Thursday, September 22, 2005

  • LOST (SEASON ONE) -- A+
  • Over the last five to ten years, one could make the case that the best films aren’t being made for the movie theaters, but for your television sets. The case is easy to make: just compare The Sopranos to Analyze This, The West Wing to The American President, and The Shield to Training Day. In each case, the television series is smarter, wittier, funnier, and more dramatic, not to mention better-acted. In short, they’re better in every way.

    Of course, a serialized television program has a large and unfair advantage over a theatrical feature. Characters and plotlines get to fester and grow out a natural speed; storytellers can actually take their time with characters, allowing their audience to be sucked into their lives and situations. The best television series hearken back to the serialized novels of Dickens or Hugo in complexity and punch.

    In a medium with so much excellent work, to me the standout of the 2004/2005 television season was Lost. And it’s not particularly close.

    You certainly know the premise by now, but to perform my due diligence: Lost focuses on a group of forty-some survivors of an ill-fated flight, stranded on a mysterious island that seems to be in the south Pacific. Each has some darkness in their past, some wrongs they’ve never gotten around to righting, and struggle to survive on an island full of mystery and – possibly – magic.

    When I made my purchase of the Lost Season One DVD two weeks and two days ago, the checkout clerk asked me if it was “like Survivor.” Um, nice try … it’s like Survivor if you crossed it with The Twilight Zone and maybe a little Twin Peaks. Thematically, it’s far richer than that amalgam suggests.

    Lost is about more than a group of flawed people struggling through trying circumstances. Though that is, of course, a big part of the show, that’s hardly enough to make it more than a thriller. The show adds to the mix a clash between faith and reason, a conflict that also underscores Alias, another product of Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams.

    Reason is represented by Dr. Jack Shepherd, played by Matthew Fox. A goody-two-shoes surgeon with some major daddy issues, Jack takes it upon himself to lead the ragtag group of survivors. Over the course of Season One, this brings him into a growing conflict with John Locke (the marvelous Terry O’Quinn, inexplicably robbed of an Emmy this past Sunday night), who believes that destiny has conspired to bring these survivors to the island. He firmly believes that there is something there for every survivor, and he has first-hand experience to support his claim.

    One of Lost’s more ingenious conceits is that each episode focuses on one character, intercutting the drama on the island with a story from that character’s past. These backstories seldom turn out well for their characters, often revealing their biggest failures and disappointments – their sins and omissions. (The only exceptions to the structure are the pilot and three-hour finale, which feature flashbacks to multiple characters.) Each character is in search of redemption or reconciliation, and their corresponding story on the island often (but not always) allows them an opportunity to right the wrongs of their past.

    It sounds heavy, like some pop consortium of Ingmar Bergman and Paul Schrader. But the subtext is buried in expertly-played generic elements, gripping suspense, and well-placed humor. The show walks the line between verisimilitude and fantasy, and continually sets up mysteries, resolving them one only to open up five more. This continual denial of satisfaction may prove frustrating to some viewers, but I couldn’t praise it more: Lost is about the journey of discovery, both for their characters and their audience. To betray that by just dumping canned explanations onto the viewers would negate the whole idea.

    The case is uniformly superb. Fox is actually one of the weak links, but a lot of it is his character (who was originally intended to die in the pilot), whose overdone earnestness reminds me of the on-field antics of Derek Jeter. Evangeline Lilly provides sensitivity as Kate, Dominic Monaghan and Jorge Garcia are an unbeatable comic duo, and Josh Holloway’s roguish “Sawyer” is one of the more subtly complex characters on television. (The DVD features audition footage for several of the actors, including Fox, Monaghan, and Garcia reading for the role of Sawyer. Though each is a good actor, it’s not until you see them fail at this that you realize how specific and difficult the threatening charm of that character is to pull of.)

    There are several others, but there’s no point in inserting a laundry list here. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fine work of frequent guest star John Terry, who plays Jack’s father in his flashbacks.

    Another great thing about the show is that any episode can function as a medical drama, a comedy, a thriller, a supernatural mystery, or an action tale – or some combination of everything. The mysteries of the island and the flashback structure allow the writers to tell any story they can dream of; they are not limited by the physical constraints of a bunch of people stranded on an island. This also allows the various recurrent themes – redemption, conflicts between children and fathers (father issues play into nearly every backstory on some level, and may yet for characters whose histories are currently incomplete) – to play out in different arenas, revealing the bonds that tie this disparate collection of characters together (bonds often unknown to the characters themselves).

    The Season Two premiere gave a literal answer to one of the key questions of Season One, but of course did so in such a way that many more questions are raised. Though the episode itself wasn’t spectacular by the high standards of the show, this question-raising is exactly as it should be. It’s not the answers that matter – it’s the questions asked and how we go after the answers. That’s Lost’s vision of life, as well as its vision of television drama. The things a masterpiece; now they just have to keep it up.

    Sunday, August 07, 2005

  • 2046 (A+)
  • BROKEN FLOWERS (A)
  • It is difficult to imagine two styles more dissimilair than Wong Kar-Wai's and Jim Jarmusch's; though both arthouse darlings and amongst the most consistently fascinating filmmakers working today, they seem to come from different universes. Wong's world is one of intense romanticism and eroticism that knows that the erotic is impossible without knowledge of death and loss. Jarmusch is our foremost minimalist, disguising his characters' emotions with irony and deadpan.

    Yet somehow it seems fitting that both of these directors have given us films about trying to deal with the past, and the consequences of lost love.

    Wong's 2046 is a sequel to his 2000 In the Mood for Love, though knowledge of that film is not a prerequisite for viewing this one. In the Mood for Love tells the tale of an unconsummated love affair between Chow (Tony Leung Chu-Wai, one of Hong Kong's hugest stars) and his neighbor, Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung, also a tremendous star) in 1960s Hong Kong. When Chow and Su discover that their spouses are cheating on them with each other, they begin meeting on their own and eventually fall in love, but keep their desires to themselves out of their own decency and the ethics of their time. The film ends with the lovers separated, both from each other and their now former spouses; Chow, in accordance with ancient custom, whispers the secret of his love into a hole as to bury it.

    It is that final image that kicks off 2046, though its setting has been transferred from the scenic temples of Cambodia to a colorful and mysterious future. Soon enough, we discover that these futuristic images come from a titular science fiction novel written by protagonist Chow. In Chow's conception, "2046" is both a place and a year; it's where people to go reclaim lost memories, a place where nothing changes.

    "The place where nothing changes" is the thematic underpinning of the film. Originally conceived as a science fiction feature, 2046 began its production in concert with In the Mood for Love, and got its title from the year that will be the last year of capitalism promised Hong Kong by China at the outset of its 1997 takeover -- the promise that "nothing will change" for fifty years. Intrigued by this premise, Wong kept it as an undercurrent to a complicated narrative intercutting Chow's science fiction parables with his affairs with a bevy of Hong Kong beauties.

    For Chow, who in Love was the consummate gentleman, has been so jaded by his lost love for Su Lizhen that he has become a callous ladies' man. The objects of his affection are depicted a Who's Who of Beautiful and Talented Actresses, including Faye Wong, Gong Li, and Ziyi Zhang (with another small, but notable, part played by Carina Lau, revisiting the character she played in Wong's Days of Being Wild). Chow's interplays with these very different women in consistently fascinating and entertaining ways, allowing the contrasts between them -- and his idealized view of his lost love -- to shine.

    Chow gradually comes to realize that his superficial romances are all attempts to re-create his love for Su Lizhen; Faye Wong's character shares Su's interest in Chow's writing, Gong Li's character shares a name with Su, and Ziyi Zhang's delivers on the sexual promise Su denied. The implications of this are moving, and when the Chow of 2046 is compared to the Chow of Love, tragic.

    As always, Wong's visual style is ravishing, and his use of music is unparelleled in contemporary cinema. The result is an immersive experience that demonstrates movies at their best.

    ***

    Whereas 2046's protagonist is trying to escape his past, Broken Flowers' is trying to find his. Bill Murray's Don Johnston plays a one-time Lothario who receives an anonymous letter informing him that he fathered a son twenty years prior. At the urging and planning of his amateur detective Ethiopan neighbor (a delightful turn by Jeffrey Wright), Johnston goes on a journey to visit the women he knew once upon a time so as to discover the truth.

    If Wong's baroque stylings are the embodiment of his main character's view of the world, Jarmusch's understated deadpan provide the same service for his. Murray can do more with nothing than most actors can dream, and as the absurd, funny, and sad events he witnesses reflect off his barely scrutable expressions, we are sucked into a worldview that matches his own.

    Which isn't to say that Murray does nothing while a bunch of goofy things happen around him. He plays a character who doesn't do "nothing" so much as he does "anti-things"; when his girlfriend (Julie Delpy) leaves him at the onset of the film, he barely protests and simply lies down on his couch. Don Johnston is a man that has been curling up and hiding from responsibility for his whole life, and Broken Flowers is about his gradual journey toward caring.

    Murray is assisted along the way with a number of spot-on performances from the prospective mothers (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton) and the others he encounters (most notably Alexis Dziena as a Lolita-type named, um, Lolita). Like most Jarmusch, the emotion isn't in your face, and builds up slowly under your skin until an ending both unexpected, unsatisfying, and completely right. This might allow the mainstream to take note of Jarmusch, notice that is well overdue.

    Monday, August 01, 2005

  • CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: MODEL SHOP (1969) (B+)
  • Every now and then there is a movie you cannot defend, but that you enjoy anyway. We term these Guilty Pleasures, and they usually comprise movies heavy on action, violence, or sex, or movies so bad that you spend the whole time you’re watching crying from laughter.

    But another category of Guilty Pleasure is the Flawed Masterpiece, that film where you can see what its makers were attempting to do, but they didn’t quite make it there. If its strong points are sufficiently strong, one can forgive it its indiscretions, and latch on to motivation behind its problems.

    Model Shop doesn’t even qualify as a Flawed Masterpiece, but it’s in that neighborhood; perhaps it’s a Masterful Flaw. In a traditional sense, it’s indefensible: it’s indefensible as drama, as comedy, or as an insight into social dilemmas (all modes the film takes on at some point). Where it triumphs is in tragic romance – the specialty of writer/director Jacques Demy, but here infused with an even more extreme sense of loss and helplessness than in his other films.

    Demy, the romanticist of the French New Wave, burst onto the scene in 1960 with Lola. Made in homage to Max Ophuls and with knowledge of Sternberg, Lola contains an account of the titular showgirl, a single mother courted by an American sailor while she awaits the long-overdue return of Michel, her true love and child’s father. Conceived by Demy as a musical, but made straight by budgetary constraints, Lola still has the elements of a fairy tale and Hollywood romance, though mixed with some of the verite of the New Wave. It exists in a fantasy world where Love Conquers All, and the Showgirl With The Heart Of Gold can triumph.

    Lola’s success, as well as that of Le Baie des Anges, allowed Demy to finally create the musical of which he dreamed. He did it twice, with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in which every word is sung, and in The Young Girls of Rochefort, a conscious homage to and re-creation of the 1940s Hollywood musical. These are Demy’s masterworks, and in both love, longing, loss, and joy find glorious, colorful, and glamorous realization in Demy’s fantastic style.

    Model Shop was Demy’s foray into America and English-speaking films. Not only that, but it picks up the story of Lola, nine years later, now in the United States. Like Lola, the film is not a musical; it doesn’t gleam with Technicolor or glamour. Its focus is on a young drifter played by Gary Lockwood (the doomed astronaut Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Lockwood’s character, George, aspires to be an architect and “create” but spends most of his time doing nothing. As such, the film spends most of its time doing … nothing.

    That’s right: essentially, nothing happens for much of this film. George needs $100 to prevent his car from being repossessed, so he visits a friend to see if he can get a loan. He cannot, but he does spot and follow Lola. He then returns to the task of finding money, and finds a happy donor in a friend of his from an alleged rock band named Spirit (which contributed songs to the film).

    These scenes are infused with a Frenchman’s attempt to conjure the life of the confused American youth of the 1960s, but this “day in the life” approach contains a great deal of clunky references to contemporary social issues, as well as overly naturalistic (and anti-dramatic) dialogue.

    If one were to watch this film without having seen the opening credits, some of these passages would seem interminable. The film also seems to be unrecognizable as Demy, traditionally a stylist and a romantic, but who for much of this film is preoccupied with naturalism and realism. But Demy has built up credit with his previous films, so one sticks with it so as to divine just what the hell he’s up to.

    George and Lola first have a dialogue scene more than halfway through the film. It takes place in a bizarre setting that gives the film its title – a studio where paying customers photograph the working girls posing for fantasy photos (alone, it’s not a brothel). George spots Lola and follows her there; this is how the one-time showgirl makes her living in America.

    It turns out that Lola has fallen upon hard times after the romantic ecstasy that ended her own film nine years prior. Her love and husband, Michel, cheated on her and they are now divorced. She is broke, and her son lives (presumably in a boarding school) in France. Lola is simply trying to raise money to make her return to her home country.

    As such, Lola is repudiated. Lola herself is past romance, and denounces love. And as such Demy’s film is about as romantic –in style – as an instruction manual for a handsaw. But this is Demy’s game: he so beats you down with the mundane that the romantic, when finally introduced, takes on an epic proportion.

    For George, an aimless drifter who halfway through the film receives his draft notice, finally finds something to live for in Lola. I don’t want to go into the specifics of the ending, but suffice to say that Demy’s penchant for portraying heartbreak survives his move to the United States intact. But where in his other films Demy couches the heartbreak in bittersweet endings (in Rochefort, two central characters are united not only off-screen, but after the movie is over), here we are left with nothing but loss, and the notion that though love and happiness are impossible, they are still worth trying for.

    It is easy to see why Model Shop lacks the reputation of Demy’s other films; it simply doesn’t deserve it. What little plot it has is meandering, its conception of America comes across as reductive (even though much of it appears to have been shot on location), and Lockwood gives a strikingly uncharismatic lead performance. The tones of naturalism and romanticism can sometimes clash uncomfortably. And one can see how international filmgoers that fell in love with Lola reject the abysmal events that Demy has landed upon its heroine.

    But, to me, that is where the film is most moving, and despite its many flaws makes a real achievement. Credit is due, in large part, to Anouk Aimee, the charming actress that inhabits Lola. Anouk plays her aging and her despondency with touching sadness and knowledge, and imbues Lola with poignance as she surveys a young man who is just learned to become as romantic as she has learned not to be. Hers is the only complex performance in the film, and this version of Lola is possibly the most human and nuanced character in all of Demy’s spectacular fantasias. Whereas Lola brought us a vibrant young woman fun to watch, Model Shop portrays a sad, slightly older woman easy to love. Loving Lola is a pleasure, but I refuse to feel guilty about it.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2005

  • CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (A)
  • I am a fan of Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and screenwriter John August, but when the original teaser for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was released, I feared that these men had all, at long last, gone too far.

    That teaser, featuring about a minute-and-a-half of an obnoxious "Willy Wonka" song, interspersed with Depp uttering such pained phrases as "Eww" and "Wowie!", all frantically edited together, was a worrisome assault on the senses. Is this really the kind of movie these people could make? I comforted myself with the fact that Burton rarely delves into such freneticism; the extended trailer did a little bit to qualm my fears, but I certainly entered the movie with more than my fair share of trepidation.

    I am happy to report that the film itself bears no tonal relation to the original teaser, and contains all of the traits of Tim Burton’s best films: it is an earnest fairy tale filled with humor, adorned with splendid sets and costumes, a perfect musical score, and a cast ideal to realize the fantasies of Roald Dahl. Each of the apparently annoying Depp moments from the teaser, when played out in the context of the film, was not only acceptable, but usually pretty damn good.

    In fact, in a film brimming with color and delight, the most interesting thing may be Depp’s Wonka himself. Depp plays Wonka as an overgrown child, retarded in emotional development, but a savant of his chosen profession. Here is a Wonka that has grown obsessed with his craft, locked away in a world of perpetual prepubescence, isolated from familial relations, focused solely on sharing with the world the one pleasure of his youth: candy.

    August and Burton have added to Dahl’s tale a backstory for Wonka, which involves a tyrannical dentist father (Christopher Lee) who vows that his son will never be a candyman. This gives Wonka an arc that the book and previous film adaptation lacked, and is an ingenious set-up to the situation: seeking an heir for his chocolate empire, Wonka has to invite families into his domain, when children and family contain his bitterest memories. That Depp is able to play out this ambivalence in a comic role in such a fantasy world is a testament to both his talent and August’s fine adaptation and elaboration on the book. This added plot point, along with Depp’s chemistry with Freddie Highmore (playing Charlie), cultivated in Finding Neverland, lends the wacky tale a needed emotional resonance.

    As with all Burton features except for Ed Wood, Danny Elfman is on hand to give Burton’s visuals an appropriate aural accompaniment. In addition to his modes of goofiness and childhood awe, Elfman brings something more: each Oompa Loompa song is a musical parody, taking us from sixties psychedelia to eighties hair metal. Elfman himself, with the aid of some studio tweaking, voices the hordes of Oompa Loompas. Aside from being entertaining music, each number also give Burton a chance to stage a large musical sequence, which are filmed with verve and humor.

    One might ask, in a world with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and its own superb performance from Gene Wilder, if this film is necessary. Maybe not "necessary," but Charlie separates itself from Willy effectively, and the world is large enough for two different takes on what has become a classic children’s story (though this current film is probably inappropriate for children younger than about eight or so). And Burton’s film has the right combination of humor and emotion to remain a staple for years to come.

    Monday, July 25, 2005

  • THE ISLAND (C-)
  • BAD NEWS BEARS (B)

    The Island is a rare movie that chooses to be bad. Oh, I don’t mean that its incompetence is by design, such as appears to be the case in Starship Troopers. I mean that costly definitive decisions were made to dumb down an intriguing and ripe idea.

    Elements of that idea remain in the finished film. In the year 2019 (oddly, the same setting as Blade Runner, as though the filmmakers wanted to make sure everything about the The Island seemed inferior), a host of clones – including Lincoln (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan (Scarlet Johansson) – live in an antiseptic utopia, shielded from an Earth surface made inhabitable by "contamination." The only unaffected clime, apparently, is the titular Island, to which lucky clones are dispatched at the whims of an allegedly random lottery.

    By identifying our main characters as clones, I’ve already given most of the game away, though certainly most prospective moviegoers already know the premise: our heroes don’t live in a utopia at all, but in a harvesting farm for clones that are used as a repository of spare parts for their "sponsors" (i.e. the original humans from whom they were cloned) in the outside world. The Island is not an idyllic vacation spot, but a fictional creation to inspire acceptance on the part of the clone population when one of their own is removed and never seen again.

    The false utopia is an immaculately designed world of sci-fi white, filled with familiar elements from the hallmarks of the genre. The clones’ sexual desire is oppressed, and they are monitored by screens in their domiciles, in the vein of 1984. And Brave New World makes an appearance in The Island’s clones being educated by verbal suggestion during sleep cycles in their development. The visuals are reminiscent of George Lucas’ THX 1138, and the plot itself crosses Lucas’ film with Logan’s Run.

    Still, there is a lot of room here to deal with interesting questions. None of the above-referenced works concern themselves with clones; the closest we get are the bottle-baby civilization of Aldous Huxley. Asking what society owes the clones they create – are they truly human or not? – is a worthy cinematic topic.

    But not for Michael Bay, of course. Once our boy Lincoln, with the help of info supplied by a techie played by Steve Buscemi, gets clued in to the nefarious goings-on, the film shifts into an action borefest, where bigger is worse and dumber is more prevalent. Any good moments of Lincoln and Jordan interacting with a real world to which they're foreign and ignorant (the clones are only educated up to the mental age of a fifteen-year-old) are left behind by Bay’s bombast.

    Intriguing moral questions are brought up for both clones, but are easily dismissed, especially in the case of Jordan: her "sponsor" is in a coma after an accident and in need of immediate assistance. Jordan accidentally comes into contact with her sponsor’s son and is deeply moved by the experience. Perhaps you might think that would present an interesting moral dilemma for our hero – should she continue to fight for her survival, or give herself up to save this cute little moppet’s mother? And how would that conflict with her newfound feelings of the previously-banned emotion love that she's beginning to feel for McGregor's vivacious Lincoln?

    If you think that sort of conflict has potential, you may qualify as a dramatist, but you would not qualify as Michael Bay. The movie blows past this possibility into an overlong chase scene, only to bring us to another interesting confrontation, this time between Lincoln and his sponsor. McGregor does a fine job in the dual role, but he is betrayed by the plot, which leads us to yet another boring chase, climaxed by an absurd plot development that ignores one of the more salient established facts of the film's world – and happens to be a fact that has a large bearing on the denouement of the third act!

    By that time, you won’t care, bowled over by the frustration of seeing all the on-screen talent (in addition to the good-as-can-be-done work of McGregor, Johansson, and Buscemi, we are treated to a fine turn by Sean Bean and an underutilized one by Djimon Hounsou) and good plot ideas wasted. And it’s not only them – a great deal of rewrite work on the film was performed Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, a team that wrote some of the best episodes of Alias.

    I don’t blame them for the mess that resulted, as the poor plot developments come out of a need to try to justify the purported action scenes, which is clearly the realm and influence of director/executive producer Michael Bay. What Steven Spielberg was thinking when he recommended Caspian Tredwell-Owen’s almost certainly superior original screenplay to Bay is a mystery, and the result is needless disappointment.

    ***

    Speaking of needless, I’m not sure why Bad News Bears exists, aside from to excise the word "The" from its progenitor’s title. The film is amiable and funny, and there are more than a few belly laughs. But the film hews so close to the original that it impossible to disregard the fact that Billy Bob Thornton, good as he is, is no Walter Matthau, and that Sammi Kraft, no matter how well she can pitch in real life, is no Tatum O’Neal. It seems like Richard Linklater is just on the job to have fun and further fund his next arthouse darling.

    Well, the fun comes across, so job well-done. I’m just not sure why the job had to be done in the first place.

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