Saturday, November 27, 2004

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Directed by Mike Nichols

The frightening part of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not so much the verbal, emotional, and physical abuse that occurs between the matched sets of husbands and wives, but the fact that what we’re witnessing is not the end of something, but only a quotidian event. To double the horror: Honey (Sandy Dennis) ruminates, “I love familiar stories; they’re the best.” So what we are watching is a story, uncomfortably familiar – a mimetic jaunt through the bleak confines of a marriage gone sour, but sweet enough to hang around till death do part.

If the film ended in a cathartic gunshot, or a doorslam pregnant with finality, the pill would be much easier to swallow. We could comfort ourselves, “Ah, this was a culmination of events – the ending of a terrible farce of a marriage.” And if the film were made with a monochromatic hand, that would have been the case. Thankfully, Director Mike Nichols and his actors have more tact, more complexity than that. There is no finality; rather the film ends where it began – a husband and wife alone, seemingly content with each other. The realization is that this couple lives in a Beckettesque circle, playing out their fights like circadian rhythms. Elizabeth Taylor won a well-deserved Oscar (back when Oscars were a bit more well-deserved) for her turn as Martha. Richard Burton matches her tit for tat as husband George. As a duet, they straddle the delicate line between comedy and tragedy. George and Martha’s vitriolic banter is both lacerating and amusing - equal parts hatred, respect, and love. That is what makes the story so familiar: the love is impossible to ignore. Absolutes are easy to dismiss; pure hatred comes off as exaggerated venomous drivel, pure love is idealistic. Mixed together in equal parts, the solution is unflinchingly believable. George and Martha hate each other, but they also love each other. Most relationships (long-term, anyway) have semblances of both love and hate. Ergo, George and Martha’s tumultuous marriage is not easily dismissed as an exaggeration; any relationship could look like that. Even yours. Even mine.

Off the thematic path: Nichols’ admirable job owes a great debt to the equally admirable source material. That is, Edward Albee’s play. Unlike Schlondorff’s Death of a Salesman or Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is decidedly augmented as a film. Through insert shots, Nichols introduces an important 5th character – alcohol. The film reeks of booze, which acts as a sort of truth serum. As the characters drink hearty, they reveal more and more of themselves. Lumet’s unerring dedication to the source material prevented this in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but you can almost hear Edmund Tyrone bellowing, “Here’s how” in Virginia Woolf. Equally impressive is Haskell Wexler’s black & white cinematography – claustrophobic when necessary, isolating when imperative. But it’s really Albee’s play that is the heart and soul of the thing. Burton’s despondently erudite ‘games’ and sophisms juxtaposed against Taylor’s siren retorts and the entrapment of the guests creates a Mexican stand-off, guaranteed to have all the players on their knees before it is over. Likewise, the viewer.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Short Cuts Directed by Robert Altman

To argue that Short Cuts sullies the original plots of Raymond Carver’s short stories is to miss the point. Carver wrote about our Kafkaesque world in which humankind is a syncope, playing itself like a broken record – around and around, and always the same few lines. Carver rarely wrote about a specific locale, but it isn’t hard to imagine Los Angeles while reading his stories of deprived decadence. Robert Altman, as outside of Hollywood as American director can be, saw this relation and built a film on top of it. The plots of Carver’s stories are sullied, but the themes are not.

Rather than chop the film into ten 20-minute segments, Altman melds the stories into one continuous narrative; employing his usual Renoir influenced ensemble cast technique. The result is, rather than reaching ten separate climaxes (or anti-climaxes, as they may very well deserved to be called), the film builds and builds in pressure until all threads culminate into one anti-cathartic release. The impact of the individual threads is lost in the milieu, but a portrait of one extremely vacuous city is left in their wake.

Altman’s style of directing (the aforementioned Renoir influenced ensemble cast mixed with improvisation that rests on the dividing line between control and chaos) is spot-on for both the subject matter and the form. The direction allows the film an (and I really hate this word, but it’s a perfect descriptive) organic environ, where the actors truly appear to be inhabitants of Los Angeles. Lines of dialogue spill over and into each other, characters wander through each other’s lives, unaware of the other stories being told, and dirty little secrets boil up from what seemed to be innocuous conversation. Altman’s controlled chaos seems to be the only way to properly handle a three-hour film containing a principal cast of over 25.

Meanwhile, that elephantine cast handles itself beautifully. Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin, as the aging, trailer-dwelling couple of “They’re Not Your Husband,” carry themselves with a subdued dignity; constantly speaking of “breaking out” and all the while knowing it will never happen. Julianne Moore is heralded for her much publicized nude scene, but delivers, per usual, a great performance as a pseudo-artistic wife of a rich, highland dwelling surgeon. Chris Penn subtly (!) gives, for my money, his best performance ever. I could go on: Robert Downey Jr., Lili Taylor, Tim Robbins, Jack Lemmon, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher – all of them are fantastic. The danger in having such a heavy-weighted cast is that the film can become a lumbering giant, falling under the weight of the talent. Short Cuts avoids this by distributing the weight evenly over the entire cast. There are no lengthy monologues (outside of a single brilliant one by Jack Lemmon.) In the same vein, the film is not told from one single perspective; rather, all the characters share equal spotlight, remaining in the film instead of revolving around a central character. The result is a group snapshot, portraying an entire city rather than a few inhabitants of the city. While that snapshot is a harrowing study of depravity, and therefore difficult to stare at for three hours, it is also a remarkable piece of filmmaking and completely worthy of that three hours.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Saddest Music in the World Directed by Guy Maddin

Many critics, whether implicating foul play or not, labeled Dogville as un-American. Even anti-American. Of course they were all wrong. (To be fair, most of the really good ones shied away from this kind of knee jerking.) Barring that I’m uninformed, it seems that no one has made the case for The Saddest Music in the World as a decry of the red, white, and blue. I am genuinely (and - it should be noted - happily) surprised by this; especially considering that T.S.M.i.t.W. seems to say more specifically about the American way than Dogville.

The premise is a contest; moreover, a contest held by a legless beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini) to crown the saddest music in the world in nation vs. nation battle. The competition takes place in Winnipeg during the prohibition/depression years. Plotwise, that’s pretty much all you need to know. On the technical side: the film is shot mostly on 8mm black and white. Strongly influenced by German Expressionism, it looks very similar to the films of the late 20’s and early 30’s, the main difference being the editing, which is fast, choppy, and calculated.

As far as the America critique goes – it is less about America as a country, and more about the general American attitude. Namely: arrogance, emotional void, and the heavy hand (read: $$) which is used to bully others. (I guess the “others” refers specifically to “other nations,” making the film, well, yes, a little bit about America as a country. But the general gist is the American attitude, which, if you think about it, influences the manner in which our foreign policy is handled.) Representing America is Chester Kent, who brags of having a “tiny heart, covered in slime.” He, with his nymphomaniacal girlfriend in tow, declares entrance into the competition, determined to win the $25,000 purse at any cost. He buys the Mexican entrants, offering to pay for their trip back to the homeland if they join his team. He wears a smug grin at all times. And, most importantly, he has no idea about what it means to be sad. Yet he wins his first round. And continues to win further rounds. His songs are spectacles! of excitement about (ahem) slavery, the San Francisco Earthquake, and the ‘Alaskan kayak tragedy of 1898'. They’re about sad things, but hardly sad themselves. What’s their purpose? To make money.

I think this is Maddin’s point: look at how tightly America holds its billfold to its heart. And at the sacrifice of what else? Early in the film, Kent says, “Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass.” And what’s happiness to Kent? Entertainment. You should approach sadness the same way as you approach happiness, with head high and fangs bared. Then Maddin gets into the tricky stuff: why isn’t America sad? More importantly, what does it take to get America sad? In The Saddest Music in the World it’s the baroness’ prosthetic beer-filled legs shattering. Her two legs shatter, first the left, then the right. Immediately the audience melts into chaos - people run for the exits, women and children scream, everything is destroyed, ignited, or knocked over – total chaos. What did it take in actuality? Two towers shattering, first the left, then the right – you get the picture. Kent is murdered by the baroness - absolutely apropos – and, after claiming through the whole picture that he’s really, truly sad, calls himself the happiest guy in the world while in the throes of death.

I do not believe that Guy Maddin is anti-American, or at least The Saddest Music in the World is not an anti-American film. Rather, it is a call to realization, a bizarre fable on the depletion of sincerity and morality in America, and the spread of that vapidity to the world at large.

Equus Directed by Sidney Lumet

Equus, dramatically, is focused on the actions of a 17 yr. Old boy. We come to learn that he blinded six horses with a metal spike. This is (possibly) due to his a) tempestuous familial life b) entirely repressed sexuality c) flagellant view of life. The motive is never made perfectly clear, but we glean that it is, as usual, an amalgam of all the above. If this were the entirety of Equus, it would merely be a semi-interesting psychological profile. Instead, the whole story, the real meat of it, lies inside the emotionally, sexually, and mentally dormant psychiatrist (Richard Burton) who treats the boy.

The psychiatrist is trapped – by his loveless marriage, by his job he hates, and by the person he has become. To escape, and possibly to confront, his life, he occupies himself with Ancient Greece – specifically its history and drama. The use of Ancient Greece is twofold: on one hand, it works as a plot device to deepen the viewer’s knowledge of the character; on the other, Equus is a filmic adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s stage-play. (The screenplay adapted by Schaffer himself.) The reference to Ancient Greece reinforces the idea that what is on screen is classical tragedy. Furthermore, the boy is enraptured by the name Equus, Latin for horse. The commonality of classical interest in the boy and the man does well to enforce their connection - the younger maims horses, the elder dreams (in the literal sense) of being a Greek priest and slaughtering children.

Equus is an interesting study of humanity in the broadest terms. Interesting because it is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s cyclical exercises in human futility, and broad because it is equilaterally applicable. Here is a man, a psychiatrist, well known in his field, and even admired. But he is stuck and realizes that no amount of shoving will free him. He narrates the film, delivering deadpan to the camera lines about his inner turmoil and his inability to do anything about that turmoil. It is a compelling film because of its compelling subject matter: the largely non-compelling modern man.

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Incredibles Directed by Brad Bird

This is my second review of The Incredibles. I wrote the first far enough in front of the release date that I was asked not to divulge plot/theme specifics. So, here's part II. As to be expected, don't read this if you haven't seen the film yet. My other review is quite safe for Incredible Virgins though. (incredible virgins?)

Brad Bird & Co. have a real gem on their hands with The Incredibles. Ignore the wonderful visuals, ignore the great set pieces, ignore the hilarious script, ignore the deftly facile way in which all these combine and your still left with…what? The trick is this: The Incredibles could be distilled into a non-animated chamber play and still work. It is a superb meditation on (among other things) the overwhelming and misguided cleverness of modern man, a film in the vein of Jacques Tati on the perils of invention.

As the film opens, the audience is placed in a 50’s world where cats need rescuing from trees, bad guys speak another language, and children still idolize people other than basketball stars and pop icons. Within this world live superheroes by the names of Mr. Incredible, Frozone, Elastigirl, Gazer Beam, et cetera. A series of frivolous lawsuits against the ‘supers’ occur, demanding the supers assume their secret identities forever. Naturally, the government steps in with the Superhero Relocation Program. Fifteen years later our superheroes are working stiffs – accountants, insurance salesmen, nurses. Mr. Incredible is petitioned by an obviously wealthy Mystery Man to resume his super-life. With vigor, Mr. Incredible accepts the offer. Only to find that he’s working for a madman whose mechanized inventions are intended for aid in making everybody in the world super, because, as this madman points out, if everyone is super then no one is. This is standard fare, really, with one important twist: invention.

Our judicial system is a great thing, or at least it was invented to be a great thing. Many would argue that the United States judicial system is now so full of loopholes that it often defeats its purpose. (This depends entirely on what you see its purpose as: to lock up the criminals or to protect the people. That’s another topic entirely though.) It’s a marvel of human ingenuity. And, in The Incredibles, it goes awry. The system, through the exploitation of frivolous lawsuits, forces the supers away, thus hurting the citizens more than helping them.

Fifteen years later, Bob Parr, nee Mr. Incredible, is working for an insurance company. The Corporation is a paradigm of both efficiency and ingenuity. Once again, gone awry. Now it is a bureaucracy, where its employees are dehumanized, its customers are seen as dollar signs, and the possibility of getting something accomplished is nil. Invention turned on its head.

Enter the villain: Syndrome. Syndrome creates robots. These robots kill. This is the equivalent of a metaphorical sledgehammer, and if you’ve been following me thus far, you know what the metaphor is.

The problem seems to be in the solution: the film ends, the supers are back, the robots are gone. One possible reading is that the answer is in the past. Human ingenuity is good and fine, but the real good times were in the 50’s when gas was pumped by hand, families ate every meal together, and dad came home at 5:00 every night. Rather than affecting the film negatively, this “solution” (and its rebuttals) only goes toward strengthening it. The fact is The Incredbiles is the first animated feature I’ve seen that can inspire a review, a conversation, any form of discourse as concerned as this. It not only withstands this type of probing observation, but also seems to thrive on it. Mine is not the only reading, there are several others out there of equal (or greater) validity. The whole point of this: go out, find someone you enjoy talking to, grab a cup of coffee, and discuss The Incredibles. You won’t be sorry.

Death of a Salesman Directed by Volker Schlondorff

Willy Loman has become an iconic figure in American society. He is the everyman, bandied about by big business, struggling to provide for his family, and king of the self-defeaters. All this and more is apparent when reading Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but it rains in spades in Schlondorff’s filmic version.

Loman (you have to love that name: low man) is played by Dustin Hoffman, who wears the part like a familiar suit and tie. He is an absolutely beaten man – a former sales star, now on the verge of being terminated by his company. Loman’s identity is his job. He is a salesman, and, in his own eyes, a well-liked one. The heartbreaker in this, which is more apparent when viewing the film or play rather than reading it, is that even Loman’s memories of himself as a great man are false. All the flashbacks take place entirely inside Loman’s head, rendering them suspect. Through his family, especially his son Biff (John Malkovich), the audience learns the truth that Willy Loman isn’t even a has-been; he’s just a never-was.

Schlondorff (The Tin Drum, Coup de Grace, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum) has an assured and influential directorial hand here as well, at least with respect to the look of the film. The Loman house, like any good American house, is full of holes both physical and metaphorical, although, in this case, the metaphorical holes make their physical presence known as well. Each interior wall is free standing, with a 2 ft. gap in-between it and the next wall. This gives the impression that we are peering into Lomans’ lives, through holes that are not supposed to exist. Schlondorff’s imagination continues into the rest of the set design. Rather than make than set the film in an actual town, it takes place on a soundstage. The backdrop is simple yet hauntingly effective: rear projections of silhouetted decaying cities foregrounded with a cemetery. This is Willy Loman’s world; he’s stuck between death and a crumbling job.

The film culminates with Biff telling Willy, his own father, the frightening truth that they are both nobody, and that they will never be somebody. It’s a frightening prospect, and one that deserves a great deal of contemplation, but if Willy Loman is an everyman, doesn’t that make all of us Willy Loman?

Saturday, November 06, 2004

I ♥ Huckabees Directed by David O. Russell

Twenty minutes into I ♥ Huckabees, Vivian Jaffe (Lily Tomlin) tosses aside Sep. 11, 2001 as “that big September thing.” It’s an offhand comment, easily missed, but it says so much about the métier of the film. The person affected by “that big September thing” is Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter by trade, a philosophical dilettante by necessity. It took me a bit to get it too – two separate viewings actually – but once gotten, the getting is good. Here goes: buried within the slapstick surrealism of I ♥ Huckabees is a meditation on the very modern need to interpret and make sense of yourself, and the world around yourself, in a world that is becoming increasingly senseless. Each character has a catalyst that propels them into their searching. For Tommy, it’s 9/11, for Albert (Jason Schwartzman) it’s familial and societal neglect, and for Brad (Jude Law), aware or not, it’s the overwhelming and increasing falsity of his external life.

Tackling the cliché of “what does it all mean?” without waxing cliché is one thing; doing it amidst some of the best humor of the last five years is another game entirely. Russell pulls it off, though. The movie has fantastic unilateral appeal because of this. You can watch it with your brain off - absorbing nil, laughing non-stop. Or you can turn your brain on and learn a little bit about the pathetic state of modern man (while laughing your existential ass off.)

It’s perfect. Almost. And that’s the reason I saw it twice before writing this review: I knew on first viewing that I ♥ Huckabees was very good, if for no other reason than the impeccable timing and originality of the humor. The day after seeing it, an idea occurred to me. That idea can be found in the first paragraph up yonder – no need to rehash. I had visions of grandeur: I ♥ Huckabees, in my mind, became a Top 3 of the year kind of film. But something was rotten in Denmark. Combining brilliant humor and brilliant insight seamlessly is a nigh impossible task – for this reason I withheld on a review until I could see Huckabees again. I wanted to give Russell (and co-writer Jeff Baena) complete benefit of the doubt, but after seeing their film twice, I cannot do that. Not entirely at least. The difficulty regarding seamless splicing of humor and insight is in the chemistry of the two. Humor is, generally speaking, the non-violent ‘drunk guy’ at the party: loud and obnoxious yes, but also harmless, humorous, and completely devoid of inhibition. Insight is the ‘designated driver’: bland to observation, always sober, but extremely interesting in the right context, i.e. a context w/o the ‘drunk guy’. Russell and Baena are working, for 1 hour and 46 minutes, in a small room containing themselves, the ‘drunk guy’, and the ‘designated driver’. The key to keeping both humor and insight relevant lies in dialing back the humor just enough - but not too much – in order to let the insight peek through. The missteps lie in how hard the dial is tweaked.

About halfway into the film, Albert and Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) disappear into the woods, leaving Tommy behind, in order to do the nasty. And they get nasty indeed - rubbing dirt on each other, dipping each other’s head in mud – just being that metaphorical ‘drunk guy.’ (This is to say nothing of Russell’s heavy-handed comparison of Vauban’s nihilism and rolling around in muck.) The whole scene does well to muddle the (really fantastic) theme of the film, while simultaneously offering up a joke that is neither clever nor terribly funny. If Russell had figured his two sides straight, he would’ve made one of the best films of the decade thus far, and possibly the best film of the year. As it stands, I ♥ Huckabees is a very good film with some minor (but integral) flaws; it should easily make this year’s top ten.

Also: check out two fantastic reviews of I ♥ Huckabees. One by Manohla Dargis, which goes into further detail about the whole personal trauma thing I touched on, and the other by Dan Meyer, which discusses in greater detail the shortcomings of the film. (Although he's wildly off-base in talking about the over-explanation bit. That's so essential to the relationship between Albert and Tommy.)

Thursday, November 04, 2004

"How was your flight?" "I'd give it an 8."

I'm debating with myself: do I affix a grade to a film or do I not affix a grade to a film? I'll admit, it is a handy little way to catalogue, organize, and allow for quick assessment of films I have seen. On the flipside: do I really want to distill my thoughts on a film to an essence as unrefined as a rating? Will I be making it easier for people to armchair-quarterback their way into a discussion, e.g. "Ughh, this one guy on the internet gave it a 'B' so it must be alright." Consequently, will that lead to people glancing over, rather than reading, what I write? Does it matter? F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "A wise [person] is one who can hold two conflicting opinions in [his/her] head without going insane." I am obviously not terribly wise, so I ingratiate myself to you: what should I do? I know I'm risking the public realization that nobody reads this blog, but, please, post your comments here. If you aren't comfortable with that (Perhaps you have a bit of stage fright. It's ok. So do I.) you can email me: Javelin2Jesus AT aol DOT com. Also, if you care to recommend a rating scale (like - letter grade, 10 point system, 5 star system, 100 point system, et cetera) I would be very appreciative.

Birth Directed by Jonathan Glazer

Death is often viewed as something to "deal with." Your child, spouse, parent, or friend dies and, eventually (read: sooner rather than later) you "deal with it." To help with the "dealing," Death is dressed up in other garments: "I lost my brother." "My father passed on." "My mother is in a better place." Whether one uses the idioms or not, the truth is that the person dear to you is gone, e.g. dead. I resort to this thick-skinned cliche in order to get to the heart of my point: someone who has "lost" someone very important in his or her life knows that you cannot deal with Death. That loss remains with you and affects your very being. Jonathan Glazer's film, Birth, is aware of this power that true loss occupies.

So, when a ten-year old boy named Sean tells Anna (Nicole Kidman) that he is her dead husband (also named Sean) reincarnated, we can hardly fault her for believing it. Sean (the elder) died ten years prior, and Anna is now engaged to be married again. She wants so badly to believe that the boy is Sean because she has never forgotten her husband.

For the audience this is a bit of a conundrum. Are we to believe that the boy is actually Sean? Are to believe that he isn't? The filmmakers do not make it absolutely clear. Rather than this marring the film, I consider it to be a boon. The great deal of negative press out there seems to disagree with me. By muddling the younger Sean's role, Glazer places the burden of focus right on Anna. A very different (and possibly interesting) film could be made about the boy's role, but Birth is not concerned with making that film. Because Sean's identity is obscured, we are required to examine Anna's reactions. And her reactions vary - she believes, she doesn’t believe, she's jubilant, she's outraged. The possibility of her husband returning to her conjures emotions that she had managed to hide for ten years. The impossibility of Anna forgetting her husband leads to all types of mayhem concerning family, friends, and even her fiancee. Her need to remember her husband is first and foremost, unconcerned with logic, reality, and her immediate life situation.

Mechanically, the film is just about perfect. The cinematography by Harris Savides (Elephant) is quite possibly the best of the year, and the orchestral score of Alexandre Desplat is easily the best of the decade. The two combine for the single greatest filmic moment of the year thus far: Following Anna's realization that Sean might possibly be her husband, the camera trains in on her for a full 1 1/2 minutes while Desplat's schizophrenic music underscores her turmoil. It is that rare combination of perfect photographical, musical, and acting performances. Ultimately, Birth is a rare combination as well - that of truth, invention, and entertainment.