The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Guess where I had lunch today?

Phillipe’s is the least likely restaurant in Los Angeles to ever be robbed. This downtown fixture will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, and claims to have invented the French Dip sandwich. There are other Los Angeles restaurants that make the same claim – it is not so named, as you might imagine, because the sandwich comes from France; it is named because in order to make a proper French Dip you’re supposed to use a hard French roll so the bread survives soaking up the necessary amount of sweet, sweet gravy. Most restaurants just throw seven pounds of roast beef on a roll and give you a cup – at Phillipe’s, they dip the bread right in before they even build the sandwich. This is a French Dip done honest.

That was a tangent, excuse me – it’s easy to get on that tangent once you’ve tried one.

So everyone loves the taste of Phillipe’s – that is not why it’s burglary-proof. Nor is it the Alameda St. location’s proximity to the courthouse, which promises that any given day the restaurant will be packed with armed detectives and patrolmen in foul moods because some jerkwad decided to contest a parking ticket. Nor is it the thick crowds of potential witnesses that line up in front of the counter desperate for their 9-cent coffee. Nor is it the unforgiving layout with its narrow staircase leading to the sawdust floor of a room done up in a décor best labeled 50’s Train Station Waiting Area Moderne.

No, the reason Phillipe’s will never get robbed is the counter women. I don’t know where they find these women, who take and assemble your order. They don’t look bred but manufactured, by some long-defunct Eastern Bloc factory. They are beige and industrial, all seemingly cast from the same bell-shaped mold. They look like they could make Bob Mitchum plead for mercy just by staring at him.

I pity the burglar who tries to make it through these women to reach the cash register – he’s like as not to get brained by a tub of coleslaw. Right before they spit their gum out on him and fetch you that slice of pie you asked for.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Full review behind the jump


: Billy Ray
: story by Adam Mazer & William Rotko, screenplay by Adam Mazer & William Rotko and Billy Ray
: Robert F. Newmyer, Scott Strauss, Scott Kroopf
: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Davison

In 2003 Billy Ray wrote and directed
Shattered Glass, which took what might have seemed like an unfilmable story about an unhinged young overachiever fabricating stories for The New Republic, and with a keen attention to details of both place and psychological impulse, turned it into riveting drama. It was almost a thriller – a thriller where no one’s life was ever at stake, but instead a thriller that was ultimately about taking notes.

It’s worth mentioning because now he’s co-written and directed
Breach, another ripped-from-the-headlines drama that is unambiguously a thriller, but is also, quite often, about taking notes. Only this time, many lives are at stake, including that of the note-taker himself, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe) of the FBI. We see in a couple of moments where the scrupulousness of his observations truly saves his whole mission – because in a job where he must submerge himself in caverns of lies, he knows just which lie to tell.

Fresh-faced, ambitious, not even a full agent yet but possessed of a uniquely-suitable biography, in 2000 and 2001 he was volunteered against his knowledge to be the point man for the final phase of a years-long investigation into the worst breach of U.S. intelligence in history, a high-level turncoat named Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). His dispatches to Moscow got people killed, and yet within the walls of his FBI office he does little but rail at how vulnerable his place of work is. The film provides a role rich with tortured conflicts for Academy Award-winner Cooper, who must be abrasive, hypocritical, rude, perverted, even treasonous, and still win our understanding with regards to what makes him tick.

When O’Neill first takes the assignment, he is told merely that Hanssen has been visiting pornographic websites with company resources and needs to be monitored before he becomes an embarrassment. What he does not know is that because he is young, impressionable, knowledgeable about computers and possessed of a religious background, he is almost tailor-made to attract Hanssen’s trust.

Hanssen is a demanding boss, and frighteningly observant. He knows when someone has been in his office, he remembers exactly how he left his briefcase. Early on, he asks O’Neill to tell him five things about himself and to make only four of them true. We remember later on, when O’Neill must lie about everything, what a perceptive lie detector Hanssen is, and it does us much to boil the tension of the narrative as it does to show us Hanssen’s breakdown.

If this movie were a simple case of sniffing out the rat and building a watertight court case against him, it would not be so worthy of endorsement. What it does accomplish is speak to a deeper truth, that the reason Hanssen is caught now is partially because his desire to be caught has finally overwhelmed his survival instincts. Cooper’s eyes flash with agony, vainly clinging to the belief that one more trip to Mass might cleanse him of desires he can’t stop indulging in, frantically churning with justifications for the treachery his black hole of ego has sucked him into. At one point, late in the movie, he is talking about why a man would choose to betray his country. On the surface he’s talking about someone else, but we know he’s talking about himself, and deeper, we sense that he knows he’s talking about himself too, and that the simple fact of his actions, long hidden in a fog of his own rationalization, is finally emerging.

This is a man of great intelligence and ambition, full of strong opinions about everything from writing implements to women who wear pants. It seems what he is really asking is that the FBI pull itself out of its bureaucratic morass and adopt his recommendations, so that it will finally be equipped to stop, well, someone as smart as he is. At one point he was even in charge of investigating his own leak. Not every actor could convey this sort of doublethink – Cooper embraces it without ever breaking character.

Phillipe, who has become a more generous actor since leaving the teen heartthrob world behind, shows a keen awareness for the finally-calibrated language in Ray, Adam Mazer & William Rotko’s screenplay. Every sentence directed at Hanssen is a deliberate formula combining the lie of the moment, the lie underneath it all, and a stealth assault on his wall of mistrust. And he must deliver each earnestly enough to fly under his quarry’s radar. Phillipe seems to grasp that, while he is the putative hero of the movie, this is Cooper’s show, and the way he allows space for the remarkable character of Hanssen to develop for us is a study in actor’s trust.

There are details of espionage, but what’s shocking is how low-tech and old-fashioned they boil down to. This is not about sci-fi gadgets, this is about distracting Hanssen so his car can be disassembled and searched for a few hours, or stealing his PDA and getting it back to him before he notices. What Billy Ray is able to do as a filmmaker is to not give up after recognizing these actions as familiar. He just reinvests in his characters – Laura Linney is typically superb as the dedicated and frustrated agent in charge – and brings freshness to the familiar simply by being true to the scene and the people in it. Breach is in this way an exercise in trust. Trusting wrong can be a man’s downfall, but Ray was just right to trust this story, and the spectacle of Hanssen coming to pieces, to capture our attention.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Somebody torture that elephant, stat! Behind the myth of Republican messages in "24"

Because show co-creator Joel Surnow and writer Manny Coto are both out and proud Dittoheads, there’s been a lot of talk lately about how 24 is the weekly Republican fantasy round-up, Monday night propaganda for people who like a little Muslim torturing to go with their Viagra. A recent profile of Surnow in the New York Times, coinciding with the disturbing reports that young soldiers serving overseas are eagerly using the show as an alternative training manual for interrogations, did much to propagate this myth.

In fairness, this is as lazy and ill-informed as people on the right who claim that Janet Jackson’s nipple will collapse civilization, or playing
Doom turns you into a murderer. I admit, the show has borrowed a few smelly clichés from the Republican playbook, like the nosy civil rights attorney who shows up to spring a key witness, or CTU’s complaints about the time-consuming approvals process for wiretaps. And it’s true that Jack Bauer hasn’t given much of a damn about due process since his wife bled to death right in the middle of his workplace.

I consider this show I love so much to be an apolitical perpetual plot-twist machine – I think the writing room grabs what they can get to keep the clock ticking and there's minds of both stripe in that room. But if that’s not enough for you, allow me to present a few spoiler-laden factoids that, taken together, amount to an argument that, if this is Republican propaganda, it’s pretty self-defeating. Consider:

-In the
24 universe, the Democratic party has elected not one, but two black Presidents, both of whom are thoughtful men, self-examinants to a self-tormenting degree, struggling to find the virtuous path and stay the awesome military power at their command until it is truly the last resort. For this, they are vilified, conspired against by their underlings, and the first of them is assassinated before he can even finish his memoirs. The fate of the second is up in the air thanks to this week’s cliffhanger, but my money’s on survival, for the moment.

-By contrast, the Republican Presidents are either narrow-minded chest-thumpers or the weasel-riffically criminal President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin), who sweats and schemes better than Nixon and self-justifies better than Bush; and, we learn this season, got nothing more than house arrest at his sprawling horse ranch as punishment for his horrific crimes. Let me sum that up – in
24 a crooked white Republican President had a noble black Democratic President shot through the throat and hundreds of his citizens gassed or blown up and got away with it. If this is the sort of thing Rush Limbaugh considers good G.O.P. wish-fulfillment, the Secret Service ought to open a file on him.

-So far in
24 we’ve seen the following plot lines: 1) An oil company colluding with rogue government elements to arrange a nuclear blast on American soil in order to spur war against the Middle East for profit. 2) A Republican Administration colluding through back channels with terrorists to unleash a nerve gas attack on American civilians in order to justify invading oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. 3) An American defense contractor with ties to a Republican administration allowing suitcase nukes to slip into the hands of Muslim terrorists, then murdering people to cover their tracks. 4) Another American defense contractor setting off an EMP in downtown Los Angeles, creating urban chaos and at least a few dozen deaths, in order to cover up their culpability in overlooking the Middle Eastern terrorist who worked under their noses, melted down a nuclear power plant and assassinated a President. 5) A Republican President stealing credit from his Democratic predecessor for defusing a crisis. 6) A cowardly Republican president setting up the President of Russia for assassination because of terrorist blackmail. Are we noticing any trends here?

24’s chief villain, when you get down to it, is not the dastardly “Islamofascist” but the eponymous star of Michael Moore’s hit book – it is the Stupid White Men. Every season, it is Stupid White Men knotting our country into peril in order to fatten their off-shore bank accounts. It is Stupid White Men exploiting a crisis – and peoples’ willingness to make sacrifices in a crisis – to strengthen their position while people die. Does anyone think ex-President Logan isn’t plotting something with his request to go to the Russian Consulate? It is Stupid White Men who poison their own sons to save a corporate empire. It is Stupid White Men like Chad Lowe, as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Reed Pollock, who squish what little conscience they might have left and plot yet another Presidential assassination because the current President is insufficiently enthusiastic about shredding the Constitution and arresting Muslims en masse.

-The one unabashed dirty hippie in the whole history of the series – the secretary of Defense’s mouthy gay son from Season 4 – not only held up under hours of torture, he turned out to be totally innocent. He failed to immediately volunteer every detail about his sex life when asked if he had any helpful knowledge, but that’s like blaming him for failing to report what he had for breakfast. If they’d sat him down and just asked him to walk through his movements for the past couple of days, and allowed a lawyer to be present, they would have actually gotten the information sooner. Because you see…

-Torture is constantly used in
24, but it rarely works. In both Seasons 3 and 4, CTU tortured its own employees on spurious evidence, costing them crucial time and rendering themselves short-staffed in a crisis. Jack has, more than once, tortured innocent people, some of whom were fingered to distract him. The information he gets is almost inevitably either a lie, or too late to do him any good. This is the truth about torture – it almost never has a benefit, but it always has a cost. This is my next point…

Jack Bauer’s life SUCKS. His wife is dead, his daughter hates him, he got addicted to heroin, he’s been tortured in Chinese prison for two years, almost everyone he cares about dies or turns against him (except darling Chloe, of course), and he will never, ever, ever get peace from the nightmares until he dies, which by now he is unambiguously looking forward to.

And it’s
because he tortures. Because he breaks the rules. He does believe in expediency when it comes to the ticking-bomb fantasies the writers concoct for him, but he also wants to be the only one doing the expediting, if it can be managed. He wants to commit all the necessary evil, expire in the agony he deserves for his actions, and leave behind the America he believes should exist, the one where the law is the law and freedom survives its enemies without men like him. He is James Bond as Sin Eater, and this is what the fervent right wing fans ignore. They want to have the torture without the cost, they want to be Jack Bauer without the scars and sacrifice. The fault, dear critics, lies not in the show but in themselves.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Predict-a-palooza 2006

For the last 37 years, my old Theatre Lit professor, Dr. Richard Hansen, has circulated a list of predictions for the Academy Awards. He also, by virtue of not being dead, allows me to be secure that there’s someone out there even daffier for Oscar than I am. I spread this tradition in his honor, so you all can see why I think things are going to unfold a certain way. And tomorrow we can discuss why I was so, so terribly wrong.

Here’s how it works – you project a 1st and 2nd likely winner in every competitive category. If your first choice wins, it’s worth 15 points. 10 points for 2nd choices. Dr. Hansen sets 240 total points as the minimum score to not feel shame for the next few months. I have occasionally cleared this threshold.

Predictions are a tricky business, because psychoanalyzing the collective minds of thousands of Academy voters – reflecting filmmakers, technicians, and senile elderly character actors – is a rube’s game. You can look to recent years for voting trends, but every year creates its own paradigm. The wide spread of nominations this year makes a
Lord of the Rings-style juggernaut numerically impossible, and there’s few categories that indicate any kind of a lock, save Helen Mirren for Best Actress.

Still, I’m a-diving in. I’ll offer the occasional rationale along the way.

Best Picture

The Departed

I nearly picked
Babel, because if you draw a semantic distinction between “film” and movie”, Babel is clearly the high-minded “film”, while Scorsese’s orgy of corruption is a “movie” in all its raucous glory. However, Babel’s thematic self-importance might be too familiar after Crash’s surprise win last year, and it did not receive such universal acclaim stateside as did The Departed. Those who love it LOVE it at full volume, but intensity of passion doesn’t help in this final race, it’s about numbers.

Best Director

1. Martin Scorsese,
The Departed
2. Alejandro González Iñárritu,

With the lack of a clear front-runner, the one storyline print babblers have been able to latch onto has been Scorsese’s best opportunity in his career to take home a much-deserved statue. I wouldn’t say it’s projected inevitability for him, but it’s given him a solid foundation. In a way he might finally be a little less cool for being officially gilded, but damn it, the man’s earned it a half-dozen times over.

Best Actor

1. Forest Whitaker,
The Last King of Scotland
2. Peter O’Toole,

Here we see the benefit of timing. While O’Toole has age and sympathy and a tailor-made role on his side, by the time
Venus started catching on to audiences, Whitaker’s performance in The Last King of Scotland had already had Oscar buzz to itself for well over a month. It’s hard to derail a first impression that strong, and part of what people have admired so about the performance is that it’s one of those irreplaceable marriages of actor to role, you can never imagine the movie as good without Whitaker, and you can never imagine Whitaker being this good without the role. It will be a shame for O’Toole to once again play Oscar bridesmaid if this is indeed his fate.

Best Actress

1. Helen Mirren,
The Queen
2. Meryl Streep,
The Devil Wears Prada

Mirren’s win is as close to a sure thing as it gets these days, although should Hell freeze over, I’m betting on
Prada’s box-office visibility and the idea that, sooner or later, voters are going to remember that for all her nominations, no one’s actually given Madam Meryl and Oscar in decades.

Best Supporting Actor

1. Eddie Murphy,
2. Alan Arkin,
Little Miss Sunshine

is a living reminder that voters may never have this chance to honor Eddie Murphy for something tasteful again. Arkin makes a solid backup because of the general warmth for Little Miss Sunshine and his esteemed resume – actors make up the largest voting bloc in the Academy and he’s reached “beloved” status among them by now.

Best Supporting Actress

1. Rinko Kikuchi,
2. Abigail Breslin,
Little Miss Sunshine

I think Jennifer Hudson’s stock has indeed plummeted this far. The Academy showed a distinct coolness to
Dreamgirls by shutting it out of the top categories, and Kikuchi’s storyline in Babel is the most widely-loved – she’s been tireless with publicity as well, and can just as easily win the votes of people who like anointing a new face as Hudson could have. I’m also placing a dark horse bet on Breslin, who is the impish heart of Sunshine, and there is ample precedent for juvenile actors in this category, including Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon and Anna Paquin in The Piano.

Best Screenplay – Adapted

1. William Monahan,
The Departed
2. Todd Field & Tom Perrotta,
Little Children

Monahan is one of the best working today, and his handling of
The Departed’s devilishly twisty plot is as satisfying as the alpha male bon mots he coins.

Best Screenplay – Original

1. Michael Arndt,
Little Miss Sunshine
2. Guillermo Arriaga,

Voters who loved
Sunshine should coalesce around this award as they often do when it comes to overachieving independent films. In the scenario of a sweep for Babel, though, this category comes back into play.

Best Animated Feature Film

Happy Feet

It’s a risk to bet against Pixar, I know, but
Happy Feet may benefit from being well-promoted, fresher in the memory, and one of the more unique movies of the year.

Best Art Direction

Pan’s Labyrinth

The design and spectacle of
Dreamgirls seem likely to earn some recognition, this would be a place to do it, though Pan’s rich visuals merit consideration.

Best Cinematography

Children of Men
Pan’s Labyrinth

Emmanuel Lubezki’s extraordinary camerawork in
Children of Men will, tragically, be the only element of this amazing film to be honored tonight. Given the way it supported and colored-in the whole mood and energy of Alfonso Cuarón’s work, it’s well-deserved. In my mind the film deserved even more.

Best Costume Design

The Devil Wears Prada

Voters love a big show in the costume category – never underestimate the power of sequins.

Best Documentary Feature

An Inconvenient Truth
My Country, My Country

Technically speaking, if
An Inconvenient Truth wins, Al Gore will not get an Oscar, it will go to the director, Davis Guggenheim. I doubt most voters are making so fine a distinction. A decade ago the documentary feature category was infamous for shunning documentaries that committed the crime of being seen by audiences, now it’s gone far in the opposite direction, angling to financially-popular crossovers like Bowling for Columbine and March of the Penguins. Expect that trend to continue.

Best Documentary Short

Recycled Life
Two Hands

This is one of those categories which is, even for a junkie like me, essentially a crapshoot. I know almost nothing about the nominees, so I try to simply glean from title, what I can learn about subject matter, and any famous names that might be connected.

Best Film Editing

The Departed

Stephen Mirrione, co-editor of
Babel, previously won for Traffic, and again takes on the difficult task of meshing different stories and moods, and triumphs. Thelma Schoonmaker’s legend, and her long history with Scorsese, may prove to be a difference-maker, but since I’m calling Best Picture for The Departed and Schoonmaker won recently for The Aviator, I’m deferring to Oscar’s recent habit of spreading it around.

Best Foreign-Language Film

Pan’s Labyrinth
After the Wedding

Voters should flock to this chance to honor Guillermo Del Toro’s mesmerizing blend of horror and fantasy.

Best Makeup

Pan’s Labyrinth

Ditto here, the old-fashioned craft of makeup design is put to loving use in the various creatures existing in Ofelia’s private world in

Best Original Score

The Queen
Notes on a Scandal

The Queen
’s tasteful Continental subtlety out-duels the minimalist pummeling of Phillip Glass in a close one.

Best Original Song

1. “Listen”,
2. “Our Town”,

Latter-day affection for Randy Newman boosts
Cars’s chances, but the opportunity to award a song from a real musical rather than a pop tune grafted into a straight movie should be hard to resist.

Best Short Film – Animated

The Little Matchgirl
2. Lifted


Best Short Film – Live Action

West Bank Story
Helmer & Son


Best Sound Editing
1. Blood Diamond
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Since the whole body of voters picks winners after specialists have prepared the nominations, the sound awards usually go to the loudest movies regardless of technique. But I think there may be just enough awareness of the greater difficulties in creating a more natural sound canvas for a chaotic story like
Blood Diamond, as opposed to the anything-goes clanking mayhem of Pirates

Best Sound Mixing

Blood Diamond

The quality and energy of the musical numbers should carry
Dreamgirls here.

Best Visual Effects

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

All about the Kraken.

Update: I scored 220 in what must be considered a pretty off year for me, although I continued my streak of besting dear Dr. Hansen, who came in at 215. Kudos to my sister, who won our household with 255. And kudos to Marty, because, you know...

More thoughts tomorrow, after my wine headache passes.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Listomania - Top 10/Bottom 10 for 2006

Full post behind the jump

It’s not quite that movie-watching is a seasonal habit, but it certainly ramps up for me at the end of every year. One reason is that it’s when studios jam out all their most interesting pictures in the hopes of getting awards attention – from October to January I’m easily catching 2-3 new movies a week and would do more if I could. The other reason is my habit of using numbers to punish myself – as the year nears a close I become painfully aware of how few movies I’ve seen (by my own standards), and become determined to pump up my total while I still can.

It doesn’t really surprise me, then, that all but one of my top 10 list for 2006 consists of movies that were released in autumn or later. There were fine movies released throughout the year, but either I missed them or they simply weren’t quite at the level of excellence necessary to break into the list.

If you’d like a reminder,
here’s the list of 2006 releases I saw, so you know what I’m drawing from. As usual, I’ll count down both the best and worst, with commentary and links to my original reviews. It’s funny how, with only a few months’ perspective, my passions have shifted in intensity for some films compared to others. The same goes for years, I look back on films from 2004 and 2005 and wonder why I loved or scorned them so much. The lot of the reviewer I suppose – always providing a snapshot of the moment’s feelings which becomes permanent even if the feelings themselves aren’t.

The Ten Best Films of 2006 That I Saw

10. Stranger Than Fiction

There is just so much joy in this reality-bending comedy from writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster that you can lose track of what a fiendish triumph of construction it is. Perfectly-pitched performances, wit, and a kind of seeped-into-the-bones romantic optimism give this story of Harold Crick, and his wristwatch, one of the best aftertastes of any movie this year.

9. Notes on a Scandal

You step away from the story and it all seems so bitter and horrible, but this movie has the power to hypnotize you so that, while you’re experiencing it, it seems all so cruelly delicious. Judi Dench, fearsome, vulnerable, and deliriously cracked, masterfully wields every flick of Patrick Marber’s cat-o’-nine-tails screenplay, and Cate Blanchett, in what is arguably an even trickier supporting role, delivers yet another virtuoso performance.

8. Blood Diamond

Edward Zwick has an authority for the big canvas, and that’s as apparent as ever in Blood Diamond, which manages to be both a thorough exposé of the nasty diamond trade in Africa, and a gripping, impeccably-mounted melodrama. Moviegoers may have been surprised that Leonardo DiCaprio received his Oscar nomination for this movie instead of The Departed, but watch again – his performance here is every bit as good, and possibly better.

7. Little Children

Poetic, passionate, aching, Little Children is the antidote to this year’s globe-trotting social issues films, because it is about nothing larger than our private fears and yearnings, but finds the means to project those into a beauteous grandeur. In a year of big gestures, Todd Field focuses on a father’s worry about his toddler’s hat, and the tasteful shades of blue worn by a suburban hypocrite, and the effect is captivating.

6. Letters From Iwo Jima

At an age when most would be a decade into resting on their laurels, Clint Eastwood continues to challenge himself with Letters, which manages to be lyrical and sympathetic while being a serious war movie. And in a foreign language, to boot. The filmmakers know that, much as people pretend it, we don’t need American faces or words on screen in order to relate to a story; they find universality in the situations, and trust in those to inspire our feelings.

5. The Departed

Martin Scorsese has joked that this is his first movie to have a plot. While not entirely true there’s insight in this self-deprecation – The Departed is like a celebratory epilogue to the genre of gangster cinema he’s owned for decades. But it also, thanks to William Monahan’s dense and gutter-mouthed screenplay, tells a story much more thickly-woven with intrigue and incident than we’re used to from Marty, whose specialty as always has been projecting tortured souls onto the screen with adrenalized vigor. Top it off with its cast – a heavyweight Battle Royal – and you’ve got this year’s likely Best Picture Winner.

4. Babel

It is about culture and language, but also about the broken relationships between husband and wife, father and daughter. It is specific down to the last scrap of fabric in its sprawling settings, but universal in its feelings of desperation and hurt. It is about growing up, about letting go, about trust, about the need to listen. But most of all Babel, the most emotionally-ambitious movie of the year, is about a single bullet, and just how far it can travel.

3. Pan's Labyrinth

A storybook tragedy that blends lovingly-designed fantasy with the most brutally unforgiving reality, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a visual and emotional feast. In essence he has made two movies, each one of the best of the year, and found in their union a kind of perfect harmony, one that reminds us that a child really does exist in two worlds at once.

2. United 93

The experience of United 93 is indescribable, although I tried my best in my review. It is a dramatization that eschews the shortcuts of drama, an artifice determined to be as true as it can possibly be. From camerawork to writing to performance Paul Greengrass has brought into being a work which has little precedent in the history of cinema, an act of mourning and tribute conveyed through an absolute devotion to re-creation.

1. Children of Men

While United 93’s emotional impact is more profound, it relies heavily on the baggage we bring in. In fact, part of its virtue is in how it trusts that exterior stimulus. Children of Men has no such assistance, and so its ability to break your heart and marvel your senses comes entirely from within. This science-fiction allegory about a world where hope has dimmed to almost nothing is a technical landmark both for its camerawork and staging, but also a staggering catharsis for those who want to believe that no matter how ugly the world gets, there will still be goodness within.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)
: The Last King of Scotland, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Cars, Miami Vice, The Good German, The Proposition, The Queen, Little Miss Sunshine

The Ten Worst Films of 2006 That I Saw

10. Open Season

It is inevitable that when copycats race towards the latest trend, you’ll get results like Open Season. Sony Computer Animation solved all the technological problems of making a feature to capitalize on the audience cultivated by Pixar and Dreamworks, and they threw enough movie star voices in (as if children care about that), but they never got around to figuring out how to make any of it charming, instead delivering a film that’s by turns manic, nasty, and careless.

9. The Da Vinci Code

This ranking is less a result of objective badness as it is the ratio of talent-assembled to the bloated banality of the final product. The movie is handsome and packed to the rafters with gifted actors, but they are so frightened of the sales figures of their source material that they don’t dare examine it too closely, for fear they will realize how silly and unoriginal it actually is.

8. Eragon

This plays like a re-make of Star Wars starring the staff of Medieval Times. In the wake of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter it was too easy to predict – that we’d begin to see the lesser titles in the Fantasy section of Barnes & Noble raided for raw material. Lesser source material + lower budget + rookie talent both in the director’s chair and the starring role = the geek cinema equivalent of Malt-o-Meal cereal.

7. The Marine

It’s perhaps expecting too much to want a product of “WWE Films” to not land in my bottom 10, but as a long-time champion of B-action pictures – I even gave a thumbs-up to the remake of Walking Tall – it’s not like I don’t give projects like these every opportunity to amuse me. But John Cena’s dry-cement screen presence fails to unite this movie’s ludicrous and/or juvenile excesses into anything resembling coherent entertainment.

6. Saw III

Three years, three Saw movies, three entries in my bottom 10 list. Perhaps I’m just being stubborn, and fail to realize that, instead of the plot-hole strewn execution fantasies I think I’m watching, these are actually somehow ingenious subversive commentaries. To those who think so, who think there is meaning in this mutilation beyond what they bring to put a gloss on their desire to watch it, I feel justified in asking this question – don’t brilliantly thought-provoking movies usually have less sh*tty acting?

5. Lady in the Water

The only thing holding back M. Night Shyamalan, one of the most technically-gifted directors of his generation, is that he insists on working over and over again with M. Night Shyamalan, the childishly sloppy writer, and M. Night Shyamalan, the boring actor. His descent into egocentric mania has been fascinating to watch, tragic as it is in terms of wasted potential. Consider that the only reason Lady in the Water, a horror fairy tale that serves as the silly and arbitrary counter-point to the mesmerizing pathos of Pan’s Labyrinth, isn’t lower on this list is that he IS such a talented director.

4. Poseidon

Perhaps it’s optimism on my part to hope that people don’t go to the movies just to watch studios spend money. The failure of Poseidon might just support that theory. This movie sank (ho ho) from prominence so quickly people seem to have forgotten it even existed. When a movie studio spends this much money on something, that’s not the result they’re looking for. They couldn’t find much reason to re-make one of the seminal disaster movies of the 70’s except that it was certain to be very expensive. And they couldn’t find a reason beyond that for us to care about it.

3. Ultraviolet

I feel sorry for Milla Jovovich, who is lithe and intense and sexy, and possesses enough of all three qualities to be a legitimate female action star, the kind we don’t always have even one of working steadily. As long as she keeps choosing projects like the abominable Resident Evil franchise and this stupefying nonsense, though, she’s destined to remain in the fanboy ghetto, top-lining cheap, derivative movies that people make excuses for because of her agreeable nature about superfluous nudity.

2. Bloodrayne

For director Uwe Boll, making only the 2nd-worst movie of the year rates as progress. Bloodrayne really hits the bad movie jackpot – combining a goofy plot, bad effects, slumming actors and the kind of heedless enthusiasm that can only come from a filmmaker who thinks the tripe he’s serving up is really top sirloin. What movie, you ask, could actually score as worse than a movie that features Meat Loaf in a powdered wig?

1. Night of the Living Dead 3D

For people who know what a bad movie looks like, I always say their perception is skewed, because there’s a kind of minimal threshold of competence that accompanies just about all theatrical releases. Even if the actors are misguided, the writing hackneyed, and the premise stupid, you at least take comfort that the DP knew which end of the camera was up and that the editor could put the whole thing into the right order. If Night of the Living Dead 3D is worth nothing else (and I promise you, it’s worth nothing else,) it will finally show you the depths of incompetence which are actually possible in this medium. I’m sure of all the critical plaudits producer/director Jeff Broadsheet imagined being bestowed upon this limp and amateurish bastardization of a classic, one that never occurred to him was “Worse than Uwe Boll!” But that’s where he is, and I think certain congratulations are in order.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

How a writer processes temptation

If writing is sex, outlining is the foreplay. A man's got to train himself at it, but once he learns the value of it, hoo mama.

However, revising an outline is like videotaping your own foreplay and then analyzing it on Maddenvision. I don't know what the hell it is, but it sure ain't sexy.

I'm at that stage with this treatment I wrote last year. I hoped to give it a thorough revision while I gathered notes on the new screenplay and cleared out my head space so I could prepare to re-write it. It's not going well - I'm at that stage where every time I look at it I feel like I'm being punched in the forehead.

So when I'm lying on my bed, face pressed into the pages, tapping at the back of my head with my pen, this is the sort of conversation I have with myself:

Why am I writing this lousy idea?

You came up with it, and among the ideas you came up with, it was voted Most Likely To Make You a Great Deal of Money."

Yeah, but I don't love it.

You're just saying that now, because it's the least fun phase. You loved it when you were compiling raw story material, and once you start writing real pages you'll love it again."

Hmph. What makes you so sure?

Because you do this every time you outline."

I'm bored with all this prep - I should be writing from the gut. It'll be fresher that way.

Every screenplay you've written from the gut sucks."

Wow, little harsh there?

Well somebody had to say it - either it implodes because you don't know what the story is yet, or once it's down on paper it takes three times as long to revise because you were structuring on the fly and big chunks have to be ripped out now."

The new screenplay mixed outlining and gut, and people love it.

The first screenplay you outlined was the one you sold. That's all I'm saying."

It's a crappy idea and I'm a crappy writer.

Oh, now you're just being juvenile. You'll write the hell out of it. You know this world, you'll have a laugh on every page."


Oh I get it. You're trying to go off with some other project, aren't you?"


No, you're thinking about that novel again, the one you started outlining during Happy Hour at Islands!"

I was just messing around, honest. It's at the bottom of my priority list. Absolute bottom. We're on the same page here - write screenplays, make money. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Oh, I hate it when you're glib. It's your passive-aggressive side."

Passive-aggressive? You're the one whapping my skull with a PEN.

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MOVIE REVIEW - Ghost Rider

Full review behind the jump

Ghost Rider

: Mark Steven Johnson
: screen story and screenplay by Mark Steven Johnson, based on the Marvel comic
: Avi Arad, Steven Paul, Michael DeLuca, Gary Foster
: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Sam Elliott, Peter Fonda, Donal Logue

We live in an age where visual effects animators can put just about any old thing you can imagine on the cinema screen, which makes comic book fantasies like
Ghost Rider possible. But all that wondrous technology can’t stop people from writing scenes where one character declares: “You’re going down!” and the other retorts “I don’t think so!” My action figures used to have conversations like that, and I didn’t presume to charge admission for it.

I wonder what Mark Steven Johnson, whose 2003 adaptation of
Daredevil was similarly pretty and shallow, thought to himself as he set those two lines of dialogue on the page. Did he lean back in his chair, nod to himself, and think “Yes sir, that’s as good as it gets, right there!” Or was he too enraptured by the image of Nicolas Cage’s head turning into a flaming skull to notice what his devil fingers were typing?

Cage is an Academy Award-winner, one of the dynamic talents of his generation, and a life-long comic fan to boot. He named his son Kal-el – something the casual fan does not do. It’s taken until now for him to finally realize a comic book movie of his own. He is, visibly, too excited about it to contain himself, and Johnson is too excited about having someone with Cage’s gifts in the starring role to restrain him. And so the movie entertains in fits and starts because of Cage’s manic inventiveness, but this entertainment value, at best, has nothing to do with the story, and at worst, works at jarring right angles to any attempt at emotional depth.

Cage plays Johnny Blaze, whose father (Brett Cullen) raised him in the family business of motorcycle stunt riding for a traveling carnival. But as young Blaze (Matt Long) is on the cusp of manhood, his father is dying of lung cancer, which is when cagey old Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) appears, offering to take the tumors away in exchange for little Johnny’s soul. I’m not sure why the normally-understated Fonda is in this showy role, except that someone thought they’d earn points for putting him in a movie with motorcycles in it. He looks satisfied to deliver arrhythmic line readings and collect a handsome paycheck.

Johnny Blaze takes the deal but loses Dad anyway – fate is cruel that way. Despondent, he abandons the young sweetheart Roxanne (Raquel Alessi) he wanted to elope with. I really know nothing about these two lovers except that they are both photogenic, and learn nothing more than this when Roxanne appears in adult form played by Eva Green. She’s now a kind of free-roaming TV journalist, filing reports from any random event imaginable and asking inane questions at each. This job does nothing to inform her behavior, it simply gives her a good reason to be in every scene. Which is sort of the problem of the whole picture – Mark Steven Johnson knows everything about how to make a movie except how to consider what real people might do or feel in the scenarios he’s concocting.

His visual vocabulary is entirely borrowed from better filmmakers – in this picture we have frequent rip-offs from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, whose effects were cruder but will date better because of their excellently-mounted context – and when it comes to the emotional content of the scene he’s like a blind man banging away at random piano keys. I think this is why he’s incapable of reining in Cage’s propensity to graft eccentric details on his characters, he’s having too much fun to think about anything like the integrity of the story.

I confess to laughing frequently when Cage, as the grown-up Blaze, goes all wiggy, or demonstrates his addictions to jellybeans, TV shows about monkeys, or the music of the Carpenters. But what does that have to do with the price of rice, as they say? Aren’t we supposed to be watching him because he’s a man who sold his soul to the Devil? He’s built a career out of increasingly ludicrous stunt jumps – this is a man who either wants to die or is not sure he even can, why spend so much time on what his favorite candy is?

Anyway, the demon has finally come to collect on his debt. He turns Blaze into The Ghost Rider, the Devil’s Bounty Hunter, who collects souls and otherwise enforces his whims on this earthly plane. As The Rider, he turns into a flaming skeleton in leather, the sort of thing eighth-grade metal fans doodle in their spiral notebooks. He has superhuman strength, a punk attitude, and the ability to roast guilty souls with a trick called the Penance Stare. His bike undergoes a similar metamorphosis, and in demonic form can perform tricks like driving underwater and up the sides of buildings.

The Rider’s mission is to capture the Devil’s son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), who is trying to unseat Dad by finding a long-missing contract with the names of 1,000 souls on it. It was stolen from the Devil many years ago by a former rider. Blackheart, who can suck out peoples’ lives with a fingertip, will kill whomever he has to in order to claim those souls, and he’ll kill pretty much anyone else he encounters, well, just because. Powers aside he’s the sort of villain who never minds taking time off from his scheme to snarl at the camera to remind us he’s scary, and Johnson embraces the cheap horror jolt as if it were high filmmaking craft handed down from Eisenstein.

Blaze, understandably nonplussed by how his head now explodes in the presence of evil, gets the plot explained very slowly to him by The Caretaker, who is played by Sam Elliott as a supernatural extension of his role from The Big Lebowski. After The Rider is knifed his first night on the job, The Caretaker stitches up his wound. In a later scene The Rider is plugged by hundreds of bullets – I guess The Caretaker has a lot of thread.

I don’t want to completely discount the idea of a movie starring a vengeful skeleton who dresses and acts like a Ramones fan. Demons and flames and semi-sentient motorcycles, good action could be had from these elements. This adaptation of Ghost Rider, though, doesn’t even want to try. It’s short on action, short on angst, short on sense, long on Johnson superficially aping his betters and long on Nicolas Cage being quirky. I always enjoy watching Cage’s twitchy side – That’s Entertainment, as they say – but if that’s what you intend to showcase, why bring in the flaming skull at all? There ought to be a better answer than Because They Can.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Critical Compulsion Update

So with that, here in mid-February of 2007, I’m finally closing the door on reviewing 2006 releases. As always, there’s a good dozen or two movies I intended to see, still want to see, but just didn’t make it to. I’ve posted 65 reviews for the year, which shakes out to a trip to the multiplex every five to six days – that I still don’t consider this quite enough is a sign of something, I’m sure. For 2005 I managed 72 and I remember feeling that, too, was inadequate. It’s my nature.

I’ve gotten more than a little pissed with myself in the last couple of months over these reviews, because I’ve put off writing some of them for so long that I think I’m losing crucial details that would have allowed me to better report my opinion. I know that I have perfectly adequate excuses – I’ve been traveling, writing a lot of other things, dealing with personal issues, and nobody’s paying me to do this anyway. Still, there’s a purity in letting your own standards and nothing else be the thing to punish you, and some of these reviews haven’t rated as good as I think I’m capable of.

In any event, we’re now into 2007, there’s quite a few movies to get to and damn me, I’ve only reviewed one so far. I’ve got an open schedule and no football this weekend, so I’m hoping to squeeze three in. In the days to come, I’ll post my traditional top 10/bottom 10 lists along with any other wrap-ups that come to mind. And then onward, into year four (wow, really, four?) of uncompensated movie snobbery here at The Theory of Chaos.

Thanks for reading.

: Whoops! Make that 66 reviews. I found one I'd forgotten to add to my LiveJournal Memories page for the year.

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MOVIE REVIEW - United 93

Full review behind the jump

United 93

: Paul Greengrass
: Paul Greengrass
: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lloyd Levin, Paul Greengrass
: The practice of listing featured players in the cast from its most visible/famous performers on down seems inappropriate to this film. For the full cast list, see

I don’t need to tell you the story of
United 93. We all lived it in our own way and our memories need no stimulating. The strength of those memories makes it daunting to even consider watching this film, which will open up your heart to grieve all over again. I tried to go see it during its theatrical release back in April and changed my mind at the last minute for this reason – I was not ready then to refresh the pain of that day.

But there is no such thing as ready, really. The fact is I have seen
United 93 now and can confirm that viewing it is as gut-wrenching and tear-inducing as its reputation. It is also a triumph of filmmaking in every aspect, because it does not so much command us to those feelings as create a memorial space where we can feel safe to unburden ourselves of them. It is washed clean of politics, judgment and sensationalism, and from the shape of its story to the most minute detail of performance it is an effort simply to document what was not documented – to put cameras where there were none on September 11, 2001, so we can remember what real heroism looks like. It is one of the great films of 2006, and a singular achievement as the first effort by Hollywood to directly address this historical moment.

The story opens in a hotel room, as soon-to-be hijackers are getting dressed and saying their morning prayers. The movie observes this without comment, these are people who have come to this moment by the belief that they are doing the right thing, the holy thing, and while it is a great evil they are still human, and the movie allows them this. Their leader, sitting in the airport departure area, seems to fidget when another passenger sits next to him and calls his family. This smallest gesture speaks to a universal idea – simply seeing a human face on his victims has an effect on his resolve.

In tying together the events of that day, this movie finds a theme about how religious xenophobia and the murder it commands can only fester and succeed in an atmosphere of ignorance and lies. The hijackers on each of the four planes taken on that morning, for all their piety, told two deliberate falsehoods – that they had a bomb (they didn’t), and that they were returning to the airport (they weren’t). Those lies were concocted to keep the passengers docile. Only on flight 93, whose takeoff was delayed, did the passengers, speaking with their loved ones on cell phones, learn what was really going on. Just depicting that, writer/director Paul Greengrass knows, salutes its heroism. These passengers, and only these, knew what the stakes were, knew that more than their own lives were at risk. And this is what they decided to do.

The first half of the film covers a lot of ground, from the flight itself to air traffic control centers and military command posts. Everyone is struggling to get a clear picture of what's going on, and the potential for confusion is terrifying. Many of the people who actually had the watch on that day portray themselves in this film, selflessly acknowledging through their participation that they did their best, and it wasn’t enough, because what was actually happening was so beyond imagining then. Both they and the professional cast must do that which they are almost never called on for as actors, to simply be human for the camera. At this they triumph, one and all, and so in my praise for them I wouldn’t dare single anyone out above the others.

The conversations of the flight attendants, the pilots, the passengers, the controllers, are uninflected, mundane. No one knows today is important, or that when that main cabin door seals them off from the daylight, it will never again be opened. There’s one moment when a controller is tracking one of the hijacked flights, and can’t figure out where it’s going, because on his screen there is only a blank space between Kennedy and Newark airports. And then, without warning, the little icon representing the flight just vanishes, and as audience members our dread is catalyzed into perfect horror. In another control center across the river from Manhattan, it takes someone looking up from his screen and out the window to figure out what has happened.

In a military command post, a commander is doing his best to get planes in the air, convince them that this is not the drill that was supposed to happen today, and determine just what authority he has should they intercept one of the hijacked flights. We see that he knows what he might have to do, and that permission to do so can only come from the President himself, so he must act urgently without even knowing the rules of engagement. And in an FAA control room, so much information is flying in so quickly that they must rely on a simple dry erase white board to maintain a list of all the flights that they’re not sure of. In all these environments the camera is a nervous spectator, a deliberate simulacrum of documentary filmmaking that enhances its emotional power. We both understand why there is so much confusion, and dread our own clarity as viewers checking in from the aftermath.

And gradually these threads vanish, and we take a permanent place in the air with the passengers of United 93. We often memorialize our heroes by building statues, freezing them in a moment of nobility. This film, this extraordinary tribute, performs the same service, and is perhaps more appropriate because it does not bronze them. It does not show them as anything more than ordinary, but provides a record for this moment when ordinary people made a knowing, and extraordinary, sacrifice.

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MOVIE REVIEW - Letters From Iwo Jima

Full review behind the jump

Letters From Iwo Jima

: Clint Eastwood
: screen story by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, screenplay by Iris Yamashita, inspired by Picture Letters from Commander-in-Chief, written by Tadamichi Kurabayashi and edited by Tsuyoko Yoshido
: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Steven Spielberg
: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takumi Banso, Yuki Matsuzaki, Eijiro Ozaki

The grunt’s life is a familiar one in American World War II movies. The work is thankless drudgery, the Sarge is always a hardass and the food stinks. Many of the Commanders are preening bullies and the ones who talk about glory are not to be trusted, but some of them might just have the kind of wisdom and compassion you’d actually follow into battle.

Actor/Director/Producer Clint Eastwood has starred in a couple of World War II movies in his long career, and he’s already directed one in 2006 –
Flags of Our Fathers, which attempted to look beyond the battlefield of Iwo Jima to see the effect of one photograph both on the morale of a weary America, and on the three soldiers credited with a kind of superhuman heroism they felt diminished in the glare of.

But that rock in the Pacific Ocean has more stories to tell, and in an extraordinary cross-cultural effort, he’s flipped our perspective for
Letters From Iwo Jima, which tells the story of the battle for the island from the point-of-view of the Japanese soldiers tasked to defend it. Like Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, which was set aboard a Nazi submarine, it is a work so hypnotic in its focus and empathy that you forget that the people we are watching are, by all our historical reckoning, the enemy. Depicted with enough attention and understanding, we feel for a grunt facing annihilation no matter what uniform he wears.

Although the two projects began as one, there is no real cross-pollination. Characters do not leak into each others’ stories. You might see echoes, though, remembering the unnerving quiet when the Americans first landed on the beach, wondering where the Japanese were and why they weren’t shooting. And in one scene of absolute horror we witness a possible answer to the mystery of what caused a G.I. in Flags lifelong nightmares.

Eastwood, directing as always with a sensitive and classical touch, intends this story to stand on its own – this is about the Japanese, and how their cultural training wilts with the inevitability of death. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who has been given command of the island just in time to lose it, seems to know that he will be responsible for the first loss of the war to take place on Japanese soil, though such defeatist talk is forbidden. Behind his intense determination, his curse is that he sees too well where this is going, and is trying to serve people who wish to remain blind. But he is determined to serve with honor, and force the Americans to spend as much time and effort possible along the way. He tells his men that they are not allowed to die until they’ve taken ten of the enemy with them.

Fatalism is everywhere, and it exerts an unimaginable psychic pressure on the soldiers, who have been trained to consider surrender the lowest shame. Many want to simply charge heedlessly at the enemy the moment they land – better the blaze of fake glory than the terrible waiting. The xenophobic fever that swept through their country made them feel protected from fear – now, with the ships approaching, they realize that it will not help them, and each deals with this reality in their own way. No matter how Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) slices it, it seems likely he’s going to die an awful death in a futile battle, if not by someone else’s hand then his own, since that’s what’s expected of him. He’s just a baker, a young man with a pregnant wife back home, and wary enough of the jingoistic pomp (when his draft notice was delivered, the couriers congratulated him like he’d won a contest) to question if surrender is really so tragic a dishonor.

He is our proxy in this movie, and Kazunari (a pop star back in Japan) gives a performance that is disarmingly vulnerable – trying his best, but resigned that no matter what he does, some larger force is likely to push him in a worse direction. Watch how relieved he is when Kuribayashi rescues him from the sweaty work of digging useless trenches on the beach. Imagine how he feels, then, when his new job is digging tunnels in the rock.

The story passes from Kuribayashi’s circle to Saigo’s and back – they intersect often enough that near the end, as the numbers are dwindling and the food gone, the General huffs “You again?”, and it plays as true gallows humor. Both write letters to their families. Saigo’s are full of failed attempts to soften the hopelessness, while the General, either because he is protecting his family’s feelings or because he is at peace with his fate, perhaps both, focuses on postcard descriptions and mundane domestic reminders. He is determined to stay a husband and father until the end. He’s an educated man who has been to America and befriended some of its military brass. On Iwo Jima he bonds with a junior officer, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who competed in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Both have the ability to see the enemy as human and they are grateful for the understanding.

This is both the purpose of Letters From Iwo Jima, one of the year’s best films, and its theme. First-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita, under the guidance of Oscar-winner Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) is able to weave these truths into multiple storylines without ever making the piece ideologically heavy-handed, it allows Eastwood’s no-guff aesthetic to achieve poetic gracefulness. What you see across the battlefield affects your actions – if you see a faceless monster, reflection or restraint is unthinkable. If you see someone who is as frightened, hungry, and far from those they love as you are, then you have a chance to remember that the purpose of the battle is to defeat your opponent, and this is not always the same thing as killing him.

The conflicts between Kurabayashi and his masters back home, or the pompous officers who don’t trust him; the conflicts between Saigo and the superiors who seem desperate to take him with them on their own irrational self-destruction, these things are about whether you think sympathy and reason are weaknesses. Wars are often the work of leaders who think these very things and mobs who give their will over to them. From the way prisoners are treated to the way one soldier’s inability to follow a sadistic order put him in this doomed place, doing what is right in this movie does not always guarantee you a happy ending; but, the movie argues with seasoned compassion, it is still what is right.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - The Pursuit of Happyness

Full review behind the jump

The Pursuit of Happyness

: Gabriele Muccino
: Steve Conrad
: Steve Tisch, Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Will Smith, James Lassiter
: Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Kurt Fuller

One of the tried-and-true tricks of moviemaking is to take a performer with an ocean of feeling and give them a pinhole through which to express it. This is the secret behind the defiant spirit we feel emerging from Whoopi Goldberg in
The Color Purple, or the autumnal suburban angst of Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. We can sense the strain of a life pushing against its boundaries. Done right, as in The Pursuit of Happyness, it is a kind of magic act. We can’t put our finger on when, but at some point we simply accept that Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is not going to give up.

He doesn’t shout it to the heavens, because he doesn’t have
time to give in to doubt or self-pity. A man with a child does not have that luxury. With every blow that falls on Gardner’s head in a life where he realizes that being smart, personable, and hard-working isn’t always enough, we see him absorb it, accept it, and adapt to the new reality. Sometimes the new reality requires sleeping on the floor of a subway bathroom. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect him, but we see that he is a person who has developed a ferocious rivalry with his own despair.

The theme of “don’t give up” is a perfunctory gesture in Hollywood movie-making, it’s woven so thoroughly into the American myth of the self-starter that it’s scarcely even thought about. It’s an instantly-generated Hallmark epigraph, so automatic that it takes special talent to remind us that this cliché is actually much easier spoken than done. Will Smith gives an Oscar-nominated lead performance which is almost like the reverse of building a character. It relies on a calculated frustration of his beaming optimism, walling up and chipping away at his own inherent charisma so we take the powerful feelings of this movie not directly from his face, but from the sympathies we project into the gap we perceive. The effect is profound.

The story is inspired by the real Chris Gardner, who is now comfortably well-off but I’m sure has never forgotten that he had to earn it. We take a peak into his life in the early 80’s, when he’s three months behind on the rent in his little San Francisco apartment, his wife (Thandie Newton) has lost faith in him, and his son Christopher (Smith’s real-life son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) is beginning to sense, in spite of his father’s insistence that things are going to be alright, that things might not be.

Gardner is a salesman trying to move portable bone density scanners, a technological advance which is ahead of what most hospitals and doctor’s offices have, but not so much so that they can justify paying for it. The queer device, shaped a bit from the outside like a giant portable sewing machine, is Gardner’s millstone – we see him carrying one all the time. Sometimes he loses one, and the agony is palpable, because it’s the physical representation of a month’s rent.

He has a chance encounter with a broker from Dean-Witter, sees the car he drives, and hears that all you need to succeed at the job is to be “good with numbers, and good with people”. Gardner knows he is both, what he does not know is just how high a mountain he’s facing. But his mind operates like a speed-sorting device (we see his natural affinity for the Rubik’s Cube), and every problem can be broken down to tasks that need completing and accounts that need settling, even his own.

First he has to somehow get his résumé in the door. Then he must see that it is not dismissed for its lack of, well, any official qualifications. He is applying for a competitive internship – there are only twenty slots open, it lasts six months, only one of the interns will eventually be hired, and until then it is unpaid. A thick mob of sharp-tailored Ivy League scions is competing for those slots, whereas he is covered in paint and must explain that the reason he was late for the interview is that he was just released from prison.

A lesser man would lie – watch how Gardner decides that nothing’s better than the truth, and appreciate how tenuous his circumstances are, staking everything on the prevailing mood in a tasteful boardroom. The script was written by Steve Conrad, whose The Weather Man was a kind of textbook of capricious misfortunes and irritations. In that film Nicolas Cage was their clownish victim, in this film, Will Smith suffers just as much but seems more like Don Quixote. We do not understand how he could even consider this ambition possible, and yet we believe he does.

Much of the charm and heartstring-tugging this movie achieves comes from the relationship between father and son. There is love there that is difficult to fake, and the young Smith is already showing an inherited sense for timing – he knows how to demonstrate unaffectedly the moment a child enters his make believe world, and just how to depict the instant little Christopher realizes that it doesn’t make sense for father to be paying a parking ticket when they don’t have a car anymore.

The world of the brokerage firm is treated neutrally – we see it simply as a noisy place where a great deal of money is balanced precariously on the will and confidence of some very determined and stressed-out people. The partners view Gardner not condescendingly, but with a kind of fascination, and a quaint realization that his world is so different from theirs that they’re not quite sure how to communicate with him. His supervisor (Simpsons voice-master Dan Castellaneta making a rare and welcome live-action appearance) is on the unctuous side, given to using interns as errand boys, but this is hardly unusual in the corporate world. The piece doesn’t really have a villain. The Pursuit of Happyness is too wise about the world to think that any person could be the cause of Chris Gardner’s woes.

What it does instead is show that this life can be a hard and humiliating one, and it’s possible for any bright, ambitious man like Chris Gardner, with just one mistake compounded by a little hard luck, to find himself in a homeless shelter, unsure of how to keep it all at bay. Will Smith is the right actor for this role not just because of his abilities, but because of what we as viewers know him to be. We are waiting, caged right beside him with his tribulations, for release, for that pinhole his happiness is trapped behind to widen not all the way, but just one tiny inch. The Pursuit of Happyness lets us feel, palpably, just how precious that inch can be.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Seraphim Falls

Seraphim Falls
: David Von Ancken
: David Von Ancken and Abby Everett Jaques
: Bruce Davey, David Flynn
: Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael Wincott, Xander Berkeley, Ed Lauter, John Robinson, Kevin J. O’Connor, Tom Noonan, Anjelica Huston

Within the first five minutes of
Seraphim Falls, Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) has lost his food, his coat, his horse, and his rifle; also, he’s been shot and plunged over a waterfall in freezing mountain country. The story does not let up from there, and unfolds like a fusion of The Naked Prey and The Searchers set in the hard habitats Jack London and Louis L’Amour wrote about.

The plot is as simple as this – it’s out West, three years after the end of the Civil War; Gideon is running for his life, and Carver (Liam Neeson) is chasing him. Why this is we will find out in the course of the narrative, but in a story where good and evil are not as simple as we often wish them to be and everybody has a guilty conscience, it doesn’t matter so much as the reality of the chase. Carver will do whatever it takes to end it, Gideon will use all his wit and skill to extend it as long as possible. The chase defines their lives; takes them down snowy slopes, across grassy plains, and finally to a blasted salt flat that looks like the end of the Earth, where they meet a character who might just be the Devil. And if it isn’t the Devil, they know how to offer bargains that are just as insidious.

That’s the kind of movie this is – big, painterly, fearlessly symbolic. Not the sort of thing that’s in fashion these days, but co-writer/director David Von Ancken has a clear vision of what he’s trying to do and mounts it with mesmerizing confidence. Simple as its elements and broad as its ideas are, this is a beautiful movie to behold.

It’s a story built on elements of survival that do not need explaining. When it’s cold out, you must build a fire. When your horse is tired, it needs water. If men are shooting at you, you must take cover. Gideon is skilled at all this and more, he does what needs to be done unquestioningly, but not without suffering. A story like this needs its location, so when Pierce Brosnan the handsome Hollywood star strips his soaked clothing off and shivers, that breath vapor is real. Shot in Oregon and New Mexico by master cinematographer John Toll (Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, The Thin Red Line), it remembers that part of what made the Westerns of John Ford so mythic were that the sprawling vistas brought out the hardness in the actors’ faces.

Brosnan and Neeson are both Irish by birth and struggling a bit with accents here, but they are nonetheless proper men to feature in a story like this. They carry back story in the lines on their faces. There’s nothing extraneous about what they do, and yet they can project a soul even as they go about the savage things the chase demands of them.

The mission to stay alive involves a finely-manipulated inventory – Gideon gains a gun, he loses his money. He re-fills his canteen, he loses a horse. He finds many, many uses for a long hunting knife. And he refuses to be merely prey – he covers his tracks, sets traps, will strike ruthlessly if cornered. Carter has a posse of bounty hunters at his command led by the pragmatic Mr. Hicks (Michael Wincott), and the posse is thinning the more they underestimate Gideon’s resourcefulness. To see Gideon live to fight another day does not provoke cheers, and no more sympathy than the subconscious identification we make with the endangered, because we simply do not know well enough what sins are in his past. This purgatory could be of his own making, instead we feel a sort of hypnotized satisfaction, buying in to the eternal nature of the pursuit.

The chase crosses paths with settlers, missionaries, a railroad work camp, and each encounter seems further bent towards deepening the men’s obsessions. The countryside becomes more barren and lifeless to match the building existentialism, and you will find yourself, eventually, questioning if the movie has left the real living world behind. Again, not the sort of thing that’s very in fashion at the movies these days.

At nearly two hours in length, you might feel near the end as if Seraphim Falls has made its last possible lap, that its ingenuity at keeping Gideon close to the bare brink of death for so long has run out and the movie no longer knows what to do with itself. In a way, its design almost defies any thought of momentum to a satisfying conclusion. Either Carter will kill Gideon, Gideon will kill Carter, they’ll kill each other, or for some reason they’ll decide to stop. No matter which of those scenarios comes about, what’s actually left for them? Seraphim Falls is about people who have nothing left, but keep moving just the same, because even when the spirit is all but dead, our animal side knows how to act.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Lifelong Addiction Update

One of my favorite aspects of Oscar Season is Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar festival, when they showcase award winners and nominees from all the way back to the very first Oscar movies of the late 20’s. It’s a good time of year to have a DVR, let me tell you. But that sword’s got a second edge, because the more I record, the more I have to watch to keep recording space free for whatever’s coming up. When you consider that my DVR is almost always near capacity because of my movie addiction anyway, I find myself in the position of scheming free blocks of time during the day to watch. Which won’t be a bad thing until it starts cutting into work.

Here’s a sample of what I’ve watched recently:

: This is considered one of the least-known Woody Allen films, and is not much regarded because of it. Its story – about a devastating weekend of secrets revealed and hearts broken in the lives of some romantically self-deluding middle-aged New Englanders – unfurls more like stage than cinema, but there aren’t a lot of dramatists out there who would even consider sustaining a feature just on peoples’ yearnings, much less pull it off. In the absence of jokes and slapstick, it’s his precision of language and ability to create six fully-formed characters out of a little dialogue and the way they behave at polite get-togethers that knocks me out here.

: Oh, God, what beautiful, miserable people these are. Another Woody Allen film, this was his first after winning an armful of Oscars for Annie Hall. If that movie was his perspective-stretching neurotic humor cut with just the right mixture of introspection and heartbreak, this movie is his attempt to flush “Woody” out of his system completely. A bleak portrait of a self-destructing family and the mother at the center of it, it’s about the final thread of their ability to live together yanked out by a patriarch who thinks everyone will be alright with him walking out to be with another woman, provided he simply explains how fair it is earnestly enough. The whole look of the movie is superb – all those tasteful domestic spaces with the oxygen sucked right out of them. And I’m hard-pressed to think of another screen character that so perfectly represents the cycle of self-loathing rage than Richard Jordan as the alcoholic writer who knows he’s less talented than his wife, but wants her to lie about it once in awhile so he can contradict her.

Dead Calm
: Nicole Kidman was a damn sight more beautiful before she had half her face sucked out and the rest replaced by ceramic. This is a tight-as-hell three-person thriller about a husband and wife who bring a shipwrecked drifter aboard their yacht, only to discover his story about the death of his shipmates is omitting a few important bloody details. The husband goes to investigate and ends up trapped on the sinking cruiser, while the wife is trying to outwit the psycho she’s trapped with. I wouldn’t hesitate to show it to my screenwriting class, because it sets out the basic elements of cinematic storytelling so clearly and capably. That is, right up until that ridiculous final moment that reeks of studio test-screening interference.

Journey Into Fear
: An invigorating, if slightly slapdash, wartime B-thriller about an American armaments executive pursued by a Nazi assassin, it stands as a sort of community effort from Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre players. Joseph Cotton stars and is credited with the screenplay, although Welles and Ben Hecht are rumored to have lent a hand. Welles also may have leant a hand to studio system director Norman Foster, whose work has a few, let’s call them, uncharacteristic flourishes this time out. Welles didn’t likely have time to assert too much control, he was rushing to finish his scenery-chewing role as super-macho Turkish spymaster Colonel Haki so he could go down to Brazil, get drunk, whore around, and fail to complete a documentary.

Out of the Past
: One of the greatest film noirs of all time, it’s also been called the greatest smoking movie of all time. Robert Mitchum, who looks like he was born with cig dangling from his lips, is lighting up in every scene, sometimes two or three times. He’s never been cooler, never better at striking that balance of craftiness, wounded romance and casual sadism that typified the noir man. Even Bogart would have had a hard time doing better. And as a former private investigator trying to leave a dirty case behind and start a new life, he uses those white clouds of smoke to tell you how he really feels whenever he has to be polite to the ruthless mobster (Kirk Douglas) that won’t leave him alone. I get an extra thrill from this movie because several scenes are shot in Bridgeport off the 395, which I’ve passed through a couple of times on road trips – the movie’s 60 years old now but many of the buildings are still there.

I also saw two more episodes of Showtime’s
Masters of Horror series, which isn’t turning out nearly as well as I want it to. I’ve seen eight of them so far, and I really liked two, kind of liked a third, and thought the rest were varyingly levels of bleh.

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