Saturday, May 31, 2008

Going Home

The season finales of Lost have always been a mixed bag, and often don't reflect the quality (or lack thereof) of the seasons leading up to them. After the superb, groundbreaking Season 1 on the island, the climactic discovery of the hatch felt like a letdown. The erratic Season 2 finished in a delirious if exhausting frenzy of activity: the meltdown of the hatch; the capture of Jack, Kate, et al by The Others; and the use of Desmond (then a largely unknown quantity) as the focal character for the two-hour arc, a risky gamble that paid off. Season 3 capped itself with the revelation that a few of the crash survivors got off the island, a mindblowing shocker that made up for a deservedly maligned year of narrative fits and starts.

Having learned their lesson, the writers of Season 4 built on the plot devices, storylines and renewed goodwill of viewers from the end of last year. With fewer episodes (already the plan even before the strike), Lost became streamlined, with less time for padding. And the newly incorporated flash-forwards featuring the "Oceanic Six" (Jack, Kate, Sayid, Hurley, Sun, Aaron) who would come to escape the island expanded on the show's universe, offering new themes and dimensions to the more sparingly used flashbacks, which had begun to run dry with (and reach desperately for) new information about the characters. The flashforwards also posed a potential problem for a show that has thrived on plot twists: Would the story hold our interest if we already know what's going to happen?

Season 4's finale, "There's No Place Like Home," made good on the promise of revealing how the six got off the island. At the close of the last episode, with the sextet divided into intriguing combinations, it wasn't entirely clear: Jack was with Frank and Sawyer at the helicopter; Hurley had tagged along with Locke and Ben near the Orchid; Sun and Aaron were on the ship rigged with explosives; Kate and Sayid had been rounded up in the jungle by The Others. Despite a couple of contrivances (why did The Others need Kate and Sayid to free Ben? why did Keamy think Ben would give a shit about the fate of the passengers on board the ship?), "There's No Place Like Home" deftly reshuffled the deck, putting the aforementioned six -- along with Frank and Desmond, and dropping Sawyer, who made a heroic, Spike-like sacrifice -- on the helicopter, narrowly avoiding the explosion on the ship. The journey to and from the boat was as fraught with tension as anything ever dramatized on the show. It was also a good showcase for Matthew Fox, never the most dexterous of actors but very effective at conveying Jack's monomania. Both Fox and the writers showed Jack's ambiguity as both a tragic hero and a sympathetic villain, doing anything to fulfill his goal of leaving the island, whether sacrificing Jin or listening to Locke (for once) and lying about what happened to them once they reach the mainland.

At their best, the flashbacks on Lost provided counterpoint to the events on the island. It was fascinating to see if a character could change his or her destiny or make the same damn mistakes over and over again. The flashforwards offer something more fatalistic though no less supenseful: the question becomes not what is going to happen, but how it happens. Earlier this season, we saw Ben arrive mysteriously in the Arab desert, wearing a winter parka. The finale showed how this came to be -- he went down into the frigid base of the Orchid station and pushed a giant mechanized lever that "moved" the island, though we don't know yet where. Lost is at its most involving in moments like these, when it doubles back on itself. I'm reminded of what Pauline Kael wrote about The Godfather Part II -- that it seems to expand in your head like a bullet.

"There's No Place Like Home" also demonstrated what separates this series from other classic jerk-you-around shows (Twin Peaks, The X-Files, ad nauseam), and that is the empathy it has for its characters. For all the excitement of the episode, the satisfying closures for certain characters (loved Michael's sacrifice on the ship) and the groundwork it paved for others, my favorite moment (recalling a scene earlier in the year with Sayid) was the joy on Kate and Jack's faces at the start of their helicopter ride, played in silence other than Michael Giachhino's dependably excellent score (he's the best TV series composer since Buffy's Christophe Beck). As the helicopter rises and the breeze hits their faces, we're reminded that this is the first time that they have been truly off the island since their arrival. Lost never forgets the human element, and in the best of those moments it soars.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sydney Pollack: 1934-2008

The tributes for Sydney Pollack -- who passed away earlier this week -- keep coming in, and I want to cite two in particular. Since I regularly razz Stephanie Zacharek, it's only fair that I compliment her for good work when she achieves it. Another favorite target, David Edelstein, rebounded from his atrocious Anthony Minghella piece from two months back and paid his respects to Pollack in a mostly dignified manner. The headline for his piece is a bit inappropriately snarky for the occasion, but the actual content is so heartfelt that I'll give it a pass.

Great as it is to see all the huzzahs for Pollack's second career as an actor, the films he made behind the camera shouldn't be so readily dismissed. True, his later films were busts; but the period from 1969-1982 -- from They Shoot Horses, Don't They? to Tootsie -- was a fertile one for Pollack as a director. He was indeed "Old School" in the best possible sense, coaxing great work out of his performers. As others have noted, actresses especially benefited under Pollack's guidance: Jane Fonda; Barbra Streisand; Faye Dunaway; Sally Field; Jessica Lange; Meryl Streep. (Would any of them have parts quite so meaningful today?) Actors generally fared well too, though he loved casting Redford probably more than he should have. Then again, Pollack got him to hit notes no other filmmaker has since achieved: Jeremiah Johnson remains a fascinating 70s relic; and Three Days of the Condor seems to both encapsulate 70s paranoia and foreshadow our own. (Pollack's taste in jazz scores had a way of seeming out of place, though the bouncy one over Condor's opening credits lulls you into the bloody ambush that kick-starts the film.)

But for me, Sydney Pollack's greatest accomplishment was Tootsie. One of the best comedies of the last 40 years, the movie was put together by a slapdash of disparate scripts and Pollack's clashes with Dustin Hoffman nearly pulled the whole thing apart. (Larry Gelbart, one of the film's screenwriters, quipped, "Never work with an Oscar winner shorter than the statue.") Somehow, everything came together. Pollack directed and edited with crack precision and brought together a remarkable ensemble at the top of their game -- including himself, in a hilarious supporting role as Hoffman's agent. ("You were a tomato!" he bellowed famously. "A tomato doesn't have logic! A tomato can't move!") Given Pollack's obvious flair for comedy, it's surprising and disappointing that he never directed another one. Yet as he began appearing as an actor in more and more films, I always grinned upon seeing him. He had that great voice, and even as he aged he practically hummed with energy. I was going to call him a life-force before Wolcott beat me to it, but what the hell: it's worth repeating. So are the best of his films.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Voice of Reason

Must-reading for any viewer of the latest Indiana Jones debacle installment: "50 Flaws of Indy IV," whereby Mystery Man, anonymous-yet-perspicacious Hollywood screenwriter extraordinaire, breaks down practically scene-by-scene where David Koepp's sure-to-be Razzie nominated screenplay goes wrong.


I would submit to you that the entire enterprise felt half-hearted simply because Indy was under-motivated. An Indiana Jones film does not hang its hat on the McGuffin but rather Indy’s motivation. The McGuffin doesn't matter. What matters is how important that McGuffin is to Indy. If Indy wants an artifact more than anything, then the audience will want him to have it more than anything....We cared in Raiders because Indy WANTED the Ark. We cared in TOD because we saw the dying village and Indy WANTED to get the stones for them. We cared in LC because we met his Dad, albeit briefly, in the opening flashback sequence before we learned about his disappearance. [In Crystal Skull], some professor and some woman we never knew and haven’t seen is missing? Who cares?

I question the point of Mac’s character. The idea of a double-crossing sidekick is great fun, but he was never put to good use. In fact, they totally gave the game away in the very beginning with Mac's betrayal at the warehouse. He turns on Indy before we ever had a chance to get to know the guy.

The exposition in the diner scene was the worst in the franchise. This was the most amateurish rock-bottom handling of exposition that could have been written. It was two talking heads in a diner. That's it. Remember how visual the exposition was in the Raiders setup with the big book and the chalkboard and the talk about the Well of Souls? That's great exposition. That was exciting!....Here, it's just two talking heads....One of the bedrock principles of screenwriting: show, don’t tell.

Two problems with Indy finding the skull. First, you make the whole experience and joy of discovery less special (or not special at all) if it’s a tomb that Indy doesn’t discover for the first time and if it’s an artifact that Indy isn’t the first to find. Here, the tomb's already been raided, the artifact was found, taken, and put back for Indy to find later. That’s ridiculous. That pulls the rug out from all the fun of watching Indy do what he does best.

Irina Spalko - She was the worst and weakest of the villains....Koepp cock-blocks every opportunity to make her a great villain. First, he should've established early just how BAD she really is. The worst thing she ever did was whip out her sword....Also, why make Spalko a psychic if A) she can’t even read Indy’s mind and B) nothing else develops from it?

Oodles more fun to be had. And a welcome tonic to the arguments of some of the film's defenders, who have veered from their initial false equivalencies (e.g., "This is exactly the way it happened in Last Crusade"!) and are now resorting to desperation Hail Marys ("Spielberg made it bad on purpose!"). Good luck with that one, gang.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Warning: Spoilers immediately.

Near the end of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, after the aliens have taken off in their flying saucer (now there's a sentence I wasn't expecting to write), the movie hedges its bet and explains that they aren't exactly extraterrestrials, you see, but rather intraterrestrials -- beings from another dimension. "Where are they going," one character asks, "outer space?" Another replies, with helpful gravitas, "No. They are going to the space between spaces." Actually, based on the evidence of this film, the only space is between Lucas and Spielberg's ears.

Crystal Skull owes less to the tradition of afternoon serials and more to Brian DePalma's Mission to Mars: it's already got the apologists tying themselves into rhetorical knots trying to justify it. Stephanie Zacharek believes that "its computer-generated effects are used with relative judiciousness." (Ho ho ho!) Like DePalma's recent string of fiascos, Crystal Skull is governed by a streak of unruly madness that appeals to the Paulettes, the esoterics, and the French at Cannes. I think the movie is a monumental embarrassment, yet I have to admit I wasn't bored for a minute. It's fascinating to watch something simultaneously so eagerly awaited and so spectacularly wrong-headed; I stopped looking at the screen only long enough to scoop my jaw off the floor.

Let's start with the aliens. No, back up a second: let's start with the prairie dogs. Repeated close-ups of cute, cuddly, CGI prairie dogs fill the entire first act of Crystal Skull, set in the Nevada desert, which once again introduces Harrison Ford -- shockingly grizzled, yet sans stud-earring -- as Indy, kidnapped by Cold War Russians disguised as American GIs (the year is 1957) and brought to a secret warehouse that will look familiar to anyone who's seen the end of Raiders. Russkie henchwoman Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, strangely alluring in a gray jumpsuit) wants Dr. Jones to find a specific crate within the warehouse (not the Ark of the Covenant, alas, though it gets a tossed-off reference), and eventually a big shootout ensues. Indy escapes and arrives at a suburban oasis that's really a nuclear test site. He hides in a refrigerator seconds before detonation, and the blast lifts the fridge miles into the air and deposits him out of harm's way. This sequence, implausible yet enthrallingly satirical and audacious, features Spielberg firing on all cylinders; yet inexplicably, at its end, he cuts to a double-take of a prairie dog. Like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, they serve no purpose other than to take you out of the reality of the movie. What are they doing there?

A few other early scenes have a casual charm. It's always fun seeing Indy in the classroom, now looking more like a professor than an adventurer; and Ford's first couple of conversations with Shia LaBeouf bring out something in the older, recessive actor. But the problems continue to mount, starting with LaBeouf's character, a young leather-clad biker who naturally goes by the name Mutt, yet never seems to fit within the Indiana Jones universe. LaBeouf may be out of his depth, but Ray Winstone and John Hurt clearly aren't, and their characterizations (a turncoat and a babbling loon, respectively) are even thinner. In what should be a profound moment, Karen Allen shows up midway through the film as Marion Ravenwood, Indy's love interest from Raiders and mother of his illegitimate child Mutt. Allen has always been hailed as the best leading lady in the series, but I found her grating in the first film and practically unbearable in this one. There's a rusty, distracted air to her performance, and she's ill-served by Spielberg, who stages her entrance and subsequent scene in quicksand (or "drysand," whatever) in which a snake is used for a rope with all the verisimilitude of Corky St. Clair.

Whatever good will that is established in the first hour (or brought to the theater by the audience) melts faster than Ronald Lacey's face in the second, with Indy, Mutt, Marion and the others pursued by Irina's Russians, all the while lugging around the titular cranium that is one of the most idiotic MacGuffins in movie history, and as visually unappealing as the Ark, the Grail, and even the Sankara Stone were resonant. The WTF-moments start piling up, my favorites being Mutt swinging like Tarzan through the trees with an army of allied monkeys (monkeys hate communists!) and a legion of killer ants who appear to be close cousins of the scarabs in The Mummy movies.

And then there are the aliens. I know aliens are near and dear to the filmmakers' hearts. But do they belong in an Indiana Jones movie? Aren't they just a wee bit out of place?

Unswayed by such distractions, the apologists have trotted out their best friend, Mr. False Equivalency: What about the supernatural elements in the earlier movies? they ask; what about their implausibilities? Ah, but those films took pains to establish the ground rules of their worlds (even Temple of Doom has a whirling-dervish logic) and forged a mostly internal consistency with each other even as they expanded with new characters and adventures. All three accomplished this in varying degrees of quality, but all did it far better than this one.

David Koepp's script for Crystal Skull is an atrocity, yet like others who have noted this before me, I detect the distinct stench of George Lucas in the air. Revisionists at heart, and affluent enough to have the artistic freedom to do pretty much whatever they please, Lucas and Spielberg have never had qualms going back and tinkering with their films (Han Solo shooting after Greedo, E.T. running with an extra spring in his step). This would appeal more to the editor in me were their alterations ever consistent, justified or of evident quality; too often they coast on the emotional collateral of their fans. One can invest considerable energy in semantic gamesmanship -- calling extraterrestrials intraterrestrials, quicksand drysand, a snake a rope, or a terrible movie a good one -- but it won't make The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones. Only in another dimension are its creators victims worth defending.

In the Vein

By guest-blogger Helen

There’s a heart racing out of control at the bottom of Heartbeat Detector (La Question Humaine) but you have a long journey to take before you find it -- its depiction of contemporary corporate culture is timely and chilling. Simon Kessler (Mathieu Amalric) is a human resources department psychologist in the Paris branch of SC Farb, a German petrochemical company, but, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that his job is mainly about eliminating weak employees, not at all about providing therapy services to help them cope or improve. There is an ominous overall darkness to the film, a visual sense of foreboding, and the deeply-toned midnight blue suits that everyone seems to wear are a part of this.

Another thing that sets the stage for a sense of imbalance or something being amiss is the unsettling contrast between scenes of conversations and interactions between people—these are dense and closely cropped and include unwavering and intense eye contact—and the way these scenes are relieved by strong doses of silence and of open space surrounding them. A large part of the story is told with non-verbal communication and body language.

Partly an intriguing thriller that includes a complex chain of suspicions of mental instability and anonymous letters disclosing Nazi connections among three top executives of the company, what makes Heartbeat Detector interesting is the way it remains ambiguous throughout; you’re not ever sure what is real and what is a conspiracy. Kessler, who is considered to be one of the company’s model "acolytes," who moves coolly and unblinkingly through his intensely demanding and complex world, and who has recently been responsible for choosing who would be let go in the company’s massive downsizing, comes completely unraveled when he digs into the situation and begins to make the connections—when the film’s theme of the monstrous parallels between fascism and the 21st century corporate machine emerges. You can't stop watching Kessler as he takes this dark journey and his experience is emotionally intense, deeply personal, and riveting.

The style shifts abruptly at the end and this film that told so much of its story non-verbally or with brief bursts of highly-coded conversations closes with a lengthy monologue on the insidious evils of bureaucracy and the loss of individual sense of responsibility. And that is followed by a long recitation: the reading of a death camp engineer's cold and technical notes on his solutions for solving various problems handling the "units" and the "cargo." While Kessler is reading this to us, echoes of the equivalent corporate terminology—words like "downsizing" and “la question humaine”—ring loudly in his mind. Suddenly, at the end, it’s all about language, how we use words to protect ourselves from pain, about how easily innocent words can hide the truth, about how easily we all buy the story, the superficial sense of these words, and how Kessler, once he sees through the language that shielded him from the painful reality of what he did to individual people’s lives, is set completely adrift.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Faces of Fascism

Fascism comes in many forms -- war, class, religion, family -- and in many mediums, and is as alive and well today as it was in 1938. Just ask President Bush, who forewarned last week that an Obama presidency would be akin to Nazi appeasement. And if fear-mongering doesn't work, one can accuse others of being Nazis themselves, "You're just like Hitler" the coup de grace of any argument. (And really, can't we come up with another term than coup de grace? It's so very French.) Maybe it's the paranoia talking, but I too see ominous signs of der Fuhrer everywhere: on the political landscape; in my breakfast cereal; on Animal Planet; in movies especially. Pay no attention to the defenders of the following films, no matter how eloquent their arguments or sincere their convictions. Appeasers all!

I razzed Joe Wright's Atonement earlier this year sight unseen, and while it certainly met my expectations for shameless Oscar bait, it wasn't nearly as bad as expected. Wright has improved his craft as a visual stylist since Pride & Prejudice, a movie nearly everybody liked except me. I have a serious allergy to Jane Austen, what with all of her characters caterwauling and wringing their hands over The Need To Get Married (personified perfectly in the film by the annoying-as-ever Brenda Blethyn). I've never read anything by Ian McEwan, but tragedy, trauma, pessimism -- I dig his style. The film, for all the emphasis on its central love story, captures these qualities fairly well. Keira Knightley does her thing -- a limited actress, but a vivid (and rather fearless) screen presence -- and James McAvoy fares even better. He conveys some of the class issues in a way that is reportedly more prominent in the novel than the film, and in a manner that never begs our sympathies. Some critics took issue with the big tracking shot, midway through Atonement, that follows McAvoy along the beach of Dunkirk, but for me it was showing off of the highest order, consistent with Wright's lengthy setups in P&P, and a rare moment of connective tissue in a film with ultimately too many disparate strands.

The Chickenshit Award for 2007 cinema goes to The Golden Compass, Chris Weitz's adaptation of Philip Pullman's first novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy, which inverts Milton's Paradise Lost and deals with the author's secular humanist's view of the tyranny of organized religion. I liked His Dark Materials, though I found Pullman's "creativity" a little overstated (create a parallel universe, flip the meaning of words around, rinse and repeat) and his intentions at once disingenuous and obvious: the first book, The Golden Compass (originally called Northern Lights in Britain) begins ostensibly as a children's fable only to gradually set-up in the later books a war with God and the Church over free thought and action. We may never know how Weitz would have handled this trajectory in the sequels -- the movie is so skittish to offend anyone that it buries its themes until they are rendered meaningless. (I can imagine the producers shouting on the phone, "More polar bear!") The cast is certainly game: Dakota Blue Richards makes a perfect Lyra, the young heroine (Pullman's employment of a female protagonist is one of his most appealing elements); Nicole Kidman cuts an iconic figure as Mrs. Coulter, aggressive advocate of the religious authorities; and other faces, from Sam Elliott to Eva Green, are also welcome. The cinematography creates the hyperreal look that Weitz was undoubtedly going for, but the screenplay and editing turn the complicated plot into hash. Peter Jackson and his team did a remarkable job distilling Tolkien and introducing a myriad of characters; here, when Green's good witch appears out of the blue to Lyra on a boat, it's as if she took a wrong turn from Oz.

Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog's dramatized account of real-life American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler's escape from a Laotian POW camp during the Vietnam War, has been the recipient of many glowing reviews, but I found it ugly and odious, a paean to assholimity. Herzog had previously made a documentary of this story (Little Dieter Learns to Fly), yet his knowledge of the facts didn't prevent him from adding numerous fictions to this version. Even without the justified complaints of the families of the other POWs, the film is transparent bullshit. Dengler is depicted as cocksure and resourceful, mouthing off to his VC captors (who look like rejects from The Deer Hunter) and the only one with the will and creativity to mastermind an escape, while the other prisoners -- a mix of Americans and south Vietnamese -- stand around feebly waiting for something to happen. As Duane, the POW who follows Dengler into the jungle, Steve Zahn comes across best; yet Herr Werner ultimately implies that his inherent kindness was a weakness, while Dengler's arrogance (as depicted by Christian Bale's performance in the film, if not in reality) results in the kind of Rocky-meets-Rambo ending that forges the missing link between an ostensible artist like Herzog and a meathead like Stallone.

Lastly, Dan in Real Life, the latest Steve Carell vehicle that means to bridge comedy and drama for the actor as a string of films did for Robin Williams two decades ago, completely blindsided me. I had expected a film about an advice columnist who can't control the direction of his own life, only to discover -- to my mounting horror -- that it was actually a family reunion picture. And not your typically dysfunctional snake-pit, which would have been dandy, but the vanilla bland Borg-like kind that insists that everybody does everything together (from morning aerobics to talent shows) and outsiders are welcome as long as they fall unquestioningly in line. The main plot thread, involving Carell's sad-sack widower finding love again with Juliette Binoche's sitcom-quirky girlfriend of his brother (Dane Cook), proceeds predictably, but within the confines of a horrible weekend retreat, the movie is claustrophobic and unbearable and wastes several talented actors, including Amy Ryan (who has the only authentic moment, a throwaway comment about being an only child). Dan in Real Life is yet another movie that promotes familial fascism, the notion that a person just can't be fulfilled unless they marry and spawn children in a manner Austen's archetypes would have applauded. What's that you say? I'm overreacting to an innocuous, brainless Hollywood comedy? Well, you're just like Hitler!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Formative Films: The Right Stuff

With this post The Man from Porlock begins a semi-regular new feature called "Formative Films," whereby I will reach deep into the vault of my own movie-watching history and pull out a film that affected me in some way for re-scrutiny. I should mention right off the bat that the term "formative" can mean many things: a film that challenged me; a film that pissed me off; a film that taught me to look at movies, or the world, or myself, in a new way. Heavy stuff, but hopefully with humor to spare. I also should leave fair warning that 1980s cinema will likely be a key focal area: the 80s were my coming-of-age years and an underappreciated era for movies, no matter what Steve Vineberg says. But any film from any era is fair game, as long I've seen it. Shall we begin?

Christmas 1984. The location is Phoenix, Arizona, and at a blustery 59 degrees, winter is in the air. I am fourteen years old. I am overjoyed to find among my presents a VCR, and the next day, when the nearest video store reopens, I waste no time in selecting The Right Stuff among my first batch of rentals. I remember that Siskel & Ebert raved about the film the year before, placing it #1 on each of their Top-10 lists, whereas the ludicrous Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved over at Sneak Previews had unceremoniously panned it. I also know that it was a box-office disappointment and, despite several Oscar nominations, lost out to Terms of Endearment for the big prize. Being an outer-space afficiando, and a budding film snob, such things don't concern me. Eagerly I put the tape on and watch the movie.

Eighteen hours later, The Right Stuff ended. I found it annoying. It was a lot of other things too: to paraphrase Richard Bach's memorable description of his reaction to The Deer Hunter in his book Final Cut, it was exciting, confusing, absorbing, exasperating, witty, superficial, thoughtful, moving, and long. But mostly it was annoying. Still, as I dizzyingly rewound the tape, and in rare yet palpably contemplative moments in the years that followed, I always felt a deep uncertainty in my reaction, at the root of it an unquestioning slavishness to my mentors. How could Jeffy and Mikey be right, and Gene and Roger be wrong?

Cut to present day. It's the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Right Stuff, and what better way to honor the movie than watch it again, with the anticipation of seeing the folly of my youth. I put on the DVD. Approximately three hours later (my sense of time has improved over the years), I still find the movie annoying. Maybe even more so. It's one of a handful of films that I would label a great failure: a movie filled with excellent performances and memorable scenes, but sets the bar so high for itself it can't possibly accomplish what it sets out to do.
For me, a big problem with Philip Kaufman's film -- something he had a better handle on in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and other efforts -- is tone. The opening prologue, shot in stark black and white, presents grainy images of test pilots attempting to break the sound barrier. "Once there was a demon who lived in the air," a deep-fried southern voice intones. "They said whoever found it....would die." Presumably, the narrator -- Levon Helm, whom we later meet as Chuck Yeager's right-hand man, Jack Ridley -- is present to supply an underlying mythos to the story, but the effect is cornpone and irritating. Ditto a subsequent scene (as the film switches to color), when a pilot crashes, and Royal Dano's grim reaper of a minister breaks the bad news to the pilot's widow. The tragedy is undercut by the silliness of Dano's somber, black-clad appearance (I seem to recall Pauline Kael saying that he's always standing around waiting for something bad to happen); his grating singing at the funeral doesn't help.

Following this, the story morphs into a Western, complete with a hole-in-the-wall town (Edwards Air Force Base in rural California), a local saloon with a cliche-spouting older belle behind the bar, and Chuck Yeager, a pilot on horseback, introduced as our temporary protagonist. As played by the actor-playwright Sam Shepard (laconic is by now old hat in describing Shepard, but that's what he is), Yeager is no Man With No Name; quite the contrary, we are constantly reminded of Who He Is, with hushes of reverential awe. After Yeager breaks the sound barrier (Mach 1), Edwards becomes the military equivalent of Deadwood, a beacon for other aspiring pilots eager to strut their stuff, among them Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). After another of Yeager's seminal flights (where he goes beyond Mach 2), the film switches gears to the space race. Fearful of Soviet advances in aeronautics, American commitment to their space program formally begins -- only with Cooper and Grissom, along with Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) and John Glenn (Ed Harris) recruited to join, while Yeager is left behind.

One of the minor curiosities I've always found interesting about The Right Stuff is the confusion between the actors' names and the characters' -- between the Shepards and the Glenns. Yet I think this underscores an important problem with the film: the lack of a central character. Yeager, who initially appears to fill this role, vanishes for long stretches of the movie; in his place we join Shepard, Grissom and Glenn on their missions. Each one temporarily becomes the movie's hero, each mission has its own flavor. Shepard's flight, as the first "free man" into space (i.e., neither a Russian nor a chimp), is exciting and glorious; Grissom's, which ends in a controversy as to whether or not he panicked and prematurely blew the hatch during an ocean rescue attempt, is quietly tragic; Glenn's orbit around the Earth, which cuts between the "fireflies" he sees outside his capsule and the mystical guidance of Aborigines on the ground, takes on the atmosphere of a Peter Weir film. While all three are certainly compelling characters -- as is Quaid's cocky, lively Cooper, whose flight climaxes the film -- none provides a stable center of gravity. (As for "America" being the main character, Ian Frazier would have something to say about that.) This would be less of a problem had Kaufman established a consistent tone.
I've never read Tom Wolfe's book, but being familiar with his other works I suspect he handled the mingling of satire and hero-worshipping sentiment more cohesively than Kaufman attempts here. Preferring the former over the latter, I'm pleased to say that The Right Stuff is loaded with funny scenes. The best of them are vaudevillian interactions between gifted comic performers: Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer as a pair of clueless government recruiters; Donald Moffat's LBJ and Scott Beach's Werner von Braun-like German scientist; Quaid and Jane Dornacker's Nurse Murch. What makes me cringe are the scenes played as straight hagiography, like whenever the astronauts join forces against the bureaucrats ("You heard him: Light the candle!" etc.) or Yeager's final miraculous escape from death -- covered in grime, yet still chewing gum -- when we are assured by Ridley that he is indeed A Man. It would be hard to take these scenes seriously on their own, even less when they're repeatedly undercut by sight gags and irony.

Perhaps more than any other film, The Right Stuff helped to shape my critical sensibility. I learned that it was okay to disagree with Siskel and Ebert (and would do so plenty of other times over the years), that they were capable of being wrong; and that even dunderheads like Lyons and Medved could be right once in a while, that they could bring something to the table. Most importantly, I discovered that a viewer could have more than one response to a movie. Kael's review (one of the best, I think, from her erratic later years), which I caught up with in her collection State of the Art, aptly demonstrates this. The DVD case of the movie includes a blurb from her assessment -- "Astonishingly entertaining" -- that leaves out the second part of the statement -- "considering what a screw-up it is." The Right Stuff is indeed a glorious screw-up, one whose images (Caleb Deschanel did the cinematography) I recall as vividly as its errors: a recurring shot of Goldblum running down a corridor; a gorgeous transition from the engine of a plane to a tunnel entering into a lavish barbecue; and the conclusion of Yeager's first flight, after he breaks the sound barrier, and the familiar blue sky gives way to the mysterious vestiges of space.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Keeping It Real

Over at The House earlier this week, a brief discussion followed over which sitcom viewers preferred, The Office or 30 Rock. Count me in with those who believe it's not an either-or proposition, but it was interesting to read the arguments favoring one or the other. Some love 30 Rock for its anything-for-a-punchline surrealism; others love The Office for the emotional gravity beneath the gags. Of course neither world is that clear-cut: 30 Rock can seamlessly venture into touching territory now and then, as per the final few scenes between Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey last week; whereas The Office tends to have more difficulty maintaining a delicate balance between the unforced naturalism of most of the ensemble and the cartoonish antics of manager Michael Scott.

During last night's season finale, "Goodbye, Toby," Steve Carell kept Michael largely believable within the character's own paradigm. Alan Sepinwall has noted that episodes written or co-written by Paul Lieberstein do a better job at keeping Michael grounded, even giving him saving graces. The casting of Amy Ryan (the potty-mouthed mother of the kidnap victim in Gone Baby Gone) as Holly, the new, quirky Human Resources rep also paid off. Ryan and Carell previously worked together in Dan in Real Life, which I haven't seen, but their chemistry here was terrific. I second Bruce Reid's comment over at Sepinwall's that "....given Hollywood's propensity for typecasting and Ryan's acclaim for playing bitter harridans, it's doubly nice to see her playing such an open charmer here." The running gag, initiated by Dwight tricking Holly into thinking the slow-of-manner Kevin retarded was not only funny but highlighted the character's decency. I hope she comes back in at least a semi-regular capacity.

"Goodbye, Toby," however well-done, also underlined another problem The Office has with keeping its naturalistic tone, and that lies in the show's ability to navigate sitcom contrivances. On one hand, the script shrewdly played up the expectation that Jim's vituperative voicemail to Ryan would lead to the former's termination, only to resolve this at the halfway point with Ryan's arrest (a scene reminiscent of Wall Street). Yet having neatly sidestepped one cliche, the episode fell right into another with Andy's proposal interruptus on Jim and Pam. It was a jarringly contrived moment made worse by Pam's deflated reaction. If the character is perspicacious enough to anticipate Jim's marriage proposal, wouldn't she have guessed that he wouldn't have wanted to go through with it on the heels of Andy and Angela? Moreover, why would she have wanted him to do it immediately after that?

There is quite a bit that didn't track this season, much of it likely due to a strike-shortened year. Normally, TV series have the opposite problem -- padding and delaying to the point of wearing out viewer patience -- so if plot developments like Pam's sudden acceptance into graphic design school and the Jim-Ryan rivalry weren't fleshed out as well as they could have been, at least they were dealt with fairly quickly. I suspect the original 30-plus episode plan for The Office this season would have been A Bad Thing; here's hoping that next season avoids the precipice of anything-goes comedy and keeps the characters real.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Candle in the Wind

Has there ever been a show with a greater knack for names? Early last season on 30 Rock, we were introduced to who has become its best recurring character, Dr. Spaceman -- pronounced "Spuh-CHA-min" -- the serenely, breathtakingly incompetent NBC in-house physician who somehow remains Jack's go-to-guy in an emergency. (Last week, while examining a patient going into diabetic shock, he confused dialing 911 with 411 and asked for "Diabetes Repair.") Also last year, a terrific subplot centered on Jenna's major supporting role in an adaptation of a "Mark Grisham thriller" (John G's fictitious brother) called The Rural Juror. Then Thursday night, on this season's finale, we met Cooter Burger, the beleaguered head of Homeland Security in the waning months of the Bush Administration, who eventually explains that our nickname-loving President supplied him with both monikers -- 'Cooter' because he looks like a turtle, 'Burger' because he once saw him eat a hamburger. "It was a sandwich!" Cooter finally blurts out.

The hilarity of that line -- and the character's undignified name, which will keep me giggling over the summer -- is even funnier coming out of the plaintive exasperation of guest star Matthew Broderick, who built around the character a shell that steadily crumbled over the course of the episode. Broderick was also reunited with Alec Baldwin (co-stars of The Last Shot), whose Jack, in exile from NBC, took a new job with the Homelanders. At a time when TV shows are nervous nellies about coming across as even the least bit political, 30 Rock, led by its star and head writer Tina Fey, goes after hot-button topics with subversive gusto. (When Jack tells Fey's Liz that he's looking forward to joining "the War on the Poor," Liz tries correcting him: "You mean the 'War on Poverty?' After a pause, he replies, "Uh, yeah. Go with that.") A leaky ceiling in their office -- "No, it's not (leaking)," Cooter explains, "I'll show you the study" -- becomes a brilliant metaphor for the denial of the Administration at large. And Jack's scheme to get fired, aided by the clingy Cooter, involves the development of a "gay bomb" that was actually in the planning stage back in 1994, but is perhaps more topical now.

Meanwhile, back at NBC, Liz endured a pregnancy scare without Jack around for advice or support, however questionable or tenuous either may be at times. Some viewers, like Robert Bianco in USA Today, have complained that Liz, initially the stable center in a cast of zanies, has gotten too unhinged this season. (I'd offer a link to his review, but it appears to be broken.) I understand Bianco's concern -- and admire any good critic still writing in print -- as sitcom history teaches us that when shows start begin sacrificing character for laughs (e.g., the final seasons of Seinfeld and Cheers) they end up losing both. But I think he overlooks the last episode's more touching scenes: Jenna helping Kenneth with his "video essay," Jack listening to Liz's voicemail messages about her false pregnancy. And especially their climactic reunion, as played by Fey and Baldwin, which hit a melancholic nerve that hasn't been felt over most of this strike-abridged year.

Moreover, I'll be astonished if 30 Rock lasts longer than one more season, so best to go for broke while it can. Treading into controversial waters and thumbing one's nose at General Electric aren't the best ways to curry favor, but filtered through Fey's fearlessness, they can be funny as hell. "We bring good things to light!" Jack exclaims, trying to inspire Cooter into action, and he pulls up a lampshade only to find not a lightbulb but a lonely candle in its place. 30 Rock, a miraculous mix of buoyancy and cynicism, shines a light on our times even as it curses the darkness.

Reshuffling the Deck

Lots of changes lately in the Land o' Blogs, which have required my adjustments to the links to the left. First, Glenn Kenny, longtime film critic for Premiere magazine, recently announced he has unceremoniously gotten the boot. I've generally liked Kenny -- unlike, say, David Edelstein (whose "tribute" to the recently deceased Anthony Minghella is one of the most disgraceful things I've ever read), he understands the medium -- and his axing does neither the pathetic Premiere nor the increasingly endangered world of print criticism any favors, but for now he has set up shop with a new blog. Two more recently linked are The Reeler (for movies) and It Happened Last Night (for television).

I also want to single out Jason Bellamy's consistently terrific pieces over at The Cooler, especially a recent post on the much-debated Chigurh-in-the-motel-room scene in No Country for Old Men that almost convinces me. Last but not least, the venerable Roger Ebert has at last started a blog of his own. I was an avid watcher of his and Gene Siskel's show for nearly twenty years before finally getting acquainted with Roger semi-personally on his CompuServe forum in the late-90s. There were a few too many nuts in the mix for me to stay there long, but Ebert was always good to me, even published a couple of my snarky missives in his "Answer Man" column, and treated everyone with his unique blend of congeniality, accessibility and stick-in-the-shiv wit when necessary. Movies, and movie buffs, are lucky to have him.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Hunk of Junk

The cunning behind Iron Man's appeal is evident right off the bat. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), a cocky multimillionaire playboy arms manufacturer in Afghanistan for a demonstration of his latest weapon of mass destruction, rides in a convoy of American soldiers who at first appear to be sizing him up, only to then burst into grins and ask to have their pictures taken with him. Their fanboy seal of approval is cut short when the convoy is brutally attacked by Afghans armed with goodies from Stark's own company, who kill the soldiers, kidnap Stark and take him back to their mountain lair with orders to build them one of his superweapons. Wounded and chagrined, Stark instead constructs a special metal suit and jets out of there, newly determined to use his money and weaponry for good. It's like watching the head of Halliburton open a soup kitchen.

Within its opening twenty minutes, Iron Man casts its net for the widest demographic yet to grace a comic-book hero on the big screen: in addition to the built-in Marvel fan base (who probably know the character's history better than their own family trees) the antiwar types can admire the hero's change of heart and tut-tut at the sight of American hardware in the hands of the enemy, while the jingoists can thump their chests as stuff blows up real good. Then there are the critics, who seem to be thoroughly seduced by the unconventional casting of Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead. A middle-aged character actor cementing his comeback from the abyss in a blockbuster is an irresistible story, and to be sure, Downey gives Stark an eccentric charm that is normally lacking in this genre. I wish I could say that he elevates the movie as high as Johnny Depp did the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, but Iron Man lands with a thud.

Start with the Afghans. I don't have a problem with a comic-book scenario addressing the contemporary political climate, provided it does so in a thoughtful manner. Yet from the moment the sneering brown faces -- fresh from a casting call for Executive Decision -- show up in Iron Man, hooding and torturing our hero in a manner that would reek with irony were there any context, it's clear that we are squarely in Hollywood's evil-darkie territory, a far cry from the complex, disquieting torture sequence that formed the centerpiece of Three Kings. (Naturally, the kindly Arab physician-scientist who saves Stark's life and helps him escape, is of the light-skinned Disney's Aladdin variety.)

An immensely appealing presence in front of the camera, Jon Favreau has yet to sell me on his talent behind it. He has a nice sense of humor, and he's attuned to Gwyneth Paltrow's freckles more than most. But overall his directing style, in both Elf and this film, feels ham-fisted to me; and his use of metaphors, like the image of Stark's glowing electromagnetic heart, don't resonate as strongly as they should, perhaps because all the stumblebum crap (such as Stark's cringe-worthy press conference after his escape) keeps getting in the way.

Favreau and his quartet of screenwriters attempt to offer up some American complicity by having Stark's literal comrade-in-arms Obadiah Stane (which sounds like something out of the Old Testament crossed with Philip Roth) become the archvillain in the picture, funneling arms to terrorists in order to take over Stark's company. As Stane, Jeff Bridges is also an idiosyncratic choice, and he wields his new girth and bald dome to good effect. But Stane's motives aren't enough to sustain interest in the story -- unlike Batman Begins, the film is strangely underpopulated -- and after the stereotypical Afghans are obliterated by Stark-as-Iron-Man, we're left with a pair of gifted actors duking it out in metal suits. If only John Wayne and Montgomery Clift had seen the day.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Beasts and Burdens

Into the Wild, Sean Penn's mostly impressive latest foray behind the camera, has a complex narrative structure. The true story of Chris McCandless, the exceptionally bright college grad who in the early 1990s fled his affluent suburban upbringing to the Alaskan wilderness, would appear ideal for a linear road movie, yet Penn doesn't stage it that way. He begins with Chris's arrival to the north, then goes back to show us how he got there. I don't know how much of this follows Jon Krakauer's book, but it's a wise cinematic choice that enables us to understand McCandless's motives without insisting that we side with him. We meet the family he leaves behind, come to know the people he encounters (and eventually abandons) along his journey. Penn, whose previous films as a director were claustrophobic indulgences of his actors, this time gives the audience room to breathe. A two-hour version of Into the Wild might not have worked; as it stands, the extra 30 minutes or so enables us to spend a fair amount of time out of Chris's head.

Although we hear a few of Chris's voiceovers (mainly pretentious quotes of Thoreau and Emerson), see a few of his letters home and are privy to the writings in his journal which show his loneliness and steady mental disintegration in the wilderness, the film is narrated primarily by his sister, Carine (voiced with purity and emotion by Jena Malone), who reveals the dysfunctional family dynamic created by their parents, played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden. Like Stephanie Zacharek, I too was worried that Hurt and Harden would spend the entire movie glumly smoothing napkins and stirring drinks, but Penn and his performers give them their humanity. The disappearance of their son shakes them out of their smug yuppie rut, brings them closer together and mobilizes their efforts into tracking him down. Chris, however, is determined to not be found. I've never before seen Emile Hirsch, the actor who plays him, but he has the baby-faced guile of a younger Leonardo DiCaprio (who perhaps would have taken this role ten years ago). It's hard to tell what kind of range Hirsch has -- like DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can and other efforts, he's at his best when he's on the move, less effective when he's asked to be a still center of gravity.

Fortunately, Into the Wild rarely goes inert, thanks to the appealing and resourceful supporting cast. Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker are a vagabond aging-hippie couple growing weary of the road; Vince Vaughn, breaking free from dumb comedies, elevates his manic shtick as a small-town business owner and small-time criminal who takes Chris under his wing; best of all is Hal Holbrook, appearing in the final act as Ron Franz, a spiritually devout elderly man still haunted by the deaths of his wife and child many years ago. Holbrook gives Franz a few shots of stubbornness and irascability, so that when he offers to adopt Chris, the act becomes doubly affecting.

I still have misgivings about Sean Penn the director, preferring him less to Penn the actor, yet more than the sanctimonious bully he comes across as in real life. A bit of the latter persona can't help but show up in Into the Wild, overly invested somewhat in the romanticized ideals behind Chris's quest and occasionally hammering his points too hard. (A sequence where a starving Chris shoots and dismembers a moose goes longer than necessary.) His eye as a filmmaker, while steadily improving (and immeasurably better than several other actor-cum-directors like Jack Nicholson, et al), remains a little flat, lacking the virtuosity of Mel Gibson. Luckily, Penn rejects Gibson's investment in cruelty. He sees the dark side of nature and the tragic toll it took on Chris, and he acknowledges the dark side of Chris's journey and the scars he left on those who loved him.

if Into the Wild is about a kind of 60s nostalgia from the subsequent generation who never experienced it, Seth Gordon's 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, recalls the 1980s in all its gaudy video-arcade mise-en-scene. That's not really a compliment. Like the people in Gordon's film, I grew up playing countless videogames; but I eventually outgrew them and came to focus, for good or ill, on other pursuits. The two rivals in The King of Kong, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, are grown men with jobs and families, yet their struggle to become the world record holder of Donkey Kong (the difficult, addictive, entertaining progenitor of the Mario Bros. franchise, featuring a giant gorilla who kidnaps a damsel in distress and hurls barrels and other obstacles at the player) consumes them. Unlike Penn, Gordon doesn't seem interested in pulling back to show the damage they inflict en route to their egocentric ends.

Instead, The King of Kong is content to depict Wiebe and Mitchell in good-vs.-evil, black-and-white terms. Wiebe is a mild-mannered sad-sack with OCD whose attempts to overtake Mitchell's twenty-year-old records are thwarted, with increasing dubiousness, by Twin Galaxies International Scorecard, an organization of videogame referees who are fawning sycophants to Billy Mitchell. With his long dark hair, loud ties and sleazeball charisma, Mitchell comes across like a Ross Jeffries of the gaming set, a conniving entrepreneur who boasts about being a step ahead of his competitors. As a filmmaker, Gordon is transparently a step ahead as well. His camera is always in the right place at the right time, and he leaves out elements that might add inconvenient complexity, such as Mitchell's relationship with his own family (we catch fleeting, unflattering glimpses of his wife and none of his children), or more of how Wiebe's preoccupation ran the risk of estranging him from his wife and kids. Mrs. Wiebe is allowed a couple of pointed remarks, and their son is occasionally viewed as neglected around the arcade game Wiebe purchases and sets up in their basement, but Gordon mostly confines them to the sidelines, suggesting that they're a support system with no valid interests to call their own.

Even giving the benefit of the doubt that Wiebe is a stand-up guy and Mitchell an asshole, and enjoying some of the atmosphere for its jeez-I'm-getting-old sentimental value, I found The King of Kong amateurish and threadbare. While Gordon deliberately invokes The Karate Kid -- one of my favorite films from the 80s, also for sentimental reasons -- during a cheesy montage scored to the battle theme "You're the Best," I wonder if he's aware of how closely The King of Kong's climax resembles that of the former film. Just as Ralph Macchio's Daniel LaRusso is finally accepted by the bullies who spend the entire movie tormenting him -- conveniently, after he kicks their ass -- Wiebe is welcomed into Twin Galaxies with open arms. (There's even a running gag about how nobody can pronounce his name, just as "Miyagi" gets mangled repeatedly in The Karate Kid.) We're supposed to find this touching, when I'd have been more inspired if Wiebe (and Daniel) had told his adversaries to stuff it. The King of Kong is a dispiriting celebration of need.