December 30, 2007

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is, point blank, one of the best musical adaptations I have ever seen. There is a lot that is cut out or trimmed down, but unlike most adaptations this one doesn't feel the slightest bit incomplete. The marriage of Tim Burton's nightmarish visuals with a soundscape much closer to the material's theatrical source proves inspired and both the humor and suffering make it to the screen intact.

Benjamin Barker was among the best barbers in London with a beautiful wife and child that meant the world to him. Unfortunately, they also meant the world to one Judge Turpin. The judge in question managed to conjure up charges that resulted in a life sentence to Australia. Now undeniably changed by fifteen bruising years abroad, the man has returned to soot-covered 19th London under a new alias to have his revenge.

The cinematography, very similar to the kind I hated in the fifth Harry Potter movie, works splendidly here. Both bringing to mind a Dickensian industrial-era London and London as filtered through newly-named Sweeney Todd's crazed and obsessive perspective. The lighting and set design force us to see Sweeney's world through Sweeney's eyes. Telling flashbacks reveal the same places and people through Barker's eyes and it is a very different London that is impossibly if subtly dissimilar. It's the blackest of comedies, with a suitably tragic ending, so the look fit it like a glove.

Also inspired was the decision to bring in the stage show's original orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, to map out the score for the screen. Most film adaptations take an orchestra score that was broad and powerful and minimize it into something more intimate — if they use the original score at all. Tunick took the theater orchestration and nearly tripled the number of performers. From the front row of the multiplex, I felt like I was just behind the orchestra pit. The traditional score counterbalanced Burton's twisted and out-there visuals and helped anchor the film.

In terms of performances, the secondary characters are by far the most accomplished vocally. Laura Michelle Kelly has had an extensive and acclaimed career in West End musicals, including a standout performance in the title role for "Mary Poppins." As the street beggar with surprising secrets, she finds a balance between the craziness of a woman driven mad and the vocal clarity expected of a musical performance. I'm not a big fan of sopranos, but Jayne Wisener as is classically trained and nailed what she was given as Johanna. Jamie Campbell Bower and Ed Sanders came into this production unknowns as far as I can tell, but their performances of "Johanna" and "Not While I'm Around" respectively are the standouts of the film.

Alan Rickman doesn't bring anything special vocally, but he doesn't have to. His character is supposed to grate, after all. His Judge Turpin, oozing perverse desire at the expense of virtually all other thought, is a revelation. He is sufficiently menacing and cunning in his early scene with to establish him as a credible threat, but from that point on it is to witness a pedophile coveting poor Benjamin Barker's daughter. Both he and Timothy Spall as the judge's heartless henchman are utterly at home with the theatrical vibe required. Their performances found a perfect equilibrium between the broad strokes necessary in the theater and the more subtle performance enabled by the screen.

The casting of Sacha Baron Cohen was the most troubling going into the picture, but it proved inspired. Signor Adolfo Pirelli, the showy scam artist, is essentially a reflection of Cohen himself. Thanks to the character's final scene, here he gets to play both the caricature and the reality behind the caricature. To his credit, he is as capable performing the latter as he is performing the former. Despite his theatrical instincts, he could be a real actor if he wanted to. And yes, the rumors about him rapping his songs were wrong: he sings and sings more than adequately.

Helena Bonham Carter proves hit or miss vocally, but she has infused Mrs. Lovett with such character and life that I found myself not minding in the slightest. It's the first time one of her performances has really had me sit up and take notice. I'm told that she doesn't play the character nearly as broadly as Angela Lansbury' take, but the humor and quiet longing come through intact. Sweeney is so focused, so single-minded that Mrs. Lovett is the only truly human character for long stretches at a time. Carter brings vivacity and life to the role as well as, at times, a real sense of self-reflection and regret.

Which leaves Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd. He is vocally unexceptional, there's no doubt about that. But he indisputably carries the film, and carries it effortlessly. The younger than customary casting of Mrs. Lovett meant that she could have been a viable match for Sweeney, but Depp's performance utterly eliminates that as a possibility. From the moment he learns the fate of his wife and child, or seems to, he is uncompromising in his obsession. Where some predecessors in the role have played Sweeney with crazed abandon, Depp takes the opposite tact. His Sweeney Todd shuts out the world and himself from it. The intensity of his passion rushes forth only in moments of shocking violence. This is a Sweeney Todd that doesn't like to speak, doesn't like to make eye contact, doesn't like to connect. This take on the character adds greater legitimacy to the way events transpire in the final act, because a character would have to be closed off to miss the things that Sweeney misses. But it does place a greater burden on the supporting characters to keep the picture alive.

Despite extensive cuts and reconstruction, Stephen Sondheim's tale of the great British anti-hero is well represented here. The comedy is captured perfectly as is the tragedy. The narrative plays out so logically and completely that any poor soul that enters fresh will have no trouble following the story, right to the gruesome end. Burton doesn't waste time trying to make the characters overly sympathetic, but succeeds wildly at making them compelling. These people are what they are for better and especially for worse, but that's plenty thanks to Sondheim's distillation of the myth and John Logan's expert distillation of Sondheim.(***½)

December 29, 2007

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

The National Treasure franchise can be boiled down to this: Likable characters spouting punch lines unravel ridiculous but spectacular pulp fiction mysteries. It's an exceptionally sturdy concept based on well-worn elements that should be able to continue on successfully indefinitely. Neither film thus far is what could be called high entertainment, but it's hard to deny that both are extraordinarily entertaining. Book of Secrets fell short of its predecessor only because I didn't go into the theater expecting trash.

Benjamin Franklin Gates and his crew should be living the good life after their enormous haul from the first film. But as the expression goes, "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems." Riley is peddling his spectacularly unsuccessful new book on the previous movie's caper when his car is seized by the IRS. Abigail has had enough of living under Ben's obnoxious brilliance, which has in turn left him sleeping on the sofa in his father's living room.

Fortunately, Ed Harris's ultimately sympathetic if thinly-drawn antagonist sweeps in to accuse the Gates' ancestor of collaboration in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He has a missing page of John Wilkes Booth's in his possession, it seems, with the name of Benjamin's great grandfather inscribed on it. The implications and authenticity of the written name are never adequately explained, but the plot point will take our protagonists to Paris so I'm not going to stress about it.

From here the film follows the usual pattern of snapshot history lessons, action set pieces and globetrotting hijinks. An intriguing piece of Olmec-carved driftwood hidden in the Queen's desk drags Ben's mother into the proceedings. Played by Helen Mirren, she's a delightful counter-point to Jon Voight's patriarch. An academic as respected in her field as he is ridiculed, she carries on with a biting, imperial manner that brooks no argument or contradiction. Naturally, she is dragged along with almost no influence on events, her dignity compromised at every turn. The relationship between Ben's parents ultimately resolves itself into an upper crust take on "The Honeymooners."

One of the joys of the first National Treasure was its abundant use of a cross-section of iconic historical imagery. Its follow-up preposterously and spectacularly continues the tradition. This time we get Ford's Theatre, a Statue of Liberty, Buckingham Palace, Mount Vernon plantation, the White House, the Library of Congress and Mount Rushmore. It was once again terrific fun seeing each landmark experienced from unconventional perspective for unbelievable reasons. I wasn't alive for the Saturday serials, but I imagine they must have provided an experience something like this.

Like its predecessor, Book of Secrets fills a void that Hollywood can't seem to understand exists. After the spectacular success of Indiana Jones, we should have been barraged by an onslaught of adventure films driven by ideas instead of depleted ammo. Instead we got endless variations on Lethal Weapon. It took the success of The DaVinci Code in print (which would also be adapted into an enormously successful idea-driven blockbuster) and "The Amazing Race" to green-light the first National Treasure. The fourth Indiana Jones film looks set for spectacular success next summer. Has the end come for blockbusters that celebrate violence for its own sake? Or are we merely enjoying a rare moment while studio executives' heads are out of the sand? Either way, I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts.(***)

On a side note, I have to ponder whether all future pictures released under the Walt Disney banner will run cartoons before the feature. The Goofy Home Theater short brought the house down and reminded me of when a Walt Disney picture really was something special.

November 26, 2007

August Rush

Most critics hated August Rush, and the few who liked it were almost apologetic in their praise. Well, I liked it and I'm not apologizing for it. I loved it when my mother brought this kind of movie home from the video store when I was growing up. It's the kind of wholesome movie she was happy to have me love. And to my surprise, and great relief, it's the kind of movie I'm still able to love: a truly stirring fable.

The film's only weakness is the necessary back story; the cookie cutter drama and PG excuse feels a little too stale. When we meet August Rush at an orphanage in what appears to be western New York, he's known as Evan Taylor. The world sings to him in a language that only he can seem to hear, with a melody that connects him to the parents he never knew.

The other orphans mock him for believing his parents will come for him, but lengthy flashbacks confirm August's intuition. Fate, Van Morrison and a serendipitous harmonica-playing street performer had brought his classical cellist mother and indie rocker father together. A complicated series of events pulled them apart and left them ignorant of their son's existence.

At the orphanage, August is oblivious to neither the bullies' opinions nor their intentions; he's simply blessed with enough self-assurance to remain unfazed. And like any miracle of goodness who lights up a bad situation, young August attracts supporters who do resent him. August's bunkmate volunteers the lies that August won't say to protect him from the bullies' beatings. He has largely given up on his own chances, but senses and appreciates that August is destined for something greater. Even the child services agent that interviews August takes a liking to him and becomes a valuable advocate in the events to come.

August ultimately takes matters into his own hands. The movie really begins with him walking along cold winter roads toward the Thruway as the power lines hum him a tune. A trucker picks him up and brings him all the way to Manhattan, where the man from child services might know what to do with him. August Rush quickly becomes Oliver Twist, just sprung from the work houses. The less-than-seedy underbelly of the film's fairy tale New York is his 1830's London.

The director, Kirsten Sheridan, was one of the two daughters fictionalized in his father's terrific autobiographical New York fable, In America. Her introduction to New York feels more authentic: an overwhelming onslaught of sights, sounds, sensations. August, who hears music in everything, becomes lost in it until a car strikes him and brings him back to reality. Even in her glossy take on New York, it seems some facts of urban life are just too blindingly obvious. A certain lyricism develops in the way she takes August from place to place along the journey, paralleling his comfort level with the city as it quickly grows.

A whisper of music leads him to a black street musician roughly his age who roughly approximates the Artful Dodger from Dickens's tale. A hot pizza convinces the young musician to let August tag along back to the abandoned theater he calls home.

There we meet Wizard, the manager of a whole army of young street musicians. He feels the music in his soul too, and cares for many young boys who would not be cared for otherwise. But like Fagin, the Oliver Twist character on whom he is obviously based, it is much easier to join Wizard's ranks than it is to escape.

Robin Williams's performance of the character is challenging. By employing on the body language and gentle voice that made him so endearing in films like Dead Poets Society and Patch Adams, it's hard not to warm up to his character. The scene where he names August Rush is triumphant, even. The use of his family friendly persona makes it more shocking than it should be when he starts to more sharply exert his crass claim over August's talent and soul. Wizard is the most complex character in the film, a pimp that manages musical talent instead of sexual liaisons.

August's continued survival and well being amongst nefarious people is the conceit of the film. That isn't to say Sheridan's New York is free of problems. It just that the mechanisms by which we deal with those problems are optimistically showcased working at their best. A particularly poignant sequence comes when August finds his way into a black church during choir practice. The gospel choir is full of the products of broken families, and they're singing about their common threads of misfortune. August finds refuge in their shared sadness just like they do.

The progression of August's musical talent is not as flimsily conceived as I thought it would be. He is presented as a genius, to be sure, but he never simply picks up a new instrument and plays. Freddie Highmore does a great job with his face when August watches other musicians even before he starts to play. You can almost see the gears breaking it all down in his head.

When he finally gets his hands on a guitar, he meticulously fiddles with each component and listening to how it affects the sound. A little girl at the church has to teach him the scales on sheet music before he can put the song that is all around down on paper. The pastor at the church gets him enrolled in formal study at Juilliard. People aren't as lucky as August in real life, but I could believe that a true prodigy in August's situation given the same improbably opportunities could become so accomplished. The fairy tale is able to forgive what the circumstances don't quite account for.

If you've read Oliver Twist, the plot won't be much of a surprise to you. If you haven't the plot still probably won't be much of a surprise to you, especially after reading this review. Go anyway. The film has the most unabashedly heartfelt climax you'll see this year, matched with one of the most rousing and meticulous scores I've ever heard. August Rush is a protagonist worth cheering for. (***½)

November 02, 2007


Juno is the answer to movies like Ghost World and Napoleon Dynamite, which think that an off-kilter, heavily stylized universe filled with quirky characters who craft a lexicon out of pop culture references and ridiculous catchphrases is enough. From the first shot and first line of dialog, this film follows all of the conventions that made those films so celebrated. But here, finally, real people emerge from under all of the artifice. The protagonist with her stylishly outdated cultural vocabulary could have stepped out of MTV's old loser-chic hit "Daria", but strip away the verbal flourishes and Juno still succeeds as a girl with all of the overwrought drama, passion, false assumptions and optimistic naiveté that comes with being 16 years old.

And unlike the armies of dysfunctional and often antagonistic families in previous indie portraits of suburbia, Juno was raised by a father and stepmother who, despite a steady flow of biting insults, never let her forget for a moment that she is loved.

The film begins with a chair where, we quickly learn, Juno fornicated for the first time only time with her track star best friend and band mate — a boy so timid he's practically non-verbal. Three pregnancy tests soon prove that his sperm were a good deal more assertive than he.

So Juno, surrounded in her well-worn bedroom by artifacts that range all the way back to birth, calls up her girl friend on her hamburger phone and asks what to do. Her friend recommends an abortion, but a surprising bit of information from a girl outside the clinic ultimately changes her mind. The nine month pregnancy becomes one of the most perfectly executed coming of age stories I've ever seen, in which our protagonist learns a great deal about who she is, what she wants and what she already has.

Ellen Page, who still looks far younger than her age, wields the unconventional and sophisticated dialog with remarkable ease. Her performance is bright and friendly and remarkably open; when Juno unintentionally makes some devastating social faux pas Page's complete refusal to acknowledge them maintains Juno's innocence.

As Juno's understanding of the world broadens, my perceptions of the characters surrounding her expanded as well. What begin as exaggerated caricatures reveal themselves over the course of the film to be no less complex than Juno herself.

Michael Cera in particular manages to make timid track star father-to-be Paulie Bleeker remarkably expressive. Juno talks incessantly and Bleeker barely says anything; yet their dynamic proves surprisingly egalitarian: he sees right through all her chatter and she intuits what he does not say.

I waited the entire movie for the adoptive father-to-be to assert himself to his domineering O.C.D. wife and left the theater almost wishing he hadn't.

Allison Janney transplants the fiery intellect and acidic wit of her West Wing performance to the opposite end of the economic spectrum as Juno's stepmother, a woman who communicates in insults but manages to be comforting as well cruel. Juno's father speaks in the stark, blunt language of a former military man. But somehow, his words carry another meaning that is clear as glass to his wife and eldest daughter. He is a blue collar man that is allowed to be wise, intelligent and sophisticated.

Juno is the rare art house comedy that treats its characters with the dignity afforded to people instead of the expediency afforded to punch lines. It is also the rare art house comedy that remembers even unconventional families are built on a foundation of love. The stylized elements, as employed here, reinforce the film rather than support it. Kimya Dawson's oddly affecting anti-folk suspended-adolescent duets scattered throughout complement the picture well. Juno operates on a far stranger plane than director Jason Reitman's feature-length debut Thank You For Smoking, but the result is a tighter more focused final result. I can't point out a single misstep, and the final product is probably my favorite film of 2007 so far. (****)

October 23, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited is Wes Anderson's most focused film to date. It isn't a particularly ambitious picture, but it steams ahead with a confident focus and charisma not found in his earlier efforts. A title card from the director at the beginning requests that the audience see "Hotel Chevalier" first even though everyone has already pretty much committed themselves regardless once they've taken their seats. It just so happens that I had seen it; I agree that it adds something, but I'm happy it was left off here. The opening sequence as presented, fuelled by an absurdist urgency reminiscent of Godard's Breathless, perfectly sets the tone of picture: light, whimsical and painfully human.

The main characters, once the film finds them all, are brothers of the classic Wes Anderson archetype: intelligent, articulate, manipulative and extraordinarily wounded. Jack is unlucky in love and passive aggressive, forced out of his comfortable exile by his domineering former lover. Peter is pessimistic and arrogant in his emotional distance, fleeing his pregnant wife primarily because he always saw himself as a future divorcee. Francis is domineering, self-hating, and lonely. He crashed his motorbike into a hill and survived only because the doctors rather regrettably managed to do every single thing right. Over the course of this movie, their lives will not progress meaningfully so much as evocatively.

The film hops across India from a train to a river to a village to a mountaintop, with these three peculiar gentlemen leading the way. Each setting is presented with full three-dimensionality; by the time the brothers part with the train, I knew their sleeping car inside and out, not only physically but emotionally and socially. Each stop in their journey is a jigsaw puzzle, and all of the pieces fit together perfectly. I've seen dozens and dozens of ethnographic films, and many of them popped back into my head as I kept track of the Indian Other that constantly lingers at the periphery of the film. Here the ethnographic lens, magnified by fiction and imagination, finds joy and common humanity in sometimes heartbreaking events, skewed heavily by a style that Others the three American brothers at least as much as it Others the natives. Neither depiction is particularly plausible, but that just adds to the charms of this travelogue dreamscape. Robert Yeoman's vibrant and earthy anamorphic photography is perhaps the best of his career.

Everything the brothers do separates them from the world around them; the larger world leans in from all directions and drags them inexorably forward but never quite penetrates their melancholy narcissism. The screwball tone of the picture is made possible by leads that are compelling and sometimes sympathetic but ultimately unlikable enough that pleasure can be taken in their failures. The issues that drive the tension of the picture exist primarily because these characters cannot see beyond their own stake in the related events. The script and performances explore all of the nuances of their collective sense of entitlement, mocking them for their excesses while evoking pity and compassion for the tragic place such excess has left them.

Indeed, the acknowledgment of a world outside his eccentric protagonists feels like a sign of maturation for Wes Anderson, who can be accused of being a little myopic himself. I can't picture the auteur behind The Royal Tenenbaums exploring the very ordinary history between luminous stewardess Rita and the Chief Steward on the train, nor pausing to give a father a moment to express his very personal and yet universal grief. Little touches like these rooted the journey in something more meaningful that the director's usual proactively artificial universe.

When the brothers finally reach their mother in the convent, Anjelica Huston uses her couple minutes of screen time to craft a performance that utilizes the artifice to explain exactly how these men became who they have become. The tragedy of her character is that she can never stop running, and it's most unfortunate that her sons have learned from her example. If the brothers' journey accomplished anything, it was to discover that they are not doomed to repeat their mother. The movie's optimistic final line hints that for them, at least, it might not be too late to reach out and think of someone else. (***½)

August 18, 2007


I came back from Superbad with the same feeling one gets after a really great party: flush with adrenaline from the festivities, and a little bummed now that it's over. Superbad is easily the funniest thing I've seen this year. It might actually be the funniest thing I've seen this millennium.

Seth and Evan have been Best Friends Forever. Seth is a fast-talking force of nature. Evan hesitantly follows, muttering biting commentary just soft enough that nobody else can hear. Despite all the talk, they've never actually done anything. People either spit on them, step on them, or remain completely unaware of their existence. Each has a girl he rather likes. Early scenes hint that the girls just might like them back.

Fogell, narrow-shouldered with glasses that appear to hold up his head, is the least popular kid in school. He abides his condition with understated and unpredictable rhythm. When Seth and Evan need to obtain alcohol for their ladies' party, Forgell just happens to have obtained a fake ID.

What happens next combines the moment-in-time feel of Garden State with the raunchy surprises of Animal House. Anyone who has seen the trailer knows that the boys make it to the party. But the journey is hardly A to B. Pit stops along the way include drugs, sex, alcohol, violence — including drug-induced sex, sex-induced violence, and sex-induced alcohol. Along the way you'll meet violent old men, crack heads with hazy memories, unconventional police officers, and McLovin. You'll experience a sing-along, gun violence, discoloured alcohol, and a gross-out scene that makes There's Something About Mary look like an after school special.

And yet, for all of that, a little of that warmth and emotional honesty from that other movie starring Jonah Hill and Seth Rogan seems to have rubbed off. The hefty young protagonist and his gawky best friend may have filthier mouths than the American Pie boys, but intercourse is not so neat a finish line for them. Like all things unknown, it is a prospect more terrifying than exciting. Elaborate plans are concocted without any real expectation of follow through.

And then Fogell gets picked up by the cops while the other two boys find themselves in the backseat of the car that just hit Seth (the character, not the actor). Like it or not, gears are in motion, promises have been made, and the boys amble on the best they can. Is there anything more true to life than that?

This movie will be successful for many reasons. It celebrates everything fun that's Really Unacceptable Behaviour: smoking, under-age drinking, drunk driving, drunk sex, drug use, fake IDs, driving erratically, objectification of women. The young leads, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, are real comic talents with impeccable timing. McLovin has entered the popular vernacular. It will be remembered because it remembers the unique agony of having everything ahead of you, with all the mistakes and success stories tantalizingly out of reach. (****)

June 02, 2007

Knocked Up

If you enjoyed 40 Year Old Virgin you'll probably like Knocked Up, too. The style of humor, the characterizations, and even the cast are largely the same. But much like Kevin Smith transitioned from Mallrats to Chasing Amy, Judd Apatow takes his new film to deeper and darker places. If 40 Year Old Virgin was about getting laid, Knocked Up is about what can happen next.

Alison Scott is at the top of her game. A statuesque blond working behind the scenes at E!, she has just been given a shot at on camera. Ben Stone has sunk about as low as he can go. A short, husky Canadian living in America illegally, he's been living off a $14 thousand settlement from when a truck ran over his foot several years ago. He lives with several similarly dubious buddies in a dilapidated ramshackle shack on the verge of being condemned.

When Alison goes out to celebrate her promotion with her sister Debbie, the bouncer waves them past the line. Ben and his friends gawk from behind the velvet ropes. Despite being vastly out of his league, events and alcohol conspire to bring Ben into Alison's bed. He can't get the condom wrapper open; she's impatient. Eight weeks later, she suffers her first bout of morning sickness.

Most comedies avoid addressing unplanned pregnancy. The few that have either shoehorn it into a dark subplot (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) or are pushed to the margins of popular culture (Saved!). As he did with Virgin, Apatow mines his premise for the humanity as well as the laughs. Whatever else Alison and Ben might do or say in the film, they take the consequences and responsibility of the baby seriously. Ben — who has probably spent his entire life actively avoiding both — never once pressures Alison to get an abortion, despite the impassioned urging of his friends. Alison sees her baby's heartbeat on the ultrasound and tearfully finds she has already made her decision, despite seemingly nothing to gain and everything to lose.

What follows is an in-depth study of Ben's pathetic lifestyle and the troubled marriage of Alison's sister. Both convince Alison to keep Ben at arm's length despite his awkward but lovable stabs at showing affection. It is to the movie's credit that the relationships evolve not from outside pressures but from within. What happiness there is at end is tenuous but hard-earned.

Debbie's marriage to Pete is bitter and poisonous, but both show all the battle scars of parents that care. As Pete's daughter prepares to blow out birthday candles in the backyard, Ben launches into a rant that goes right for Pete's jugular and storms off. Pete pauses for a moment to digest the vitriol, shrugs, and brings out the cake with a smile. The children in the film, both born and unborn, and not merely something to talk about; they have a genuine and fundamental impact on these characters' lives.

For Ben, the pregnancy provokes and parallels his coming-of-age. If Pete's journey is about coming to terms with his place in the greater world, Ben's journey is about coming to the realization that a greater world outside his drug-induced haze even exists. He simultaneously rails against it and increasingly yearns for it. As he begins to pull his life together, his steps toward respectability don't feel like sacrifices but an acknowledgement of an increasing incompatibility with his prior lifestyle. Seth Rogan, normally relegated to supporting roles, takes Ben's consistently vulgar and juvenile dialog and delivers it with gradually increasing self-awareness.

Ann Hathaway was originally cast as Alison but balked at how Apatow wanted to handle the pregnancy. Instead he captured lightning in a bottle with Katherine Heigl, now best known for her role in the breakout television hit "Grey's Anatomy." Thank God; she is the perfect Alison. Heigl is able to both appear unattainable and embrace Ben's vulgar sensibility; sometimes simultaneously and always effortlessly.

Some audience members expecting the soft touch of 40 Year Old Virgin will be put off by the film's bite. The characters are harsher people and the jokes reflect that. If you watched the trailer and the line "Don't let him near the kid, he wants to rear your child!" offended you, this film probably isn't for you. But Knocked Up will prove a rougher but more meaningful journey than Apatow's freshman effort for everyone that clicks with the film's subversive sensibility. (***½)

May 26, 2007

At World's End

The opening sequence of Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End had me convinced that it would be the best one yet. It was a little strange and mysterious, but the pieces clicked together with an efficient precision. All of the characters we love pop back up again (well, except the one that died last film) It plays like the beginning of Return of the Jedi, only prettier, funnier, and more tightly edited.

And then we cut to Jack Sparrow. He was the best thing about the first two films, so it's incredibly disappointing that he's the lead weight that drags down this one. The film literally stalls as we find him trapped in Davey Jones's locker. The scene feels like it was ripped from another movie, dragging on forever with the focus entirely on the special effects at the exclusion of everything else. With the aid of ILM's incredible computer artists, director Gore Verbinski has spent millions to retread the same sort of cheap sight gags that bogged down the Superman sequels.

When our heroes do finally retrieve Jack and escape death's clutches, I thought for sure the film would pick up, but no. At World's End takes plot threads which were introduced with elegant simplicity in Dead Man's Chest and piled on subplots, twists and conspiracies until I stopped caring. Tom Hollander's Lord Beckett, a sniveling fool in the original film and a distant threat in the second, proves to be an overbearing presence here. He's not a character like Darth Vader that we love to hate. I just plain hated him — him and the way he bogged down characters I liked in treacheries I didn't care about. Allegiances flip flop and realign at such a dizzying speed that the script supervisor must have gotten whip lash. After each character changed allegiance at least twice, I stopped caring.

Despite a plot bogged down in unsatisfying revelations, the film certainly has qualities to admire. Verbinski and his team capture moments of true visual poetry, revealing dream-like events and transformations that put Terry Gilliam to shame. Except for one heavy-handed speech by Elizabeth Swann, the humour remains largely intact: for every sight gag that falls flat there's at least two that hit the mark. Swann and the heroic but previously bland Will Turner draw themselves are finally permitted to suffer humiliations in the vein of the ones Jack has become so known for. Will has at last crafted a credible pirate out of his pretty boy exterior. And Elizabeth, carefully wrapped in short silk Asian robes throughout, has never looked more stunning. Their final scenes together imbue what has been a rather static and perfunctory relationship with real depth and nuance.

The climactic battle might also be one of the greatest action action sequences ever shot. Each beat is perfectly realized, fantastically absurd and terribly dramatic. The duel between Jack and Davey Jones, in particular, is like Peter Pan on steroids. With a better build-up that hadn't sapped me of my energy and investment, I would have undoubtedly enjoyed it. Instead, I was wondering how long before it was over and I could go home.

There is no question that Jack, Elizabeth, Will and the crew will have a place among the greatest film characters of all time. Together, the three films are a thrilling reminder of how potent the adventure genre can be when unchained from the twin burdens of historical realism and cultural sensitivity. All the elements for a great film were here. The plot just wouldn't get out of the way. (**)

28 Weeks Later

28 Weeks Later is crafty enough at what it does. The problem is that what it does is not very much. Over its 99 minute running time — I left the theater shocked that was that long, so very little happened under such relentless pacing — we barely meet, much less understand any of the characters. Their journey is relatively brief, covering little geographic territory over a fair miniscule period of time.

The film begins around the time of the first film, in a house full of strangers totally boarded up against outside eyes. Owned by an elderly couple, the house has become a sanctuary for a handful of uninfected. We see things through the eyes of Don and Alice. We learn very little them — I had to look up their names afterward — except that they're married with children who are far away and safe from the outbreak. As the survivors sit down and prepare to eat, a young boy pounds on their door and is let in. His commotion alerts the infected to the presence of human life in the apparently abandoned country home, and Don is soon forced to choose between saving his wife and fleeing. He chooses the latter.

We jump forward a few months to 28 weeks after the initial outbreak. The infected, having exhausted their pool of victims, have long since died of starvation. American-led NATO troops have started cautiously repopulating London. Don's children are among the first British expatriates arriving for resettlement. Andy is precocious and shares his mother's mismatched Kate Bosworth-esque eyes. Tammy is an attractive, blond haired blue-eyed teenager, almost excessively British in speech and appearance. It should not spoil anyone's experience to know that the two children manage to circumvent the American military's carefully laid out restrictions, nor that an unforeseen element triggers a new outbreak of the virus.

We follow Andy and Tammy (their guilt-ridden father otherwise sidelined early on in the tale) with a group of survivors that is quickly whittled down to two AWOL members of the American military: Doyle, a sympathetic sniper that abandons his post after being ordered to target innocent civilians and Scarlet, a medical officer who believes the children might hold the key to developing a vaccine against the virus.

At no point on their journey do we learn much else about any of them; They are separated mainly by physical characteristics. Scarlet is a brunette so we can tell her apart from Tammy. Doyle is separated from Andy by his taller stature, shorter hair and ever prominent army fatigues.

Despite the lack of any satisfying narrative or character development, the film does have its strengths. The depiction of a perfectly preserved London more devastated than if it had been hit by an atomic bomb is more than a little unsettling. The film uses stillness and silence in a way that few horror movies have the time or patience for any more; very few of the scares rely on pounding bass or a sudden prelude of shrill strings. One scene in particular, in which infected and uninfected alike pour out of a breached containment zone as overwhelmed snipers try to pick off the former from within a fast-moving and panic-stricken crowd of the latter, captures a particularly gripping horror. I could not help but imagine what it'd be like on the ground as seemingly random bodies were torn to shreds by gunfire all around me.

Even with horrors like that, though, the scenario faced by our protagonists would still seem much better than the circumstances of the original outbreak. Instead of the millions of infected presumably roaming around during the original outbreak, these characters should only have to deal with the mere hundreds that had both returned to the country and survived the original slaughter. The film compensates for the lack of infected by making the American military the primary antagonist. Their all-out offensive to wipe out every molecule of the virus pins the survivors into tight corners where, with the exception of one scene brightly lit and out in the open, the infected attack in ones and twos.

The portrayal of the military is a convenient parallel to current world opinion. At the same time, the two soldiers guiding Andy and Tammy to safety are "be all you can be" personified: noble, selfless, and unerringly competent.

The lack of plot doesn't prove to be a big problem. Even the lack of anything engrossing or enlightening about these strangers' lives proves to be neither surprising nor fatal to the movie's objective. But it is disappointing that by the end, after hundreds have been infected and/or killed and a large section of London has been obliterated, so little within our microcosm has changed. The blonde daughter is still pretty to look at and the boy with the mismatched eyes is still creepily precocious. Not much changes from when they start running to when they stop, on either a micro nor macro level. The set pieces can be counted on one hand, and the creepy deathly perfectly preserved stillness has been replaced by a burned out, smoked out, bombed out wasteland. And finally, when all is said and done the film cheats us out of a proper third act with gimmicky horror movie ending that feels perfunctory rather than shocking. (**½)

May 08, 2007

In the Land of Women

In the Land of Women, written and directed by the son of famous writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, is a very specific movie made for a very specific sort of person. Though it is both romantic and a comedic, it never really develops into a romantic comedy. The characters examine the world more deeply than those around them, but are destined to be less satisfied with what they find in it. I surround myself with people like them and laugh at the things they find funny. Your mileage may vary.

Adam Brody plays Carter Webb, a twentysomething drifter who maintains his lifestyle scripting "premium softcore porn" in Los Angeles. A devastating break-up with Sofia Buñuel — a famous model-actress that is adored by seemingly everyone — inspires him to flee the city to watch over his flighty grandmother in suburban Michigan. Carter addresses the world with a leisurely calm; he lets events and revelations soak in at their own pace, reacting with shock or surprised only when absolutely warranted.

Otherwise, every interaction with grandmother Phyllis (Olympia Dukakis in Cloris Leachman territory) would consist entirely of shock and surprise. On the razor's edge between perfect clarity and total dementia, Phyllis has convinced herself that she is on the verge of death even though there is nothing medically wrong with her. The film doesn't treat her with any reverence. In mercilessly poking fun at all the baggage that comes with getting old, I was brought much closer to all of the old people I have known and loved over my twenty young years on this planet. Phyllis is old, and probably a bit crazy, but she isn't stupid or frail. She's survived long enough to be the toughest old broad of the bunch, and her insights — both shallow and profound — are informed by all her years of plodding on through.

It isn't until Carter meets the Meg Ryan's M.I.L.F. next door that he makes a real human connection. Sarah Hardwicke is also observes the world with patient ardour. But nearly two decades further along, her incredulity has evolved into a quiet desperation for a life not lived. Her marriage is antiseptic, and she hasn't known her eldest daughter in years. For her joy comes only in flashes between long stretches of living exactly as she is expected to. Sarah adores Carter for his passion and his future not yet lived. Carter adores Sarah for her insight and her bravery. Over walks with the dog and awkward trips to the supermarket, they delight in sharing their lives with someone who knows what to listen for.

In a daring rebuff of contemporary social mores, Carter meets Sarah's distant daughter Lucy over a cigarette. Kristen Stewart, whose career has largely languished in an awkward mix of horror movies and children's films since her promising introduction as Jodie Foster's androgynous daughter in Panic Room finally returns to work worthy of her talent. Though Lucy is smart, pretty and talented, Stewart embodies her with a constant clenched-up rigidity that gives her insecurities credibility. Filled with a devastating mix of shame and resentment, Lucy is so afraid of making her mother's mistakes that she's unable to live at all. As intense as Carter is mild, she obsesses over shallow high school dilemmas and life-altering crises with the same self-conscious eloquence. Lucy adores Carter because she senses that he is the kind of man her mother should have married. Carter adores Lucy because she could never become her mother.

Along for the ride is Paige, Lucy's preteen sister and the only uncomplicated source of joy in Sarah's world. She is as abnormally sane as Phyllis is crazy, as seemingly adult as Phyllis is child-like. Together, the oldest and youngest characters occupy the margins of the events with a startling directness. Both have big, real worries and address them with matter-of-fact sincerity.

As Carter and these four astounding women co-exist, important things happen and almost happen. Major events and minor ones. Some hilarious, some devastating, and others unsettlingly melancholy. All swell with an unspoken, uncalculated sort of love. When the film asks us to laugh at horrible things, they're the kind of undeniable truths that won't benefit from crying. These are witty, introspective characters who are too romantic and nakedly human to be anything but earnest. Those are the kind of people I'm drawn to, so the film spoke to me in a surprisingly personal way. If you don't resonate with what I've described, proceed with caution. (***½)

April 14, 2007

The Last Mimzy

NOTE: Originally published at the following location:
The Last Mimzy mixes family-friendly characters with an unconventional plot - Entertainment

There is a certain irony in using a technological medium to praise a cautionary tale about the effects of technology. The Last Mimzy is more interesting than it is significant, more audacious than it is involving. The characters are rather cookie cutter. For all of the twists and visual effects, its vague socioenvironmental message is most effectively captured by the subtle depiction of how ubiquitous technology has become in our daily lives.

There is an early scene when the relatively average American family is riding a bus through the city. There's nothing particularly remarkable about it, until you notice the zombie-like stare of Noah, our young protagonist, as he plays his PSP. Look at those around him, and you'd notice something else: Every single person on the bus is staring at a screen or wearing ear buds, lost in his or her own separate world. It could be any morning on the T.

When Noah arrives at the family summer home with his mother and sister, they delight at swimming, playing on the beach, and eating outdoors. These are all hallmarks of my own childhood not too long ago, but the lack of laptops and PlayStations sticks out like a sore thumb here. The scenes resonate with a certain wistful nostalgia. Then something mysterious washes ashore. Noah and his sister aren't sure what it is, and neither are we. It opens upon the children's touch to reveal a menagerie of unorthodox toys. They will prove to be technology too, of a sort.

Meanwhile, Noah's science teacher Mr. White has been having strange dreams. Some are oddly prescient, like the one that gave him the six winning numbers if he'd bother to buy a lottery ticket. Most involve visions of mandalas. The first shot of the film captures a mandala in a field of flowers. Later, after Noah has been playing with the toys for a while, he has drawn a notebook full of mandalas. The source of the connection between all of these disparate sources is only vaguely explored. Much like Alice down the rabbit hole, the film is more focused on becoming exponentially peculiar with every turn.

The metaphor becomes particularly fitting when the film subtly suggests a more concrete connection between Alice's rabbit hole and Mimzy, the stuffed rabbit Noah's sister pulled out of the strange container. As events begin to spin wildly out of control, the Department of Homeland Security becomes involved. Expect neither a favorable nor realistic portrayal. Meanwhile, the rest of the characters are brought together by a strange calling to bring the toys' mysterious purpose to fruition.

The performances here are entirely serviceable. Michael Clarke Duncan is rather enjoyable as FBI authority that navigates the confusion and insanity all around him with a serene, good-natured attitude. As a psychic well-versed in the arcane customs of obscure eastern philosophy, Rainn Wilson plays against his Dwight Schrute persona from "The Office." As events become increasingly more surreal and outlandish, he plays Mr. White like he's the only one that seems to notice. Timothy Hutton's portrayal of Noah and Emma's father changes radically from scene to scene. The screenplay doesn't know where it wants to go with his character, and it shows in the performance. As Noah and Emma respectively, Chris O'Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn do a good enough job capturing the emotions demanded of them but fail to make their characters truly distinctive, either.

The Last Mimzy lacks the character development and sophistication to hold up as standout family cinema. The first film from New Line studio head Robert Shaye since 1990, there is no hint that we'd lose something if he didn't direct again for another seventeen years. As an engaging experience, it survives on sheer strangeness and audacity. The characters don't offer anything new and make little effort to rise about the archetypes from which they've sprung. But plot spins and twists on a dime, and none of the revelations approach conventional. The Last Mimzy is enjoyable, if conventional, family storytelling set more than a little off the beaten path. (***)

March 25, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia is a milestone book in children's literature. Most children are different people after they finish reading it. Most stories they will have read before it focus on happiness and personal triumph. Terabithia goes for the jugular. The best thing that can be said about this film adaptation is that it aims for the same target with similar effectiveness.

Jesse Aarons is the only son of a poorer than average farmer in a a poorer than average town. For him, hand-me-downs from an older brother would be a blessing. The hand-me-downs he inherits from his older sister are considerably more humiliating. A quiet boy that bullies target, we meet him as he prepares to finally make his mark in the boy's footrace during recess. He's trained long and hard, and even his pink sneakers won't keep him down. In the end, he does beat all of the boys; but to his chagrin the new girl in school beats all of them. Neighbours in a region where houses are more than just a few feet apart, Jesse and Leslie ride the bus together and get off at the same stop. As the afternoons tick on, a bond slowly and hesitantly develops.

Jesse draws, and Leslie writes. In a poverty-stricken environment where despondency hangs heavy in the air, Jesse creative aspirations are uncommon and audacious. Leslie, the only child of rich novelists, is the first to appreciate and admire his talent. When Leslie uses an essay to bring an experience to life, Jesse is the only one who let her story carry him along.

When they find an old rope swing by a creek at back of Jesse's property, they use it to cross to a world of their own creation. Their imaginary friends and foes in this world — externalized with computer-generated creatures — prepare them to face the challenges and problems in their real lives. Leslie names their new world Terabithia. Loneliness and isolation, which have filled the life of each, cannot intrude. Their lives have never looked brighter.

(NOTE: To venture forward from here, I need to spoil something essential to the film. Unless you've read the book, continuing further will blunt the full impact of the story. You've been warned.)

When Jesse's vibrant young music teacher invites him to visit an art museum in the city, he is only too happy to accept. Ms. Edmonds is his first crush. His mother, half-asleep, acquiesces without really listening. Teacher and student have a fantastic time, as Jesse finds his horizons expanding. While he was gone with Ms. Edmonds, however, Leslie tried to cross to Terabithia alone. The rope swing, ancient and weathered when they found it, snapped. She hit her head when she landed in the gushing brook and drowned.

The plot turn is brutal enough. But like its source material, the film is unflinching as it addresses the aftermath. Jesse, unequipped to handle the enormity of his grief and guilt beyond his capacity to understand, shuts down. If Leslie's death doesn't bring you to tears, one of the key moments on his journey towards acceptance certainly will. Josh Hutcherson is making a career out of performances that rock me to the core, and his work as Jesse is no exception. He has fully internalized Jesse's loss here and the grief bubbles out of him in small, heartbreaking ways. His performance increasingly acknowledges Leslie's death even as he's still in denial, a feat many adult actors would have trouble pulling off. AnnaSophia Robb deserves credit for creating a character strange, warm and lovely enough that losing her hurts.

Robert Patrick's performance as Jesse's father is a stunning counterpoint to his role in Walk the Line. Both characters are poor farmers, and both express themselves in largely small but incredibly significant ways. Johnny Cash's father used every word and gesture to tear his son down. Jesse's dad may not show Jesse the same affection he shows his youngest, but he is fair, steady and well-intentioned. He trusts his son, and his son trusts him. Less significant than when he reprimands Jesse for doodling all day is the early times when he sees his son's artwork and holds back his disapproval. When Jesse pushes his little sister down and she goes running to her father, it is a validation of his character that he sees instantly through the particulars to the heart of his son's sorrow. When Jesse worries that God will damn Leslie to hell because she wasn't a follower, the way he meets his son's eyes as he answers brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it: he doesn't know God, he tells Jesse, but no God would send that girl to hell. When movies and television increasingly tell us that fathers must be absent, abusive or effeminate, Patrick bucks the trend.

There are a few decisions I disagree with. The use of CG in capturing Terabithia is excessive, particularly at the end. References to 2007 video game systems and technology were unwelcome. I read the book before iPods and blackberries, and it was written before walkmans and game boys. The story and setting provide for a timeless quality. The omission of such technology would have made the economic depression outside Jesse's immediate family more believable. Along the same lines, giving Jesse's family cable counters the financial desperation the film takes great pains to establish.

But these a quibbles. As one of the early readers traumatized by this book, I can say that the thoughts and emotions of the text were faithfully replicated. Not an ounce of the whimsy, hope, love, pain and loss was missing. The performances from the adults and children alike flawlessly zero us in on the emotional centre of the story. Bridge to Terabithia is destined to join Bambi and Old Yellers among the most depressing and beloved entries to family cinema. (****)

March 19, 2007

Reign Over Me

Mike Binder was the perfect person to make this film. There are many filmmakers that could have captured the outbursts, the anger and the despair. But depression is about more than anger and despair. In Reign Over Me, Binder focuses his film on all of the time that passes in between, when people filled with loss and hopelessness have to exist and fill the time.
He doesn't make his subject, Charlie Fineman, psychotic or insane. Despite the manner in which we first meet him, Charlie's problem isn't lack of clarity. It's too much clarity, seeing the things that matter to him most every single day and having to deal with the fact they're never coming back. Charlie wants so desperately to be insane, to be a person damaged enough to lose the part of him that matters most.
The protagonist, Dr. Alan Johnson DMD, has a beautiful wife and lovely polite little children. He runs a successful practice and maintains a comfortable lifestyle. But he is no less alone than Charlie, and like Charlie does little more than count his days. Henry David Thoreau once said that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." These two are certainly ringing endorsements of his theory.
Alan and Charlie find in each other a friendly face from a time before their present problems. Together they still do little more than pass the time, but they make a much better go of it with the extra company. Gradually Alan gets glimpses into the part of Charlie's world that is no longer directly acknowledged. Gradually Charlie is entrusted with the areas of Alan's life that he insists are fine to every one else.
As it turns out, Charlie had a beautiful wife and three beautiful little girls once. They even had a little dog. They were visiting family in Boston, and he was going to meet them in Los Angeles. They got on one of two American Airlines flights from Logan to LAX that did not make it that morning.
United 93 made 9/11 feel like the present in one very real and tangible way. Reign Over Me makes 9/11 feel like the present another way. Days, months, years may have passed, but Charlie's grief has not. I was one of the lucky ones; I didn't lose any people on 9/11, I sat back and watched the nation change. Watching documentaries, news specials, and objective representations like United 93 thus stir up a more detached and abstract sense of grief. There is nothing detached or abstract about Charlie's grief. His grief springs from the same spring as all real, human loss.
As such, 9/11 has never felt more tangibly present and terrible than it did with this movie. There were moments when the whole audience cried. I have no doubt that 9/11 caused some of those tears; the tragedy certainly colours both the film and its audience. But most tears, I expect, were reserved for Charlie.
Don Cheadle should be given a great deal of credit for making our window into Charlie a complete and believable character. Liv Tyler is a soft, needed presence. But the focus will be and should be on Adam Sandler's performance, easily the best of his career. He has given skilful performances before; Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish come to mind. But this is the first dramatic performance that will be remembered as more than a vivid contrast to his usual comedic fare. The humour of many of his Happy Madison characters is here. So too is the rigid restraint of his Punchdrunk Love persona. But while those performances were driven by anger, this performance is driven by despair. This difference results in completely different body language and verbal rhythm. Even the outbursts are completely different. When Sandler releases that despair, he achieves something that is all at once brave, honest, unflinching and private. Sandler is a lifelong New Yorker, and he doesn't hold that back. His performance refuses to let 9/11 be anything other than personal. We're only into March, but he is my early favourite for Best Actor next year.
Mike Binder took ideas he'd been playing around with in the underrated Upside of Anger and placed them front and centre in our cultural consciousness. United 93 gave us the objective story last year, and now here Reign Over Me comes to give us a subjective version. It's time.


March 10, 2007

Black Snake Moan

When I saw Bridge to Terabithia, the deceptive advertising made me furious. I can't say that the advertising for Black Snake Moan is any less deceptive, but unlike the Terabithia campaign it is totally in-sync with the off-kilter sensibility of the film it represents.
Yes, Black Snake Moan centres around a black man who chains a white nymphomaniac up in his house. No, that's not what the film is about. These two people offer each other something they cannot find within themselves. The film captures a common humanity, clashing Southern sensibilities, and the humour inherent in that which is dark and tragic.
Yes, despite my lofty declarations, there is plenty of humour. Those who venture into the film looking for the laughs the trailers promise will not be disappointed. But don't count on spending the running time laughing at outlandish caricatures. Both the laughs and the characters dug much deeper than I'd expected.
The scenario may be outlandish, but the lives they led to bring them to this point are driven by demons all too common and real. Flashes of symbolic imagery and veiled yet weighty inferences map out a childhood of abuse and neglect for Rae, the little nympho. Lazarus, the black man, loses his wife to his younger brother — she made a tragic decision that extinguished the flame they shared.
Samuel L. Jackson infuses Lazarus with many of the distinctive qualities that we've come to expect from his performances. At the same time, he pulls back in small but important ways. Lazarus is a man of fire and violence. But he is also a gentleman, charming and careful as a matter of course. When he finds another woman who can kindle his flame, he doesn't sweep her into his arm. He courts her, conveying his affection with just the right words and little gestures of friendship and kindness.
Christina Ricci manages to find a true Southern lady inside Rae. She correctly treats the lewd behaviour and crude language asked of her as emotional scar tissue that has gathered over the top. Once Rae finds herself forcibly taken under Lazarus's care, the emotional scarring begins to fade away and the Southern belle is there to shine through. By the time she finally rejoins the outside world, she is able to be flirtatious and yet somehow chaste. Lazarus's chains have let Rae take control over the sexual fire within.
I highlight the surprising complexity of these performances for a reason. It's not the characters that the film allows us to laugh at, its the sheer audacity of the film itself. Immediately after the preacher from Lazarus's church first sees Rae, half-naked and chained up to the radiator, Lazarus calmly and sensibly explains the situation and insists that he stay for dinner. The humour comes from the way events organically conspired to bring us rationally to a moment of such absurdity.
Speaking of the preacher, religion proves key to the movie's soul. That Rae should be dumped at the end of Lazarus's driveway is an act of providence. That the preacher should support Lazarus, and that Lazarus should support Rae is an act of humanity at its best. At one point, the preacher stares Rae in the eyes and tells her not to worry about heaven. For these characters, it's enough to seek God for the here and now. Movies with a Northern sensibility address God with suspicion and cynicism. This movie — moving to slower and sturdier Southern rhythms — takes for granted God's role as a focal point for hope, civility and self respect.
Music is also essential to the film's soul. Frederick Douglass wrote in his first autobiography that any one who heard the singing of a slave as he did would be an instant convert to the cause of abolition, the sound was so desperate and pained. That's the kind of music Lazarus plays. Even when he has a bar full of people on their feet dancing, that's the kind of music Lazarus plays. As temperate and composed as he is, his guitar is the only outlet he has to unburden his soul. At one point, as the thunder and rain pours down outside and Rae holds close like a child, his play reaches such an intensity that it's actually frightening.
Rae also finds catharsis in Lazarus's music, and gradually begins to find music of her own. While music allows Lazarus to feel angry and sad and lost, music allows Rae to feel joy. Her voice, high and clear like a bell, captures something she looked to sex for but could never find. The song that rises out of her, fittingly enough a negro spiritual, is a perfect metaphor for her journey.
This is the best executed coming of age story I've seen in a long time. Every decision strikes confidently true. The characters grow in real and meaningful ways, and the journey — while completely outrageous — never takes a shortcut or cheats. The visual metaphors, captured in quick cuts that serve a thematic rather than narrative purpose, aren't clichés but fit so well they feel like they should be. I'd heard good things about Hustle & Flow, Craig Brewer's first film, but never bothered to see it. Black Snake Moan cements Brewer as a unique and important Southern voice. ()


January 09, 2007

Children of Men

Watching Children of Men was like being Alice as she fell down the rabbit hole. Each time I thought I understood who could be trusted and who could not, the rug was pulled out from under me and the situation was filtered through an entirely different light. The movie doesn't reach the bottom of the rabbit hole until the very last scene. It is a movie of horrors, and shocking truths. But it is also a story of beauty and love, compassion and faith. Being all of these things, it is as human of a movie as I have ever seen. Unquestionably, Children of Men is the best film of 2006.
A weathered photograph in the sill of a bathroom window. A run-down school, the simple murals on the wall covered in overgrown and stripped down by rain and mildew. Little touches like these are all that remain of humanity's children. It is the year 2027, and the youngest human being on the planet has just has just died at 18 years, 4 months, 20 days, 16 hours, and 8 minutes of age. The survivors that are left carry on joyless lives of increasing desperation. Humanity's time is through. The stragglers that are left have little else to do but mark off the days until the end. ("Last one to die please turn out the light" reads one bit of graffiti on a crumbling concrete wall.)
One of these stragglers is Theodore Faron. Theo works a miserable desk job in a miserable city, in a miserable country, in a miserable time for the world. His only friend is Jasper, an old political cartoonist with a brain dead wife who has etched out a pleasant existence growing pot in a solar powered house in the middle of a forest. The time outside Jasper's sanctuary is spent in a grey world of charred bodies and crumbling rubble. The rest of the world is in chaos - forced to choose between security and liberty, the other countries chose liberty and crumbled for it. Now, as the BBC bulletins triumphantly proclaim, "Only Britain soldiers on."
Theo's dangerous yet monotonous existence is shaken up when he is kidnapped by a terrorist group run by Julian, the estranged mother of his long dead child. She recruits him because their history together has made him the only one she can really trust. What she's trusting him with is the greatest secret imaginable on a planet that is exponentially greying: the first pregnant woman in 18 years. Sweeping immigration reform to stop the flow of refugees from the devastated outside world has made Kee (born in Fiji) an illegal citizen. She is funny, pretty, and — eight months pregnant — positively swelling around the midsection. The relationship between Theo and her defines the movie.
Theo and Kee defy all of the horrors that threaten to engulf them, whether they be from the barrel of a gun or the treacheries of a false smile, by sharing a bond of warmth and trust. Theo, who sought hangovers to overcome the numbness of a dead child a dying world, has finally again found something he believes in enough to die for. Everything he does from the moment he learns Kee's secret is aimed at protecting her. Kee, for her part, is the most important person on the planet. It'd be understandable if she were arrogant and conceited. But she loved Julian, and Julian loved Theo, so she trusts him without question and treats him with the respect implicit in that trust. In a world with nothing to offer but final and complete death, they are beacons of life and hope.
During their journey we see people dying and dead by very gruesome ways. The horrific acts are shown unflinchingly, even casually, yet they carry more impact than the bodies that pile up in so many films. Cuarón spaces each despicable sight perfectly, holding back just enough that we never become desensitized to the violence and brutality. And I could think of place in the real world, often right at this point in time, where each horror had been or was being committed. These are the sickening sights, yes, but ones we need to see more of in order for things to change.
And yet, Children of Men does not condemn humanity for our failings. It sizes us up honestly, meditates on how we are at worst and meditates on how we are at our best, and decides finally that the former outweighs the latter. It is a dark, dreary, gruesome, brutal film. But I can't think of one that is more optimistic or more hopeful. ()