Monday, April 28, 2008

Camera in the Bag

Matt Zoller Seitz, longtime film critic and editor-in-chief of The House Next Door, announced his early retirement from criticism today (he put it more succinctly: "I'm out"), with plans to venture into filmmaking. Movie critics often get razzed for being unable to do what they write about, but in fact several, from Truffaut to Bogdonavich, have made successful forays to the other side of the camera, and Matt, who already has a well-received directorial debut under his belt, has as good a shot as any. Most importantly, with all the hubbub this year of the Great Film Critics' Massacre, with heads rolling in the print media left and right, he's leaving on his own terms. The House -- the best movie blog out there by a mile -- remains in the capable hands of Keith Uhlich and a democracy of remarkable collaborators; but I must respectfully disagree with Matt that it, and we, don't need him anymore. His voice is distinctive -- bullheaded yet fundamentally decent -- and while we've never met and have communicated only by email over a few months, Matt's support for my writing has been invaluable. This blog would not exist without you, kind sir. Many grateful thanks.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

About Face

Several years ago, I stopped reading USA Today (the prose equivalent to quitting smoking) when the publication changed its typeface. I don't recall which font was employed previously, but it began using what is reportedly a bastardized version of Gulliver. I hadn't the wherewithal to explain precisely what displeased me; all I know is reading the newspaper's equivalent to news hurt my eyes. Something left me feeling anxious and unsettled, and I knew it wasn't the content.

Helvetica, the best movie ever made about a font, examines the near-subliminal importance of typeface in our culture -- specifically the titular sans-serif, which the documentary showcases its ubiquity from NYC subway signs to advertisements for Coca-Cola. The director, Gary Hustwit, deftly traces its fifty-year-old origins, interviewing a wide range of typesetters and designers who either swear by Helvetica as holy writ or see it as the nefarious face of Western corporatism.

This conflict informs the most stimulating passages of the movie: in one of them, an overzealous interviewee hilariously contrasts the garish magazine ads from the 1950s, with their cursives and exclamation points, to the straightforward simplicity of Helvetica ("Coke. It's the real thing," he barks, pounding his finger on a table. "Any questions? No!"); in another, ex-hippie-turned-designer Paula Scher voices misgivings about how political and corporate America have used this "neutral" font (which derives from the Latin word for Switzerland) to humanize themselves, going so far as to accuse the font (only half-facetiously) of causing the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

There is a world of difference between the kind of typeface used for newspaper print and the kind needed for instant-message advertising, and Helvetica would have benefited from drawing more of these distinctions. At times Hustwit gives the impression that the font is the same in every form, when in actuality Helvetica's imposing all-caps (e.g., Target's logo) produces a different aesthetic reaction than its cuddlier lower-case lettering and numbers.

Still, these are minor flaws in a film that has already become a kind of Citizen Kane for graphic designers, one that at its best invites you to see the world with new eyes. I must confess to feeling an affinity for the "resistance" against Helvetica, as when one interviewee, a magazine editor, reveals that he once published an article in an unreadable Dingbat font. ("It wasn't very well written anyway," he says.) Helvetica the movie shows Helvetica the typeface at its most appealing less as the spokesfont for American Airlines than when it's been unwittingly co-opted and subverted: "Fuck Yoga," one ad in the film reads; "For crystal meth, call Angel," suggests another.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Blossoms and Blood

In his recent review of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, David Denby points out the difficulties with tropical-island comedies. "Hawaii is so improbably gorgeous that the very thought of it produces vacation-brochure prose," he writes. "In Hawaiian hotel society, dress is meagre and frequently orange, the drinks wear hats, and the staff collars the guests with wet flowers. Such soft, damp pleasures offer little social structure for comedy to batter against." Denby finishes with a provocative maxim: "Comedy requires clothes."

I think I agree with this assessment, as well as Denby's opinion of most of the movies he cites (except for Joe versus the Volcano, a long-standing guilty pleasure of mine). The one comedy I can think of that has used a tropical atmosphere to great effect is Punch-Drunk Love. Of course I'm cheating a bit with this claim: Hawaii features only as a brief excursion in Punch-Drunk Love; and the movie is a "comedy" only by the broadest definition, since comedy typically requires jokes too.

Punch-Drunk Love, of course, was Paul Thomas Anderson's inimitable foray into screwball farce, and a curious bridge-film between Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. It starred Adam Sandler who, in 2002, was at the height of his popularity; I'll never forget the reaction of the audience during its opening weekend premiere, as they sat in discomfiting silence, desperately over-laughing at the thinnest semblance of a gag, then finally reacting in open revolt. This has been a common response to Anderson's films. For a filmmaker who has repeatedly expressed a desire to make movies that connect with audiences, he has a knack for pissing them off. His movies tend to be long, loud and intensely operatic. Punch-Drunk Love tinkers with this formula in some ways, clocking in at just over 90 minutes and featuring a protagonist, Barry Egan (played by Sandler), whose thoughts and feelings are bottled up, yet emphasized by Jon Brion's nerve-jangling score. Watching the film again the other day, I could see similarities between Anderson and David O. Russell, the director of nervous-breakdown comedies like Flirting with Disaster and I Heart Huckabees. Both use violence, or the threat of it, as a dark undercurrent for much of their humor. Their difference, apart from Anderson being much less of a bully, is that his style is more emotional than cerebral. I've called him the most exasperating great director working today, as I've often had the desire to walk out of his films before finally settling in long enough to love them.

Barry is the modestly successful owner of a warehouse that sells home appliances, yet he's deeply lonely, desperate to connect with every stranger he speaks to on the phone. "Yes, I'm still on hold," are the first words we hear him utter, and a large part of his arrested development, we come to learn, is due to his emasculation by seven sisters who won't let him get in a word edgewise without ridicule. At a birthday party for one of them, Barry explodes, smashing patio-door glass before bursting into tears. (This scene is the closest Anderson gets to a mainstream gag, when Barry asks his brother-in-law, a doctor, for psychiatric help and the latter replies that he's a dentist.) Later, he makes a fateful call to a phone-sex line, more for conversation than arousal, but it backfires when the female operator on the other line threatens him with blackmail. While her boss (regular Anderson player Philip Seymour Hoffman), a "mattress king" from Provo, Utah, sends goons to California to shake Barry down, Barry is simultaneously pursued, far more romantically, by Lena (Emily Watson), a tall, eccentric co-worker of one of his sisters.

The key sequence in Punch-Drunk Love -- the one that eased me into the movie -- comes around the halfway mark, when Barry follows Lena (who goes away on business) to Hawaii. Brion's score silences. Barry's loud blue suit meshes with the ocean backdrop, and he and Lena, away from all threats, see their romance flower. All the demerits that Denby mentions for other films are positives in this one. Anderson's soft, warm palette during this sequence works like a balm, and Barry's transformation into a lover and fighter -- which he carries over to the mainland -- is persuasive. It's only in such an alien environs that Barry and Lena truly feel at home.

There are problems with Punch-Drunk Love. Like Judd Apatow, Anderson hinges his story on the specious premise that a supremely attractive woman would find his oddball male hero desirable. There are suggestions that she too is deeply strange (it took me several viewings to realize that the red-dressed Lena is stalking Barry from a distance in an early scene in a grocery store) but Watson fleshes out Lena more than the script does. Anderson doesn't develop his ideas so much as riff on them: he's a frighteningly talented technical filmmaker who isn't afraid to let his actors take him in unexpected directions. These digressions can try a viewer's patience, mine included; but so far the payoffs have been worth it.

I don't have much more to say about There Will Be Blood, except that an archived post recently received a comment (scroll to the bottom) that deserves a read. The anonymous poster (come up with a name, guys) helpfully compared Daniel Day-Lewis's infamous "napkin scene" in There Will Be Blood to a similar one he did twenty years ago in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which the poster cites to suggest that both Day-Lewis and Anderson were relying on an empty bag of tricks. I'm going to have to see Unbearable Lightness again before I can assess this. But having seen There Will Be Blood for the third time, and the first on DVD, I have no such hesitation. While the cinematography predictably suffers on the small screen, the acting and filmmaking become less imposing, more accessible on a human scale. I love the walk Paul Dano uses for his preacher character; and the much-criticized scene where he lunges at his father across the dinner table makes sense in the form of one of Anderson's riffs, echoing the immediately preceding scene where Plainview rolls Eli around in the mud. As for Day-Lewis, he makes Plainview's slow downward spiral persuasive and compelling every step of the way, unlike Barry Egan, losing or dissolving all his connections with others. As previously mentioned, I've found Anderson wearying at times before, but I think this a great film every step of the way -- and contrary to Armond White and others, the very opposite of an amoral one. How could it be, when the two most vile (yet still complex) characters in the film climax their struggle sealed in what Fernando Croce brilliantly described as a Pharaoh's tomb; while the two most innocent, freed from the clutches of the Plainview and Sunday clans, are afforded a chance at happiness?

Saturday, April 19, 2008


I've been away at an academic conference in Louisville this week, which, aside from the overall intellectually stimulating sessions and enticing cultural mix of cosmopolitanism and southern hospitality, was noteworthy for my first direct experience with an earthquake. Following that unexpected wake-up call, the rest of the conference went smoothly. It's fun and refreshing to get away not only from home but from the computer, movies and TV for a few days, yet I still managed to catch the newest South Park episode, which hilariously updated the The Grapes of Wrath to a postmodern world-without-the-Internet dystopia. I also enjoyed the return of Liz's ne'er-do-well boyfriend on 30 Rock, and surprisingly quite a bit of the original Elizabeth. Hadn't seen it in a few years, but I liked Blanchett's performance (and I can pinpoint exactly the moment it starts working: when she learns to charm a hostile court on the spot) and even admired its Godfather finale -- the umpteenth rip-off of that film's climax and the only one that seems to work. I'll probably check out The Golden Age on DVD now, despite the critical drubbing. And seeing Muhammad Ali Blvd in Louisville made me want to catch When We Were Kings again. Has another sports figure ever sent out more shock waves?

Regular blogging will be returning soon. Meanwhile, I encourage you to check out this fine tribute to Teri Garr. It's the first time I've read a mash note to her performance in Tootsie that didn't feel the need to slam Jessica Lange's Oscar-winning turn in the process. William Goldman once complained that the latter was nothing more than "a little cameo." Sure, Bill -- and the shit-monster in your adaptation of Dreamcatcher gave a performance that rivaled Strasberg.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Family Business

Some movies you regret not seeing in theaters. We Own the Night is not one of those movies, though I'd hoped it would be after reading high praise from certain quarters. The film isn't bad, just more promising than fulfilling. Billed as a noirish showdown between two brothers from opposite sides of the law, cop Joe is played by Mark Wahlberg, one of my favorite actors, and nightclub owner Bobby is in the form of Joaquin Phoenix, one of my least favorite actors; but the story is overwhelmingly Phoenix's, with Wahlberg confined to the sidelines for much of the running time.

Writer-director James Gray has written for Phoenix's character a potentially compelling trajectory: after his brother is shot by the Russian gangsters Bobby works for, he gradually turns against his employers and embraces the family business. It's sort of a reverse-Godfather, with Robert Duvall cast as Bobby and Joe's father/chief of police -- as Fernando Croce pointed out, in case we miss the point. I haven't seen Gray's previous movies (Little Odessa and The Yards), but he's obviously a talented fellow with wide-screen compositions. He also gets a good performance out of Eva Mendes, as Bobby's girlfriend, a principled party-girl, and stages a car chase that owes a debt to Children of Men, but is exciting nonetheless.

Still, Gray's movie has, for me at least, a big Joaquin Phoenix problem. I liked him in Walk the Line, perhaps because he was playing an iconic persona inside which he could disappear, but left to his own devices I never detect much of an inner life in his performances. He doesn't provide any placeholders for his trajectory the way Pacino did as Michael Corleone. And Gray's minimizing of Wahlberg -- who can be either deeply likable (as in I Heart Huckabees or rudely funny (as in The Departed) -- is a wasted opportunity. We Own the Night wants so much to be a 70s movie that it takes what was fresh about that era of cinema and makes it derivative. I know that contemporary filmmakers are fond of depicting the sordid underbelly of society, but scenes of anonymous drones cutting cocaine with playing cards while somebody removes his mask, takes a snort, nods, smirks and says, "That's goooooood!" don't exactly hit me where I live.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Friends from a Distance

The conventional wisdom for TV shows -- particularly sitcoms -- is that the characters should be user-friendly. Oh, they can have quirks and eccentricities in ways that are lovable and non-threatening, but ultimately they should conform to Hollywood's deluded notions of friendship: that the people you work with are the same as those you'd have over for dinner.

Liz Lemon, our ostensible hero on 30 Rock, isn't the boss from hell exactly. She's more like Satan's middle-management, with neither her conscience nor her baser instincts strong enough to climb the ladder of success or resist its siren's call. Many of the best episodes of 30 Rock have focused on how this inner limbo spills over into Liz's life, and "MILF Island" (this week's first post-strike episode), which featured Liz desperately attempting to cover her tracks regarding some negative comments inadvertently leaked to the media about her boss, NBC-exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), was another fine showcase for the neurotic exuberance of Tina Fey. As an actor and a writer, Fey is generous and fearless, as equally willing to embarrass herself as she is to distribute the gags among her crack comic ensemble. Fey's "Cathy" comic-strip gag was the episode's high point, with enjoyable moments coming from reliable supporting players Tracy Morgan and Jack McBrayer. I'm still not sure if the best lines go to Baldwin or if he makes them funnier by virtue of his impeccable timing (expressing admiration for the compelling backstory of one of "MILF Island"'s key participants, Jack says, "She's a struggling actress living in Los Angeles"), but his Jack Donaghy remains an indispensable foil for Fey, winding her up and watching her bounce off the walls.

You wouldn't want to work for Liz, much less be a friend, in her most lunatic moments; yet she's a paragon of virtue compared to the incomparable Michael Scott on The Office, (also marking its return this week). Needy and childlike, Michael's principal ambition as the manager of paper company Dunder-Mifflin's Scranton branch is to be loved, his naked desperation the very thing that repels subordinates like Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) from giving him what he craves. A running gag this season involving Michael's frustrated efforts to hang out socially with the aforementioned couple (they always have other plans) was the crux of "Dinner Party," which featured Michael going to ingenious lengths to rope them into coming over to his condo for an after-work suare.

Typically The Office doesn't stray from its documentary depiction of the Scranton branch, leaving its characters' private lives to either rationed bits of information or to our imagination. "Dinner Party," though, was the most revealing sight yet of Michael Scott's home life. The tacky tidbits (scented candles, chairs shaped like hands) were gradually distributed throughout the episode, with Michael's tension-packed relationship with Jan (Melora Hardin), living under the same roof, reached a crescendo of caustic "babes" and barbs. I squirmed during the entire running time of "Dinner Party," but in retrospect, freed from its clutches, I think it was a tour-de-force of discomfort. Like Tina Fey, Steve Carell excels at the kind of ego-free acting it takes to play a character with an uninhibited id. Michael is an overbearing boss and a suffocating would-be friend; but it's hard to not like a man who (we are told), excited by the sound of an ice-cream truck, runs full-barrel into a sliding plate-glass door.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Casey at the Bat

Is Casey Affleck a movie star? Until recently I didn't even know he was an actor, lazily predisposed to follow the conventional wisdom that he was nothing more than Ben's squirt sibling -- a bit player in high-profile movies, nondescriptly if inoffensively occupying the corners of the frame. Soderbergh has turned this into a running gag in the Ocean's series, where Affleck The Younger and Son Of Caan play the cogs in Clooney and Pitt's elaborate scams: they are bag carriers and bellhops, delivery men and slave laborers. Affleck's tasks are frequently thankless (such as donning a cheesy mustache and inciting a Mexican workers' strike), yet essential to the entire operation. The throwaway fun of his performances lies in his pent-up resentment at being unappreciated, a whininess that would be intolerable if it weren't barely audible.

Recently a pair of films have brought Affleck from the margins to the center, expanding and deepening his persona from those earlier films. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he plays the latter of the titular characters, the youngest and least impressive of the hangers-on in the waning years of the James Gang. An early scene shows Ford's bumbling attempts to ingratiate himself among his would-be peers -- "The more you talk," Frank James (Sam Shepard) growls, "the more you give me the willies" -- but Jesse (Brad Pitt), who bitterly senses the salad days are coming to an end, keeps him around as a mascot, worker-for-hire and sycophant, alternately flattering Ford when he needs him and dismissing him when he wears out his welcome.

Directed by Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James moves with the kind of deliberate pace that toes the line between mesmerizing and deadly dull, but the rhythms of the film (aided by Roger Deakins' cinematography and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's score) effectively convey the way of life -- how people moved, how people talked -- from an earlier time. Dominik devotes more attention than one might expect to a gallery of supporting characters, including Dick Liddil (the charismatic Paul Schneider), Ed Miller (Deadwood's Garret Dillehunt), Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), and older brother Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell). (Unfortunately, this is another major recent film -- even with Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel -- where women are inexplicably given short shrift.) Yet Dominik also appears to be attempting to modernize his story as a tale of celebrity, and it is here that the film both exposes itself to its greatest risks and reaps its biggest dividends.

At first I thought Pitt was miscast as Jesse James, but a tabloid icon, not an actor, is what the role calls for. Yet it is Affleck, playing Robert Ford as a 19th-century fanboy, who brings more to the table. Affleck adroitly settles into Dominik's mise-en-scene, carrying himself with a slump-shouldered awkwardness and pipsqueak voice that makes him the butt of jokes. After fulfilling his pact with government officials (including a surprising James Carville, who energizes his scenes), and Ford transforms from a figure of derision to a hated man, Affleck reveals a gravity and sorrow he's never shown before. The Assassination of Jesse James has tried many a viewer's patience, but I found it a lovely meditation on the flesh-and-blood underpinnings of myth -- why some individuals receive our applause while others our scorn.

In Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck's exceptionally fine directorial debut, Casey Affleck is Patrick Kenzie, a young private detective in Boston hired to investigate the disappearance of a local girl. The girl's mother (Amy Ryan), a druggie and screw-up, is prone to distraction, and Kenzie's partner (Michelle Monaghan) -- both professionally and romantically -- tries to beg him off the case; but Kenzie is the kind of bullheaded guy who pursues more doggedly the more obstacles are put in his path, and his investigation puts him uncomfortably between both the Boston cops and the criminal underworld.

I haven't read Dennis Lehane's novel, but the movie version explores his recurring Mystic River themes of abused children and moral quandaries. Ben Affleck and his co-screenwriter Aaron Stockard have reportedly streamlined the byzantine plot and added a dose of grim humor, while Affleck's direction is sure-footed and character-driven, rounding out the rough edges of the story. Ed Harris and John Ashton (whom I haven't seen since Midnight Run) are terrific as a pair of police detectives assigned to the case; Morgan Freeman, as the chief of police with personal tragedy in his past, both fulfills and subverts his archetypal paragon of authority. Amy Ryan got a lot of attention for this film, and her character, while showy (and foul-mouthed), is an authentic portrayal of a narcissist whose genuine concern for her daughter revolves around her own self-interest.

As for Casey Affleck, he spins a present-day variation on Robert Ford -- more level-headed and conscience-driven, yet still lacking in the respect he feels is his due. If Kenzie may be, to paraphrase Lisa Schwarzbaum, not as smart as he thinks he is, he's also smarter than others give him credit for. I don't know how far Affleck can go as an actor, but for now it's fascinating to watch the tension unfold between those who want to push him back to the fringe and his stubborn refusal to relinquish the stage.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Deja Vu All Over Again

In the coming-of-age comedy Rushmore Rocket Science, the main character, Max Fischer Hal Hefner, experiences latent anger over his mother's death his parents' divorce. Things aren't much better for him at Rushmore Plainsboro High School, where he has to deal with failing grades a stuttering problem and misguidedly attempts to win the love of Miss Cross Ginny, a teacher fellow student who unsuccessfully tutors him for his classes the debate team.

The horrors of adolescence always have tragicomic potential, but Napoleon Dynamite Rocket Science prefers ironic posturing over emotional gravity. When Napoleon's Hal's lonely uncle mother begins a romantic relationship with a black woman Asian man, the ethnic disparity is played for cheap laughs. Thusly, when Max Napoleon Hal attempts to cope by producing plays helping Pedro win the class presidency winning a debate championship, there's dissonance between the sincerity of the performers and the objectives of the filmmaker.

The director, Wes Anderson Jared Hess Jeffrey Blitz, mixes a detached style with fetishistic bric-a-brac filling the corners of every frame. He also employs an omniscient narrator, voiced by Alec Baldwin Dan Cashman, and flavors his film with music by The Ramones The Violent Femmes to underscore the protagonist's roiling emotions. An undercurrent of ostensible empathy for Napoleon Hal leads to a few good scenes that don't play out the way you expect, and Jason Schwartzman's Jon Heder's Reece Daniel Thompson's performance is extremely committed to the nuances of his character. (As the female lead, Olivia Williams Anna Kendrick is also fine, even if her character is abandoned just as she threatens to get interesting.) Nevertheless, juggling so many tones is difficult to accomplish, and whether intended or not, Hess's Solondz's Field's Blitz's sense of contempt and superiority are ultimately what comes across in place of the film's better virtues. Despite the unpredictable turns of its plot, Rushmore Napoleon Dynamite Welcome to the Dollhouse Little Children Rocket Science feels oddly familiar.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Weir Tales

For anyone interested, The House Next Door has kindly published an essay I've written on Peter Weir. I encourage reading through the amazing insights in the comments section. Thanks to Matt Seitz for his hospitality, and Keith Uhlich for the crack editing job.