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.