Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Soderbergh's Capitalism, A Love Story: THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE and THE INFORMANT!

Steven Soderbergh knows how to bring the opposite of what you’d expect and make it feel natural, a quality he proves every time he makes a film. In 2009, with his slick and stylish low-budget indie The Girlfriend Experience and his offbeat star-studded studio film The Informant!, he further proves that he’s a bit of a cinematic prankster willing to subvert expectations and play around with the formal elements of film without letting his experimentation get in the way of telling great stories. He’s one of the best, or at the very least one of the most interesting, directors working today.

The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant! are films about capitalism and the quest for success turning people into cogs while they barely notice, hampered by a tunnel-vision of doomed entrepreneurship which will ultimately lead to collapses of both financial stability and familial structure. In the worst case, the characters will bring down more than their own finances in the self-destruction of their success. Soderbergh has captured our collapsing economy perfectly in two films that make the broad consequences of our economy very personal. Both films play out almost like stripped-down heist movies with protagonists who think of themselves as slick as Danny Ocean, but who find that wheeling and dealing the real world leaves a person without a safety net.

With The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh has made a fairly short but very interesting film that examines the people who make their living off of the somewhat rich and kind of powerful in corporations and asks us to think seriously about the difference between a personal trainer and an escort. After all, in both cases payment is being exchanged for interaction with another human being. This is a film that can be as cold and beautiful as its lead role, a woman (Sasha Grey) who builds her life around forming hollow, fleeting relationships with men who think they love her, or at least love what she represents.

As an escort, she feels she is better than some common prostitute since she’s being paid for the Girlfriend Experience, and not necessarily just physical contact. People are paying for companionship, a relationship, fake as it is, just as the people who pay her boyfriend (Chris Santos), a personal trainer, begin to think of him as a friend even though the circumstances are equally false. As played by Sasha Grey, this young woman is very smart and scarily composed in a movie that keeps its distance. This is a remarkably restrained film, tactful and tasteful about a sex worker. It can be as austere and respectful as its lead character. She’s intellectualized her job while allowing that intellectualization to seep a chill into her relationship with her real boyfriend. As they sit in their apartment with its modern décor and large empty spaces it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the equally stylish-but-empty apartments and hotel rooms where we otherwise find Grey and the empty impersonal gym spaces where we otherwise find Santos.

Told out of order, the film is as scattered as the lives of its leads, more about tone than plot, more about the characters’ carefully constructed shells than any emotions bubbling over. A handful of scenes find Santos flying to Las Vegas with a group of bankers after being invited by a client. As the bankers talk about the collapsing economy and a possible bailout (the movie was filmed and is set in late 2008), it’s clear that his profession and his girlfriend’s profession are parasitic ones. If the New York upper-class loses the money to spend on fake relationships, where will that leave the two of them? And when both of them make their living pretending to care about others, can even their own relationship be fully trusted?


With The Informant!, Soderbergh has made a film about people within corporations, based on a true story that reveals a corporate culture of favors, kickbacks, and mutually beneficial deceptions and then follows an ambitious whistleblower that gets himself into trouble by learning too much from these encouraged tactics. Set in the early 90s, it’s easy to see the seeds for our current economic state being sown, and yet this is not the darkly menacing whistleblower movie you may be expecting. This is hardly Michael Mann’s great The Insider or even Soderbergh’s own Erin Brockovich, each presenting the story of a courageous person dodging corporate thugs to show the world the ugly underbelly of a business. Here, Soderbergh has no qualms about detangling the expectations of the audience and inverting the whistleblower formula by delivering a serio-comic tragedy of sorts.

Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, an upper-mid-level employee of Archer Daniels Midland, an Illinois-based company involved with creating chemicals for food ingredients. Early scenes show Whitacre as he goes to work driving by endless corn fields. Soderbergh gives the movie a smeary orange-infused color palate, as if the processed corn chemicals of the milieu have infected the film. It looks uglier than you’d expect a Hollywood picture to look, which perfectly fits the unexpected tone of the film, which is lighter and goofier than you’d expect.

Whitacre has contact with an FBI agent, played stoic yet exasperated by Scott Bakula, who gets him to agree to expose price-fixing and other corporate nastiness occurring in his business. Through a mix of inept spying and inept scheming, Whitacre nearly derails the investigation in one odd, comedic sequence after another. He sees himself as a great spy (calling himself double-oh-14 since he’s twice as smart as James Bond), is obsessed with Michael Crichton and John Grisham novels, and eagerly absorbs and ponders trivia and minutia. He so desperately wants to be the hero of his life’s story that it’s by turns funny, pathetic and sad. He narrates the film, constantly losing track of what he’s saying, diverging from the context of the moment to ponder, say, polar bears, foreign vending machines, or how awesome things are for him. By putting us inside the character’s head, we begin to see his delusions and his eccentricities all the more clearly, for he’s a man who’s outwardly normal, but inwardly in need of serious help.

Soderbergh gives the movie a bouncy, jazzy score from Marvin Hamlisch which is located directly on the border between cool and kitsch, in some cases scoring the movie in which Whitacre saw himself, in some cases scoring the strange comedy we are seeing. Soderbergh then takes the strange nature of the underlying story and amplifies it by casting professional jokesters like Joel McHale, Tom Papa, Tony Hale, Andrew Daly, Paul F. Tompkins, and Patton Oswalt in supporting roles. They aren’t knowingly playing comedic roles, perpetually winking at the camera, but rather, they are playing true situations that are inherently comedic and playing them totally seriously. It creates a sense that the business world is a finite universe populated primarily with buffoons.

The Informant!, along with The Girlfriend Experience, finds Soderbergh shining light into odd corners of our economy, forming a picture of why we are where we are, revealing the types of ruinous personal and societal decisions so many people unthinkingly made. It reveals a failing status quo that went mostly undiagnosed with disastrous consequences. By making movies about very specific characters and moments, Soderbergh has created a portrait of the American economy that shows how broad policies and decisions are affected by and have effect on the most anonymous of us all, of how the world can crash around people while they only reluctantly notice their own fragility or even their own culpability.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Horror In the Mind's Eye: SHUTTER ISLAND

For all of its bombast and all of its skillful employment of shivery tropes of classic horror films, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is one of the most quietly devastating films I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s a horror film that’s genuinely haunting, but not for any paranormal reasons. It’s scary because of its exploration of what humans are capable of doing to one another, about the fragile difference between sane and insane, about the psychology of trauma.

In 1954, U.S. Marshal, and World War II veteran, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives at Shutter Island’s Ashecliff Mental Institute a haunted man. He was one of the soldiers who liberated Dachau, vividly portrayed in flashbacks; one in particular consists of a long tracking shot through a massacre. His wife has recently died in a fire in their apartment building. He’s shaken and wounded, yet his duty presses him onward. He’s been assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient, a woman who drowned her kids in the lake behind her house. She’s considered dangerous, as are most of the patients in the facility, so she was under careful supervision. No one is sure how she could have managed to escape from a locked room in a locked wing in a locked building on an island made up of forbidding architecture, rough terrain and steep cliffs.

Things don’t seem to be entirely truthful at the institute, however. Daniels begins to suspect that a deeper truth is being hidden. The characters in the film could be considered types, as this square-jawed detective with his square-jawed partner (Mark Ruffalo) square off against secretive doctors (Sir Ben Kingsley, calmly chilling, and Max von Sydow, looking more like Death than a knight), shifty-eyed orderlies, evasive nurses, and menacing guards (John Carroll Lynch, goofily threatening, and Ted Levine, very creepy). The characters, through the material, the acting, and the direction, appear totally believable and dimensional within the pulpy movie universe of the film.

Scorsese doesn’t wear his influences on his sleeve, at least as apparently as someone like Tarantino, but in this film he creates a precise and loving catalogue of movie creep-outs, starting with the stock cast of typical B-movie roles in an insane asylum that appears darkly threatening and alarmingly gothic. There are the eerie silences, sudden movements, long tracking shots, carefully controlled sound design, the swirling orchestral soundtrack, and slow building dread. Yet Scorsese doesn’t employ these to show off, but instead to create a seamless effect. This is B-movie material (based on a novel by Dennis Lehane and adapted by Laeta Kalogridis) turned A through superior craftsmanship.

The island and its inhabitants are frightening almost entirely on their own. From the opening shot of a ferry pulling closer to a dark mass of land, the film is already unsettling. Something is not right here. All of the characters seem jumpy, on edge. “It’s like they’re scared or something,” DiCaprio will say. We meet several inmates who are deeply scary psychological live-wires of frightening intensity or brutal honesty in the way they discuss their feelings and experiences. (It recalls the best of Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor). Robin Bartlett is particularly affecting as a woman who killed her abusive husband. Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley make strong impacts as well.

It is Leonardo DiCaprio who gets to steal the show, though. He’s given a complex character with deep secrets and deeper traumas. He starts the movie as a confident detective, brash and sure of himself, yet as the investigation continues he gets pushed closer and closer to edge of sanity. Scorsese ties the feelings and thoughts of the audience to DiCaprio’s. As his paranoia increased so did mine, as the definitions of truth and sanity started to shift and curdle. It’s not easy to play going insane, or at least the possibility, without going too big, and yet Scorsese gives DiCaprio the room to play an unsettling trajectory without allowing him to overshadow the film. Though, to be fair, the glee with which Scorsese deploys the formal elements of the film, drawing sound and lighting and misé-en-scene into enjoyably creepy spectacle with increasing intensity, would be hard to overshadow. He has great support from his great longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker and his great longtime production designer Dante Ferretti to create a film of striking images and juxtapositions. It’s not exactly realism, but it never pushes too far into the realm of surrealism. This is psychological torment he’s after.

Scorsese injects into the proceedings extra shots of stylish freak-outs by way of shocking lucid dreams that combine flashback and nightmare into a potent mix. These are consistently entrancing and often disturbing, with strong colors, sharp splashes of blood, contorted corpses, urgent whispers, and disorienting edits and angles. There’s vivid imagery and haunting sights to be found here, especially when what you think you are seeing suddenly, or worse, slowly, becomes something much different. The nightmarish terrors are fantastically unsettling and bizarrely incantatory. I watched with shallow breath and wide eyes, drawn into the experience of these fascinating moments. It truly feels like being carried away into someone else’s nightmare.

One can’t help but see the influence of Hitchcock (as well as Polanski, Lynch, and Tourneur) in the film’s formal excellence and exactness (although there are hints of Kubrick there as well), but even more in the exploration of the darkness that lies within men’s souls, in the way it fearlessly picks away at its protagonist’s vulnerabilities and the source of his psychological trauma. Scorsese creates a masterfully controlled artifice that shocks in the unbelievable howling depths of genuine despair and grief at which it arrives. The ending, without spoiling it, is definitely a twist, but one that is teased and hinted throughout. To me, it feels just right. This is a twist ending that doesn’t diminish the film or turn it into a trick, but instead grows the clammy terror of emotions that the film evokes and allows the film to genuinely chill and quietly devastate.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Who Sees Short Shorts? THE OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS 2010

Miracle Fish










A question many people have, even if only fleetingly, when watching the Academy Awards is: Where can I see the short films? Usually, the answer would be “You can’t, outside of a film festival,” but for several years now, the Academy will host a shorts program in select theaters around the country in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. You may have to do some research to find where they are playing, but if the program is showing near you, and you’re feeling a wee bit adventurous, it’s worth a look. They’re not all good, but they’re all watchable and chances are you’ll find something to love.

As usual, the shorts program is split between animation and live action. The live action shorts are harder to take all at once, with several types of misery and cruelty explored throughout. It starts with Gregg Helvey’s Kavi, which follows a young boy who, along with his family, are slaves in India, forced with several others to make bricks for a cruel task master. Helvey swiftly brings the audience into the situation and presents a bleakly hopeful portrait of the human spirit. Its light on plot and heavy on message, but Helvey never lets either get in the way of making the short compelling.

Next is Joachim Back’s The New Tenants, a strange wallow in gallows humor that actually worked for me more often than it didn’t. It follows a gay couple who have just moved into an apartment with a nasty secret. The cast is remarkably strong delivering rat-a-tat dialogue with convincing flair and it isn’t distracting when seasoned actors like Vincent D’Onofrio and Kevin Corrigan show up, a feat all the more surprising when you see that Corrigan seems determined to play it like Christopher Walken. It’s often very funny, but sometimes it’s a little awkward.

The strongest live action short of the program is next, Luke Doolan’s Miracle Fish. I won’t say any more than that it’s about a bullied 8-year-old boy who hides in the nurse’s office at school, falls asleep, and wakes up to find the building empty. But it’s still day time. And why are all the backpacks still there? It’s a small, suspenseful short that could have taken a turn towards exploitation, especially when you see what it’s all about. That it doesn’t is just one reason to love it. There’s confident editing, pacing, and cinematography on display here and it all builds to a gut-wrenching, heart-pounding, surprising conclusion. It’s not perfect, but it’s a gem nonetheless.

Following that is Juanita Wilson’s The Door. Maybe it wasn’t best to have it follow such a dynamic piece, but this short, about a dying little girl in the aftermath of Chernobyl, is slow, thoughtful, and elegiac. It’s deeply sad, but there’s something slightly chilly and off-putting about it. Maybe it’s just because of the setting, or its placement in the program. In any case, it’s a strong effort.

The live action concludes with Patrik Eklund’s Instead of Abracadabra, the only comedy of this half of the program. It’s Sweden’s answer to Napoleon Dynamite, except it’s actually funny and, at only 20 minutes, never wears out its welcome. It’s about a 25-year-old socially awkward, slightly incompetent amateur magician who is more than a little embarrassing to his parents, especially since he still lives with them. This is a real crowd-pleaser with some very big laughs. It’s nice to send the crowd home laughing.

Logorama

This year’s animation program starts unassumingly and unpromisingly with a dull six minute piece from Fabrice O. Joubert called French Roast. It follows a proper French gentleman in a proper French café who realizes he has misplaced his wallet. To maintain his dignity, he decides to stall paying the bill by asking for ever more refills on his coffee. It’s a quiet piece with little to remember. The CG animation is stiff and the sound design is thin. It’s cute, but even at six minutes it wears out its welcome.

Luckily, the next short is a spry and stylish exercise in cartoony exuberance. The Lady and the Reaper, from Spanish director Javier Recio Gracia finds a very elderly widow the source of a loopy tug-of-war chase between an easily frustrated Grim Reaper and a pompous doctor with a gaggle of bodacious bobble-headed nurses. At its best, the piece plays out like a classic piece of Chuck Jones level inventive absurdity. The woman desperately wants to be reunited with her dead husband, a thought that’s sweet at first, but leaves a strange aftertaste once you reach the punch line. This is a quick and funny little short.

The centerpiece of the animated shorts program has to be A Matter of Loaf and Death, a new 30 minute Wallace and Gromit short from Nick Park. It’s as charming and delightful as you’d expect, sparkling with crackling British wit and a sharp eye for visual puns and giggles. It doesn’t necessarily break new ground in terms of the Wallace and Gromit experience and never quite reaches the heights of their previous shorts or the feature film. Even so, it’s pure enjoyment to see these wonderful characters alive and well and getting into all kinds of contraption-related and assisted mayhem.

The shorts program also features Nicky Phelan’s Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty, a sweet and slight one-joke short about a grandmother telling a terrifying, self-indulgent bedtime story to an awfully frightened little girl. To make you feel like you got your money’s worth, the program features some shorts that weren’t nominated but that came close: Cordell Barker’s Runaway, a comedic allegory more interesting in concept than execution. Tomek Baginski’s The Kinematograph, a short of beautiful imagery and weak dialogue, and Partly Cloudy, the wonderful Pixar short that ran before Up.

Finishing up the animated program is the final nominee, Nicolas Schmerkin’s Logorama. It’s quite simply the wildest, craziest 16 minutes of cinema 2009 gave us. It’s a nail-biting L.A. cop movie with shoot-outs, hostages, exploding collateral damage, squealing tires, snipers, helicopters, and non-stop profanity and crude humor. It’s also made up entirely out of corporate logos. Most simply, the short follows Michelin Men cops chasing down a crazy robber Ronald McDonald who escapes into a café and takes Big Boy hostage. It’s a biting social satire about the corporatized wasteland America can (or maybe has) become, but it’s also just a really exciting animated action movie. I laughed all the way through, even as my pulse was pounding. I’m not sure this could ever have a legitimate release since the thousands of companies represented would never sign off on the use of their logos, so take this chance to see a great short film. It’s my favorite of all the shorts represented in both programs and a great sign of strength for a ghettoized area of film.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Quick Look: A Single Man (2009)










A Single Man, the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford, is art directed and artfully edited to within an inch of its life. This is a suffocatingly persnickety film; Ford turns everything into a prop, lingering on the physicality of every performer and every object with the same intense gaze. He slows moments until they sizzle with a vibrancy and then past any such aesthetic pleasures until they are no longer indelible moments, but instead merely fussy ones. The only sense of urgency in the film is the heart-pounding sense of being fully immersed in the thoughts and feelings of the main character, a man planning to kill himself since he is distraught over the death of his lover. This man is played by Colin Firth, a fine actor who recently received an Oscar nomination for this very performance. The nomination makes a certain amount of sense to me, since Firth carries the film. His face and physicality show far more emotion than it first appears the filmmaking will allow. There’s genuine anguish and pain here, in the softly etched lines on Firth’s face, in the slow frowns and the slightly furrowed brow. Firth effortlessly made me care, bringing me in to the character’s plight in ways the overly designed film barely allows. Ultimately, the movie’s unsatisfying. It’s the kind of movie that’s so determined to leave an impact it leaves almost nothing at all. Potentially great supporting performances by the likes of Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, and Nicholas Hoult are buried under the art design and the frustratingly oppressive score by Abel Korzeniowski. Tom Ford has a strong, confident directorial style, but I wish he could just get out of his own way a little bit. Too often I felt like I was watching a deadly serious perfume ad.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy VALENTINE'S DAY

















At long last our most calculated and crassly commercial holiday has a feature-length film that is equally calculated and crassly commercial. I exaggerate, but only slightly. It's a movie that continually tries to convince us that the holiday is very, very important and every character who tries to think otherwise is in for a rude awakening. Valentine’s Day belongs to the category of hyperlink films with large casts and interwoven storylines that usually result in an ostensibly serious drama like Crash, Syriana, or Babel, but in this case takes its cues from the lighter side. This particular incarnation of this subgenre of a subgenre (the hyperlink rom-com) can be traced back to Love Actually, the 2003 film about Londoners falling in and out of love in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s a delightfully overstuffed movie with great actors having a great deal of fun in a supersized rom-com that gleefully runs through cliché after cliché, knowingly moving through the tropes but making it work anyways. Last year brought an Americanized type with He’s Just Not That Into You. It had some fine actors, but it was ultimately too broadly focused and thinly written.

Valentine’s Day is slightly less than the aforementioned films, containing 22 performers in a movie that often plays like it ate its mid-February rom-com competition. Just setting up all the characters feels like it takes nearly half the movie. But, then again, this is not really a movie about character; it’s a movie about stars. Sure enough, the cast of pretty faces and big names has plenty of talent and charm to go around. The cast list contains about ten actors I really like, a few more that don’t bother me, and a few I don’t have feelings for one way or another. Individually, each person is not responsible for carrying much of the movie at all. They were cast because every one of them has a great smile.

The movie cuts out the rom-com filler and gives us only the highest and lowest parts of each plotline. We get the meet cute, the tragic misunderstanding, and the sweet reunion (or bittersweet parting) without having to go through all that pesky stuff like character development. And if the brief time we do have with each character is still too much to handle, don’t worry. Garry Marshall will cut to an insert shot of toddlers kissing or senior citizens kissing or animals kissing. The audience around me “awwwwwwed” right on cue.

The cast make little more than brief impressions. I liked Julia Roberts the best, despite her five-or-so minutes of screen time, especially the way her story concludes. Eric Dane also gets a nice little twist ending. Bradley Cooper is charming. Ashton Kutcher doesn’t get annoying. Topher Grace is sweet and endearing. Anne Hathaway is forced to deliver some embarrassingly bad dialogue but makes up for it by being Anne Hathaway. Queen Latifah and Kathy Bates show up, so you know the movie’s not all bad. Ashton Kutcher doesn’t get annoying. George Lopez is used sparingly but well. Emma Roberts gets a one-joke subplot that could have easily been cut. Jessica Alba and Patrick Dempsey barely appear and are given thankless plot-device roles in punishment. Taylor Swift proves herself to be a kind of charming actress so, you know, she has something to do if that whole singing thing doesn’t work out for her. Shirley MacLaine might have had some work done. Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx have nothing parts, and painfully clichéd ones at that, but at least they committed to them. Hector Elizondo brings his quiet, confident sense of humor that’s always welcome. And Jennifer Garner, bless her heart, still doesn’t quite fit in a romantic comedy setting.

I can’t say I disliked the movie. I chuckled a couple times and smiled a few more, but this is just an all-star pileup on a confectionary highway. It’s like cotton candy; it’s mildly enjoyable to taste as it goes down without complication, but it disappears almost instantly once consumed. For dumb fluff, you could do much worse, but I’ll have a hard time remembering the specifics of the movie tomorrow let alone next February 14.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Nothing New Under the Sun: PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is the biggest hunk of indigestible, derivative fantasy-adaptation nonsense to hit the big screen since Eragon. That film played like a teenager got tired of having to watch both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and decided to just mush them together. If you know anything about the creation of that aberration, then you know that that’s pretty much how it happened. Percy Jackson, on the other hand, is a blatant Harry Potter rip-off based on a book by Rick Riordan that’s slightly better than the movie would have you think. Instead of a young boy with special powers discovering a world of wizards and Hogwarts in Europe, here we have a boy with special powers discovering a world of Greek gods and Camp Half-Blood in America. I guess it makes a certain kind of twisted Hollywood sense that Chris Columbus, director of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, got hired to direct this movie.

If nothing else, the existence of this movie confirms my suspicions that the first two Potter films succeed in spite of, not because of, their director. Take away the great source material, good scripts, excellent art direction, wonderful cinematography, and fun visual effects and there’s not a whole lot for a movie to stand on. Such is the case of Percy Jackson, although, to be fair, Harry Potter doesn’t have a montage set to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” You win some, you lose some.

Everything about this film seems priced at a lower level and pitched at the undiscerning. Sure, it doesn’t have great source material, but that’s no reason for Craig Titley’s script to contain dialogue that calls into question whether or not he’s actually heard human beings interact. With plenty of howlingly clunky lines, it often undermines the fairly impressive cast. In fact, it’s the cast that starts the movie on a good note. As the opening credits started, I had to smile seeing likable actor after likable actor listed. Once the movie proper started my smile slowly faded.

Logan Lerman is cast as Percy Jackson, a teenager who is unaware that his deadbeat dad is none other than Poseidon, god of the sea. Now, Lerman’s a promising young actor. He held his own on the screen with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in James Mangold’s very enjoyable 3:10 to Yuma remake a few years ago. But here, he’s not given much to do other than pose heroically or act as an audience for characters who are delivering exposition. But, at 18, he’s the youngest teenager in the cast, so he looks the part, at least. His fellow teenagers are a different story. As his sidekicks, Brandon T. Jackson (25, memorably seen as one of the hilarious cast of Tropic Thunder) and Alexandra Daddario (23, in her first major role) are capable but out-of-place playing the Ron and Hermione roles, respectively. It doesn’t help that they have the same lame dialogue as everyone else.

The script also does no favors to the adult cast performing as various mythical creatures and mythological characters. Pierce Brosnan is a centaur and head of Camp Half-Blood and he never fails to look ridiculous wearing half a CGI horse. Catherine Keener, fresh off of playing Max’s mother in the transcendent Where the Wild Things Are, puts in her time in the thankless role of Percy’s mother, wearing for the entirety of her screen time a look of desperation that only sets in when an actor’s paycheck vastly outweighs their understanding of ridiculous material. It’s nice to see Uma Thurman as Medusa, but the inspiration stops there. It’s also nice to Joe Pantoliano in two brief scenes, as Percy’s stepfather. He might have the most thankless role of the film, even including Sean Bean’s Zeus whose lines could be counted on your fingers.

Explaining the characters and actors in that manner might have seemed a little dull and clunky, but it’s a perfect emulation of the way the movie works, shuffling a character on screen just long enough for them to impact the plot, but just quickly enough so that no one character can leave much of an impact on the audience. This is the kind of movie that can barely keep its own plot straight and is therefore constantly informing us about what’s going on. The movie’s so generous with the exposition that nearly every character gets to spout some. I’m a little surprised there isn’t someone talking over the end credits, still explaining while the audience is out the door.

The movie sparks to life on occasion, like in a briefly enjoyable Vegas escape, but those moments are all too brief. Most of the movie is consumed with a tedious video game style of plot development wherein the characters repeatedly move to a new location, find a trinket, and battle something. There’s terrible dialogue and endless exposition around every corner, or, even worse, overly obvious music cues. Hey, our three protagonists are on their way to the underworld to confront Hades or to find something or other. Start up “Highway to Hell.”

Funnily enough, once they do reach the underworld, the movie reaches its greatest portion of sustained inspiration. The effects and design are fairly striking, as are the performances from Steve Coogan and Rosario Dawson, as Hades and Persephone, who play their gods as glam-rock egoists while pronouncing every line with just the right amount of bemusement. This good will carries into a modestly likable airborne swordfight amidst the rooftops of New York that brings a much needed energy boost. But even this late save doesn’t stop the thoroughly mediocre nature of the movie. It’s clunky, episodic, and lame. It goes by fast enough with a nice enough cast, but pacing and casting can only carry a movie so far before the production needs to keep up its end of the bargain.

Percy Jackson isn’t exactly disappointing because it’s not very good. It’s mostly disappointing because it’s subpar in entirely uninteresting and unsurprising ways. The biggest surprise of the movie is that it’s actually not terrible, just frustratingly mediocre and fatally confused.

A Serious Masterpiece: A SERIOUS MAN

“When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies, then what?”

When I sat down to write about A Serious Man, the latest Coen brothers’ film, I ended up getting carried away and writing well over a thousand words on some of their earlier films and that was just initially my introduction. At some point in the future, I should recycle that writing into a more comprehensive retrospective of their career. For now I think it’s only important to note that I was reflecting on their past achievements mostly because this film feels in many ways like the film they’ve been inevitably building towards, an important landmark of their artistic progression that feels both incredibly personal and yet emotionally restrained. With A Serious Man, the Coens have taken their finely honed skills and have further perfected their mastery of the art of filmmaking. It is a staggering work of absolute perfection. In this film every shot, every word, is absolutely integral. There are no wasted moments to be found. The Coens have complete control over every aspect of the experience and use that control to create a generously thoughtful and tremendously affecting experience, while also containing a seemingly limitless ability to surprise.

One of the major reasons the film feels like the perfect apotheosis of the Coens’ style is how wholly personal it feels. Following a middle-class Jewish family in suburban Minnesota during 1970, it is firmly entrenched in the milieu of the Coens’ childhood. And yet, this isn’t exactly autobiographical. The story focuses on Larry Gopnik, a professor at small college whose upcoming tenure hearing is just one good reason for him to be stressed out. His wife wants to divorce him. His bosses have been receiving anonymous notes denigrating him. He has a student who tries to bribe him. His son’s bar mitzvah is fast approaching. His brother has to move in with them while he looks for work and drains a massive cyst on the back of his neck. Their TV antenna is unreliable. He can’t make an appointment with the rabbi, the one thing that he hopes might help him understand his plight. This movie has been called an updated telling of the Biblical story of Job, but that’s only partially true. The story of Job is a story of a man whose faith in God remains steadfast as his life goes from bad to worse to excruciating. Larry Gopnik’s story, while following a superficially similar structure, is one of searching, about how hard it is to maintain faith or come to a greater understanding of your faith, when absolutely everything is going wrong.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Gopnik in the performance of the year. On the surface, it’s a very reactionary role, a role that requires little more than receiving bad news and letting it settle in. Yet that’s not quite the part, and Stuhlbarg knows it. He plays the scenes with a subtlety and a soft dark humor that’s both realistic and stylized, caught in the perfect Coen pitch of character and tone. This is an immensely likable character, even as he gets more and more frustrated with his life. “But I didn’t do anything!” becomes a common refrain as the next horrible event happens, as if his passive nature should insulate him from the world. And yet, this never becomes pathetic or grating. This is a compassionate performance and it evokes powerful emotion and wicked laughs. I never felt like they were laughs of derision, though. This movie’s humor comes twofold: humor from writing that’s simply witty or unexpected and dark nervous chortles of disbelief as things go even further downhill. The Coens have us laugh so we don’t cry.

It seems wholly inadequate to merely examine in just several hundred words the achievement of this film. In a perfect world this piece would be many thousands of words long, touch upon theology, philosophy, and physics, and contain dozens and dozens of stills from the film, but even that would pale in comparison to the experience I had watching the film. In 2009, A Serious Man and Inglourious Basterds were the only two films that felt fully and totally memorable from the opening moments through the end credits. Each moment is a total gem of filmmaking, each line feels quotable. But this is not just formally exceptional, well written artistry that goes no further. (Basterds wasn’t either). This film has a deep resonating core of emotion, a wonderful sense of humanity. I see no trace of the misanthropy that some of the harshest critics of this and other Coen films like to point out. This is a deeply humanistic film. It presents as its protagonist a man who is having a very hard time, but while the Cones examine suffering and allow dark humor to shine through, the way they hold the camera in sympathetic close ups and allow his reactions to subtly and slowly play out across his face created in me a deep empathy. This is not a cruel film, but an exhilarating one, like in the moment where Gopnik stands atop his house, staring across the endless suburban space sprawled out below him. For one small moment, he is on top of the world.

The supporting cast is typically Coen, filled with character actors and entirely perfect. There’s Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman, a man who seems to have his life together and is thus the object of simultaneous jealousy and derision by Gopnik. Melamed has a morosely comic way of seeming to condescendingly sigh his lines. Sari Lennick, as Mrs. Gopnik, creates a monstrously comedic portrait of a woman whose scarily composed unraveling threatens a similar fate for her family. Richard Kind, as the brother, gives a shattering, yet bleakly funny, performance of a broken man, serving to show Gopnik how much worse things could be.

Other characters, including rabbis, lawyers, college faculty members, and neighbors both beguiling and menacing float in and out of the plot as the Coens work from their perfectly structured script with a tight sense of pacing. Everything associated with a Coen brothers film is in its finest form here. There’s excellent, subtle and beautiful cinematography from Roger Deakins, a darkly swirling score from Carter Burwell, and amazingly precise editing from Roderick Jaynes (though I suspect that he received a lot of help from the Coens, as he usually does). There are instantly memorable characters delivering wonderfully written dialogue matched with a plot that continually tightens the screws, pulling the movie tighter and tauter. The Coens have always known that nervous tension and dark comedy can often come from the same place. They use that knowledge here as well as, and in some ways better than, they ever have.

But above all, this is a haunting character study. Larry Gopnik is as great a character as the movies have ever given us, in a movie that knows just how to use him. This is a wonderfully thoughtful movie, honestly engaging with notions of belief and disbelief, tradition and modernity, meaning and meaninglessness. And yet, despite being, at times, a bleak existentialist cry, the film allows there to be nobility in searching for answers, as Gopnik continually pleads for understanding, searching for meaning in meetings with Rabbis and in the equations coating his chalkboard. In one great moment, we cut away from his piece of chalk scraping out small numerals to see the board coated with equations, dwarfing him, dominating one wall of his classroom, as we hear him say “this proves that we can never really know anything.”

Despite having seen the film three times in the theaters and eagerly awaiting the moment when I can put my Blu-ray copy in for a spin, what I envy most is the experience of seeing it for the first time, reveling in the perfection as it unspools. And yet, the movie does come close to replicating that sense of discovering within me, even as each viewing brings new and varied interpretations, and deeper understandings, and intriguing connections. Some may find A Serious Man open-ended, vague, pointless, or unsatisfactory, but that’s their loss. They would deny themselves the rich images, the absorbing dialogue of the newest, and maybe greatest, Coen masterpiece. They need to accept the mystery to find this film as eminently habitable as it truly is. This is a film that held me gripped from frame one all the way through the end credits, the kind of film that leaves me breathless, pinned to my seat through the credits until I’m staring at a blank screen, turning the experience over and over in my head while desiring to see it again as soon as possible.

Note: Three events occur in the first third of the film that are vital clues to fuel the mind when thinking about the movie’s implications. When you watch it the second time, pay attention to the opening parable. Is he a Dybbuck or not? Does it matter? Pay attention to Gopnik’s explanation of Schrodinger’s Cat. Pay attention to this exchange Gopnik has with a student:
“Actions have consequences.”
“Often.”
“No, always!”

Monday, February 8, 2010

Berk! Non Merci: FROM PARIS WITH LOVE













I don’t for one second think that From Paris with Love is as xenophobic, racist, and sexist as Charlie Wax, the bulky covert-ops agent who is played by John Travolta and is the center of this action movie. And yet, the movie never quite figures out how to handle him. Travolta looks the part for a goofy actioner; he’s striking enough with a bald head and dangling earrings, but, even though he’s given sometimes fun action moments to deliver, he’s also given jokey one-liners that are just a little queasier than they should be.

Take, for instance, the scene that finds him with his new partner, a just promoted agent played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, infiltrating the Parisian headquarters of a Chinese drug ring. The scene starts reasonably promising as Travolta runs ahead of Meyers up a spiral staircase. The camera stays with Meyers as he reacts in shock as fresh corpses spin down the center of the staircase. When we and he finally catch up to Travolta, Meyers asks “How many more of them are there?” Travolta replies, “About a billion.” It’s initially funny, but it doesn’t sit well.

I’m afraid this character might play a little too well to the kind of action fan who can’t parse the finer points of shoot-em-up satire, as that’s precisely what the film is. Travolta’s character is most definitely a satire of the American stereotype of with-us-or-against-us win-at-all-costs mentality, but at some point during the making of the film, I think the point got lost, or at least obscured.

This is the third film from French director Pierre Morel. His first was the fast-paced District B13, a futuristic parkour film which suffers only from action sequences vastly more skillful than the film that houses them. Next, he made last year’s blockbuster hit Taken, in which Liam Neeson trashes through Paris looking for the men who kidnapped his vacationing daughter. That film was better than Morel’s first, with a tense lead performance from the reliable Neeson, but the film comes up short, literally, ending much too quickly after wasting its first act on so much vapid character building. We needed to see more of Neeson in action instead of us waiting around to see if he would finally decide to buy that new karaoke machine, even if the action was a little off-putting with its waves of anonymous villainous Middle-Easterners. With From Paris with Love Morel has backslid, creating a movie that only sporadically springs to life in the enjoyable action moments that he’s starting to become known for.

This is a movie that is a junky mess, an unhealthy combination of French sleaze and American grease. It’s a grimy, often unenjoyable affair with smarm put precisely where the charm should be. Travolta plops through the movie as a giant moving ham oddly disconnected from the action, while Meyers stammers and looks bewildered at his co-star’s antics. Neither of them engaged me in any way and they had no help from the plot, which takes so long to actually get started that I was surprised that a plot showed up at all. This is one seriously dormant action movie, curiously without any sense of forward momentum or even much energy of any kind. I was also surprised that the movie managed to pull off a fairly surprising late-breaking twist, but I was quickly disappointed to see how goofy, and off-putting, said twist really was.

I enjoyed the aforementioned spiral staircase shootout and a third-act car chase that has Travolta leaning out of the passenger window while brandishing a rocket launcher. Some of the shots of Paris look quite wonderful as the landmarks flash by. I was grateful that the movie ends up settling into being irritating instead of putrefying into something actively repulsive. There’s a nugget of an enjoyable movie here, but between the uneasy handling of a deliberately offensive character and the stagnant plotting, there’s not much to latch onto. Morel has potential to be a great action director. Hopefully with his next film he can become one.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

It Could Have Been Much Worse: DEAR JOHN

When you see the words “based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks” you know to expect a movie that replaces genuine emotion with meaningful glances, confuses trite twists with shocking developments, and sends the cinematography into a contest with the actors’ complexions to see which can be more sun-dappled. Dear John is all of the above, but thankfully also a little bit more. It’s the old story of lovers kept apart by war, but it doesn’t feel too stale under the direction of Lasse Hallström, who has made a career out of polishing movies until they just barely exceed expectations, the sturdy script by Jamie Linden, and the shrewdly chosen cast, who fill the thin roles beautifully.

Love at first sight, the two protagonists meet on a beach in South Carolina. He’s on leave; she’s on spring break. The romance develops more or less how you’d expect until he has to ship out with the army. It is spring 2001. They write each other dozens and dozens of letters. He says he’ll be home in a year. We know that’s doubtful, especially knowing what September has in store.

In broad strokes, the story sounds like typically dopey Sparks plotting (see, or actually, don’t see Nights in Rodanthe) but in the telling, the movie manages to elevate the material. Not much, but just enough. The casting does much of the heavy lifting. Channing Tatum plays the male lead (John, get it?). He’s an actor of extremely limited range, but he’s deployed here in a role that requires precisely that range. With his height, his broad shoulders, he fits the part of a soldier, but with his smaller eyes and mostly unexpressive mouth, he appears to be trapped within himself, like there’s more to him than he’d like to admit. This quality is used exactly wrong in something like G.I. Joe, but here he fits just right, especially opposite his romantic interest in the film, the wonderful Amanda Seyfried. With her large expressive eyes, she is a good balance to Tatum. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a great young actress with the rare gift of enriching material. How else could she be the only person other than Meryl Streep to escape the debacle of Mamma Mia! completely unscathed?

But the biggest reason the movie works more than it should is the great Richard Jenkins, a consistently good performer, playing the father of the Channing Tatum character. The character is the source of the greatest emotion in the film. He’s a quiet man, incredibly smart, slow to criticize, stuck in his ways. Jenkins has a way of communicating emotion that deflates melodrama, by just shifting his gaze or turning his head by the smallest of degrees. This has always been the quality of his that I have valued the most, the way his character can change with the smallest gesture, like in North Country or The Visitor, to name two of his best recent roles. He doesn’t have as great a role here, mostly because his character gets to be the center of an awkward subplot in which Seyfried suggests to Tatum that his dad might be slightly autistic. I see her point, but it made me wonder even more about the Jenkins character. How did he meet his wife? What happened to her? How has he raised his son? What was his job? I was distracted for a few minutes contemplating the better movie that could be made about him.

And yet, I was surprised by how often Dear John struck the right notes, or even slightly surprising notes that turned out to be mostly right anyways. I was surprised when, instead of hysterics, there are moments of quiet contemplation, or even slowly revealed revelations. There was even one scene that, despite being a little hokey in the writing, made my eyes a little misty. It’s a scene late in the film between Jenkins and Tatum and if you see the movie, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about.

Is the movie manipulative? Yes. Is it sometimes too corny or even, gasp, cornball? Yes, indeed. But did it still keep me interested and involved and even, at times, make me feel some emotion? I cannot tell a lie. Yes. Even though the movie lifts a put-your-thumb-over-the-moon motif from Apollo 13, it thankfully doesn’t show up too often. And even though I was, from time to time, not all that involved in what was going on, like when the couple make soft-focus, moonlit, tastefully framed, PG-13 love and I was more interested in the Swell Season song on the soundtrack, the movie is a just-good-enough mid-winter romance. It’s hokey, but it’s adequately told with modest rewards.
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