Friday, November 30, 2007

You Kill Me, Southland Tales & Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

You Kill Me
Every once in a while a movie comes along in which the filmmakers know exactly what they’re doing, which is precisely how I felt within the first few moments of You Kill Me, a razor-sharp comedy directed by John Dahl from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, starring Ben Kingsley as an alcoholic hitman, Frank. When Frank falls asleep on the job and the target gets away, Roman, his Mafioso brother (Philip Baker Hall), orders him to join the AA and clean up his act. The rest of the plot (involving Dennis Farina as a rival mob boss muscling in on Roman’s turf) is at best functional, but with a premise like this—hit-man forced to quit drinking so he can carry on killing—who cares? The casting of Kingsley as Frank is inspired, and Dahl returns to form as a director, his last film of note being Rounders, back in 1998. The film delivers on its giddy promise pretty much all the way, and unlike most other nihilistic-comedies-about-lovable-hitmen, there’s nothing mean-spirited about it. It doesn’t glorify Frank’s work, but it never holds it against him either. It’s dark, but it has heart.

Since playing Gandhi in 1982, Kingsley has steadily evolved from an accomplished, rather dull actor into a sneaky, playful presence; he seems especially at home playing heavies, and Frank may be his best role to date. Tea Leoni, Bill Pullman, Luke Wilson, and Marcus Thomas all bring a special flourish to their work, and make up a motley bunch of endearing, slightly off-the-wall characters (the exceptions are Farina and Hall, who have played these roles too many times before). The film rather fizzles out towards the end—it badly needs an ingenious twist or action sequence to round it off—but for most of its length it’s a real gem: diamond hard and razor-sharp. Frank takes pride in being good at his job, but he has a conscience. He doesn’t regret killing people, just the kills that weren’t “clean.” The film is gleefully morbid. It’s death-affirming.

Southland Tales
Richard Kelly’s long-awaited follow-up to 2001’s Donnie Darko arrives on a wave of bad press after its 2006 screening at Cannes, and alas, reports were not exaggerated. Southland Tales is painfully sophomoric and entirely devoid of the wit, intelligence and pathos that made Donnie Darko such a unique experience. Aspiring to be a sci-fi epic, the film was shot on a tiny budget in only thirty days, and the film looks (and sounds) like an “avant-garde” American TV show, with performances (a bland cast lead by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Sarah Michelle Geller) on about the same level. Everything about Southland Tales is horribly botched; it even manages to make Miranda Richardson look like a bad actress, a major feat in itself.

Whatever Kelly’s vision was, it was hopelessly scrambled on the way to the screen. What’s left is an undisciplined mishmash of ill-conceived, poorly executed scenes going nowhere and a lot of slapstick violence and smug, “surrealist” jokes reminiscent of David Lynch on a bad day. Kelly is insanely ambitious and he throws just about everything into the mix—Biblical prophecies, teenage porn, corporate conspiracies, rigged elections, time travel, world war three—everything except believable characters, engaging dialogue, or a plot that makes any sense. When Kelly’s not aping Lynch he’s coat-tailing Kubrick (he makes his inspirations plain with the soundtrack, probably the most enjoyable thing in the film), but he has sacrificed his own sensibility on the altar of his movie idols. In the process of realizing his grandiose satiric-apocalyptic vision of “Life on Earth,” he short-circuited his talent. Without narrative framework or coherent vision, Southland Tales is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
Written and directed by Zach Helm (who wrote last year’s underrated Stranger Than Fiction), Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium tells the tale of a 243-year-old toy shop proprietor (Dustin Hoffman) and his faithful store manager Molly (Natalie Portman). When Magorium decides his time to depart has come, he chooses Molly as his heir, but Molly doubts her ability to fill her mentor’s magical shoes. Helm is aiming for a kind of archetypal fairy tale complete with Tim Burton-style carnival antics, but nothing seems to come naturally to him. He’s straining for effects and the strings are showing, and most of the time he relies on a soaring orchestral score do his work for him. The music lets us know when we’re supposed to be moved, and audiences may go along with the film simply because it works so hard at being liked. But besides the irresistible high of seeing Natalie Portman finding her witchcraft, nothing has much resonance here. It’s all bright surfaces with nothing behind them. Where Stranger Than Fiction achieved a magical realism, combining a sharp psychological edge with Capra-esque sweetness, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is all sweetness and no edge. It’s cotton candy, and without nuances or depth, the result is as flat and inconsequential as a cartoon show. We might at least have hoped for an inventive star turn from Hoffman, but he comes off as a mincing, cloying presence. The whole film is cloying, in fact. Magic that isn’t anchored in reality is just confetti to distract from the fact that nothing is really going on. The film is kid’s stuff, a likeable trifle. Considering the talent involved, it’s a major disappointment.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reign Over Me: The Healing Power of Tears

I seem to be doing a lot of sobbing at the movies these days. Maybe it’s me—it’s been a rough year, and if sadness makes the heart grow tender, then a tender heart feels sadness all the more acutely (it’s a bittersweet circle). The business of living day to day tends to get in the way of processing the sorrow of being alive—who has time to get through it all?! Thank God for the movies. With all that sorrow banked up inside us, just waiting to break on through, all it takes is the right kind of shove for the flood gates to come crashing open. At least, that’s how it is for me.

I admit I am a sucker for sad movies (and sad songs, hell, sad anything); I even shed a tear at Titanic, much to my shame. But what the hell: if a little artfully (or trashily) rendered heartache allows us to tap into the all-too-real sadness locked up inside us, why not? It’s great therapy. (This is probably why I prefer to see movies alone, or at least with someone as “sensitive” as I am.) But there’s a difference between a mawkish tear sheepishly shed in response to the shameless manipulations of Hollywood, and the kind of out and out sobbing of which I am now talking.

First there was Atonement, a film that built to a crescendo of sadness and seemed to tap into a universal sorrow, a cosmic melancholy that had nothing to do, finally, with the specific story or the characters, and everything to do with a basic human regret for what might have been, and the longing for what can never be. Such regret and longing seems to be what being in love—which is the defining experience of being human—is all about, and Atonement captured something indefatigable and mysterious about the human condition. Is this why they say love hurts? Not because it goes awry (though it usually does), but because the act of loving opens us up in such a way—tenderizes us—so that everything hurts? To feel such tenderness for one’s beloved is to feel empathy for all creatures everywhere, and yes, it hurts terribly. But it’s a joyful sorrow, because we know that only through feeling such empathy are we really alive.

Into the Wild also had me blubbing almost uncontrollably by the end. I could hear people in the audience shifting in their seats and sense their resistance to the power of the movie, the awful pain of loss which it was trying to communicate, but that they’d rather rationalize away than have to experience, even in a movie. People are frightened of that kind of intensity, and they resent and reject movies that stir such deeper feelings in them. As a result, they miss out on the most valuable thing that art has to offer: true catharsis. Me, I love it. What could be better than working through one’s grief and sadness in the safety and comfort of a movie experience—weeping not for one’s own losses but for those of other people—people who (some of the time, at least, though not in the case of Into the Wild) don’t even exist? If we can come out of a movie feeling like a loved one just died or like our hearts have been torn to shreds by forces beyond our control or understanding, then we know we just saw something. We have had a taste of what living is all about: intensity of feeling. (Other films that left me feeling this way: Blue Velvet, Casualties of War, A Midnight Clear, United States of Leland.)

The latest movie to do me in is not quite in this class, but it’s well worth a look. It’s called Reign Over Me, with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle, two wonderful actors who do some terrific work here. Sandler is especially good, as Charlie Fineman, a father and husband whose family is killed in a plane crash on 9/11, and who retreats into a foggy fantasy world, safe from the reach of other people and from his own unbearable grief, until Cheadle comes along and draws him back to reality. This is basically the same or similar story to The Fisher King, but Reign Over Me is not a fantastic or mythical tale, it’s a more straightforward drama, and I had my doubts about the film before seeing it. It’s written and directed by Mike Binder, who did The Upside of Anger, an enjoyable and intelligent film (Binder’s an actor also and he has a role in Reign as Charlie’s obnoxious lawyer). Using a personal 9/11 tragedy sounded like a dangerously sentimental and earnest departure point for a movie, and I was expecting the kind of “healing” feel-good fluff that Hollywood does so poorly. But Reign Over Me is a wonderful movie, unpretentious and not in the least bit pious. It’s light on its feet but it packs a real wallop. Admittedly, it sticks fairly close to a feel-good formula and it’s a very slick package, all told, so you’d be forgiven for dismissing it as just another Hollywood product. Binder’s film doesn’t take any major risks; it’s the kind of film you could take your grandparents to—a film for everyone—not something that can ever be said about a genuine work of art. But if it’s not a work of art, it’s a beautifully rendered tale with a smart, heartfelt script, and whatever shortcomings the film has, Adam Sandler transcends them all. With Sandler’s remarkable performance at its center, the film has a big and tender heart, and a true sense of pathos; it may be the fullest, most satisfying depiction of grief I’ve ever seen in a movie. Reign Over Me sneaks up on you; it starts off gentle and funny and unassuming, but if you succumb to its unusual blend of sharpness and tenderness, by the end it will have rent your heart in two. Reign Over Me argues for the healing power of tears. It sure persuaded me.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Into the Wild: Snapshots of the Heart

Based on Jon Krakauer’s book about the true story of Chris McCandless, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a powerful movie. As a writer-director, Penn has a way of cutting to the bone of his subject—he has an eye and ear that is almost unique in American movies, and he manages to be soulful without a trace of sentimentality (he gets away with lines that would turn to mush in anyone else’s hands). There’s a core of pathos to his film which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.

This may be personal prejudice: the story of a young post-graduate student who gives up his inheritance and abandons a cozy life to wander across the US without a word to his family, and who ends up dying alone in the wilderness of Alaska, has special resonance for me because I did something similar, at almost the same age as McCandless. I didn’t go to the wilds of Alaska and live in a bus—I went to Morocco and lived hand-to-mouth on the streets of Tangier—but the intent was the same: to get free from the suffocating context (and comforts) of a life that had defined me, and see what remained.

Chris McCandless is played by Emile Hirsch, last seen as the despicable Johnny Truelove in Alpha Dog, and it’s hard to imagine two more different roles. Hirsch has just the right qualities of strength and guilelessness here, the innocence and stubbornness that characterized McCandless. Chris is only interested in getting to the truth, whatever the cost in suffering (starting with his own: since his heart was broken, he has no qualms about breaking anyone else’s). By the end of his journey (we know this because he kept a journal), he realizes that whatever truth or happiness he finds in the wild is meaningless without someone to share it with. His desire to connect to Nature and so come to know his own truth is incomplete without a connection to others. This may be the final truth that McCandless realized; in a way, it’s the truth that killed him—or rather, that he had to die to discover.

It’s tempting to call Into the Wild a tragedy. It’s devastatingly painful to watch and the tendency is to seek a word to encompass that pain. But I don’t think it’s true; Chris made a choice to live on his terms; if someone had asked him if he was willing to die for them, I have no doubt he would have said yes. He died doing exactly what he wanted to do, and where’s the tragedy in that? If anything, Chris was an old-fashioned hero on a traditional quest for truth, but he was not a tragic hero. His “flaw” was in his naiveté, but this was inseparable from his integrity and vision: he knew he might die in Alaska but went anyway. He was prepared; it’s just that his preparations weren’t enough.

It's been years since I read the book, but so far as I know (and by most accounts), the film sticks close to Krakauer's account, which was itself close to being an accurate report of Chris' journey. Yet Into the Wild has the strength and simplicity—the moral force—of a fable, and with any luck that’s what audiences will respond to (those who don’t reject Chris outright as “selfish” or arrogant and dismiss his death as meaningless). What Chris chose—to leave it all behind and return to the wilderness to find out what he was made of—is surely something any sensitive person in today’s world can relate to. But it was more than a London-esque test of manhood or rite of passage (though it was certainly that), it was the searching of a poetic soul for meaning, of a highly sensitive and intelligent kid determined to strip away the layers that came between him and the truth, to remove all the masks and see what was behind them. In a way, Chris’ death was testimony not to his own folly, his obsession, but to the world’s failure to provide any meanings for Chris to believe in. The tragedy, then, is the tragedy of the world, a world represented by Chris’ parents, who pay the ultimate price for their failure, which is their incapacity to love their son in a way that is truthful.

If Chris unconsciously chose to die rather than to live in a world in which he found nothing—no values—worth living for, who can blame him? His death had more meaning than the life his parents wished for him ever could: it was at least his own meaning, his choice. As a writer and director, Sean Penn doesn’t belabor any of this. He doesn’t make the mistake of bringing the parable-like qualities of his tale to the surface. He focuses on the story and on bringing his characters to life, and lets the rest take care of itself; the metaphor is all the more powerful for being “found” rather than imposed. This is a true story, and what Penn has in common with his protagonist is an absolute commitment to—and an almost prodigious gift for—honesty. Scene for scene, I don’t think there is a single false note in the movie, and though the film is long, there’s nothing here that feels superfluous. All the characters bring something unique to the story; their presence serves to develop Chris as a character, giving him a context he would otherwise lack—their affection deepens him in our eyes. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as Chris’s parents, Jena Malone as his sister, Vince Vaughn as his friend and employer Wayne, Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as an aging hippie couple he rides with, Hal Holbrook as Ron Franz, Kristen Stewart, as the achingly beautiful teenage girl who takes Chris to Salvation mountain, all provide bittersweet memories—snapshots of the heart—that Chris takes with him into the wild.

Penn occasionally overdoes his effects, most particularly his use of slow motion, and at times the film veers dangerously close to narcissism with imagery fit for aftershave commercials. And there are a couple of times when he borders on self-consciousness (such as when the old man Ron talks of God’s light and the sun breaks through the clouds); but these are just glitches in an otherwise flawless tapestry. Into the Wild is a tour-de-force, and yet (besides these moments) it never seems to be working on getting an emotional reaction. Penn doesn’t mess around; he gets his effects and moves on, his style is clean and confident—both poetic and prosaic at the same time. He lets the power of the images—and the emotional punch of the tale itself—carry the movie along. The film builds gradually, lyrically, with all the grace and tempo of an epic poem, into a devastating crescendo of imagery and a heartbreaking climax.

The empathy Penn shows for his characters (inseparable from the actors), his affinity for everyday Middle America (the film is shot entirely on location, often in Chris' exact "footprint," according to Penn), and the honesty and pathos of the film would be remarkable in any artist, but for someone once married to Madonna who has spent the past twenty-five years as a world famous movie star (Penn’s breakthrough role was in Taps, at 21 years old), it’s testimony to Penn’s integrity as an artist that the film is almost entirely devoid of inauthentic touches or condescension. It seems to come directly from his heart to us.

Into the Wild is an X-ray of the heart, showing all its intricacies and flaws, its longings and wounds. It draws a delicate yet raw portrait of the human condition honestly and compassionately, and it reveals the tragedy, not in Chris’ death, but in the possibility that his death was the only honest response to a life he refused to take part in. What Penn has done—besides the formidable task of presenting this sorrowful tale in a straightforward and truthful fashion—is what the greatest poets have always strived to do: to reveal the soul’s longings, and reflect our own souls back at us.

As Pauline Kael once wrote (of Francis Coppola’s Godfather Part Two): that’s the voice of the authentic hero.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Devil Wears Prada, Mr Brooks

OK, after that last one, don't expect any long, philosophical posts for a while, I feel pretty much talked out so far as that goes, and I guess disrupting routines and becoming inaccessible might include no longer broadcasting all my latest realizations and so, potentially, letting the air out of them. We'll see if it works but meanwhile I am going to try and keep up this blog more regularly albeit also in a lighter and more journal-esque fashion. I just got a few commissions to write some reviews for The List, a Scottish magazine (like Time Out for Edinburgh) and I'll be sure and post any and all reviews I write for them here at the blog.

I continue to watch movies at an average of maybe four or five a week; recently I saw The Devil Wears Prada, which to my surprise I quite enjoyed, mostly for Meryl Streep's beautifully nuanced performance. This is normally the sort of movie I would feel almost morally obliged to despise, but it was actually very nicely put together, slick and often facile, yes, but also lively and sharp, and as light and pleasing as puff pastry. Also, Stanley Tucci is always a pleasure to watch, and Anne Hathway is certainly easy on the eyes. But Streep is a revelation. She has become an actress to watch, after two decades of lifelessly studied performances, she has really come into her own in the last ten years or so.

Mr. Brooks is probably the worst movie that I have enjoyed in a long time - there's no reason this preposterous nonsense should make even a passably entertaining movie, but somehow it does. Mostly it's because of Costner (as Brooks) and Hurt (as Brooks' personal devil), and the delightful running repartee they keep up through the film. Like You Kill Me - which I'll review here soon - it's about a killer who goes to AA meetings, the difference being that here Brooks is addicted to killing, not booze, and yes, he is trying valiantly to quit! His condition goes so deep, however, that it's congential - his daughter has inherited his blood lust too. Then there is Dane Cook as a sleazy amateur photographer who gets shots of Brooks' at work and blackmails him into letting him come along on his next murder. Most risable of all, there's Demi Moore as a tough-as-nails, hunch-following cop who is also a millionaire heiress. Oh, and let us not forget another serial killer called the Hangman who has escaped from jail and wants revenge on Demi for putting him away, and yes, all these separate strands are woven together without a shred of concern for the finer points of realism. By all rights, Mr. Brooks should be an out-and-out stinker, but somehow, it's rather fun. Not that I am recommending it, however. I was probably just in the mood for a brazenly bad movie. Costner remains an enjoyably inventive, underrated actor, however, and Hurt is never less than scintillating. He seems to have taken of late to playing scions of darkness, and like Kingsley, it suits him to a T.