Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Written by Akiva Goldsman
Directed by Ron Howard
Writer's Note: I don't bother masking the conspiracy theory at the root of this film. Read at your own risk.
Ordinarily, I would think it grossly unfair to criticize a work directly regarding its translation from book to film. The literary medium offers its readers the opportunity to imagine the events unfolding any way they would like while the cinematic medium does all the imagining for you. In the case of Ron Howard’s adaptation of author Dan Brown’s international phenomenon, THE DAVINCI CODE, there isn’t much imagination happening on the filmmaker’s part though. Avoiding comparison here would actually be the great injustice as the immense anticipation that preceded the release of this film was all to do with the ultra-wide popularity of the book. Brown’s novel is easily digested. It’s lead characters, Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, are being chased by numerous parties throughout lavish and romantic European settings. The chase and threat of capture keeps people turning the pages and the international flavour makes people feel as if in the presence of culture. For likely many others, and myself, these were the least intriguing elements of the book. What kept me coming back and barreling through hundreds of pages at a time was the book’s unapologetic and relentless blasphemy against the Christian faith. Brown immerses the viewer amidst characters and settings that exist to varying degrees in real life, thus blurring the lines between fiction and non. Somewhere in between the facts and the fabrications, Brown drops his theoretical bomb – that the ever-elusive Holy Grail, the cup of Jesus Christ, is in fact not a cup at all but rather a person, a woman. The woman in question is the infamous Mary Magdalene and the chalice is her womb, the carrier of the bloodline of Jesus Christ. Yes, you heard right, folks! Jesus got it on with the prostitute and she went on to have his child and their descendants are still here on earth today. I am not for attacks on Christians without purpose but this is not an attack so much as an alternate theory to the foundation their shaky religion rests upon.
I can understand why the Vatican is concerned about the impact this film could have. If you forget for a second, it’s easy to get sucked into all this lore and accept it as fact or at least as potentially true. That being said, it is borderline insulting of the Vatican to presume the film-going public is not intelligent enough to know the difference between history and plain story. Their concern is not for the entire film-going public though, it is more so for the middle of the road viewer who just passively absorbs images without thinking. When I think of these filmgoers, I think of the ideal Ron Howard fan. Howard doesn’t make bad movies (OK, HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS was bad) but he also doesn’t make spectacular movies (and no, I don’t have an example to refute that). THE DAVINCI CODE has all the elements one would expect from a large-scale Howard production, from big names to big locations. But what it attempts to mask with size is not a lack of substance but rather a lack of control over that substance. Howard coaxes performances from the cast that are inconsistent and hollow. As Langdon, Tom Hanks is sensible, curious and introspective. Ian McKellan plays Leigh Teabing, a Holy Grail expert as playful and cheeky. On the other hand, the usually deep Alfred Molina is farcical and Audrey Tautou looks lost and confused as Neveu; at times she barely seems to know where to stand.
One of the book’s major criticisms, aside from it relying too heavily on conspiracy theories and barely bothering with style, is that it reads like a high-spirited Hollywood blockbuster. Ironically, Howard’s film interpretation plays out nothing like one. It is tiring at times and stale at others. The hackneyed script by frequent Howard collaborator, Akiva Goldsman, cuts out numerous Grail factoids from the book that lend to the theory’s credibility but yet still manages to get frequently bogged down in Grail history throughout the film. The result is slowed pacing during scenes that are meant to be suspenseful. Lengthy background explanations take place during car chases and moments when killers are waiting to attack in the next room but the danger never presents itself until the explaining is all done (leading me to wonder if perhaps the attacker took a bathroom break). With the action forced to wait its turn, the viewer feels the flaws and loses their patience. Howard has taken a book that seemed to have been written with a film deal in mind and made a mess of the already carefully laid plans. As cheap as it is to say this, I must. You’re better off reading the book.
Monday, May 29, 2006
Written by Mary Harron & Guinevere Turner
Directed by Mary Harron
How do you define a person who has always been between two worlds, one of presumed sin and one of supposed redemption? Especially when that person eventually succumbed to a split personality disorder in her latter years as if to demonstrate her own point. If you’re director Mary Harron, you don’t shy away from showing the push/pull nature of THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE. You allow the character to drift back and forth between the healing forgiveness of the power of God and the church and the seductive illusion of control and dominance afforded to Page during her years as a pinup model. By doing so, audiences are offered a complex character that is propelled forward by a desire to leave her difficult past with a naïve enjoyment in others’ lust for her and a struggle to reconcile her image in the eyes of God. Come the right time, it will no longer matter how many eyes are on her because there is only one pair that counts.
Shot mostly in black and white (with some unnecessary bursts of colour), THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is at times a light, humourous comedy, making the film an enjoyable experience and also one that pokes fun at how seriously people believe in the corruption of pornography. But the delicate hand of the director is more palpably felt during Page’s times of despair. Harron is a sensitive, considerate director who does not throw Page’s numerous and devastating blows of abuse in the face of her viewer. Instead, she allows the surprisingly effective Gretchen Moll, who plays the title role, the chance to hammer the pain of her character into the viewer with fear in her eyes, exhaustion is her cries and shame on her skin. Whereas most directors, perhaps most male directors, would find it essential to show the heroine in painful positions in order to draw a link between the kinds of atrocities that were put upon her and where her life took her, Harron has too much compassion for her character, her actress and her audience. From fragility, Page learns to trust people again and as more and more photographers fall in love with her image, the more she falls in love with their admiration and the control she has over the gaze. By the time her poses cross over into the realm of soft-core S&M, she has found a way to combine her need to be respected with the objectification she has been accustomed to her whole life.
Mary Harron’s Bettie Page is a woman who yearns for control over her life and destiny, yet ultimately is always being told where to stand, how to smile and what to wear. When she finally realizes that none of her choices have been her own, she chooses to embrace God and preach his word to those who will listen. The true sadness behind this most important decision is that she is still letting someone else guide her blindly; she just has more faith that this direction will be better for her soul.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Written and Directed by Paul Greengrass
It was a morning that started like every other but ended unlike any other. While some made their way to work, others made their way to their couch, both with coffee in hand. Others still scurried about the Newark airport, carrying the same coffees and carrying on about everything and nothing on their cell phones. Everyone was so busy pretending their lives were so important, that their problems were so serious, that it mattered whether or not you got CC’d on that memo, that they didn’t see it coming. Amidst the windstorm of excess, greed and selfishness, a hatred had been brewing and was about to boil over. Paul Greengrass’ UNITED 93 tries to pinpoint exactly when that happened by taking the fateful morning of September 11, 2001, and placing it under a microscope. The experiment’s results are intense, emotional and life affirming. And with a few years worth of distance between that morning and now, we can look back and begin to ask why instead of just how.
It must have been a daunting task to write this film and then find the bravery to make it. Greengrass must have known how hesitant people would be to see this film and how disturbing it would be for those who did. He must have also known the risks he could run by sensationalizing the hijackings or trivializing the last moments of the real lives his actors were reenacting. Why else would he choose to cast no household name actors? Why would he choose to keep the actors cast to portray the four terrorists, who violently took over United Airlines Flight 93 with the goal of flying it directly into the White House, separate from the actors portraying the passengers or flight crew throughout shooting? Why else would he have spoken extensively with the victims families to perfect details like what they were wearing that day or what they may have been listening to on their walkman? He must have wanted to be as true to reality as possible, to respect and honour the hardship and tragedy the passengers on Flight 93 endured as well as the devastating impact the combined day’s events had on the country as a whole. By not casting easily recognizable actors, the average viewer has an easier time connecting with the average looking face on the screen. By keeping his actors separate during the shoot and it’s off hours, Greengrass set out to reinforce the distance between the groups and make the alienation of the terrorists palpable. And finally, by paying attention to character details, he exhibits a strong respect for the dead and deep sympathy for the bereaved. And though we may learn very little about the people on board, the little we do learn is hard enough to deal with as they accept their fates.
UNITED 93 is a tribute to the pain and sorrow that engulfed that particular Tuesday. Greengrass has crafted a unique interaction that transports the viewer back to that day, to that headspace and proceeds to offer a healing of the mind and soul that can only come by facing the darkness you’ve ran from. He does not presume what might have been going through the terrorists minds while they executed their attack, choosing instead to simply show them as determined but scared, like any human being would be. He does not claim to know why they attacked the United States but merely shows them as lost amidst an inundation of consumerism and meaninglessness, allowing for the viewers to speculate and ultimately decide for themselves. He does not insinuate that the American government took too long to acknowledge what was happening and react appropriately. Instead he shows the men and women of the army and traffic control as always one step behind, yet with an air of forgiveness because who wouldn’t be in that situation? And perhaps most importantly, when it comes time to take back the control of Flight 93, Greengrass does not have the passengers fight back in the name of the U.S.A.; they fight back because they want to live, because they value life.
Understanding the events of September 11, 2001, took some people contextualizing them as scenes in a movie because only a good screenwriter could have devised such a sinister and horrifying plot. Thinking of it in terms of a movie, in terms we can perhaps more easily understand, also highlights the anticipation that the credits would soon role, the lights would rise and we could walk out and move on with our normal lives. It has been nearly five years and normalcy has prevailed for the most part. Still, walking out of UNITED 93, I left behind more than just the rolling credits and the rising lights; I left behind some leftover heaviness in my heart I didn’t know I was still carrying.
Monday, May 22, 2006
Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener
Centering stories around the lives of four very different women who happen to be friends for no particular reason other than because the screenwriters say so is a common television practice. From “Sex and the City” to “Desperate Housewives” to even “The Golden Girls”, four women grow as archetype characters as the years roll on and the series develops. No specific story drives the characters’ progressions, just one scenario after the next that showcases how each personality type handles different circumstances. The formula succeeds as a long running series because the characters go through highs and lows, learn some lessons, struggle with some others. When applied to a feature film, the formula is boxed into a limited frame that ultimately highlights one focus. In the case of Nicole Holofcener’s FRIENDS WITH MONEY, Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack make up a foursome of women who struggle with success, remodeling, finding their calling or finding a worthy cause to donate the extra millions they have lying around. Everything in their lives is difficult and often uncomfortable. Everyone in their lives, including themselves, has issues and problems handling those issues. So when Aniston’s character, Olivia, claims “I’ve got problems,” in the last moments of the films, that’s really all the film amounts to, leaving out some of the causes and not bothering with any solutions.
It seems that every movie released these days starring Jennifer Aniston has the added pressure of successfully establishing her as a movie star. FRIENDS WITH MONEY takes the backdoor approach on this one as it is an indie film. If it doesn’t make a ton of money at the box office, no one ever expected it to. A high profile star does an indie film for credibility. She has done it before with fare like THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION and THE GOOD GIRL but if the indie film doesn’t strike exactly the right chord with the critics then all that hard work is wasted. FRIENDS WITH MONEY will not be the film that gives Aniston the firm ground she seems to be chasing after so intensely. In fact, I’m not even clear why she agreed to do it in the first place. She has clearly proven she has a limited acting range with last year’s DERAILED (Horrid!) and RUMOR HAS IT (Aggravating!) but yet decided to star opposite women who are known for their strong presence and versatility. Cusack exhibits a calm, restrained quality not ordinarily seen in her work while McDormand and Keener play women with internalized anger that is coming out of them in different fashions without their comprehension. Aniston plays the most lost of the four women and that is only further reinforced when she looks lost acting opposite such experience. She plays a stoner house-cleaner who just looks vacant at all times instead of a paralyzed soul which is what her character calls for.
Very little is resolved at the end of FRIENDS WITH MONEY and having friends with money hardly seems to play a significant function in the film. Aniston’s Olivia is the only one without and the film focuses on so much more that does not derive from that particular dilemma. On the one hand, it would have been trite to make tired statements like the single girl has it more figured out than all her married friends or the girl with little to no cash is the happiest. On the other hand though, drawing at least one conclusion might have saved this movie from mediocrity.
Written and Directed by Jason Reitman
Tobacco lobbyist, Nick Naylor, imparts many practical approaches to life’s many problems upon all the people he deals with. He tells people how to see things for a living and knows that they’re listening to him. No one person is perhaps listening to him more than his own son. And though Nick’s confidence might blind him into a false sense of security in life, he is not so far removed as to not know that the molding of his son’s mind is his most important job. Thus, when he tells his son that if you argue correctly then you are never wrong, it is not only the true beauty of argument but it is also a strong, decisive direction to give your son. In that moment, he is a good father and not one of the most hated faces in America. This dichotomy between person and persona is what makes Nick Naylor real and Aaron Echkart’s portrayal of Naylor, as it is guided along it’s unexpected journey by director Jason Reitman, is what makes THANK YOU FOR SMOKING a real smart comedy.
Anyone I know who has avoided seeing this film has done so because they didn’t want to see satirical look at smoking. The shame there is that this film avoids clichés whenever it can and doesn’t bother wasting its or our time positioning Naylor to learn a lesson about tobacco being bad. The lesson Naylor must learn is about pride as his is shaken during the course of the film by a disparaging piece of journalism. When life kicks you to the floor, it does not necessarily mean that everything you knew beforehand was wrong. (Ironically, the last time life did that to me is when I started smoking.) Naylor had a pretty good idea about how to make life work for him but he stopped believing in himself. And when you can’t convince yourself of something, you certainly can’t convince others. Further to the root of this hilarious film are purpose and drive. Naylor’s biggest criticism from those who know him is pointed at his choice to lobby for big tobacco. It seems an easy place to start but it negates that Naylor is good at what he does. He can argue well for those who no one else would dream to argue for. It therefore becomes an inspiration to push yourself as far as possible when you find what you’re truly good at. And once you’re doing something, you might as well do it as well as you can because at the end of the day, everyone’s got their mortgage to pay for and you can’t come back with nothing. That’s a little approach to life I learned from a smooth-talking guy named Nick Naylor.
Son of director Ivan Reitman, Jason has clearly found what he’s good at. THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is his first full-length film and it is sharp and witty. It has an energy that is infectious and a style that is both cool and hip, much in the way one sees smokers, minus the cancer, yellow teeth and bad breath. From the flashy pop-art of the opening credits shaped into cigarette packages to the usage of split screens, ironic subtitling and video, Reitman crafts a sexy, slick film that could have easily turned any of it’s viewers on to smoking. However, in perhaps what is Reitman’s most brilliant touch to this film, not one character ever lights up.