Sunday, January 31, 2010

No Direction Home (Che and Sin Nombre)

A few days ago Greg at Cinema Styles posted an illuminating piece about the differences between the "Hollywood War Film" and the "Documentary War Film." "Basically," he wrote, "the Doc-Style film...has a gritty verisimilitude, an uncomfortable relationship with reality that keeps the viewer off-balance while the Hollywood war film...goes for fantasy and mythos and uses the language of film to achieve something that in the real world does not exist." Greg was specifically comparing The Hurt Locker to Inglourious Basterds, but his analogy also helped me crack the 270-minute, two-part nut that is Steven Soderbergh's Che. Part One -- "The Argentine" -- is lushly romantic; Part Two -- "Guerrilla" -- is a cinema-verite slog.

These two distinct styles are no doubt intentional on Soderbergh's part, though that's not to say that there isn't overlap. This is certainly true of the films Greg mentions in his piece, and those that continue to be discussed in the comments. Some war movies are tricker to define than others. (I disagree with Marilyn Ferdinand, for example, that Platoon is a documentary-style, "you-are-there" combat film; I think it's a Hollywood war film in disguise.) I was so absorbed and baffled by Che that it's useful to initially paint the experience in broad strokes before delving into details.

"The Argentine" cuts deftly back and forth between Che Guevera's 1956-59 experiences in the Cuban Revolution and the days leading up to his 1964 speech at the United Nations in New York City. Soderbergh shoots the latter sequences in black-and-white and uses Che's interview with a flinty British journalist (Julia Ormond) as a springboard to the Cuba sections, which are green and gorgeous and exciting to watch. It's a relief to see Soderbergh abandon his chilly blue-filtered interiors for an outdoorsy look as warm and vernal as Malick's Thin Red Line. In so doing (Soderbergh, as "Peter Andrews," is once again his own DP), he also avoids the puke-browns of the Mexico City sequences in Traffic, though he wisely brings back its star.

Benicio Del Toro had quietly developed one of the most interesting acting careers of the last fifteen years. It was his own brilliant idea in The Usual Suspects to transform his character Fenster into a hilariously incomprehensible mumbler. (Del Toro has said he realized when reading the script that nothing his character said actually mattered.) And he was terrific in the otherwise mediocre Traffic, imbuing his pivotal character -- a Mexican cop at war with the drug trade -- with an understated integrity. (I'm cracking up now, having just glanced at Del Toro's IMDb filmography, to see that his next role is reportedly Moe Howard in the Farrelly brothers' The Three Stooges.) Del Toro has some of Robert Mitchum's sleepy-eyed magnetism, yet unlike Mitchum I've yet to see him coast on charm alone. All this is to say he's a perfect Che Guevera, both heroic icon and frail human being.

Che in "The Argentine" has an obvious yet thrilling trajectory: young Marxist idealist; wheezing asthmatic in the jungle (his fellow rebels cringe every time he coughs); charismatic leader who, as a child points out, is not above lying to achieve his aims. Che is also an outsider, initially embraced by Castro ("You're as Cuban as the rest of us," El Comandante assures him) before their relationship deteriorates Trotsky/Stalin-style, as the bookish intellectual flees the country to stir revolution in other parts of the world.

"Guerrilla" charts Che's downfall in Bolivia from 1966-67, with many scenes designed to correspond to moments from "The Argentine." A pair of young boys willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the revolution in "The Argentine" are given self-serving counterparts in "Guerrilla." (One distraction: These characters, who are supposed to be adolescents, look as grizzled as the "teenagers" in Porky's 3.) The devoted female Cuban fighter Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno) from Part One is replaced by the wealthy socialist Tamara Bunke (Franka Potente), who meets a tragic end in Part Two. Filmed as a hand-held docudrama, the Bolivian jungle is less alluring than the topography in Cuba. The days are generally grim and overcast as Che and his revolution march toward their doom.

Although Greg's aforementioned piece doesn't address Che, reading it makes it easier to understand what Soderbergh is doing in both portions of the movie. In an appropriately Marxist manner, he's striving to create a cinematic dialectic where the romantic "Hollywood war film" and the "documentary war film" synthesize the two key parts of Che Guevera's life. (We receive only cursory information about his unsuccessful journeys to the Congo and Venezuela.) That I find "The Argentine" superb and "Guerrilla" a grind may say more about my own taste than the quality of either film; maybe, when it comes to war movies, I tend to prefer the Hollywood-style to the documentary version. 

Yet for everything I admire about Che as a whole (especially compared to Soderbergh's mostly terrible work over the past decade), there's something bothersome about a filmmaker's lack of emotional engagement with his subject. This is nothing new for an egghead auteur whose last genuine connection with humanity was 1993's King of the Hill. (Naturally, the only film Soderbergh wishes he could remake.) Nowadays he veers between the celebrity gawking of the Ocean's series to the non-actor condescension of Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh hasn't shown more than a marginal interest in character since the one-two punch of Out of Sight and The Limey. It's troubling that the colorful personalities in a true-to-life epic are less vivid than cinematic moments, as when Batista's stolen automobile at the end of "The Argentine" becomes a symbol of corruption as evocative as the gold telephone casually passed around the table in The Godfather: Part II. Che is an academic exercise that is ambitious, impressive and well worth seeing. Yet to paraphrase the funniest line from The Limey, it's been made by a filmmaker who is less of a person than a vibe.

From revolution-era Cuba and Bolivia in Che we journey to contemporary Honduras and then northward through Mexico in Sin Nombre, a more modestly scaled movie that is no less superficially relevant. Willy (Edgar Flores), a teenage member of the murderous Mara Salvatrucha gang who begins to harbor misgivings for the path he has chosen, is forced to make a desperate run for the border with his tattooed blood-brothers in hot pursuit. On a train he meets Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran emigrant roughly the same age, seeking a new life in the States along with her father and uncle. Writer-director Cary Fukanaga's feature-length debut has been widely-praised, but for me the predictable schematics of the plot were a little too much El Norte-meets-Apocalypto. Still, Flores and Gaitan give sensitive performances, and Fukanaga shows a refreshing comprehension of the basics evidently untaught in American film schools these days (staging, framing, pacing). Sin Nombre is a decent enough effort that makes me look forward to his next one.

Monday, January 25, 2010

'A Shitload of Suffering': Live-Blogging (500) Days of Summer, Part Three

We've reached the final chapter of (500) Days of Summer: The Live-Blog (hot on the heels of Part One and Part Two). No time to waste -- let's hop to it!

The plot structure really starts paying off in this half of the movie, beginning when Tom staggers out of the elevator on Day 303 for another enlightening exchange with MacKenzie:

"Henry Miller said the best way to get over a woman is to turn her into literature."
"Yeah, well, that guy had way more sex than me."

Thematically, this bumps immediately into Day 45, when Summer and Tom watch a porno. "That looks pretty doable," she notes.

Every time I see this architecture montage of Tom showing Summer the structures around town I laugh. It reminds me of Steve Martin's quip in L.A. Story: "Some of these buildings are over fifty years old!" It's a nice sequence, though, one that slows the tempo and deepens the themes.

Tom's favorite spot isn't the beach or a snazzy restaurant, but a view from a park bench. Lovely moment when he sketches on Summer's arm.

I don't like the narrator popping in here, when Tom is finally invited inside Summer's apartment. (Took long enough to get there!) This is the one time where it feels intrusive, when we can already see what Tom's thinking on Gordon-Levitt's face.

Tom's pow-wow with his sister on the soccer field includes a zinger that Diablo Cody would envy: "Just some guy with Brad Pitt's face and Jesus's abs."

Gender roles are once again reversed in this car scene. Tom wants to know where their relationship is going; Summer just wants to enjoy the ride. And I love that it's scored to Carla Bruni's "Quelqu'un M'a Dit." That the song is in French underlines the communication gap between them, as does the poetic fade into the tunnel.

We seem to be missing a number of days leading up to "Day 259" -- the fight between Tom and the yuppie prick hitting on Summer at the bar. By this point Tom and Summer act like a bickering married couple, but there's a bit of a gap in how they got to this phase. Actor playing yuppie prick is effective, though. ("This guy? This guy?!")

Tom and Summer's argument is as scabrous as a couple of heated exchanges in Knocked Up, but with more variance in tone, more textures. As Tom leaves, there's a great overhead shot of him descending the staircase that echoes the Vertigo steps. Not that I caught it the first time. Webb's homages are so intrinsic to the story you never feel he's winking at the audience. (If he were less subtle about it, film geeks might be drooling about him a lot more.) Vertigo, of course, is about a man transforming a woman into his idealization of her; (500) Days of Summer is about a man trying to do the same and failing.

You know, I still don't get the point of the "penis" scene.

Day 191: Tom and Summer go to an art exhibit, where they touchingly fumble at trying to interpret the weird pieces they see. Wise choice going to a movie instead. The title on the marquee, Vagiant ("Part Vampire. Part Giant.") is like a random gag out of The Simpsons.

Webb jump-cuts to Day 314, where Tom watches a movie by himself. I read criticisms about the Bergman spoofs, but it's pretty well established by now that Tom's taste in movies (at least when by himself) leans toward the pretentious. Besides, the Persona riff, with repeated variations on the word "suffering," is priceless. (French narrator: "A shitload of suffering is what I'm saying.")

Tom's kindhearted boss, Mr. Vance, is played wonderfully by Clark Gregg, who is normally typecast as scumbags. (He was the sleazy small-town attorney in David Mamet's State and Main.) You expect him to fire Tom over his "job-performance issue," but instead he shows patience and understanding by encouraging Tom to channel his misery into sympathy cards. Gregg also gets one of the best laugh lines in the movie when he reads Tom's Valentine's Day contribution: "Roses are red, violets are blue....Fuck you, whore."

Day 322: The "I love Summer" montage turns into "I hate Summer."

This blind date scene (with the red-haired Rachel Boston) often gets overlooked, yet it's one of the keys to understanding the movie. Alison, from Brown University (again, everyone in L.A. is from somewhere else), gets fed-up with Tom's whining about Summer and asks, "She never cheated on you? She never took advantage of you in any way? And she told you up front that she didn't want a boyfriend?" This is the scene I should have cited to Tom Stempel at The House Next Door when I was trying to suggest that we're not supposed to automatically trust Tom's viewpoint about Summer. He didn't have the foggiest idea what I was talking about, so I hope it's clearer here.

The whole train-trip/wedding sequence builds to the moment when Summer opts to dance with Tom, a questionable decision that made a girl I know -- who did something relatively similar to a mutual friend -- hate her character.

Note to self: Buy milk.

Expectations vs. Reality: the most brilliant sequence in the movie, and the most innovative use of split-screen I can remember. (Regina Spektor also returns, this time with "Hero.") I like how, early in "Expectations," Tom waves to somebody he knows at the party. In "Reality," of course, he's alone. This sequence also climaxes with an American Splendor touch: Tom runs into the street, which freezes into an architectural sketch, which is in turn erased.

And here's a possible nod to Groundhog Day -- repeated close-ups of a blaring alarm clock. Followed by another instance of Gordon-Levitt's impeccable comic timing: a disheveled Tom yells at a random couple holding hands to "get a room." Webb, Neustadter and Weber really thread the needle in terms of making Tom's misery the stuff of comedy. Somebody once said that "love is the seasickness of emotions: you think you're going to die, and everyone else thinks it's funny."

The company pitch meeting, ending with Tom's epiphany, is interesting in that Tom's indictment, while strong, is also overblown. (There's even a parody of a slow-clap.) He works with good people, not cartoonish office stereotypes. In a way, Tom's job is for him what he is for Summer: not a bad thing, just not the right thing.

Strange that as he leaves the building, we finally learn the company's name, and it's New Hampshire Greetings! That sense of displacement again. Also interesting, in a story about not putting a label on things, that we often don't get the "labels" (the name of the company, the park, the city) until after we're already familiar with the "product."

Flashback to Summer's breakdown at the end of The Graduate (easily Deschanel's best scene). She apparently concurs with Mike Nichols' pessimistic interpretation. Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends" is a canny music choice: it's a song that you might think was in the original movie but wasn't. It helps us see this familiar scene with a fresh perspective.

Another great (and not too familiar) song choice -- "Vagabond" by Wolfmother -- for Tom getting his groove back. I like that Webb conveys this visually via Tom bouncing a tennis ball to the beat. It's also refreshing to see a movie where the hero doesn't bounce back too quickly. We see Tom developing ideas, revising them, trying new ones, going to interviews, learning how to deal with rejection. And it ends with another great split-screen shot of Tom alone on a bus while Summer gets married. (Anyone else expect him to crash the wedding as Ben Braddock did in The Graduate?)

Finally back to Day 488, where we started, only now with the right context. A very well-written and -acted scene, notable for Tom not being too angry with Summer, yet not letting her off easy either. "You just do whatever you want, don't you?" is his pointed reaction to why she danced with him at their co-worker's wedding, and it's a valid one. I'm less persuaded by her argument that Tom's former ideas about destiny and soul-mates were right all along. (More on this momentarily.) It is a nice touch, though, that they've essentially switched places, Tom the cynic and Summer the romantic.

Some who take Summer's point-of-view at face-value have gotten furious at the final scene, where Tom appears to find his soul-mate when he's not looking for her. Maybe that's what the filmmakers intended, but my reading is that they're driving at something slightly more ambiguous. We don't know that Summer's marriage will survive, nor is it clear that a relationship between two rivals over the same job will work out. I see the last shot of the time-counter going from "500" to "1" as optimistic in the sense that Tom's ready to start again. Yet the new girl's name -- Autumn -- is also a terrific cosmic joke.

Final thoughts: I love the emphasis on the building's vast interior space in the final scene, emphasized by the overhead shot of Tom walking in for his interview. And there's a curious shot when Tom enters the elevator, an almost loving close-up of the pulley bringing him upstairs. Read into that what you will, but for me it's as if Webb is implying that Tom finally understands the inner workings of relationships, that at last he sees the gears shifting.

A movie written by two men and directed by a third could have easily degenerated into a misogynistic hate-fest. Instead, I think they kept each other honest, and made (500) Days of Summer a wonderful movie.

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

'Color My Life with the Chaos of Trouble': Live-Blogging (500) Days of Summer, Part Two

Welcome to Part Two of my live-blogging experiment with (500) Days of Summer (in case you missed Part One, click here), a film with so much going on at any one time that it's tough to isolate individual moments or pinpoint creative choices. For example, I haven't really discussed the use of the counter yet, which ticks off particular days in Tom and Summer's relationship, though not in sequence: the opening scene, for instance, is "Day 488," a brief shot of the pair sitting on a park bench, presumably a couple, her left hand (with wedding ring) atop his right; then we jump back to "Day 1;" after the opening credits, "Day 290"; and so forth. (Another touch I was too oblivious the first time to notice is that the architectural sketch behind the time counter turns brighter or darker depending on the stage in the relationship.) 

A line of argument that I've never understood about untraditionally structured movies goes something like this: "If the events in this film were in chronological order, it wouldn't be anything special." what? If the events in The Godfather were told out-of-sequence, that movie wouldn't be anything special either. As Quentin Tarantino is fond of saying, a film tells its story the way it has to tell it, according to the order of the information. (500) Days of Summer isn't telling a straightforward story; it's all about juxtaposing moments before and after a breakup, partly to make those moments funny (after all, it is a comedy), and partly to enable the audience to attain a degree of perspective that Tom Hansen lacks. It's most unusual for a romantic comedy to ask us to share its protagonist's feelings without endorsing them.


We leap ahead to Day 290 -- essentially the start of "Act I" -- and here's something else to hate: the preternaturally bright kid sister. It doesn't help that the actress (Chloe Moretz) has an overstudied quality, though her first line is terrifically matter-of-fact: "You did the right thing." Yet as I wrote in my original review, I think she's there as a joke regarding Tom's feelings of inferiority toward women. Even this pint-sized sprite knows more about how the world works than he does.

We also meet Tom's two best buds -- Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler) and McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend, who looks and sounds like the second coming of Curtis Armstrong [a compliment]). I didn't fully appreciate it on the first viewing, but this pair makes for effective opposing extremes: Paul having been in a solid relationship with the same girl since seventh grade; Mac never having seriously dated anybody. Both are pretty clueless about women, yet both are sharp enough to see that Tom is flirting with disaster.

Sometimes, like with this scene where Summer breaks up with Tom ("Out of the blue!" he claims), the time-counter doesn't appear at all. Marc Webb, the director, has good instincts for pacing and timing and knowing when to trust the audience.

"We argue all the time."
"That is bullshit!"
Gordon-Levitt's line readings are stupendously funny. He gives a star performance in this film.

Deschanel's Sid-and-Nancy quip is the kind of zinger that got accused of hipsterism. What escaped notice is it's being used to upend traditional gender roles -- that Summer identifies herself as "Sid," thereby making Tom (as he himself glumly observes) "Nancy." I hope it comes across as a compliment to say that Gordon-Levitt has just the right dash of femininity in his physicality and demeanor to pull this character off -- he's an unusually sensitive actor. Another review even pointed out that Tom's nerdy sweater-vest-and-tie attire is reminiscent of Diane Keaton's in Annie Hall.

And the narrator returns to helpfully inform us: "There are two kinds of people. There's women. And there's men. Summer Finn" -- wait for it -- "was a woman." Just as I'm laughing at that, an even funnier black-and-white montage begins, a discourse on "The Summer Effect."

Summer's caption from her yearbook, "Color my life with the chaos of trouble," leads to a spike in Belle & Sebastian record sales in Michigan that "still puzzle industry analysts." I've never noticed how this sequence plays like something out of Jean-Paul Jeunet. Unlike Jeunet, though, Webb doesn't bang us over the head with another like sequence immediately following, and then another one after that. He has a few change-up pitches in his arsenal.

Back to Day 1, when Tom meets Summer. Webb's direction is nothing special, but he knows when to sit back and bask in the warm interiors of the greeting card company. Kudos to the DP (Eric Steelberg) and production designer (Laura Fox) for making the most with a limited budget. (500) Days is a handsome film, unlike the dirty dishwater of Todd Phillips, Kevin Smith, et al.

MacKenzie's pitch for "Other Mother's Day" is an amusing throwaway gag, yet it also ties into the "death of the nuclear family," at least in Summer's case (and also Tom's, now that I think about it). I like how the greeting card company resembles a real workplace rather than an insular Hollywood idea of one.

Next two scenes emphasize the key theme. First, MacKenzie tells Tom that he heard Summer's a bitch. Then, in the elevator, Summer makes charming small-talk with Tom. ("I love The Smiths.") Expectations vs. Reality.

The difference between the pop-culture references in this film compared to others like it is that here they feel organic to the characters. It's believable that they'd be interested in the music, movies and TV shows that they're interested in.

Webb introduces the office engagement party for one of Tom's co-workers, which will come back into play in the third act. And it reveals that Tom studied to be an architect. The contrast between writing greeting cards and designing buildings plays out in surprising ways. On the surface, the former seems heartfelt while the latter appears cold and mechanical, but the script reverses these notions by film's end. It's also about creating something that lasts.

Fast-forward to Day 154, where Tom tells Paul he's in love with Summer. Also the first time we see the montage of everything he loves about her. Cringeworthy the first time, but sets up a great joke for the second.

Day 22: Neustadter & Weber's script generously spreads the wealth around, as with Paul's deadpan reply to Tom's complaint that he'd be with Summer if good things ever happened to him: "Yeah, well, that's not really where we live." Next scene: another brilliant reading from Gordon-Levitt when Summer asks if he needs anything from the supply room: "I think you know what I need! (awkward beat) Uh...toner?" Scene after that, Curtis Armstrong Geoffrey Arend does well with: "You're not listening to me. The. Whole. Office. Is. Going."

The big karaoke scene! Where haters of the movie check out permanently. For me, it's saved by Zooey Deschanel's lovely singing voice, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's exuberance, and MacKenzie's realization about Summer's disinterest in having a serious relationship: "You're a dude!" From the start, she's Sid to Tom's Nancy.

"We live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world," Summer says. Yet intriguingly, we don't know what city that is yet. (I guessed Chicago.) It's a curious choice to not reveal they're in Los Angeles, but Webb said in an interview that he wanted to show a side of L.A. that nobody ever sees in movies. He didn't want to show the beach, he didn't want the characters to be aspiring actors, he wanted them to be real people with real jobs. I think it works not only for that reason, but also to have the audience's disorientation and false assumptions reflect Tom's.

I've given Deschanel short-shrift so far, but she gives a star-making performance too. Summer is in some ways a more difficult role than Tom, because she has to break through Tom's objectification without us ever seeing things from her point-of-view. I initially griped about the character's lack of knowability, but I think now I was wrong. With a mediocre director or a weak script, Zooey can come across as no more than a flaky space-cadet, but she's more centered here. Her chemistry with Gordon-Levitt is so delicate -- they click, yet don't fully connect -- it's hard to watch sometimes.

The IKEA sequence is one of the most audacious set-pieces in the whole film. On one level, it's about Tom and Summer playing house, testing whether or not they're compatible. On another, it's about the choice of living a pre-fabricated existence (like Fight Club without the snark) and how preconceptions about relationships and marriage and family can prohibit people from truly creating these things from scratch. Too bad the scene ends with a dumb gag about the Chinese family; it plays like a leftover from Neustadter and Weber's Pink Panther 2 script.

Something else that didn't register the first time: before the "Day 34" IKEA scene, we get a lightning-fast "Day 282" IKEA scene, eight days before the big breakup, where Tom tries to recapture the magic of their first visit and an emotionally distant Summer won't have any of it. It would be like showing first Alvy Singer fumbling with the lobsters the second time around before doing it the first time with Annie.

The morning after Tom first sleeps with Summer, which leads to the infectiously silly Hall & Oates dance number. (In a director's commentary, Webb mentions that the color blue is primary in this and other scenes to reflect Summer's eyes.) The marching band and cartoon bluebird are over-the-top. But then so is a young man in love, so what the hell.

And now we see why the movie isn't told in chronological order: because scenes like the above cut from an upbeat Tom walking into an elevator to a haggard, post-breakup Tom staggering out. 


Part III -- the final chapter -- coming soon!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

'This is Not a Love Story': Live-Blogging (500) Days of Summer, Part One

Let's get this out of the way: of all the films I could choose for my first attempt at live-blogging, why in the holy name of Pandora would I pick (500) Days of Summer? Yes, it received mostly favorable reviews upon its August release, including an enthusiastic rave of my own, and ended up a modest box-office sleeper. Yet many critics I respect detest it with such intensity that I braced myself for a second viewing where, I feared, the movie would seem embarrassingly facile. Surely I'd see the error of my ways....?

Three viewings later, I can now say that I adore (500) Days even more. (And don't call me Shirley!) Make no mistake, though, this is a film that practically goads you into hating it: an omniscient narrator; a non-chronological plot structure; fantasy sequences; musical numbers; split-screens; a hip soundtrack; pop-culture references; women named after seasons; karaoke. What's not to loathe? More than a few reviews even took umbrage with the parentheses in the title -- possibly a variation on Roger Ebert's amusing argument that a good movie has never been made with punctuation in the title. (I believe the original context was Robert Aldrich's final film, 1979's ...All the Marbles.) Ebert didn't care for (500) Days' parenthetical either; but he did love the movie, and for once I think his ebullience is on the money.

This is a self-flattering argument I typically dislike, but I think audiences were generally more attuned to what (500) Days of Summer is actually doing and saying than the majority of critics. Even the favorable reviews seemed to skate along the movie's surface, describing it as a light-hearted rom-com when in fact several different and difficult levels of meaning are coordinated to critique the dubious elements of modern romantic comedy. First time I saw (500) Days of Summer, I wasn't sure whether or not I liked it until the movie was more than halfway over. It's the kind of film that prompts me to reflect on my own responses, the kind where with each viewing I find something new.

As Portnoy's shrink would say, "Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?"


"Author's Note: The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you Jenny Beckman. Bitch." Hoo-boy! Five seconds into (500) Days, and it's already pissing off the literal-minded. Some reviews called this a misogynistic, mean-spirited start. Tone is everything, however, and the tone of this caption (three quick fade-ins and -outs) is clearly deadpan. Second, I think this brief doodle does more to capture the post-breakup male mind -- the lunatic dissonance between emotional detachment and sudden outbursts of rage even years after -- than hundreds of romantic comedies have achieved over the last thirty years. Women in the audience were laughing particularly loudly, the way one often reacts to a shock of recognition.

"This is a story of boy meets girl." And here's our omniscient narrator, aka Reason To Hate The Movie #2. The voice, which is so disembodied and all-knowing it made me giggle and cringe at the same time, belongs to Richard McGonagle. First time you hear it you think, "Jesus, is the whole movie going to be like this?" Here, on a repeated viewing, it's easier to settle into the narrative, knowing that the narration will be used sparingly.

Here we meet our protagonists -- Tom Hansen of Margate, NJ, and Summer Finn of Shinnecock, MI. The extraordinarily well-crafted screenplay, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, is filled with tossed-off moments that pit two separate elements against each other: in this instance, the literary/mythical evocation of the characters' names with the ordinariness of their hometowns. This happens so repeatedly that no way it's by accident. If the movie were a court case, it would be called Romance v. Reality.

"This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music, and a total misreading of the movie, The Graduate." Great line (and, speaking from personal experience, very true.) Also like the metaphor of Summer cutting her hair and feeling nothing following her parents' divorce. Neustadter and Weber are good at writing emotional shorthand that isn't belabored with significance. Either that or the director, Marc Webb, frames these moments in such a way that you only pick up on them on the fly. A rare gift for a first-time filmmaker.

"But you should know upfront, this is not a love story." The genius of this prologue-closer is that even though the narrator is being on the level with us, we don't really believe him because we're so accustomed to the tropes of the rom-com genre. The genius is that the movie knows this, and uses it to generate suspense anyway. It plants a seed of doubt into our assumptions, as an irritatingly honest friend might do regarding a relationship that's not working out.

Opening credits begin. And if there's a more perfect song to score them to than Regina Spektor's "Us," I can't think of one. I have no idea what the song means to her ("They made a statue of us/and put it on a mountaintop/Now tourists come and stare at us/Blow bubbles with their gum/Take photographs have fun, have fun"), but in the context of the movie the lyrics underscore the contrast between how couples see themselves and how they are perceived by others. ("They'll name a city after us/and later say it's all our fault/Then they'll give us a talking to/Then they'll give us a talking to/Because they've got years of experience.") Pure poetry.

Love how the individual credits for  Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel come with a close-up of one of their eyes, the former's right and the latter's left. Webb's use of split-screen is never a gimmick: he's suggesting that these two people individually do not feel whole. Despite the narrator's last words, the director is teasing us with the notion that Tom and Summer have been destined to be together since they were kids. (Think Audrey Tautou and Whatshisname in Amelie.) Also love the final split-screen shot: young Summer blowing dandelions on the right side of the screen, which turn into bubbles with young Tom on the left. Bubbles about to burst.

We're several paragraphs into this thing, and the movie proper hasn't even started yet. If you haven't fled to another showing of Avatar by now, let's continue with (500) Days of Summer in "Part Two"....

Friday, January 15, 2010

Death Cab for Cooty (Goodbye Solo and State of Play)

Goodbye Solo, the newest film by Ramin Bahrani, presently Roger Ebert's favorite four-star director (the competition is fierce), begins with a grabber: a mysterious old man (Red West) offers his cabbie (Souleymane Sy Savane) a cool grand to take him, in two weeks, to Blowing Rock, a vertiginous mountaintop where, it is implied, he plans to kill himself. The driver, a loquacious African immigrant -- the "Solo" of the title -- agrees reluctantly, if only to talk this taciturn white man -- whose name is William -- out of his plans. What occurs over the next several days is largely a series of one-way conversations, as Solo shuttles William from a local cineplex to a hotel room and back again. Later they become roommates, during which Solo becomes more emotionally invested in William's life, trying to uncover the source of his despair as his final destination approaches.

Any general description of Goodbye Solo makes it sound like a cringeworthy Hollywood buddy movie where a spry youth and a crusty geezer teach each other how to live. It's also dicey whenever a film indicates that a black man's sole purpose in life is to help whitey feel better about himself. (Fifty years from now, critical studies of current American cinema ought to be amusing.) For the most part, Goodbye Solo avoids being Scent of a Womaned or Bagger Vanced. Bahrani, whose previous films were the well-received Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, was born and raised in North Carolina and is of Iranian descent. At its best, the central relationship in Goodbye Solo dramatizes the specifics of Bahrani's heritage: moments of mutual understanding undercut by gaping chasms in communication; how the older generation has come to fee increasingl alienated from the country in which they were born.

Bahrani never pushes his effects (except for one misconceived scene, where Solo eyeballs a teenage movie theater worker -- whom he learns has a connection with William -- with the discomfiting intensity of Jack Horner sizing up Dirk Diggler); and he makes Winston-Salem, with its glittering streets and autumnal colors, an evocative stand-in for the changing face of America. Yet something keeps me from embracing Goodbye Solo completely. The downside of a film that thrives so much on silence may be that it's easier to hear the gears creaking -- the schematics that get Solo and William from Point A to B all the way to the end. The climax atop Blowing Rock is powerful stuff, and it's evident from this conclusion -- as well as the characterizations, so much more buoyant and believable than the walking dead who inhabit Kelly Reichardt's puny thesis statements (even William gets to wink and smile now and then) -- that Bahrani will make a great film someday. What he needs is to go beyond his metaphors and discover that the real mystery isn't one character's gloom, but another's goodness.

State of Play, a post-9/11 political thriller starring Russell Crowe as an old-school journalist sniffing out the kind of byzantine conspiracy that Gore Vidal believes makes the world go round, also gets off to a strong start. We're in the netherworld of Washington, D.C., down dark alleys and within underground subways, where people are shot for no apparent reason and accidents are never simply accidents. The latter case involves the comely congressional aide who falls to her death in front of a train. Crowe's Cal McAffrey smells a rat, and not just because the Congressman -- idealistic poonhound Stephen Collins, played with customarily likable mediocrity by Ben Affleck -- is his best friend from college. McAffrey is one of those screen journalists with uncanny instincts: sure, he digs around and weighs evidence like a good reporter should, unlike his rival for the scoop, political blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams); but he also just knows. Crowe's performance isn't as lived-in as Robert Downey, Jr.'s in Zodiac, yet it's a credit to his slumped shoulders and gravelly voice that he's able to sell this silliness the way a moviestar should.

It's not his fault that the more complicated State of Play gets the less interesting it becomes. The screenplay is credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), and I'll bet that these three individualists didn't collaborate so much as have their rewrites grafted on top of each other. (The movie is adapted from a BBC miniseries.) One made McAffrey and Collins pals; another concocted a background story where the former is in love with the latter's wife (Robin Wright Penn, stranded on the sidelines like Bonnie Bedelia in Presumed Innocent, a time-bomb that never goes off); the third tossed in the Halliburtonesque "PointCorp" as the nebulously evil corporate entity, and so forth.

Whichever one created the scene-stealing stool-pigeon (a jaunty Jason Bateman) offered the most valuable contribution. Yet none of them, nor director Kevin Macdonald, seem to grasp that what made the type of 70s conspiracy thriller they're trying to emulate -- Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, Blow Out -- so effective was that those pictures were genuinely willing to hurt their characters. They were willing to hurt us. State of Play mourns less the death of any of its inhabitants than the decline of the American newspaper. That's a compelling stance, underscored by the closing credits sequence of a daily created from scratch: it suggests that a world without print journalism is one where we're all going to pay a price. A lovely self-contained montage, it would have been a bolder beginning than an ending.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

In Country (Il Divo and Irma Vep)

Paolo Sorrentino directs Il Divo (2009), a "biopic" (in the vaguest sense of the word) about the controversial Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, as if he were attempting the greatest Martin Scorsese imitation ever. The convoluted plot covers roughly Andreotti's seven-term ministership from 1972-91, focusing on his reputed ties with the mafia and Vatican; and Sorrentino's camera is so revved it can't sit still. It zips, it zooms, it zigs, it zags. It dollies in and out, up and down. It peers at events from directly above (a Scorsese trademark), with whiplash montages of murder and mayhem set to a killer pop soundtrack (ditto). When we meet Andreotti's "gang" -- his supporters in the innocuous-sounding Christian Democrat party -- they spill out of deluxe automobiles like the goombahs spied by Henry Hill at the start of Goodfellas. One thug even shoots his finger at the camera and smirks.

The director's hyped-up style is superficially entertaining; the problem is it doesn't jibe with the depth of his subject's. As portrayed by Toni Servillo, Giulio Andreotti was a politico version of Truman Capote -- short, sharp, quick-witted, with thick rounded spectacles adding the only notable feature to a expressionless face. Those eyeglasses were used ingeniously to impale a thinly-cloaked version of Andreotti in Coppola's The Godfather: Part III, but the actual man is remarkably still alive. Nicknamed "Il divo," an epithet (as were presumably his other monikers, "The Hunchback," "The Black Pope," and "Beelzebub"), the Andreotti in this film has a charming, unflappable, mild-mannered persona that belies the head-spinning felonies he would be charged with (and later cleared of, dubiously, in court). 

Sorrentino may think he's providing ironic counterpoint with his swishes and swoops and smash cuts, but the effect trivializes Servillo's completely immersive performance. Servillo has some terrific scenes: when both the law and the mob begin closing in, his Andreotti betrays a moment of private panic by hilariously pacing back and forth with elbows clenched tightly to his chest. Another scene, a justification of his crimes that breaks the fourth wall, rings hollow. In this lengthy monologue, Andreotti speaks loftily about "doing evil for good." I don't doubt the character's conviction; I just wish he had a director interested in exploring the link between one and the other.      

Maggie Cheung is hopelessly adorable as Maggie Cheung, a Hong Kong action heroine newly arrived to a comically troubled French production in Irma Vep (1996). Playing yourself onscreen is more difficult than one might think. (Reviewing one of the Beverly Hills Cop sequels, Roger Ebert noted that "Hugh Hefner appears as himself, unconvincingly.") In this picture -- a fly-by family outing directed by her future ex-husband Olivier Assayas -- Cheung is called to be charming and self-effacing in a way that usually feels bogus coming from movie stars. Maggie, the character, is given the lead in a questionable remake of the silent film Les Vampires. ("Irma Vep" is the name of the main character from the film, as well as an anagram.) The remake's director, Rene Vidal, is an aging burn-out from the French New Wave (played by, not incidentally, Truffaut and Godard favorite Jean-Pierre Leaud). For three days we follow the on-set travails and off-set intrigues, and Cheung -- other than an interview when she politely yet firmly challenges a prickly journalist's claim that French cinema is the pits -- is laid-back and eager-to-please her high-strung hosts. Then Vidal vanishes, leaving behind for his replacement the question why he would cast a Chinese woman to play a French icon, not to mention rushes that can only be called "an interesting approach" to the material.

Irma Vep was released at a time when France's cinematic exports were indeed pretty banal, and filmmakers like Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin were only beginning to spice things up. (I'm looking forward to seeing the former's latest, the acclaimed Summer Hours.) Looking at it today, the film seems a charming trifle -- a far cry from Stephanie Zacharek's glowing review (one of her joyfully embarrassing orgasmic reveries which you envision she wrote while collapsed on her bed inhaling a cigarette, like Pauline Kael following a dark rendezvous with De Palma). As with its companion piece from the mid-90s, Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, Irma Vep is swift and slight. Yet Assayas achieves Kar-Wai's dreamy romanticism only through the burgeoning friendship between Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard, who plays Zoe, the blonde bohemian costume designer for the film-within-the-film. Zoe develops a sweet crush on Maggie, who is surprised, flattered, and possibly a little curious. (One nifty sequence, which may or may not be a dream, depicts Cheung's attempt to steal jewelry from a naked woman in a hotel room.) Maggie and Zoe share a pair of mesmerizing scenes traveling through Paris after dark, radiant fusions of music and image that leave you floating on air.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Better Than Armond White List 2009

(Image borrowed from The Reasonal.)

It's here! Every year, like the coming of robins, Armond White, film critic/contrarian extraordinaire for the New York Press, unleashes his "Better-Than List," a thunderous bolt from the blue that blasts our assumptions about the year in cinema straight to Valhalla; making comparisons that we never thought existed (what do Coraline: Based on the Book 'Coraline' by Neil Gaiman, and Precious have in common? Go find out!); in sum, providing an invaluable public service by showing us How Wrong We Were.

Still, Armond may have done his job too well, as he got my befuddled mind to thinking contrary to what he intended: Who's better than you, Armond? Lots of folks, as it turns out, this year and every year, including plenty in his despised blogosphere. The following, then, is my first annual "Better Than Armond White" list of comparative film criticism. To put a spin on a Bond theme: Somebody does it better....

Steven Santos's review of Inglourious Basterds > Armond White's review of Inglourious Basterds. Steven's penetrating analysis of Tarantino as a "cinematic sampler" is the most insightful critique I've read about Basterds (which I adore). Armond's review is predictably negative, facile droning that includes identifying Jacky Ido rather than Samuel L. Jackson as the movie's narrator. (Left uncorrected, of course.) 

Stephanie Zacharek's review of Up > Armond White's review of Up. Not pretending to speak for anyone but herself, Zacharek offers a personal reaction about why Pixar's universally celebrated films seem wanting. White starts off strong by nailing the collusion between criticism and "Hollywood capitalism" only to descend into slick, incoherent hipsterism. (Up is a "ripoff" of The Red Balloon how exactly -- because it has balloons in it?)

Jason Bellamy's review of Precious > Armond White's review of Precious. Jason digs deeply into the exploitative nature of what he calls the movie's "tabloid cinema." Armond approaches the same idea by blaming Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey for the film's hype, an interesting point dulled by bludgeoning repetition that culminates in an overreaching (to put it mildly) comparison between Precious and Birth of a Nation.

Dennis Cozzalio's review of The Blind Side > Armond White's review of The Blind Side. Dennis thoughtfully calls out critics on their assumptions with an illuminating against-the-grain take of an unexpected blockbuster at the receiving end of hostile reviews. Armond uses Bullock's movie as nothing more than an excuse to slam Precious again.

Hokahey's review of The Hurt Locker > Armond White's review of The Hurt Locker. Right off the bat, Hokahey explains his misgivings for The Hurt Locker while also acknowledging the movie's strengths. White's original review, deeming Bigelow's film great, occurred only weeks before a full-blown reversal ("The now-overrated Hurt Locker") that he has since repeated ad nauseam, pretending that it was his view from the start. Armond, why do you hate America? 

David Edelstein's review of Police, Adjective > Armond White's review of Police, Adjective. Edelstein's isn't a review so much an uproarious suggestion for using the artsy Rumanian film as a practical joke, yet it's enough to illuminate his opinion that the film is rank. White's pan, of course, is less about the movie than about his own delusions of grandeur as a crusading anti-movie-fascist. 

Fernando Croce's review of Watchmen > Armond White's review of Watchmen. Fernando's measured negative analysis has more clarity than anything in Armond's embarrassingly overblown Will-Zack Snyder-save-pop-culture treatise.

Edward Copeland's review of A Serious Man >Armond White's review of A Serious Man. Ed eloquently discusses how Joel and Ethan Coen weave the personal into their film. Armond's lack of empathy hampers his attempt to get inside the Coens' motives, falling back on lazy and irrelevant swipes at Judd Apatow. (What on earth does White think links them, you ask? Brace yourselves: All three are Jewish.)

Fox's review of Where the Wild Things Are > Armond White's review of Where the Wild Things Are. Fox's impassioned love for the movie evokes the childlike wonder that Spike Jonze was aiming for (and, in my view, didn't hit), trumping White's non-existent correlations with Spielberg and Altman.

Jim Emerson's review of Avatar > Armond White's review of Avatar. Jim's scathingly thorough pan opens the conversation to fans and foes of the film alike. As usual, the latter's tedious ramblings aren't interested in hearing any voice beyond his own. "Techno-exoticism"? Oh, Armond, you hipster!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Crapola Italiano (Nine)

There's a remarkable scene in There Will Be Blood where Daniel Plainview goes to a brothel and we are left with only a relentlessly tight close-up of Daniel Day-Lewis's face. Rob Marshall's new musical Nine begins with a splashy widescreen number featuring the film's ensemble of leading ladies, yet a similar close-up of his lead actor's visage would have been preferable to the clutter in the dark passing for choreography.

You know you're in for a stinker within those first five minutes, a grim epiphany that I'm sure dawned on even the vapid Oscar forecasters breathlessly pronouncing for months that Nine sight unseen was a sure-fire contender. Its pedigree is certainly impressive: a director with a Best Picture winner already to his credit; an actor with two statuettes on his mantle; and six actresses with wins as well. The cast gives it the old college try, but they're working against a few insurmountable flaws -- the songs are terrible, the staging abysmal, and most of them can't sing in the first place.    

Marshall overcame similar obstacles with Chicago, a film that's now derided for being as deep as a puddle, but one I still admire for its wit and energy and jaunty amorality (a tonic in early-aughts culture). The actors in that picture were having a blast -- Renee Zellwegger finally clogged up her tear-ducts and embraced her inner narcissist, Catherine Zeta-Jones her Jazz-Age hoofer, Queen Latifah her ripe sexiness, and Richard Gere his charm. The cinematography had a pasty quality, and some of the numbers were clumsily stitched together. But the editing as a whole helped move things along at quite a clip.

In contrast, Nine is sluggish and deadly dull. The scenes -- musical, comedic or dramatic -- have no oomph, and many of its master thespians look lost. Day-Lewis understandably wanted a break from heavy-lifting roles, but he's just coasting here. It's not a lazy performance: he empathizes with the character, a world-famous though creatively-blocked Italian filmmaker with the nearly unrhymeable name Guido Contini ("He drove a...Lamborghini"?); yet I suspect he was more committed to cobbling shoes during his sabbatical a few years back. As for the actresses, each playing a woman with a prominent role in Guido's life -- Marion Cotillard (estranged wife), Penelope Cruz (high-maintenance mistress), Nicole Kidman (unattainable muse), Kate Hudson (song-and-dance challenged journalist), Sophia Loren (mommy dearest), Stacy Ferguson (whore), and Judi Dench (M) -- the nicest thing to say is their flattering costumes make Nine the hilliest movie this side of Vertical Limit. As is often the case in her films, only Cotillard makes an impression. She broke out of Michael Mann's wax-museum Public Enemies to resemble a human being, and here she emerges from Marshall's dim lighting in the film's best (and most Chicagoesque) sequence, a striptease where Guido's button-down wife reveals her sexuality. It's as bad a song as the rest, but Cotillard lends it conviction.

Unfortunately, her director has none whatsoever. For a film set in vibrant 1960s Italy, adapted from a popular stage musical that was itself based on Fellini's 8 1/2Nine is an indoor movie ensconced in shadows. (As usual, Marshall has zero sense of mise-en-scene.) And evidently the sound designer thought that the best way to make the music tolerable was to amplify the volume: I came out Avatar 3-D without problems, but Nine left me with a splitting headache. Marshall must have known the material was rank and so relied on smoke and mirrors in a desperate attempt to slip it past us. Too bad this time he lacks the ol' razzle-dazzle.