October 31, 2005

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants has all of the trappings of a flick for the preadolescent girl. Indeed, it services that market well. Those trappings give the movie structure, but fortunately for all of us, they do not give the film its soul.
Rarely have I seen a movie that so unabashedly celebrates the beauty of the human spirit, or the wonder of the world in which we all reside. It is not afraid of the darker side of the world either. In being compatible with the twelve-year-old psyche, it never peers too far down the dark alleys of our world, but there is a clear recognition that few of us really live in the sunlight world the Lizzie Maguires seem perpetually graced to inhabit. The supporting characters, like the video gamer at the local 7-11 type shop or the woman who inhabits the truth behind Wal*Mart's P.R. campaign, force us to stare at world that is cruel and unfair and seemingly dead end.
Then it does something truly amazing. It shines its light on these dismal prospects and unveils the extraordinary behind them. In doing so, the people aren't changed. Their threads and futures are much the same as they would have been had the movie never paid them much mind. The only thing that changes is our perception of them. There is love, there is loss, there is misery, heartache, and disappointment. The four girls experience all of these things and so do we, right in the stomach. But above all, the four girls experience hope. Things are no more perfect at the end of the film than at the beginning, but the people who must deal with the imperfection are more equipped to do so. This is a coming of age film in the most essential and central way.
It was not long ago that I reviewed The Weather Man, starring Nicholas Cage. Things were no worse in his life than these four girls'. And yet that movie preached that despair and disappointment and insurmountable, that love and hope are lost causes. The filmmakers of that movie need to meet a young girl named Bailey, who at twelve years of age already knew more about this world and humanity than all of them put together.
Nicholas Cage's character in that film needs to meet Bradley Whitford's in this one, whose failures as a father are far more damning and yet who learns over the course of a phone call that small fundamental gestures are far more powerful than grand empty ones.
Michael Caine's character in that film needs to meet Amber Tamblyn's in this film, and realize that to understand capture the world around you is not enough. At some point, you need to let go of your judgements and discover the beauty of imperfection and intent.
I can recall a few times when the Sisterhood made me cry. Tibby and Carmen's storylines are beautiful, and tragic, and pure. They pierce at the heart of what it is to love, to expose yourself and invest in another human being to such an extent that losing them can destroy everything about you. Bridget and Lena's are more pedestrian, and yet in their characters I found certain understated truths. In my review of the The Weather Man, I noted that "I do know that I look to cinema to show me something new, to inspire me or entertain me or challenge me." That film, for all of its artistry, provided me none of those things. And yet a movie about a pair of pants made me laugh, made my cry, made me smile, and made me think. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants made me reconsider how I view the world, and that is cinema at the very peak of its power. ()


October 28, 2005

The Weather Man

In Michael Caine, The Weather Man has one of the year's great performances. The cinematography is wonderful, the overall craft virtually impeccable. And yet the film ranks among the bottom of my list. Why? Because when I left the theatre, I didn't come away with anything more than I went in with. It's a lot of talent and artistry towards no true end. They're a bunch of likeable interesting losers, yes, but losers none-the-less. The Weather Man is Broadcast News from William Hurt's perspective. The flash is there, but there's no urge or real desire to go any deeper.
The film reminds me of another piece of Oscar bait. About Schmidt also had an interesting script with big name actors doing challenging things. This film is funnier and truer than than that one, but the journey — or lack there of — is essentially the same. Even when Cage's character is trying to be deep, he focuses on the surface issues: he didn't get his father the newspaper, people will think his eulogy was shallow and sucked. He wonders why everyone is so unhappy but makes no real headway into resolving it. Two moments truly affected me: when he broke down in tears in the passenger's seat of his fathers car, and when he kicked the shit out of the man who was making moves on his son. They were the two scenes of advancement and truth, the only whiffs of where a better movie would have gone.
There is a very strong argument to be made that this was the only reasonable path that these characters could have taken. I accept that, to the extent that it's true. I'm not asking for him to become father-of-the-year, I'm just asking that he show some signs of growing from the previous scene in the movie.
Or maybe, like so many dark comedies, I just don't get it. I do know that I look to cinema to show me something new, to inspire me or entertain me or challenge me. This movie did known of those things. It simply spread a blanket of isolation, loneliness, and despair in a world that already has too much of each. ()


October 25, 2005

Nine Lives

Nine Lives is the sort of movie I don't have much experience with. There is no traditional unifying narrative structure. There are only nine real shots. And for the duration of each shot, we are stuck with these people whether we want to be or not. There's something unflinching about that. As the time builds, so does the tension. We are trained to expect cuts every couple of frames these days; by the time minute six rolls around there is a connection to place and time that is concrete and absorbing.
A large part of its power is derived from this novelty. Some of the scenes engaged me much stronger than others, and when I wasn't involved with the drama I used the time to admire the craft. By the time I'd gotten my head around the flow and form of the film, it ventured into places surprising and exciting. The first scene creates a feeling of repressive, overbearing reality. The last scene is a delight of barely disguised abstract and whimsy. The seven sandwiched in the middle thread between the two philosophies, creating seemingly impossible connections and raising serious questions of how the world relates to itself, both literally and thematically.
It is ostensibly a film about seven woman and seven relationships. My experience was that some lingered with me more than others. Elpidia Carrillo sticks because the scene gives us little else to cling to. I recognized the skill in crafting the cohesive transformation from humble mopper to arrogant rabble-rouser. But it failed to engage me on a personal level. Contrast that to Robin Wright Penn, where the slightest shift in facial expression changes the whole feeling of the scene. Carrillo was working against a void, and in contrast Penn and a hauntingly understated Jason Isaacs share a familiarity that is rather claustrophobic. Every turn, every moment — even the funny ones — carried a feeling of unease.
Then there's Lisa Gay Hamilton, with the performance of the film. Though her character shares the bulk of the screen time with Sydney Tamiia Poitier's character, the latter's role is so reactionary that Hamilton has full reign. There is something so fragmented, unhinged, and fatally wounded about the performance that nearly knocked my breath away. From moment to moment, her actions are completely unpredictable and yet never less than believable. The character is a prime candidate for scenery chewing, but Hamilton internalizes the drama to such an extent that each outburst pierces to the core.
I could spend two hours watching Holly Hunter pick at her toe nails and come away better for the experience. But what she and Stephen Dillane achieve here is something rather than extraordinary. The scene utilizes the vulnerability inherent in Hunt's film persona and radicalizes it. She is open and optimistic, and so the most open to disappointment. Dillane is the antithesis of all of these things. From the very first moment, I understood why they were together. They're banter was vibrant, a much needed respite from the heavy drama that had preceded it. But like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the vitrol that quickly accumulates underneath the dialog undermines much of the appreciation. The arcs of the two couples will run parallel, without quite the over-the-top theatrics of that celebrated 1966 affair.
Amanda Seyfried's Samantha in the next story is perhaps the most relentlessly watchable character of the film. As she bounces back and forth between the dominant personalities of each parent, I found myself totally drawn into each shift in body language and every slightest facial expression. I found myself regarding this passive personality, and watching the way the camera regarded her. I can't remember a word of dialog from this scene, but I remember every slightest twitch.
The Lorna scene isn't driven so much by Amy Brenneman's perfectly acceptable performance so much as by a narrative thrust that offers some exciting new twist with each new encounter. It consistently surprised me, and entered places that I couldn't have expected going in. A true delight.
"Ruth" shifts the focus to the depressed and disappointed mother from two sketches back. In the time it took me to make the connection, I had already shifted my allegiance to the Other Man — in this case, Aidan Quinn. The details of their affair are utterly mundane. Yet the perspective of the Quinn character is utterly unique. He takes one look at the ordinary and in a simple turn of phrase unearths the extraordinary.
"Camille" gives Kathy Baker and outlet to just bat for the fences. But it's her straight man, Joe Mantegna (brilliant in almost anything), that imbues her ravings with depth. Despite her behavior throughout, there is never a doubt that the bond between them is concrete. Something that could have been merely amusing becomes one of the most poignant experiences in the movie.
Finally, "Maggie" ties everything thematically to a close. The rapport between Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning is natural and true. Before we even know how they relate, we realize that the presence of this child is what makes Maggie complete. It isn't hammered into the audience. It is enough simply to observe them, and everything makes sense. That's all it takes to drive Maggie home.
I cannot say whether Nine Lives would have been so effective had the novelty of it not felt so original and fresh. The fact is, it did feel original and fresh. I left the cinema with a greater appreciation of film and the ideas that it captures. It is a film with a thorough understanding of what it means to only connect. ()


October 20, 2005

Ghostbusters II

Ghostbusters II is the kind of sequel that was the norm in the era before the franchise. The first film wasn't designed for sequels; it was a funny, well-constructed, stand-alone film. But the characters connected with the American public. The key players got back together and threw together this entertaining second go around.
The premise is basically that all of the good that was shown at the end of the first film has been undone by the beginning of this one. Banned from fighting ghosts, Ray Stanz and Winston Zeddemore resort to entertaining at kids' birthday parties — a disappointment to the generation raised on He-Man. Peter Venkman is the host of a show on the supernatural produced by the local NBC affiliate. He appears, if anything, less interested in his guests than his audience. Egon Spengler is doing behavioural testing in a lab. Stanz runs a bookstore on the occult. Dana Barrett left Venkman, got married, had a kid, then got divorced.
Much like the cast of a long-running television show, this time out these guys know their characters inside-and-out. The performances are so fluid and comfortable that the ghostbusting is almost beside the point. Murray, in particular, is on top form here. He brings fierce intelligence, timing, and wit to a character that is a loser who stands out mainly because Egon and Ray are the benchmark. By throwing the baby in as an obstacle between him and Dana, the sexual tension is able to flourish, with an undercurrent that energizes the entire flick. I'm not sure anything can top Rick Moranis's performance in the original, but his re-introduction in an early courtroom scene here had me on the floor in a way no comedy in recent memory has been able to muster.
What problems are there are a natural result of the original so effectively drawing its story to a close. Rebooting all of the character relationships allows more of the same character dynamics so loved in the first film. But it also meant that the characters themselves are fairly stagnant. There's no particularly new territory entered here, unless you count a romantic subplot between Louis and Annie Potts's definitive secretary Janine. The results are satisfying but neither enriching nor enterprising. ()


October 17, 2005

A History of Violence

A History of Violence spends the first half of its running time introducing us to Tom Stall, and the second half introducing us to Joey Cusack. Like the two men, the two halves of the film are indivisible. Like the two men, the whole is disturbingly less than the sum of its parts.
The first half of the movie establishes itself within the life of Tom Stall, owner and operator of a small diner in the rural town of Millbrook, Indiana. The early scenes, concerning themselves as they do with the minutia of small town life, seem to play out in almost real time. I liked that. I liked even more than the concerns of these people were the concerns of everyone; mundane things like buying a new pair of shoes. Still, there is something wrong — something disturbingly off just under the surface. Stall is an involved father and husband, a pillar of the community. But he is bland, almost calculatedly so. The sex scene was one of the most disturbing scenes in the movie. He brings as much energy and spark to the table as he would to butter a slice of bread. When something happens, we see the concept of it drift over Stall, taking route ever so slowly. Behind his eyes there is nothing; an emptiness where the human soul should be.
But then violence ensues. Two men with a corrupt agenda — what or for who is never explained; the movie is content to just have its McGuffin without probing too thoroughly — threaten the wrong rural diner. In the flash on an instant they are dead in a most barbaric way, the flash of violence poring out of Stall's tall worn frame. The town and the media declare him a hero. In his own bland quiet way, he's not so sure. New visitors to the diner hold the key to what makes him so good at killing people. The persona of Tom stall begins to chip and crack. The visage of Joey Cusack is slowly unveiled in fits and starts of true ugliness, an effect that begins stir up the truth under the empty facade of Tom Stall's world.
When Joey Cusack takes front and centre stage, he is hardly more engaging than Stall. True, the blandness is gone. It's difficult to be a bland one-man killing machine. But there's that same stillness, that same reluctance that showcases that key parts of being human have utterly and completely been driven out of this man. We hear stories of the artful slaughter that young Joey would unleash. We see moments of primitive savagery. These are what makes him an effective killer, and what draws Mrs. Stall into a moment of sexual release when she should be fleeing from this betrayer.
Above all else, though, Joey wants to preserve as much of Tom Stall as he can. He proves in several instances that he is willing to kill gruesomely and indiscriminately to do so. I kept waiting for some greater truth, some greater epiphany. Some sign that our protagonist, if you can call him that, had changed or grown by the experience. Such a scene never came. He returns to the Stall home, presumably having pieced back together Tom or an approximation of him, and takes his seat at the dinner table. The other members of the family resume their facade roughly where they left off, a scene of intended tragedy and darkness. It is an appropriate enough ending, but it lacks any true struggle from which to be earned. Much like the endings of About Schmidt and Mystic River, I found myself isolated and uninvolved. I find it impossible to sympathize with characters who understand their problem and refuse to make any effort to resolve it.
A History of Violence is a beautifully-shot, well-acted, expertly-structured piece of cinema. But like Tom Stall, it fails to satisfy, because it only takes one glimpse at its soul to realize there's nothing there. There are twinges of humanity, but they were quelled by in a manner that betrays the characters to forward a theme. It's an admirable achievement in many ways but lacks the substance necessary to be anything better. ()


October 01, 2005

Groundhog Day

About a half hour into Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's weatherman has finally come to terms with a world in which time doesn't keep on ticking. "What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing you did mattered?," he asks. Sure, it serves as a plot summary, but it also penetrates the heart of the movie's power. I certainly had a point in my life where that seemed to be the case, and I bet almost everyone else has too.
The remainder of the movie is spent with Murray exploring all of the avenues walked by men who face a hopeless future. He throws caution to the wind and fulfils all of the fantasies of men who have nothing to lose and therefore nothing to fear. He attacks the world and exploits it. He desperately works to defy the preordained script any way he can. As his affection for his producer cohort grows, he tries manipulating her into loving him. No matter how well he perfects the ruse, his efforts bear no fruit.
Reaching finally an ultimate point of desperation, he tries suicide, but even that is denied to him. No matter the method of death, the same bed on the same morning of the same day is there to greet him. Trying a different tactic, he finds a way to explain his situation to said producer and convince her of its truth. This works better, but it still leaves him stuck among stagnant waters.
Slowly, as he becomes adept at utilizing the rules of eternity, he makes forward progress against all odds. Even in a world that never changes nor grows, he discovers his own potential for betterment. He learns the people and places of that world and works out a short hand such that by the end of each day they know him like he knows them. He becomes a man of many talents, a man of accustomed to many points of view.
Over a decade later, it's hard to appreciate the film outside of the legacy of its own success. The basic plotline has been recycled many times since, but none of the knockoffs come close to capturing the depths of the original's sorrow and joy, nor do they feature a protagonist with the wit and complexity showcased by Murray's performance. It is undoubtedly for me the most true performance of his career — the bridge between Peter Venkman and Bob Harris, Phil the weatherman highlights the truthful parts of each and places them within a greater canvas and a more believable whole. More than any other picture I can think of, this picture rests on the shoulders of its lead and he pulls surprises out of his hat that we hadn't seen before and likely won't see again.
Simply put, this is fantasy utilized to its fullest, most human potential. ()