Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Good joke. Everyone laugh.

Is it possible to write about Watchmen the movie without comparing it against Watchmen the book? Almost every review of the film eventually devolves into a checklist of how plot points, characters, production design - indeed, every shot - recreate or deviate from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' masterpiece. Every devoted fan of the book is going to have a detail or beat they sorely missed (I missed the Hooded Justice, after preventing Sally Jupiter's rape, teling her to cover herself up). To be fair, director Zack Snyder invites this kind of scrutiny; his film is as driven by an obsessive fidelity to its source material as his adaptation of Frank Miller's 300. I hated 300 for its monotonous visual style and seeming anti-intellectualism, and feared that Snyder was the worst possible choice for Watchmen, a comic driven more by ideological conflict than epic battles. During the stunning opening credits sequence, which presents an alternate history of the 20th century populated by superheroes scored to Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'", I realized my fears were unfounded - Watchmen is every bit as ironic, complex and subversive as the book.

Starting with a balletic fight between retired superhero Edward Blake, AKA the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and a mysterious intruder that ends with Blake's murder, Watchmen takes place in an alternate 1985 where the existence of superheroes has resulted in, among other things, a U.S. victory in Vietnam, Nixon's fifth term in office and the impending threat of nuclear war. With superheroes having been outlawed a few years earlier, the costumed crimefighters have either retired or agreed (like the Comedian) to work for the government; only Rorschach (Jackie Earle Hailey) a masked vigilante (described as a "nutcase" by Moore) driven by vengeance and a black-and-white moral code. Rorschach's investigation of Blake's murder leads us into the stories of his fellow crimefighters and their forefathers (dubbed the Minutemen) and the world they live in. The film is a triumph of design; working with production designer Alex McDowell (whose credits include Fight Club and Minority Report), Snyder has created an alternate 1985 that serves as a funhouse mirror of the real 1985, pop cultural signifiers from the decade and artistic influences that informed the book. As I'm a sucker for movies that blur the line between actual and pop cultural history, it's the little details - the Ridley Scott-inspired tv commercials, the Man Who Fell to Earth-inspired wallpaper in the apartment of atom-age demigod Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the Muzak version of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" playing in the tres sheik offices of billionaire mogul and "smartest man alive" Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) - that bring the film's universe to life.

The structure of both the book and the film digresses from the murder mystery plot to flesh out the stories of each of the crimefighters, allowing for an understanding of the personal and philsophical reasons behind each characters' decision to become a masked vigilante even as each new story reveals the limitations of the previous crimefighter's ideology. My favorite character has always been Dr. Manhattan - the film thankfully retains the graphic novel's most powerful sequence (scored to Philip Glass' "Pruit Igoe/Prophecies"), as Manhattan, formerly Dr. Jon Osterman, recalls from his hideaway on Mars how, after an accidental atomization, he was transformed into a "quantum super-hero" whose understanding and control of the physical properties of the universe grow in proportion to his detachment from humanity (insert obligatory reference to glowing blue penis). I was surprised, watching the film, to find a deeper appreciation for Rorschach, a absolutist nutter who nevertheless is more aware of his own shortcomings than any of his fellow crimefighters. This is partly due to the performance by Haley, who succeeded with Little Children in making a pedophile sympathetic and, even though most of his performance is delivered through a mask, is the most compelling performer onscreen in any scene he appears in. The rest of the cast has varying degrees of success - Crudup is unexpectedly but effectively low-key as Dr. Manhattan, Morgan is darkly hilarious as the Comedian, and Patrick Wilson is great as Dan Drieberg, an insecure middle-aged guy, formerly known as Night Owl, who can only get it up after rescuing innocents. Malin Akerman, as Manhattan's girlfriend and second-generation crimefighter Silk Spectre, is alright in an underwritten role (Carla Gugino, as the first Silk Spectre, fares better). Matthew Goode is a visually striking choice for the brilliant and powerful Ozymandias, and the emotional detachment he brings to the role (along with the strange accents) are reminiscent of Thomas Jerome Newton.

It's Ozymandias' part of the film, however, that is slightly lost in translation. I don't mind the change that Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse make to the film's ending - one deus-ex-machina is as good as another, and this one actually makes more thematic sense. But the surgery performed on the narrative to make the change results in a final twenty minutes that feel slightly truncated and off-balance compared to the rest of the film, and I winced when a famous line spoken by one character was omitted and then recalled, out of nowhere, by another. This misstep, however, only serves to illustrate what makes the rest of the film so unique - other than Ghost World, I've never seen another comic book adaptation so committed to the idiosyncrasies of its source material. While its relative commercial failure was probably inevitable - the audience I saw it with was palpably thown off during the rape scene and, by the ending, was completely lost - this only increases my affection for the film. Whether you love or hate Watchmen, it's one of the most admirable examples of a big-budget filmmaker putting one over on unsuspecting audiences; a friend and I continued to debate the actions of the characters for days after seeing it, and I hope some of those who were thrown off guard were inspired to do the same instead of completely dismissing the film. While it remains to be seen whether Snyder is just a master of absorbing his source material or if, as Watchmen suggests, he may be more than a slick visual director, remains to be seen; for now, however, the question is beside the point. The first time I saw Watchmen I was overthinking it, measuring it against the movie I've had in my head since I first read the book. The second time, experiencing the movie as its own thing, I realized how weird and dark and awesome it truly is. Alan Moore would do well to lift his curse.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Taking Woodstock

The trailer for Taking Woodstock debuted on Dimitri Martin's show last week. Watching the trailer - which features a bunch of shots I worked on and raises my hopes that I made the final cut - I have to admit that, despite the self-depricating tone I took when writing about the film last year, it was pretty damn fun to be a part of. I feel like a living simulacrum.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The chai-wallah has done it again!

There's an absolutely exhilarating sequence towards the beginning of Slumdog Millionaire that finds Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail), two young brothers living in the slums of Mumbai, as they flee a police officer. Referencing his film Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle follows Salim and Jamal as they navigate the crowded, elaborate alleys of the slum - set to A.R. Rahman's propulsive score, each shot is packed with chaos, color and life before cutting to a series of wide shots that emphasizes the overwhelming poverty of the city. It's a scene that gives you a feel for the experience of living in Mumbai, but Slumdog Millionaire never recaptures that feeling. Mistaking contrivance for destiny, Slumdog Millionaire is technically impressive but gimmicky and devoid of real feeling and, at its worst, frighteningly disconnected from the reality of slum life.

"But it's a fantasy," one might reasonably argue, and Slumdog Millionaire does present itself as a story of a boy and a girl swept up by the winds of destiny. The film begins with 20-year-old Jamal (Dev Patel), whose hard-knock life has left him with only one facial expression, as he is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. As the show breaks for the night, Jamal is arrested on suspicion of cheating and interrogated by a police inspector (Irfan Khan) determined to know how Jamal could succeed where doctors and lawyers have failed; "it is written," as the film informs us, and as Jamal explains how he knew the answers to each question, we see how each one is tied to an important moment to his life. This results in an episodic structure that Paul Clark aptly compared to the Cheers episode where Cliff is a contestant on Jeopardy! - I must admit that I had to hold back unintentional laughter when, after we see a tragic memory linked with one of the answers, Jamal solemly says "Not a day goes by when I wish I didn't know the answer to that question." The whole "hand of fate" theme can be a very effective one, but there are probably hundreds of more interesting devices to illustrate this than a game show. And when fate is being used to pander to an audience's anti-intellectualism and desire for instant material rewards, the whole thing just feels shallow and patronizing. The film's outcome, which is never in question, would feel much more triumphant if Jamal exhibited some kind of intellectual curiosity - underdog stories are pointless if the underdog hasn't earned it in some way (without the training montage, who cares if Rocky Balboa beats Apollo Creed).

It's clear that Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (adapting the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup) are reaching for comparison to Charles Dickens, and Jamal's childhood even features an interlude where he, Salim and Jamal's lifelong love Latika (Frieda Pinto at 20, Rubiana Ali and Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar as a kid) must escape a Faginesque criminal. And though Slumdog Millionaire shares with Dickens an essentially passive protagonist whose life is driven by forces beyond his control, it lacks the passionate criticism of social injustice that gave Dickens' larger-than-life tales dramatic weight. Worse, its shallowness exposes Boyle's paternalism - sitting in a mostly white audience chuckling at the sight of a plucky, shit-covered brown kid, I couldn't shake the feeling that something (forgive me) stinks. I don't mean to accuse Boyle of racism, because that implies more intentionality than I think he's capable of; with each subsequent film, it becomes clearer that he's a hell of a craftsman and an increasingly facile storyteller. This extends to his characters - the film hinges on the question of whether fate will reuinite Jamal and Latika (what do you think?), but they're barely sketches of an adolescent notion of soulmates, and I just didn't care.

There is one element of Slumdog Millionaire I completely loved, however - Anil Kapoor as the game show host. Throughout the first two-thirds of the film I was hanging on every one of Kapoor's smarmy, elusive line readings, trying to figure out what the host's deal was - is he an agent of fate, or is he trying to trip the kid up, or is he just playing to the audience? When we get hints about the host's background and motivations, my attention drifted from Jamal and Latika as I started to picture the host's story in my head. Now that's a movie that would earn an end-credits dance number.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Away We Go!

The trailer for Away We Go, the Sam Mendes movie I worked on last year, is now online. I wish I could point out a scene I'm in, but other than having watched a camera car film the scene at 1:28, I don't know yet whether any scenes I'm in made the final cut. As for the movie itself, it looks cute, perhaps a bit twee for my tastes, but definitely an interesting change-up for Mendes after the brutal (and, according to commenter Mattson Thomson, brutal to make) Revolutionary Road. Between this and Taking Woodstock (and possibly The Maiden Heist), it's looking like I'm the Where's Waldo? of summer 2009.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A homosexual with power - that's scary!

If I were to evaluate films solely on the importance of their ideas, Milk would be the best movie of 2008. Gus Van Sant's biopic of slain politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk has been in development for over a decade and gone through multiple directors and stars only to be released soon after the painful blow against gay rights it unknowingly foreshadows. Milk is not the best movie of 2008 - it transcends many of the conventions of biopics but is weighed down by others. But its rough patches are easily forgiven thanks to its big heart; Milk is a passionate, humane story not only of Harvey Milk but of the ongoing struggle for equal rights for all. Most importantly, Milk is a challenge to contemporary complacency and a much-needed reminder that the battles Milk waged are still being fought today.

A large part of Milk's success, however, is its lack of self-importance. Van Sant has never been an overtly political filmmaker, and while Milk is a departure from his more experimental recent films, it works as well as it does because it grounds its politics in very personal terms. We're introduced to Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) on the eve of his fortieth birthday, as he picks up young Scott Smith (James Franco) in a subway station. Penn is immediately believable in the role, embodying Milk's sensitivity and puckish sense of humor and conveying, with a quick glance after a stolen kiss, the fear of being outed that even this strong advocate for the importance of coming out once felt. His performance is revelatory, never slipping into caricature and emphasizing Milk's overwhelming, almost compulsive, generosity of spirit (forced to drop his assholish persona, he's also geniunely sexy for the first time since At Close Range). He and Franco have strong chemistry - though the film is never sexually explicit, moments like the shot of Harvey and Scott, having moved to San Francisco, making out against the storefront of Harvey's photo shop have a relaxed, matter-of-fact intimacy that goes a long way towards normalizing representations of homosexuality. Harvey's shop becomes a haven for young gay men like future activist Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch, sporting an excellent 'fro), and as Harvey is finally motivated to stand on a literal soapbox and announce his candidacy for local office, the film makes a strong case for the importance of activism not for the sake of political gain as expression of basic and unacknowledged human needs. The meticulously recreated protest marches later in the film (intercut with real footage from the era) owe their impact to the earlier scenes - political and personal revolution, to Van Sant, are the same thing.

There's always a risk in telling the story of a slain hero of becoming pure hagiography, and the screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, while mostly successful, sometimes flirts with agitprop. Harvey's relationship with the troubled, jealous Jack Lira (Diego Luna) could have been a chance to explore the more complicated aspects of Harvey's role as Peter Pan to a generation of lost boys, but the script's narrative shortcuts and Luna's awkward performance diminish the emotional payoff. And two scenes involving a young, wheelchair-bound gay man, while based in fact, are clumsily manipulative and should have never made it past the first draft. The film is more nuanced in its depiction of Dan White (Josh Brolin), Harvey's fellow supervisor and, ultimately, the man who killed Milk and mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). While it would have been easy to villify White as a caricature of a homophobe, Black and Van Sant try to understand him, portraying White as a man uncomfortable in his own skin and unable to shake an increasing feeling of disenfranchisement (I suspect a lot of white men feel the same way post-election). Brolin is excellent in the film's most challenging role, and Van Sant and DP Harris Savides frame Milk and White's scenes together in uncomfortably off-balance wide shots that emphasize the divide between one man trying to reach an understanding and another who is incapable or unwilling to understand. Milk's death scene is admirably restrained; as the frame rate subtly changes and the soundtrack drops out, Penn and Van Sant (referencing Milk's love of opera) give their hero a moment of grace as he dies alone and in the way he anticipated.

It's impossible, particularly in the scenes involving the battle against the Anita Bryant-endorced Proposition 6, not to think of the hateful, stupid Proposition 8 and the ongoing struggle for equal rights. The victory of Prop 8 can be largely attributed to the complacency of liberals who regard gay marriage as a hot-button issue; a forward-thinking friend cringes whenever Milk is mentioned, complaining he's tired of movies that "cram a message I already agree with down my throat." Fair enough, except that Milk doesn't preach to the choir and might actually move those who need it most. I realize it would be hard to get those who oppose gay rights to actually watch Milk, not just because they're afraid they might see a blowjob or something, but because they're so fond of criticizing movies they haven't seen (or, better yet, reduce them to a series of lame gay cowboy jokes). But I hope that, a year from now, some of them stumble upon it on cable while channel-surfing. If they're not moved by the closing documentary footage of a thousands-strong candlelight vigil populated by men and women united by a desire for acceptance and love, they should probably check to make sure their hearts are beating.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

And I'm going to Tangiers!

I know how uncool it is to love American Beauty, and I'm sort of embarrassed that I do. I still think it's the perfect movie for a 16-year-old - seeing it at that age, it affected me in a profound way, and for that I'll always remember it fondly as a specific kind of masterpiece. That said, every time I watch it, I find myself thinking more and more of my friend Garrison's admission that, during the plastic bag scene, he couldn't stop thinking about cigar-chomping teamsters manning leaf blowers just out of frame. There's no question that Sam Mendes' films are meticulously designed, and the effect is fascinating for some and oppressive for others. Revolutionary Road, Mendes' adaptation of the classic Richard Yates novel, is his most fastidious film yet, but here, the oppressive feeling is wholly intentional. The most scabrous relationship movie since Bad Timing, Revolutionary Road is like a dark B-side to American Beauty's search for poetry in the banality of suburbia - here, there are no signifiers of beauty to be found, death provides no epiphanies, and the sensitive young man in the neighborhood reveals not spiritual awareness but hypocrisy and self-delusion. Dour and unsparing, Revolutionary Road is Mendes' best and most surprising movie yet; I must finally admit to myself that, cool or not, I'm a fan.

Yates' book tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple trying to break free of suburban conformity, in a terse, often blunt style, laying bare their self-delusions with the dispassionate clarity of an entomologist studying insects wriggling on a pin. The movie is as much a dissection as the book, starting as it does with a sharp cut from Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) flirting at a party, their lives filled with possibility, to the now-married Frank awkwardly applauding April, once an aspiring actress, looking defeated at the curtain call of a mediocre community play. We learn that Frank and April moved to suburban Connecticut when she became unexpectedly pregnant, with Frank taking a job at the same business firm his father slaved at for decades. In the first of several brutal arguments in the film, we learn that Frank and April have fallen victim to exactly what most young marrieds fear, the complacency and stagnation they vowed they were above. It's fair to ask whether the book, published in 1961, has any contemporary relevance, and whether we really need another indictment of suburbia. Which is fair, except that's not the point of the book or the movie - it's clear from the start that April and Frank, with their pretensions and arrogant belief that they're better than the people surrounding them, have chosen and doomed themselves to unhappiness. Mendes' snappy, Billy Wilder-influenced sense of mise-en-scene, coupled with the attractive, antiseptic production design (reminiscent of Interiors), invites not comical scorn but understanding - wouldn't it be easier, after all, to just give up?

While Frank reacts by doing the bare minimum at work and screwing a secretary (Zoe Kazan), April is determined to turn her life around, proposing to Frank that they move to Paris (Frank has often complained that Europe is the only place for intelligent people to live), where she'll get a job and support Frank as he figures out what to do with his life. As this plan first renews their passion for each other before going awry, Mendes' cannily exploits our memories of his famous leads (though if I read one more review that says "This time, the iceberg is their marriage," I'll gag). Winslet (whose performance I wrote about in greater detail here) is astonishing as April, juggling a complex range of emotions in the character's increasing anomie. DiCaprio is given perhaps an even more challenging role - while both characters receive plenty of criticism from Yates, the film's April is at least conscious of her own mistakes, while Frank is gradually exposed as a bullshit artist with middling daddy issues - and, to his credit, he commits to playing a severely unlikable character in a performance that recalls Jack Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge. When Frank and April square off, we're reminded of the undeniable chemistry that made Titanic work, and it's quite a thing to see that chemistry turn sour.

Revolutionary Road captures the novel's tragic, somber tone, but what surprises most about the film is its grasp of the book's underlying black comedy. Watching the film, I became increasingly aware of how it depicts the mundane as completely bizarre and grotesque - nosy neighbor Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates) is photographed to look like a gorgon, and Frank's alcoholic workmate Jack Ordway (Dylan Baker), with his bizarrely aristocratic accent and strange timing, seems like he could kill everyone in the office at any moment. By the time Mrs. Givings' son John (Michael Shannon) visits from the local mental insitution to offer his two cents to the Wheelers, the film becomes a sort of baroque farce. While it's true that John is a writerly device, a way for Yates to say what the other characters won't, the character works for two reasons. First, Shannon is fearfully good in the role, as much a force of nature as Heath Ledger's Joker. Second, John's not insane - like many of the kids I grew up with, he's been hospitalized for his sensitivity and inability to "play the game." It may be cliche, but the truth is that the suburbs can be a destructive environment for anyone who refuses to settle. If the fights in the film's last half feel melodramatic, it's only because small-town life is punctuated by melodrama and just plain bad drama (as the opening scene suggests). Nobody is better than Mendes at portaying middlebrow banality; if you're sick of middlebrow banality, well, I totally get that, but for this suburb-raised kid, it's good therapy.