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 clich├ęs 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. ()