Thursday, October 28, 2004

Primer Directed by Shane Carruth

It seems almost puerile to reduce a film to its budget, as if one were a child staring in awe at either a flea or an elephant – marveled by the size of both. Yet I completely understand how many do that very thing with Primer (whose budget is decidedly of the flea type - $7000.) Primer is a difficult film to write about. In my opinion, outside of the complete bafflement that one feels after seeing the film, one can choose to write about its production mechanics (aforementioned budget, freshman director, guerrilla methods), its labyrinthine storyline (which leads to a didactic plot analysis – which is nigh impossible to do right with this film), or its thematic elements. For emphasis, I restate: Primer is a difficult film to write about. Therefore, I can hardly discredit those who harp on its budget because, frankly, it is the most apparent aspect of the film to write about while still conveying a sense of What It Is. Forgive my failures ahead of time, but I will try to avoid further discussion re: the fiscal allowance of Carruth and Co.

Basic plot summary: four guys (late-20’s) are working on some type of invention (computer cards of some sort, + various other projects) in a garage. Two of them, Abe and Aaron stumble upon an invention that provokes their interest far more than the get-rich-quick ideas they had been working on. Namely, a variant on the venerated time machine. Naturally – because, let’s face it, we will never have a complete handle on causality if/until an actual time machine is invented, and even then, not until after some heavy tinkering - various situations of general turmoil occur. Within this extremely puzzling framework, Carruth, by his own admission, fleshes out a theme that aims right at the heart of today’s greed-driven society – trust. Specifically, Primer deals with the inverse relationship between the level of trust and the value of what is riding on that trust. He leads the viewer to this conclusion: absolute power corrupts absolutely. If one has the power to travel back in time, one has the power to amass an incredible amount of money (via, to use an example from the film, the stock market) and to alter the events of the future/present in one’s favor. Abe and Aaron are, as the film enforces time and again, close friends. They begin the trust break cycle by excluding the two other garage inventors once they realize what they have. Why split 4 ways what can just as easily be split in 2? The trust is further shattered when both Abe and Aaron decide that half is not enough.

This sentiment seems bitterly apropos in a society where the primary focal point is gain at any cost. Enron, Martha Stewart, et al is one thing – we are now at a place where corporate distrust is expected – but the dissemination of greed and distrust into populous society is another thing entirely. Even our entertainment - Survivor, The Mole, et cetera - is focused on greed and distrust. Add to this boiling cauldron ludicrous preemptive lawsuits, the necessity for a prenuptial agreement, and the popular opinion of any person in power, and it seems that Primer is a film perfectly positioned in time and place.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Incredibles Directed by Brad Bird

Apparently Walt Disney Pictures is planning to release sequels to Monsters Inc., A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo. They will also have rights to the current Pixar Studios release, The Incredibles, and the next release, Cars; I imagine we can expect solo Disney production sequels for those films as well. My point is that while Disney is rehashing old territory and failing to progress, Pixar is pushing the animated family picture forward. Case in point: The Incredibles.

Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo, but I adored The Incredibles. It is the first Pixar film, and the first animated film released since I was nine, that I can say I enjoyed without any further qualification. With every animated feature post-Aladdin, I have had to supplement my adulation for the film with a “but.” Finding Nemo was good, but a little too sappy. The Lion King was good, but tread on some awfully familiar territory. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was good, but, wait, no, no – it wasn’t that good, was it? The Incredibles, on the other hand, is a good film without any buts.

Whereas the former Pixar releases, excepting parts of A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc., were mostly attempts at realism, The Incredibles is a highly stylized picture. It seems that the creative minds at Pixar are finally comfortable enough with their ability to create images exactly as they look that they can now branch out and create visuals that are stylistic exaggerations. Echoing Film Noir, sci-fi, and the 50’s in general, the set design is an example of this stylistic bent. Shadows slant jaggedly across the screen, traces of Star Trek can be found in the sliding doors, and the quaintness of familial life – or the appearance of – can be found virtually everywhere. The best word to describe the movie would be organic; the style is subtle, but far more natural than the nigh sterile environ of former Pixar films.

The true hallmark of The Incredibles is the writing. The primary characters are filled out, offering a complete personality rather than one that is monodimensional. This has been a thorn in the side for animated films, where a children’s film, nearly without exception, implies a childish film. That is, a film that plays to only one audience, with characters tailored to one specific modality. (It should be noted that Pixar has been better than most in this category.) In The Incredibles, characters are fully formed, running a gamut of emotions and situations. We see Mr. Incredible at both the top and bottom of his game, we see him as a father, we see him as an employee, and we see him as his own individual entity. He is a complex character who obviously had a lot of thought put into him. In my opinion, the pinnacle of the film is the set pieces. They’re so much fun that I would hardly be doing anyone a favor by revealing them. Suffice it to say that they are the most entertaining and creative set pieces I have seen since 2003’s Intacto.

Built on the foundation of the family film, The Incredibles is far more than its genre. It (hopefully) foretells a future in which a family film can appeal to a larger demographic while still holding fast to its roots.

Opens Nationwide November 5th.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Tarnation Directed by Jonathan Caouette

I’m of two completely different minds regarding Tarnation. Director (although he didn’t really direct a whole lot of the action) Jonathan Caouette is also producer, star, and cinematographer. I take a potshot at the directing credit because the movie is a composite of home video that Caouette has shot since the age of 11. Much ado is made over the cost of a film these days; either it broke spending records or it, amazingly, cost under a million dollars. The bottom line is this: a good film is a good film, regardless of cost. That said, Tarnation deserves a bit of attention in the fiscal department. Cost: under $250. Caouette made the film on his boyfriend’s iMac, using the iMovie software that comes with.

Back story: Caouette’s mother was a beautiful model. Due to some plot points I will not divulge, she became insane. Tarnation is Caouette’s exorcism of the devils that haunted his life, due largely to his mother’s insanity.

Back to the two minds bit. This was one of the most emotionally draining films I’ve seen. Caouette nearly begs the audience to invest themselves in his life. We see an 11 yr. Old Jonathan give an outstanding* mirror soliloquy, role-playing a Faulkner meets Caldwell whore who recounts her beau holding a gun to her head. We see Caouette train his camera, for two entire minutes, on his mentally deteriorated mother as she dances with a pumpkin. It is all terribly affecting. And it is all terribly affected.

*Yes, outstanding is the word I meant to use. This kid’s monologue could run circles round 50% of Hollywood today. If he had pursued an acting career a little earlier, it might’ve saved him some grief. Who am I kidding? It probably would’ve screwed him up worse.

The first 1/4 of the film is composed of video and still shots that background text telling us Jonathan’s story, in full detail. The sentences are cut up in such a way that their intent is absolute. dramatic. gravity. As a fictitious example: “The Jones family had a wonderful life. They went to church, they ate dinner together – everything was great (this is where the big pause/sentence break would come in) until Mother Jones murdered her entire family.” Mel Gibson had a similar problem (amongst many others) with The Passion of the Christ. Instead of allowing a singular moment to display the gravity of the situation, a gimmick, such as the aforementioned sentence-break, is employed. With Gibson, it was the super slo-mo, Monday Night Football replay. Just as Gibson attempted to give weight to an already heavy situation via the grotesque, Young Jonathan’s soliloquy speaks volumes about his shambled life, but the text only dramatizes it and seems to beg for pity.

More than the actual artifact, which I did enjoy (with reservations), I’m dreading the copycats. This is the type of film that could generate a slew of equally affected, colon cleansing Caouette clones. America is full of screwed up people, just waiting to tell their story. The problem is this: as with any good colon cleansing, one person is left feeling great and the rest are left drenched in crap. I’d wager that the one feeling great will not be the viewing public.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

reasons for atrophy

If you were to look at your calendar (which you should. sure, go ahead. no one's looking. well done.) right about now, you would see that we are smack dab in the middle of October. Counting backward, you'll find that August is two months past. Shifting gears, count forward and two months will find you at December. I started school in August, school ends in December. So, you could say that I'm in the middle of the term. Which, if you have any semblance of understanding re: the college system mechanics, you'll get the gravity of my situation. Oh, boo-hoo actually. It's just a few tests, papers, and essays. So: two movies in the last week. After keeping up a pretty rigorous pace (1.4 movies a day since June 17), I've fallen off the wagon. That should all end at noon today, when my last mid-term is set to terminate. Ah, sweet bliss. Once this weekend kicks in, you all - that is, all 3 of you - can return to reading my fairly regular hyperbolic manifestos on such greats as Billy Madison, Bring It On, and Waterworld.


Friday, October 08, 2004

The Motorcycle Diaries Directed by Walter Salles

A bio-pic about Ernesto Guevara (you might know him better as "Che.") Also, a road film. Also, a coming-of-age story. Also, a biker film. Also, a buddy picture. If those last few sentences seem laced with a subtle disdain, than you're starting to understand what I disliked about The Motorcycle Diaries. It has so many focal points that the filmmaker is left with far too many themes to adequately convey. The main problem is not the plethora of themes, though. The main problem is that said themes are presented in such a matter-of-fact manner that there is zero room left for interpretation.

Essentially, Ernesto (Gael Garcia Bernal of Y Tu Mama Tambien fame) and pal, Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna), embark on a 8000 KM motorcycle trip to see, in person, the whole of South America. And we watch. We watch them drive, we watch them crash, we watch them beg favors, we watch them reach epiphany after epiphany.

(Now: a break from the scathing sarcasm.)

It really isn't bad. I was involved in the story, and, a 20 minute section excepting, never bored.

(Ok: back to the vitriol.)

When the credits rolled at the end, all became clear. Executive Producer: Robert Redford. "Whoa, whoa - did he just diss Redford?" No, I didn't. Actually, until very recently, Redford's A River Runs Through It was in my Top 100. I am saying that Redford is a very American man, with very American sensibilities. He saw something in this film that appealed to him, and I would venture to say it was the pseudo-epiphanic weight that this story holds. (For a history of the P-EW plague in American Film see American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, Et Cetera.) The burden is partly on myself, actually. I was not expecting an A-B, everything has serious gravity and resolution film - but that is what I got.

We are continually reminded that Ernesto will grow up to become "Che." Therefore, each step he takes is loaded with the weight of a revolution. To further elucidate the heft of the situation, each epiphanic moment is given an encore in black&white that would make Dorothea Lange drool. It adds up to too much. As a member of the audience, (paying, I should add) I felt like a card in Alice in Wonderland - being played when I didn't necessarily want to be played. Each B&W moment says, "Look. Look here. Look right the fuck here." For a film to laser the viewer's attention in that manner, it better have something important to say. And this film does not.

Once again, seeing The Motorcycle Diaries was not a terrible theater experience. I generally enjoyed myself. The real mark of the thing is that, not 20 minutes after I left the theater, I was done thinking about the film.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Coffee and Cigarettes Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Coffee and Cigarettes, ironically, is like a breath of fresh air. An independent film w/o all the baggage and grief usually associated with the Indie Film. For example: this year’s Garden State is a prime example of Indie Baggage. Riffing (like an amateur) on Joyce, it is top-heavy with the epiphanic moment. Let’s scream into a gulch, let’s not cry at our mother’s funeral, let’s observe the world passing by our medicated gaze. (Caveat Emptor: Garden State is higher on my 2004 list than Coffee and Cigarettes. I’m picking on it only to clearly show the distinction between the separate cloth that it and C&C are cut out of. Really, I liked Garden State. Why do I feel like I'm making excuses for my taste?) Conversely, Coffee and Cigarettes has none of that. Jim Jarmusch could have made a giant misstep had he made the eleven conversations that constitute the whole of the film matter. Instead we get eleven disparate vignettes, the only connective tissue being the eponymous coffee and cigarettes present (or discussed) in each scene.

I’m not going to genuflect at the C&C altar, though. It can only go so far: when the film’s over, it’s over. Meaning: you cannot take a whole lot away from it except a wild hankering for, well, coffee and cigarettes. (Caveat Emptor Pt. II: if you’re attempting to quit, do not watch this movie. I don’t smoke and it made me want to start. I had to rent an educational D.A.R.E. video just to combat the carcinogenic effects of this film.) So, without the baggage, there are no thematic depths to plumb. Without the thematic depths there is no analysis beyond "I liked it" or "I didn't like it."

But that is not to say that Coffee and Cigarettes isn’t compelling. What’s brilliant about this format is that, if you don’t like something, it only be on the screen for about 8 minutes. This makes for quick and entertaining viewing. Jack and Meg White, Alfred Molina, RZA, Bill Murray, Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits, Cate Blanchett, Iggy Pop – in 8 minute spurts all of these are satisfying, never cloying, and engaging for each minute of screen time. For the subject matter (that is, one devoid of any real significant weight) this is the perfect format. Finally, of particular enjoyment: Stephen Wright and Roberto Benigni with the caffeine jitters, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop dueling over who is cooler, Cate Blanchett talking to…Cate Blanchett, and Steve Coogan acting very Hollywood toward Alfred Molina.