Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Written by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Directed by Susan Stroman
It should be noted right off the bat that I spend my life accounting with figures and such and that I have a not-so-secret desire somewhere deep in my soul. Yes, that’s right, I wanna be a producer of a big show on Broadway! Well, maybe not Broadway as they are more frequently interested in commerce more so than art (when is that “Apprentice” musical opening??). I also had the chance to catch the Broadway musical earlier this year, albeit not starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as it was originally cast a few years ago. I saw it and I did not love it. There’s nothing terribly exciting about watching an actor put on a bad Nathan Lane impression (or in my case, an understudy putting on an impression of an actor putting on a bad Nathan Lane impression).
The film interpretation, directed by choreographer Susan Stroman is very loyal to the stage production and a lot more enjoyable to watch with Broderick and Lane in the leads. Stroman gives a refreshing taste of the classical Hollywood musical, staging some musical numbers on stages themselves (revolutionary!), some on sound stage sets that recreate the streets of New York and others on the actual streets of New York. The result is a lively, energetic film with many hearty laughs at the expense of the absurdity of the theatrical world and Broadway itself.
The one thing I did not see was this supposedly perfect chemistry between Broderick and Lane that helped the stage production amass a record setting number of Tony’s. As Max Bialystock, a middle-aged Broadway producer slash scam artist, Lane is slimy, quick and crafty. He always has an answer and his timing is on cue at all times. It became obvious to me how vital Lane is to this show as Bialystock highlights his strongest traits, a smooth liar who constantly fumbles but knows how to wiggle himself out every time. This will replace his role as Albert in “The Birdcage” as his signature. On the other hand, I found Broderick to be annoying and difficult to watch at times. To begin with, the character of Leopold Bloom is a pathetic coward, prone to overly dramatic panic attacks if one steals the remaining scrap of his childhood blue blanky. Broderick then takes this character and overdoes every movement, every expression, almost every line. Bloom may be an awkward guy by nature but Broderick himself looks uncomfortable and unsure how to make this character work on screen. As a result, instead of going forward side by side, Lane ends up carrying Broderick along with him.
Broderick works much better opposite Uma Thurman as Ulla. Thurman has never looked more like a classical movie star and together they generate some genuine sparks during an enchanting number called “That Face” in which the walls that prevent love from growing between an unobtainable woman and a bumbling, mumbling accountant are broken down with a dance and a kiss. Another addition to the cast, Will Ferrell, continues to enhance his character work with more depth and less Will Ferrell. As Franz Liebkind, the author of the supposedly worst play ever written, “Springtime for Hitler”, Ferrell is infallible, maintaining the caricature of a neo-Nazi musical nut job throughout without giving into his own self-indulgence.
Caricature is typical Mel Brooks and “The Producers” oozes caricature, from a blond bombshell who can barely speak English to an entire parade of gay theatre folk in costumes as cliché as sailors, leather cops and Indian chiefs. My issues with Broderick aside, Brooks’ incapability of seeing characters other than one he could conceivably play (think white, straight, Jewish type) as characters with actual personalities is what ultimately stops “The Producers” from selling. Hysterical laughter one minute, an awkwardly hushed theatre the next.
Written by Robin Swicord and Doug Wright
Directed by Rob Marshall
Director Rob Marshall has wrapped us a very special present with his follow-up to the Best Picture winning “Chicago”, “Memoirs of a Geisha”. He took all the time he needed to pick just the right box and a multiple-patterned wrapping in brilliant colours before meticulously covering the box and tying a flawless bow around it. It shines like nothing we’ve seen. It’s a shame that upon opening this gift, we see that he forgot to put any thought into what to put in it to begin with as tearing away this perfect packaging leads to nothing more than an empty box.
I have not read the highly successful novel this film is based on. And perhaps I am less in touch with my feminine side than I thought as I do not understand what all these Geishas are complaining about. Sure, the story begins with a young Japanese girl sold to another household and separated from her sister and only remaining family. She lives the life of a slave but is inevitably given the chance of any girls’ lifetime, to become a Geisha (this is not “Memoirs of a Housekeeper” after all). A geisha, in case you’re not entirely familiar, is a moving work of art, a Japanese hostess trained in the art of culture, dance and music. She is not a prostitute or at least this is what we are told. Understandably, I was puzzled when a bidding war begins over our heroine’s virginity in order for her to pay off her debt to the household she grew up in and become a true Geisha.
Ziyi Zhang plays Sayuri, the most sought after Geisha in all the land. She holds her own in what is her first English speaking role but ultimately does not say very much and pales in comparison to Michelle Yeoh, who plays her mentor and brings some much needed spunk, confidence and authority to this fragile, whiny weeper. Perhaps speaking English is the problem itself. Let alone that a large number of Chinese actresses play Japanese parts, this film would have been more effective if it was actually in Japanese. It makes no sense that these women would be speaking to each other in broken English all the time. The struggles to enunciate lead to emotions not being conveyed. The self-imposed communication barrier never allows the viewer to be taken in by this beautiful existence as the beauty comes across as contrived, designed for the North-American box office and not made for artistic purposes … Hope they’re not too disappointed come Oscar time when the only nominations they get are technical ones.
If you’re into art, then “Memoirs” will narrowly carry you along throughout a rich, colorful journey. As for me, I will let Mr. Marshall keep his pretty box to re-use next time on the condition he promises to put something of substance inside it.
Monday, December 26, 2005
Written & Directed by Stephen Gaghan
As human beings, we are able to detach ourselves from injustices and hardships taking place throughout the rest of the world. Disassociation is not merely a capability, it is often a necessity for survival of the mind. Film going is often thought to be a primary means of exercising this need. Escaping into the dark of the cinema to avoid the world’s problems is both common and effective, even when dealing with more personal problems instead of the global variation. The whole theory is threatened by films like, “Syriana”, a film that makes sure you’ve been punched in the stomach and spit on while lying on the floor recovering before exiting the cineplex. The realism of the oil industry, from the US government corruption trickling all the way down to illegal workers on the verge of becoming suicide bombers in Iran is difficult to completely grasp, even more troublesome to digest, yet still a topic that needs more awareness brought to it. What becomes easy to forget when you’re trying strongly to focus on how vast this particular reality reaches is that this is actually not reality; it is still a movie after all. It is a reality shaped by the vision of director Stephen Gaghan.
Gaghan is the Academy Award winning screenwriter of “Traffic” and the construction of this new story comes together much the same way. There are three separate storylines that intersect each other throughout while becoming clearer as the end draws closer. As a director, this is only Gaghan’s second project and a definite step up from his previous effort, the Katie Holmes thriller, “Abandon”. He keeps the viewer engaged and affected throughout, showing as much strength and control as “Traffic” director, Steven Soderbergh. The difference between the two is Soderbergh’s ability to better balance the time spent on your toes and the time spent clutching your chest in pain. The scope of Gaghan’s script is too vast to be fully absorbed, leaving the viewer moved but not clearly understanding why. I respect Gaghan’s ability to pick up a scene at any given time without over explaining every tangent or spending too much time contextualizing the viewer but this can leave the viewer feeling removed … not the desired effect when your hopes as a director lie in educating the viewer on this poignant topic. Thank goodness for home theatre and multiple screenings.
What is missing is a more human element while at the same time, most of the human elements involved seem unnecessary. Again, going back to “Traffic” (as you will find yourself unable to resist comparing the two as well), the majority of the drug-related threats were personalized, tying the string between the drug lords mass-producing their product to the street kids and upper class privileged buying the junk. Here, the players’ humanity is incorporated to give them some characterization, depth. With so much happening in their professional lives, their personal lives seem superfluous and consequently lend nothing to their motivation, eventually being ignored and mostly unfinished. The most personalized focus comes from George Clooney’s portrayal of Bob Barnes, an agent with the CIA who seems just as lost and caught up in this cyclone of corruption, greed and power as we are. Clooney’s performance begins so quietly, so passively, and builds like a rumbling beneath your feet before a natural disaster strikes. Getting on in years and always well intentioned, Barnes no longer knows who controls his life, only that it is not himself. He has much to say but cowers when given the chance to say it. To a large extent, he has given up trying to make change. Clooney plays Barnes as exhausted, apathetic and frustrated without having the drive to change that. He has been telling the same lies and making the same deals for so long, he no longer questions to what goal they contribute. He has not been corrupted but he turns away his eyes to every command he executes under the moral armor that his decisions are not his own. Only they are.
Gaghan’s camera is constantly positioned either very close or very far from the action, sometimes within the same scene. The effect is a varied degree of understanding, that we are closer to the problem than we think one minute and then detached and removed, lost the next, with numerous obstacles obstructing our view. We try to piece together the connection between the American government, the Saudi monarchy, the corporate control, the legal whitewashing and the resulting racism that instills fear and lack of understanding of everything Arab and hatred of America by the Arab people. I walked in with a vague understanding of the interconnectedness of all these issues and left “Syriana” with the concrete knowledge that it is oh so much more complicated than I originally thought.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Written by Stephen Chbosky
Directed by Chris Columbus
I should tell you, I should tell you … I really just don't like "Rent." I've tried. I've seen the show. Yes, it was in Toronto and not on Broadway but I still saw it. I bought the soundtrack a good month or so before the release of the film in an attempt to build some excitement. I think I listened to it once, twice tops. And finally this December, amongst a packed house of Rent-Heads, possibly some of the most unstable brand of fans I've ever met, I sat through this directionless film interpretation about a bunch of 20-something aimless artists who would rather starve and freeze then sell out. It may be easier to say this as an artist who is writing this in his cubicle having sold out so he can afford to match his scarf to his hat to his shoes mind you but I still manage to get more accomplished than most of the free-loaders in this film.
I originally felt that perhaps my disdain for this show came from some unresolved issues with an ex-boyfriend who was a big Rent-Head. I would always tell people who asked that I did not like the show but followed that up by saying that I had this inevitable ex-boyfriend bias. It feels good to be able to say I simply do not like it now and it helps to know why. From a story perspective, “Rent” basically introduces you to a bunch of young artist types and shoves their values down your throat for the first two thirds of the film. Nothing really happens but we know an awful lot about the types of people who are singing. You’ve got singers and filmmakers, dancers and drag street drummers. Some of them have A.I.D.S.; some of them shoot up a fair amount of heroine. Some of them take heroine and have A.I.D.S. What they don’t have is depth. The story relies on their plights to provide a deeper meaning but as nothing aside from the looming threat of losing their loft space transpires, you pretty much get the starving for your art thing within the first little bit.
“Rent” makes for a better stage production than a film. It is mostly sung and that can get awkward when choreography is not involved. The stage is a more natural setting for this or at least more so than someone singing directly into the camera while riding their bicycle. In fact, I had my doubts about this translation from the start when it was announced Chris Columbus would be directing. It would be his first project since helming the first two “Harry Potter” flicks. I’ve got nothing against the young magician movies but this is a story of suffering, poverty and despair. I became more hesitant when I learned that the majority of the original Broadway cast would reprise their roles. This is a simple jump from stage to screen for people with experience like Anthony Rapp or Jesse L. Martin but is less successful for say Idina Menzel or Adam Pascal. Pascal plays Roger, a musician who barely leaves the house since his former flame died of AIDS. Rosario Dawson plays his romantic counterpart, Mimi, and mops their filthy loft apartment floor with him because she knows how to play for the camera. It doesn’t hurt that she can hold her own in the vocal and dance department. And while on the subject of music, as this is a musical after all, there are certain numbers that pick up the pace of the film, like “The Tango Maureen” in it’s dream sequence group tango or “Light my Candle”, a seduction in low light or even “Take Me or Leave Me” where a newly engaged lesbian couple square off on accepting the other for who they are. With few other exceptions, the remaining musical numbers often feel tired and repetitive with moments of lyrical genius and reassuring insight that are sadly too few.
Columbus tries hard to keep the gritty reality of these artists’ lives relevant and convincing but crumbs on floors and duct tape on couches are not enough to ground these characters. The first two thirds of this film are supposed to sell these artists as one big family bound by their convictions but when they are nothing but these convictions, there is little else to hold them together. When actual tragedies start to happen in the last third, they are happening to hollow vessels hiding behind lifestyles and calling it art.
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
Written by Gill Denis & James Mangold
Directed by James Mangold
I find it quite peculiar that biopics about musicians all seem to contain variations on the same plot points. Musicians have troubled childhoods, often including traumatic experiences and/or stern upbringings that will likely cross the line into abusive. Musicians get married and then inevitably neglect their spouses and cheat on them with groupies post getting discovered and making something of a name for themselves. And it wouldn’t be a movie about a successful musician if said musician didn’t get into a full-on battle with drugs and alcohol. I can accept that these issues might be typical of a musician’s influential background and the industry that exploits their talents by running them around the world, away from their family. What gets me is that these stories aren’t stories at all but real lives. There are probably more people out there going through exactly what you are and you don’t even know it. The similarities may be seemingly unavoidable but the film must differentiate itself to make it’s own name. The emphasis must then be placed on two things … the performances of the lead actors and of course, the music. In the case of Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk the Line,” director James Mangold takes it one step further and crafts a destiny driven love story, set against the backdrop of the familiar rise and fall of a rock star.
The larger force at work gets started early for Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) as Johnny becomes enamored with June upon hearing her sing on the radio when he is just a boy. His discovery is innocent but the influence will be lasting as the sound of her voice inspires desire inside of him to have the same opportunities and the calm that her voice brings to his impoverished and troubled childhood will be something he searches for for decades to come. When the two finally do meet, the calm returns to him immediately and their chemistry is unmistakably natural. As they sneak glances when the other isn’t looking, they look affected without understanding why. The insight comes the first time the two take the stage together. They speak a language that no one else can discern only the language isn’t spoken, it’s sung.
Watching two people fall in love on stage and through song while one or the other alternates fighting against it energizes the performances. Their infatuation and excitement invigorates their voices and faces, inspiring anticipation in both the onscreen audiences and those in the multiplexes as we anxiously watch to see where this will lead. Having Phoenix and Witherspoon sing their own parts only deepens the performances’ authenticity. It removes the detachment from the character one would ordinarily experience while watching with the constant awareness of that voice not being from that body. It doesn’t hurt that they both sound fantastic too.
As June, Witherspoon’s exuberance is infectious. She demonstrates a strength in vulnerable times that is usually masked by a giant smile. Phoenix plays Johnny as a naïve genius, unaware of how his decisions affect those around him. He very rarely looks determined or calculated; instead he is impulsive and organic. And certainly he can brood with the best. Together, their connection is palpable. Amidst drug detox, ballooning egos and the collapse of marriages, the pull between them remains intact and retains its hold on their hearts. The happiness they could have and both deserve is always just out of reach and you will want so much for them to have it that you will not want the credits to roll. And though you may wish they could keep on singing for you, it is still a relief that they can finally drop the act.
Thursday, December 1, 2005
Written by Deborah Moggach
Directed by Joe Wright
Writer’s Note: This review is best read aloud in a fake British accent or a real one if you happen to actually be British.
I am quite the fool for a good period drama where a roomful of young women flutter about making high-pitched inaudible noises at the announcement of a new male prospect coming to town. Mothers trying desperately to marry off their daughters into good homes or even better, rich homes that will in turn provide the rest of the family with security and stature. Women who only speak in turn and do what they’re told. I jest. Besides, you don’t find these women in these movies any more. Modern period pieces are more concerned with disproving how proper people were. Less women sitting daintily and more women picking their noses.
Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” was exactly what I wanted. It is both beautiful and engaging, a challenging while light-hearted romance … Everything I needed to help erase the memory of the Bollywood Musical remake “Bride & Prejudice” I painfully sat through earlier this year. This being yet another interpretation of a famous Jane Austen novel, I certainly needn’t rehash the story for you; I’m sure you know what to expect.
Kiera Knightly plays Miss Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest daughter of five Bennet’s. She does not have any particular talents or ambitions that would differentiate her from her siblings. She is simply not interested in losing her head over whether or not she gets married. Miss Elizabeth would rather be alone than be with someone for convenience sake. That maturity, that knowledge that there are more important things in life gives her a peaceful glow that is only shaken when her independence is threatened by a marriage proposal that will undoubtedly end in a loveless existence. Of course, there is still some fear in her that she will never find another to love but she braves on. After all, she does have her pride.
Matthew MacFadyen plays Mr. Darcy, good friend to Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) who is interested in marrying Miss Elizabeth’s older sister, Miss Jane Bennet (Rosamund Pike). He broods and skulks but we are still intrigued as he has such beautiful eyes. These are eyes that suggest something more sensitive beneath this brutish façade. Mr. Darcy is well intentioned but has yet to master the art of human interaction as is quite clearly shown as he flexes his hand and fingers awkwardly after touching Miss Elizabeth’s hand. For her, it is a simple touch; for him however, a vulnerable revelation that he has likely never been loved nor allowed himself to love. Remaining safe in his tower above the commoners has shaped for him many a prejudice.
Pride and Prejudice meet on the dance floor when Mr. Darcy unexpectedly asks Miss Elizabeth to dance. When the dance first begins, the conversation between the two is cold, guarded and expressed in the third person. It is aggressive, confrontational. They are both angry that the other’s existence remains with them when they are apart. As it continues though, they cannot deny their chemistry as the dance flows naturally until the end nears and there is no one left in the ballroom but these two. Fight all you like but you cannot will love away and that is a lesson that you must let go of both your prejudices and your pride before you can learn it.
Sunday, November 20, 2005
Written by William Broyles Jr.
Directed by Sam Mendes
Something I like to do before writing a review is avoid writing it. Before sitting down to write this particular piece about Sam Mendes’ war epic, “Jarhead”, I made a quick stop at a local sandwich shop for a large club. Whilst waiting in line, I paused Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” on my ipod to listen in on the conversation taking place between the young, male sandwich maker and his customer counterpart. The sandwich maker had just seen “Jarhead” the night before and he was very vexed by the experience. You see, he had spent his hard earned sandwich making money on this war flick after not having seen anything on the big screen for a very long time. Imagine his disappointment when he sat through an entire film about the gulf war, the first one, and didn’t get to see any war. I’m paraphrasing here, as I don’t make it a habit to write down everything I hear other people say but his complaint went something like, “You just watch these guys drift around in the dessert forever and nothing happens. Finally it seems like something’s going to happen, they’re gonna get to fight and then nothing. No one fires a single shot.” I snickered silently to myself. Hmmm, I wondered if the sandwich maker would eventually connect his frustration to the infinitely more frustrating experience it must have been to actually be a marine in the Gulf War marching aimlessly through the dessert and never getting to take the shot you’ve trained so thoroughly for or if he’d figure out that his frustration may very well have been the desired effect of the film to begin with. Then | got distracted and wondered if I wanted mayo or Dijon.
In many ways, “Jarhead” is not that different from other war films. There is a loud, foul drill sergeant at boot camp; there are strapping, young men horsing around for no reason in particular other than having pent up sexual energy; there are familiar character types like the unbalanced loose cannon and the quiet, uncomfortable farm boy. What does differentiate “Jarhead” from films it is quite clearly influenced by, like Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”, is that these soldiers’ war never comes. There are no ultra-violent, intensely choreographed battle sequences in Sam Mendes’ take on the war movie. Instead the soldiers simulate warfare, play football, have drunken parties (thank you whoever you are who decided Jake Gyllenhaal should wear only a Santa Claus hat in this particular scene) and make themselves look useful and sound like appreciative, dedicated soldiers for the media cameras. By the time they’re told the war is on, you may find yourself also excited and anxious for their piece of the action. What they get is more walking through the dessert. What they came across made me nauseous enough to not want a large-scale attack scene anyway. I guess the sandwich maker has a larger bloodlust than I.
Not having the bloodbath to distract us or shatter our naïve impression of how violent war genuinely is leaves us with very little other than the characters themselves to focus on. Whereas Mendes suggestion that these expectations may in fact be what is actually naïve, none of his characters are developed further than boys who think they’re men and want to kill and get back to their girlfriends and wives. Even the central character, Anthony Swofford (played by Gyllenhaal and based on the author who wrote the book the screenplay is based upon) is only given about two minutes of quick flashbacks, giving us some incite into his family history and sex life but not enough to give him any clear storyline to carry the film forward and home. And though cinematographer Roger Deakins frames and lights everything in a beautiful yellow-orange haze and editor Walter Murch keeps the pacing steady as a marine’s march, the characters come off as a bunch of apes in a cage. That may have been what Mendes intended but it isn’t always compelling or engaging. We are detached but so are they.
By testing our patience, Mendes leaves us frustrated and wanting some much-needed release. In addition, he points out that the very disturbing need to kill these men exhibit is inherent in you, me and sandwich makers everywhere. Did you know that was there?
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Written and Directed by Noam Baumbach
So rarely does a film say so much, so genuinely through simple, naturalistic dialogue about it’s characters, their plights, their story. And so rarely is it told so beautifully, so painfully and so honestly without being manipulative or obvious. “The Squid and the Whale” is that unique exception, that kind of film that you walk away from feeling lucky, fortunate for having seen it. This is a film about relationships, ranging from the influences our most intimate relationships have on us to the lengths we will go to to maintain these relationships and the difficulties experienced when trying to establish new ones with ourselves.
The setting for this exploration is the newly broken home of the Berkman family in 1980’s Brooklyn. We know from the moment we see the Berkman’s as they play a doubles tennis game with passive-aggressive unrest that they’re all playing a losing game. Bernard and Joan Berkman (played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) had been together for nearly fifteen years and had two children during the course of their marriage, Frank and Walt, both in different stages of adolescence. As their relationship is at the point of its dissolution, the focus is placed on the children’s struggle to contextualize and understand their new joint custody lives. Bernard and Joan are left to discover a more significant relationship with themselves, a concept that had long since disappeared when their marital problems began to monopolize their attentions.
As Bernard Berkman, Jeff Daniels is superbly understated. As a once-acclaimed author whose successful past work has stumped him from producing anything new or of worth, Bernard is entirely baffled as to why he has found himself excommunicated from his home and living in a beat up house on the other side of the park. Daniels carries himself with pride and pompousness and never allows any hint of remorse or reevaluation to show in his eyes. The rousing performance is both brave and fresh; I felt as if I had seen a whole new dynamic to Daniels’ abilities. Bernard’s arrogance becomes all the more sad and contemptible when his eldest son, Frank is seen emulating his father’s ideals on topics as diverse as literature and women. Like his father, Frank only appreciates high art, carelessly dismissing anything that his father does not deem worthy despite having no formal knowledge of the art he praises. His opinions become hollow regurgitations that serve only to give himself the appearance of being more cultured than he truly is. He knows very much about very little. And like his father, he believes himself to be far more important than he truly is, causing him to view his relationships with women to be interchangeable depending on what opportunity presents itself and to see a woman’s purpose to be solely for serving his own needs.
Frank’s relationship with his mother, Joan is almost entirely severed after the separation. The blame needs to be placed somewhere and as it was Mom’s decision, this seems to be the best place to put it. Besides, what could possibly make her think she would know what’s better for their family than Bernard would? Joan’s presence is sparse and selfish, leaving Linney’s talents underused. Baumbach, pulling double duty as screenwriter, practically writes her character out of the story. Her career as an author is emerging and her sexuality and self-discovery burgeoning. Her character is more relevant as absent, leaving the men to fend for themselves for some much deserved me-time.
This absence has the most impact on youngest son, Walt, who is just entering his teens. With Frank constantly feeding his father’s ego, Walt is almost useless to Bernard, leaving him to his own devices. With little supervision or guidance, Walt feels his way through most situations, often making decisions that alienate him from society, making him reclusive and withdrawn while all the while naively participating in increasingly more destructive behaviour. It is too easy to dismiss Walt as lost cause in response to his behaviour as he is the only character who does not fear the future though he does not necessarily understand all of it.
Baumbach’s quiet masterpiece is the filet of the broken family genre. By demonstrating the effects of parents struggling to remain involved and not forgotten as well as reasonably putting themselves before their children, Baumbach shows how the Berkman’s selfishness leads directly to the children’s scrambling to regain their balance. That their selfishness is both warranted and understandable is what leads “The Squid and the Whale” to be the most levelheaded and pertinent film dealing with divorce I’ve ever seen.
Wednesday, November 9, 2005
Written by Dan Futterman
Directed by Bennett Miller
Admittedly, I am not the most literate fella. Consequently, the name Truman Capote means something to me but simply for its notoriety and not for his work or anything else of worth that should continue to give his name meaning years after his death. I expected Bennett Miller’s film to be something of a crash course on Capote’s life. I would leave there with the half-sense of being educated on the man – an expectation so many of us put on the movies. Dan Futterman’s script takes a different approach though as he chooses to focus on the six years Capote spent writing his last novel, “In Cold Blood”. The editorial decision sways our judgment and forces us to view the man’s entire life in this one blip in the grander scheme. Despite the narrow scope on Capote’s life this presents, there is still a rich sense of character, encompassing history and heritage as well as a conflict in the present that hints at an imminent unraveling.
This challenging feat comes to fruition thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s metamorphic portrayal of Capote. Again, not being familiar with the actual Truman Capote, it’s hard to say that Hoffman embodied him but I can say that he was definitely not himself. His round frame is draped in understated style; his thick, dark-rimmed glasses fit perfectly with his slicked, blonde hair. We first meet Truman at an upper-class party. He is the epicenter of the conversation and all are transfixed on his stories of gossip and innuendo. We can see on his face how much he enjoys the audience and hear it in his high-pitched squeak of a voice how much he revels in his successful life as anyone with that mousy and effeminate a voice must have been the one gossiped about previously and not the one doing the gossiping. As Capote, Hoffman enters rooms with gusto and presence but there is a hint of hesitation as he is aware of the reaction his demeanor and clearly identifiable homosexuality incites from people, be they in New York City where he lives or Kansas, where he is researching his novel. He is completely oblivious to nearly everyone else’s existence and this ultimately commands the attention he deserves but there is a small boy’s fear that causes him to overcompensate by playing it up to see how far he can go as well as protect his fragile nature.
Hoffman balances two distinct sides of Capote so well that by the close of the film, even he appears to not understand how his life ended up where it did. These two sides are sincerity and artifice. In order to gain the trust of Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), one of the murderers who will serve as the inspiration for his novel, he must pretend to care about Smith as he waits to die on death row. After their initial meeting, Smith behind bars and Capote offering him medication like a banana to a monkey at the zoo, Capote continues to see him as just that, an animal, a paycheck. As their relationship persists and they spend more time together, a bond inevitably forms and the lines between despondency and compassion blur. As Smith’s time on death row nears its end, Capote seems overtaken with something he cannot process, an emotional attachment to another human being.
Watching Capote’s descent from confidence and control is both painful and uplifting. It may not be a pretty picture but realizing that you have a lot in common with a cold-blooded murderer is definitely humbling.
Saturday, November 5, 2005
Written by Grant Heslov and George Clooney
Directed by George Clooney
“Good Night, and Good luck” is one of those Hollywood films that get made at the hands of a major Hollywood player because they’ve played within the system for so long. When you’re George Clooney, you can make the film you want and get a bunch of your high-profile actor friends (from Patricia Clarkson to Robert Downey Jr. to Jeff Daniels) to come on board and no one in the system stands in your way. A certain leeway is afforded you and you needn’t worry about making a film that criticizes some of today’s North American societal staples such as television, the media or even the current presidential rule. I guess it doesn’t hurt to make these criticisms indirectly though.
Of course, no one would care what you had to say if your film was unwatchable so it’s a good thing that Clooney has a skilled hand when it comes to directing. He tells the story of CBS newsman, Edward R. Murrow (played here with restraint and dignity by David Strathairn) in 1953, as he takes on Senator Joseph McCarthy, intent on exposing his means to protect the United States from the inside threat of Communism for the witch hunt it actually was. The smooth film invokes a sense of exuberant energy with its high-contrast black and white cinematography and jazz interludes (sung on screen by soulful Dianne Reeves). Clooney crafts a neo-hipster, fast-paced look back at a time when people not only didn’t realize the dangers of smoking but, as in Murrow’s case, they did so while they gave their composed telecasts.
Murrow is introduced as nervously smoking backstage before accepting an award from his media peers. There is a sense that he knows that what he is about to say will be unpopular but it must be said. He then approaches the podium and warns of the potential dangers of television on society as a device that will stump and shelter our minds, ultimately casting a shadow of complacency over all under it’s control. This fearless usage of his power and position of respect will continue throughout the film and his career.
Next on Murrow’s hitlist is the media itself. Much like Peter Weir’s 1976 film, “Network”, a film that takes place about twenty years after this period, “Good Night, and Good Luck” presents media professionals aware of the direction their field is heading. They see the future as one where the media will not challenge authority but simply report it without question, essentially becoming a tool for the government to design the image it wants as opposed to exposing it for what it truly is. Murrow is fully supported by his producer and good friend, Fred Friendly, played by Clooney himself in an amusing supporting role that mirrors his role off camera. Neither is hellbent on taking on the system but merely determined to say what is not being said while they are in a position to have people listen.
“Good Night, and Good Luck” is smart and refreshing. It dares draw links between the McCarthy era and the Bush Administration, painting them as bullies and consequently showing today’s media as afraid to be the voice of the people it is meant to speak both to and for. Though the point is thinly veiled in nostalgia, it is still a necessary and welcome one.
Written by Josh Olson
Directed by David Cronenberg
To decipher and comprehend the nature of anything in the present, one must have a solid understanding of the past history leading up to the present moment. With “A History of Violence,” Canadian filmmaker, David Cronenberg explores whether one man can escape a violent past to maintain a simple yet meaningful present while ultimately avoiding history repeating itself through future family generations.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, the owner of a local diner in a small town. His life is simple and fulfilling. He starts each day around the dinner table with his beautiful wife, Edie (Maria Bello), infant daughter (Heidi Hayes) and mild-mannered teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes). The stall family is functional, happy, balanced. It is both comforting and reassuring to see such a pleasant family where everything isn’t perfect but the effort is being made and the commitment is strong. Everyone does their part, from Jack feeding the dog to Tom sitting up with his daughter after a nightmare to Edie dressing up like a cheerleader to roleplay with her husband. This family seems aware of how fortunate they are to have each other and to live in the town of Millbrook, where people stop to say hello on the street as they walk past, where people aren’t faceless.
Cronenberg takes his time with this setup, allowing us to become drawn in to this comfortable place. Of course, we have the knowledge that something bad is on its way from before the film started which builds tension as we wait. It also makes the fall so much further as there is much at stake for the Stall’s. On one insignificant day, Tom fights back with precision and intensity against two men that hold up his diner and threaten his patrons. Tom’s act of extreme bravery garners him national media attention and subsequently leads some gentlemen, of the disturbing and frightening nature, to the town of Millbrook and his diner counter. Led by Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris), these men accuse Tom of being someone he claims not to be which in turn forces him to face who he used to be, who he has become and how to integrate both of these sides of himself.
Tom’s use of violence is shown as a means to defend one’s self as well as to intimidate at times. This dichotomy debates whether violence is the only solution to violence. In the case of the diner incident, there is a threat of pain and death, forcing desperation and preservation to become the controlling factor. There is no question that Tom did the right thing by protecting himself and his patrons but the nature and reality of the violence is still difficult to stomach for those who witnessed it. To further show a pattern of history and legacy being passed on, Jack takes from his father’s example, consequently blurring the lines when he fights back against a bully in school who accuses him of weakness. Violent tendencies in youth are more primal as they supposedly don’t know any better or don’t have a complete understanding of their emotions forcing them to act out instinctually. To have violence as a natural reaction, as in the case of the unsubstantiated bullying, confirms it as a means to mask a greater fear. To have Jack fight back asserts his power and self-worth but could easily lead to an unhealthy reliance. Like his father, Jack could end up having to walk away from a life where violence is a normal part of that life. But like his father, will he ever truly be able to leave it? Violence can show up anywhere and creep back in at any time.
“A History of Violence” is haunting and disturbing. It is a quiet film that moves at the pace one would expect in a town like Millbrook and when the violence unravels itself on screen, it is quick and sudden. It is cold, senseless and gory and it will both shock and jar you. The unsettling carnage lingers in silence and so will you.
Friday, November 4, 2005
Written by Steve Martin
Directed by Anand Tucker
“Shopgirl” opens with a fluid drift through aisles upon excessive aisles of lipsticks and eye shadows at the Los Angeles chapter of Saks Fifth Avenue. As we weave in and around these pillars of masked beauty products, a sweeping score of sappy strings sucks us along until we reach the secluded glove department where Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) slouches over the counter, hands crossed. People either walk past her without noticing she is there or stop, feel sorry for her and then walk past her. Sadly for us, we must stop, we cannot ignore her and we cannot keep going. We must live in Mirabelle’s sullen, uneventful existence for what feels like an indeterminate amount of time and we will wonder why she exists at all. The overbearing orchestration suddenly drops out and we are for a moment relieved it is quiet. It is just for a moment though as it is now too quiet, eerie quiet. “Shopgirl” continues like this, changing moods between awkwardly quiet and nauseously schmaltzy through to the end, at which point I had sunken so deep in my chair with despair.
Mirabelle is a 28-year-old native of Vermont who moved to L.A. for no apparent reason other than it not being Vermont. She works, or rather alternates between standing and leaning behind a counter for 8 hours each day, at Saks then goes home in her rickety pickup truck to her mismatched apartment where she occasionally draws. She has nothing in particular of substance in her life and doesn’t seem to mind being completely stagnant, going through the exact same routine every day. Granted, repetition is a part of life, but repetition in a film is just plain, well, repetitive. Director Anand Tucker is apparently a big admirer of repetition as each scene in “Shopgirl” is essentially a recreation of other scenes. Establishing shots of Mirabelle’s apartment make numerous appearances each time the story shifts to that location with little variation in angle taking any humourous air out of the illogical maze of stairs it takes to find her apartment. Most scenes shared by Mirabelle and Ray Porter (Steve Martin) are sex scenes and despite being tame and tasteful, there are only so many times I can sit through these uncomfortable moments. And has anyone ever noticed how HUGE Mr. Martin’s hands are?
Speaking of Steve, “Shopgirl” is his baby, as he is the author of both the screenplay and the novella it’s based on. Filling Ray Porter’s shoes in the film puts Martin’s motivation into a questionable context as he comes across as living out a fantasy to be the unattached older guy who gets the unsuspecting younger trophy girl. Both the novella and the film portray Ray as a man confident with his desire to remain free while using that same confidence as a means to hide his loneliness and genuine desire to be loved. The film falters when it places more importance on Ray’s plight than on Mirabelle’s as the title character now makes no decisions. Instead she is chosen by Ray or by her other younger suitor, Jeremy (played by Jason Schwartzman who provides some truly funny moments as a dysfunctional, romantic roadie). Martin’s elimination of key story elements from the novella that explain the why’s of Mirabelle’s depression and fear of men or even Ray’s rationale behind choosing Mirabelle in the first place leave so much unexplained that by the time Ray Porter’s voice over commentary on Mirabelle finding some semblance of happiness closes the film (accompanied of course by the reliable string section), it is hollow and meaningless. As is she and as is this film.
Monday, October 24, 2005
Written by Bob Baker, Steve Box and Mark Burton
Directed by Steve Box and Nick Park
The small farming town where this fair story takes place is home to good, peaceful folk who spend the majority of their time and energy attending to their prize-winning vegetable gardens in preparation for the annual vegetable harvest festival. They are simple people with simple values like hard work, community and being humane to all creatures. Perhaps the same can be said for “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” creators Steve Box and Nick Park. Years of dedication and attention were required to assemble this first feature for the Academy-Award-winning characters of Wallace and Gromit and this film highlights similar themes to Park’s previous claymation feature, “Chicken Run”, like being kind to all the animals. However, choosing all the right vegetables does not a great stew make.
Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) is a goofy, awkward, good-natured fellow who owns and operates his own security company to protect the villagers’ prize vegetables along with the help of his reliable and crafty dog, Gromit. They are always successful, always humane and always admired until the appearance of the Were-Rabbit (a giant freak cross between a rabbit and a werewolf). It is their mission to save the vegetables so that the festival can go on as planned. Without this festival, these people will have nothing … There’s a lot hanging on Wallace and Gromit’s heads. Lady Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) is Wallace’s potential love interest and her persistent suitor, Victor Quartermaine (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) acts as the counterpoint to Wallace’s humane approach to pest control by insisting that violence is the only way to effectively attack their problem.
It’s a solid story with solid characters and some solid laughs but “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” is about as exciting as well, a vegetable festival in a small town. I first wondered if perhaps I had not tried to see the film through the intended audience’s eyes. After all, it’s colorful, the characters are enjoyable (in fact, Gromit is downright endearing) and there are sporadic moments of excitement and laughter. Then I noticed that none of the children in the audience seemed to be having very much fun either. Without trying to sound extremely cliché, the film lacked heart and today’s kids (this larger one included) didn’t bring theirs from home to make up for what was lacking ... But damn those rabbits were cute.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Written and Directed by Liev Schreiber
When a movie is called “Everything Is Illuminated”, does this mean that the film is well lit? If that’s the case, then I guess everything actually is illuminated in actor-turned-director Liev Schreiber’s first film. However, if the intent was to refer to some mental or spiritual illumination, I would say “Everything” is a vast exaggeration.
Quirky characters do not automatically translate into funny ones. Three men make up the main characters on this road trip. They are Alex (Eugene Hutz), a young Russian, gangsta breakdancer who helps his father out by assisting author Jonathan Saffron Foer (Elijah Wood) on a tour to find a woman who can connect him to his grandfather during the second World War. They are driven around on this tour by Alex’s grandfather (Boris Leskin) who played his own sordid part in the war. Alex’s grandfather does not speak English and is the designated driver despite being legally blind. The assumption is he fakes it. Meanwhile, as the author of the book this film is based upon, Elijah Wood has white, pasty skin, a slick, geeky haircut and thick, dark-rimmed glasses. As a collector, he picks up little reminders here and there and places them in tiny plastic baggies. The image is comical but more caricature than character. Consequently, by the time anything meaningful or painful happens in these characters’ journey, you feel nothing as they were never real people to begin with.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Written by David Auburn
Directed by John Madden
What are we trying to prove?
Who are we trying to impress?
Why am I always looking for answers?
“Proof” answers all three of these questions in its first thirty seconds as Catharine (Gwyneth Paltrow) stares blankly at the television, her 27th birthday having just begun. She flips through channel after meaningless channel, settles on nothing and turns to look directly into the camera. Her eyes staring directly at me say, “Nothing, no one and it doesn’t matter.” Of course she’s disastrously unhappy but when did that stop anyone from pretending like they knew all the answers? Oops, I asked another question.
When the sun rises, she will celebrate both her birthday and the burial of her father (played by Anthony Hopkins), a mathematical genius who drastically changed his field three times before losing his mind. Before the day is out, her sister (Hope Davis) will fly in almost solely to push her further into her hole and she will take a chance on life by allowing a young man (Jake Gyllenhaal) to hold her through all of the crazy mess. The events of the day will give her the courage to share her own mathematical findings, her own proof. Now she’s really got something to prove because it isn’t clear she’s the proof’s genuine author.
A mathematical proof, one that checks out, shows that there is order in the world, that there are definitive answers. If Catharine wrote it, than she’s got plenty to prove. And whom does she need to prove this to? Her sister who spends all of her time completing mundane tasks from her meticulous “to-do” list to show that she is functional, structured, successful? Her boyfriend who’s got to get Catharine’s proof checked by the guys at the math department because he obviously doesn’t believe that girls can do math? To her father who was thrilled his daughter’s interests followed his own but only really wanted her to work along side him? And what of herself? If she proves that she wrote this proof, that she has the talent, the ability, the genius that may very well surpass her father’s, how long will it be until she begins to lose her mind? Does she want to know the answer to that last question?
Catharine ponders aloud that sometimes everything makes sense in her head and other times, it all seems crazy. Perhaps we don’t always need proof to say which of these realities is the true reality. Perhaps a little blind faith would do us some good.
Written by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray
Directed by Robert Schwentke
There is a moment about half way through “Flightplan” where I began to wonder how the mystery that drives this film was going to maintain my interest. There are only so many times an airplane captain can debate with a passenger as to whether or not a certain other passenger was ever in fact on board this particular flight. Of course, Jodie Foster plays the passenger he is arguing with here and the missing passenger is her daughter. Understandably, she isn’t backing down. Consequently, logic takes on instinct and filmmaker Robert Schwentke allows us to debate her sanity on our own. Combine this with the camera moving frantically, yet stylishly, through the maze of this massive aircraft, peeking in and out of every possible hiding place and you’ve got a movie soaring miles above whatever in-flight movie the passengers of “Flightplan” were subjected to. (For their sake, I hope it wasn’t the infinitely less superior “Red Eye”.)
Throughout the search, a range of complexity washes over Foster’s face, from fragility and fear to determination and will. In the confines of her claustrophobic world up above the clouds, she never gives up hope amidst a group of people who care more about the disturbance to their sleep than the fate of a small child. It’s this hope that dispelled my concerns and kept me involved until we landed safely at the closing credits.
Monday, October 10, 2005
Written by John August, Pamela Pettler and Caroline Thompson
Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson
A tiny, blue butterfly flutters about after being set free from the clasp of two frail, pale hands. It flies aimlessly up the streets and down the alleys of the fictitious British city of yore that is the setting of “Tim Burton’s ‘A Corpse Bride’”. It is a tiny burst of colour in an otherwise dark and gloomy (read: typical for Burton) city and consequently dark and gloomy life of Victor, who has just set this creature free after having immortalized it with paint and paper. Victor, voiced effetely by Johnny Depp, is to be married to a woman he’s never met the very next day in order to increase the stature of his family; A fate equivalent to keeping the beautiful butterfly under glass until it’s inevitable death.
These nuptials must go according to plan as much is at stake for both families involved. What fun would all this be if that’s what actually happened? While trying to get a grip on his pre-wedding anxiety in the forest just outside of town, Victor meets Emily, The Corpse Bride. Emily’s story is the stuff fairy tales are made of. Once in a love with a rich, handsome type that her parents did not approve of, she made the decision to elope. Only her fiancé had other plans. To be more specific, he killed her and ran off with her dowry. Not one to be deterred from her quest for true love, Emily decided to stick around the forest until a gentleman came along who would love her the way she deserved and for the rest of her afterlife.
Who hasn’t been there before, more or less? Jilted by love one too many times, we wait for the perfect someone to come along and find us sitting there, sweeping us away with promises of forever. Like Emily, we might end up waiting a while. Are we as good as dead if we just sit and wait for love to find us? I know we’re tired and broken but we’re certainly not proactive if that’s our approach.
Being dead isn’t so bad in this town though. In fact, the underworld is a hell of a lot more swinging than the one up on the ground. Skeletal folk living it up, singing of love, in vivid, wild colour while the living focus on their bank balances and inappropriate behaviour at the dinner table. This contrast could have ended up being terribly blatant but Burton and Johnson aren’t satisfied with leaving it so black and white. Victor and his intended bride-to-be are actually in love. Thus there is something worth fighting for, something worth living for, something ripe with possibility that grows amidst the drab, dark despair of this supposed life.
To both push this story forward and kill some time, Burton and Johnson rely heavily on misplaced musical numbers, the opening song is promising but so much time goes by without another song popping up that you forget you’re even watching a musical. And despite my reluctance to make obvious comparisons, I can’t help but miss the jubilant and disturbing soundtrack to Burton’s previous, more cohesive stop-motion film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. Thankfully, the characters are both animated and voiced so symbiotically that the visual feast is more than enough to keep your stomach from growling with discontent. In fact, it was mostly during scenes where no one was singing that I was hungry for more.
Hope always manages to make its presence known in the demented world of Burton films and, in the case of “The Corpse Bride”, it carries you through to the end believing in love and the sacrifices one must make to let that love grow. One character asks, “Can a heart still break once it’s stopped beating?” The answer is found in the awesomely lively eyes of the already decaying Corpse Bride herself, a woman subjected to understand that if you try to keep life locked under glass, be that yours or someone else’s, death is the only inevitability.