Friday, November 30, 2007

Random Film Thought: Way Down in the Hole

What hath Haynes wrought?

Given how much I enjoyed I'm Not There I'm proposing a little game for my readers. You pick a major musician and then come up with six random actors or characters to play him or her. The winner will be acknowledged in a future post and maybe something else.

Here's one to start you off:
Franks' Wild Years: The Tom Waits Story

Waits will be played by Margaret Cho, Denzel Washington, Peter Saarsgard, Alan Arkin, the robot from Rocky IV, and a german shepherd.

Like a Complete Unknown

I'm glad I took a day or two to process I'm Not There, Todd Haynes new film inspired by the life and words of Bob Dylan. Its a wonderful film, innovative and intriguing but at the same time extraordinarily dense. I certainly can't universally recommend it, most people's appreciation of the film will go hand-in-hand with their appreciation of Dylan. If you're at all inclined towards Dylan I would strongly encourage seeing this film. Being able to put the films' scenes, character and history in context will certainly help and to that end I would endorse renting Scorsese's excellent Dylan documentary No Direction Home and reading this or this. If even the mere thought of doing a bit of leg work before seeing a film is anathema to you maybe I'm Not There is not for you.

This caveat out of the way, lets get to some particulars. Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Safe) has taken the standard Hollywood biopic, planted about twenty ons of TNT at its base and exploded it like Wile E. Coyote. Using the conceit of having six different actors play analogues of Dylan at different periods in his life, Haynes begins to capture a portrait of a notoriously difficult personage to know. The characters themselves are all struggling with identity in their own way in some small part. People like to label certain artists as constantly re-inventing themselves, but after watching this film one would be hard pressed to label an artist who has more successfully metamorphisized time and again than Dylan. He's been the folk-protest figurehead, the cowboy, the man out of time, the family man, the minister and perhaps most notably the rebel who balks at scrutiny of his art, life and work. Haynes shows off these figures at random, flashing back and forth their stories running parallel to each other occasionally inersecting in subtle ways.

Having seen Todd Solondz Palindromes, I was a bit concerned as to how this multiple actors playing one character would work out. In the Solondz film it seemed distasteful and gimmicky (just one of a litany of problems I have with the film). Haynes, however, makes it work in such a way as to really illustrate how complex his subject is and how silly the typical Hollywood biopic is. People are never just one distinct personality their entire lives. We inevitably change and evolve; the person we are at ten is not the person we are at twenty, thirty and so on. Even though the age and style of the actors so radically shift the basic characteristics of the Dylan persona exist through the throughline of each different character.

With six actors playing Dylan in addition to the myriad of supporting players there's a lt of acting to consider here. The clear stand-out is Cate Blanchett who in addition to perfectly aping Dylan at the time he was most contrary to the press as he transitioned from folk-message songs into electric guitar based rock, never once gives away her gender. She also has the most fun sparring partner, Bruce Greenwood the closest thing this film has to a villain, and co-star (David Cross as Allen Ginsberg-genius). Still, all the other analogues make an impression. Christian Bale works as the protester turned preacher is appropriately somber, Ledger as the actor and family man whose marriage is falling apart (opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg), an unusually gritty Richard Gere as a rebel cowboy, Marcus Carl Franklin as a boy trying to be a part of world long gone and Ben Whishaw as a confrontational artist each get a chance to shine.

In addition to the various actors, Haynes changes his style numerous times. He apes the work of a Fellini dream sequence, a Peckinpah Western, a Lester Beatles musical, a domestic drama and others, he even consciously copies whole scenes from Dylan documentaries; Don't Look Back and the aforementioned No Direction Home. Contrasting these styles evokes a variety of feelings and creates an odd synthesis that gives the viewer a keen idea of the type of man Dylan was and the man he became. There's so much material here (references to Dylan lyrics, album cover art and famous quotes are scattered throughout, but its never as overstated as in Across the Universe) that it could days to pour over it all. I look forward to revisitng the film and sussing through it (might I reccomend a pop-up fact feature on the DVD for references).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Piaf vs. Pilaf, the brawl to end them all

I received La Vie en Rose from netflix the other day. The buzz had been mostly positive so I figured I'd give it a shot. Wrong!

Here are four reasons why rice pilaf is better than this biopic about Edith Piaf.

1. References to pilaf have been made since the time of Darius in the ancient Persian Empire, since then the rice has continued to exist in a linear fashion becoming a staple in many different European and Asian cuisines into the modern age.

La Vie en Rose, the story of Edith Piaf jumps all over the place in its timeline without any justified reason except that is something other directors have done. When they jump its not even to underscore or contrast, it just jumps ahead.
2. Rice pilaf is generally browned in oil and then cooked in seasoned broth. Its delicious but always tastes like rice.

Marion Cotillard plays Edith Piaf throughout all her life, evoking a variety of postures, wearing bad aging make-up and silly wigs. She also doesn't do her own singing.
3. Rice Pilaf makes for an excellent side-dish, always nicely complimenting a main course.

In La Vie en Rose the viewer never really gets a sense of the people who influenced Edith Piaf or helped her along the way as characters hastily enter and exit.
4. Rice Pilaf lasts until you're done eating. In case you've made too much you can always refrigirate and microwave later.

In La Vie en Rose, Edith Piaf and company stick around for an hour more then is necessary. Here's an idea, why not cut all those scenes in the old age home. Or yet another montage of person becomes famous and we see their newspaper clippings


This bird's gotta fly, for some reason I'm hungry.

Oh and they didn't translate the song lyrics in the subtitles-WEAK!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Random Film Thought: Gotta go back in time

According to Entertainment Weekly's website (link and details are here) , God among men Seth Rogen is trying to convince 80's icon Huey Lewis (and I suppose by extension, the News) to compose a kick-ass theme for his sure to be classic The Pineapple Express. Apparently Rogen is a huge fan of "The Power of Love" as the theme of Back to the Future, though who isn't, and wants an official Lewis anthem for the flick. The film is an action-comedy written by the Superbad team of Rogen and Evan Goldberg, directed by indie muckity-muck David Gordon Green and starring Rogen and fellow Freaks and Geeks alum James "Noble Prize Otto!" Franco and with Lewis in the mix it just may have gotten even cooler. Is that even POSSIBLE at this point?!

Ok loyal blog-readers, here's my question, what's your favorite pop-song to have been created for, or is heavily identified with, a film? Is it "Power of Love" in BTTF, Ray Parker Jr.'s classic "Ghostbusters", "The Sound of Silence" in The Graduate, "New Slang" in Garden State or something else entirely. Those were just a couple off the top of my head. Please post your faves in the comments and lets get a little thing going here.

Also as an aside isn't "Back in Time" also kind of Huey Lewis' theme for BTTF? People clearly identify it with the movie, don't they?

I've been dreaming of a true love's kiss

Honestly loyal blog-readers, there are many movies out there I don't like. Honest and truly. I'm not some sap with no taste that giddily approves of everything I see. It just so happens I've been lucky/unlucky enough to hit a streak of material that not only connects with me on an emotional level, but has had enough critical grist for me to chew over. I will hopefully appreciate lots more films on an intellectual level for the rest of the year but I doubt I will love (and I mean LOVE) another movie that comes out this year the way I loved Enchanted.

Yes, yes I am a giant lame girly-girl. Now shut up and read. This is the best film that Disney (sans Pixar) has put out since the Lion King. Oh yes, I went there.

Director Kevin Lima has flown under the radar for a while with reliable but not particular memorable flicks both live action and animated (Tarzan, 102 Dalmatians). Here, he connects with screenwriter Bill Kelly who has written a few high concept screenplays such as Blast from the Past, with intriguing premises but suffer from lackluster execution. With Enchanted everything comes together for these two in a way that is nothing short of extraordinary. As sturdy and fun as the concept is (animated princess and prince stranded in live action New York for those of you who shut themselves indoors during Thanksgiving) the film's heart beats because of two performances; Amy Adams and James Marsden as Giselle (love that name) and Prince Edward respectively.

This is not to say that Adams hasn't been outstanding before. Her work in 2005's Junebug was remarkable (though admittedly at the time I attributed this to her playing an overtly likable character in the script). She's also been perfectly pleasant in her brief bits in Catch Me If You Can, The Office and as Will Ferrell's act three romance in Talladega Nights. Enchanted, however, is Adams chance to step up to the plate on a national level and she knocks the sucker right out of the park. It's a character that any other actress would've been walking a thin line at best. Giselle could come off as cloying, winky or God help us, saccharine. I shudder at the thought of Zellweger or a Bullock taking a crack at this. With Adams though every move and gesture, every word out of her mouth is so completely genuine. She is simply a Disney animated princess come to life. There can be no other explanation. Look at the way she moves her hands, the way she sits, her singing and dancing (both of which make the film a contender for my favorite musical of the year despite only three brief but charming Menken/Schwartz songs-all three got applause from my audience). Everything is effortlessly lifted from all over the Disney cannon. No way Adams doesn't at least win the Comedy/Musical Golden Globe. A gorgeous redhead princess named Giselle. Sigh, I'm in love.
One performance this outstanding would be enough for any movie. Enchanted has TWO. James Marsden is having a year un-equaled by any male actor (with the possible exception of Josh "Holin' in my" Brolin*). I don't know if it's him or his representation, but Marsden has unquestionably found his niche in Hollywood. He'd been stuck in bland second-man parts, but in light musical-comedy...forget it, the man OWNS! Take everything I said about Adams and change the gender and you've got Marsden in this film. He's gloriously brash and buckles swash with the best of them. Every single line and move elicited huge laughs from me. It's an incredibly bold performance, but again, never tounge-in-cheek.

As for the other actors, Patrick Dempsey turns in fine enough work but he's in an unenviable position of being surrounded by out-sized incredibly fun characters. Who could compete? Susan Sarandon plays the wicked Queen in a different kind of over-the-top that doesn't quite match what Adams and Marsden are doing (and her dialouge at the end is obvious and nearly dips the movie into, heaven help us, Shrek territory). Timothy Spall and a CGI chipmunk are also way more winning then I expected, the later being a clear audience favorite. Idina Menzel (who alas does not sing in the movie) as the other woman and Rachel Covey as Dempsey's daughter give good reaction but again its hard to talk about them considering what they're up against.

The film is loaded with all sorts of references to other Disney classics some obvious, others more subtle. It'll be fun revisiting the film (something I plan on doing often) to look for more. The script also has some fun in exploring the social mores of the pristine animated fantasy world against our own less idealized one. There's a part of me that wishes this went deeper (the script hints at this when Giselle notices Dempsey's chest hair poking out his bathrobe and its not played completely for laughs) but ultimately this a film that anyone can go see and enjoy be they total gushing romantic or if they have fond memories of the Disney animated classics. Consider this a new addition to that list.

Yes Margot, I was just talking about you

Imagine Bette Davis in All About Eve, the devastating cutting wit, the constant need to be the center of attention in every situation. Got it? Now drain Bette of her regal bearing, her empathy, her self-confidence and up the venom quotient 100%. You've got Nicole Kidman's Margot in Margot at the Wedding.

Noah Baumabch's (The Squid and the Whale, Kicking and Screaming) latest feature is his most aggressively edited to date. Chugging along at a brisk hour and a half run time, scenes cut from one to the next barely giving the audience recover from one blistering emotional assault to the next. Its a nice instance of style serving content as the movie feels like a Margot insult; quick but packing enormous bite. The story features Margot, a successful short story writer visiting her estranged sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh-solid as always) on the eve of her engagement to a good natured but immature loser (Jack Black unusually subdued). "This is the kind of guy we rejected in high school" says Margot of Black. Margot visits with all sorts of baggage, not the least f which being her son (Zane Paris) who at her best she barely respects all the while keeping him at arms length. Margot's not much of a mother. Margot is in fact not much of a good anything; wife, sister, neighbour, adulteress, friend, its all a mess. Incredibly self-possessed and incapable of decent social behavior for anything more than a second or two. Margot's mantra seems to be "Were you just talking about me?" She's impossible to like.

Which is of course why I love her. The film may not work for people unfamiliar with Baumbach's typically acidic tone and less than huggable characters. But if one is willing to get their hands dirty there's lots of laughs to be found in Margot. The movie has two impeccable strengths going for it. First is Baumabch's script, which though talky, never falls into the trap of having characters say exactly what they mean. Meaning has to be inferred more by action and what goes unsaid and Margot has plenty of compelling bits at both ends of the spectrum. The film's other asset is Kidman who lords over the proceedings with inescapable presence. Its her best work in years and in playing such a flawed, human character she sheds the calculating, unapproachable, ice-queen veneer she's been slowly creating for herself (something The Golden Compass will not help I'm afraid). While all the performances yield solid, naturalistic results (Black hardly ever dips into his comedic bag of tricks and its quite refreshing), Kidman is absolutely the main attraction. Probably my favorite female performance all year. Or at least that's what I would've said until last night.

Monday, November 26, 2007

One Week More

Ok so we've basically got a week to go until hitting December (ground zero for quality films most years) and in honor of that here is a visual guide to the seven flicks that have my film geek sense tingling in no particular order:


There Will Be Blood

Sweeney Todd

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story


Charlie Wilson's War

What I really like about this promising batch of contenders is that its such a great mix of genres. It ensures that fatigue won't set in. A quirky indie comedy fro an up and coming screenwriter. A serious historical drama from a much missed director (with an orchestral score by one of the minds behind Radiohead). A musical (and a Sondheim one at that). An exciting animated comic adaptation. A spoof of the recent award staple musician biopic from the damn near Pixar-level consistent Apatow group. A light drama that features a combination of some of the greatest talents of the last decade. And a much buzzed about literary adaptation featuring a brght and shiny new cast on the cusp of greatness. If only half of these work it should still be a great winter.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Random Film Thought: Retroactively Clueless

Behold: The two most successful actors to come out of Clueless.

Did you predict it back in 1995?
How hot was Stacey Dash back in the day?
Still enjoying Donald Faison on Scrubs?
Post your answers in the comments.

What was the name of the lead character again?

Robert Zemeckis' take on the literary classic Beowulf far exceeded my expectations for it and may well turn out to be one of my favorites for the year. Much has been made of he film's motion-capture process that converted the film's actors into 3D analogues, but Beowulf is such a hale and sturdy film that the gimmick for all its impressiveness is quickly forgotten when pure enjoyment sets in. Beowulf manages to capture the thrill, spectacle and intensity that a lot of the franchise action films that arrived this summer failed to replicate. Director Zemeckis knows his way around a blockbuster and he packs the screen with enough spectacle and epic compositions that the film's 3D digital roll-out makes it required in-theatre viewing. What makes Beowulf especially gratifying is that in addition to containing barrels full of machismo it also contains a fairly cutting screenplay that makes some clever additions to the Beowulf mythos. Its the perfect film for every frat on campus, even the one with the highest GPA.

In interviews with screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman (such as the one found here) the dynamic quickly presents itself. Avary seems to be responsible for the heft and bombast and Gaiman waits till he's done pontificating to get in a sharp remark. This dynamic is evident again and again in the film. A scene of grand reveling gives way to two of the courtiers taking a piss and having a conversation about the new god that's quickly becoming popular "the Christ Jesus." It puts me in mindset of Gaiman's work far better than this year's own Gaiman adaptation Stardust.
Beowulf begins with the inhabitants of King Hrothgar's (a portly and pixilated Anthony Hopkins) new mead hall making too much of a racket and driving the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) nuts. Grendel viciously (and rather frighteningly) attacks the hall leaving as bloody and vicious path of destruction PG-13 can allow in his wake. Hrothgar puts out the call for heroes

When we first meet our protagonist its like something out of 300. Beowulf (a 3D made-over Ray Winstone) is at sea with his men during a terrible tempest and is engaging in all manner of boasting. "My mother was the sea!" Beowulf exclaims in a way that would no doubt please Gerard Butler. Then his number two Wiglaf (ever dependable Brendan Gleeson) adds "Aye and me mother was a fishmonger who would rather her son die in battle than be drowned at sea." Its not the type of back-talk you'd ever hear in 300 and its what made me go from being impressed by the film to genuinely enjoying it. For one thing it undercuts Beowulf's line and makes one think, "this guy is full of it." Its a good tactic for a story that alternates between being about preserving and perverting legacy (whether is be through deeds or offspring). Both Beowulf and Beowulf SHOULD be bombastic. Gelping, or grand bragging, as my AP lit teacher memorably taught me lo these many years ago, was a common practice by storytellers and leaders at the time. It was a means of showing status. Its especially telling in a later scene where Beowulf essentially defeats an opponent by yelling at him about how great he is. Its helpful to know this going in cause Beowulf sure likes to yell his own name in the movie, a lot. Beowulf has a good sense of humor about itself, whether it be in Wiglaf's brief moments of cowardice, Beowulf's fortunate covering when he fights Grendel in the nude or the sheer impetuousness in the storytelling when Beowulf recounts why he lost a swimming match.

Of course no discussion of Beowulf would be complete without mentioning this lady:
Angelina Jolie is the one woman who is best served in the film by 3D rendering. Her face and body are distinct enough that she comes off more "real" than the other actresses in the film (Robin Wright Penn and Allison Lohman are not quite so fortunate). I put real in quotes because half the time she is a monster seen only piecemeal as an enormous, terrifying beast, then when in more human form her skin is coated in creamy-gold, she has a reptilian tail, spiked heel feet (which drew a chuckle from my audience) and is prone to flying. Still Angelina is a lot of fun in the film, even if she's using that wretched accent from Alexander again. Between this and A Mighty Heart I'm really enjoying her this year which is a nice change of pace. You can find a clever piece about how Grendel's mother is a worthy addition to Zemeckis' rather cartoon-y collection of femme fatale's here.

The film is not without its problems. The rendering still hasn't gotten to a point where every character looks amazing, basically if a character wasn't played by a "name" actor they could be mistaken for one of the humans in Shrek. There's also a brief chunk in the middle where one might get a bit squirmy in their seat ready for more action. Luckily act three doesn't disappoint in this regard as Beowulf fights probably the best dragon I've ever seen on film ever. Its incredibly exciting and again pushes the boundaries of the rating. The dragon's reveal still manages to be frightening even though I knew it was coming.

I could go on about how much fun John Malkovich's advisor Unferth is, or how well the 3D is used to convey depth of field as opposed to just gimmick shots where stuff flies at the audience but this is time better spent for my readers to actually go and see the film. Rarely does the opportunity crop up for a film that not only benefits from being seen on the big screen, but Beowulf absolutely demands it be seen in digital 3D in all its grandeur. The real Beowulf would do no less.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Scarlett Johnasson career assessment (less dirty than it sounds)

Is Scarlett Johansson a leading lady? Is she a great actress? I ask because yesterday the lovely Ms. Johanson turned twenty-three. I'll say it again, Scarlett Johansson turned TWENTY-THREE! That's younger than I am by a whole year, but I don't have thirty-three film credits towards my name, nor was Esquire's sexiest woman alive last year.

Lets assess shall we. ScarJo had a number of small supporting roles starting with the rather dismal North in 1994. It was only at the start of the twenty-first century was Miss Johansson noticed by critics and indie audiences for her work in Ghost World and Lost in Translation. But hold on just a moment, looking back at this pair of films is Johansson the most memorable thing about either of them? Hardly. People look back at Translation and think of Murray turning around his career (if they remember Johansson they remember the cameras obsessive examination of the panties on her rear) (Ed. note-Well NOW I'm remembering it). The same could be said for Ghost World, people remember Thora Birch, the Bollywood opening credits and Steve Buscemi all long before they remember Scarlett.

Her next big break came in 2003 when she starred in The Girl with the Pearl Earring, but in that film she is the object moreso than the subject. The film became an arthouse hit (at least on the facebook pages of art-students anyways) and with it came more roles. Let me run some titles by you, see if any of them set off any bells. A Love Song for Bobby Long, The Perfect Score, A Good Woman. No? Nothing? Here most succesful film in this period is In Good Company but that is much more a showcase for the male leads Topher Grace and Dennis (sadly not Randy) Quaid.

When we hit 2005 we come to a genuinely excellent ScarJo performance which she has deservedly achieved recognition for. She's excellent as the destructive Nola Rice, a curvy, needy femme-fatale who engages in a passionate affair with Jonathan Rhys Meyers which, alas, takes a nasty turn toward murder. Its a moving, memorable and sexy performance, but she's not the lead. The same could be said for her sexy but distant work in The Black Dahlia and The Prestige. She plays a Woody Allen analogue in the director's Scoop but she's one of two Woody's in the film as for whatever reason Allen is in the film as well. She is the female lead of The Island but the whole point of her character is that she's a personality-less clone. So far she' been an honest to god female lead in ONE film. That would be The Nanny Diaries. I plan on seeing this movie, its on my Netflix q, honest. Unfortunately the chick-lit adaptation failed to capture the imagination of the public that embraced its sister film, The Devil Wears Prada.

Looking t the future Scarlett will be facing down Natalie Portman in the adaptation of the popular historical novel, The Other Boelyn Girl. The film's shuffling doesn't make me particularly optimistic but I do like the pedigree so we'll see. But here again ScarJo has some ample support from Seth Rogen sex-aide Eric Bana and Wonder Emporium employee Portman. Other projects in the works include another popular book adaptation He's Just Not that Into You, another Woody Allen film (she seems to be his new muse, the man is a genius) and looky-looky another femme fatale role a Silken Floss (LOVE IT) in Frank Miller's adaptation of the seminal comic series The Spirit.
I think Scarlett and her handlers are wise in not immediately shoving her into the limelight with lead roles (I'll ammend this depending on what I think of Nanny). She gets plenty of face time in magazines, gossip sites and so on so its not as though she needs the exposure. If she can really build up a solid CV of supporting work and further herself as a reliable commodity who can pull off sexy, smart AND funny (the rarest of combinations) there's nowhere for her to go but up. Maybe she could do a musical? Did you know she has a perfectly lovely alto voice.

Happy birthday Scarlett, we here at the Cinema give you a standing ovation.

Maybe we better sit down.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

HBO Bad Movie Haiku

Its not all wonder emporiums and angry Mexican bounty hunters all the time on the blog. Sometimes a movie needs to be hated, because it is product, because it is awful, because it lacks any cinematic merit whatsoever. But instead of losing my cool I will utilize the sublime form of haiku to express the deep anger and resentment toward these wasted hours of my life.


Ripping off Star Wars
And Lord of the Rings will not
Make your movie good

You, Me and Dupree

Next time Owen please
Make sure there's a script with jokes
Film vasectomy

The Best Film You'll See About a Wonder Emporium All Year

Whimsy is a trick thing to convey on film. Its trickier when you consider the fact that in order for it to work the filmmaker needs the audience to meet him half-way. Try to force your hand, get too treacly, too cloying, too romantic and cynical audience members will laugh it off as utter nonsense. For every genuinely whimsical Mary Poppins, Labyrinth or Toy Story you get stuck with a North, a Toys or a Space Jam. Then there are the in-betweens, the ones people furiously argue over, your Hooks, your Joe Versus the Volcanoes, your Goonies. When a story-teller tries to conjure up those squishy, child-like feelings they're normally derided. Its a narrow tight-rope to walk on and in his newest film rookie director and much buzzed about screenwriter Zach Helm throws his hat into the arena of whimsy. Most of the critical community has chosen to spit in this hat, but I am more than happy to toss a few shillings in myself.

I have a confession to make. I like Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. A lot. Its not perfect, not by a long shot. By the movie just worked for me. On a purely chemical level; the plot, the characters, the dialogue, it just worked. I like that it isn't really a "be-yourself" or "you-can-do-it" sort of morality tale that has infected children's films like a virus. It also encourages imagination but doesn't ignore that even magical people are bound to certain financial responsibilities. At its core, Magorium is about coming to terms with death and moving on from it.

Mr. Magorium (an occasionally grating Dustin Hoffman) is pushing 240 some odd years and in a career that includes inspiring Thomas Edison to create the light bulb, inventing the paper airplane, his crowning achievement is a magical toy store. Magorium, though, feels his time is up so he wants to pass on the store to his assistant and former piano prodigy Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). Before doing so he wants to ensure his affairs are in order so he hires Henry Weston (my beloved Jason Bateman playing an amalgamation of Ferrel's character in Stranger than Fiction and Michael Bluth from Arrested Development). Henry is the no-nonsense workaholic who naturally fails to see the magic of the place, but he's not so closed minded as he befriends another Emporium employee, Eric (odd but not odd enough Zach Mills). If the movie were just Magorium passing on the store to Mahoney the movie wouldn't work. Bateman is perfect casting because as the centerpiece of a show that was all about ironic detachment and being too cool for traditional "messages" he's a natural cynic. Watching his heart grow two-sizes too big is what makes the movie so damn likable. From the moment he's being interviewed by Magorium, Helm writes him in such a way that everyone can see that it won't take much for the wonders of the place to slowly peel away his stick-in-the-mud exterior.
From its charmingly designed opening titles (there's something comforting about well-stylized titles that clue you into what the movies about) Helm shows that while this is a movie for kids it refuses to talk down to its audience or leave the adults out of the proceedings. The material stay light but the pall of death lingers over the proceedings. Helm is careful to not use the "d" word until it is absolutely inevitable. The store begins to reflect Mahoney and the other characters feelings about Magorium's inevitable passing and the store begins to lose control of itself (walls deteriorate, colors drain and lemurs appear) wreaking havoc with the patrons (and heading dangerously close toward Jumanji territory). The film is not without its quiet somber moments and this is where the film really separates itself from its more embarrassing peers. In one scene its just Magorium talking to the store, expressing his disappointment in the buildings temper-tantrum. The other involves Magorium chatting about King Lear and how after an incredible work of fiction, Shakespeare kills of this epic character with the simple piece of text "he dies." Magorium concludes that if its good enough for Shakespeare its good enough for him. Furthermore, death is what puts the beauty of a life into sharp relief. The perfect punctuation. Its heady stuff for a children's film but its all pitched at a level that parents can appreciate and clever children will pick up on.

Prior to Stranger than Fiction's release there was much ballyhooing about how Helm was the new Charlie Kaufman. I think its an unfair comparison. While both writers tamper with conventional structure, stretch and skewing narrative in unusual ways, the two have separate concerns and very separate styles. I also think Helm is more of a romantic than Kaufman, he believes in the good, the magic in all people to be exceptional. Anyone whose seen Human Nature or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind would be hard pressed to say the same of Kaufman.
Helm's Stranger than Fiction earned a small but earnest following last year and hopefully with time Magorium will do the same. The film is too clever to be dismissed outright and deserves a look by anyone willing to give it a chance.

One last thought before I go: the film features a quick, but wonderful cameo that is simply too perfect to spoil. Lets just say that one of the customers of the Wonder Emporium used to host a beloved 70's variety show and has starred in a bunch of movies himself. It was great seeing him again.

A pair of Aces but you won't be smiling

Here's a fine way to kick off the blog, a look at two of the high profile, critically acclaimed crime films that were released this winter. The two films have a lot of superficial similarities; they're both about botched criminal endeavors, they're both brilliantly made and they're both incredibly bleak . Stylistically though they could not be more different. I am speaking about the gruesome two-some that is No Country for Old Men and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.
No Country is the Coen's Adaptation of the acclaimed book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy's minimalist dialogue and elegant prose may seem to break with the more verbose Coen's (Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother and Miller's Crossing all have their share of motormouths), but the pairing is a match made in cinematic heaven. The Coen's nail this adaptation, serving both the plot and characters, while loading it with extravagant cinematic flourishes.The plot: Llewelyn Moss (having a wonderful year Josh Brolin) is a good-old-boy out hunting when he stumbles upon the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone horribly wrong (they even killed the dog). Llewelyn recovers the money but his conscience can't leave well enough alone. He goes back to the scene of the crime to help one of the half-dead men who was begging for water and soon he's being chased by all manner of disreputable folks, the absolute most terrifying of which is Anton Chigurh (soon to be Oscar front-runner Javier Bardem). Llewelyn's fleeing girlfriend (Irish-gal Kelly MacDonald with a flawless accent) is in turn trailed by old-fashioned values personified Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (an at home Tommy Lee Jones). Sheriff Bell is desperate to find and help Moss before the Biblical showdown between Moss and Chigurh can take place. Along the way the moral decay of the world is considered by Sheriff Bell who frequently thinks back to kinder, gentler times.
If Lee Jone's character is a relic from this better, less twisted time, his antithesis is Bardem's Chigurh. With a cold dead stare, creepy Prince Valiant 'do and monster-ish gait, he is every inch a terrifying and imposing figure. He is dark, twisted and guided into making his killing blows by something as capricious as a coin toss (comic book dork irony: this schtick seems awful similar to the Batman villain Two-Face [once played terribly by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever] whose coin toss bit was no doubt at least partially inspired by the coin flipping of Tony Camonte in Hawks' original Scarface). In a marvelous scene where he's cornered MaDonald, Chigurh flatly orders her to call a side of the coin and she desperately begs him to just let her go. There's no reason for him to kill her, his motivation has been taken from him, but Chigurh's so unflinchingly set in his destructive ways that once he's started he can't even begin to comprehend how to stop. He is the all consuming, all destroying, unfeeling end of the world.
On a technical level alone, No Country is a pretty staggering achievement. The Coen's can make the film go from contemplative to incredibly tense with unparalleled skill and guile. Passive scenes in hotel rooms become Hitchcockian nail-biters with nary a line of dialogue in sight. One scene in particular features Llewelyn finally thinking he's checked into a safe, secure motel, but just to be sure he dials the front desk. No one picks up. Cut to downstairs and the clerk who had previously been stationed there is nowhere to be seen. Only a cat and its milk saucer. Cut back to Llewelyn and we can hear foot-steps coming down the hall. Llewelyn grabs his considerable rifle and positions himself on the bed, ready for anything. Cut to POV of Llewelyn staring at the door and we see a shadow appear under the door. Everything is still for what seems like an eternity and then the shadow moves away from the door. Both the audience and Llewelyn and the audience breathe a sigh of relief. Only to gasp as the lights in the hallway are shut off and we hear those footsteps and then BOOM we're off to the races.

While there are few laughs to be had and you won't walk out of the theatre with good feelings toward humanity at all, the film is a more than worthy addition to the impressive cannon of the Coen's. Less a character piece and more a look at decay on several thematic levels, the Coen's have found a real partner in McCarty's epic. After a few lean years it would seem that the brother's have righted themselves with a grim classic crime drama that stands up admirably to the likes of Miller's Crossing, Blood Simple and Fargo.

A quick word before moving onto our second film. The foley work and sound design in No Country is astonishing. The impact of the bullets and cattle canons will make you either jump or claw at your seat. I think people sometimes forget how terrifying the sound of a gun can be but the film does not let up and indulges in some serious aural assault. A quick trip to the imdb reveals that the film's sound designer isCraig Berkey Berkey has spent a good chunk of his career working on all sorts of loud, exploding noises in some of the major studio blockbusters of the last decade (Transformers, the X-Men films etc). Berkey's work here shows he is capable of some seriously nuanced sound design that can create a serene sense of calm and then irrevocably shatter it.

The other excellent downer out now is Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Sidney Lumet, the film's director neatly personifies the term living legend. Now in his eighties, Before shows that Lumet is still capable of incredibly rich story-telling in a career where he has already won a lifetime achievement Oscar. This is not to say that Lumet has had a flawless career but ultimately his hits (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon and Network to name but a few) far outweigh his misses (Gloria, The Wiz, A Stranger Among Us). Lumet certainly knows how to shoot a botched heist and Before gives him a massive screw-up to orchestrate and circle around like a hungry vulture.
The story features Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers. Both are rather put upon in their own way and both are desperate for cash. Hoffman needs it so he can give up his job as a broker and reinvigorate his married life in Rio with wife Marissa Tomei (utilizing her intense sexuality and still impressive physique to manipulate the men she crosses paths with). Hawke, a whiny loser, needs the money to earn back his self-respect and the respect of his divorced wife (the once again stellar Wire vet Amy Ryan) and their daughter. Hoffman hatches the plan to rob their parents jewelry store. They know exactly how the store operates, where the money is, which jewels are most valuable and knows that the insurance will cover the robbery. Its perfect, practically a victimless crime. Of course, things manage t go catastrophically wrong.

The story is played to the hilt by all parties involved. There are some incredibly meaty scenes here and Hoffman, Hawke, Tomei and Albert Finney as the mens' father, bite into them with relish. There is a particularly telling scene in the movie where Hawke goes to watch his daughter in a performance of King Lear. His daughter is playing Edgar who gives the denouement of the play urging members of the audience to "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." Oh if only the characters could heed the advice. Hoffman's character desperately wants to seem cool and collected, a ball-busting Mamet character, but the story ultimately reveals him to be just as desperate, cowardly and unthinking as his brother. Hoffman however cues us into the fact that Finney is not the saint that the film would have us believe he is, while Hawke is at first cloying and obnoxious he grows increasingly sympathetic and pitiable as the story turns downwards.
The real find here is rookie screenwriter Kelly Masterson who has crafted a deeply felt, emotionally resonant character study in the midst of a genuinely intense and gripping thriller. The film has numerous opportunities to delve into Paul Haggis-eqsue miserablism but manages to steer clear away. The script is simply too taut to get into such emo hand-wringing. There's more story to tell, we'll let the characters have their moment to assess what's going on but not much more, the stakes are too high, the engine must keep running. Masterson fractures her screenplay, playing havoc with the continuity, cutting back and forth to before and after the heist. She starts us off with Hoffman's impetus for the crime, then with no other information we're seeing it unfold. Then we cut back to a few days before. At first its jarring, but once the viewer is accustomed to it one begins to see that Masterson is peeling away layers that increasingly up the stakes and provide disturbing twists that skew the viewers perspective on what they're looking at and what they've seen.

If Before is any indication, Lumet still has plenty of verve in him to crank out a couple more small, but powerful film gems. I hope he gets the opportunity as Before is just the antidote to the bigger, more attention grabbing winter releases.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Welcome to Oz, Welcome to Thunderdome

Greetings internet. Sickness here. This is not the formal fancy pants greeting I originally intended but it will do for now. In short this is a blog about film. Occasionally we'll talk TV, music, theatre and whatever else nestles into my brain, but first and foremost this blog will serve as a place for reviews, lists, commentary, humorous observations and hopefully some legit criticism. I love movies, LOVE THEM and this will be the place for me to do my thing. So please, don't be afraid to let me know what you think or suggest article topics.