January 30, 2006


The locations and scenarios of Steven Soderbergh's Bubble feel like a world that I know. Specifically the world of Bubble is the world of Rust Belt America, and the hopeless monotony of their day-to-day lives stirred up many of my own memories of living in Rochester, not too far from whatever small Ohio town this story takes place in.
The characters range from a perfect snapshot of the people I knew from that world to utterly ridiculous concoctions whose reactions I can't imagine coming from any member of the human race. The interplay between Soderbergh's two impulses is highly unnerving; every time I began to identify, I was shocked by gross displays of apathy or tacit acceptance over revelations that deserve the loudest possible reaction.
This strange dichotomy surfaces in the filmmaking itself. There are no plot twists, no revelations. It is a straightforward mystery in which virtually no effort is made to conceal the culprit. Yet the story is almost entirely told in the facial reactions and the meaning between words. I can't recall a single forthright line of dialog in the entire film, yet the meaning was never less than clear. What surprises there are come from characters that brazenly defy and subdue whatever human impulses they might have. When those impulses do manage to bubble to the surface, the consequences are tragic.
The final shot sums up the film, and the dark dreary world that creates creatures like these. The cast is reportedly composed of local non-professionals, and despite the skilled performances over the course of the film, that shot made me believe it. As Bubble makes clear, the Rust Belt is more than just an economic region. It's a state of mind. ()


January 24, 2006

Imagine Me & You

Imagine Me & You is the most enjoyable British rom-com in a while. It features likable characters, sharp and biting humour, a decent soundtrack, and lively pacing. It would be above-average standard fare except for two things: the obstacle between the two lovers is a likable, decent, funny man when it would be far easier if he weren't, and the two lovers themselves happen to both be women.
I'll jump back the fact that, yes, this is a gay movie in a second. First I must draw attention to the absolutely smartest decision the filmmakers have made: They actually used the song the film is named after in the film. On the reverence scale from the American Pie movies — no use of the song or even a reference to it — all the way up to Pretty Woman this film neatly slides into place at the latter. Almost everyone knows the song, and as the movie goes along it teases with traces of it from whistling passer-by and the like. At the climax it takes an utterly central role. Some may consider it an overbearing artistic footprint on the work, but I loved it.
Now back to the gay stuff. This is more Notting Hill than Brokeback Mountain, and the movie doesn't get dragged down by it. That it is stirs up the emotions it does is less because the affair is between two women and more because the movie makes the man that would be left in their wake, Heck, at least as sympathetic as they are. That being the case, I found my own emotions perfectly aligned Rachel, the bride. Heck deserves happiness, but so does she, and even if she stays will either of them be truly happy with the lie?
The home wrecker Luce (looking like Kiera Knightley will in a decade should she be very, very lucky) is no less likable or deserving of happiness than Heck. She lives with her mum, who is comforting and sympathetic but also depressed and unmotivated. She runs a flower shop where customers seem to perpetually arrive at exactly the wrong moment. She's not entirely sure she wants to break up Rachel and Heck either and so doesn't make a movie. Their relationship progresses through inference and subtext. You can undoubtedly guess how things resolve themselves, so I will only add that the movie raises the stakes higher and makes the costs higher than its brethren in the genre.
The true surprise is the dialog, which fires along like a Richard Curtis drive-by. If you like his scripts you'll feel comfortable here. If I had to pinpoint a key difference it'd be that Ol Parker is meaner, more shocking,1 and more unpredictable. Rachel's father Ned ("Buffy"'s Anthony Head) and Heck's licentious best friend Coop nearly steal the film. They are, as Henry Higgins would say, most original moralists. Even with the girl-on-girl twist, it's these two characters that elevate the movie from the sea of bland competitors.
When it comes right down to it, we have seen this same basic film plenty of times before. What makes me recommend this film so highly is it does those same old things in an exceptionally engaging way. There is a scene between Heck and his eight- or nine-year-old niece that would be a cutesy bit of role reversal. Here it works on a more truthful level. Were it not for a post credits scene that lets the movie off the hook too easily, it would have been an entirely satisfying experience. ()


January 20, 2006

The Squid and the Whale

Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale is an odd little film. On one hand it openly mocks the artsy fartsy types that thumb their noses at anything mainstream. There is a great little moment where Bernard, Jeff Daniels' character, declares that his ex-wife's new lover is a philistine. What is a philistine, the younger son, Frank, asks. Bernard explains that while he himself is someone "who enjoys books and interesting movies," a philistine is someone who doesn't. Frank thinks it over for a minute, then decides that under his father's criteria he must be a philistine too. The movie is full of moments that deflate yuppie self-importance like that.
Yet at the same time, Baumbach revels in utilizing a stripped down version of Wes Anderson's quirky cinematic language. In many ways, this is an artsy-fartsy film. It's not impenetrable the way David Lynch's work — which makes a brief cameo — is; indeed, it's not even as frustrating as Rushmore, which Baumbach co-wrote. But the way it's shot, the way it's edited, even the rhythm of the dialog shuns our traditional mainstream expectations. Thinking it over, I can only conclude that in order to tell the story of New York City liberal-intellectuals, you need to speak their language.
If this film were a donut (or, since it's New York City, I suppose a bagel) the hollow empty centre would be Bernard. Jeff Daniels tackles the character with total dedication. From the first frame to the last, he never once betrays that there might be a worthwhile, caring human being under all of that pompous self-importance. The last scene he has with Anna Paquin's character Lili, for instance, is especially revolting when you consider he once played her father in 1996's Fly Away Home. But more about that later.
Bernard is the fading patriarch of the Berkman clan, one of the few surviving nuclear families in the two children's school. That changes when Bernard spots his wife Joan (Laura Linney, bringing everything I love and hate about her to the role) involved with another man. The affairs have, it seems, been ongoing for four years. The split tears the family apart, with each boy reacting in an entirely different way.
Frank, being the more perceptive and emotional aware of the two, turns to alcohol at home and masturbation in public. His older brother Walt is so desperately devoted to his vision of Bernard that he takes up many — though importantly not all — of his father's crucial failings.
The turmoil escalates to such an extent that I was convinced I was watching the darkly comic tale of how one man's unstoppable ego can destroy a family. Thankfully, events take a more hopeful turn. True, there is some perverse pleasure in watching Bernard and Walt get their come-uppance. The choreography of their downfall reminded me of the wonderfully constructed gags in The Family Stone, though without quite the depth or the density. But unlike contemptible movies like The Weather Man, Walt's misery serves a purpose. When the empty highbrow veneer he has so dutifully crafted is finally penetrated, the sensitive and honest soul underneath proves to be surprisingly winsome. The childhood memory he unearthed was something I could relate to. It put all of the earlier childhood misery into a context that made sense.
Walt's self-discovery in the final act put Bernard's lack of depth into an even sharper focus. When that revolting scene I mentioned earlier finally arrives, where it is strongly implied that Bernard is forcing himself sexually on college student Lili, Walt walks in on it. Still backed against the wall, Lili shares a glance with Walt that knows things Bernard will never understand. When we leave Bernard at the end, he is as narcissistic as he was when we met him. But I was okay with that, because Walt has been spared a similar fate.
The Squid and the Whale is too rooted in reality to have the surreal joy The Royal Tenenbaums. Bernard has most of Royal's wit but none of his charm, and his non-arc isn't as emotionally grabbing as Royal's turn-around and ultimate redemption. That other movie is without question the better experience; but this is the more honest of the two, with truths both painful and all too real. ()


January 09, 2006

The Family Stone

The Family Stone is a surprise not so much for what it is — if you think the trailers hint at a Meet the Parents redux, plot-wise you're really not too far off — but for how perfectly well it is what it is. Sarah Jessica Parker is an analogue for Ben Stiller to be sure, but while the Byrnes are a clan of utter farce, the Stone family is complex, believable, and honest. Meridith's offences thus struck far closer to home than those of a certain Focker, because I was more invested in the outcome on both sides.
There are plenty of times where I laughed at the chaos and tension, but plenty others where I didn't. One scene at the dinner table had me shifting in my seat I was so uncomfortable; I had already grown to care for all of the characters by that point, and the deep pain boiling just under the surface felt all too real to me. Perhaps the best screenplay of the year, the gags and the drama are cut from the same truthful cloth. Had the movie kept me a little more distant the culture clash may have been hysterical; instead, it sat me at that table and made me linger for a while, giving me no choice but to examine a divisive issue from an entirely new perspective.
The movie takes a similarly no nonsense approach with its characters. Meridith is the constricted conservative and the Stones are the lenient liberals. By refusing to approach either camp anything less than objectively, the film finds plenty to criticize and celebrate about each and every character. That none of them are without flaws makes it them that much easier to connect with. That the Stones (one in particular actually) help Meridith to strip away her rigid pretentiousness is no surprise. That the Meridith they unearth helps them strip away their own thinly veiling judgemental pretentiousness, forcing them to confront uncomfortable truths and help them face approaching tragedy is something of a revelation. We see the best and worst of all their natures.
Despite all of that, the humour remains threaded quite abundantly throughout, and it is almost certainly the sharpest and most intelligently-crafted humour of the year. When the punch lines do come, and in some cases pile up rather magnificently, its because the groundwork had already been laid well in advanced, doled out in natural little bits that never bog the film down. The materials builds throughout the movie, and then drops like dominoes, each revelation spotlighting the next until my sides hurt from so much laughing.
Diane Keaton's performance as the Stone matriarch is Oscar-worthy, the first performance of hers in a long time that reminded me that yes, this woman was Annie Hall. Dermot Mulroney's golden boy Everett reminds me why he's cast in so many romantic comedies. Sarah Jessica Parker, an actress I generally rather despise, turns in a unflinching performance worthy of admiration. Craig T. Nelson's patriarch is a humble and generally quiet figure that tries to hold the family together through trials expected and unexpected. Rachel McAdams plays the cruellest and most forthrightly judgemental, but she brought just enough vulnerability and insecurity to the role to win me over. Luke Wilson's promiscuous, waste particle pot-smoker is the only Stone not to judge Parker's character and the first one to get through. In smaller roles, the other actors use their limited screen time to make their presence felt. As the lone kid and the perpetual observer of the chaos all around her, Savannah Stehlin showcases better sheer listening than any performance in recent memory.
The movie I've described should feel heavy-handed and self-important. But it's far too skilful and honest for that, especially the conclusion — which is neither too abrupt nor too tidy. All my questions were answered and I left the theatre quiet but hopeful. ()


January 03, 2006

Bee Season

Bee Season explores the role religion and faith play in our daily lives perhaps better than any other film I have seen. Other films "get it" — In America comes to mind as an example. But Bee Season is almost a dissertation.
The Naumann family is composed of four characters isolated by perceptions of the world that seem mutually exclusive. Saul, the patriarch, is a theology professor who has devoted years of his life to unlocking the secrets of the Kaballah. But he is arrogant and mundane, and will never find faith no matter how hard he tries. Miriam has been blessed with the gift of the divine; though Saul married a scientist he ended up with, unbeknownst to him, a closeted artist. But she is broken and quiet, and doomed to be marginalized. Though Aaron begins as the apple of his father's eye, he has neither his mother's gifts nor his father's ambition. Only after his father has casually spurned him does he begin to search for a life based in something deeper. The abandoned child story has become all too ordinary and yet this particular abandoned child is thoughtful and kind in the face of adversity; that must surely count for something.
And then there is Eliza. She was the abandoned child for the great sum of her short life while Saul focused on her brother's musical talents. For lesser children this would be disaster but in Eliza — like Roald Dahl's Matilda and other great young heroines of the past — it merely breeds independence. She sees the world through her mother's extraordinary eyes, but speaks with a confidence similar to her father's ever-present voice. But unlike him, she has the advantage of sharing things actually worth saying.
Her goals are the same small yet immense ones of any child stuck within a family in crisis: bridge the chasms that divide it and heal the wounds that have ravaged it. The spelling bee is her outlet, and the way she slowly grows in the process from the quiet girl desperate for attention from within the crack underneath her father's office door to someone that is brave and even courageous crept up on me in a rather startling yet decidedly natural way.
It is a coming-of-age tale cut from the best cloth. That this particular character is a child is almost beside the point. Many people face the quiet tyranny of an overbearing home life. Few have the courage to confront it at all, much less as constructively and sensitively as Eliza has.
And then there is the way religion weaves itself in and out of this picture. Throughout this movie, the feeling of something divine, mysterious and immense, peaking in from just out of sight is unshakable. Subliminal imagery like the stoplights in in an establishing shot take on an almost awe-inspiring power. When Miriam's big secret is finally revealed, the movie shows its audience literally what Saul is seeing. And yet somehow it also got me to feel what it meant to Miriam, and what she saw in it, as well. What limited experience I've had with religion and God has all been in such indistinct rumblings of beauty and emotion, so this movie rang true to me on a deep and fundamental level. Yet it also ventures into organized religions and the interplay between the deeper faith and the surface politics that tie into all of it. Finally there is of course Eliza's experience — which is direct, enormous, and majestic.
I defy anyone to look at the world as anything less than quietly magical and tragically beautiful after experiencing this film. ()