Saturday, November 28, 2009

Beasts Within (Fantastic Mr. Fox and Observe and Report)

Some actors are so right for their roles the two become inseparable; ditto their voices in certain animated films. Once you've seen Wes Anderson's delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox, it will be impossible to hear anybody but George Clooney's deep, smooth vocals coming out of the titular character, a chicken-stealing fox who's almost as clever as he thinks he is. Clooney has played variations of this fast-talking slickster before -- notably in live-action cartoons like the Coen brothers' O' Brother, Where Art Thou? -- where his charisma is sometimes trumped by smugness. Yet animation, as it did for Robin Williams in Aladdin, brings out Clooney's strengths while negating his shortcomings. He is every inch this Mr. Fox, whose stop-motion herky-jerkiness only adds to the movie's charm.

I'm sure the original Roald Dahl book is one of those I read as a kid without remembering anything about it, but this screen adaptation weaves the author's subversive spirit into what is still in essence a Wes Anderson film, drawing out his strengths as a filmmaker while keeping his flaws at bay. The script, by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, retains Dahl's relatively straightforward story about Mr. Fox's struggle for survival vs. the three nastiest farmers in Britain -- Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Yet they also add, as one character says, "subtext" in the form of Anderson's recurring obsession with familial dysfunction and dynamics. Mr. Fox has a tenuous relationship with his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep), who wants him to give up a life of crime, not to mention with his eccentric adolescent son Ash (Jason Schwartzman, who manages to be as strange and offputting as he is in the flesh). Many Anderson alumni -- Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Owen Wilson, an especially memorable Willem Dafoe -- lend their voices here, which has probably helped prompt agnostic critics like Owen Gleiberman to claim that the director "has always been making cartoons; he just confused the issue by putting real live actors in them," and to hope that he continues foraying into animated films.

I'm not convinced by either point. For me, Wes Anderson has made one classic comedy (The Royal Tenenbaums) fueled by the tension from the characters' longings to burst out of the trappings in which they are framed. (Violence -- or the threat of it -- is an oft-undiscussed element to his movies, one that's made more palatable by a whimsical tone than George Miller's relentless intensity approach in the flawed but brilliant Babe: Pig in the City; but it's always there, from Richie Tenenbaum's suicide attempt to the severing of Mr. Fox's tail.) And I think there's an even greater live-action film in him yet. Fantastic Mr. Fox is invigorating, lively and filled with high spirits -- adjectives I would not apply to his inert "road" pictures The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited -- and his melancholy sensibility, akin to Charles Schulz, is a refreshing tonic to the exhausting mania whipped up by Pixar (which has branded "quality" more than actually delivered it) or Mr. Motion-Capture Bob Zemeckis. Yet like Zemeckis, I think there's a danger of Anderson becoming a prisoner of the medium. Whatever his predilection for irony, it's clear that he longs to make a connection with an audience. Whether or not Fantastic Mr. Fox succeeds (and the slow roll-out is as usual, I think, a mistake), here's hoping he keeps trying.              

For a brief shining moment last spring, Observe and Report was that rarity, a talk-about lightning rod of controversy, a dark comedy about a mall cop with delusions of grandeur that mined shocking violence and sexual depravity for humor. First dates were ruined, vitriolic screeds (and the occasional defense) were posted, tempers flared. Then, a week later, Crank: High Voltage and 17 Again came out and moviegoing returned to comforting doldrums. I'm not out to make a big case for the movie; it's too calculatingly unhinged and cinematically inept to win me over. Yet the young writer-director Jody Hill works with a kind of feverish incompetence. (Glenn Kenny memorably wrote that he "makes Kevin Smith look like Otto Preminger," but Smith is far too much the slacker poseur to be as invested in his characters or story as Hill is here.) And he's aided considerably by the fierce conviction of Seth Rogen's performance, easily the finest of his career. Rogen's mentally troubled Ronnie falsely sees himself as a gun-toting sheriff in a lawless town; yet he asswhupps drug-dealers and develops a touching rapport with the wheelchair-bound mall employee Nell (Collette Wolffe), so he's not a total dunderhead. Hill's problem is he doesn't distinguish between Ronnie's reality and everyone else's -- the former bleeds (literally) into the latter without logic or irony. In sum, Observe and Report puts me a quandary: it's a bad movie that's got something.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pushing Our Buttons (Drag Me to Hell, Coraline and The Brothers Bloom)

(Spoilers within.)

Say this for Sam Raimi: he knows his way around a corpse. The best bits in Drag Me to Hell, his half-successful attempt to recapture the low-rent magic of his loosey-goosey horror comedies of yore, come in a pair of scenes where poor sweet bank officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) encounters the dead body of an elderly gypsy woman who put a curse on Christine after getting turned down for an extension on a loan. In the first of these scenes, Christine, having deep misgivings even before a demon starts wreaking havoc on her life (she rejects the woman's request in order to shed her reputation of being too nice to make the tough decisions for an open assistant manager position), arrives to make amends only to find herself in the middle of a wake. She accidentally knocks over the coffin, and suffice to say hijinks ensue. In the second, late in the movie, Christine digs up the body in a raging thunderstorm in order to reverse the curse, only to find the old crone even more resilient in death than she was alive.

I laughed out loud at moments like these, but Drag Me to Hell ended with my wishing it were more satisfying as a whole. Part of the problem is Christine's journey from passive cutie-pie to badass grave-digger: Lohman's performance is effective in individual scenes ("Choke on it, bitch!"); what's missing are the transitions, the gradations in her personality shift. The larger problem, I think, is Raimi himself, who earned heaps of praise for returning to his roots following the increasingly bloated Spiderman franchise, but to me he looked more like a wizard struggling to remember how simple spells are cast.

Although I'm no great fan of animation, one of its advantages is rendering more tolerable performers who might otherwise be anathema onscreen. Take Dakota Fanning (please!): an intolerable, overstudied young actress, yet completely serviceable at providing the voice to the titular character in Coraline. Or Teri Hatcher, smashingly good as both Coraline's mom in the "real" world and as the malevolently seductive button-eyed Other Mother in a parallel universe adjacent through the wall of Coraline's new apartment. I read Neil Gaiman's original book yet recall almost nothing about it, so I can't vouch for the authenticity of this screen adaptation. But it's an effectively creepy movie, well-directed by Henry Selick who also made (ahem) Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Freed from his overlord's easily distracted, overly labored whimsy (inevitably to return like a bad penny in the form of Alice in Wonderland), Selick taps deeply into the loneliness and resilience of his heroine and makes as evocative a recreation of childhood as I've encountered in recent memory. Bonus points: almost no songs.  

Without benefit of animation, Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz, two of my least favorite actors, managed to charm the pants off me in the maligned heist comedy The Brothers Bloom. I knew from the previews that Weisz was playing the naive mark of a pair of con-men siblings, but to my delight Brody and Mark Ruffalo were cast against expectations as, respectively, the sensitive younger brother who wants out and the cynically manipulative older operator who talks him into (wait for it) one last score. Picking up an Oscar early in her career seems to have liberated Weisz, who plays her cloistered heiress with a hitherto genuine spontaneity. She lacks the overcalculated innocence of Glenne Headly in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and develops a sweet rapport with Brody, who has never been more appealing than when he's mooning over her. Reliable pro Ruffalo has the unenviable task of conjuring Paul Newman's Henry Gondorff from The Sting, and damned if he doesn't nearly pull it off. Rian Johnson nearly pulls off the entire movie too -- a type of farce that's difficult to appear effortless and rarely attempted anymore -- but stumbles in a homestretch that's at least twenty minutes too long.

Still, the many comparisons in the press to Wes Anderson seem off the mark (one unfortunate similarity, reducing the few ethnically diverse characters to non-speaking caricatures -- in this case Bang-Bang, the Japanese explosives expert for the Bloom bros. -- is redeemed by Rinko Kikuchi's richly amusing performance). If anything, Johnson's effort is closer in spirit to the other Anderson, one PT, of Magnolia (both prologues narrated by Ricky Jay) and Punch-Drunk Love (dogged hopefulness in the face of despair). As with Brick, Johnson's gift is weaving a veil of irony that pulls us closer to his characters rather than distancing us from them. The Brothers Bloom takes some missteps, but is better than its reputation suggests.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Everything, and So Much of It (Mad Men, Season 3)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

"I suspect (Matthew Weiner) is after something darker and more mysterious, something tied into the intersection of personal psychology and social change....a show which explores the systematic dismantling of and destruction of the authentic self, and its replacement by manufactured images and feelings, the very images and feelings Don Draper is so adept at creating."
-- Matt Zoller Seitz, commenting at The House Next Door

"They need a game-changer," I told a colleague shortly before the season finale of Mad Men, and well before Mo Ryan effectively dismissed the notion of game-changers on TV shows. "We hear that all the time (and) yet games remain unchanged," she tweeted, before later clarifying her point: "Many shows DO them well. It's when (Executive Producers) SAY game-changer is coming -- then 'meh' happens." It's always a delicate balance on television between shaking things up and keeping them the same. We viewers are a fickle bunch, bored by the status quo yet easily alienated by change. There are a limited number of options, all of which have spelled disaster for a large number of successful shows: add new characters; move to a new location; devise a major plot twist; or make a feint to change only to revert back to the comfortable and familiar.

Nevertheless, it seemed clear as we entered the homestretch of this year's Mad Men that something had to give. As a big fan of the first two seasons, I was pretty dismissive of the snarky naysaying by James Wolcott, the now defunct Newcritics, and others going against the grain; but this year I had to admit that the miniscule flaws they had pointed out from the start were beginning to magnify and multiply. While Season 3 still featured the usual share of stellar performances -- with January Jones a surprise standout -- too often Mad Men had been getting bogged down in its own self-seriousness, pregnant pauses, and ennui. Don and Betty's extramarital dalliances, a source of rich comic and dramatic fodder in the past, took a sharp turn into dullsville; and the crack supporting cast often seemed adrift, underused. How many times can Sal be spontaneously groped by closeted gay men before the social commentary takes a turn for the ridiculous? (Answer: twice.) Even the intriguing addition of Conrad Hilton as Don's daffy new billionaire client ("When I ask for the moon, I want the moon") had the effect of taking over the series the way George Hearst did Deadwood, putting its main characters in a ceaselessly reactive mode.

Yet Matthew Weiner has a knack for pulling off what Keith Uhlich has called the "Tarantino longueurs," when interminable stretches of inertia are suddenly energized by startling developments. This season's macabre comic classic, "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency," climaxed with an upstart British exec's grisly rendezvous with a drunken secretary on a riding mower. (His superiors' solemn epitaph:"The doctors say he'll never play golf again.") And this Sunday's giddily dynamic finale, "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," was turbo-powered by Don Draper's refusal to be absorbed in a monolithic ad agency's plot to buy out Sterling Cooper and its colonizing overlords. At the heart of Mad Men has always been Don's sales-pitch, his ability to "find the emotion" behind a product and give people what they need; and the fun of the finale was watching Don pitch to people who know his machinations, to see Roger, Pete and Peggy tell him what they need -- the validation that Don has denied them.

Jon Hamm, Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss, and John Slattery continued to shine in their scenes at the workplace. But it was back at the Draper residence that January Jones was a revelation. Betty's transformation from in-denial housewife to calling her husband on his elaborate pack of lies came in convincing gradations -- repression, role-playing (e.g., her stunning makeover in Italy), revelation -- to where, at the close of this season, she no longer bought his sales-pitch anymore. And yet, stuck with Henry Francis on the wrong plane to Reno, as it were, Betty seems right back where she started. That so many viewers find Betty loathsome (and side with Don under the "charming cad" clause) is, I think, a testament to the authenticity of Jones's performance, that she's gotten under people's skins deeply enough to provoke their defenses.

After three years of cultural Zeitgeisting, critical hosannas and innumerable Emmys, there has been the temptation to see Weiner the way Peggy sums up Don: "You have everything, and so much of it." So it's admirable to see that he hasn't grown complacent, or that he's not above lying to the press corps about whether or not the show would address the Kennedy assassination, which it did quite effectively in the penultimate episode. (I do hope the dramatic shake-up in "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" ends the lazy comparisons of Mad Men to the plot trajectory of each season of The Sopranos. By now it's clearly a false analogy.) Season 3, while less consistent in quality than the previous two, took some interesting risks that paid dividends with a core of key characters, led by Don, leaving behind a familiar world and staking out an uncertain future. In so doing, Weiner & Co. left their viewers with more than what they wanted: they gave us what we didn't know we needed.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Lucky Man (25th Hour)

25th Hour (2002) is one of those movies that shoehorns a real-life tragedy onto a work of fiction, only with a fundamental difference: It works beautifully. Hurricane Katrina blows into Benjamin Button for no purpose other than to give the picture an unearned patina of awards-season relevance. Even though the aftermath of 9/11 has, on the surface, nothing to do with a pulpy tale about a drug dealer's last day of freedom before a prison sentence, it renders 25th Hour a movie haunted by squandered opportunities and the fragility of life.

Spike Lee is a filmmaker accustomed to cramming square pegs into round holes. With varying success -- ranging from masterpieces to stinkers -- he has made heavy-handed dramas that contain elements of slapstick farce, and whimsical musical comedies that explore socially conscious themes. He also has made documentaries like When the Levees Broke, a far most honest and artistic depiction of Katrina and its ramifications. His blowhard public persona continues to capture more attention than his films, which have become increasingly inconsequential and ignored. (Inside Man 2 -- really?) 25th Hour came and went fairly quickly from screens seven years ago, and I only caught up with it recently; but I think it's one of the defining films of the decade, warts and all.

Based on the novel by David Benioff (who adapted his own screenplay), 25th Hour stars Edward Norton, in one of his few performances in recent years where he gives a shit, as Monty Brogan, the aforementioned heroin dealer who chooses prison rather than rat out his Russian mafia employers. His two pals, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Barry Pepper), are grinding their way through more reputable professions. Jacob is a nebbishy high school English teacher who finds himself tempted by a flirty-skanky student (the fearless Anna Paquin); Frank is a cocky Wall Street trader blithely unaware that the Gordon Gekko era is long gone. Monty's younger girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson, charmingly awkward), he suspects may have turned him over to the cops. His bar-owning father (Brian Cox, proving he can do straight and understated) fumbles at a belated attempt to reconnect.

These people, who all care for Monty, nevertheless hover around him like constellations -- solitary while he's in perpetual orbit. Monty's only constant companion is his beloved dog, Doyle, whom he rescues in a prologue that conveys the tenderness beneath his bravado. (In a burst of typically colorful dialogue, Monty's Russkie sidekick inadvertently gives the dog his name when he confuses "Doyle's Law" with Murphy's.) 25th Hour is deceptively aimless for much of its running time: at times it plays like an inverted Last Detail with Meadows hauling Buddusky to the brig. Jacob and Frank take Monty (or does he take them?) to a strained nightclub party that spills into the dawn. Norton very effectively shows time closing in on Monty -- how, despite his deceptively cavalier attitude, he will never have enough of it. 

All of this would add up to a moderately entertaining B-movie, like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead with Hoffman unwisely hitting on Anna Paquin rather than Marissa Tomei. What takes 25th Hour to another level is how it captures the mood of New York City in the days following the fall of the towers rather than pretending the horror didn't happen. 2002 was a year when Hollywood digitally removed the World Trade Center from some of its movies. Spike Lee evokes the memory head on, in a stunning opening credits sequence that features the Tribute In Light, and conjures it again later in a scene played above Ground Zero from Frank's high-rise apartment.

These are moments where Lee communicates visually everything that needs to be said, moments that earned him praise from a few critics who normally can't stand him. Charles Taylor's laser-precision review hits all of its marks except the implication that the director has a newfound maturity here. Lee has always been sensitive and observational beneath the off-camera bluster. In Do the Right Thing, Mookie's racial harangue is just one of many tirades from the movie's representative ethnic groups, no more enlightened than the rest. (Also, Charley, John Savage's character isn't new to the neighborhood; he's lived there for years.) Monty has a superficially similar monologue in 25th Hour that starts by singling out everything he hates about New York before boiling down that loathing to his family, his friends, and finally himself. Like Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee often invites being misunderstood from moviegoers who take his words and images at face value. In truth, he's a filmmaker with a gift for attaining perspective outside of his characters even as he's deep inside them.

I could trot out a list of plenty of things wrong with 25th Hour, scenes where the tone is off, the tempo falters, or the performances fail. (I've seen Barry Pepper in about ten movies now, and I still have no idea if he's a good actor or not.) I couldn't care less. What matters for me about the movie is what matters for Lee -- how the little details add up to the big picture following September 11, another time the levees broke. In Unweaving the Rainbow, his tribute to Carl Sagan's ability to find the poetic in the scientific, Richard Dawkins wrote, "We're all going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born." You get a sense of what Dawkins means in the astonishing conclusion of 25th Hour -- which Mike D'Angelo brilliantly described as the climactic dream-vision of The Last Temptation of Christ "compressed to 10 minutes" -- where Lee sifts out hope from horror, poetry from rubble, culminating in a line of stirring force: "This life came so close to not happening."