Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

It's hard to comment on the narrative of Synecdoche, New York because it is as chaotic and dense as Charlie Kaufman would have you believe he intended all along. The truth is, that while Kaufman again offers insights in ways few other screenwriters or artists can, his story collapses into itself as it waltzes to its final fade out. That isn't to say there isn't merit to the chaos. S,NY is rife with themes that will plague your thoughts all the way home from the theater and into the next morning after you decided to try to sleep it off.

It's hard to give anyone a concrete synopsis. Yahoo Movies, Rottentomatoes, IMDB, and so forth all tried, but only managed to scratch the surface. What we watch, in a nutshell, is an artist waiting on a slowly but surely approaching death with the single intense desire to figure out the truth of his life through the fabrication of his life story as it happens past and present in a massive theater piece of which the scope is unfathomable as it increases in size until only the characters are still keeping track of who is who and why. Doesn't sound like a nutshell, huh?

I can talk about it all day and not really give anything away, because one watch isn't enough. It's a rough watch. I was uneasy and/or uncomfortable watching the film. There's plenty of Water The Fish(?) to go for miles. It seems impenetrable and so difficult to empathize or even sympathize with the characters on screen. It seems to go at least a half hour or so past its reported 2 hour and 4 minute runtime. I won't hurry back into the theater anytime soon to revisit the challenge, but somehow the anticipation of facing the challenge of watching Synecdoche, New York is exciting.

I can't really blame anyone for disliking this movie or even hating it. Everything negative you say is probably true, but there is a wealth of meaning and provocation under the dense and enigmatic surface.

On top of that and in spite of all claims otherwise, there are some amazing performances in this film. Phillip Seymour Hoffman carries this film on his weary and wounded shoulders, and conveys the essence of confusion, regret, loss, frustration, and fear that comes with living (though it is heightened dramatically). The best moments in this film are when he is quietly discovering something he had missed so easily while looking for it so very hard. And the truth is that S, NY is a cynical film, but above all a character piece about a man never able to see past himself. Kudos also to the supporting cast including a wonderfully alive and buoyant performance from Samantha Morton amongst the cold and uninviting atmosphere. The always enjoyable Diane Wiest, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams and Emily Watson also contribute a light in the awkward chaos. And I find it both comforting and frustrating that the entire cast and Kaufman himself seem so sure of their message and film. But it's not altogether serious either. There is an absurdity to the whole thing that never quite allows the audience to fully engage the story. But that story does not exist without that absurdity.

I'll finish this review with a quote from Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly: "The compulsion to stand outside of one's life and observe it to this degree isn't the mechanism of art -- it's the structure of psychosis." Hoffman's character turns inward into himself a seemingly infinite amount of times for the insight to his shortcomings both in health and relationships, but ultimately learns nothing that can satisfy his need to search.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Surf's Up

Surf's Up is a fairly good way to pass the time, but it doesn't offer the same creativity and fun that its CGI friends and competitors offer. It's a sweet story about surfing penguins told in a mockumentary style. In that way, it is special. The voice work of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, and Zooey Deschanel utilizes the awkwardness and spontaneity of the genre very well. The animation is beautiful and well-detailed and styled (the ocean is almost too real) and the story well told enough to enjoy, but there is little cleverness or ingenuity to the script. It's a small pleasure, but Surf's Up doesn't earn any more than a fond chuckle or smile or a babysitter's club seal of approval.


The Crying Game

I recently caught up with one of the more buzzed about films of the 1990's. The film is notorious for it's twist. I had long ago had the twist ruined for me in a magazine article or two, but I had always misinterpreted the twist as an ending. In truth, it happens midway through the film. Although it does change the direction of the film, I found it to be quite interesting despite my prior knowledge.

The real discovery for me was the talent of Stephen Rea, which I am apparently the last film fan to know about. He is the soul and center of the Crying Game, and although Jaye Davidson's performance is the one most remembered, it was Rea's portrayal of a disillusioned IRA man that still sticks with me. Obviously, considering the political climate and history of Ireland, a disillusioned IRA man is rife with complexities and conflicts. When he seeks out the girlfriend of a recently deceased political hostage, the story stretches beyond any conventional narrative I could have expected.

The film is not without flaws. Much of the film's believability lies in Davidson's performance. It's a performance reeking of inauthenticity from the first time performer. I was bothered by it, but any number of viewers could easily attribute that the the inherent and necessary inauthenticity of the character.

It's an unconventional non-love romance set against the backdrop of political unrest. It's exciting because it's utterly unpredictable. I've never seen a story like this before, nor have I since.

The DVD offers an insightful documentary about the making of the film, and shows that this unexpected hit was truly a labor of love.


Rachel Getting Married

Be prepared for heaps of praise. I've been overusing the term "organic" lately, but Rachel Getting Married is certainly worthy of such a designation. There is not one false note in this film (perhaps to a fault). It is filled with lived in performances from an excellent cast deserving recognition come awards season. Chief among the standouts is Anne Hathaway. She stunned me with her vulnerability and willingness to leave her character to be interpreted and felt by the audience. Her character is not immediately likable, and she is certainly the catalyst for poking of the raw nerve of the family. She reveals her character slowly. I thought I had her pegged within the first 15 minutes, but there's depth to her and her relationships with her immediate family. Rosemarie Dewitt, as the title character, offers up a great supporting performance full of honesty, hurt, love, and tenderness that notes the breakout of a wonderful new talent. Family tragedy plays a large part to the raw nerve, but director Jonathan Demme and writer Jenny Lumet allow for the details to reveal themselves in fresh, real ways culminating with Anne Hathaway's Kym's harrowing confession to a support group. There's much to rave about when considering this film, but perhaps the biggest praise I can offer is that I not only watched this film but also felt every moment caught in the camera's grasp. Rachel Getting Married is a bare bones indie. There's not much style to it visually, though it certainly isn't bland. Rather, Demme allows the camera to be an unobtrusive voyeur in this family's intimate moment. The wedding rehearsal dinner might have gone on too long, but I chalked up its length to the revelation of these characters through unknown eyes and histories. And you better believe that there was a horror in my heart the moment Kym reached for the microphone. The wedding reception, also, may have run a bit long, but by that point in the film I had given myself over completely to these characters and their moment. I also was wonderfully aware that it was the coolest wedding I have ever seen. Rachel Getting Married understands and portrays the great complexity of familial love, resentment, regret, and heartache like no other film this year.


Monday, November 17, 2008

The Rocketeer

I caught up with this 1991 film over the weekend and really enjoyed it. It had just the right mix of nostalgia, homage, and reverence for the 1930's and the films of the era and those that depict the era. But rather than strictly adhering to the tone and style of its influences (like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), The Rocketeer works as a film in its own right. It creates a memorable new hero for the silver screen. Billy Campbell plays Cliff Secord/The Rocketeer with classic charm, moxie, and stubborness. When he suits up, it's a special moment because he looks so darn cool and natural, like a product of another time plastered on the screen. His rapport with Alan Arkin is one of the chief pleasures of the film. There is a bit of goofball charm to the whole endeavor, but it fits with its overall aesthetic. I can't begrudge the film much because it's much too enjoyable for me to complain about small annoyances like the dated special effects.


Quantum of Solace

It seems that Quantum of Solace adds up to little more than action filler in between Casino Royale and the next installment of the series. It's an entertaining film, but doesn't pack any of the same emotional payoff as it's most recent predecessor. There is little for Daniel Craig as Bond to do except scowl, punch, drive, shoot, and ruminate in his anger. The film opens with a car chase and doesn't allow the audience a chance to breathe for about 20 or so minutes. And then there's a break that serves only to take us to another action sequence. I'm not naive. The Bond franchise is an action franchise. It obviously has to up the action ante as the sequel to the excellent Casino Royale. At least make the bigger and longer sequences memorable. Save for each of the sequence's finales (and the entire desert hotel sequence), there was little to latch onto. The editing, although certainly less frantic than the Bourne franchise, was too chaotic and quick to follow well during the film's first act. It seems like a lot of grumbling from someone who actually enjoyed the movie. Daniel Craig as Bond, even given very little to do, is still an interesting hero. Judi Dench does well in her small role to create a useful character behind the scenes. But let's go ahead and point out that Mathieu Amalric is not a intimidating villain. Until he and Bond duke it out in the climatic hotel fire, I barely noticed him. It's a waste of a fine actor. And the bond girls - there are really only two. One is barely a hiccup in the plot, though her death does create some danger surrounding Mathieu Amalric's evil-doer. Olga Kurylenko is not up to acting snuff as Bond's revenge-hungry cohort. She's not bad persay, but is certainly a big step down from Eva Green's wonderful work in Casino Royale. A fun, disposable film that leads me to hope for more for Mr. Bond to do in all follow-ups. And he doesn't have to driving or piloting to keep my interest. A pistol and too deadly fists will do more to keep my attention.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Be Kind Rewind is a completely original movie about making unoriginal art and the community that art creates. One alone could conceive of this movie and direct it - Michel Gondry. His visual inventiveness has come through in both Science of Sleep and now Be Kind Rewind. But he also brings together a cast performance led by Jack Black and Mos Def that is inside its own world, has its own tone, and seems both organic and spontaneous. The film is a living breath of new life. And while the story itself is slight in scope, Be Kind Rewind has big heart and big laughs that are earnestly asked for and received. The story allows Gondry to show off his trademark visual flair, and it begs the question if one can exist without the other. However, it becomes clear that Gondry and his cast believe in its themes and style to the point where the audience needs to surrender its driver's seat and let Gondry take the wheel. He knows where he's going and what he's doing.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008


It's nice to see Guy Ritchie get back to his bread and butter, what has affectionately called Mockney crime films. He showed his skill with Lock, Stock and Snatch, then slid away. But RocknRolla, while not necessarily superior to its Mockney predecessors, is again a testament to his exciting talent. The excitement generated is inorganic and a kin to a "fizzy drink." But like my revered can of Diet Coke cooling in the fridge, RocknRolla is exceptionally made. There are a few standout scenes viscerally like the second Wild Bunch robbery, two heavies that won't go down easily, and the Johnny Quid club kill set to the "Rock and Roll Queen" song. Memorable adrenaline shots to the veins. It may not be fair to judge RocknRolla against Ritchie's past filmography. I should judge each film on its own merits, but I'm not gonna. Rocknrolla falls somewhere behind his first two films, but clearly excels over his most recent two ventures. It doesn't have the humor of Lock, Stock or Snatch (you probably won't hear me randomly quoting RocknRolla to pals), but it's a tightly plotted crime picture with finesse and character derived from its writer director and actors. It gets off to a rocky start with large amounts of voice over to hold our hands through the exposition and introduction of the characters, but finds its groove somewhere in the second act. And it just keeps getting better as the characters' situations keep getting worse. The cast's work is memorable and will bring me back for any of the proposed sequels if they ever actually get off the ground. RocknRolla also signals the break through of Toby Kebbel who plays thee rocknrolla Johnny Quid, who is all attitude and mood and a junkie weak enough to crumble and strong enough to strike the fear of Moses into you with a stare and twitch of his pencil.


Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder is as irreverent as it claimed to be in its promotion. It certainly works to its benefit. Casting Jack Black and Robert Downey, Jr. in roles that lampoon their peers and themselves is a hoot of the highest caliber, and softens any of the bullseyes painted on their Hollywood peers. This is an in-joke out and out, to the extent that the Hollywood it satirizes was part of its success.

The movie is funny and laugh out loud so. It goes for broke and pushes boundaries, but kept me from cringing 90% of the time with the realization that the people doing these ignorant, bizarre, unacceptable things are portrayed as ignorant and foolish and self-important buffoons for our amusement. We're meant to laugh at them and not feel bad about it. And I did and did not. So mission accomplished.

I could literally spend a couple pages just doing the fan "remember how funny that one scene was" thing, but suffice to say it has enough entertainment to engage all the way through. An unusually well executed movie considering all the hype behind it. My favorite comedy since Superbad from a year ago, and definitely a cut above Pineapple Express.

The cast is good. Sometimes they're swamped in chaos, but it chaos engineered for comedy even if it seems unorganized and mashed together. Props to the three stars: Downey, Jr., Black, and Ben Stiller for flexing their funny muscles (Downey, Jr. in particular goes to the mat to humiliate himself for the good of his audience). Nick Nolte also is appropriately gruff and grizzled in the first role that seems perfectly tailored to his inherent outlandishness. And Jay Baruchel is a capable and winning foil for the zaniness of his co-stars in Tropic Thunder the movie and Tropic Thunder the movie. Note - the hilariousness of Tom Cruise's cameo has been exaggerated. I found Matthew McConaughey to be a bigger surprise after his romantic comedy slumming.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Mickey Rourke in Entertainment Weekly

If you've ever given a hoot about Mickey Rourke (and I sure do - Boogie in Diner, Henry in Barfly - 'nuff said), then check out this awesome feature from EW.