Saturday, January 31, 2009


Going into Twilight, my knowledge of the film (based on the novel by Stephanie Meyer) consisted of two vastly different reviews by my wife and a twelve year old girl I had occasion to interview.  One of them called Twilight unintentionally laughable and the other called it a gritty, romantic date movie.  First let me dispense with some obligatory good-will so my wife won't kill me: Twilight is a good date movie.  That is, as long as you're willing to shut off your brain.  I'm not one of those purists who think think that there is no place for angsty teen literature or programming in the arts.  I will even admit to getting a giddy chill from the nostalgia of certain teen-oriented CW shows like Dawson's Creek and Everwood.  

The movie version of Twilight is written by Melissa Rosenberg who cut her teeth on television shows like The O.C. and Party of Five and one of the central problems is her script which reads like some of the worst of these programs and is directed with a surprising lack of cohesion or investment by Catherine Hardwicke.  Hardwicke worked as an Art Director before segueing into a directing career and the production design in the film is impressively understated.  The sets feel lived in and the setting lends the film a suitably gothic atmosphere, but I was surprised by how little the characters register.  After all, Hardwicke is the same director who was praised for her gritty, insightful, direction of the teen film Thirteen.  

Generally speaking the movie is shot like a student film, in a fashion that does little service to the acting and lacks a consistent point of view.  The sequences in which Ms. Hardwicke attempts to raise the temperature with special effects or big revealing camera moves, fail to convince and seem at odds with the rest of the film.    She is not an instinctive action filmmaker and the requirements of the story highlight the times that she is in over her head.  Particularly the "tree climbing" scenes, which are meant to be euphoric and lyrical but play like Crouching Tiger lite.  Unfortunately, much of the dramatics are equally lacking.  There are lingering, conspicuous, close-ups filled with strained silences and anguish-filled faces from the two leads.  A discussion of these close-ups may seem overly academic for a movie like this, but the fact is they slow down the pace and prevent the movie from realizing its full potential.  

In theory, the story of a teenage girl who moves to a small town and falls in love with a boy at school who happens to be a vampire, has the promise of a modern day Romeo and Juliet.  The two star-crossed lovers come from very different worlds.  We learn that Edward Cullen is a "good"vampire, feeding only on animals.  His path to becoming immortal was a story borne out of survival rather than a lust for power.  Bella, his love, is the daughter of divorced parents and her father is the town Sheriff, investigating a series of "animal" attacks that we are told is in fact something else.  

The problem is the script doesn't mine the material enough.  Bella's parents are remarkably absent from the story and from her life as she grows more involved with Edward.  Likewise, Edward's "family" is remarkably accepting of Bella -- considering the risks.  The leads, Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson, are attractive and appealing.  They do their best to sell the love story, but the script ignores every potential obstacle and every opportunity to generate meaningful conflict.  Bella is instantly embraced by a new group of friends, the day she arrives at her new school and they remain loyal, background characters in spite of her obvious disinterest and even contempt for them.  When Bella enters her science class and Edward first gets a whiff of her, the comical look on his face is the picture of a man who has just drunk a carton of milk that's past the expiry date.  Rather than thumb her nose at his rebuff, Bella is intrigued.  Who is this boy who's so repulsed by me?  Eventually she confronts him and his warning to stay away from him only makes her want him more.  

The fact that he's a vampire is a foregone conclusion.  We know this going in.  What is missed is an opportunity to build mystery around what he is after.  Imagine if we were kept in the dark as to who is responsible for the "animal attacks," with all clues pointing to the Cullens while Bella's father investigates.  If Bella's father were more driven to stop these attacks and his mounting evidence were pushing him towards a climactic confrontation with the vampires, the movie might have also forced Bella towards a more difficult realization.  As Bella became more intimate with Edward, she would also ironically grow further from her father.  This would also make the arrival of the murderous rival vampire clan a bigger surprise and a more ominous threat in the final stretch of the film.  

Maybe I'm being unduly critical.  We're supposed to surrender to stories like this without analyzing them on such a microscopic level and judging by the $180 million the film has grossed domestically, it seems as though I am in the minority.   Maybe its naive of me to expect more from a movie like this.  I haven't read the books, so comparisons may reveal new insights. All I know is that the world of the story and the concept driving Twilight had the potential to make for great teen escapism.  Instead it made me smile goofily and apologize to my wife for being so close-minded.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Oscar Cop-Out

By now, much negative press has already been lavished on this year's Oscar race and critics are predicting that this could be the most boring Oscar ceremony ever.  The academy has been accused of selling out, the nominees have been complaining that their sails do not have enough metaphorical wind to push them towards the triumph they so rightly deserve.  And yes, the awards are predictable this year.  The nominations smack of one too many "been there, done thats" but I'm not going to talk about that.  I'd like to take just a minute to point a finger at the people who are really responsible: the filmmakers themselves.  

I spent several years working in LA as a part of the Hollywood "machine" and the problem (as I see it) isn't just the kind of movies that are getting nominated, but the kinds of movies that are getting a push from the studios.  There are only two seasons in Hollywood.  Summer Movie season -- which now starts in March and why not? This is when the studios make the big bucks.  And of course, there's Oscar season, which starts as early as October and consists of no less than a full-scale marketing assault, promoting lovingly-crafted, highbrow cinema "for your consideration" via the trades (Variety and The Hollywood Reporter).

Oscar season is the time when all the executives who had the sophistication and forethought to greenlight a contending "prestige picture" pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves -- if not others, on a job...done.  Whether or not the films live up to their pedigree is another thing entirely.  Academy members are bound to make mistakes, but the Oscars used to stand for something.  They were designed to recognize and inspire excellence in the art of motion pictures, but rather than inspire they became a means in and of themselves.  By coming back every year, writer's strike or not...the Oscars have become a comfortable old shoe that any high-minded, end of the year, Hollywood film has a chance of fitting into.  

When did this happen?  When did blockbusters and prestige pictures become mutually exclusive?  It's time that Hollywood started taking their blockbusters a little more seriously -- The Dark Knight was a major step in the right direction this year, as was The Departed in 2006.  And, likewise it is high time that the so-called "important" films became a little more entertaining.  Still, like everything important in life, the choice has to come from within.  It isn't enough to insist on retribution here and there is nothing pointing to a decline in Oscar movie marketing anytime soon.  The only chance of things improving is if all us cinephiles and filmmakers band together to demand more of ourselves.  It's time to say no more to being a pushover.  It's time to say no more to valuing earnest message films, regardless of their originality.  

The marketing of these Oscar films is insidious.  It is so effective and so relentless, that ambitious misfires like last year's Atonement suddenly start to look good to me.  Yes, I admit, after five successive weeks of Atonement ads, including full page spreads and complimentary DVD samplers, I too was willing to throw reason and my opinion to the wind and admit that I had been wrong...Atonement was in fact a masterpiece after all.  If I were still subscribing to the trades, I might be telling you the same thing about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- another overhyped awards darling.  Don't get me wrong, I value ambition over execution if a film has a point of view.  The problem I have is how few Oscar contenders genuinely have one.  

Thursday, January 22, 2009

One Chance Too Many Harvey

Last Chance Harvey by writer/director Joel Hopkins is a misconceived project that is elevated by two great performances by Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson but ultimately falls flat.  Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is a man at twilight's door, looking back on a failed existence when he meets Kate Walker (Thompson) on the eve of his daughter's London wedding and she inspires hope within him.  Unfortunately the movie doesn't give the actors enough to play with.  

The camera pulls away just when it should be moving closer, as things start to click between Harvey and Kate.  As romance blooms, we follow Kate and Harvey through several charming London locations without getting close enough to fully to invest in them.  They speak but we don't hear what they are saying.  Instead we hear a melancholy musical score by Dickon Hinchliffe that lends the film all the character of a standard movie of the week.  Music goes a long way towards setting the tone of a picture and it would have seemed a natural fit to write a jazz score, since we learn that Harvey -- a commercial jingle composer -- once dreamt of being a jazz pianist, but this is just one of several missing elements.  

Big moments happen, but the connections between them seem to have been left on the cutting room floor.  The wedding sequence is the centerpiece of the film and is designed to mark a turning point in Harvey's growth, but just as things heat up we are again directed away from the central conflict.   Harvey's troubles with his daughter are resolved in one gulping, melancholy speech that miraculously seems to solve everything between them.  That is, until Kate walks out on the party when she sees him having fun and he is forced to get her back.  The actors inhabit their roles with gravitas and they do their best to sell the ending of the film, but ultimately it hinges on a giant leap of faith and there just isn't enough meat on the bones here -- not that I should even know what that means as a lifelong vegetarian. 

It's a Slum-derful Life

Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is a modern day fairy tale, constructed from fragments and memories of a broken life that is ultimately rebuilt in the most unlikely fashion.  The story follows Jamal, a Mumbai-born "slum dog" as he competes on the Indian "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire."  Defying even his own expectations,  Jamal starts winning and the movie shows us how he came to know the answers through a series of flashbacks that are alternately humorous and harrowing.  

What makes it contemporary is the way it is filmed, using cameras that move with dazzling agility, capturing the colors and textures of Mumbai in broad strokes.  The movie has a manic energy, propelled by a Bollywood techno score and editing that constantly builds tension by pairing images of longing and success, heartbreak and redemption, danger and safety.  The movie could be the Indian version of It's A Wonderful Life, because of the way it shows us how every seemingly insignificant choice in life has the potential to change lives.  It also reminds us again and again how far emotional intelligence and street smarts can take us, regardless of our level of education.  The idea is best expressed in a sequence where the game show host feeds Jamal an answer to an upcoming question and Jamal is forced to choose whether to trust the host or his own instincts with 20 million rupees on the line.  

At the center of the film is a sweet love story that requires some suspension of disbelief from more jaded viewers.  I went and saw the movie a second time to see how it would hold up and found it impossible to resist.  Danny Boyle recruited almost an entire cast of unknown actors to lend the project authenticity and they are a key ingredient that accounts for the movie's infectious energy and growing popularity.  Still, there is something even more important that sets Slumdog Millionaire apart from other inspirational rags to riches stories and that is the use of dramatic irony.  Even as we see Jamal winning on the game show, we are made aware concurrently that he will be tortured and questioned by the police.  Every moment of euphoria and hope for the characters is met with setbacks and failure.  Consider how Jamal's clandestine meeting with Latika ends at the train station, or his reunion with his brother Salim, or the film's climax which manages to be both joyful and bittersweet.  Slumdog Millionaire is an urban fairy tale that makes us want to believe, as Jamal does, that destiny can pull us out of suffering and deliver us to a happier place.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Dark Knight Generation

On the eve of what is arguably the most historic Presidential inauguration in the history of the United States, I find myself contemplating what it means to be a hero in today's world.  Here in North America, our collective definition of heroism has often found its purest expression in comic books -- particularly in difficult times.  Our sense of good and evil rarely gets a better literary workout than we find in the pages of the comics, because comic books deal in archetypes.  The earliest heroes (Superman, Batman, The Phantom) were created during the Second World War, at a time when innocent people were being slaughtered in a battle more devastating than anything the world had seen.  At times like these it brought comfort to the masses to believe that someone larger than life would sacrifice their personal freedom to act as a guardian of justice.  

It can be no coincidence that we see so many comic book movies being produced at Hollywood studios, considering the current climate.  Whether we are talking about the recession, the war in Iraq, the terrorist attack on India, the slaughter of Tibetans in China, the genocide in Darfur, or our current environmental crisis, everywhere we look there is cause to lose heart. There is cause to lose heart and yet this is also a year in which the seemingly impossible became a reality.  A year in which one man inspired his country to rise above a lifetime of racism and intolerance to embrace a positive message.  His inaugural speech as President reflected these difficult times with a message that was measured, sobering, yet hopeful.  If his victory address had been positive without reflecting these realities, it might have been impossible for us to surrender to his message.  

I'm sure the link is not immediately apparent, but in light of today's events, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight from a script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan strikes me as uniquely relevant.  The Dark Knight is the second biggest box-office hit of all time, featuring arguably the most popular comic book superhero of all time, but it isn't a movie designed exclusively as an escape.  It has loftier ambitions and it wants to sell a message, while acknowledging today's realities.  In its own way it is as uniquely layered a pop-entertainment as The Godfather was in its day.  Devoid of kitsch and frivolity, this is a film that favors social commentary and psychological realism over cartoon thrills -- while at the same time remaining faithful to the excitement and razzle-dazzle of the source material.  

In life we often ignore the larger ethical questions raised by the power that our leaders wield. Nolan however confronts these questions head-on.  In his Gotham, Batman's heroism comes at a price.     Here, Batman's emergence has spawned a string of vigilante copycats, dressed like him under the auspices of serving justice, but unwittingly endangering the population and themselves.  Born out of the wreckage of Batman's crusade for justice comes a master criminal who uniquely personifies the kind of evil we are faced with today.  The Joker is a true anarchist without recognizable motives or purpose.   He refers to himself as an "agent of chaos" and his cycle of evil is so pervasive, so relentless, that Batman is ultimately forced to put his reputation on the line in order to beat him.  What makes the Joker scary and relevant is his senselessness.  He even mockingly delivers two faux backstories explaining how he got his scars.  Against such an adversary Batman's heroism comes tinged with the bittersweet tang of compromise, because unlike the Joker he has rules.  

In the most shocking death scene of any Hollywood movie this year, Batman is forced to lose somebody close to him.  The Joker gives him the addresses of two warehouses -- both wired with explosives.  One holds the love of his life, Rachel Dawes and the other holds Harvey Dent, Gotham's "White Knight" and crusading district attorney.  When Batman receives the information, he immediately flees the police station, telling the authorities that he is going after Rachel but when he arrives he finds Dent instead...It's unclear in this moment whether Batman is one step ahead of the Joker and making the difficult choice to save Dent, or whether he's been tricked.  His brief hesitation in the doorway suggests that he's been taken by surprise and that he was willing to offer up Harvey -- and Gotham's morale, for Rachel.    Later we discover this isn't true, when he claims responsibility for a string of murders he didn't commit in order to protect Harvey's symbolic place in Gotham's heart.  The film builds to a primal battle between good and evil (Batman and the Joker) with Harvey stuck directly in the middle and poised for a fall.  What's fascinating is how the story's themes are also reflected in the form of the film.  

Nolan has carved out a cinematic niche for himself with films that use non-linear editing to tell a story.  Memento, the film that put him on the map, told an entire story backwards, in alternating flashbacks and present tense scenes, before circling around on itself.  His other films (Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige) also use cross-cutting to great effect, but The Dark Knight uses a triangular cutting pattern as a motif that I can't recollect ever having seen before.  In several key sequences, Nolan alternates between not two but three unfolding stories, lending the movie an incredible amount of momentum and elegantly reflecting the three corners of morality that the film explores.  

Some think The Dark Knight is too dark.  Some think it goes too far.  Others say it doesn't favor Batman enough -- this is because of Heath's overpowering performance, Batman actually gets more screen time.  The film isn't perfect.   Harvey's spiritual descent is not entirely convincing -- the coin flipping conceit is the one device that fails to raise the bar on the comics.  We also never find out where the Joker goes after he throws Rachel out of Bruce Wayne's penthouse and Batman steps in to save her.  The concluding scene where Dent confronts Batman completes the theme of the story and offers closure without being fully satisfying.  Still, this is a movie brimming with ideas and questions that have the unique capacity to speak to today's generation.  A generation in which redemption is preceded by an acknowledgment of sin and an awareness that happiness often comes at a price.  The Dark Knight gets my vote as the best movie of the year.  It is a benchmark in both the comic book movie genre and the crime thriller genre that is destined to be studied and appreciated for years to come.  

Friday, January 16, 2009

Wrestling with Choices

For the first few minutes of Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler it may seem as though there is little to differentiate it from a student film.  The camera wanders aimlessly, following a big imposing figure, whose face is only caught in glimpses if you squint your eyes really, really, hard.  You see his face but you don't really see his face and occasionally the camera actually loses him all together.  The effect is slightly disorienting but applied over time it has surprising impact, because once the film is over I really felt like I had walked several gritty, pain-filled, miles with Randy "The Ram" Robinson, personified by Mickey Rourke in what is undeniably the very best performance of his career and one of the most memorable, lived-in, performances of the decade.  

What sets this apart from the recent string of modish shaky-cam indie dramas, is the arresting honesty of what is unfolding in front of us.  There is a living, breathing, pulse coursing through this movie and that resonates on a level that couldn't be possible if this were just a shallow experiment in verite cinema.  Some sequences in the picture are so raw, so merciless and yet so unmistakably human, that they resonate in a way we've seldom seen since the films of John Cassavettes.  This is thanks in large part to the pitch perfect performances not only of Rourke but also of Marisa Tomei as an erratic, emotionally guarded, stripper with a heart of gold and Evan Rachel Wood as Rourke's damaged, angry, daughter.  Working off a script that is spare on dialogue and exposition, the actors help us to imagine the history of these characters and the various events that must have brought them to this point, through subtle shifts in their physicality and their patterns of speech.  

My wife and I used to argue about films that fall back on this kind of hand-held, naturally-lit, aesthetic.  I'm a classicist at heart and I have always swooned for the sweeping, carefully assembled and meticulously staged visuals of Hitchcock, Spielberg and Kubrick.  What Aronofsky does here is equally graceful and in some ways far more subtle.  It is almost as if we are a fly on the wall, as we witness the heartbreak, self-discovery and ultimate redemption of the Ram's journey.   The movie disarms us with its humanity.  It shakes us by holding up a mirror and showing us ourselves in these desperate, tragic, characters. 

This is a movie about the impact the choices we make in the past have on us in the present, but this isn't a message film.  The movie ends abruptly without leading to a final destination or moral realization.  In the end, we are only left with the journey that we've taken alongside the characters.  But after all, at the end of the road, what more is there to life itself?  The Wrestler is a hearty, satisfying slice of life that swept me up with three central performances that are shattering in their immediacy.   It is one of my very favorite movies of the year and a film that demands repeat viewings.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Pretense-olutionary Road

A few thoughts after seeing the latest Sam Mendes opus Revolutionary Road -- which I wanted to like far more than I actually did.  My wife and I went to the movie fully expecting to see a hot-blooded portrait of marital discord -- a vintage melodrama.  What we got instead was a cold, distant, picture that feels like a Douglas Sirk film stripped of all its immediacy and visceral power.  Revolutionary Road is an interesting movie.  It has two knockout performances by Leo and Kate (how she manages to sell all of her dialogue so convincingly is a mystery) but the movie suffers from acute formality and stylistic contrivance.  

Sam Mendes seems like a nice guy and he deserves credit for the scope of his ambitions, but we've been down this road before with him.  American Beauty is a movie designed to wrench every possible drop of irony and emotional resonance out of each character, each moment, but the movie succumbs to artiness and artifice.  The characters are etched in broad stereotypes.  The themes are broadcast transparently as if from a megaphone in bold technicolor -- just in case we, the audience, don't get it.  Road To Perdition?  I call it Road To Pretention.  

Revolutionary Road is afflicted with the same theatrical malady.  Everything from the production design down to the costumes is impeccably detailed, but the film unfolds like a relentless series of tableaus.  We are watching a representation of real emotions.  We are watching a representation of history, but we never feel we are in it.  We are always aware we are watching a movie.  Some of these images have a lasting impact.  DiCaprio's performance is haunting and so is Winslet's, but the movie doesn't feel lived in.  It doesn't feel organic.  Watching it is something like watching a puppet show, but focussing on the strings instead of the characters.