May 21, 2006

Little Manhattan

At the end of Little Manhattan, I felt ready to puke. These are children, yes, but that only makes the whole damn thing more excruciating. They don't have years of rejection and disappointment to prepare them. They don't have the years of recoveries to let them how normal it is to feel like nothing will ever be alright again. Jennifer Flackett's screenplay stabs right at the heart of what it is to place so much of yourself upon someone else's glances. Mark Levin, in his directorial debut, utterly refuses to back down or cushion the blow.
These are fairly-well-to-do up through very-well-to-do people we're dealing with here, and yet the experience is so universal that it transcends age or economic station. Charlie Ray, age eleven at the time, captures innocently with a smile here and a glance there all of the wonder and mystery that have haunted men through the ages. Josh Hutcherson is the perfect analogue for every step of that wonderful and often terrifying roller coaster. His narration is often frantic; but then, his is a frantic situation. As his parents, Bradley Whitford and Cynthia Nixon make a compelling case that man and women will never reach a place of saying what they actually feel.
In his review of Say Anything, Roger Ebert wrote that, "a movie like this is possible because its maker believes in the young characters, and in doing the right thing, and in staying true to oneself. The sad teenage comedies of recent years are apparently made by filmmakers who have little respect for themselves or their characters, and sneer because they dare not dream." The protagonists of Little Manhattan are even younger, but at least our narrator is no less serious. The movie is filled with moments of Gabe and Rosemary merely standing and looking at each other. Rosemary sees something elusive and quietly wonderful in Gabe, and Gabe sees everything in Rosemary. Levin knows that with his two leads he has captured something magical, and he (unlike so many of today's directors) has the respect and the vision not to get in their way.
We live in a world filled with people making wrong choices, interpreting the wrong things, and idly hoping for the impossible. Most of us become hardened and cynical early on. Gabe takes the wreckage of his own parent's love, and sees the right choice as his only available option. It is rare to find anybody that still thinks like that. The characters in this film dare to dream, and they suffer for it. The miracle is that the filmmakers take care to remind us frankly and unapologetically how beautiful and how treasured that suffering will always be. Flackett and Levin have looked back to childhood to craft the Say Anything of the twenty-first century. ()


May 20, 2006

The DaVinci Code

Ron Howard's The DaVinci Code is recognizably the same story as Dan Brown's mega-selling novel. Every scene was directly drawn from the text, even much of the dialog. But with the exception of a few scenes of shocking violence, this might be the first thriller adaptation that's actually less thrilling than its source material.
In an effort to cram as much of the novel's mythology into the script as possible, the movie audience is denied the joy of the mystery. Revelations are clunked down in chunks of weighty narration that Brown gave the reader time to consider and think about before revealing. Without the joy of discovery, what sparked on the page fizzles on the screen.
And what few changes there are seem created to undermine the tension inherent in the text. The book makes it clear that Langdon has been thrown into being a fugitive before he even has any time to think about it. He is consistently, right up until the climax, a day late and a dollar short. It gave his character inherent fallible charm that made the reams and reams of history more digestible. Sophie Neveu, so much the equal partner in the book, is reduced to mere audience surrogate in the film. Of the novel characters only Silas, the albino monk, was adapted even adequately. And only Sir. Leigh Teabing survived with life and zeal. McKellan's portrayal, packed with all of the humour and inherent eccentricity of the character, is the movie's only saving grace. He makes the middle passages at least bearable.
If the Catholics found the book blasphemous, they have even less to like about the film. All of the religious figures, who must shoulder the mythology first and be human beings second, lack almost all of the human qualities that made them sympathetic in the book. Characters that were misguiding on the page are more universally evil here. Scenes that words made intimate and personal and granted a false sense of grandeur here. Goldsman's script plays to the broad strokes which it should focus more on the detail work.
The film had a neat visual device of going back in time through an overlap with the modern places. Buses drive through knights on horseback. It was took advantage of the film medium in the way very little else in the film did.
The movie, like the book, has two endings. The first, at Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, is representative of everything this movie has gotten wrong. A scene originally between four people is now filled with dozens. Revelations that should be personal are made merely historical. Changes are made that bog everything down rather that allow the movie to breath.
The second ending has no dialog. It was perfectly realized, and rather moving. It is a masterful use of cinema to relate a literary idea. I left the theatre wondering: Why couldn't the rest of the movie been handled like that? ()


Sky High

Sky High reminds me of the kind of programming I used to watch as a child. Everything about this movie is a cliché: I saw every plot point coming in advance and I could pretty much set my watch to the regularity with which tired overused character beats dropped. And yet, strangely enough, over the course of that hour and a half, the character beats felt instead warm and familiar, the plot had an inevitability that was charming: the movie delighted so in its clichés that it was impossible for me to turn my nose.
The thing that this movie has in common with the shows and movies of my childhood is that the movie likes its characters, roots for them, and wears its enjoyment on its sleeve. In a movie cobbled together from used story parts wrapped in a clever premise, nothing about it feels perfunctory. Sure, we all know that the girl next door is hopelessly in love with our hero. And, of course, we know that our hero couldn't be more oblivious. We know what will happen to them, and yet both characters are realized so affectionately that I couldn't help but to invest myself anyway.
Our hero's schoolyard nemesis is handled with no less understanding. The first time we see him on his own terms, as a busboy at a Chinese restaurant, we realize that he's too three-dimensional to be the villain of this story. He's actually the Misunderstood Loner, and yet his instinctual kindness elevates him above another cog in the plot's machinations.
The colourful gang of misfits that trails after our hero represents the usual motley crew of high school clichés. There's a punk chick, a nerd, and a poser. It'd be deceitful to call them fully realized, but each is given a moment to shine (sometimes literally) and each is given a beat that reveals something human underneath their genre role. The nerd is given a physical victory. The poser is, in the end, rewarded for his open pursuit of social acceptance. The punk chick is allowed to be, for a moment, feminine.
To break down the adult cast in a similar fashion would be redundant. It's no surprise for instance that Kurt Russell, the family patriarch, is the world's greatest superhero. Just think about who Lynda Carter, Bruce Campbell, Cloris Leachman, and Dave Foley are, and you're probably already half way to guessing their respective characters. Lynda Carter is basically just Wonder Woman as principal, but Campbell, Leachman, and particularly Foley turn in great character performances. Kevin Heffernan, from Super Troopers, is a stand out as Ron Wilson: Bus Driver.
Yes, we've all probably seen this movie a hundred times before. But Sky High makes a surprisingly engaging and delightful hundred and first.


May 11, 2006


I saw RV at the drive-in on Sunday. Early in the season, we were one of about six cars in the place. My buddy was in the backseat, his buddy was riding shotgun. Unlike the theatre, I couldn't expect total silence and focus on the film. I couldn't hope to decipher every nuance and plot turn. Between the conversation and in car banter, I had to grab was snippets I could.
RV is the perfect drive-in movie. Take the plot of any National Lampoon's Vacation sub out Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo's breasts, sun in Robin Williams and Cheryl Hines's believability, and you've got this movie. Not having to learn a new plotline or story was a Godsend. Some business about corporate speeches, Jeff Daniels and Co. as a smarter less disgusting substitute for Cousin Eddie's clan and fountains of feces that will land on Robin Williams at least twice. Got it.
What's left after you muddle through that are charisma and punch lines. Robin Willams and Cheryl Hines are just plain better actors than Chase and D'Angelo. Vacation will always be the classic, because it was the first, but I believed these characters more. The snide back and forth retorts reminded me of my family. So did the inevitable warmth beneath them. The kids are neither cute nor likable, and for a girl like Joanna "JoJo" Levesque — who has worked so hard to attain the status of a slightly classier manufactured Duff-esque preteen pop idol &$151; being believably unlikable is really sort of courageous. But nor are they unholy terrors like those brats from Are We There Yet?. If they wind up a little TOO sweet by the end, well, that's probably the better side to err on anyway. I liked them all in spite of (or perhaps because of) how imperfect they were. Hell, I even liked the Gornickes though, anti-social as I am, I'd never want to actually meet them.
The Vacation movies had better gags, and what you see here will remind you of them — and many others. It's a fond sort of recollection though, like sitting in front of the TV at 3 in the morning and letting a movie you haven't seen in years make the insomnia a little more tolerable.
So, in the end, while I definitely think there's better movies to see out there right now, there's a hell of a lot worse, and at least this one made me laugh. Laugh, yes, and even smile.. ()