March 20, 2008

Run Fatboy Run

Run Fatboy Run isn't the best entry into the hottie-falls-for-nottie genre, but it is among the most affirming. The titular fat boy, Dennis, is an absolute hopeless failure at life. But refreshingly, the movie takes the time to show why an intelligent beauty like Thandie Newton's character, Libby, could be attracted to him. And when a dashing new man sweeps Dennis aside, the movie studiously hints at flaws beneath his spotless veneer long before the plot demands it. The new man, Whit, attracts Libby because he is the exact opposite of the Dennis. While the new beau brings some considerable qualities to the table that Dennis lacks — among them success, class, ambition, and a stable financial situation — he lacks in areas that are less celebrated but ultimately more essential.

The movie opens with Dennis having a panic attack before his wedding. The looming responsibilities of a lifetime with the very pregnant Libby have become too much. So he flees through a window. The title card blazes across the screen as Dennis turns the corner, yelling back a very earnest apology in mid-sprint. To its credit, the movie never quite lets him off the hook for his cowardice.

When the action resumes, their son Jake is now five years old and Libby has only just recently permitted Dennis a role in his upbringing. Dennis never stopped loving Libby during the intervening years, but this is not a movie where the beauty waits to give the slob a second chance. Instead of a juvenile male fantasy, Run Fatboy Run plays out the rather grim consequences of living like a man-child. Dennis is too much of a failure to find appealing, too pathetic to inspire emulation. His job as a security guard doesn't cover his rent. For him, not forgetting his keys is a noteworthy accomplishment.

But time pushes on, and new patterns develop. The thing that scared him the most — fatherhood — has turned out to be the only thing that redeems him. Because he's so pathetic, he doesn't have any commitments to distract from being a father. And relating to the kid comes naturally to him, perhaps because he is in many ways still so child-like himself. Even though his promises to Jake frequently fail to materialize, Dennis's affection is so earnest and so obvious that his son still adores him.

The rest of his life is spent wrapped up in a circle of weirdos and fuck-ups that has remained largely stagnant for years. As a hobby, he sits in on backroom card games he has absolutely no idea how to play. Gordon, Libby's cousin and Dennis's best friend, mirrors Dennis's least flattering attributes. Whereas Dennis's failings are marred by the occasional redeeming quality, Gordon has made free fall into a kind of lifestyle. Unburdened by Dennis's longing for something better, his absolute lack of ambition gives him a sort of grace under meltdown that provides some of best laughs.

The story comes to life as Dennis watches Whit worms his way further and further into Libby and Jake's lives. At first Dennis seems willing to let them slide away. But slowly he begins to put up a fight. His early pleas to Libby are pitiful and sad, but he doesn't give up. Each attempt to woo her forces Dennis to attempt further self-improvement in order to succeed. To make a more better pitch, he unconsciously makes himself into a better man. There are false steps and distractions along the way, but Dennis eventually reaches a point where success might be within reach — if he can only do something extraordinary.

Simon Pegg, who plays Dennis, wrote the script with Michael Ian Black from Black's story. Black's schtick has always grated in the past, and some of it shows up here to the film's detriment. But Pegg, who has been writing brilliant roles for himself as long as he's been acting, really captures a plausible arc for this pitiful character. It's probably perilous to try and guess who wrote what. But let it be said that this is far and away the best thing Black's been involved in, and a solid addition to Pegg's already solid resume.

Run Fatboy Runsucceeds despite feeling frustrating uneven. Not enough of the jokes hit for the film to succeed on laughs alone. The resolution lacks the nuance necessary to be taken seriously. But both the comedy and the drama creep up in just the right ways, like a romantic comedy stripped of any sentimentality. Personal redemption is possible, the film declares, but not without pain and sacrifice. The weight and meaning of Dennis's journey comes from all his hard work along the way. What's more affirming than that?(***)


March 09, 2008

Across the Universe

There are some movies destined to be loved by everyone. Across the Universe is not one of them. A movie for youth — and those who fondly remember youth — it has left me with a lightness to my step and a song at the tip of my tongue each of the three times I've watched it. It's a joyous confection of a movie that takes liberties with history and its own timeline in service of an engaging journey with staggering visual beauty and depth. Though it begins fractured, real characters with hopes and burdens rise from the hodgepodge of Beatles classics as the film picks up steam. For those that are open enough and lighthearted enough to be swept up by the film's charm, this film is a bonanza.

The film opens at the story's climax with Jim Sturgess's young Liverpudlian Jude on a beach singing his lament to the waves. As he turns to face us, he pleads: "Is there anybody going to listen to my story?" And abruptly, we're off.

Vietnam-era newspaper copy tears across the screen to a jarring, Joplin-esque spin on "Helter Skelter" in a brief interlude before landing at the beginning, wherein each of our characters is introduced with a song.

"Hold Me Tight" intercuts between Jude with his girlfriend at the club where the Beatles first met their manager in Liverpool and post-World War II suburbanite Lucy at her high school prom. On a football field in Ohio, cheerleader Prudence expresses her unrequited longing for a teammate on the squad with a sorrowful take on "I Want to Hold Your Hand." On the grounds of Yale, a rambunctious rendition of "With a Little Help from My Friends" tosses unruly but amiable Max into the mix. Jude belts out a rousing, jubilant "I've Just Seen a Face" at the bowling alley after meeting Lucy — before a stirring Gospel performance of "Let It Be" plummets us back to stark reality. By this point we realize, if we haven't already, that we care what happens next.

The journey that follows takes us from sometime shortly before July 23 1967, the date of the 12th Street Riot in Detroit, until an unspecified point after March 6, 1970, when a bomb under construction at a Weather Underground safe house in Greenwich Village prematurely detonated and killed three of the group's leaders. The story hops between Liverpool, small town America, Detroit and Vietnam, but it finds its center in New York City. Looked at objectively, the plot is a Forrest Gump-style travelogue of period history that should feel artificial. But like the music, what shouldn't work does.

Instead of straining credibility, the weight of history colors the actions of characters with a honest inevitability. Each time the characters seem to find peace and stability, the world drops another bombshell that forces them back into motion. Making a nostalgic showcase of the era would have been the easy thing to do, but what director Julie Taymor does is more subtle. She uses period events as catalysts, and the disparate reactions to each development further delineate the characters. The past compounds on itself in this way, pulling the characters slowly — and on occasion suddenly — apart. Gump toured history; these characters live it. The distinction is key to the film's vitality.

Also key is the exuberant often surreal landscape they inhabit. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel doesn't shy away from rich saturated colors, making him somewhat of a treasured anachronism in today's post-Matrix world of blues and greens. The world of Across the Universe pops with bright tie-dye color. His brilliant lighting is matched by the director's unique vision. Neither of Taymor's past works on screen, Titus and Frida, were limited by the bounds of reality and neither is this. Her penchant for blurring the line between the actual and the imagined allows her to get away with traditionally-executed musical. Having a character burst into song mid-scene would normally clash with the conventions of cinema but feels completely natural in a Julie Taymor film. Each number is used to showcase the characters' state of mind, and this invites the visual extravagance of layered visuals and thinly disguised choreography that results from each set piece. Taymor employs the same ingenuity required of the inherently limited stage to the limitless three-dimensionality provided by film.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Sturgess's Jude, in addition to looking like a cross between Paul McCartney and George Harrison, provides the vocal performance we expect from the Beatles. By contrast, Joe Anderson (the film's other limey) plays the quintessentially American Max flawlessly. Like Hugh Laurie, Anderson never feels encumbered by the accent — even singing. He brings a rumpled untidiness to his performance that helps carry Max past his Ivy League roots.

Evan Rachel Wood is probably the most well-known of the core cast, so the biggest shocker is how well she can sing. Also surprising is the way Taymor softens up her appearance. Wood's hard, classic features tend to make her look years older than she is, so it was a nice change to see her play a Lucy with the foolish single-minded idealism of a kid. The Vietnam War has played havoc with Lucy's life, and Wood brings forth the tangible agony of that unrestrained. The best thing that can be said about Wood's performance is that it is not precocious.

Broadway veteran T.V. Carpio achieves something extraordinary right from her introduction: her Prudence requires a total reevaluation of a Beatles song. Though Prudance is something of a cypher, with long stretches of time unaccounted for, Carpio broadcasts the character's emotional state between and especially during each musical number she's a part of.

As the sexy landlord/bandleader Sadie, Dana Fuchs proves intriguing yet ultimately impenetrable. While the other characters are introduced participating in the universalities of living, she is introduced on stage. The lack of character development frustrates Fuchs' attempts to move beyond a Janis Joplin impersonation. Still, she provides a laid back, West Coast energy that balances out her more intense cohorts.

Martin Luther McCoy, a vocal artist who has toured with The Roots and recorded two solo albums, makes his big screen acting debut as Sadie's guitarist JoJo. Serving primarily as a Jimi Hendrix surrogate, JoJo is afforded minimal screen time but deals with some of the movie's weightiest issues. Luther McCoy manages to convey that suffering and inner suffering in every scene he gets.

All six members of the core cast came to the film with previous musical talent. Musical cameos from Joe Cocker and Bono add to the film, while an appearance by Eddie Izzard is a jarring distraction. Salma Hayek gamely makes a brief appearance near the end.

As compelling as the performances are, however, neither the characters nor the plot rise to the surface first. It's the color, pageantry and spectacle — like a particularly bright carnival midway on a pleasant late summer night. The film's two hours and change are consumed by a dance between Julie Taymor and the Beatles — a carefree and often feverish waltz that spins out in a number of wild and often surprising directions.(***½)


March 02, 2008

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix would be a less frustrating experience if it were an outright failure. Instead we get occasional moments of brilliance trapped like flies in amber by incompetent editing and a fundamentally flawed screenplay. Scenes that should build up each other don't; characters are introduced to deliver setup up that is never followed through with the pay off. Most importantly, after coming off the fourth film — which so brilliantly navigated both the word and the complex network of characters — it's depressing to see characters trotted in and out like cardboard cutouts to deliver bits of ham-fisted exposition. A lot of complex story managed to stick around for the movie, but too much of the characterization did not.

In David Yates's film, there are only two truly developed characters: Harry Potter and Senior Undersecretary to the Minister Dolores Umbridge. The power struggle between the two grounds the core of the film, and plays out rather satisfyingly in a One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest sort of fashion. Both Daniel Radcliffe and Imelda Staunton turn in terrific performances. The problem is that everyone else is left portrayed as two-dimension bystanders. From the moment Harry wards off a Dementor attack against him and his cousin at the very beginning, the explanations begin and never stop. Scene after scene of explaining; by the time the train reaches Hogwarts I was already exhausted by it and certainly didn't care. Here is a movie full of characters that had previously tickled me and moved me. And now all they seem to do is explain. In a way, Umbridge's high-pitched little cough came as a relief. She may be torturing poor Harry, but at least she's not wasting time explaining anything.

And yet, Umbridge is not a relief. So focused is Yates on the political undertones of her reign of terror, she is allowed to stamp out most of the fun in the film as well as in Hogwarts. The only exceptions come in the scenes when Harry takes it upon himself to train his classmates in secret so that they will be prepared for the war the Ministry refuses to admit is coming. The magic stifled everywhere comes to life with color and spark. It's a hopeful sign that the kind of fun this series had previously provided dependably hasn't been eradicated, just momentarily repressed.

There are flashes of inspiration. Ron Weasley, given nothing important to do as usual, is one of the few characters unobstructed by exposition. Rupert Grint's portrayal as an amiable everyman adds real depth to the character without sacrificing any of his previous charm or humor. And in a film this dreary, every once of humor is essential. News coverage in The Daily Prophet is put into motion with real humor, deftly handling the politics and the exposition far more clearly, concisely and cinematically than the vast sum of dialog. Likewise, Yates unabashedly weaves in flashes from the previous four movies to construct flashes into Harry's mind. Anyone who has stuck it out to the fifth film will have accumulated a lot of affinity for this movie series, and that provides automatic emotional gravitas that the film struggles to develop on its own. It's a fitting acknowledgement of the unique journey this film project has taken.

But the filmmaking failures are fundamental. The editing is not merely unevenly paced but actively chaotic. It's like all of the connective tissue was stripped out. Prisoner of Azkaban moved fast — often too fast — but it always moved fluidly. Here characters will be twenty yards away in one shot and then right next to Harry by the next cut. Occasionally a crowd will appear in a room mid-scene without ever being shown entering. The result not only disorients but paralyzes. Each occurrence distracts savvy audience members from the story.

On a macro level, it felt like chunks of the movie were missing. Not stuff from the books, mind you, but the movie itself. Like a bad airline edit where chunks are yanked out to bring it down to time. Screen time was wasted introducing Kreacher, but his big scene in the book never made it to the movie. Either the character should have been removed or the storyline should have been completed. Another character is brutally attacked in one scene and returned from the hospital, presumably months later, in perfectly adequate health. Either the scene should have been cut or the storyline should have been completed. There were several other examples of this phenomenon. Leaving out a few would have made room for the others to breathe and develop to a resolution.

The only part of the film that works as an intact experience is the climax in the Ministry of Magic. The editing is not troublesome, the dialog is kept minimal, and the exposition is finally out of the way. It plays off the training sequences earlier in the scene to give us a core group that we are familiar with, employing an arsenal of techniques which we have seen them learn. They are outmatched by the bad guys in a very claustrophobic environment, but prolong the inevitable for a tense couple minutes. When the good guys sweep in, the battle of shadows and light (a complete departure from the book) shows that the kids still have a great deal more to learn.

Most fascinating is the final duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort. They engage in a pyrotechnic battle of the elements, but what they're really fighting for is Harry's soul. Daniel Radcliffe does a terrific job playing Harry possessed, and a moment comes that best utilizes the flashes from previous films. Voldemort assaults his mind, drives into the very core of Harry's being, and all he can dig up are memories of love and companionship. Dumbledore, in a particularly gentle and singularly powerful moment for Gambon in the role, whispers in Harry's ear. The same Dumbledore who has determinedly ignored Harry all year demonstrates in a single sentence how much he understands him: "Harry. It isn't how you are alike; it's how you are not." Then Harry does something extraordinary. In a showcase of the human spirit, he moves past the unmagical and almost antiseptic rest of the movie, past everything that has been taken from him, and meets Voldemort's furious power with pity because the Dark Lord will never know love. Considering how the bulk of the movie is, that gloriously earnest moment was like a slap across the face it was so beautifully human. For the first time in a Harry Potter movie, I was nearly moved to tears.

Then the scene ends and the qualities that previously frustrated me reemerge. The emotional climax of the book, in which Harry breaks down in Dumbledore's office, is too stripped down to carry any of its original power. When the film finally cuts to the credits, my disappointment in the whole still outweighed my appreciation for many of the well-executed parts. To be fair, it's the hardest of the seven books to translate to the screen. And yet I can't help feeling a little disappointed. When I left the theater for Goblet of Fire it was the jazzed feeling of experiencing a new classic. When I left the theater tonight it was the uneasy feeling of experiencing a "That would have been better
if..."(**½)