the recurring fire motif.) After all, the dream logic isn’t enunciated by any of the characters in the film but by Lynch himself. Those poor characters aren’t lost in their own subconsciouses but in the director’s.

Lynch shows his true directatorial strengths in a scene near the end of the film in which he transforms the nibbling of a candy necklace into a gripping and tender moment. Even his detractors would have to give him credit for that.

In the Bedroom

Dude, she’s got two kids! But that doesn’t faze Frank (Nick Stahl), college-aged heartthrob who’s happily dating Natalie (Marisa Tomei), a real looker who must be at least ten years his senior. Problem is not only does she have two kids, but she’s got a jealous estranged husband too; fans of Lost will realize right away that he’s no good since he’s played by William Mapother who, between this movie and that show, must get eggs thrown at him on the street, the poor guy.

Needless to say, something terrible happens. A conventional movie would have stopped right around there, but Field and Festinger aren’t really interested in Frank and Natalie so much as they’re interested in Matt and Ruth, Frank’s parents, played respectively by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek.

The first time I saw it, around the time of its initial release, I felt that I didn’t really "get it" because I was too young. After all, this is a movie about old people being old and doing old things, so I recommended it to my parents, thinking they’d be able to relate to it. After seeing it, they were disturbed and even a little offended that I’d asked them to watch it.

Watching it again now, years later, I can relate...to my parents’ reaction that is. In the Bedroom is relentlessly grim, and its pacing languid. Field, in his directorial debut, seems to be ignorant of the fact that sometimes you need to cut some of what you shot. He must have the cleanest cutting room floor in the business.

At 130 minutes, Field is in no rush to tell his story or get his point across. Sometimes he's clever about it: during an important scene between Matt and Natalie at the convenience store where she is a cashier, Field refuses to allow the scene to just play-out, constantly interrupting the drama with obnoxious customers.

This is one of the film’s central themes, contrasting the extraordinary with the mundane. When Matt and Ruth have an argument, the first action in the film in nearly an hour, it’s interrupted by a knock at the door. “That must be the police,” Matt jokes, but it’s just a girl selling candy to finance her team’s trip to the Nationals. Matt and Ruth are having a really terrible time, but to everyone else in the world it’s just business as usual. This causes them to ask, "Why us?", and to parcel out the blame to one another.

For most of the film, Field and Festinger really hold back, letting the characters’ repressed emotions mount and mount until you don’t really care anymore. The patient and deliberate pacing allows the actors to do their thing and really develop their characters, but it gets to be a bit frustrating to watch. The blame is in the torpid second act that just moves too darn slow. You wouldn’t want to spend two hours with these poor people in real life, and certainly not in reel life either. In fairness, though, the last act really comes together; it’s suspenseful and intense, but just like a trip to Maine, where the film is set, it takes a long time to get there.

Mr. Field calls Maine “The Great State of Maine” (in the credits), and he also calls it home. As such he’s got a real hold on the fine details, from the way the houses are decorated to the Blake-quoting poker buddy to the priest who confesses to getting his hair cut at Supercuts. The film is cheaper than a trip to New England and just as boring.

I’m just kidding -- I really love New England. Anyway, there are some real moments of beauty and fine filmmaking scattered throughout, but for the most part the film is too static and by the books. The camera rarely moves and the actors never really do anything except sit still. The editing is a lot of shot, countershot, etc.; though sometimes visually interesting it isn’t exactly cinematically thrilling. I’ve always had a soft spot for Mr. Field ever since I saw him play “that prick piano player” in Eyes Wide Shut, but he just really doesn’t do it for me here. Do yourselves a favor, readership, and cut straight to his triumphant sophomore effort, Little Children.

10 January 2007

Kicking and Screaming

Not to be confused with the Will Ferrell vehicle of the same name, Noah Baumbach’s (The Squid and the Whale) first feature is actually a funny movie. It’s an ensemble piece, comprised of an assemblage of endearing young actors, most notably Baumbach-and-Whit-Stillman-regular Christopher Eigeman. If Avon made Eigeman statuettes, I’d have one atop my bookcase next to my Fred Astaire; it’s a shame they don’t make this sort of talky ‘90s dramedy anymore (or at least that they didn’t make more of them) because it leaves Mr. Eigeman without the opportunity to do what he does best: play that American with the cultured intelligence and caustic wit of an Englishman.

Four friends, who discuss philosophy, literature, and popular culture with the ease that most Americans discuss gossip and sports, graduate from college but refuse to admit it or act like it. They still live near, hang-out by, and even sometimes eat at the old campus, as well as have sex with the freshmen. As Max (Eigeman) tells one of his friends at the bar: “I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I'm reminiscing this right now.” They wildly attempt to postpone growing up and having new experiences – that is, living life. Max even goes so far as to cover a pile of broken glass in his kitchen with an identifying sign rather than sweep it up. Why do today what you could put off till tomorrow, when with luck you’ll die or fall through a wormhole or something and never have to do it anyway? Max declares that he wishes he was already retiring from a lifetime of hard labor, because he doesn’t want to have to actually perform a life’s worth of work, just to remain on permanent vacation.

Baumbach’s filmmaking style, for a first time cineaste that never went to film school, is impressive: his takes are long and his cuts and camera movements are prudent and always appropriate. (Unlike many modern directors, Baumbach is a genuine cinephile and it shows; he’s picked up a couple of tricks from the greats.) His camera often snakes around and picks up conversations similar to the type our protagonists have, suggesting their state of paralyzed senescence is not merely personal but generational. Perhaps even cultural.

The influence of Woody Allen hangs heavily over the film -- in a good way -- from the intellectually witty dialogue and bourgeois self-absorption to the ubiquitous New York references, although the film isn’t set in the city. When Max and Miami (Parker Posey) are sitting in a bar mocking their peers, it immediately recalls Alvy & Annie on a park bench doing the same. Also a clear influence on the film is Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, another '90s movie starring Chris Eigeman about rich college-age kids who don't do anything but talk literature and have sex.

Kicking and Screaming is about dissolving friendships and relationships, and what causes people to get involved with one another in the first place. It’s finely detailed, absorbing and hilarious, though also smug and sappy. I guess I’m just a sucker for that kind of thing.

Bottle Rocket

Bottle Rocket was a thirteen-minute short that attracted the attention of Simpsons producers James L. Brooks and Richie Sakai, who helped get it into Sundance, where they were able to secure the financing necessary to expand it. Viola, Wes Anderson’s first feature! And certainly his most accessible. (Your friends who react with sighs and eyerolls when you mention The Royal Tenenbaums should be able to happily enjoy this one.) Despite working with cinematographer Robert Yeoman, pre-A.S.C., who would go on to photograph all of his subsequent pictures to date, their customary elegant widescreen compositions and obsessive attention to detail are not as sharply realized as they are from Rushmore on. One might even say they are largely absent. Early in the film a character asks one of the protagonists, Anthony (Luke Wilson), “you’re complicated, aren’t you?” To which he replies, “I try not to be.” Well, they didn’t have to try so hard.

Anthony checks out of a hospital where he’d admitted himself for exhaustion and reunites with his old friend Dignan (Owen Wilson). Together, with a marginal third friend Bob (Robert Musgrave) as getaway driver, they embark on a life of crime. At least, they try; after robbing a bookstore and living as fugitives for a few days in a motel, they go back home. After a few months apart, living straight, they get back together and give a life of crime another go.

The joke is that anyone but these people should be trying their luck as criminals. Yuk yuk yuk. Anderson, with his usual screenwriting partner Owen Wilson, begins with this film their tradition of writing affectionate stories about misfit-outsider characters.

Bottle Rocket
's central gag is placing identifiable Gen-X slacker types within an unusual context; the gang try their luck as petty thieves but are clueless failures in crime as they are in straight life. Eschewing obnoxious self-consciousness, the filmmakers create a comedic blend of absurdity and underreaction whose tone is mostly soft and subtle; the comedy flows naturally from the overblown yet recognizable characters. It’s a fine line, but it’s pulled off; it’s not merely the lines that draw the laughs, but it’s the world of the film itself – the characters, setting, and story – that’s funny. Just not that funny.

It's a breezy comedy that exhibits hints of the filmmaking intelligence Anderson and company would bring to their subsequent films, and certainly a pleasant way to relax for ninety some odd minutes and have a few chuckles. Sometimes that's really all a movie should be.


L’Enfant comes to us from France (merci) but it may as well be Danish; for starters, I don’t speak either language very well, and second of all the Bros. Dardenne assert a filmmaking approach that appears to be as doctrinaire as Thomas Vinterberg's. The film is shot on what appear to be real locations, with natural lighting and no extradiegetic sound, seemingly qualifying it to be Dogme No. 158. Though unlike, say, Lars von Trier's alluring yet annoying stylistic experiments as of late, the Bros. Dardenne want to engage you with their affecting character study of a contemporary French hooligan. It feels like some kind of neoneorealism.

Bruno (Jérémie Renier) is a petty thief and good-for-nothing sod, with a pretty girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) who has just given birth to their son, Jimmy. Though Bruno could seem to care less that he’s got another tiny body to steal clothes for, his relationship with Sonia is playful and sweet, and you want to believe they’re very much in love.

Not in love enough to get a job, though, as Bruno boils down his philosophy in a nutshell: “J’ai pas envie de travailler pour des enculés.” (“Only fuckers work,” pardon his French, is the polite translation on the DVD.) He sees the world only in terms of commodified objects with black-market value, and yet it still comes as something of a surprise when he sells Jimmy for a few thousand euros. Did he really think Sonia would let him get away with that?

The Bros. Dardenne capture all the action with a wild handheld camera, using particularly long takes as they never intercut within scenes. The technique demands they use almost nothing but close-ups, which makes the images personal and emotionally involving without resorting to formal manipulation of the audience.

Narratively the film is slight – boy gets girl, boy sells baby, boy loses girl – but its simplicity is deceptive. It packs emotional intensity thanks to the leads’ masterful performances, who like the actors in Old Joy can pack a script's worth of emotional declaration into a long dialogueless stretch, and it's only enhanced by the gray, rainy streetscapes they inhabit. If you’re planning a trip to Belgium, where the film is shot, I would recommend you reconsider. (The joke being, of course, that no one would plan a trip to Belgium.)

One of the film’s most impressive performances is from Jérémie Segard, a mere garçon who plays one of Bruno’s schoolaged partners in crime. The pain that quivers through his body during the film’s climax is enough to make one want to call the authorities and report Luc and Jean-Pierre for child abuse. Puits fait.

07 January 2007

World Trade Center

Oliver Stone has boasted that his World Trade Center is an apolitical film, but that only holds true when you adopt the Bill O’Reilly dictionary in which “political” means liberal and “apolitical” means conservative. More to the point, every film is political. Of course, Mr. Stone has to be careful given the sensitivity of the material and the umbrage conservatives took with him after JFK. In that film, Stone attempted to set the record straight by celebrating the American hero Jim Garrison, and some in the 9-11 Truth Movement had high hopes that this film would take a similarly revisionist approach. Alas, looks like it’s still Loose Change for them.

World Trade Center has an effective expository section in its first twenty-five minutes, but the rest of the picture is hogwash. It tells the true story of John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), two Port Authority Police officers who were trapped in the rubble of Ground Zero after the Towers collapsed, and who were among the last survivors to be found. The film’s problem is that it’s just not a good idea for a movie – after the Towers collapse, nothing happens. Two men wait immobile to be rescued, two families wait for word about their lost boys, and the audience waits patiently for the movie to end. When the audience knows that the two central characters are going to ultimately survive, and there's no space for action, there’s no suspense to carry the film and therefore the drama has to be particularly strong. But the scenes of male-bonding in the rubble, or of the coping families, are conventional and hackneyed, as though everyone is just going through the motions of cinematic sentiment.

Thankfully, World Trade Center is still a lot better than United 93, not that that's saying much. (At least here we’re waiting for people to be rescued and reunited, whereas in United 93 we were just waiting for them to die.) World Trade Center’s worst quality, however, is its jingoism. Was the movie co-produced by the DoD? Has Oliver Stone gone Christopher Hitchens on us? The emotional connection provoked by the experiences of John and Will is crudely elevated to a war rally, embodied by the Connecticutian who, after remarking to his co-workers, “I don’t know if you know it yet but this country’s at war,” shaves his head, tosses on his fatigues, and heads down to New York City to do some rescuin’. After he finds John & Will, which leads to their rescue, he quits his job via phone because, “they’re gonna need some good men to avenge this.” Why is it that the two major American 9-11 movies so far have been vitriolic calls to vengeance rather than hopeful messages of togetherness? What does that say about us as a culture, eh?

John & Will’s survival is served as a metaphor for America's resolve – September 11th knocked us down, but not out. Let’s get back on our feet and go kick some Iraqi ass!

Oh dear, what happened to the man who made Salvador?

The Wicker Man

When I first heard that Neil LaBute would be writing and directing a new version of The Wicker Man, I was a bit surprised. The 1973 cult horror-musical is a film whose central themes are religious, telling the story of a devout Christian detective’s adventures on an island full of promiscuous pagans. The idea of a Wicker redux would seem better suited to Mel Gibson; after all, in films like Your Friends and Neighbors, LaBute has established himself as the go-to guy for cinematic studies of modern relationships. (Arguably, he is foremost a playwright; he was recently named the playwright-in-residence for the MCC Theater Company.) It’s like hearing Whit Stillman is remaking Dracula.

But LaBute adapted the material to his own recurring concerns – his detective’s not religious, his island isn’t sexy (to score the PG-13 rating I’m sure), and while the residents seem to practice a harvest-and-fertility-obsessed paganism, their religious practices take a back seat to the island’s real quirk – matriarchy! Gone is Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle, replaced by the confident Ellen Burstyn’s Sister Summersisle, den mother and queen bee of the predominantly female island, where the marginalized men, basically walking phalluses with muscles, are either unable or not allowed to speak.

This is LaBute’s worst nightmare, a place where he’d have to pay for the all the terrible things that Aaron Eckhardt’s character did in In the Company of Men. (Incidentally, Mr. Eckhardt has a brief and amusing cameo at the very beginning of the fim.) Nicolas Cage, as highway patrolman Edward Malus, travels to Summersisle, a private island community off the coast of Washington state, at the request of his erstwhile fiancée. She has a daughter, who’s gone missing, and she needs his investigatory help. But Cage can’t get a straight answer from anyone – is the girl even missing? Is she dead? Does she even exist?

Most of the film drags along, with pretentious flashbacks, stiff performances, and cheap, thrill-less “thrills”, such as a floor that caves-in! But in the final act the film gains momentum; LaBute gets cooking and the island comes alive for the first time, as Cage madly peregrinates, bumping into all sorts of creepy natives and beating the shit out of Leelee Sobieski. The “twist” is the same as in the original, but it's executed from different motivations. In the end, it's a reactionary tale of paranoid misogyny, but one ultimately so deeply and genuinely felt it’s difficult to ignore altogether.

The Sweet Smell of Success

A drunk is tossed out of a nightclub and onto the streets of New York – and straight into a garbage can. J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a conniving and contemptible columnist, looks-on before he turns and mutters, “I love this dirty town.” Such is the New York of The Sweet Smell of Success, by a nose the filthiest New York movie ever filmed; perhaps cleaner on its face but nastier in its heart than even Taxi Driver. Rarely does a film bare its teeth as flagrantly as a feral dog.

Tony Curtis plays Sidney, a sycophantic press agent so desperate to get an item into Mr. Hunsecker’s cloutful column that he’ll ruin the lives of every innocent person he meets. He'd even "sell out his own girl," (!) as the original movie poster explains. With the aid of a snaking camera and a hot jazz soundtrack, the film propels forward as Sidney peregrinates through nightclubs, theaters, and offices, its propulsion seemingly unstoppable (except for a few dragging respites when Curtis is off-screen.) Most of the film plays out like a voyage through the subconscious of a castrated capitalist; everywhere Sidney goes, by nearly everyone he meets, he is embarrassed, emasculated, and chewed-out. As Hunsecker pointedly avers, “you’re a prisoner of your own fears, ambition, and greed” and it seems like just about everybody knows it.

Clifford Odets’ screenplay (with Ernest Lehman) is thick with dirty dialogue, some of the best ever heard in pictures. Whereas some of Odets’ stagework, like Awake and Sing!, feels dated today in its idealism, The Sweet Smell of Success’ undiluted cynicism still tastes fresh (a sensation buttressed by James Wong Howe’s stark black and white photography.) Go back to bed boychik, the world’s a mess.

While Curtis carries the movie, it’s Lancaster, who also co-produced, as Hunsecker who stays with you long after the credits roll, like the slimey nauseous sensation that accompanies having eaten too much popcorn. His performance carefully dances that fine line between (insincere) genteel amiability and bitter, contemptuous cruelty. It’s a dirty performance as an ornery character in an altogether nasty film.

Russian Dolls

Russian Dolls, the sequel to L'Auberge Espagnole, finds the protagonist, Xavier (Romain Duris), five years after we saw him literally running away from the complacency of careerhood, working as a writer and living in Paris. As the character seems to have matured over this period of time so too does the film’s director. Gone is the childish quirkiness of the first film – there’s a strong story that’s not as easily distracted, as it was in L’Auberge, by amusing antics and various goings-on. Thematically and intellectually, Russian Dolls is stronger than its predecessor.

Stylistically the film is excessively manic and bounces around like a spilt bag of marbles. While its mad buoyancy can be a bit exhausting, especially early on in the film, it’s also the appropriate manner in which to tell Xavier’s story as his life is very eccentric and unfocused. That’s also expressed by the film’s globe hopping – boats, trains, and buses are a consistent motif. Life is motion.

Xavier has a series of romantic and/or sexual relationships with different women, hoping to find the right one – the last, tiny Russian doll in a series of Russian dolls. It examines the relationship between art and life, and how artists tend to create unrealistic and unattainable ideals not only in their work but also in their own lives. It’s a very self-conscious film that often comments on itself, as it does for example with the crowds of oooing gawkers often present when two characters kiss.

Ultimately, the film advocates for the rejection of the imaginary ideal and an embrace of the real, with all its loveable imperfections. After all, that’s a big part of growing up, at least for imaginative artsy types. Of course, real life also kind of sucks, which is why we have art, like Russian Dolls, in the first place.

A Prairie Home Companion

My roommate walked into the living room while I was watching A Prairie Home Companion, during a duet between Meryl Streep and Garrison Keillor about rhubarb pie, and asked, “oh, is this like A Mighty Wind?” Keillor’s unabashed sincerity can be disconcerting for generations raised on irony and cynicism, but that seems to be, at least partly, what Robert Altman's new film is about.

Ostensibly the film is about a fictional farewell performance of Keillor’s actual long-running radio programme from which the film gets its name. There’s not much of a plot, just a lot of corny jokes and hokey musical numbers that are quite charming in their innocuousness. Backstage there is a fair share of old-fashioned sex, death, and hard-times, but Keillor is careful not to allow any of it to seep into the show. Many, though not all, of Keillor’s regulars have been replaced with an all-star cast that shows off its acting chops and competent singing talents. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, in particular, scintillate as a couple of singing sisters; they have such a delightful, natural rapport that one feels they could just watch them prate all day.

Comparisons with Woody Allen's Radio Days seem apparent, if only because of the subject matter (they both bemoan the decline of radio: as one Prairie characters notes, all you have on the radio after Keillor is "people yelling at you and computers playing music"), but while that film approaches the elegaic, Altman's remarkably eschews sentimentality. Therein lies its greatness: iPods may replace Victrolas, and the internet may supplant band tuners, but the divergence of generations, although it may be unfortunate in some regard, certainly isn't tragic. After all, Lindsay Lohan, as Streep's daughter, still gets up to sing "Frankie and Johnnie", only with her own set of lyrics. The best thing any of us can do is just wear a smile and keep on singing until our time comes.

Mutual Appreciation

If I saw Justin Rice, the star of Mutual Appreciation, at a party I would hide behind someone tall—so why would I want to see a movie about him? After leaving the theater in a bitter daze, my date dutifully reported that an elderly fellow spectator had quipped in the ladies' room, "I just can't watch young people for two hours." Me neither, lady.

In my personal life as a Brooklynite, I avoid Williamsburg hipsters like Long Island, and Mutual Appreciation is chockablock with nothing but. It deserves its critical accolades only to the extent that it is laudably naturalistic, both visually and in its acting styles. My virulent visceral reaction to the film's characters is a direct result of its overall believability.

As a critic, it wouldn't be fair to disparage a film because its characters remind me of real-life people I dislike, but that's not my essential grievance--Mutual Appreciation's bigger problem is that its superficially charming characters are not only unbearably solipsistic but that the tone of the film is maddeningly uncritical. Like the similarly flawed Garden State, which was visually impressive but made by Zach Braff for Pete's sake, it lacks a much needed adult perspective. It's one thing for the characters to be nettlesome navel-gazers, and quite another for the director to be one, too. (He also co-stars, go figure.)

I'd put the picture in the National Registry as a valuable record of the abject Williamsburg scene of the early twenty-first century, but I wouldn't ask you to watch it lest you were writing a book about cinematic realism or the decline of Western civilization. In that rare case, by all means.

Miami Vice

In the new cinematization of the popular ‘80s television series, director Michael Mann (who was an executive producer of the original show) has removed all of the show's beloved gaudiness, replacing it with a sleek, washed-out aughties cool. Apparently, in this post 9/11 world, not only is irony dead, but so it kitsch. But does the film really warrant the sobriety with which it is imbued?

Like any self-respecting action-adventure flick, the characters do a good deal of globe trotting, interhemisphere-hopping between Haiti, Havana, and South Florida. Unlike one, however, it drags a lot. What kind of action movie spends most of its time actionless? An engaging first act gives way to a second that is disengaging and dull, and it never resiles. What’s more, the story is considerably convoluted, and the dialogue is chockablock with esoteric lingo.

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx play undercover FBI agents who infiltrate a large drug ring for the purpose of finding the leak in their department. But, then they don’t care about the leak anymore, because it turns out there’s a very powerful drug kingpin involved. When the movie focuses on men engaged in dangerous deals it’s at its strongest, but too often it’s distracted by romantic interludes that fall flat. Some directors are a bit inept at handling romance (like Walter Hill; see our review of Broken Trail), and a glance at Mann’s oeuvre (Heat, Collateral, etc.) seems to indicate he’s far more adept at portraying men’s relationships with one another than the ones they have with the ladies.

There are a few effective set pieces -- a meet & greet in Port-Au-Prince, the shoot-out finale, and a rescue mission to recover Foxx’s abducted lady friend – but three good scenes do not a worthwhile picture make. Throughout his career Mann has perpetually produced three-star movies that were good, but never great. Here, he doesn’t even reach good. As far as summer blockbusters go, you could do a lot worse, and Mann could do a lot better.

Little Children

Generally I am put off by voice-over narration in film, as it is usually condescendingly explanatory -- moving pictures ought to speak for themselves. The narration in Todd Field’s latest movie, Little Children, is no exception, and yet it manages to work successfully by complementing the film’s visual elegance with an aural literary elegance.

Fields displays a masterful command of the medium through his powerful imagery (for example, an empty stroller left in the backyard in the rain while inside and upstairs adultery ensues), gorgeous widescreen composition, and exceptional editing. Two stories are told simultaneously, and they occasionally overlap: one concerns an extramarital affair born of suburban malaise between Brad (Patrick Wilson) and Sarah (Kate Winslet in a fearless performance), while the other concerns an ex-cop’s pathological obsession with a sex-offender, Ronald McGorvey, recently released back into the general suburban population. The film is often hilarious, particularly in its portrayal of suburban life.

But more often it's disturbing; in one scene, McGorvey frankly confesses to his mother, marvelously played by Phyllis Sommerville, “I have a psychosexual disorder.” Every character in the film has a psychosexual disorder; they are all dissatisfied with their unfulfilling suburban existence and they express it sexually, whether through extramarital affairs, internet pornography obsessions, sexual frigidity, or inappropriate public exposure. Unhealthily and unfairly, they displace their sexual anxieties onto McGorvey, particularly Larry, the ex-cop, whose inability to deal with his own latent homosexuality loses him his wife and motivates him to stalk McGorvey obsessively. They are all reduced to little children, and unfortunately many of these irresponsible people have little children of their own.

Ultimately, though, the film is modestly hopeful, at least for some of those involved. Honest introspection, and growing up, isn’t impossible, just hard. Not every Emma Bovary wannabe needs to drink poison.

Jackass Number Two

Anyone even vaguely familiar with the television series – because after all the movies are only extended episodes of the show – shouldn’t be too surprised by the series of practical jokes, public pranks, and most of all the masochistic stunts carried out by the manboys of Jackass. Everyone I’m sure has already established opinions about it, but to those would-be detractors I would recommend to loosen up. Thankfully, the humor hasn’t yet gone stale, although the film will function at its most effective when put on in the background at a party and not at home by yourself on a Saturday night. It also helps that no one else of note makes anything quite like it. Not in the movies, anyway.

Johnny Knoxville, the pack’s alpha male, sums it all up halfway through the film when he instructs a colleague, who’s about to intentionally get his testicles stuck to an equine ice sculpture, “don’t think about it, just do it.” This is refreshingly senseless comedy stripped of all its formal pretensions: there’s no narrative context, very few punchlines, and no one is even trying to keep a straight face – consequently, their good time is infectious. It’s pure, distilled comedy, and while fine wine will always be superior to moonshine, sometimes you just want to get fucked-up.

New to this installment is the parade of celebrity cameos, from professional athletes like Tony Hawk to Hollywood directors like John Waters. Also new, if memory serves me correctly, is a spirit of one-upmanship; it’s no longer enough for someone to put a leech on their testicle, Steve-O has to put one in his eye.

You’ll notice from all the testicle references that the profuse homoeroticism is back, as well as their sadistic treatment of one another. Also back is the pervasive subtext that Jackass’ masochism is rooted in resentment towards their parents, as they constantly taunt, bait, and horrify Bam Margera’s mother.

The guys repeatedly allow themselves to be attacked by animals, usually bulls, as well as treating themselves like animals, such as when Mr. Margera has his posterior branded, or when Steve-O puts a fishhook attached to fishing wire through his cheek and leaps into shark-infested waters – fishing for sharks with human bait. They also beat themselves and each other using various modern artifacts – shopping carts, bicycles, medicine balls, fire hoses, etc. If Jackass should be read any way, it should be as a loving testament to the resilience of the human body, albeit by a hanful of assholes.

Iraq in Fragments

I’d forgotten that you could make a documentary outside of the Michael Moore/Robert Greenwald style of made-for-TV, cut-and-paste jobs. Many of the recent documentaries (eg. Who Killed the Electric Car?) have been no more cinematic than an episode of Frontline, so James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments was a pleasant surprise. It’s an artful and poetic collage of images of destruction, commingled with a humanizing portrait of ordinary Iraqi civilians; above all, though, it is cinematically interesting. Langley’s camera is restless, and the effect is hypnotic and literally dizzying. There is so much fascinating fodder all around him that it seems he can’t film it fast enough.

The title refers both to the film’s tripartite structure as well as the fragmentary nature of contemporary Iraq. There are no interviews with pundits or talking heads -- all the footage comes from the ground. Each section of the film examines life among one of the country’s different ethnic groups – Sunna, Shia, and Kurd – usually focusing on one or two individuals. By examining the different microcosms he hopes to elucidate the state of affairs in the macrocosm.

The violence is as ubiquitous as the cigarette smoke (Iraq seems to have no shortage of cigarettes and guns). As a small Sunni boy says, “it’s scary, there’s no security”; a group of Shia fundamentalists beat and kidnap a group of men at gunpoint whose only crime is the purveyance of alcohol in the market (“and I used to complain about Saddam!” one declares); Kurdistan is perpetually covered by billowing streams of thick black smoke. Peter Galbraith, in his new book The End of Iraq, argues in support of breaking the country up into three autonomous regions, getting a divorce so to speak. Langley demonstrates that the country seems headed that way because of the deep, and partly manufactured, divisions between its rival groups.

Iraq’s future, for now, is uncertain except in that it will certainly be violent. The depiction of Shia religious fervor in the second part is especially frightening to consider as the future of Iraq, particularly as it seems probable given their majority position. One cleric cryptically contends, “The true democracy is Islam.”

Nearly all the Iraqis on-screen gripe about the American presence (fairly enough). But Mohammed's, the child protagonist of the first chapter, father is absent because he was disappeared by Saddam. Iraq was vicious under Hussein, it’s just as, if not more, miserable now under the Americans, and the prospect of a fundamentalist Shia domination on the horizon is less than promising. The poor Iraqis seem perpetually fucked.

Inland Empire

Disclaimer: The following article could possibly be construed as containing "spoilers", although it seems difficult to spoil a largely plotless film, except by perhaps implanting interpretive ideas into your head that may affect the way you watch the film. Arguably, it may be best read after seeing the film, but the decision is of course yours.

Inland Empire may be the Lynchiest David Lynch film to date, and as such it is likely to be spurned by both his detractors and his only casual sympathizers. At first it comes across as a digitized, revised and revisited Mulholland Dr. redux, but midway transforms into one of the most bewildering and demanding films that commercial American cinema has ever produced.

Laura Dern plays Nikki, an actress playing a character named Sue, in a movie called On High in Blue Tomorrows. The fictional script had been attempted to be filmed once before, but was left unfinished when the two leads were murdered. The story is thought to be cursed, to have something "inside" of it. Nikki, or Sue, may or may not be having an affair with her co-star Devon, playing a character named Billy, and played by Justin Theroux; at one point she is warning him about her dangerous husband when she laughs and declares, “this sounds like a line from our movie!” The film's director, Kingsley (Jeremy Irons), shouts, “Cut!” and Dern looks as taken aback as we are. Wait, where are we? What’s going on?

After that, it’s difficult (not that it was easy before) to say what’s going on, if anything is going on at all. It would be easy to write the film off, as Richard Brody did in The New Yorker, as a “pretentious puzzle” and “self-parody”. Lynch, in a rare move for any artist, has allowed the audience unrestricted and unfiltered access into his subconscious; it is projected up on the screen, entirely unadulterated, for us to examine, ponder, and experience. All I can say is, yikes!

Lynch has said much of film was improvised and unfortunately, at times in its first half, the lack of a script shows -- luckily, by the end of the film it is nearly forgotten. Improv is tricky business in the movies, and needs to be cleaned up a bit in the editing room. Otherwise, the pacing is thrown off, and scenes go on longer than they should – think of Scorsese’s New York, New York as the quintessential example.

Anyway, like Mulholland Dr., clues as to the film’s “meaning” are copiously scattered throughout. (How to use those clues, or whether they can actually be used at all, is a matter of debate.) Many of the keys to deciphering the picture lie within a cryptic scene early in the film between Dern and her new neighbor, hilariously played by Grace Zabriskie. One thing Zabriskie mentions is a story about a boy who went out of his house, and into the world, to play; he caused a reflection and, as the story goes, evil was born. This underlies the several dichotomies that figure in the film: actor and character, life and art/film, married woman and whore – what essentially boils down to, to oversimplify, good vs. evil. Lynch, as he did in Mulholland Dr., seems to once again have Bergman's Persona on his mind. The struggle between the dualities is best expressed explicitly in a scene near the end in which Dern simultaneously functions as spectator and spectacle. (!)

Therein seems to lie the film’s thematic core – Hollywood filmmaking and the male gaze, in their treatment of the female, are inherently pernicious and corrupting. The opening shot of the film is of a projector bulb that reveals the title; this is not merely a film about filmmaking but about filmviewing. Lynch makes the viewer feel guilty for watching the very movie he’s presenting, particularly near the end when Dern stares directly into the camera at us with a look of bewilderment and disgust. If only we could look away!

Like Naomi Watts’ dewy-eyed, revealing comment in Mulholland Dr. that Hollywood is “some kind of dreamplace,” so again is that city’s idealistic image referenced: William H. Macy, in a brief cameo as a radio announcer, says Hollywood is “where stars make dreams and dreams make stars.” But lurking beneath its surface, like the insects in the opening of Blue Velvet, it’s also a place where, in its decadence, “champagne and caviar are on their way,” and where Devon and his entourage chuckle as they discuss Nikki’s “nice ass.”

That may sound harmless enough, but not for long. Hollywood transforms otherwise virtuous women into sex objects, i.e. whores. (My recurring use of that term is not meant to be pejorative, but is the word Dern’s character uses to describe herself later in the film.) Hollywood corrupts us morally, the filmmakers and the filmviewers, as suggested by the image of Dern, after being attacked with a phallus, bleeding all over the stars of Hollywood Boulevard. In the film’s second half, Nikki, or Sue, is no longer a fidelious wife but an adulterer, who spends a good deal of her time with what one assumes to be prostitutes. However, Dern’s time with them, listening to them talk dirty, is often spent teary-eyed. It’s a difficult thing, to face one’s own repressed prurience -- it's not that she is two separate entities, but that the virtuous and the salacious are one and the same.

It seems that Nikki the actress and Sue the character gradually become intertwined, a commingling of Sue’s backstory and Nikki’s fantasies. It is a trip not only through her, and Lynch’s, subconscious but also the subconscious of the script for On High in Blue Tomorrows – a journey through the story’s curse and the curse of Hollywood at large. She is lost and trapped within narrative itself, as an abstract. Once again, yikes!

But all this is only part of the story. The film goes far deeper, and is more tangential than I’ve described, including “lugubrious scenes from Poland, a sitcom apartment inhabited by people wearing rabbit heads,” (Brody) and a teary-eyed woman, possibly a diegetic stand-in for Lynch, enunciating all the images through her television set. Trying to decipher the picture, to make sense of every bit of it, is not only futile but misses the point. Lynch amusingly taunts the audience at one point with two women, who stare into the camera and ask, of a dismembered corpse, “who is she? Who is she?” as though we ought to know. Mr. Lynch, isn’t that what we should be asking you?

The sitcom rabbits, for example, or the choreographed dance scene of the prostitutes grooving to “The Locomotion” are only going to “make sense” to the director; to ask what they "mean" is an invalid question. They don't mean anything, they just are. The film is obviously trying to make several points (some more obvious than others), but the audience is never meant to fully decode Lynch’s brain – ultimately it is up to us to make of it what we will.

An Inconvenient Truth

There is a shot in An Inconvenient Truth, about an hour in, in which Al Gore is shown receiving a rousing ovation outside the theater in which he just delivered his customary lecture on global warming. The small sequence feels superfluous – what does Mr. Gore’s reception in China have to do with the perils of impending climate change? An Inconvenient Truth is, of course, the new documentary about Al Gore starring global warming, and it is uncomfortably self-possessed. Gore is just as much using his own celebrity to draw attention to the pressing environmental crisis as he is using the issue to draw attention to himself.

Primarily, the film is a taped version of a PowerPoint presentation Mr. Gore gives about the reality – causes and effects – of global warming. While it may sound more like a
Saturday Night Live sketch, Gore’s performance is witty, passionate, and engaging, although a brief animated segment from Matt Groening really steals the show. Gore has obviously taken to heart the criticisms leveled at him in 2000 as being wooden and boring, though he at times lays the homespun, countrybred hokeyness (as well as the Apple Computers product placements) on a bit thick.

He makes a sound argument as to why global warming is a terribly serious issue that needs to be addressed forthwith, and skeptics (i.e. idiots) and indifferents should see the film to have that point driven home. (It is a sad testament to our culture that a movie like this even needs to be made to emphasize the veracious impendence of global warming.) After all, lately the planet does seem, as Mr. Gore says, like it’s taking a “nature hike through the Book of Revelations” and Gore is able to convincingly lay the blame for the SARS outbreak and the crisis in Darfur, at least in part, on global warming. Like politicians in general, however, the film is a distasteful combination of self-obsession and an obsession over “the public good” (however one defines “public” or “good” is another matter.) I’m not insinuating that Mr. Gore’s passion is insincere, but he does come off as a salesman working on commission, the commission being political power as well as global security. The film's subtext seems to be a lecture on how different the world would be if Al Gore had been elected president in 2000.

In segments between the PowerPoint, Gore tells a bit of his life story and the adversities he’s overcome: almost losing his son in a car accident, losing his sister to lung cancer, and having the presidency stolen from him. It subtly suggests that the way Mr. Gore has pulled himself back together to become a rock star of the lecture circuit could be the same way our planet pulls itself back together. After all, it’s not too late to start rolling back our carbon emissions and avoid the most direly predicted outcomes (like Lower Manhattan, including the World Trade Center Memorial, being underwater within seventy-five years.)

But Mr. Gore, now informed, what can I do? Besides buying more energy efficient appliances and automobiles, he doesn’t offer much more except…vote Democratic. Oh, please.


We are introduced right away to Jean, “an absolute fortress,” as his friends describe him, who possesses the “ease of contentment…[and] the cold stare of achievement,” as he says of himself in narration. The first fifteen minutes of the film are drenched in voice-over, words being a large part of the guise of propriety and complacency that he has built up around himself. Jean is sheltered by his punctilio.

But this façade is soon shattered, and a glass bottle is broken just to drive the point home, and his narration is interrupted mid-line. His wife, Gabrielle, has left him a Dear Jean letter and run off with another man. Devastated, even the film itself is unable to speak, briefly replacing spoken dialogue with printed titles. But then, only hours after she had left, Gabrielle returns.

Hitherto, Jean had seen his own stolidity and sexless contentment mirrored by his wife, but that was all a lie – he knows his wife as intimately as he does the servants (which is to say, not at all.) The externalities are removed from around the couple – the servants, the dinner guests, and even the dinner itself – leaving Jean emotionally naked to take a hard, honest, and disturbing look at himself. Gabrielle is an artfully-executed psychological study of a marriage’s dissolution.

Based on Jos. Conrad’s The Return, which
Chéreau describes as, “an extraordinary dialogue between deaf people,” the film is about a man and a society nearly devoid of emotion. Jean remarks in reference to himself, “emotion is so revolting,” and he describes his friend as people who “fear emotion…more than fire, war, or fatal disease.” These are people who have applied layer upon layer of social veneer, reflected (yuk yuk) by the many mirrors that Chéreau uses to fill up his frames. The characters have not only two sides but three, maybe four.

Gabrielle is not meant to represent a strong, independent feminist-type, though she may be, but functions to expose Jean’s hollowness to himself. When much of the couples’ drama has been played out, they once again receive dinner guests, who are presented as fixed figures in a carefully arranged tableau. Jean, however, has been loosed from their formal rigidity, stumbling about manically disheveled. Gone is his previously stoic mien and his ability to fit in. In his effusiveness he glaringly sticks out from his contemporaries; the poor thing has been forced to feel a natural emotion.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine…, as lazy people everywhere refer to it, uses science fiction to breathe some life into that trite and tired old adage, courtesy Lord Tennyson, “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Jim Carrey, in his finest performance to date, plays Joel, an artist who discovers his recent ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has undergone a procedure in which all her memories of him have been literally erased from her mind. He decides, tit-for-tat, to do the same. (Joel first asks if the procedure carries any risk of brain damage, to which the doctor replies, "technically the procedure is brain damage.")

Much of the action is set inside Joel’s mind, which plays well since the depiction of spatially illogical memoryspace seems perfectly suited to the filmic medium. Director Gondry leaps between Joel’s memories of Clementine as they are being erased and literally disintegrating (cf. props and characters disappear from the screen, sets collapse, and dialogue, intentionally, doesn’t synch up to the actors’ lip movements --
it’s as though Annie Hall were being run backwards through a projector that was on fire) as though they were all on a linear spatiotemporal plane. As Joel’s mind becomes increasingly confused so too does the film’s imagery: it starts raining in an apartment, or Joel and Clementine awake in bed and find themselves in the middle of a beach.

Charlie Kaufman’s script, an intriguing concept executed marvelously, is peppered with clever dialogue and a universal theme about the preciousness of memories, even those that are banal, sad, painful, or all three, like my entire life. While any film about a man's journey through his brain during the process of a memory erasure is going to have its share of coherency issues, like any film about time travel, they are able to be overlooked here for the sake of the affecting and absorbing drama.

Carrey has shown a range deeper than that displayed in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls in recent years, in films like The Truman Show and The Majestic, but he has never before been at once so effusive and yet, thankfully (because remember who we’re dealing with here), restrained. Kate Winslet’s performance, further proving her to be a virtuosic maestro, moves
with seemingly incredible ease between frenetic spontaneity and disheveled dolor, like Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut.

Ultimately a terribly cynical portrait of modern romance, the film portrays every relationship in it as flawed, damaged, and doomed to failure. Somehow, though, we come to realize we wouldn’t trade that misery for anything in the world, not even to jump around naked with Kirsten Dunst. As Alvy Singer once explained it, I guess we all just need the eggs. However, the film itself does not so much make this point as it hopes it will force the
audience make it on their own by manipulating their own personal emotional memories. It does not set to prove the aforementioned adage ("'tis better to have loved...") because it already assumes it to be true.

Flannel Pajamas

I’m only human, so even I (that's right, even me) can occasionally get suckered into seeing a movie based solely on the appeal of a great trailer. For example, the trailer for Good Night and Good Luck is so good it can make you want to see the movie even after you just saw it. After seeing the Shopgirl trailer fifty times, my rational resistance to renting it was worn down ("maybe it won't be so bad after all..."). And the trailer for Flannel Pajamas, with its super catchy pop song and Technicolor intertitles reminiscent of My Own Private Idaho, struck a chord with me. I figured I’d wait and read the reviews and try to make a less emotional decision -- after all, in my current financial situation $10.75 is a of money to gamble -- but when none appeared in the papers on the day it opened, I decided to treat myself and take the risk.

Well, I can’t say my optimistic indulgence was pleasantly gratified, but neither can I say that I was utterly disappointed. The film presents a deeply realized character study that’s long, talky, and absorbing. Its fly-on-the-wall glimpse into a romance, from its promising beginnings to its troubled end, is brutally and unflinchingly honest – a courageous act on behalf of its stars, Justin Kirk and Julianne Nicholson, and its writer-director.

Stuart and Nicole are set up on a blind date and really hit it off. Stuart makes his living by inventing phony back-stories for Broadway plays to induce larger ticket sales, and he’s such a good bullshit-artist that he is able to put on an act convincing enough that Nicole eventually agrees to marry him. Once they are married, however, the mask of the courtship ritual is removed, and the characters become more honestly themselves. Consequently, their relationship begins to disintegrate.

To anyone who’s ever been in a bourgeois relationship or, according to the aureate Stephen Holden, "if you belong to the college-educated class of New York professionals that believes in talking things out," the film’s particulars and generalities are both at once painfully familiar and comfortably foreign, leaving the viewer at a safe distance and yet deeply emotionally involved. The film's first half, which sets the romance up for its inevitable fall, is wonderfully executed and alone makes the film worth seeing. Its tightly connected scenes of a bourgeoning love affair are so precisely detailed, subtextual and candid as to render them utterly captivating. Its second half, however, loses its focus by straying too far into external family drama. Suddenly subtext becomes simplytext. Nicole's mother exposes that she is an anti-Semite of the Grammy Hall variety, except she isn't played for laughs, and it starts to feel a little ridiculous. You can almost hear Lipsky whispering in the back of the theater, "did you hear that? Someone said, 'Jew want some popcorn? Not do you, but jew, jew want some popcorn...'"

Lipsky has a far better understanding of relationships than he does family and religion, and it unfortunately shows. When he begins to abandon the hermetic world of the relationship for a contextual look in from the outside, the film suffers and it never fully recovers. Lipsky attempts to say, rather than show, that the relationship is more complex than he ever really established. Just by declaring that the failure of the marriage is rooted in religious conflict and family histories doesn't make it convincingly so; all I see are two people gradually drifting apart for personal reasons not elucidated by an exploration into their genes. Tashsa Robinson put it best in her trenchant review: "she needs...her overprotective mother, and he needs absolutely anyone who'll let him play overprotective mother."