The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Full review behind the jump


: Stefen Fangmeier
: Screenplay by Peter Buchman, based on the novel by Christopher Paolini
: John Davis, Wyck Godfrey
: Ed Speleers, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Guillory, Robert Carlyle, John Malkovich, Garrett Hedlund, and featuring the voice of Rachel Weisz

What’s in a name?
Eragon, the screen adaptation of the fantasy novel sensation written by Christopher Paolini (15 at the time he started the first volume), features a hero whose name sounds an awful lot like Aragorn of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And both occupy a fantasy realm of dragons, magic, and innumerable humble villages with thatched roofs begging to be torched.

But this is no rose that smells just as sweet. I have not read Paolini’s novels, so my words are addressed only to this movie version – which plays exactly like one’s worst assumptions of a fantasy novel written by a 15-year old. The dressings are Tolkein, but the story is pure George Lucas, a point-by-point re-entactment of plot events from the original
Star Wars movie almost absurd in its scrupulousness.

The first
Star Wars captured audiences with pop enthusiasm, even its sorrowful moments had a neat-o prettiness to them. And The Lord of the Rings showed a similar unabashed pride in its tone of adventurous heft – it took its emotions seriously. Eragon, their self-doubting offspring, is a movie that seems afraid of being taken too seriously, of getting its actors too dirty, of making its monsters too scary. There’s one moment where we achieve a visual of (literally) fiery majesty, and in spite of the movie’s failures I’m ready to be aroused by wonderment just in time for the climax. And immediately afterwards, Eragon (newcomer Ed Speelers, who could win a Mark Hamill look-a-like contest if such contests were held) says “I’ll take that as a yes”, one of those maddeningly arch lines writers always think sound cool, but only serve to undercut our eagerness to actually feel something. It’s like that old schoolyard game where someone lunges at you, then punches you for flinching.

The story goes that in the kingdom of Alagaesia, everything used to be wonderful, and the peace of all the realms was watched over by the dragon-riders, whose bond with their flying, fire-breathing mounts also gave them magical powers. But then, a dark and treacherous one of their number named Galbatorix (John Malkovich) turned the dragon riders against each other so they could be wiped out and he could reign supreme. But there is a prophecy that a new rider will emerge and stand against him, which is why he’s been jealously guarding the last dragon egg, so it might never hatch and find its owner.

Well, the egg does get stolen, and it does find its way to Eragon, a simple farm boy (sound familiar?) living in the middle of nowhere with his uncle, his parents gone for mysterious reasons (sound familiar again?) Eragon doesn’t imagine he could ever actually be part of something bigger, but he does dream of adventure, and listens raptly to the stories about dragon-riders told by the wily Brom (Jeremy Irons), who everyone thinks is just a crazy old man. And if you’ve already figured out who Brom’s parallel is, I don’t need to tell you anything else about what his character does, or what happens to him, because you’ve seen it already.

There’s another, less-talked-about tradition that Star Wars helped create, which was paying large sums of money to distinguished thespians to lend their aura of credibility to the proceedings. Academy Award-winner Irons has shown he is not at all shy about this, providing one of the all-time greatest examples of rip-snortingly elocuted Hammy Acting in Dungeons & Dragons. And although as Brom so many of his scenes boil down to wandering around the woods with Eragon explaining the plot, he finds a way to inject some sly verve. Malkovich, newer to this world of gravitas-whoring, fares less well, spending what I swear couldn’t be more than four minutes of total screen time making tetchy pronouncements of villainy in front of the same stone wall. A sharp line producer could have had his role in the can before lunchtime.

The bulk of the evil-doing, then, falls to Robert Carlyle in the role of dark wizard Durza, who has kidnapped a Princess (Sienna Guillory) and is holding her captive in a giant fortress. Eragon has a vision of her that inspires him to dash off on a rescue-mission with his newly-grown dragon Sephira, who is basically a Millennium Falcon that can talk. And with the saucy voice of Rachel Weisz, I am not one to complain.

There are clashes with sword and staff and spell; one-on-one fights and vast battlefields. There’s computer-generated creepies and lots of swooping shots of beautiful scenery. Eragon is a movie that understands all the gestures of its forbearers but none of its heart.

It’s a spectacle that lacks resonance or depth, and looks suspiciously like the result of producers grabbing for source material that, although it sounded an awful lot like those other money-making movies, didn’t have enough of its own resonance or depth to draw from. Between Peter Buchman’s indifferent dialogue, and visual effects supervisor-turned-first-time director Stefen Fangmeier’s unfocused direction, there’s the overriding sense that they realized this, and because of it, no one felt like really working very hard on this story. And if they can’t be bothered to feel wonder and passion, why should we?

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Friday, January 26, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Little Children

Full review behind the jump

Little Children

: Todd Field
: Todd Field & Tom Perrotta, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta
: Todd Field, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Gregg Edelman, Sadie Goldstein, Ty Simpkins, Noah Emmerich, Jackie Earle Haley, Phyllis Somerville

Why’d you do that?
I don’t know.

That exchange is the heart of
Little Children, a movie which is about our darkest urges and the way they propel us beyond the flimsy fence posts we stake out in life. But for all that is painful and damaging in this adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel about suburban anomie, it is also, I cannot think of a better word, enchanting. Director Todd Field’s previous film In the Bedroom also found a way to put mesmerizing focus on the tones of domestic misery, I cannot think of another American filmmaker working who balances loneliness and beauty with such nervy control – he always knows just how long to swell up a balloon of feeling before popping it.

The road into this upper-class neighborhood was paved by
American Beauty – the distinction is that Beauty had an overt theatricality to it; it was, from director Sam Mendes’s stage roots, a lushly-designed presentation of these feelings, and quite effective. Little Children wants to take us inside these frightening mysteries of want, and still find the means to bask in the way sunlight looks on a summer day by the pool.

It is about many other things as well – how our smallest and most thoughtless gestures can have bottomless meaning to others, how a life without overt drama or danger only stimulates the mind’s need to create some, and most of all about children – how perplexing they are, and how our responsibility for them becomes overwhelming when magnified by the ways their half-formed personalities express themselves. An unseen narrator with a hypnotically-soothing voice says of housewife Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) that the reason she takes her little daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein) to the park every day is because otherwise “
she’d probably go crazy, trapped in the house all day with this unknowable little person”.

It is one of the best films I can ever remember about children simply being children. Not saying cute catch phrases or radiating some sanctified innocence; but, day by day, sorting out the world with their clumsy appendages and clumsier vocabulary. I do not know how the filmmakers were able to put these children alongside these adult actors pretending to be their parents and achieve such a natural relationship – there is a tight but almost assumed way in which a child grips its father, this movie sees it and replicates it.

It is not just between Sarah and her daughter, but Brad (Patrick Wilson) and his son Aaron (Ty Simpkins). Brad is a stay-at-home husband whose wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) makes documentaries. This is another way in which the movie is about the dramatic form in our lives – in one telling scene we watch a child talking about a tragedy, see Kathy’s reaction, and then cut away to reveal she’s simply watching the scene on a monitor in an editing suite. The way her editor non-chalantly asks her about food obliterates the momentary spell that both she and we were under – that we were actually there, feeling this child’s grief.

But Kathy puts bread on the table, and her relationship with Aaron is not unhappy – she’s encouraging him to study for the bar exam, he’s already failed it twice and prefers watching the skateboarders by the library and playing in a touch football league. It’s just that they have this tiny, needy wedge between them, stunting every conversation and sharing the bed at night.

Brad, who is fit and handsome, takes Aaron to the same park every day, where the housewives Sarah sits with dub him “The Prom King” and titter little imaginings amongst themselves about what his story must be. Sarah at last approaches him, and a connection is made that both sense is taking them in an unavoidable direction. Noting the change in the other wives’ attitudes when a fantasy starts to intrude on reality is educational – are they judging her or acting out their resentment at their own inability to address their dissatisfactions?

And while what in any other hands would be a rudimentary drama about infidelity carries on under Field’s impassioned vision (a forbidden urge in a laundry room has never looked more irresistible), there’s something much more sinister pulsing underneath. A middle-aged man named Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) has moved back in with his mother (Phyllis Somerville), having served a jail sentence for exposing himself to a minor.

McGorvey hates himself and hates the desires he cannot control. This is not an easy portrait of pedophilia, but it is not without sympathy, and Haley’s dedication to the performance is a marvel. In a way we’re not sure which is harder on him – that neighbors fear and harass him, posting fliers with his picture everywhere, or that his mother has such unshakable faith in him, and tells him he’s still a “good boy”.

On one miserably hot day he tries to go swimming at the community pool, and the scene ends up looking like something from Jaws. You cannot blame the parents for their fear; but you cannot blame him for wanting to cool off like everyone else, and yet, can he be trusted? The impossibility of that question haunts, even as we’re soaked in the beauty of the blue water, and the almost tranquil mayhem of dozens of children free with their joy.

At one point, when told his extreme actions are scaring the neighborhood’s children, a man with good intentions but bad feelings shouts “They SHOULD be scared!” It is always difficult to calculate when we are ascribing too much holiness to a child’s innocence, or when we are not allowing it enough room to evolve. We are meant to be their protectors, teachers and champions, so their fears can be the right size for them until they gain strength. The monster under the bed is exercise for the monster in the pool. All they understand about him now is that he makes Mommy scared, and that’s far more unsettling because it’s beyond their imagining.

Little Children
is about all sorts of exercise – jogging, masturbation, the construction of soap opera fantasies and the self-indulgent trips we take outside the boundaries of good behavior. We have ways of convincing ourselves that each is more than what it really is, but if we didn’t have them, cocooned in our enormous, tasteful houses, what would we do with ourselves then?

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

'Bout time I proved I actually am a writer

(X-Posted, well, everywhere)

That’s right! I’ve written a story, my first prose fiction since HIGH SCHOOL. And I’m posting the first draft for a select few folks to read and enjoy. Want to be one of them? Click on this link (no spam or viruses, I swears!):

Now just follow the step by step instructions, and you will (for better or worse) be treated to genuine Nicholas Thurkettle Literature. I’m excited about this experiment in what I guess you’d call closed-circuit web publishing, and I really hope as many of my friends as possible take part.

Hope you’re all well, and I miss you!

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

How I trick myself into Not Sucking

Every writer, at some point, absorbs the lesson that we must kill our darlings. The phrase or passage we have the most fondness for is probably superfluous, because we fall in love with something about its rhythm and ornamentation, we are no longer feeling the story in the way the reader does. So when you get to that amazing, cathartic process of cutting, beware that hesitance you feel when you know that something is not feeding the emotion of the moment, but you "like it" anyway.

This is about fear - you fear destroying it because you fear that you'll never be able to write a passage with such a precise "feel" again, so even if that "feel" is unnecessary, you fear deleting it like you'd fear cutting off a finger - it ain't like they grow back. No one ever gets good at this.

What I've started to do is, when I find a darling, I have a separate file I open up, and I cut and paste it into that. "
See?" I tell myself, "it's not gone forever. And if, once you've done the re-write, you find that the story is really missing that passage, it'll be back with a couple of keystrokes!"

And the amazing thing is - never once have I restored something I put in there. All those smartly-written, clever, useless passages of text. Every single one turned out to be unnecessary.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On Oscar Night, I'll be blaring "Gimme Shelter"

Full post behind the jump

My first girlfriend was an even bigger film snob than I am, and had a bigger collection of movies to boot, and it was something that we could always talk about even when things were bad. We’re not in contact any more, but the last exchange we had was two years ago just before the Academy Awards. I was thoroughly convinced that Martin Scorsese was finally going to win a directing Oscar for
The Aviator, I was thoroughly wrong. She expressed a strong desire that, if he was going to win one after so many masterpieces, that it ought to be for something more traditionally “Marty-like”. Translation – more guns and swearing and rapid close-ups and classic rock. I can dig.

I imagine she’s happy this morning, because the field of nominees for the Academy Awards honoring the films of 2006 stacks up pretty well for the Don of modern crime cinema. The nods are spread wide, not just among a large group of films, but all over the globe.
Babel, with its international cast and setting (see also: Volver, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Letters From Iwo Jima), and its incisive dramatization of Troubles in the World (paging Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland, and An Inconvenient Truth), is the unintended face of all this year’s themes, but I don’t think that makes it the front-runner. I don’t sense it’s made the cultural imprint it would need. Scorsese’s The Departed, I think, has the right mixture of undeniable excellence, critical support, and audience visibility – the Big Prize doesn’t always go to a movie with enormous box office, but demonstrating the ability to fill a theatre is a must.

And, if the studio PR departments play their cards right, they can create an aura of inevitability, that by gilding
The Departed voters are, in a way, also gilding Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, which are the master texts for the Scorsese cinematic language that finds such vigorous expression here. Much in the way the Academy sought to honor the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy by piling statues on its third and final episode, there is opportunity here for voters to feel like they’re settling a karmic debt and, because the movie’s damned good anyway, they don’t have to hold their nose while doing it.

There are general patterns, historical trends and ground rules for handicapping the Oscars, and I have to admit, this year’s going to skew a few of them. There’s an almost unprecedented bifurcation between the design-oriented categories and those “above-the-line” (meaning actors, writers, directors, etc.) Often you see at least one or two movies ring up 9, 10, or more nominations by covering both. But Oscar shunned the prime candidate for such broad achievement,
Children of Men, which currently sits at #1 on my personal list of the year’s films, and it’s a long way to #2.

This year the most nominations went to
Dreamgirls, but even that’s deceptive because of its eight nods, three came in the same category – Best Original Song. So while the craft honors went to beautiful spectacles like Dreamgirls and Pan’s Labyrinth, the Best Picture category is more weighted towards writing and performance, such as in the case of the gracefully quiet The Queen and the engagingly neurotic Little Miss Sunshine.

The five films nominated for Best Picture have a total of 26 nominations between them. To find that low a number again in Oscar history you have to go all the way back to the awards for 1932-33 (the big winner?
Cavalcade. It hasn’t aged well). But in that year there were only nine competitive categories for feature films (half of what’s available today), and except for Best Picture each award had only three nominees.

Numerically speaking then, this is provably the most diverse Oscar field in the modern era. And there’s quite a few I haven’t seen yet (
grumble, grumble). But that’s not as crucial for this particular writing, as I try and do a little first-hours handicapping of the major awards. We’re still in the first turn of the horse race, here, so early leaders may fade, but as of this morning, this is how I see it all shaking out:

Best Adapted Screenplay

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer, Todd Phillips
Children of Men Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
The Departed William Monahan
Little Children Todd Field, Tom Perrotta
Notes on a Scandal Patrick Marber

The Borat nod here is a clear acknowledgment that the Academy couldn’t bring themselves to bestow too much esteem on a movie with so much hairy nude wrestling, but had to grudgingly admit that it was a special achievement this year anyway. It would have been better to honor Cohen’s performance, but I think there may have been resistance to the idea that he had developed and played this character on TV prior to bringing it to features. The Academy still loathes television and anything that smells of it.

The screenplay category is traditionally a kind of “Miss Congeniality” clearinghouse for movies that are too edgy and unique for the old guard. Note the presence of Children of Men. The upside is, though, that it often results in deserving smaller-profile movies actually leaving with a statue by the end of the night. Two movies, I think, start out with advantages – Little Children, which matches the poetic insight into suburban malaise and fear shown by American Beauty and has a solid phalanx of positive reviews behind it, and The Departed, because of its general momentum and the impressive deftness and color with which William Monahan collapsed the plots of three already-complicated movies into one. Normally I would have given the first day edge to The Departed because of higher visibility, and because voters don’t have too many other categories to honor it in; but the Academy has recently shown a propensity to spread it around, which puts Little Children, unlikely to win elsewhere, in the driver’s seat for the moment.

Best Original Screenplay

Guillermo Arriaga
Letters from Iwo Jima
Iris Yamashita, Paul Haggis
Little Miss Sunshine
Michael Arndt
Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo Del Toro
The Queen
Peter Morgan

This requires some of the game theory developed by the main character of A Beautiful Mind, the most overrated Best Picture winner of the modern age. See, a voter who can’t give Best Picture to Babel will probably land here, but affection will be strong for Little Miss Sunshine, whose directors aren’t nominated and whose strengths draw so much from its script. Plus there’s been a quiet but effective campaign happening around Los Angeles on behalf of Peter Morgan’s wise script for The Queen, and gushing press about the collaboration between previous winner Paul Haggis (Crash and Million Dollar Baby) and first-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita on Letters from Iwo Jima, also likely to have its best shot at an award here.

Even Pan’s Labyrinth has a smaller but still significant opportunity, I’d venture, for the same reasoning: that voters might see this as the best forum to recognize its unique and moving marriage of storytelling methods. For the moment I have it as Sunshine by a nose, or a nostril hair, more like.

Best Supporting Actress

Adriana Barrazza as Amelia in Babel
Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart in Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin as Olive in Little Miss Sunshine
Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko in Babel

If we are going to be honest with ourselves, we’ll all admit that the reason Jennifer Hudson is competing in this category, and the reason why she starts the race as front-runner to win, is because of her singing. When doing anything else on-screen in Dreamgirls she came up woefully short, but every time the music kicked in, she made the movie special and took the audience in her crying embrace. When she sang, you believed her, simple as that. I don’t know how exactly you honor that, but I’ve got an uncomfortable feeling about trying to compare it to something like Cate Blanchett’s extraordinary depiction of a self-destructive and self-deluding schoolteacher in Notes on a Scandal.

Then again, one could say the same thing about this category pitting a mature master of her craft like Blanchett against the instinctive exuberance of ten-year-old Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, another performance worth honoring even if the nature of this competition makes for bizarre comparisons. But if anyone’s to play spoiler, I’d keep my eye on little Miss Breslin.

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Arkin as Grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine
Jackie Earle Haley as Ronnie J. McGorvey in Little Children
Djimon Hounsou as Solomon Vandy in Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy as James “Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls
Mark Wahlberg as Dignam in The Departed

Eddie Murphy has gone for years without the Academy admitting just how gifted he is. It would help, too, if he made fewer terrible movies. Both have now reached an accommodation – he’s selected a role that allowed him to channel his musical chops and gift for timing, as well as to show a more humble and wounded side. When he gets to Jimmie’s Rap, there’s more impact because we’ve already seen what he’s talking about, that although it will be his undoing, he won’t be stopped from being Jimmie. And the Academy has obliged by giving him a nomination, and probably a win, too.

Jackie Earle Haley will get some deserved extra work from his nomination, but the character he portrays, and portrays so well, will make people squeamish. It’s hard to watch a self-loathing convicted pedophile on screen and think “Yes, I want to give him a prize”. Mark Wahlberg’s nod is a most welcome surprise, in a movie that was a feast for alpha males he made the most out of what he was given. If it didn’t seem so much like this was the best opportunity the Academy will ever have to honor Murphy, I’d rate Wahlberg’s chances better. As it is, call him 2nd in the field for now.

Best Actress

Penélope Cruz as Raimunda in Volver
Dame Judi Dench as Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen
Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet as Sarah Pierce in Little Children

Everyone’s got a lot of catching up to do with Helen Mirren, whose Oscar buzz started well back in summer and hasn’t abated. There’s not much you can take away from either her performance or her résumé, this is probably her moment and there’s little anyone else can do about it. It’s a pity for Judi Dench, who performed a rare rich role for an older actress with juicy relish in Notes on a Scandal.

The truth is that everything about The Queen rests on Mirren’s ability to be both regal and human, and thus bring life to the dramatic ideas at the heart of the story. It’s unlikely, were her performance not so good, that the film would have earned any of its other five nominations.

Best Actor

Leonardo DiCaprio as Danny Archer in Blood Diamond
Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne in Half-Nelson
Peter O’Toole as Maurice in Venus
Will Smith as Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland

Quite a few surprises in this category, from Ryan Gosling’s nod, to DiCaprio earning his for Blood Diamond instead of his equally-sterling work in The Departed, to Will Smith, in such a crowded year, earning a nomination from the old-fashioned inspirational tale The Pursuit of Happyness.

I think all three are presently in the backseat, and this race will eventually boil down to an accounting of sympathies. Forest Whitaker is normally a supporting player but gives a dynamic starring performance in The Last King of Scotland. It’s the sort of triumph that usually comes along once in a career, and he’s won enough of the awards along the path to Oscar night that he qualifies as front-runner.

But sympathies will also run strong for Peter O’Toole, who has had so many seemingly once-in-a-career performances and not won for a single one of them. This now-frail legend has been nominated for Best Actor seven times, won a Lifetime Achievement Award three years ago that was seen largely as consolation, and managed, in spite of that particular honor’s cursed history, to avoid dying after getting it. The Academy’s older guard will vote their hearts, and it might be enough to carry the day even though Venus has yet to be seen by many.

Best Director

Babel Alejandro González Iñárritu
The Departed Martin Scorsese
Letters From Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood
The Queen Stephen Frears
United 93 Paul Greengrass

Since the 1998 awards snapped a long streak of almost total unanimity between Best Picture and Best Director, the Academy has made it practically a hobby to split the two. In that case it was Picture for Shakespeare in Love and Director to Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan, and since then they’ve repeated it in 2000 (Picture: Gladiator, Director: Steven Soderbergh, Traffic), 2002 (Best Picture: Chicago, Best Director: Roman Polanski, The Pianist), and last year (Best Picture: Crash, Best Director: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain).

This essentially doubles-up Scorsese’s odds, I think, since each of those splits has seen the Directing Oscar go to someone whose collected work embodies the art form of filmmaking in some way. Paul Greengrass and Alejandro González Iñárritu, it can be argued, are likely to get another invite to the dance, while the light touch Stephen Frears brought to The Queen will have a difficult time being noticed. And in spite of the embrace of Letters From Iwo Jima, I think there will be a collective sense that (like with the New England Patriots), Clint’s done quite enough winning recently, and ought to make room for someone else. Call it Scorsese by a length, with Iñárritu running a strong second should the desire to honor Babel make things go topsy-turvy.

Best Picture

Babel Alejandro González Iñárritu, Steve Golin, Jon Kilik
The Departed Nominees TBD
Letters From Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Robert Lorenz
Little Miss Sunshine Nominees TBD
The Queen Andy Harries, Christine Langan, Tracey Seaward

As I’ve said above, I think The Departed, by standard criteria, has the right elements to win, and its DVD release this week couldn’t be better timed. Audiences will refresh their memories of this surpassing crime epic, and that, combined with the sympathy for Scorsese – who, if he loses again, will take sole possession of the record for most-nominated filmmaker to never win – gives it strong momentum right now.

The Producer’s Guild threw a delicious monkey wrench in the works, though, by awarding their top prize to Little Miss Sunshine, an easy movie to adore. Lingering affection for that movie might allow it to slip through a crowd of heavyweights should they split their own vote too far down. If there is to be a split, I’d say the likely scenario is that voting for Babel for Best Picture allows Academy Members to fancy themselves as enlightened and forward thinking (witness Crash’s surprise victory), while giving Marty the Director prize makes them feel generous and wise. Iwo Jima, with its foreign language content, its late launch (it was originally intended for release in the spring of this year, then moved up at the last minute once its awards chances were recognized), and Eastwood’s previous victories, probably doesn’t reach the winner’s tape, and The Queen will be satisfied with the victory for Mirren, and a possible screenwriting trophy to boot.

Martin Scorsese has grown from outsider goosing the system with fresh vision to venerable member of the establishment. They’ve so far passed up opportunities to finally end his losing streak – I think they’re not likely to pass up another.

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Now, here's an interesting batch...

Lord knows I've been burned for saying this before, but this might just be Marty's year at last.

Many more thoughts on the Academy Award nominees after I've slept a bit more.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

The following was blogged from 8pm to 9pm...

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By the end of the fourth hour of
24’s sixth and latest season, a series regular is dead. This is 24’s version of dignified restraint, as last season’s first fifteen minutes saw two stars capped and a third crippled and only a couple good hours’ worth of angst away from death himself.

But the pleasure of this show is not in its attempts to top itself – it’s pretty hard to hit a mayhem ceiling when by Season Two you were already doing everything from throwing a mountain lion at your ingénue to nuking great swaths of the California desert. Heck, in Season Four, terrorist/discotheque regular/professional escape artist Habib Marwan (Arnold Vosloo) arranged to have Air Force One shot down, and the
killing of the President was simply a happy side effect of his real, even more dastardly scheme. No, by now we know the 24 bag of tricks – shocking betrayals and revelations, weapons of mass destruction hidden in practically every warehouse, thousands of innocent lives snuffed out, a deeply unstable Executive Branch, and characters forced to choose between doing horrible deeds or allowing even more horrible deeds to continue unheeded.

Season One (especially its first 13 episodes) told a tight, slow-boiling conspiracy story that can now be justly looked on as a sea change in American prime time television – one that ties in with the explosion of DVD as a viable medium for people to really take in shows that they love. Instead of the one-off same-widget-every-week franchises like the fifteen different Law & Order series, 24 took the long-arcing sub-story threads that helped define the worlds of younger-skewing shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and promoted them to raison d'être. No single episode told its own story, and so the compulsive need to see…just…a bit…more defined it.

More than once I’ve sat a friend down just to watch that ominous first hour, where Jack learns of the conspiracy to assassinate a presidential candidate, shoots his own boss with a tranq dart, and finds out his daughter has snuck out on a date with an unsavory character. And inevitably it would renew the cycle of me lending out all my box sets, one by one, the addicted speed-dialing me whenever their supply had run out until they were finally caught up to the present.

But the writers could never really repeat that scenario on such an intimate, character-centric scale without inviting the diminishing returns of, say, the Die Hard franchise. Instead, by setting the show free of practical plausibility while maintaining a fig leaf of their real time premise (and that leaf gets flimsier by the season), the show has become a high-horsepower machine for the maintenance of perpetual anxiety and doubt. It’s like the best drum solo you’ve ever heard – you know there’s a limited number of beats to choose from, it’s how they mix and cascade them while never losing the underlying tempo that makes the thing rock. A 24 fan will often find him/herself cheering at the most appalling things, like here in the end of hour one, where Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) kills a terrorist by tearing his throat out with his teeth, simply because the dizzying collision of timing and audacity hits you right in your evil sweet spot.

But what the show also does is provide a thresher for straw men – an opportunity to take our contemporary dialogue about terrorism, torture, The Bill of Rights and just what makes America America out of the abstract and throw it into bloody Thunderdome. The show has been accused of being right-wing, left-wing, fascist, racist, apologist, and as many other “-ists” as people can find to get cranked up about.

It’s got to be a unique television program for both Rush Limbaugh and I to love it. And apparently, like me, he’s got the deviant hotsies for Chloe O’Brian (the misfit computer genius played, as always, with a passionate sulkiness by Mary Lynn Rajskub), going so far as to lay a fat smooch on her at a convention. And that filled me with jealous grief, but hey, Rush, if I ever got her to “open up a network socket” for me, I know my equipment would work.


Chloe has (so far) survived the writers’ sadistic streak, she’s the longest-running character besides Jack’s daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) not to get bumped off yet. I think it’s because the writers realize that keeping her around provides a sadism all its own for the fans who don’t like her. But she’s an irreplaceable antidote to the constant glowering panic – every office needs someone to bitch about your tone of voice and point out that you should try a new deodorant, and always choose the worst possible time to do it.

This year she’s giving romance a try once more, signing up for a second go-‘round with her ex-husband Morris (Carlo Rota) – who knows how to both be more irritating than her in the workplace, and give her bum a timely squeeze without getting his face chewed off. A formidable man, he. She’s looking more polished, more willing to go-along-to-get-along, it’s almost as if Morris has allowed her to enjoy the process of monkey wrenching by proxy and devote more time to typing.

But the moment she hears word that Jack Bauer is on his way back to LA after two years in a Chinese prison, the look on her face tells all. I knew immediately that on her home PC she has a whole folder full of audio clips of Jack saying “Chloe, I don’t have time for this…”, and on lonely nights she’ll dim the lights, pour a glass of wine and say “No, Jack…tonight we do…

Chloe’s not the only one to find lurv around the Counter Terrorist Unit – rugged branch chief Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) is sporting a new rock on his finger, with a matching one on Secretary of Defense Karen Hayes (Jayne Atkinson). When Jack arrives – “bought” from the Chinese at heavy price – his staggered and scarred condition seems to haunt all of them. He’s the visible representation of the cost paid so each of them can enjoy their coupled bliss. And all he gets in return for his sacrifice is the request to give even more – he’s here to be traded over to a terrorist (Adoni Maropis) who wants to torture him to death for revenge, and is willing to sell out one of his comrades for the chance.

But, this being 24, everything’s gone topsy-turvy by the end of the first hour, and Jack transforms from a man willingly walking to the gallows to a soldier back from the dead – marveling a little that his body still knows what to do even if his consciousness is frail. The body’s dinged up, to be sure, he can’t even win straight fisticuffs with one sweaty would-be suicide bomber; but the man heals faster than Wolverine – and if he gets a good meal in him, enemies of freedom everywhere are on notice.

Jack is both the show’s engine, always with just enough strength left to breach another hideout, and its heart. He loves America, believes in its ideals and the rights of its citizens, and most of all he knows the importance of the laws and rules in maintaining that freedom. And so when America needs protecting from its enemies, and the need is so immediate that desperate measures seem to be the only way to prevent disaster, Jack has two rules about rule-breaking:

1) It’s better if as few people as possible break them. In fact, preferably only him, plus Chloe if he needs something computer-y done.

2) There is a steep price to pay, and he is prepared to pay it.

And oh, has he paid by now. Beneath those lash marks, those “who’s going to hit me next?” worried rodent eyes, and whatever the hell that thing is the Chinese did to his hand, he looks like a cross between a wraith and a Navy SEAL, no longer sure how to soul-search because he’s not convinced there’s much left in there. But he does not know how to stop – and if that sounds like a death wish, I think it’s just a natural extension of where he thinks People Like Him belong. He longs for the day when America won’t need people to Become what he’s Become.

At his peak Jack was the best, but this Jack is no longer positive he’s making the right choices. This Jack is constantly at the verge of collapse – when new President Wayne Palmer (DB Woodside), lesser brother of the late, great David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), asks Jack (in that way Presidents ask) to take charge of the effort to smoke out the latest Threat to Our Way of Life, Jack practically crumbles in tears. Because already he’s failed to protect so many – America is under siege by suicide bombers, buses and hotels and malls getting blow’d up all over the place – and by the second hour of this latest escapade he’s already been forced into partnership with a major terrorist (Alexander Siddig). Think about that – Jack Bauer is a man who has to shoot his friends and car pool with Bin Laden (albeit a slick, handsome Bin Laden who has decided to renounce war on the West with only a few hundred corpses to his name) to get the job done. This not a life to envy.

But more than ever 24 is trafficking in the eerily-probable picture of what America could become under siege, and how there’s no simple answer to it. A ferret-like White House Chief of Staff (Peter MacNicol) is gleefully setting up “temporary” detention centers at schools and sporting facilities around the country, and dispatching FBI agents to fill them with Muslims and, well, anyone who annoys them in the process of gathering said Muslims. One of the ones who obstructs them is the President’s sister (Regina King) – and when you can speed dial the White House and call the Most Powerful Man in the World “Wayne”, you can become quite the troublemaker.

But there do seem to be some legitimate suspects in there, as obtusely Orwellian as the legal status of it all is. And when, on a quiet suburban street, an angry man kicks in the door of his Muslim neighbor (Kal Penn), what his blind rage never understands is that the man he is trying to pummel is actually a terrorist.

This is the sort of pinwheeling sympathy genius that 24 excels at. Mr. Terrorist is distraught because his innocent father has been dragged away in handcuffs (because of the bombings his compatriots are executing) and angry white neighbors are trying to beat him up. And a family across the street came to protect him and offer him shelter, and it’s very hard to wish Death to their whole civilization when the teenage son is trying to give you a good luck necklace out of pure friendship. But he has an urgent mission that’s going to get us to whatever Big Thing is going to happen today – so in a sense we want him to succeed. And we certainly don’t like Mr. Half-Cocked and Belligerent throwing him through the furniture, even though he could be unwittingly saving lives.

Are we relieved when he shoots his attacker dead? Wait a minute – did we just find ourself rooting for a would-be-mass murderer? Well, in a few minutes he’s taken that nice family across the street hostage and turned the father into a courier for a suitcase nuke trigger, so we’re not kindly disposed to him for long.

But that’s the humanity of 24 – everyone is someone’s son. Even the most evil people have stupid delays and incompetent underlings and LA traffic to deal with, and sooner or later you catch yourself understanding their situation. And characters who you admire for some heroic quality screw up, get carried away, or die pointlessly. Sometimes (like in ballsy, tragic hour four) Jack Bauer kills them – and he’s supposed to be the good guy. The two-night kickoff of 24’s sixth season ends with Jack Bauer in tears, finished with the whole lousy marathon of self-annihilation. And then there is a sight that, for all the gore and violence we’ve seen, is still ghastly enough to touch any living person’s core, and Jack Bauer realizes that his day will not end here.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

You could almost hear Scorsese saying "Yeah, sure, this makes up for never winning an Oscar"

My biggest question about The Golden Globes is – how do they know when not to chew? Unlike the Oscars – that awards show no one is supposed to mention during this gilded hoedown – guests have dinner and bottomless champagne to enjoy during the ceremony. And with cameras constantly roaming among the beautiful faces so we can get on with the star-spotting and dress-criticizing most of the world really watches for, it seems all-but impossible to me that we never caught one Prince or Princess of Hollywood mid-nosh.

I think there’s increased caution in the Globes audience. Because of that bottomless champagne, and deeper than that, because even among vapid awards shows this one has about the widest ratio between popularity and genuine usefulness as a critical barometer, guests have a tendency to drop their guard, and the Globes thus have a reputation for being the zany, spontaneous awards show where you never know what zany thing is going to happen next, spreading the zany throughout the…zany and the….


Embarrassment-wary celebs need not have worried, though, as this year’s ruthlessly mechanical ceremony was about as spontaneous as
It’s a Small World. With no host, no musical performances, barely any film clips and just two or three seemingly random backstage interviews, the show, touches of Fellini-esque grotesquerie aside, clumped out of the gate and proceeded with Nurse Ratched-like efficiency through its list of trophies, as if the biggest thing the worldwide audience cared about was getting to the end credits before their TiVos cut off.

They’ve even adopted one of (in my opinion) the Oscar broadcast’s worst features – that draconian time prompter during acceptance speeches. I know that producers fear losing minutes to addled stabs at eloquence, but what happens is, instead of people finding their most magic brevity while the timer ticks down to that “get off the stage” music, they turn into stammering thank-you-bots. Once you’ve thanked a single person, you are now required on pain of shunning to thank all of the following:

The organizing body (in this case, the mysterious “Hollywood Foreign Press”, whom we’ll discuss more in a minute)

The director

The writer(s)

The 4-5 most famous actors in the film

“The crew” (can be done collectively)

Your agent

Your lawyer

Your manager

Your publicist

All their assistants (time permitting)

The studio heads – even if they never wanted to make this movie/show in the first place and slashed your budget at every opportunity.

All the producers – and these days, since they give producing credits out like Mardi Gras beads, this takes awhile.

Your spouse or significant other (time permitting)

God (time permitting)

No one outside of Los Angeles County has clue one who even half of these blighted people are, and the names come spewing out so rapidly that there’s no opportunity to spell out just what made their contribution so special. The global audience is effectively held hostage to the egos of people who think this name-check will make them seem more important to the other people in the room, and who exert monstrous psychic pressure on the creative people actually EARNING these awards to make sure their names are written on that little folded speech.

But when the shackles are off, as they often are quietly removed for the bigger-ticket prizes, some rather lovely things happen. Like Forrest Whitaker’s totally overwhelmed emotional short-circuit – he’s always carried himself like a man who is grateful just to be allowed to do this for a living, and to see him absorb the standing ovation and crumble in front of it was the emotional highlight of the evening. The comedy highlight, which snuck right under the noses of the presumably-horrified broadcast standards crew, had to have been Sacha Baron Cohen’s acceptance speech for
Borat. Watch and admire his maestro’s sense of timing. It’s not just the vulgar things he’s saying, it’s the space he gives you to think about each thing before giving it another twist.

I still remember when Steven Soderbergh accepted the Oscar for Best Director for
Traffic, and instead of the usual List of the Obliged, he instead thanked every person in the world who spends time in their day creating something, anything. He only had the space to paint that beautiful idea because he said “to hell with the clock”. If the Golden Globes wants to recover its reputation, it ought to say the same thing.

Because otherwise people might stop to ask just what standards the nominees are being judged by. The Foreign Press is a shadowy bunch, they’re described as writers for foreign publications, which does not necessarily make them film or television critics, whose opinion we’re supposed to scorn anyway. Nor is there much publicity about how many of them there are, or what their criteria for membership are, or how they vote, or if they actually file stories on a regular basis.

What we do know is that they really like beautiful famous people, and giving them awards. Other awards shows make a pretense of celebrating some aspect of craft, not so the Foreign Press. They throw a pity award at screenwriters, but for the most part it reserves its honors for million dollar smiles and the movies and shows that feature them – the only acumen required is the ability to point at a title or celebrity and say “me like”.

Which is why things were at their most surreal when Renee Zellweger strode on stage to encourage applause for the Foreign Press. The director cut to a wide shot of the ballroom and I thought these enigmas were finally going to emerge and take their bow. I’ve always pictured them as sort of like the bomb-worshipping mutants in
Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with purple-veined skin and weird psychic powers, huddling underground in robes and singing in trendy augmented harmonies.

And the crowd applauded, but none of them appeared. The stars looked around nervously – they’d been duped into reinforcing the Foreign Press’ self-image as invisible all-seeing potentates. Listen, if I had the power to get Angelina Jolie to pour body glitter all over herself and come to a Beverly Hills Hotel because of nothing but some hazy perception of my ability to build Oscar buzz, I wouldn’t push my luck by appearing in public too much, either.

But to my surprise, the Fearless Leader of the Foreign Press came tottering out on stage, and proceeded to give a baffling address that sounded like four different speeches run through a shredder then re-connected with 3M Tape. At one point he was talking about a quote from
Sunset Boulevard about great stars being ageless, and the camera cut to Jack Nicholson, looking over his shoulder furtively like he suddenly had the Fear of the Shroud.

I also had the pleasure of seeing both Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood, in turn, giving the same extraordinary facial expression – a kind of toothy, upside-down smirk. I think they wanted to put on a show of affection, but the Foreign Press is so unknowable an entity that the proper method escaped them. And there was fear there – fear that someone was going to take the Moët bottle away.

It’s collectively one of the acting challenges of the year to put stock in this award. When an actress gushes “
this means SO much to me!”, for once the essential vagueness of that statement provides refuge. What it means is that they have some Big Mo their publicist can apply to that Oscar or Emmy campaign, and something that writers for Entertainment Weekly can spend eighteen months pretending has anything to do with your talent – I still fondly remember that stretch where that glossy headache of a magazine was proclaiming that Keri Russell was An Actress to Take Seriously.

But there were nice moments to be found – Whitaker’s being one. And Jeremy Irons took a bold stance with his acceptance speech – showing that with enunciation and a posh accent, even a
LIVING CORPSE can charm the masses.

And speaking of the Living Dead, did anyone catch that Orville Redenbacher commercial, soon to be known as The Most Terrifying 30 Seconds Ever Glimpsed on The Teevee? If you didn’t, my friend, count yourself lucky. If you did, watch this
Old Spice commercial with the Mighty Mighty Bruce Campbell immediately. You’ll live longer, and smell better, too.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

In Other News, because we must always remember there is Other News

My agent "really" likes the new script. Notes so far are very nitpicky. This is an enormous difference from the last couple of scripts I've turned in.

Odd note - perhaps you can help me. The main character's name is "Louis Tolliver". For some reason she doesn't like the "Tolliver" part. She's Hollywood-savvy, yet I'm not sure what's behind this. Anyone else rubbed the wrong way by this name? Is there a name that's phonically nearby that sounds EVER SO MUCH BETTER?

It would be a rough universe where this sort of thing made the difference between riches and ruin, but if you knew this business like I do....

Last Movie I Saw
: Little Children. Review coming, after thoughts on 24 and (*maybe) the Golden Globes.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

This sounds like nothing. But it FEELS like something, and in Hollywood, that MAKES it something

There's a development exec I know in Hollywood who is not, as his job title might suggest, a thundering idiot. And remember I used to do that for a living so I'm not just talking into my beer mug here, I've seen it up close. But this gentleman has actually seen movies that came out before 1980, and has an instinct for the components of story that runs deeper than the jargon-y Robert McKee garbage most of them sputter. Whenever I've got anything new he's one of the first people to see it - because I trust that he's a fan of mine, he won't leak it around town, and he'll have something to say which will make my work better. Writers: when you find people like this, keep their phone number, they are vital to you.

He's read my new script. He spent 75 minutes on the phone with me today talking about my new script. And Jimmy, I think he likes it. A lot. He couldn't believe that when I called it a first draft, I actually meant it - that after proofreading this was literally the first version of the story written from start to finish. "First drafts" are a funny creature in Hollywood parlance - sometimes because we lie like hell to create the impression that something is new and hot, and sometimes because someone doesn't want to pay you for the seven re-writes they made you do. But this is a gen-yoo-wine first draft, and I know he wasn't blowing smoke because the questions and criticisms he did have were second and third level stuff - putting a quarter-page here to establish a prior relationship between characters, rethinking this stretch for perspective on why that character makes that choice at that moment, etc. The big stuff, the foundation stuff, he accepted. The "STORY", in all its white skeletal glory, is there.

This is good - not in the "Nick's going to pay off his car loan at any moment" category, but in the "Nick might actually have something good to get his name out there with once again", category. And more crucially, I've got someone who is making serious mouth noises about championing it for me. No one believes a writer when he tells you his script is good - and why should you? But when an executive/budding producer vouches for it, puts his passion and his Rolodex behind it, that gives it a different credibility.

In the absence of money, which no one in Hollywood wants to give you anyway, you have to learn to take nourishment from moments like these.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ludicrous Product Placement Watch

So I watched the 10-minute Season Six Teaser on the Season Five DVD set of 24. All I'm going to say is that if Jack Bauer was in his right mind, he would have known there was something bogus about that rescue attempt. Stealthy commandos do not use a GLEAMING WHITE NEW TOYOTA SUV as their rescue vehicle.

I blame the torture.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - The Descent

Full review behind the jump

The Descent

: Neil Marshall
: Neil Marshall
Producer: Christian Colson
: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone

NOTE: The cut reviewed here is the unrated edition available on DVD. I am told the ending differs somewhat.)

What a strange relief it is for there to be monsters. Most current horror films are either slick reels of sadism like the
Saw trilogy or scantly-plotted surrealist freakouts like the Ju-On/Grudge franchise. Both are skin-crawlingly effective in their way but work against most dramatic fundamentals – they are flatly-acted nightmares that cannot be escaped, so in the end it doesn’t really matter what happens in the plot, doesn’t matter if the characters grow, change, fall in love, learn the truth about What Happened Back Then or finally go back to finish their degree – either they’re going to get torn asunder by something made of creaky metal or the pale people are going to coming clattering out of the beyond for them and that’s all there is to that.

But a monster can eventually be understood. It can be encountered, suffered, fought, eluded – it is scary but the people you’re watching might just have a chance…if they can overcome themselves. And so while
The Descent may not conjure up the squirming disgust of the first modern trend or the squinting dread of the second, it really does tell a story, and works up some damn fine suspense in the bargain.

The Descent
is the American breakthrough for British writer/director Neil Marshall, who seems to genuinely love monsters – in his previous film, Dog Soldiers, he was hampered by poor effects but still managed to make the best blend of scares, werewolves and laughs since, well, the only other movie to pull it off, An American Werewolf in London. Now he achieves a kind of double success, working us up to an unbearable peak of tension with nothing but the dangers in the natural world, and then, with a kind of glee, throwing monsters in on top of that.

There’s an additional, and most welcome twist, in that all of his main characters are women – athletic, capable women who never once, as hard as it gets, find themselves wishing there was a man around. They are friends bound by thrill-seeking – putting a man into the equation would be a useless distraction.

We see in the beginning how one man (Oliver Milburn) may have already introduced rifts in this group; but he is quickly, and rather messily, removed from the picture, leaving his widow Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) struggling to find her footing in this world again. Although she pops pills, and doesn’t tell anyone about the nightmares that come on whether she’s awake or asleep, she refuses to let her victim status ruin her friends’ fun.

Juno (Natalie Mendoza), a decided alpha who often assumes the role of squadron leader, has brought them deep into the Appalachian Mountains for a spelunking expedition. And Marshall pleasantly lingers on the equipment – the ropes and straps and clamps and flares – and the easy authority these women have with it. It helps us later when they need to discover other uses for what they’ve brought with them. And we see how focusing on this danger, plunging deep into the ground, wondering at the spaces to be found, then looking for another hole to plunge even deeper, provides an escape both mental and physical from the outside world.

And we appreciate just how fragile their safety really is. Just as it is dawning on these women that this cave is much more challenging and eerie than the tourist destination they thought they were going to, all it takes is the smallest vibration, and suddenly they are cut off from daylight.

It’s devious how Marshall uses universal, elemental fears to soften us up for the terrors ahead. He does not need to explain the sensation of squeezing your body through a rock tunnel, and realizing to your horror that you suddenly cannot move forward or backward, and in fact breathing is becoming much more difficult, and you cannot see your friends. We see it and then we feel it despite ourselves. Phobics be warned.

The reveal that (and how I love these words) they are not alone down there (and the less said about what, exactly, is down there, the better) sets off a vigorous second half of chasing, climbing, and the most bloody errors in judgment. The environment, cunningly chosen to allow for a contained budget, offers distinctly limited variety in terms of action but the filmmakers’ ingenuity lasts just long enough. In an environment like this, cheating will inevitably be necessary in the realm of lighting, cinematographer Sam McCurdy revels in the darkness without losing the movie in it, and also manages to avoid an obnoxious abundance of fake brightness.

There’s something else going on, too, Marshall is blurring our confidence in what we are witnessing, relying on Sarah’s wobbly state to suggest that we may, in all those dark passages we squeezed through, have actually left reality behind us. He provides an exhilarating enough ride that The Descent satisfies even with this ambiguity. And yet I don’t have 100-percent faith that he himself went to the trouble of deciding a logical path through the movie. I don’t mind things that remain open to interpretation, but I don’t appreciate having my narrative chain yanked for no good reason, and Marhsall is skirting perilously close to the latter. But hell, at least he made a narrative chain, and put some love, thought, and monsters into it. That’s enough to make The Descent different these days, and enough for me to endorse it.

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MOVIE REVIEW - Little Miss Sunshine

Full review behind the jump

Little Miss Sunshine

: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Feris
: Michael Arndt
: Albert Berger, David T. Friendly, Peter Sarif, Marc Turteltaub, Ron Yerxa
: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin

A lesser movie than
Little Miss Sunshine would not have trusted its characters as themselves to win our affections. It would have fashioned a narrative to contort them into some form which better resembled trouble-free happiness – because it would not see how it could be possible they could be happy being so flawed. This is because a lesser movie would not have so treasured their troubles, would not have realized that their suffering – their bizarre, divine suffering – would be the key to our understanding and loving them.

That’s the core idea in Michael Arndt’s poisoned pip of a screenplay, and there are so many ways it might have been loused up on the way to the screen, but the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Feris, making their feature-directing debut after a long commercial and music video career, arrows straight to the truth – that misery loves company, and in this context, families make the best company of all. Their potent realization of the story’s tone, and deft juggling of a flawless ensemble of actors, allow an excellent piece of writing to fulfill its charming potential. You will be surprised, after all you have endured with this family, at how happy you are by the end.

This family is a chamber orchestra of damaged psyches – a sextet of self-pitying virtuosos who somehow come to finally notice what music they make together. Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) has been brought to the teetering brink by the realization that keeping a roof over one’s head and putting food on the table every night is both an overwhelming job and not enough to please anyone. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) has decided to spend his final days in this life waging a scorched-earth campaign against good manners, and has taken up snorting heroin, to boot. Teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence, which he says has something to do with getting into the Air Force Academy, but I think stems from him realizing that communicating with his family by notepad demonstrates much more contempt than regular talking.

Sheryl’s brother Frank (a magnificently low-tempo Steve Carrell) is a Proust scholar who has just attempted suicide after his young grad student lover left him for a lesser Proust scholar. And then there’s the father of the brood, Richard (Greg Kinnear), who is trying desperately to hammer all of life’s problems into a shape that can be addressed by his new 9-Step self-help program that no one wants to hear or read about.

A lesser movie would have been satisfied to mock Richard’s ambitions to guru fame and fortune, it would not have allowed him to apply his own lessons to the problems of his family, and prove his worth in the process. It would not have seen the opportunity to believe in one man’s ability to not give up, especially a man like Richard. And so Richard, as acted with selfless commitment by Kinnear, evolves from pathetic clown to something much better as he tries against all possible odds to get his daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) to a beauty pageant.

Olive is one of those children who seems to have developed an early self-reliance as a courtesy to those around her. She’s comfortable in her own world, and although she has big round glasses and a healthy little belly, her world includes a love for the ritual of child beauty pageants and she’s happy to pursue it in her way. She was the runner-up in a regional final, and some subsequent scandal has thrust her into the role of contestant in the fiercely-competitive Little Miss Sunshine pageant 600 miles away in California. And so because Dwayne is too young to be left alone, and Frank too suicidal, and Sheryl can’t drive a stick, and Grandpa’s been choreographing Olive’s dance routine with her in secret, the whole family piles into a Volkswagon van that looks ready to fall into pieces if anyone shifts their body too violently.

And on the road the pleasures are in the smallest details. That ghastly attempt at a smile Frank gives when someone in a convenience store asks how he’s doing. Grandpa’s descriptions of his tomcat success in a rehab facility. Paul Dano’s ability to communicate volumes of emotion through the inscrutable face and sullen body language of the teenage boy. The minute choices of language and tactic made by mother and father in a diner when a bowl of ice cream suddenly becomes a battlefield in the War of How to Raise Their Daughter. This is a family that is going to experience all manner of disasters in their little van, and heroically determines not to let any of it stop them from getting on each others’ nerves.

Why does that look so much more like real love than the plastic wholesomeness we see at church on Sunday? I think it’s because actions speak louder than words, or haircuts, or nice sweaters. The family in Little Miss Sunshine is messy, and out of fashion, and rude, but they all want little Olive to have what she wants, and what they are willing to do to give it to her is beyond heartwarming. She recognizes all of it, it’s certain. When you get to the pageant, itself a merciless surgery on that whole unseemly culture, you realize there’s actually some truth behind Richard’s philosophy about what makes a winner a winner, even if the winner isn’t always the one who wins, so to speak. And that the happiest family isn’t the one with the most happiness. What a warm and wicked delight this movie is.

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MOVIE REVIEW - Pan's Labyrinth

Full review behind the jump

Pan’s Labyrinth

: Guillermo Del Toro
: Guillermo Del Toro
: Álvaro Augustín, Alfonso Cuarón, Bertha Navarro, Guillermo del Toro, Frida Torresblanco
: Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo

There are some powerful ideas at the heart of
Pan’s Labyrinth, an elegant dark fantasy from filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (Cronos, Mimic, Hellboy); but two are, I think, of the deepest importance. First: that there are times in all our lives where we desperately need to believe there’s a better world for our children than the ugly one we’re providing. And second: that children have a way of building their own reality in order to process what they sense happening around them, in spite of our best efforts to shield them.

That cognitive gap is powerful – a grown-up cannot possibly understand why, after bathing a girl, putting her in a lovely dress and stressing repeatedly that the girl
must show up for a nice dinner looking clean, that the girl will show up late, and covered from head to toe in mud. Children have an equally difficult time understanding the arbitrary disciplines of adults, always telling them to do this thing now, never touch that, don’t go in there, and never saying why. Children, it seems, are more resourceful at conjuring up explanations, and it is possible this is why they can show such resilience in the most nightmarish of circumstances. It was Harlan Ellison who wrote that the reason the dinosaurs died out was “Because they had no imagination.”

And I think Ellison would appreciate the
contrasts of Pan’s Labyrinth, which is where the magic comes from. Because Del Toro conjures up a morbid fairy-tale world out of elements whose power over our younger selves we still remember – kingdoms and magical creatures and dangerous monsters and hidden passages from our world to another – and then sets it against the backdrop of a most real and unforgiving horror, a hopeless prison of violence which has now drawn children within its walls. It is the blood of the grown-up world which gives the imaginary world of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) such urgent potency. We do not know how she would get by without it.

Ofelia is the daughter of Carmen (Ariadna Gil), a tailor’s widow in the Spanish Civil War in the 1940’s. Carmen has done what she has determined is necessary to provide for her family – she’s married and been impregnated by Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), a man of great importance who desperately wants a son. To her this is the kind of luck that rarely shines on a woman of her means, and she encourages young Ofelia: “…call him father. It’s just a word, Ofelia, just a word.

You can tell a lot about a culture by whom it promotes to authority, Vidal lives with the sadistic relish of a man who has arrived just in time for history to accommodate his fascist bullying. He seems to honestly believe that the only reason the rebels continue to gather in the hills, and the peasants continue to grumble in the village, is that they are too simple to understand how good their lives can be if they just do exactly what he says. That when he gives them each a small ration of bread from the locked storage room he is demonstrating the generosity of their government. That when he beats a helpless man to death he is acting as an example of courage for his soldiers. López provides a performance of terrifying magnetism, you know the threat inside this man just by watching the proud meticulousness of his daily shave.

And while his world is one of intrigue, of chasing the rebels and wondering how they’re getting medical supplies and information, and a maid (Maribel Verdú) in his household shows an iron will performing these treasons right under his nose, Ofelia wanders the woods around the mill, and an old labyrinth on the villa grounds. And she follows a bug that turns out to be a fairy, and meets a faun (Doug Jones) with a musty voice whose whole body creaks like wood, who tells her she is the reborn Princess of the underground kingdom, and that if she can pass three trials, she can finally return to her father, the King, who misses her terribly.

Ours is not to determine the objective reality of Ofelia’s experiences, but to appreciate their ornately-macabre design, Del Toro’s restraint in using digital effects only when absolutely necessary, and the way these leaps into the fantastic subconsciously fold around her outside life. What fear is represented by a pale ghoul (Jones again) whose eyes are in the palms of his hands, so when he reaches for you he is also looking deep into you? How important is it that what the kindly physician (Álex Angulo) says to the Capitán about the evil of blind obedience finds an echo in the faun’s final challenge? How much is Ofelia’s imagination serving her own needs, and how much her fear for her yet-unborn brother who is causing her mother such pain? The notion that she can make her own doors with a piece of chalk, and that the grown-ups do not always think to look under the bed before they have important conversations, lead us to wonder just how much of the plot Ofelia is privy to even if we don’t always see her on the screen.

Del Toro’s reputation is that of a horror filmmaker, and the connective thread here is that many of the fairy tales we most remember are, in fact, horror stories, where apples are poisoned and wolves eat the people we love. Children grow up not by ignoring the complexity and seriousness of the adult world, but by gradually reducing it through filters that train their emotional intellect until they can discard them. Stories are a crucial part of that, and the scariest can be the best.

The last few years have seen a blessing of movies that don’t condescend about the world of children. Not all of them are for children’s eyes, and the grisly violence that exists in one half of Pan’s Labyrinth puts it squarely in that category. It is compelling because it does not romanticize the child’s experience, does not promise us anything about the child’s safety or happiness in such an ugly place. But it sees where love, and dreams, can exist even here, and it treasures that.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

And by the way, Jimmy...

You really ought to check out this book. It is just so insane, and so lonely, and so lovely.

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MOVIE REVIEW - Notes on a Scandal

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Notes on a Scandal

: Richard Eyre
: screenplay by Patrick Marber, based on the novel What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
: Robert Fox, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Scott Rudin
: Dame Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Juno Temple, Max Lewis

I have never met anyone quite like Barbara Covett, and yet I feel like I know her to her bones, and she terrifies me. It is because Covett is being played by Dame Judi Dench, who creates Barbara right down to those plodding shoes, who knows how to show us with the curl of a finger just how strong her desperation is wrenching at her, and with the smallest movement of her eyeballs when her private mania, her (let’s use the word) covetousness, is inflamed.

Notes on a Scandal
is at its heart a triumphant trick of perspective, a story that gains a lurid squirminess because we are experiencing it through Barbara’s eyes. It would be enough if that were a pretext for giving a central role to Dench, a wily master thespian accustomed to having to make the most of tiny morsels of screen time – her Academy Award-winning performance in Shakespeare in Love lasts all of eight minutes. But it also cannily exploits the ways in which Barbara both is, and isn’t, responsible for the misery in the life of Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett). The truth is Sheba’s bringing loads of it down on herself – it’s that she does it in the vicinity of Barbara, though, and that we get to watch Barbara insinuate herself into it, that propels this story to its most twisted depths.

And Dench finds an equal in both talent and range in Blanchett, a young actress who could live comfortably off her grace and porcelain features but continues to seek the most challenging variety of projects and filmmakers she can find. She has played Queen Elizabeth (as did Dench in the same year, coincidentally), the immortal elf Galadriel in
The Lord of the Rings, Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, and next year is playing Bob Dylan. Yes, that Bob Dylan. Here she creates a portrait of a woman drowning in her domesticity, who follows one self-destructive impulse with another and is desperately unable to understand why. Barbara might have some insight, if only her observations weren’t so clearly colored by desires she won’t put words to.

But she has plenty of words for everything else in the earnest little journals she keeps. Screenwriter Patrick Marber, whose adaptation of his stage play Closer didn’t do quite enough in the translation to bridge the gap between the two art forms, here is untethered from theatrical convention, and free to give Barbara dialogue of the most acid concision.

She’s a battle-scarred teacher at the British equivalent to a high school – she survives the animal behavior of her students by understanding their latent willingness to defer to imperious authority, no matter how insubstantial. If they knew the nattering, petty judgments she scribbled in her journal, knew how helpless it makes her when her cat is unhealthy, she might be torn limb from limb.

Sheba is the newest faculty member – here to teach art and quite unsure about the real grind of teaching as compared with those magic fantasies of Touching One Special Student. Her family life is conducted rather the same way – we never doubt she adores her much older husband (Bill Nighy), her adolescent daughter (Juno Temple) with her adolescent tumults, or her Down’s Syndrome-afflicted son (Max Lewis), and yet we can tell she does not draw strength from their daily struggle in this world, but that instead it chips away at her.

And when her One Special Student, a rakish hormone bundle named Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), does appear, something inside that might be either selfishness, vanity, or plain incompatibility with happiness spurs her to a life-altering mistake.

Barbara finds out about this mistake – Barbara who has lately fixated on Sheba, and who puts little gold stars in her journal whenever they spend time together. Sheba’s transgression will lead to many more “Gold Star Days”.

I don’t know if it’s depraved shock or wicked delight you will feel as Barbara’s hold over Sheba inevitably tightens. Composer Phillip Glass crafts a throbbing curtain of a score out of the most simple musical elements; it serves to hypnotize us, shake us loose from any safe moral ground and allow Dench’s galvanic performance to vicariously fasten us to her sick private thrills.

Director Richard Eyre, a British stage and television veteran who also worked with Dench in the well-acted but somewhat weightless Iris, knows well enough when he’s in a situation where the elements are working and he should interfere as little as possible. His direction of what is largely a marvelous two-woman show is excellently invisible, always thriving on the tension of anything being possible next, and trusting his players. In what could have been a role of phoned-in anguish, Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Shaun of the Dead, The Girl in the Café) carries on a dynamite streak of work, playing an intelligent man who really believes he’s built and maintained his own paradise between the map points of bohemianism and domesticity. The fervency of love he shows for his life only amplifies the shock and heartbreak ahead.

If I have one quibble with Notes on a Scandal, it’s in the moment where Marber breaks the compact with his own characters. In most of the film they pirouette around their flawed wants with fevered wit – I applaud how articulately they can avoid the truth. And yet at a key moment he grants one character, one spectacularly unlikely to have such insight, to speak the dull and obvious truth of a situation. It’s a stunning fumble, but thankfully it is not long before we are back into our delicious game of spider and fly. And it’s not that we’re rooting for the spider, but it sure gets more interesting the closer fly gets to her web, isn’t it?

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MOVIE REVIEW - Children of Men

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Children of Men

: Alfonso Cuarón
: screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, based on the novel by P.D. James
: Marc Abraham, Eric Newman, Hilary Shor, Iain Smith, Tony Smith
: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Michael Caine, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan

Some movies you love for their technique, some for the emotion they inspire. Although the experience of going to the movies involves the interplay between the two, it is rare enough that either aspect will truly separate from the pack, to permanently etch itself into that place of experiences we treasure.

Children of Men
, the new film by director Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) contains shots of such dazzling audacity that at one point I was physically thrown back in my chair – they rank on the short list of the most accomplished Steadicam compositions ever put in service of a narrative film.

But here’s the thing – I also cried, and it is
much more difficult to get that out of me than the admiration of cinematic polish. I remembered what Roger Ebert once said about how he doesn’t cry when people in movies are sad, he cries when they are good. The technical brilliance of Cuarón and his collaborators behind the camera would just be an anecdote if it weren’t tuned to the task of creating a world where despair is all-consuming and hope washed away to the smallest and darkest corners. It is in that world that one man’s decision to just be good produces tears, and one of the year’s most powerful films.

It’s a generation into the future, and the world looks much like ours only grayer, more angry and grief-stricken. Office employees seem to spend their days staring at monitors and weeping. The human race has lost hope, because it has stopped having children.

No explanation is offered as to why no woman can get pregnant, though the best minds left in the world are said to be working on the problem in some unknown place. In the vein of much of the best science fiction it is allegorical, not so much about the “how” of it, but caring more about “what would happen if?” We are told that most of the world’s major cities have fallen due to terrorism and religious warfare, but Britain is scraping by on its little island, mostly by rounding up the globe’s refugees in cages and walled-off slums to keep them out. Militant hatred of the suffering is the average man’s comfort, and “resistance” groups are so consumed by internal power struggles and Marxist toy solider fantasies that they don’t know who’s bombing who any more. Television screens play beguiling commercials for a suicide pill called “Quietus”; it promises to send us to those same halcyon fields today’s users of acid-reflux medicine enjoy, only permanently.

In this world Theodore Faron (Clive Owen, compellingly morose as is his gift) leads his lonely life. Once an impassioned hellraiser, now he spends his on hours drinking at the office, and his off hours drinking at the hidden marijuana farm of Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine). Palmer’s a former political cartoonist who, in his own poignant way, strives to keep love and a playful spite of the establishment alive in just one corner of his blighted homeland; for himself and, especially, in tribute to the wife he still adores. I don’t think Faron goes there for his own happiness, but just to witness someone else who’s still capable of it. There’s a joy in seeing Caine as a shambling long-haired mischief-maker, the casting allows even smaller players to shine, like Peter Mullan (The Claim, The Magdalene Sisters) as a policeman who constantly refers to himself in the third person, perhaps because he knows he can beat anyone who finds it silly.

Out of nowhere, Faron is contacted by his ex-wife (Julianne Moore), who disappeared into one of those resistance groups years ago and now has a very important job she wants him to perform. Why does she choose him for this job, this job that at this moment in history might be more important than any on Earth? Part of the story’s elegant design is that there is not only a practical spoken purpose, but one which is unspoken. I think she’s living with foreknowledge of the tragedy ahead, the one circumstances don’t allow her to warn him about. And then there are the emotional reasons – also a mix of spoken and unspoken.

The job involves a very frightened young woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey), and transport through security checkpoints and refugee ghettos to a boat which may or may not be waiting for them; may or may not, in fact, even exist. That is not as important as the journey, and whether Faron can overcome not just the obstacles in his path and the enemies at his heels but the cynicism and self-loathing which infected all of humanity. Those who love great storytelling will not find much new in the structure of Children of Men, but will appreciate how solidly it proceeds, how true it is to its characters and its world.

This is where the camerawork is key – it put me in mind of that quote from Jean Luc-Godard about how in cinema, every cut is a lie. It is not just a lie, it is a distancing act, a reminder that you are only looking at what has been placed in front of you, it does not surround you. Children of Men wants to deny you the relief of the cut, and offers as little as it can get away with – scenes play out in shots of relentless, almost agonizing length. The camera prowls among the characters down sidewalks, up stairwells, through light and dark, choking us with just how little relief there is from the fear in their lives. Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki and camera operator George Richmond deserve special mention for their achievement – it is often the technician’s charge to remain invisible, here their work is a visible, and essential, element of the experience.

David Mamet wrote a book on screenwriting called 3 Uses of the Knife, in it he talks about how an object, used for different tasks at different times, can speak volumes about the growth of a character and the progress of a story, and can move audiences by telescoping all the feeling in the world into the smallest gesture. Faron is never without his bottle of whiskey, he drinks from it to drown the pain, and escape the endless dread. Watch in a climactic moment how, without even thinking about it, he puts that whiskey to a different use. The triumph of Children of Men is how it compels us to believe that if a man like this can remember what he is supposed to do in this moment, what goodness demands of him, then maybe it’s true what they say – that it’s always darkest before the dawn.

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