Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where is the fifth crew member?

Sunshine is a visual marvel. The searingly bright, seemingly alive star contrasted against the inky blackness of space has rarely been realized so vividly; turn down the sound and play some Radiohead, and I imagine the movie would be quite a trip. It's clear that director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland are aiming for the heady, serious sci-fi of 2001 and Solaris, and Sunshine's images match their influences. Strange, then, that for all its awesome images the film is a maddeningly opaque failure. Sunshine looks like a masterpiece, but for all its ambition, as a work of storytelling it's strangely airless and hollow, at once a triumph of design and a failure of imagination.

An early scene of the crew of the Icarus II, on their way to deliver a nuclear payload and jump-start the dying sun, sitting around a breakfast table is unmistakably reminiscent of the same scene in Alien. Even the kitchenware is identical; the only thing missing is the believable, cohesive ensemble. The cast never sells the idea that they've spent many months together in a confined space, and their emotional response to the seriousness of their mission ranges from mopey to bummed. This is partly due to Garland's fatally self-conscious dialogue - even an actor as talented as Cillian Murphy can't help deliver lines like "Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb. Welcome to Icarus II" without sounding like a character in a graphic novel. The same excuse can't be made for Chris Evans, whose character seems to be inspired by Hudson from Aliens but feels closer to Cookie from Forbidden Planet. The rest of the cast, even usually reliable actors like Michelle Yeoh and Cliff Curtis, never get to make much of an impression; when the film turns into a space thriller and characters start to drop off, we've never been invested enough to care.

That shift from straight sci-fi to deep-space boo movie is the biggest of Sunshine's problems. The film teases at its muddled philosophical concerns while, at the same time, contriving a number of action setpieces straight out of 2010. Danny Boyle can't come close to Kubrick or Tarkovsky because, in his insecure need to entertain the kids in the audience, he violates the purity of his own concept. 2001 and Solaris are arguably boring, but their protracted scope is completely intentional and ultimately rewarding for the attentive viewer; Sunshine is like the Cliffs Notes version of those films. The film irreversibly jumps the shark when - well, I won't spoil it, but you'll know it when you see it. For all that Sunshine promises, it devolves into a generic, incoherent slasher movie, like the final reel of Adaptation played straight.

Boyle and Garland's previous collaboration 28 Days Later had many of the same problems, but that film worked, our investment in the characters and the inventive digital cinematography overcoming the weak action-movie climax. The pure kinetic high that propels that and all of Boyle's strongest work is absent here; you never feel Boyle engaging with Sunshine on anything but a vague intellectual level, and the result is a surprisingly dour space opera. When the film reaches a climax that is clearly meant to be awe-inspiring, I felt exhausted and relieved. Maybe some Radiohead would have helped.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Trim Bin #67

- So this makes two years in a row where a genuinely great movie wins Best Picture and the Academy demonstrates general good taste. Weird. Whatever minor quibbles I might have, any night where Javier Bardem, Tilda Swinton and Daniel Day-Lewis are winners, future trailers can read "From Four-Time Academy Award Winners Joel and Ethan Coen" and the cute couple from Once beat the Disney machine is a pretty sweet one. As for the show itself, aside from a few funny moments and the wonderful decision to defy the indisputable wisdom of Bill Conti and let Marketa Irglova speak, it was so-so. The lack of bloat was welcome, but there just wasn't anything in the show itself that could compete with this.

- The Oscars may be over but the Muriels (which got a nice mention from Jim Emerson - way to go, Paul!) are running through Friday. Most recent is the award for Best Cinematic Moment ("My straw reaches acroooss the room..."), with comments by yours truly.

- Sight and Sound charts the intersection of "a prolific American generation of comedians and wry auteurs. " Great to see The Cable Guy finally getting its due.

- I can't quite make up my mind about a certain trailer. Sure, it plays the nostalgia card a little heavily, but it's snappy, broadly funny, and proudly analog - in other words, it feels like Indy. If it weren't for the memory of The Phantom Menace's awesome trailer, this wouldn't feel like the year's biggest question mark.

- This, however, is no question mark. Two, please:

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A goddam helluva show

Everyone has their "loss of faith" moment with the Oscars - for me, it's the historic 1987 snub of Anne Ramsay (screw you, Olympia Dukakis). The Oscars aren't really for cinephiles, but for people like my Nana, who looks forward to the show all year for the celebrities, the dresses, and the hope that someday she'll be watching her favorite grandson thanking her from the stage of the Kodak Theatre (working on it, Nana). For the rest of us, the Academy Awards are like a bad relationship, fueling our dependence no matter how many disappointments we endure. This year, however, looks to be different; while it's hard to say that the nominees truly represent the year's best given the complete absence of Zodiac and the possibility of a Norbit win, the Academy's slate does justice to the year's rich offerings, with two masterpieces up for the big prize. So despite the honest-to-blog threat of a dark homeskillet in the running (at least it's not Crash), the memory of Scorsese's long-overdue win is still fresh, so I'm just going to enjoy the ride.

I don't bother with predictions, because I'd just be copying the wisdom of prognosticators more in the know than I. These are the movies and people I'll be rooting for on Sunday:

Best Picture: There Will Be Blood by a mile. But if front-runner No Country for Old Men wins, I won't complain. It's ridiculous to pit two perfect movies against each other and declare one superior, and these two films represent the strongest one-two punch the Academy has seen since Chinatown and The Godfather Part II. One will win, and both will be discussed and remembered for many years to come. As for the rest, Michael Clayton is a socially conscious, sharply made legal thriller with a great cast working at the top of our game, but it sort of bored me. Atonement has a fabulously sexy first hour, then suddenly turns into a real cock-block for the sake of a metatextual twist that thinks it's smarter and more devastating than it is (I'm told the book works better). As for Juno: it's funny and endearing, but it's a 90-minute sitcom pilot. Drained dry, Juno. So sorry.
Best Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood Again, I'd be just as happy to see the Coens win. But one of the highlights of the year was seeing PTA's formidable cinematic talents finally recognized. Tony Gilroy is good, but it's too early. I admired The Diving Bell and the Butterfly on some levels, but it felt calculated and, at moments, a bit obvious. If Jason Reitman beats the Coen brothers, the distant popping noise those of you on the West Coast will hear is the sound of Dennis Cozzalio having his Scanners moment.

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood What is this nonsense about Day-Lewis' supposed hamminess and overacting? Does everything require a backlash? A strong category all around - Clooney, Depp and especially Mortensen all do some of their best work, and Tommy Lee Jones is good in a movie I didn't really care for. But Day-Lewis' work is unparalleled, working not only in broad strokes but with meticulous detail to invest his corrupt oilman with a Satanic power - it's an unforgettable performance, one for the ages.

Best Actress: Julie Christie, Away From Her For some reason, my favorite female performances of the year never seem to make it into the top five, and this year is no exception, with Carice van Houten and Nicole Kidman the worst omissions in a category that tends to be relentlessly middlebrow. I haven't seen The Savages or Elizabeth, Ellen Page is a good actress who will hopefully be in better movies, and La Vie en Rose actually made me hate Edith Piaf. That leaves Julie Christie, whose win would be a worthwile testament to one of the most challenging, provocative bodies of work any actor can boast of, as well as a tribute to her understated, devastating performance as a woman losing her memory but not her humor or strength.

Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men It's nearly impossible to choose between Bardem's poker-faced angel of death and Affleck's simpering, serpentine assassin, two pitch-perfect performances that are great for completely different reasons. I'll go with Bardem because Anton Chigurh scares the bejesus out of me. I haven't seen Charlie Wilson's War, I wouldn't completely mind if Tom Wilkinson won (his batshit lawyer was the most entertaining part of Michael Clayton), and I would have preferred to see Holbrook win for Creepshow.

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone I just saw Gone Baby Gone last week, and it really surprised me - it's an uncommonly intelligent, philosophical procedural, and much of its emotional weight can be attributed to Ryan's complex, startlingly authentic portrayal of a coked-out, miserable excuse of a mom who nevertheless loves her missing daughter (the Southie accent is perfect, too). I love Cate Blanchett's take on Dylan and would like to see I'm Not There win something, but my heart tells me to root for Ryan. That said, I wouldn't mind seeing Tilda Swinton win - isn't she the coolest? I wouldn't really mind creepy, horny Briony Tallis taking it either; come to think of it, this is probably the year's strongest category (though I haven't seen American Gangster).

Best Original Screenplay: Ratatouille While I imagine Diablo Cody's acceptance speech would be the most entertaining of the night (I've known a few strippers, and they tend to be entertaining cats), I'd rather see her win once she's honed her craft a bit more. No offense, Diablo - I'm working on it as well, but then, I don't think they should give me an Oscar either. Ratatouille's the clear standout here, perfectly constructed and capable of surprising depth - with all the noise about mo-cap and 3D as the wave of the future, it's Pixar and Brad Bird's mastery of storytelling that leads the way in animation. Haven't seen The Savages, Michael Clayton is okay and Lars and the Real Girl is as much of a sitcom as Juno, only way crappier.

Best Adapted Screenplay: No Country for Old Men While I think There Will Be Blood is the (slightly) better-directed film, nobody writes better than the Coens when they're at the top of their game. Staying close to the Cormac McCarthy novel while still finding room for their own distinctive voice, the Coens' script is a masterpiece of economy and pacing, working perfectly as an old-school thriller even as it proves to be formally audacious. Away From Her, Atonement and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are all good but suffer from the same problem - they're all too concerned with being clever to really have any emotional impact.

Best Cinematography: In a category filled with worthy candidates, I'll go with Roger Deakins' beautiful, delicate work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Best Editing: The Coens' career-long collaboration with the elusive Roderick Jaynes reaches a new high with No Country for Old Men. There isn't a single cut in the entire movie that you could imagine happening a moment later or earlier. It's perfect.

Best Art Direction: There Will Be Blood The interplay of man-made objects and the foreboding landscape achieves a stark poetry. Jack Fisk rules.

Best Costume Design: Atonement That green dress really is something.

Best Makeup: Pirates of the Caribbean, I guess. This category kinda sucks this year.

Best Original Score: Without Jonny Greenwood, this category feels pointless. I'll go with Michael Giacchino's typically nifty score for Ratatouille.

Best Orignal Song: It's Once versus a whole lot of nothing.

Best Sound: If you were to close your eyes and simply listen to No Country for Old Men, it would retain much of its unbearable tension.

Best Sound Editing: Same goes for There Will Be Blood.

Best Visual Effects: Ugh. One area that 2007 was sorely lacking in was big-budget effects showcases that didn't make you feel like an asshole for watching them. I'll go with Transformers, but I'm not happy about it.

Best Animated Feature: I just saw Persepolis and found it quite charming, but I'd still have to go with Ratatouille.

Best Foreign Language Film: Why isn't Persepolis here? I haven't actually seen any of the movies nominated. Let's end on that note of ignorance. Woo, Oscars!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I see you need a firm hand.

Belle de Jour is a film of interiors, from the cold, stylish apartment occupied by young bourgeoise couple Severine (Catherine Deneuve) and Pierre (Jean Sorel) to the deceptively mundane hallways and parlor rooms of the brothel where Severine works every afternoon to the lurid sadomastic fantasies that comprise her interior life and which increasingly blur with the film's reality. While sex is omnipresent in cinema, it is too often merely titillating, its possibilites as a form of communication and artistic expression rarely explored. In Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel uses signifiers of sexual desire to communicate his protagonist's interiority, Severine's fantasies and attempts to enact them revealing her as a character lost in her own mind. A landmark work of erotica, the film revels in its constructed sexuality even as it uses its more provocative moments not to bring us closer to understanding Severine but to make the source of her mysterious, implacable desire more and more elusive. Its eroticism lies not in what it shows but in everything it leaves hidden.

Chief among the film's exquisite surfaces is the perfect, porcelain face of Catherine Deneuve, whose refined sexual persona was subverted throughout the 1960s by directors like Bunuel, Jacques Demy and Roman Polanski. In Belle de Jour, Severine's cool elegance masks a highly active fantasy life comprised of banal pornographic scenarios involving her rape, torture and degradation. Severine's air of propriety - she complains about flirtatious family friend Henri (Michael Piccoli) that "I don't like the way he looks at me" - is punctured when, after an offhanded mention from Henri of the city's secretive upscale brothels, she finds herself in the home of Madame Anais (Genevieve Page) asking for a job. Bunuel contrasts the bored, idle chatter of the other women at the brothel, whose motivation seems more economic than sexual, with Severine's more urgent need. Afraid at first, Severine is soon drifting from client to client with a dreamlike detachment, any inner conflict demonstrating itself not in big emotional scenes but with smaller moments, as when she peers at another prostitute at work, claims disgust and then turns back to continue watching. We're given flashes of Severine's childhood - an incident of sexual abuse, a Catholic moment - but they're not meant to explain her, and Bunuel avoids any overt psychoanalysis. At the heart of all of Bunuel's films is an inexplicable mystery; here, it's the source of desire.

Also key to Belle de Jour is the way that individual desire becomes codified, particuarly for women, whose sexual fantasies are inevitably projected through a distinctly masculine lens. Severine's fantasies are straight out of the yellowing paperbacks of the period, the main difference being that we are made to identify with the tortured rather than the torturer. Her own attempts at realizing her fantasies are filtered through the very particular fetishes of her johns, enacting fantasies of sadism, humiliation and even necrophilia. It seems as though Bunuel is saying that female desire - and, by extension, female identity - is inextricable from the male gaze. This blurs into Severine's everyday life - the husband who remains oblivious to her afternoon job (hence her work name) so long as she's waiting when he returns from work, the older man turned on by teasing her propriety who loses interest when he learns of her carnality, the gangster (Pierre Clementi) who aims to own Severine both at work and at home. Bunuel retains his bemused perspective, leaving us to sort out the film's complicated sexual politics. When Severine seems to finally find what she's been looking for, in the famous scene involving a Japanese businessman and his mysterious black box (written about in greater detail by Belle de Jour's number-one fan Paul Clark), the film reveals the most even as it becomes ever more elusive. Foreshadowed in young Severine's rejection of communion, Severine's ecstatic gaze, the sense that she has crossed an invisible line, is a sensual refutation of the Eden myth; it is only through the unknown, the thing which cannot be codified or explained away, that Severine can finally come.

Though Belle de Jour is a very sexy film, there's very little skin on display. Its success lies in the way that it tantalizes our imaginations in the same way that Severine is compelled by the promise of unknown experience. As is often the case with Bunuel's work, its ambiguities and deliberate confusion of reality and fantasy exposes our own absurd adherence to convention even as we desire to break free. Its final scene, with its masterful collision of images and sound, suggests that Severine has only scratched the surface of a need that will never truly be fulfilled. It's a perfect representation of how desire is bound to identity and leads us to reflect upon our own fantasies and how the stranger they are, the more they define us.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Thursday, February 14, 2008

true romance

I intended to write a straightforward top 10 for Valentine's Day - kisses, perhaps, or screen couples - but the more I thought about it, the more it wanted to be something different.

Start thinking about the most romantic scenes in film and your mind will wander. Moments tend to blur together, becoming intertwined, each moment reflected in another. Love most vididly expresses itself in moments seemingly gone before they've arrived, and cinema is made of stolen moments. When a movie manages to capture true romance, there's the sense that something priceless has been preserved - the scene will go on, like a perfect memory, both exhilarating and sweetly sad.

Some of these moments achieve a sort of transcendent artifice. The idealized Hollywood love stories leave no room for the complexities of the real thing, but this is not necessarily dishonest. In their carefully orchestrated serendipity we can trace the origins of our own longing, our need to believe in something eternal. When they work that well, no matter how improbable they may be, we can't help it - they send us.

Others confront the complications of real relationships head-on, mirroring our own experience. What they say about love is sometimes reassuring, other times not. In these films there is the acceptance of people as they are - fucked-up, insecure, oblivious - and the hope that, ultimately, love will triumph no matter how many times we shoot ourselves in the foot.

Many focus on love in the face of death. The worst ones reduce the tragic, beautiful truth of our need to love in the face of inevitable loss to inane, condescending Hallmark cards. The best ones remind us how love itself can be an act of bravery.

Some celebrate love that cannot be expressed but refuses to be silenced.

Some celebrate romance in the most unlikely of places.

Some are funny.

Some are creepy.

Some are crazy.

Some are totally fucking sexy.

And sometimes, they remind us of everything love can bring out in us - trust, understanding, acceptance - inspiring us to, at last, be everything we've always wanted to be.

So for those of us who count the movies among our first loves, we return again and again, hoping to be moved, to believe in the power of the moving images to speak to us, to live in those perfect moments.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Smile, you son of a bitch! (Roy Scheider, 1932-2008)

Roy Scheider was the kind of actor you don't see much of anymore, a virile, rough-edged everyman whose performances are remarkable for their physical intelligence without ever sacrificing believability. Scheider was never larger-than-life, which is perhaps the key to his success, easy as it is to imagine him hanging out with dad down at the V.F.W. Much of the success of Jaws can be attributed to what Scheider brought to the role of Chief Brody, portraying the character's anxiety, sense of displacement and sexual insecurity - I love the moment during the "let's compare scars" scene when Brody searches for a scar worthy of competition, than wordlessly decides against it. Scheider anchors our emotional investment in the story - when audiences went wild at the film's explosive ending, it was his triumph as much as Spielberg's.

That seemingly effortless authenticity can be found in all of Scheider's best performances - consider the haunting reveal of Dustin Hoffman's brother at death's door in Marathon Man or his deliciously venal pimp in Klute. I'm particularly fond of his nefarious Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch, a role that gave him the opportunity to use his defintively hetero screen presence to remarkably subversive effect. I must admit that I haven't seen All That Jazz yet, but Netflix predicts I'd give it five stars, so I look forward to checking it out this week. It will be a welcome opportunity to celebrate an truly undervalued star, the kind they just don't make anymore.

For an excellent tribute to Scheider, head over to Sunset Gun.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Friday, February 08, 2008

I don't think that really qualifies as Reaganomics.

Stoner comedies are populated by jocular male protagonists whose red-eyed triumps are designed to provoke blazed audience members into paroxysms of self-congradulatory hi-fives. Jane F. (Anna Faris), the perpetually high protagonist of Smiley Face, is notable not only because of her gender but as an avatar not for the Cheech and Chong demographic but for the pothead whose addiction is a symptom of the user's sense of alienation. While Smiley Face is lighter and less didactic than director Gregg Araki's previous movies, it shares with them a sincere empathy for its fucked-up heroine. Whenever Jane apologizes for her behavior by explaining "I'm really stoned right now," it somehow seems like a completely reasonable self-defense.

Like the journeys in many stoner movies, Jane's is a meandering and often incoherent one. Already taking bong rips at nine in the morning, Jane's situation is complicated when she devours a plate of cupcakes intended for her creepy roomate's (Danny Masterson) sci-fi convention - unbeknownst to her, they're pot cupcakes, and Jane finds herself extremely stoned (this is, like, the best plot summary ever). Barely functional, Jane sets about completing a list of goals for the day, including buying more pot to replace the cupcakes, going to an acting audition (Jane lives off of residuals from one commercial) and somehow finding the money to pay her overdue power bill and repay her angry dealer (Adam Brody) so that he doesn't take her beloved bed. Needless to say, Jane quickly strays very far from the plan, repeatedly scaring the straights, fleeing from the police and inadvertently stealing an original copy of The Communist Manifesto. The story will be very familiar for anyone who has seen previous stoner comedies (or anyone who has smoked a lot of weed), but even as Smiley Face nods to audience expectations - retro cameos, kitschy soundtrack, trippy animated titles - it also works as an insightful character study. Like the smiley face Jane writes in the sky that suddenly transforms into a screaming skull, the movie's deceptively dopey antics mask the character's underlying social anxiety.

During an argument about Reganomics with her dealer, Jane offhandedly reveals that she studied economics in college but, she explains with a shrug, "economics didn't really work out." Faris does an excellent job with a deceptively one-note performance; in Jane's dialated pupils we can discern traces of a serious-minded young woman driven by disillusionment into the security blanket of a permanent purple haze. Besides pot, Jane seems to care mostly about corn chips and her comfy bed; she seems indifferent, even apprehensive about sex and relationships, partly using pot as a way of shielding herself against any meaningful human connection.
Her apathy is understandable given the hostility directed at her - rather than the square-jawed, ineffectual narcs that usually populate these movies, the norms Jane encounters treat her with genuine contempt, one character telling her, "You creep me out, lady." When Jane does attempt to voice her ideas, railing against corporate injustice (in the funniest scene in the movie), we're first given Jane's quite articulate and passionate inner monologue, then what she actually said. It's a hilarious, perfect illustration of the stoner paradox: the emergence of a wealth of insight that the user is then completely unable to communicate in any meaningful way.

Smiley Face falls apart towards the end, arriving at its conclusion a bit too soon - whether this is the result of budget cuts or a shortcoming of Araki's (The Doom Generation was similarly abrupt) is unclear. The relationship between Jane and her dorky secret admirer Brevin (John Krasinski), set up in a weirdly endearing falling-in-love montage, is particularly shortchanged. These flaws sort of work for the movie: as with The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the narrative's gradual dissolution mirrors the drug experience ("Wait, what?"). Smiley Face doesn't really match those movies, which were brilliantly stupid; Araki's occasional tendency towards an obnoxious literal-mindedness keep his film from reaching those heights. Those moments are smoothed over by Faris, an actress who has done hilarious work in dreck and, it seems, was waiting for a part this rich to show what she was capable of - few performances in 2007 were so layered and subtle while also excelling at pratfalls and funny faces. Smiley Face isn't a great film, but Faris provides it with a heart, and you don't have to be stoned to see that.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Trim Bin #66

- A rare, non-movie-related political moment (I promise to limit these): is anyone else feeling a tad less cynical today about living in the US of A? First, whoever you're supporting (Obama for me - duh) or what your political leanings may be, it's nice to have three front-runners who probably won't bring about the literal apocalypse. Second, for the first time in memory, people want to vote - complacency and obligation have given way to an election year of substance and urgency, perhaps, we've finally snapped out of our seven-year fatalistic trip and started believing in possibility again. Way to go, America, for finally giving a shit. Now keep it up.

- A reminder that the Muriel Awards - the pics for the year's best in film in a diverse set of categories founded last year by Paul Clark and Steven Carlson - start February 13. Last year's choices were actually stronger and more interesting than February's other, slightly higher-profile awards ceremony.

- Starting tomorrow, and continuing every first Thursday of the month, I'll be restarting the screencaps guessing game that's been dormant around these parts for well over a year. But now, there's a prize (of sorts): the first person to correctly guess the image gets to assign me a film to review. Whether its brilliant, stupid, obscure or obscene, I'll write about it (it can't be Hardbodies, though - I already wrote about that).

- As part of his 8th series, Nathaniel at Film Experience writes about Ennis Del Mar's eighth closeup in Brokeback Mountain, the post expanding into a meditation on celebrity the often jarring relationship between private and public grief (the discussion that follows in the comments is worth checking out as well).

- Oh, Juno. When my friends and loved ones talk about how Juno McGuff's story moved them, I find it impossible to pooh-pooh a movie that has clearly touched a nerve (especially not to pose Bill Chambers' pointed question, "What's the fuck is it about?"). I want to feel the Juno love, but then, as in this EW cover story, its own creators spoil it for me. I don't know what's harder to stomach - the talented but increasingly insufferable Ellen Page comparing Juno to The Catcher in the Rye, a studio exec's BS claim that box office expectations were low due to the noncommercial material (like it was directed by Stan Brakhage or something). Worst of all is the article's dismissal of Heathers and Ghost World (both of which Juno borrows from copiously) as films about "weirdos," whereas Juno McGuff is some sort of pioneer female antihero. To which I can only say, fuck me gently with a chainsaw.

Sunday, February 03, 2008