Friday, December 31, 2004

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Directed by Wes Anderson

Underpinning the last 30 minutes of The Life Aquatic is a pathos unfound in any of Wes Anderson's former films. Bottle Rocket, his buddy-cum-heist picture, ends with a feel-good moment that nestles warmly on the correct side (i.e. behind and slightly to the left) of sappy. Ibid The Royal Tenenbaums. Rushmore is slightly different - a coming-to-terms/new beginning type of thing. All that The Life Aquatic promises is an end. As Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) descends a stone staircase, with a young German boy propped upon his shoulders, the look on his face says one thing: I'm done. Essentially it is the whole of Lost in Translation pared down to one, 20 second slow-motion shot. It seems to me that Murray (ignoring, for a moment, his being the blue ribbon bearer in Anderson's actor stable) was the prime candidate to play Zissou. His performance is the dynamic mixture of dejection and humor necessary to pull off the jig - a man coming to terms with the ends of what he loves to do best.

This isn't to say that film lacks the earmark of hip humor that has graced Anderson's previous films. Zissou is easily one of the funniest pictures of the year, with moments ranging from Chuckle to Guffaw on my self-conjured Laugh Meter. The dialogue is snappy enough to supply the laughs, but chock-full of innuendo buried deep enough that, on first viewing, it feels like at least 25% of the jokes were missed. The soundtrack fuels the humor fire, with most of it comprised of David Bowie tunes translated into Portuguese and played on a nylon-string guitar by actor Seu Jorge (City of God.)

But the meat of the film, the real point of departure for Anderson, is that pathos. Steve Zissou is a famous oceanographer/filmmaker, with both job titles waxing suspect as the eponym ages. His concentration seems to be focused on the job. That is, until the job kills his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel.) The territory tread is somewhat akin to that of Collateral, but the result is different. Zissou decides to pursue Esteban's terminator, the Jaguar Shark, with the scientific purpose of destroying it. Rather than reaching the conclusion that a job is an endless pursuit that eventually destroys the pursuer (ala the aforementioned Collateral), the job in The Life Aquatic is a phase, passed on like the Olympic torch. Steve Zissou, by the end of the film, realizes that his phase is ending; the time to pass the torch has come. Ergo, the pathos. He is a somber individual, as anyone facing a massive change would be, but an individual seemingly content to pursue another adventure. This slight change in pattern turns what might have been an average Wes Anderson film (which, despite the word 'average', is above the fray of the usual Hollywood dander) into a departure for the director, a welcome step in a new direction.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Collateral Directed by Michael Mann

Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a contract killer, on a job to nix the lives of five key witnesses in a case against Felix, a man who appears to be the higher-up in a large drug cartel. Early in the film he tells Max (Jamie Foxx) the story of a man who died on the MTA - the metro system for the Los Angeles County area. The man made six trips round the MTA loop - people coming and going, sitting next to him even - without anyone noticing that he was dead. Vincent's point being that People Just Do Not Care Anymore. What to make of this alarming juxtaposition? Column A contains a killer-for-hire; talented at his job and ice cold in his heart. Column B contains a man lamenting the impersonality of modern society. The rub being that we are really dealing with only one column: the complex character of Vincent. This is the first sign that Michael Mann's Collateral is not merely another entertaining, American Action Picture.

The film is flawed - pulling cheap tension shots on the viewer and milking sympathy - but it props itself above the fray of the average Hollywood thriller by allowing the viewer some thought. Near the end of the film, Vincent (in a Hollywood earmark Mano y Mano) tells Max, "This is my job." That sentiment echoes throughout the film. Max is a cab driver that dreams of owning his own limo business while, in order to deal with the stress of his job, takes five-minute breaks during the day to stare at a picture of a tropical island. His first fare of the film, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), is a lawyer who dances around Max's question of, "Do you like your job?" And Vincent is the walking contradiction. He’s talented and efficient, but when, at one point, he gives a man the opportunity to evade death, and the man fails, the viewer can see how badly Vincent wanted the man to get away. He is a machine, slugging away at his own version of the 9 to 5, just as discontent as rest of the working stiffs he so gracefully ends. Mann's point is that the impersonal society we live in, the workplace in particular, is killing all of us – even the killers.

Marring the film is the entirety of the L.A. County Police force. They are a side-plot, adding only tension and drama. Of course Vincent's hits would spark the police into action, but their effect on the film is only of the will they/won't they variety. Collateral would work better without them (although a good performance by Mark Ruffalo would be lost.) It is this type of device that the Hollywood system is so good at disseminating, and one that Michael Mann would be smart to do rid of. The tension it adds feels great (especially for an O.G. White Bread like yours truly - born and raised on the stuff), but it panders to the audience saying, "Well, if you cannot comprehend all the good stuff going on, here's some suspense(!) for ya'!" For a movie this well made, the audience and the film deserve a little better.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Maria Full of Grace Directed by Joshua Marston

Without a doubt a well made, and even thought-provoking film, Maria Full of Grace's magna culpa is that it isn't too much more than that. Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a young, pregnant woman, looking for a way out of her small hometown in Colombia. Her savior appears in the form of Franklin (John Alex Toro), a dime-store hood who has connections. He points Maria toward the life of a mule - a gastronomic narcotic vessel. Maria downs 62 suppository sized cocaine-filled pellets and proceeds to board a plane to New York in order to unload the cargo and get paid.

The film has been heralded for its strong, thick-skinned female lead. The operative word being female. On account of the thousands of years of misogyny, egalitarians have a tendency to latch onto any strong female role regardless of the structural integrity of the character. This reaction is superior to the alternative - a blasé, or even discriminate reaction toward female leads - but still is full of pitfalls. Case in point: Maria. She is as purported - strong, thick-skinned - but Maria is not a fully realized character. It is obvious that Maria has a desire to break free of her surroundings, but the question of why is never answered fully. She desires more money, but that on its own is a superficial logic at best. A better life could be an answer, but one far too vague. The result is a strong female character, but for what? Her strength seems, at the very least, irrelevant. To esteem her as a paradigm for female roles is to say that, no, we don't need a complex character, any female will do.

Not to distill a more-than-mediocre film to its flaws alone, Marston has created something of worth in Maria Full of Grace. Jim Denault's beautiful, organic cinematography is on par with the best films of the year, while Marston's script avoids both cheap sympathy for the third world and bitter vitriol for America. The latter is a remarkable feat considering how many other films have fallen into that trap in recent years (see: The Motorcycle Diaries and, to a lesser extent, City of God.) The Colombia-focused portion of the film is handled without pity, devoid of the ethnocentrism that can plague even the most philanthropic of endeavors. And then, in spite of the temptation Marston must have felt, he refrains from making New York an enemy. The landscape is overbearing, but no more than any unfamiliar place. Rather, Marston goes out of his way to write in one of the most endearing (and interesting) characters in the film, the kind-hearted Don Fernando, who helps Maria acclimate to the city.

Not a terrible film by any stretch, Maria Full of Grace is on par with most of the "good" films put out by Hollywood. With a little more character development, it could have been one of the better films of the year overall.