July 29, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

I can't claim to hold the slightest degree of expertise about fashion, or the culture that surrounds it. I have worn beat up old t-shirts and beat up old jeans (or in this weather, beat up old shorts) every single day, for as long as I can remember. Still, in a perverse way, I admired this film's moral compass. It would have been a wreck for the naive college graduate at the centre of this film, an impulse hire by the titular devil atop the hierarch of a trendy fashion magazine, to somehow elevate such a shallow industry. Even as the trends, buzzwords, and faces change seemingly daily, the fashion industry is and will always be too large to be fundamentally changed by any one person. Likewise, it would have been meaningless to watch that same shallow industry corrupt and deflower the naive college grad's sense of morality. Watching a movie about a character so impotent as to be completely molded and transformed by her environment is, for this reviewer at least, thoroughly uninteresting.
Watching the oppressive and ulcer-inducing fashion industry push that naive college grad, Andrea, down isn't the only thing that makes The Devil Wears Prada so interesting.  A large part of the film's substance comes in watching Andrea push back. It would have been easy to make the title character, fashion mogul Miranda Priestly, the story's outright villain. Miranda's a monster, to be sure. But Andrea's supposed to be an adult now, and the film refuses to let her shirk responsibility.
In one memorable scene, Andrea runs to her superior and office confidante, Nigel, in tears over their boss's latest beastly transgression. Nigel, despite being obviously quite fond of the girl, refuses to give her an inch. Grow up, he tells her, and stop complaining about an opportunity others would kill for. "Other girls dream of working here," he reminds her. "You only deign." In a world increasingly satisfied with the Bare Minimum, how refreshing it is to find a film that expects not merely effort from its protagonist, but passion — and results.
It's also refreshing to find a film that goes beneath the usual noble bohemians oppressive corporate oppressors dichotomy to explore the shifting sands of overlapping moral values. It's easy and popular to say that friends and family should always come above all else. But that course ends on the street with no prospects, what's then? Or how about if making the office first priority is necessary to do the job right? The Devil Wears Prada treats these, shockingly, as serious questions — worthy of exploration and deliberation.
While I admire the film for all of those reasons, it's the characters that allowed me to enjoy it. Meryl Streep, always so irritatingly practiced and deliberate in her roles, finally has found a character her style suits. Anne Hathaway, in her first leading role of any real weight, proves up to the challenge. This is the first time I've seen Emily Blunt, but her turn as the frigid and perpetually emotionally wrecked senior assistant swings wildly from venomous impatience to vulnerable gratitude, to devastated anger. She comes close to stealing every scene she's in. Nigel might be the smallest role I've seen Stanley Tucci in, but it's probably the best. Imbuing the role with kindness, passion, and patience, he steers Nigel through the gamut of emotions with a flamboyant yet mature sort of a courage.
The Devil Wears Prada dresses complex characters with well-suited performances and unveils them in a world full of painful truths that imbue what triumphs there are with real validity. ()


July 21, 2006

Clerks II

It's strange, I think, that Clerks II is what it is. Eleven years, nine months and two days after the original hit the art houses, this sequel feels more like that one than any of Smith's others. More than a sequel, it's almost like a second draft; a draft with stronger characterizations, a better balance between the comedic and the dramatic, and an adept hand at weaving the same characters in and out of the plot at exactly the right times and in exactly the right ways. With a return to David Klein's raw, stripped-down photography — underrated for its role in the gritty, independent flair of Smith's early films — the words and dialogue are again allowed to take centre stage. Like the original, this is a film almost exclusively composed of people talking at each other. But six films later, Smith has elevated the form to a symphony of clashing and complementing phraseologies, backgrounds, and points of view.
Not since Chasing Amy has a Smith script grown so squarely from its characters. With the exception of a donkey subplot, all of the humour seemed to flow naturally from who the characters are and what they know (or don't) at a given moment. Some scenes proceed with an unflinching disregard for politically correctness. But Smith uses them not merely to shock the audience but to highlight characters that are outspoken even in the face of sometimes staggering personal ignorance. What few customers there are serve merely to launch the clerks that serve them off on new tangents; to raise new topics of discussion and explore different dimensions of how each character relates to all of the others.
Without the burden of a greater plot to serve, Smith's characters are finally unchained to behave exactly as they would. Dante and Randall still fire words back and forth at each other much like they did over a decade ago. But the intervening years have imbued their bitter banter with a certain urgency: time is ticking, yet the previous decade has only cemented the role each plays in the other's life further. They didn't have to worry about each other's feelings in the original; years of disappointment have taught them that they only lasting relationship each has ever had is with the other.
Jay and Silent Bob, elevated by the movies in between this and the original to cinematic heroes, are returned from the stratosphere to the low-level dope peddlers that they've always been. Foulmouthed and dimwitted yet naive and good-natured, Jay serves as the perfect window dressing. His unique and consistently incomplete understanding of any given situation can snap humour to drama and vice-versa at the drop of a hat. You can't really have Dante and Randall without Jay and Silent Bob, and Smith's script remembers to recognize what impact the foreground characters' decisions will have on them.
But in terms of the sheer bat shit bug-eyed crazy factor, Trevor Fehrman's Elias does the heavy lifting. Both fundamentalist Christian and fantasy fanboy, Elias is so repressed and socially insecure that he makes Will Ferrell's Corbit from Winter Passing look like a well-adjusted party animal. Randal sometimes said things in this film that made my jaw drop, yet Elias comes up with some out-of-the-blue statements that make Randal's jaw drop. Elias maintains a certain earnest likeability, much like Jay, in spite of his dysfunctional insanity.
Becky is Rosario Dawson exuding a sensual warmth, her speciality. She adds a certain down-to-earth charm to this role that made Becky less like an unattainable move star and more like the women I remember most fondly from my own daily living. In a movie centred around unknown actors, Dawson's challenge was to dim her star a bit, so that her character might work at their level. The greatest praise that I can give her is that she succeeds without impairing any of the qualities that make her so attractive to begin with.
Clerks II is a revelation. Film is a medium in which the script is just the starting point. As Smith the filmmaker evolved, his greater exploration of that medium left less and less room for Smith the writer. This is the first film since Chasing Amy where the writer came out on top. Smith the writer has honed his craft to create what is probably his very best screenplay. If Smith the filmmaker resigned himself to merely putting Smith the writer's blab-fests to celluloid, I don't think I'd mind a bit. It's what he's apparently best at. ()


July 08, 2006


Proof is an extraordinary achievement of true and literal first-person cinematic storytelling. It deals with a woman at a moment of severe emotional instability, questioning everything about her life and putting the pieces together as the film does. That woman is Catherine. With the passing of her genius mathematician father, she must decide whether to rejoin the outside world or sever ties with it forever. But she is so beaten down by the shadow of her father's genius (and mental illness), so flattened by the manipulations of a sister that casually undercuts her at every turn, the decision becomes increasingly complicated as the stakes rise with each new scene.
The film's non-linear editing brought me inside her shattered state of mind; the film only allows its audience to trust her, in any given moment, as much as she trusts herself. A second viewing therefore became a totally different experience. The film transformed into an instantly objective third-person narrative in which my more complete understanding justified and deepened the actions and behaviour of the characters. It is a credit to director John Madden – who previously directed Auburn’s play on the London stage – that everything holds together so well through that alternative lens. It’d be a criminal act to reveal whether Catherine is sane, partially crazy, or completely crazy. Instead I promise that, going through the film again, each scene built off the others to reinforce the truth. Even if the film never comes out and literally says it, there is the satisfaction of a definitive answer to work forward from.
There’s an arch sort of humour that a film all about mathematicians – eventually centered on a titular mathematical proof even – has virtually nothing in the way of actual mathematics. Math is the MacGuffin that guides the characters, raising walls between some and building bridges between others. Catherine connects through her father primarily through their shared mathematical genius, and it is that symbiotic relationship between his genius and his illness that causes the proof to haunt her so. If the proof is hers, she is of her father’s magnitude, clearly with his genius and likely also with his instability. But if the proof is his, her own memory is so undependable as to render her insane already. So it’s safer for her to keep it locked safely away, even as she lives with it — literally and emotionally — every single day. When a young protégé of her father’s slowly liberates her from her own mounting insecurities, she trusts him to bring that proof back out into the open. Everything she is and could be hangs on what he does with that proof.
There are many people out there in the world beaten down by those who might also love them. Beaten down by the formidable presence of their families’ booming personalities, beaten down by the way those they trust chip away at their self-confidence by saying: "You're instincts are wrong. For your own good, do it my way." And once they're beaten down sufficiently, they don't need the outside influences anymore to cause them pain. Once we grow to distrust ourselves enough, our own self-doubt provides plenty of anxiety to feed back into itself. Once someone gets to that point, robbed so completely of a foundation on which to build his sense of self, what can bring that person back? Proof has one suggestion, optimistic and compelling in the right sort of ways — ways that, ironically enough, mathematics can't account for. ()