Friday, July 29, 2011

Traverse City Film Festival Dispatch #3: THE TRIP


In 1981 versatile French director Louis Malle made My Dinner with Andre, a feature-length conversation between friends and colleagues Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It's a favorite film of mine, an intelligent, dense discussion of art, philosophy, and the ways in which these topics can inform a life in the arts. It's also a delightfully engaging work that's a deceptively simple and endlessly complex work about friendship and the exchange of ideas.

I didn't expect to find that film's equivalent when I stepped into equally versatile director Michael Winterbottom's new comedy The Trip. And yet, here it is, a road trip comedy starring British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves, traveling together on a restaurant tour of northern England. While sightseeing and eating, they talk and talk and talk and in the process reveal deep truths about their characters. It's a total lark on the surface and just underneath it's startlingly moving.

The reason for the trip is an assignment given to Coogan from a newspaper looking for a piece of celebrity travel-writing. He took it in order to go on a weeklong romantic vacation with his girlfriend but, at the last moment, she alighted to America to take a job and informed him that they should "take a break." After exhausting his other options, he finally breaks down and asks his colleague and sort-of friend Brydon.

So, they somewhat reluctantly set out on an epicurean jaunt through the countryside, stopping in little towns, staying in several quaint hotels, and eating in plenty of restaurants of varying degrees of fancy. The two of them fall into a pattern of banter, needling, and running jokes. This playful behavior ever so slightly masks their twinges of competitive jealousy towards one another.

These men are two extremely charming, fantastically funny gents and it's a pleasure to spend time with them. What slowly becomes apparent is the small underlying spite in the jocularity. Coogan is a success in Britain but is finding frustration in his attempts to make that celebrity worldwide. He yearns to take his career to the next level and when he looks at Brydon he sees all the more clearly his personal estrangements, his recently dashed romance, his ex-wife, his distant but loving son. He sees his acceptance of loneliness as a price to pay on the road that hopefully will lead him on to bigger and better things.

Brydon has never achieved quite the same level of prominence as Coogan, but he doesn't hold the same level of ambition for his career either. He's happily married with a little baby at home. On the road, he misses them. His goals in life lie not just for his career but are more for his personal life. He wants to love and be loved. Taken just a smidgen out of his familial comfort zone, he finds himself just a bit closer to Coogan. This trip is defined, in part, by their being alone together.

As they travel they use each new location as a backdrop for impromptu improvisational comedy and to talk about pop culture, their comedy craft, food, poetry, history, architecture, geology, music, film, geography, family, and eventually even themselves with glimpses of their own inner lives. The subjects are varied and unfailingly interesting. I could listen to them talk for hours, but what makes the movie really moving instead of merely charming is the way all this talk reveals the tensions and similarities between the men and creates a relatable push and pull between them.

Coogan and Brydon sometimes draw closer to new understandings of themselves and respect for each other. Then there are times that they pull further apart. What starts as a gag can turn suddenly serious. What starts earnestly can end in a laugh. The emotional trip is believably drawn, and though its nuance can lead to a feeling of almost painful emotion at times, there's always another impression, factoid, or laugh line to keep things going along splendidly. These two guys are often having a great time on this trip, and so am I. It's only when the laughter dies down, when they're alone again, that the truths revealed weigh on the mind. It’s a funny, moving trip that I would gladly take again.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Traverse City Film Festival Dispatch # 2: PROJECT NIM


Director James Marsh finds subjects worthy of a large scope in the small, strange, half-forgotten corners of recent history. His Man on Wire is a documentary that finds transcendence in a dangerous high-wire walk. His entry in the sweeping historical crime trilogy Red Riding is one of three films that piece together into a decade spanning mystery. His latest film, Project Nim, has an epic sweep. It’s a biography that follows the entirety of a life across decades. The life just so happens to be that of a chimpanzee named Nim, taken from his mother shortly after birth and placed immediately in the center of scientific research.

It's the mid-1970's, a linguist from Columbia University placed the newborn Nim with a family that is told to raise him like a human child. The goal of the project is to see if chimps can learn to communicate with humans, to truly converse cross-species. The film follows the chimp as he achieves remarkable skill with sign language and then watches sadly, tragically, as his researchers inevitably fail him. A project to see how similar a chimp could be to a human became a project that brought out the best and the worst in the chimp as well as in the humans involved.

Marsh mixes archival footage and interviews with strategically placed flashes of reenacted scenes. These evocative, stylish moments are shot like a moody thriller and blend well with the archival footage, evoking a sense of dread that escalates in intensity as the project grows increasingly dangerous. A baby chimp is adorable, cute, needy and harmless. Fully grown, he doesn’t realize his own strength, his own capacity for quick-tempered bites. Within him are both the furry friend these people have made and an animalistic danger. He is love and threat in the same being.

There is oftentimes a visceral impact to the story as it reveals it's secrets from it's whimsical opening through to the end that hints at a sliver of hope in what became a sad muddle. Cruelty towards an animal is never pleasant, but what’s even worse is an animal who is treated like a human and then is suddenly forced to live like his own kind. And that’s the crux of the film. Is a chimp just a chimp? Or is he more than that?

A chimp's eyes, Nim’s eyes, reveal a startling range of emotion. Do we apply these feelings, or do they truly come from within the animal’s being? How each person involved in Nim’s life answers that question defines how they treat him. Some grow too close. Others stay too aloof. Still others treat him with cruelty. By Marsh giving this animal the kind of treatment usually given to historical figures of more immediately identifiable import, the film reveals the humanity in the chimp that in turn reflects back in ways both startling and sadly obvious on the all-too-human people tasked with his care.

Traverse City Film Festival Dispatch #1


Being Elmo (d. Constance Marks)
            Kevin Clash has voiced and performed the popular Sesame Street Muppet Elmo for over twenty-five years. During that time, the little red monster that exudes childlike wonder and unconditional love has become a household name, a character beloved the world over. But despite his fame (and height) most would never recognize Clash walking down the street, let alone connect him with his most famous character. Even when he’s operating the puppet on the end of his arm, both he and the character are fully alive, fully present, even though it’s still only Elmo that receives the attention. Being Elmo is a lovable showbiz biography that charts his rise to success from his early childhood days building puppets for backyard puppet shows through his initial break into children’s television, to his life today. It not only appealingly peeks behind the process of creating Muppet magic, but also provides a look at a man who has found himself living his dream performing and creating, bringing joy into the world through his art. This is a feel-good documentary that feels like a labor of love and earns every bit of its earnest uplift.

Exporting Raymond (d. Phil Rosenthal)
            When Phil Rosenthal, creator of the popular CBS sitcom of the late-90’s to early-2000’s Everybody Loves Raymond, was asked to help adapt his series for Russian television he brought a camera crew along. The end result is a small documentary that feels like reality edited into sitcom artifice. There’s an intriguing culture clash happening, as well as plenty of potential to look into the very core of what makes comedy tick, but it comes with cumbersome doses of Rosenthal’s befuddled looks into the camera, his dry reaction shots. When he meets the head of comedy for the Russian network and finds that the man is also an expert in lasers, that’s a factoid I wanted to see explored. When he finds that the writers are living their dream of “writing funny scripts,” even though it means punishing hours, I wanted him to explore further. Both moments are presented then dropped as quickly as they arrived. Rosenthal clearly knows what makes Raymond such a successful show in America, has interesting insights into his craft, and, though he certainly has interesting things to say about his time abroad, hasn’t found quite the right way to communicate them.

Hot Coffee (d. Susan Saladoff)
            In 1994, some lady sued McDonald’s because hot coffee burned her lap. It quickly became a source of laughter and derision around the country, but to this day few know the full story. In Hot Coffee, Susan Saladoff has graphic pictures of the burns to use as a shock tactic to begin setting the record straight. The woman was a 79-year-old who was severely burned by coffee that was held in the restaurant between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. When a corporate representative was asked at trial what it would be like to drink something that hot he responded that he hoped no one would do such a thing. Saladoff starts by telling this story as a way of sliding into a larger argument set on providing clarity to the murky political debate over tort reform. She argues, often persuasively, that corporate interests use the specter of frivolous lawsuits and millions of dollars worth of lobbyists and campaign contributions to greatly diminish the chances of average citizens receiving financial compensation after finding themselves a victim of neglectful activity. Though the film often succeeds at laying out its case, it’s less compelling as cinema. She has some very good footage, but it follows fairly standard issue-driven documentary procedure, and no matter how important the subject, it can’t help but take on the faint air of hopeless preaching to the choir, no matter how many under informed people-on-the-street are interviewed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's Not a Romance / It's Totally a Romance: FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS


Friends with Benefits is a self-loathing romantic comedy, all too ready to hit all the required beats of the genre while almost all the while protesting every one of them. It stars a relaxed, lovable Mila Kunis and a tense, confident Justin Timberlake as young urban professionals and new friends who decide to skip dating and go straight for the bedroom. It’s not that they don’t like each other, far from it. They’re totally in love. They just pretend that what they’re having isn’t a relationship. It’s only casual because that’s what they tell themselves, much like the movie is only not a romantic comedy because it pretends not to notice its own boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl structure.

As the plot creaks through its predictable paces, it finds some occasional patches of effective humor and a few spots of legitimately button-pushing edginess. At times it is capable of living up to its potential frankness, though it often scurries away or buries its insight in juvenile giggling. But as the superficial daring of the film wears thin, I found myself asking why this film is so concerned with not coming off as a romantic comedy. After all, if it managed a few more laughs and a sweeter payoff, it could actually be a good rom-com, a rare feat these days. To paraphrase Godard, a great way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. How better to criticize the recent drought of rom-coms than to make a good one?

Earlier this year, the similarly themed comedy No Strings Attached approached the same topic from a safer, sappier angle and yet by embracing the genre it managed to find its small charms. The couple in that film (Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher) knew they were falling in love, that they were in a relationship, but even if they tried to hide it, the movie didn’t try too hard to deny it. It was a charmingly modest movie. Friends with Benefits finds a far more charming couple, more believably attracted to one another, and yet strands them in a less charming film, emotionally far behind what we in the audience already suspect and realize. These two good-looking people with the comfortable chemistry, twinkly eyes, and quick, easy smiles, love each other and care about each other and it’s completely obvious where the rigid formula of the film will take them. It feels like it takes forever for the characters to catch up to us.

Will Gluck directs the film which he wrote with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman. He brought us last year’s hilarious Easy A, but this film feels looser and slacker yet smaller. It’s filled with a terrific supporting cast, but they’re each given exactly one trait to play. If the one trait doesn’t work for you, you’re out of luck. It’s an ensemble in search of memorable moments that never materialize. Patricia Clarkson is Kunis’s wacky mom who, get this, is still seeing a lot of men. At her age? The movie finds this almost unbelievable. Jenna Elfman is Timberlake’s sister who is kind and supporting. Richard Jenkins (great, as always) is Timberlake’s father, still wise, despite suffering from Alzheimer’s. As for poor Woody Harrelson, he plays a gay sports editor and the film treats that as a big joke in and of itself and aggressively pursues any opportunity to make it one. If he has a line that doesn’t mention his sexual orientation I missed it.

Ultimately this is a film torn between its impulses towards sweetness and edginess and ends up satisfying neither. It’s a film that wants to get laughs from sex, but also earnest uplift from sap like flash mobs. It lacks a tone nimble enough to pivot between those emotions, which is just as well since it lacks a script worthy of it. The cast is game, Gluck’s direction is often energetic, but the self-deluded picture lacks the zip and skill of its ambition to tear down convention while blindly inhabiting it. From time to time it’s an adequate romantic comedy, but why’s it so unhappy about it?

Quick Look: TRUST

If Trust is not the worst movie of the year so far, and it’s not, it’s certainly one of the queasiest. I could imagine a good version of a movie about a young teen girl seduced by an online stranger who then rapes her and throws her, and her family’s, life into emotional overdrive. This is not that movie. Not at all. It’s a sick vortex of awful hysterics and kids-these-days grumbling that plays as overblown and, worse, fake. It even sucks in usually dependable actors like Clive Owen, Catherine Keener, and Viola Davis. Young Liana Liberato, as the victim, is quite good as well, but the film isn't up to the level of the cast. I’m not expecting a movie like this to have easy resolution, or resolution at all for that matter, but I wish director David Schwimmer and writers Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger could have had something of interest to add to a timely discussion. Instead, they have this manipulative, pat tripe masquerading as a Very Serious Statement. It’s clunky, formulaic, and uses online culture as nothing more than an overwhelming source of paranoia. What a slimy well-meaning picture. Here’s a review in two onomatopoeias: Yuck and Ugh.  It’s so purposelessly cruel to its characters and its audience that the name of the girl’s school, New Trier High School, is an unfortunate coincidence.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hope and Glory: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER


Captain America: The First Avenger is the purest distillation of the serial adventure narrative aesthetic since Raiders of the Lost Ark introduced us to Indiana Jones (an adventure this new film obliquely references). To say Captain America isn’t as good as Raiders is merely saying that it isn’t the best action movie ever made. That’s hardly too big a strike against it, is it? This is a pulpy men-on-a-mission World War II picture with a big splashy dose of period detail and winking homage to every little bit of its genre roots. There’s always another cliffhanger around the corner, sometimes literally, right up into the end credits and beyond and through it all storms Captain America who, far from being yet another indistinguishable smirk in tights, is actually built upon a full-fledged character worth caring about. This, my friends, is the fully satisfying pure dose of superheroic adrenaline that I’ve been craving all summer.

Before we even get to Captain America, and all the explosive pyrotechnics that follow, first we must meet Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a puny guy with a good heart, who desperately wants to join the United States Army. It’s 1942, you see, and Nazis are marching across Europe. (There’s conflict in Asia as well of course, but the movie doesn’t have time to fight on two fronts). While thousands of Americans are doing their part, Rogers is forced to sit on the sidelines, placed there by his size, his asthma, and his basic lack of muscle and toughness. He’s filled with a sense of justice and civic duty that is unable to find full expression, but only until a kind military scientist (Stanley Tucci) takes pity on him and allows him entry into a special training camp that is looking for the right man on which to try out a new program.

Under the direction of this scientist, as well as hotshot engineer Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), a lovely British intelligence officer (Hayley Atwell), and a craggy general (Tommy Lee Jones), Rogers is dosed with a specially formulated serum that adds musculature and stamina, lifting away his physical weakness, creating a “super solider” out of him. He’s even better than expected, which is good because the Nazi “deep science division” led by the villainous Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is on the march, having discovered a glowing cube of some import in a remote Norwegian village and developed it into a kind of supercharged energy weapon.

Rather than allowing all this to become overly somber, silly, or convoluted, the three most common errors in so many recent movies of this kind, Captain America barrels forward with a ceaseless sincerity and energy from moment to moment. It’s tremendously exciting with great bits of character and comedy for seasoning. But rather than mercilessly grinding its way through a chaos of effects and computerized daffiness, this is a film with shape and emotion, a sense of set up and payoff and of fully realized characters in a fully realized world. Each action beat feels like a part of the plot in important ways, but even when the Captain isn’t flinging himself and his men through combat, the movie is still hugely entertaining.

Take, for instance, a detour on the way to the front lines that finds the U.S. government parading Captain America across the country promoting war bonds that’s a sequence of color and music that’s both a critique of propaganda and essential character building. Rather than flinging the audience straight into the action, the film has introduced us to scrawny Rogers, moved him through science fiction hocus pocus into a superhero and then takes its time in allowing the character to explore his new persona. The best origin story films, like Richard Donner’s Superman, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-man, allow the character to feel his way towards the iconography, the outsized iconic persona we all have in our heads on our way into the theater. And you certainly don’t get much more iconic than the star-spangled Captain America who famously punched Adolf Hitler on the cover of his very first comic book in 1941, an image that gets a nice little reference here.

With a character so tied to the World War II iconography of the culture’s imagination, it makes perfect sense for the narrative to reflect the adventure serials of the day. But in its colorful Cinemascope presentation it also feels visually similar to the retroactive glorification of the conflict that occurred in the widescreen war flicks of the 50’s and 60’s. All of this retro style and content is filtered through a sleeker, more modern effects machine and then steeped in timeless sturdy craftsmanship. Here is a film with clean, uncomplicated visual comprehensibility put to use telling a fully realized story with characters charmingly acted that go through emotional arcs and events that add up into a fulfilling climax. It’s popcorn pleasure of a high quality.

Director Joe Johnston, a solid if often unremarkable filmmaker, has been in this territory before with his 1991 retro actioner The Rocketeer, a fun flop that has a small and reasonable cult following. He bests his work there creating, I dare say, the best film of his career by far. It’s all of a piece, fitting perfectly between two genres, suiting each just fine. It’s both a crackling period piece action film that smartly shies away from mindless jingoism and the most fully engaging character-driven stand-alone puzzle piece in the larger superhero universe that Marvel has been building with their other features like Iron Man and Thor. But that’s just added bonus to the simple fact that Captain America is flat out the most fun I’ve had with a big budget studio adventure in a very long time.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stuffed with Fluff: WINNIE THE POOH


I don’t see how any lover of animation, and certainly any fan of Winnie the Pooh, could be disappointed in Winnie the Pooh, a lovingly hand-drawn animated feature that hews closely to the original tone and structure of the A.A. Milne picture books as filtered through the indelible visual design of the 1960’s Disney shorts based on them and compiled in the altogether wonderful 1977 feature The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. This new film collects the familiar characters in their familiar setting and allows them to behave in predictably mild and sweet ways. Perhaps the strangest and most notable thing about this feature, especially now in 2011, is how simple and unconcerned with posturing it is.

Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall (along with their small army of writers and animators) are decidedly uninterested in straining for artificial hipness. There is ease and comfortability with which the production slips into the simple, charming rhythms of a life with Pooh bear in the Hundred Acre Wood. Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) just wants his honey – his tummy, after all, is awfully grumbly – and the crux of the film is finding ways to thwart that desire, to create situations that will pull the character into choices between finding honey and helping others. Sometimes, he will fail, and succumb to the visions of honey pots dancing in his head like a Busby Berkeley number, but eventually Pooh learns to put others first. At least until his tummy starts grumbling again.

Between Pooh and his honey is a collection of familiar characters with various immediate goals. The depressive donkey named Eeyore (Bud Luckey) loses his tail. The bouncy, flouncy Tigger (Jim Cummings, again) thinks he just might need a sidekick. Owl (Craig Ferguson, an unexpected choice) is writing his memoirs. Rabbit (Tom Kenny) is tending his garden. Kanga  (Kristen Anderson-Lopez) is knitting a scarf for Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall). Piglet (Travis Oates) is – oh, d-d-d-dear! – so nervous. These are characters that are cheerfully stationary in their personalities, which have a kind of warmhearted purity of spirit in their sweet simplicity. It’s nice to see them again because we know they will fall into predictable patterns. The voice work, an eclectic mix to be sure, is comforting in its way of seeming to fit the memory of what they sounded like in the past. There are differences in some of the interpretations but by and large they fit. After all, the voices are a just as predictable part of the characters as their personalities

But that’s not to say the film itself is overly predictable. Simplicity is the key here, not a kind of watery sameness or dumb homogenized energy, but a simple reverence for childhood and a true respect for a very young target audience. Their surrogate, the imaginative little British boy Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), serves as a bridge between the “real world” and the world of these ambulatory animated stuffed animals. He is never explicitly shown to be the creator of this gentle fantasy. He’s a participant and, when absent, a recipient of reverence and respect from these creatures. There’s a playful storybook atmosphere that harkens back to Disney’s earlier efforts of adaptation.

Narrator John Cleese will break into banter with the imaginary characters, sometimes even shaking the book or finding his patience tried when the drawings collide or otherwise interact with the text on the page. There’s a love of reading, of wordplay, present in the film that helps to create an atmosphere of sweet sophistication. It may seem all a bit simple and distant to a jaded adult audience, but for kids I would imagine that the film has a wonderful sense of being pitched at exactly the right level, with just enough to engage the very young precisely where they are and even occasionally thrillingly just enough beyond where they are. It’s a refreshingly small feature, topping out at just over an hour, padded to feature length with a delightful post-credits scene, a syrupy pre-feature short, and sweet songs sung by Zooey Deschanel. Its modest scale makes it entirely perfect for what it is, a grand first theatrical experience for a small child while also serving as a small dose of nostalgia for those who love and cherish the everlasting reliability that these characters will remain exactly who they are for now and forever.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Life, the Universe, and Everything: THE TREE OF LIFE


When I reminisce about my childhood, I don’t tend to remember specific scenes. No, what my mind conjures up are images, fragments, sounds, sensations, and emotions. Out of this noise arise scenes, moments, narratives informed by the stories and anecdotes that I remember and that I’ve been told that contextualize almost all. The genius of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is how it builds a story of a family out of such a collage of impressions, fragments of time, space, and sound. It leaves contextualizing to the audience, to gather clues from concrete details and allow them to slowly, inexorably, build up into a larger picture. The film carried me into its rhythms, its patterns, its moods, its swirling classical score and flowing montage, creating within me a deep sense of calm, a hushed reverence for the immensity and complexity of life. This is not merely cinema; this is a reverie, a trance, a meditation, a prayer.

Malick, a rare auteur indeed, has released just four films in the past four decades. He creates works that in other hands could be the stuff of cheap pulp, a killing spree (Badlands), a love triangle (Days of Heaven), a world war (The Thin Red Line), and a historical romance (The New World). His work exhibits a patience that builds upon philosophy, romantic visions of the natural world, and deep inquiries into the human experience, imbued with the rigor of intellectualism curled into pure emotion. These are films that feel engaged on a deeper than usual level with the characters within them. These are characters that don’t simply feel real; they feel imbued with a soul, a tangible spiritual nature that informs the core of their very being. In his latest film, Malick takes this one step further, giving us a tender, earnest look at the interior life of man across the vast reaches of time and space.

The Tree of Life opens on the face of a little girl who will become a mother and eventually lose a son, three decades in as little as three blinks of an eye. We are introduced to the slow, ragged early stages of mourning as the world moves along without this boy. The camera is subjective, but through whose eyes are we seeing? Attention is pulled towards shadows, towards neighbor kids. Are we searching futilely for this lost boy? His mother (Jessica Chastain) talks to an older relative (Fiona Shaw) who, in a cold close-up, tells her to be thankful she has two other sons. This is no consolation. His father (Brad Pitt) tells those offering condolences to move along, that they’ll be fine, but there’s a small hint of doubt in his eyes. The family has been wounded by this mysterious loss that laps at the edges of the frames, the circumstances of which never to be explored. This is a loss that can never be explained. A sudden death is never quantifiable, understandable, and yet it is carries with it nothing but meaning, an existential fracture that can never be fully repaired.

We see one of the surviving sons years later. He (Sean Penn) moves through a world of modern architecture, all cold angles, glass, metal, and white, dry walls. We gather that the anniversary of his brother’s death is approaching, that it may even be this very day. Has this man been imagining the pain his parents felt when they first heard the news? How could his brother have left them? What purpose could it have served? What has this trauma done to him, to his family? “Where were you?” is the whispered question that rattles in his head in his mother’s voice. Who is “you?” Is it his brother? The universe? God?

As if to answer such a question that echoes from deep within a place of unimaginable pain and loss, Malick’s film flashes back, back before the death, back before birth, back to the birth of the universe. Nebulas swirl. Planetary bodies collide. Volcanoes erupt. Soon, though, life begins. Single-celled organisms soon give way to wriggling sea creatures that are soon enough giant sea creatures then, before long, dinosaurs. Then, though, a mother gives birth. It’s Texas. It’s the 1950’s. It’s a boy.

Once again, we are privy to a subjective camera. Now we have a viewpoint to match that of a young child. The camera is low as we follow an infant’s gaze, which becomes a toddler’s tottering gait, which becomes a rambunctious schoolchild’s run. We see large adult faces looming down, a jack o’lantern’s toothy grin held low, bubbles, grass, a cake, a plate, a candle, a lantern, a chair that seems to move itself, what must be an unseen adult’s hand kept out of frame. Under Malick’s direction Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is inquisitive and roaming, catching bits of light and dust in its search for tangible details from Jack Fisk’s production design, Jeanette Scott’s costumes, from nature itself, as it grows gradually taller, smoother, more often tightly focused. Our gaze grows older alongside this young boy. Its restless curiosity finds deeper motivations, deeper questions. The grass has weeds that must be plucked; smiles and braids, even a slip, belong specifically to a girl-next-door; the commonplace mass of humanity has within it the disabled, the criminal, the wounded.

As he gets older, he (now Hunter McCracken) is allowed to roam more freely. “I found a dinosaur bone!” he shouts, holding a large rock he has plucked from an overgrown field. There’s an intense imaginative connection to the world in this boy. At play, he’s free. At home, he becomes withdrawn, carefully sizing up his father’s expression at the dinner table, constantly checking to make sure that he’s within an acceptable range of behavior. His mother, a kind, sweet, gentle presence, encourages his gentility. His father, harsher, tougher, more burdensome with the weight of his expectations, encourages a kind of self-doubting perfectionism. “You can’t be too good,” he tells his three sons. He’s rough, maybe even hurtful at times, but he’s just trying to show his love the best that he can. He doesn’t want to see in his sons a reflection of his own perceived failings.

Throughout the childhood seen here, the boy is often in the company of one of his brothers (Laramie Eppler), a companion in his adventures. The specter of death hangs heavy over their relationship and, though we know it is inevitable, it may even be our reason for being cast back into this sea of memories, the fact of his death oftentimes fades away. There are good times. There are bad times. But always his brother is present. There’s great love between them, but also rivalry, great caring, but also great potential for pain. When one coaxes the other into a dangerous situation that causes a sudden hurt, there is immediate remorse. “You can hit me if you want,” he says, offering his brother a plank of wood. The brother considers it, but tosses it aside. There may be hurt but there is forgiveness as long as they’re together. Later, we will see the brothers beaming at each other from opposite sides of a window, tapping on the glass. It’s in moments like this, a moment of solid and clear separation, that the brother’s eventual fate is brought back to mind.

This is a film that nestles an intensely personal human drama, sharply cutting to the bone, brushing strongly against the nerves, within the context of the entirety of existence, from birth to death, from the beginning of time, to an imagined reconciliation with all that came before. This juxtaposition shows how infinitesimally small individual human stories are in comparison to the grand sweep of time, and yet how each aspect of history, the personal and the universal, are just as profoundly moving and impactful, are just as mysterious. The mysteries of nature, the mysteries of the universe, the mysteries of God and the meaning of life, the mysteries of mankind, and the mysteries of what makes a man that which he becomes, all are equally ephemeral, unknowable, and endlessly ponderable. Can the sadness of the modern man brooding in a skyscraper be tied back directly to events of his childhood? Can the trauma of modern lives trace roots back to the dawn of the dinosaurs? Here is a film of questions that provoke deep, lingering lines of inquiry and yet never once moment-to-moment feels overly calculated.

Malick’s masterful technique here allows the moments, the shots, the scenes, the emotions, to flow intuitively. If I had to step back and explain away every transition, every fragmentary inclusion, I might be hard pressed to do so. After three viewings, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the conclusion which offers a reunion and reconciliation but exists on a heightened imagined plane that seems either too literal or too vague. (It also feels somehow inevitable and perfect to me). But who cares about explaining away the magic of the film’s trancelike power, its hushed prayer for understanding and earnest exploration of the emotional landscapes of modernity? Each cut, each movement, feels so right. The film unspools like a memory, like a revelation, poetic, simple yet deep, densely enigmatic and utterly personal.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Paper Chase: PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES


Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times is positioned as a film that looks at the changing media landscape. Within the film are various talking heads that pontificate endlessly about the Internet, about the “old guard” journalism of the past, and about “New Media.” But the sad truth is that no matter how hard the film tries to understand just where print journalism is going, it simply cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty. Is journalism as we know it dying? Or is it stronger than ever? The truthful answer is that no one can yet tell for sure. The media landscape is changing. That we do know. What we don’t know is where that will leave us. I hope that once the ground stabilizes underneath the newspaper industry that we will still have one.

The fact is, there never really was a time like the one that exists hyperbolically in the public’s nostalgic imagination when a breathless man with a press card stuck in his fedora could storm into the editor’s office with a big scoop that would cause the two of them to dash out over the factory floor and holler “Stop the presses!” We see in archival footage that, at its height, the newspaper industry was a collection of diligent, determined men sitting around tables writing and reporting, working their hardest to get the day’s events into a written, digestible form for the masses. Here were men with their sleeves rolled up and smoke curling in the ashtrays while they scrambled to find a story.

Rossi’s film, which unspools mostly in a fly-on-the-wall style filmed in 2010, follows a handful of committed modern day newsmen, mostly at the Times’s fairly new Media Desk. Editor Bruce Hedlam presides over a group of talented writers and reporters and together they work to negotiate the tricky balance between print deadlines and rapid-fire online responses. We see reporters like Tim Arango and Andrew Ross Sorkin scrambling to finish a piece about a secret meeting held between Comcast and NBC. (Later Arango will leave to become a war correspondent in Baghdad). We see blogger-turned-reporter Brian Stelter, his desk a labyrinth of electronic screens while he researches, interviews, and tweets in a way that is engaged and rigorous beneath its scattered surface.

Most of the time, Rossi follows the gravel-voiced David Carr. He strides through the newsroom with an irascible charm as he moves from meeting to meeting then heads off on the road, always in the process of researching, writing, interviewing, learning. Not only does Carr have the most intriguing personal story – he overcame an addiction to cocaine that plagued his young-adulthood to become a well-respected journalist – but he also has the best on-screen personality. He’s an engaging presence, quick with the quips and fully capable of an extemporaneous analysis of a given situation that sounds both thought-through and off-the-cuff.

The screen lights up when Carr and the others get down to the business of reporting, writing, editing. At its best, most purely enjoyable, desperately fascinating moments, the film feels the weight of the current economic conflict pervasive in the business without commenting on it directly but instead observing its milder forms in the day-to-day works lives of these newsmen. When the film bogs down in speculation or analysis of past Times scandals and mistakes, the scope of the problems and solutions are beyond the reach of the talking heads and, by extension, the film itself. What the film makes clear is that journalism – that the form of written news and analysis – is a profession that should not die. There may be a battle for the fate of the newspaper industry playing out amongst the pundits and businessmen and aggregators who control the economic fate, but the true heart of the industry will always be the newsmen who will be out there finding the story as long as they have the means to do so.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bitter(sweet) End: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2


Oh, what a treasure it is to return once again to Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry, home to many magical adventures, endless inventive expressions of imagination, and the greatest fantasy creation of recent memory. The occasion for the return is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, in which the trio we have followed across seven films in ten years, Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) come back to school to finish what was started so long ago. The last film was spent in wandering prologue, finding scraps of the snaky, villainous Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) soul in order to render him mortal once more. Now, their quest winding down, these three young people find themselves coming into their closest encounters yet with death and destruction. The story of Harry Potter, the boy who lived, and his fateful integrality in the evil plots of bad wizards, is coming to an end.

What I’ll miss most of all about this series, other than the memorable universe it has created and its many wondrous characters and creatures, is the way the filmmakers increasingly used the clout of their hugely successful endeavor to make big budget studio franchise productions of uncommon artistry and patience. Take, for example, the calm-before-the-storm that opens this particular installment, directed yet again by David Yates and adapted by Steve Kloves. Harry and his friends are huddled in a safe house on the shore, contemplating their next move. The goblin Griphook (Warwick Davis), rescued from the clutches of villainy at the end of the last film, sits brooding in an upstairs room. He may or may not help them; in fact he has the potential to do more harm than good. There’s a striking shot (it’s a film of striking shots courtesy cinematographer Eduardo Serra) that finds the main trio standing on the staircase, speaking in hushed voices, silhouetted against the bright white light streaming through the window half-glimpsed behind them. The composition creates a startling tension that would be lost entirely if the scene were shot in a more conventional way.

This way of creating extra tension through unexpected choices continues throughout the film. There’s a scene where characters sneaking past a dangerous dragon are encouraged to keep the creature at bay by making noise using handheld wooden devices that make an eerily soft rattle when shaken. There’s a sequence in which Harry and friends use the cover of nightfall to sneak into Hogsmeade, the village adjacent to Hogwarts, that finds the town blanketed in snow and lit with the soft, gorgeously creepy light of what appears to be hundreds of candles in just as many windows. Later, on the cusp of chaos erupting into the walls of Hogwarts, an entire army of Voldemort’s henchmen is both reduced and heightened in the image and overwhelming sound of one man crunching his foot just one step further, testing for the lack of a magical force field.  These are striking choices of filmmakers willing to make artistic choices with their surefire hit, rather than merely pushing out the bare minimum.

This being the conclusion of all this Harry Potter, Yates and his team have gone all out bringing memorable sights and characters from all previous installments back on screen, even if it’s just to give them one last great moment. With a cast this deeply and broadly talented, a veritable who’s who of the British acting world, it makes sense to put them to good use. The late, great Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) gets a nice ghostly speech. Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall gets her best moments in years with a great “man the battle stations” scene and a terrific standoff with Alan Rickman’s sneering Severus Snape. Speaking of Snape, Rickman, the ultimate acting MVP of the entire series, gets an impressive send-off that deepens and redeems his character, revealing his tormented complexity once and for all. Other choice moments are handed out for conflicted bad boy Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), humble, charming Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), the fiercely protective mother Weasley (Julie Walters), and the wild, evil Bellatrix Lestrange, (Helena Bonham Carter, who is asked to do the trickiest acting of her role when a character impersonates her with some Polyjuice Potion). Others, like Jim Broadbent, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, Helen McCrory, and John Hurt have little more to do than show up and get their close up, but it’s wonderful to see each and every one of them, even the seemingly long-absent Gemma Jones as Madame Pomfrey and Miriam Margolyes as Professor Sprout.

It’s bittersweet to see the cast and the sets one last time, especially with a film devoted entirely to tying up the loose ends and ending definitively and conclusively. With J.K. Rowling’s final book chopped inelegantly in two, stretching across two films, neither concluding chapter lives up to the full potential. The last film, a minor disappointment for me, was a frustratingly incomplete film with great moments but little momentum, a film that stopped rather than ended. Now Part 2 suffers from a similar problem, starting rather than beginning and spending the majority of its runtime with conflict and climax. Both films feel lopsided. I wish that we had been given one great four-hour finale instead of two mildly hobbled two-hour segments. To my mind, the split has had the unfortunate effect of rendering each half curiously small with neither allowed to use the other to more immediately inform the epic stakes of the full narrative arc.

And yet, the film moved me. It draws on the entire history of the franchise, using snippets of footage and music from past films in elegant flashback fashion that gain an added power through their mere reappearances. These are memories not just of a decade’s worth of incident in the lives of the characters, but a decade’s worth of memories for the audience as well. I grew older right alongside these kids. Now we’re all young adults. The filmmakers lucked into three wonderful children who happened to grow into wonderful actors. The whole sweep of the franchise has been about aging, about learning, about growing and changing. In a lovely epilogue, we see that, though the immediate story of Harry Potter may have ended, the story of Hogwarts, the story of this magical world will continue, delighting the next generation just as it did their parents.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dead or Alive: HORRIBLE BOSSES


As directed by Seth Gordon, Horrible Bosses is a dark mainstream studio comedy, or rather, as dark as a mainstream, broadly appealing R-rated comedy can get. It’s a movie that has three friends, each with a particularly monstrous boss, deciding almost on a whim and with a Hitchcock reference, that the best way to make their lives easier is through the deaths of their bosses. The most twisted aspect of the film is the way it not only had me rooting for three would-be murderers, I also was hoping they’d go through with it.

The most surprising aspect of the film is how completely untwisted the premise plays out. The characters here are so very thinly sketched, so nonexistent outside the narrow parameters of the movie’s action that the stakes of the plot never register. Going into the movie, my mind conjured up thoughts of 9 to 5 remade in the style of the Coen brothers’ bloody good Burn After Reading. This isn’t quite that movie I was anticipating, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a moderately good time with what it is.

The film spends quite a bit of effort setting up the horribleness of the bosses, so much so that it begins to feel like “horrible” is perhaps an understatement. Monstrous Bosses, perhaps? I suppose the script by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, and Jonathan Goldstein needed to find a way to excuse the central premise, to make us realize that murder would be a perfectly viable option, but surely in extreme cases such as these, merely gathering evidence and then going to the authorities would be a much safer option. No matter, these are some extremely bad work environments and these aren’t the brightest characters to begin with.

Kevin Spacey plays the president of an office where he takes particular delight in torturing an ambitious office drone played by Jason Bateman, all but promising him a promotion, forcing him to work late, work on the weekends, and even working instead of saying goodbye to a dying loved one. Then, to top it all off, there is no promotion. Jennifer Aniston plays a dentist who sexually harasses her favorite dental hygienist, the befuddled and uncomfortable Charlie Day. She goes way too far when she reveals that she misuses the anesthesia in order to have her desires. Meanwhile, the factory manager Jason Sudeikis doesn’t mind his boss played by Donald Sutherland. The problem is the boss’s son (Colin Farrell, giving a great but criminally shortchanged comedic performance), a cokehead and an idiot who invites, in his dad’s absence, a collection of prostitutes into the office to help him sniff up his stash.

The three employees are played rather charmingly and the bosses, two of the three playing deliciously against type, are quite scary. The six of them (seven when you include Jamie Foxx’s “murder consultant”) seem to elbow each other off the screen for their brief moments in the spotlight – this is a superfast 100 minute comedy that seems to end soon after it’s really started – but they all improve on a screenplay that often feels like nothing more than a somewhat inspired screenwriting exercise. Take three characters and find a way to get them into and out of a murder plot in as few steps as possible.

Watching the movie, I found myself laughing and smirking and leaving the theater reasonably diverted. I was, however, almost immediately wishing that the film had pushed just a bit farther. There’s a feeling that the filmmakers set the bar fairly low and, though I suppose they cleared it, is that enough? The movie exists on one level – a broad, crude, slightly misogynistic, slightly cheap level – and although it succeeds on its own terms, I can’t help but wonder just how good the movie could have been if it had set better terms for itself. This could have been a great, dark, timely stab into current American fretfulness over the job market. After all, director Seth Gordon’s first film was the hilarious King of Kong, a documentary about arcade game high scores that showed a much keener eye for the strands of competition and hierarchy that exist in even the most frivolous of societies. As it is, the film’s just a light, forgettable shot of artificial catharsis masquerading as the real thing.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Royal Mixup: MONTE CARLO


What makes Monte Carlo such a surprisingly enjoyable squeaky-clean family comedy is its low-key, laid-back approach to its mild farce. It’s a fantasy European vacation involving beautiful scenery, pretty young ladies, fashionable young men, glamorous clothes and accessories, and a central case of improbable mistaken identity, but the movie never makes too much of an effort to point out the fantasy of it all. It’s a sweet, disarming production that moves along pleasantly, genially, and allows the audience to simply enjoy the warm, relaxed comedy of it all.

Up-and-coming young actress Selena Gomez, notable in last year’s Ramona and Beezus, has a sense of ease on camera that places her firmly ahead of her fellow Disney Channel alums of the Miley Cyrus ilk. There’s never a sense that Gomez is straining to play at the comedy or the charm of the film. No, she just settles into the right groove and works the moods perfectly well. She plays a girl who just graduated high school and who, after saving her money and receiving a graduation gift from her mom and stepdad, is off to spend some days in Paris with her best friend (Kate Cassidy), a twenty-something high school dropout who works with her at a local diner. At the last minute, they’re told that Gomez’s recently added college-aged stepsister (Leighton Meester) will be tagging along as both a bonding experience and as a covert chaperone.

The girls zip off to France and find that they’ve selected the worst tour possible, one seemingly designed to not allow visitors the chance to actually look at Paris. They race through the Louvre so fast that they have to be coming close to breaking the record set in Godard’s Band of Outsiders, leaving the trio no choice but to dash down the corridors to catch up. When they finally take a moment to breathe and look out over the city, getting their first chance to just simply marvel at the beauty of it all while at the Eiffel tower, the bus leaves without them.

Lost in the city and caught in the rain, the girls stumble into a fancy hotel to dry off when they discover a spoiled British heiress (also Gomez) who is getting ready to ditch her scheduled charity trip to Monte Carlo. Upon emerging from the lobby bathroom after attempting to towel off their hair, the trio are spotted by hotel staff and whisked into a luxury suite and eventually given their airplane tickets for the next day. The heiress is nowhere to be found and the resemblance is so close (it’s a dual role for Gomez, after all) that these Americans abroad are about to get an all-expenses-paid weekend of Gallic glitz and glamour so long as the mistake isn’t caught.

Though sitting atop a shaky premise, director Thomas Bezucha, who also co-wrote with three other credited writers, keeps the proceedings light and frothy, never trying too hard to convince us of its veracity and never once patronizing its target audience. The relationships between the three main girls feel real and are teased out in ways that are quieter and subtler than you might expect. Gomez handles the double role convincingly with plenty of charm while Cassidy and Meester have little arcs of their own that unfold with a convincing patience. All the while, Michael Giacchino’s jazzy score and Jonathan Brown’s sunny cinematography help keep the film in a nice balance between fizzy and frivolous with just enough weight to keep the admittedly far-fetched events at least somewhat grounded.

It’s exactly what you’d want from a summery family comedy. Well, maybe not you specifically, but it’s certainly more than I expected from this one. There’s enough low-key farce to keep things hopping and enough chaste romance to keep the tweens in the audience swooning. The actors are fun to spend time with, the scenery is lovely, and the plot bumps along with a likably unhurried quality refreshingly devoid of heavy-handed moralizing. This is not a great movie, but it’s sweet and amiable and in this case that’s enough. It tells its story with a dose of relaxed charm that was unexpected enough to win me over.

Special Education: LARRY CROWNE

The most dispiriting aspect of Larry Crowne, a dismal new comedy co-written and directed by Tom Hanks, who also takes the titular role, is the way it strides forward, places its finger on the pulse of modern America and then scurries away, never to contemplate such resonance again. This one well-pitched moment comes, fittingly enough, right at the film’s opening that introduces us to Larry Crowne. He’s a nine-time employee-of-the-month at U-Mart, a fitting string of commendations for a man who spent twenty years as a Navy cook. Called into the break room by his boss, fully expecting to be awarded yet again, Larry is dismayed to find that, due to his lack of a college education, he has been deemed insufficiently upwardly mobile within the corporation and therefore must be fired.

In a time of high unemployment, rampant corporate malfeasance, and an identity crisis within a certain section of the lower middle class demographic that has found well-paying jobs increasingly unavailable without college, the premise of Larry Crowne could not be timelier. Unable to find a new job Crowne sets off for the local community college, at the suggestion of his neighbors played by Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson, and settles down, like so many of his real-life counterparts, to try to learn his way back into the job force.

Unlike the wild, experimental, and unexpectedly moving sitcom Community, one of my favorite current TV shows, which often achieves its impact ironically or through surprising detours, Larry Crowne is poised to use the terrain of community college for simple good old fashioned Capra-esque uplift. There’s the sad teacher (Julia Roberts) who just needs to pull her messy personal life together to, doggone it, inspire her students. There’s the strict teacher (George Takai) who has his students’ best interests at heart. There’s the hip gang of scooter commuters (led by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Wilmer Valderrama) who are all too ready to embrace a middle-aged doofus like Larry and selflessly help him turn his life around and get back on his feet. This is the kind of cast that could be airlifted out and placed in a great movie. Instead, they’re stuck here.

The movie is awfully cutesy and wispy, to the point where each and every scene feels like a digression, scenes that start nowhere and in their flat, unremarkable visual style, work backwards to irrelevance. The characters are so simply, clumsily drawn by Hanks and his co-writer, the one-hit-wonder behind 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding Nia Vardalos, that it feels hard to find any reason to care about these people or even believe that they would interact in the ways that they do. Friendship, respect, and romance all seem to be forced upon them by the screenplay. It’s as if Hanks and Vardalos came up with a great idea, sketched out a rough first draft and then decided to film it without further development. This is a loose and flabby picture that, despite being so earnest, is utterly devoid of backbone.
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