Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Dir. Wes Anderson

Viewed: In the Balcony

Sean likes broad horizons:

Three brothers learn to let go of their baggage after a journey through India in Wes Anderson's latest movie. While I cannot say this wasn't another enjoyable story told with some amazing camera work, I will stick by my guns and say I'd still like to see him stretch his storytelling muscle sometime in the near future. While Anderson seems content to focus on the lives of eccentric well-to-do family members coming to terms with each other -- learning to love or be loved -- he continues to impress with his OCD inspired sets, costumes and tracking shots.

There's nothing inherently wrong by defining your characters by what they wear, what they drink, what music they listen to. It's a shorthand that can work well as metaphor and speak to a deeper meaning, which is how Anderson uses it. At the same time, it would be nice to see a character (or a room) that seemed organic. Here we have three suit wearing brothers: Francis, wrapped in bandages (Owen Wilson); Peter, wears father's prescription sunglasses (Adrien Brody); Jack, funny mustache and a convenient iPod stereo good for seducing stewardesses or soundtracking a campfire scene.

The first half of the movie suffers most from Anderson's fetishes as we try to get to know the brothers as they reveal all their quirks, bicker and get themselves in trouble with the staff of the Darjeeling Limited -- the train that's taking them through India on a trip that's being obsessively scheduled and detailed by Francis (where'd they get that idea from?) as a means to a way to bring the brothers closer. It in these scene's on the train where the trio comes off as more self-absorbed and posturing than interesting and when the scenes of thoughtfulness are too quickly followed by slapstick or a mace fight. Like in The Royal Tenenbaums when someone thought, hey, wouldn't it be funny if when Danny Glover is opening his heart to Angelica Houston he falls in a hole? But there are more than a few very funny scenes in the first half that keep you happily going along.

I believe the line, "Hey, look at those assholes" is when the movie shifts gears and begins to honestly make gains to achieve what it set out for. It is in no way a smooth transition, though. The movie goes from 2nd to 5th gear without so much as a warning. Without giving too much away this scene also has the disadvantage of being the only badly shot scene in the whole movie as well -- but when all your characters are in the middle of a river I'm sure it ain't easy. From here on out we finally do start breaking the surface of these characters, which Anderson of course tells us by shedding the characters artifice. In the most powerful scene (possibly more so due to the events in Wilson's life) the three brothers are looking in the mirror; Peter is brushing his teeth, Jack is trimming his mustache and Francis unwraps his bandages much to Peter and Jack's shock. This scene is played without music, and this choice and his perfect use of a flashback scene to their father's funeral a year prior, show that Anderson's skills are taking some steps forward with this film. But the heavy reliance on old tricks -- can we put a one movie moratorium on cue the slow-mo, cue the Kinks? -- leads me to believe that Anderson is spinning the wheels a little bit.

Again, this is meant to be a positive review. There's other things I did and didn't like about the movie, but I came away enjoying it. Most good directors have their abundant fetishes. It's how tolerant you are as a viewer that allows you to accept or embrace them. Tarantino has a million of them -- you can't watch one of his movies any more without forcing you to spending a good five minutes of the movie staring at the bare feet of his leading ladies; I love the guy's movies. Woody Allen, until I think 1999, didn't make a movie that didn't have a neurotic New York Jewish guy or girl in it -- and having the story revolve around the protagonist longing after a woman half his age is a good portion of his filmography. But both these people in their first five or so movies made it abundantly clear that they were willing to play in whatever genre you threw at them, tweak that genre to do their biding, not let it change their style but let their style re-define the genre. And that's what great directors do, they grow. They reach and maybe they fall flat on their faces, but they can say they tried. Anderson is a very young director and I don't think he feels any rush to test himself (though the chilly reception Life Aquatic got may have scared him off a bit). I think he may just need to find that perfect writing partner that even the best of them need. The fact that he's directing an animated adaptation of a Roald Dahl book has me thinking he's interested in broadening his horizons.

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Padraic:

Interesting, I loved the first half of the movie. It was probably the funniest Anderson since Rushmore, and the chemistry between the three leads was fantastic; despite not looking a bit like one another, it is instantly believable that they have shared a lifetime of guilt, aggravation, and bitterness as brothers. From Francis's first arrival with three whiskeys, to all three brothers having stopped by the pharmacy prior to the train's departure, to Peter's refusal to acknowledge the power of Jack's story, the comedy is deeply rooted in a lifetime of sadness and frustration.

I think this kind of thing is basically ignored about Anderson, that as inorganic as his sets and characters might be, he instantly makes the interior of his world believable. In Life Aquatic, I believe that Owen Wilson is Bill Murray's lost son, or in Rushmore, I believe that a kid could put together an entire play that brings the entire community together. And it's basically because this appears so effortless that I think he doesn't get full credit. Maybe its me, but I feel less like I'm watching a film then when I'm watching Anderson than with some hand-held grimy camera work. For example, the cinematography in a movie like Children of Men doesn't create a sense of realism, but instead dissonance. Try as you might, you are always aware of the screen, and attempt to create a naturalism or realism end up as more alienating than something like Anderson's overdetermined sets. All the "tricks" of Anderson - the slo-mo, the colors, the music - bring me into his world rather than make it seem unreal.

I will admit that a great deal of my enjoyment from this movie was because Anderson stayed in the same territory, basically bringing back Dignon in all his tragic romanticism and frustration. He is probably my favorite character of all time, and I didn't mind seeing him again. What Dignon and Francis (and really, Wilson himself) signify is the great deal of pain behind Anderson's version of comedy. It can be argued that this sort of "woe-is-me" whining from a disaffected child of privilege is not real pain, or that we should want to hear about people with real, and not existential, struggles. But the absence of fathers and mothers is a painful thing (I suppose) in that demographic and the results (suicide) are every bit as real.

I think you can make the argument that there are more important things to worry about. What I do not think you can argue with is that if you approach the movie without preconceptions of what Anderson should be doing, and look at what he is doing, it is beautiful and funny stuff.

I do agree that the storytelling in the second half of the film marks an improvement in Anderson's narrative skills, incorporating a great (and well eluded to) flashback, as well as a poignant reference to the short film Hotel Chevalier which precedes the film. While I agree that transition was sharp between hilarious hi-jinks and serious tragedy, I do not find much wrong with this. It is in film, and not life, where comedy or lightness gradually is transformed into tragedy. In the real world, the horrible or disruptive things usually do occur abruptly. Hollywood and best-selling novels try to sell a world of foreshadowing and gradual transition through a narrative arc, but it's bullshit and had nothing to do with how we experience the world. I could sense in Darjeeling Limited an uneasiness in the crowd as several scenes seemed to be endings. But like in almost all of his films, Anderson incorporates a number of false or possible endings before finally ending the whole thing. In this, he would surely fail an introductory film class.

Basically, Darjeeling Limited will be another data point for both sides of the Anderson debate. From what I can tell, his movies are not blockbusters and he does not get much credit from critics, so it seems odd that there is an Anderson backlash afoot. This is a filmmaker who is 5 for 5 in making movies that almost everyone I know has seen and can discuss in detail. That is pretty good.


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Sean tucks another one into bed:

So you have no criticism for this movie whatsoever? It was perfect? Well, like I said, how tolerant you are of Anderson's fetishes goes a long way to how much you'll enjoy the movie. But also, it will be the deciding factor into how willing you'll be as a viewer to dig underneath the artifice to find the soul in Anderson's movies. While one person might find comfort in Anderson's continual use of the same techniques, the same themes, the same actors to deliver basically the same character, other people might find these things as limitations. I'm not saying I necessarily do, but I can understand that train of thought. I mean, people our age have been dressing up like Anderson characters for Halloween ever since Tenenbaums -- I think this is the type of stuff that causes a popular culture backlash. It can all get a little to precious and cutesy for the hardened cynics of our generation.

I must say though, I'm hardly ever more aware that I'm watching a movie than in Anderson-land. To me, this is not a bad thing. I enjoy scenes like the tracking shot through the different compartments of the train with all the characters together. I don't think Anderson has much use for realism -- Children of Men, a science fiction film, felt much more grounded in reality than Darjeeling. But anyway, I don't really find much use in comparing Children of Men to Darjeeling, (Is it just because both directors use elaborate tracking shots?) Most people who like Anderson (count me in) enjoy his movies because they exist in another world and because he has a unique, off-beat voice. I don't think anyone is out there trying to change his voice when we say we wouldn't mind seeing a movie that at least plays with some different themes. Or even if he wants to use the same themes, how about changing up the dynamic?

I'll keep watching his movies and most likely enjoying them all like I did with Darjeeling and the movies that preceded; but I think some people, perhaps wrongly, thought he might have grander ambitions. You're right -- who are we to say? We shouldn't judge him if he wants to stick with stories about estranged relatives. Like you said, his ability to quickly create meaningful relationships between his characters is clearly one of his best assets and is perfectly suited for this type of thing. When Angelica Houston says something to the effect of, let's not talk and just express ourselves in silence, well that could be the Anderson mantra since he does such things so well. But you know what, it would be great to see these skills he has perfected in a way we haven't already seen 5 times. I don't think it's wrong to want a director you admire to do something besides a satisfying retread of the same material he's more than proven he can handle many times over -- no matter how satisfying it may be.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Dir. - Sidney Lumet

Viewed: From the Balcony

Sean flies solo and keeps it short:

Sidney Lumet's an interesting director. Like Stephen Frears or Peter Weir his movies don't exactly have a signature to them besides good performances and well crafted scenes. You may be watching a Lumet movie and not even know it -- hell, looking back at his work there's a few in there that I'd forgotten were his. Basically, actors get praise for their work in his films more often than I think Lumet does. Network, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict and, one of my favorites, Running on Empty -- these are highly regarded movies remembered more for their performances or scripts than they are for the direction. Before the Devil Knows Your Dead isn't going to change that, but it will probably bring back some deserved attention to this craftsman who's been floundering a bit for the past, oh, two decades or so (and I happened to like Q&A).

BTDKYD is a great script delivered with wonderful performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, among others. But of course a great script and perfectly balanced performances don't come together on their own. In telling the story of two brothers who for their own separate reasons decide to rob their parents' "mom and pop" jewelry store, Lumet creates a perfect feeling of unremorseful disintegration. After a hilariously uncomfortable openeing shot involving a naked, sweaty Hoffman, we're thrown right into the botched heist. Like a Shakespeare tragedy, the downfall and destruction of an entire family hinges on bad, dumb luck. From this scene forward the movie stays a step ahead, giving us the characters motivations along the way by hopping back and forth between Hawke's sad-sack divorced dad, Hoffman's dead-end marriage to trophy-wife and oft topless Marisa Tomei (this may be Costanza's new favorite film), and the patriarch -- the brooding Albert Finney. The non-linear technique is well-used here and pulled off rather flawlessly by Lumet.

It's a treat watching Hawke, Hoffman, Finney and Tomei create these characters that can be at once reprehensible but never completely unsympathetic -- though Hoffman arguably takes the hardest fall and towards the end of the movie looses any of that possible sympathy in a series of unpredictable scenes that leads the movie to it's abrupt ending. If there's any criticism I can give this movie it is the way it wraps itself up. I of course can't give too much away but the movie really picks up steam as Hoffman spirals out of control only to sputter in its last couple of moments at the sake of leaving more than a couple of strings dangling in the wind. But 5 minutes doesn't ruin an otherwise flawless movie.

Lumet talks about why he's decided to switch to video:

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Errol Morris and Werner Herzog: A Conversation

Cultural life in Waltham Massachusetts is not quite what you find in Paris, New York, or even Boston, so it was a major event last Tuesday when Werner Herzog and Erroll Morris came to the Brandeis campus to have an informal discussion for 90 minutes in front of a packed auditorium.

The event, sponsored by the Film Studies program, was due to the tireless efforts of the wonderful and amazing Film Studies chair Alice Kelikian, who has brought her friend Morris to campus several times.

The initial plan was to have a question and answer period, but an hour into the first "answer" to Professor Kelikian's first question, it became pretty clear that it would be better to have these two just talk to each other and riff on various subjects, including the state of Hollywood (bad), the distinction between documentaries and feature films (very little), and the origins of the twenty minute short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

Since the shoe incident has become something of a legend, I'll report that according to both, Herzog's famous declaration - he said he would eat his shoe if Morris could make his Gates of Heaven, his first film about pet cemeteries - was not an indication of Herzog's skepticism, but an only an added incentive to the younger filmmaker. However, Morris said he believed that Herzog knew he would get Gates of Heaven made, and just wanted an excuse to eat his shoe.

This may not sound as fanciful as it sounds, as Herzog was quite philosophical in what it means to eat a shoe. "I find it to be an entirely manly act," Herzog said. "I could not imagine a woman doing it. To me, to eat a shoe is a way of showing how I am not a woman."

This quote, which closed the discussion with a roar of laughter, was just one highlight from the show. It's pretty amazing that two people could basically just talk for an hour and a half and completely capture the crowd (save for a few undergrads who had been dragooned into the show and sent texts or played video games during the talk). What really came across was the deep affinity that each had for the others' work, odd considering the different paths the directors have taken. Herzog, of course, has always churned out features and documentaries at a frantic pace, always looking for the next challenge, and the next crazy adventurer. Morris, however, tends to make smaller and more personal films, which lack the fluidity and openness of Herzog. I wouldn't say Morris is exactly stylized, but it's much easier I think to point to a "Morris" cut or shot than a "Herzog" cut.

Where the directors agree, however, is that the state of cinema is currently polarized, with big-budget, formulaic Hollywood on one end, and pretentious, navel-gazing avant-garde on the other. Between these two, Morris said, there is "a huge middle ground" where he believes great films can be made. It's hard to argue with him, as the kind of work Morris and Herzog do is notable in that it seems so much unlike anything else.

Herzog has spent most of his energy on rejecting the avant-garde, specifically Cinema Verité, a subject he has mined before. In his search for what he calls "ecstatic truth," he searches for the odd, the different and the insane. As Morris said of Herzog's most famous collaborator, "Klaus Kinski was not an actor in any sense; he was a genuine crazy person in front of a camera."

It may also be said of Herzog that he is a genuine crazy person behind the camera. One story, which lasted a good 30 minutes, concerned a trip Herzog took from Alaska to Plainfiled, Wisconsin to investigate the case of Ed Gein, the serial killer who used the skin of his victims to make furniture and was the basis for the novel Psycho and the Hitchcock film. Morris, who was already in Wisconsin, had discovered that Gein had dug up the graves of ten people in a circle around his mother's grave. Psychiatrists had said he could not have dug up his own mother's grave because of the trauma, but Herzog and Morris were not so sure.

The plan, at least in Herzog's head, was to meet up in the cemetery with shovels and see if Gein had made tunnels from the adjoining graves into his mother's. On the appointed night after Herzog arrived, Morris chickened out, assuming that Herzog could not have been serious. In the end, Morris interviewed Gein but never completed a film or book. Herzog, however, "stole" the Plainfield location for his movie Stroszek (incidentally, the movie Ian Curtis watched just before his suicide).

Morris explained his hesitancy, saying that "it would have been my family's worst nightmare, to see me lead off in handcuffs with a German."

Herzog agreed, explaining that Plainsfield was was a town where "people are not hesitant to open fire."

Sometime after that, Morris told a sick, but funny, joke about Gein's furniture covers. It was a great afternoon.

Fun stuff with Herzog here:

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The White Noise

(A Couple of Forgotten Things About the New TV)

I forgot to mention a couple of shows that eat up some good quality time during the week.

Pushing Daisies

The combination of Barry Sonnenfeld and Bryan Fuller is a pretty safe bet. Both guys have been behind some of the better short-lived tv shows over the past decade or so -- Fuller with the amazing "The Amazing Screw-On Head" pilot, the wonderful (sorry) "Wonderfalls" and the, uh, very likable "Dead Like Me" (excellent first season, so-so second after he split ways with the show); Sonnenfeld with the live action "The Tick" (a lot better than you'd think) and the too batshit crazy for 1998 tv "Maximum Bob", not to mention his work with the Coen Brothers. "Pushing Daisies", like all the other shows I mentioned is firmly rooted in it's own world. A world where morgues are painted candy striped, pie shops can be built in the shape of a pie, cars can run on dandelions and a guy can bring back the dead with mere physical contact. Lee Pace, our protagonist with the Lazarus touch, wouldn't be my first choice for a lead in tv or movies (I always thought he was a bit bland in Wonderfalls), but his weird aw-shucks charminess works in this environment. The larger story in these first few episodes is his desire to keep the childhood sweetheart that he brought back to life happy despite the fact that he knows someone else had to die for her to stay alive. Pace handles the cheerfulness and the wears the guilt well when it's forced upon him. The co-stars are all well cast in their roles too -- I don't know if I'd like this show nearly as much without Chi McBride.

How I Met Your Mother

I've said it before, I don't believe in "guilty pleasures". If I enjoy something then it probably has some merit, some redeeming value somewhere -- therefore I don't feel there should be any guilt involved. I have enough guilt stemming from other aspects in my life, that feeling need not seep into my entertainment. Anyway, HIMYM is one of the last good muti-camera sitcoms out there (shot on a stage, audience laughter sprinkled throughout). When it first appeared it was declared nothing more than something to fill in the vacancy left in some folks hearts when "Friends" went off the air. Oh, but this is a much much better show than "Friends" ever was and has enough contagious chemistry between the actors to rival even that show. Now in its 3rd season HIMYM is still one of the more reliable and better written comedies on free tv. While the writers this season still haven't figured out what exactly to do with Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) besides having him be the sleazy quotable catch phrase machine, but over the past two years they've created an impressive continuity that is rewarding and packs the shows with in-jokes and gives each season an actual story arc. I suppose I'd watch anything that had both Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel in it (which was the excuse at the beginning) but even the main guy (Josh Radnor), who I used to hate for getting in the way of the other actors, is ok in my book these days.

The Sarah Silverman Show

This is another show, like "30 Rock", that is suffering from the greatness of its first season. It has still sprinkled in some jaw dropping laughs here and there throughout the first few episodes this season but some of that magic is missing. Where an episode would suddenly break off from it's own world for a couple minutes to indulge in an animated song about a cough syrup high, turn an accidental poop into a bad music video, or break into a heavily stylized kung-fu fight with a homeless Zach Galifianakis. The abortion episode a couple weeks ago was pretty great now that I think about it. And, of course, the only reason I have these minor disappointments say these things because you have to compare it to the previous episodes.

30 Rock

Speaking of "30 Rock", I still don't know what's going on here. These haven't been bad episodes, but the show's definitely lost it's way a bit. I think a lot of people are ready for the whole "fat Jenna" story to go away. Did anyone think this was going be a multiple episode story line? How many more jokes do they think they can squeeze out of this -- it's gotten downright painful. I have this theory that NBC swooped in during the off season and said, "Our data shows that people only want to see five characters during an episode (also we don't want to pay all these other bit actors so much) so keep Pete, Frank, Toofer -- you know, Liz's humorous relationship with her writers -- let's axe that whole angle." Whatever the reason, this season's wobbling along when it should be taking it's Best Comedy Emmy and rocking socks off to pick up some viewers. I wouldn't blame someone right now if they tuned in to see what the fuss was about and say, meh.

The World Series: A Season in Heaven

Or, being Padraic's attempt to care about baseball after the Phillies' ignominious exit.

Over the past two days, there have been numerous attempts by the nation's sportswriters to "break down" the World Series, some better than others. You will see statistical analysis in places like Baseball Prospectus or The Hardball Times, or sportswriters debating the value of momentum for the Rockies, who come in having won 21 of 22 games, including a 3-game sweep of RFC's co-favorite team. However, no matter the angle, all of these stories share a fundamental (not a pun yet, but soon to be) misconception about how and why baseball games are won; they all believe the players will determine the outcome. But like the Trojans and Achaeans of old, whose fortunes rested on the whims of Ares, Hera, and Zeus, the Red Sox and Rockies players can only hope to win the favor of God(s), and no matter the effort put forth on the field, the results will be determined from above.

Sound silly? Not if you are Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, who in 2006 claimed that God favored the Rockies:

"You look at things that have happened to us this year," O'Dowd says. "You look at some of the moves we made and didn't make. You look at some of the games we're winning. Those aren't just a coincidence. God has definitely had a hand in this."

This quote comes from a USA Today article that explained the Rockies' preference for high character players. While denying that they only recruit Christians, the team brass (the manager, general manager and owner are all born-again Christians) also said that they believed their faith helped in creating the kind of character the Rockies look for.

So, clearly the Rockies win, right? Ah, but some might say that God has already declared his favorite team, and that the 2004 Red Sox championship was orchestrated by God. Everyone who saw the post-game conference after Game 4 surely remembers Curt Schilling thanking God for the win. So it's the Sox, right?

At this point, I could end the piece with more sarcasm, but while the Schilling and O'Dowd quotes may sound similar, they are actually quite different. I think most people find it silly when athletes have the hubris to believe God is involved in things like their hitting the cut-off man, or avoiding the weak-side rush, or caroming in some crazy three-quarter court shot, and this is exactly what O'Dowd is saying. He believes that his faith in the Christian God not only makes him stronger, but that God himself is intervening in the outcomes in the form of what we would normally call "coincidences," or luck.

Unfortunately, O'Dowd's version of thanking the good lord or Jesus tends to be all that we think of when athletes mix religion and sports. However, Schilling's response was much different in tone, if not language. I cannot find the transcript from his press conference, but I distinctly remember him thanking God not for winning, or for adding extra bite to his splitter, but for the strength to allow him to pitch. In Schilling's world, God doesn't intervene in the games, but He does provide Schilling with strength to allow him to dedicate himself to the very difficult task of retiring major league hitters. And it's not even that God just sort of imbues Curt with strength Apollo-style, but that Curt's unwavering faith in God is what gives him strength. In O'Dowds world, if God didn't exist, his team would lose his edge, but for Schilling, it's the faith that is more important than the actual ontological status of God.

I would like to think that most athletes and GMs mean what Schilling means when he "thanks God," but I doubt it. The egos have been stroked long enough, that having God as your own personal 12th man seems as much a right as free meals at restaurants, discounts on cars, or private booths at the local Gentleman's Club. So, if there is a God (a big if to be sure), I sure as heck hope He is Schilling's God who basically stays out of the way of baseball, and not the Greco-Roman God that meddles with everything and allows Matt Holiday to be called safe without touching home plate. No less than the state and temper of our supreme deity may be on the line over the next ten days; try beating that Super Bowl.

And I guess since this is a "preview," I should give a prediction: Hands-off God over intrusive purple- and Coors-loving God in 6.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Passenger (The Lost Review or, How Sean Flipped His Shit)

[This review is not intended for mature audiences.]

Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni

Viewed: On the Couch

Sean says:

In keeping with our visitations to recently re-released classics, let's take a look at Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (don't know why they didn't keep the "Professione: reporter" title, usually in these situations the international title is the more literal one, not the other way around), which I imagine may be the best movie of his to start a neophyte on. I suspect there might be more that a few who have embarked on long delayed adventures into Antonioni and Bergman territory since the recent departure of those two iconic filmmakers.

The Passenger starts out with our main man Jack Nicholson (already 37 years old and fresh off of the Chinatown shoot) as John Locke, a man experiencing the end of his profession as a reporter making films for a BBC news type outfit -- though we don't really know this yet. The film is a series of questions with answers that reveal themselves in bits and pieces as the story goes on. What is this guy doing out in the middle of a desert in Africa? is the first question you'll find yourself asking. But really, it's best not to ask and just let the movie wash over you. Your patience will be rewarded.

John Locke fails out there in the desert and from the looks of it, this might have been the last straw. He screams to the sky that he gives up, just doesn't care anymore. As he drags himself back to his sweaty hotel room you can tell that he wants nothing to do with the life that's led him to this moment. But what can he do besides wash off the dirt? He goes to ask his neighbor Robertson for some soap -- but Robertson has something better than soap, he has a way out -- Robertson is dead, and it looks like natural causes. And wouldn't you know it that upon first glance, Robertson might even look a bit like Locke, at least to the hotel staff anyway. So Locke takes the leap and as he puts it, "trades up" as Robertson, the "business man".

After he successfully convinces the African authorities to pronounce John Locke dead, we follow this Locke/Robertson as he figures out exactly what his new life is all about during which we also figure out what Locke's old life was all about. The transitions are handled masterfully. When a new scene begins we're never sure exactly where in the timeline we are. Nicholson, in a very worthwhile, conversational style commentary track on the DVD, describes Antonioni's style as New Mystery -- a variation on France's New Wave. In one of my favorite transitions, we think that we're dealing with a flashback only to have the camera pull back and reveal that we're in the present looking at footage Locke had shot on one of his old, especially poignant, interviews alongside Locke's ex-wife and old colleagues. His old life is being combed through which results in his ex-wife and former boss to come looking for this Robertson to see if he can shed any light on Locke's death. With the help of the always curious Maria Schneider, in a role that may in fact be the prototypical manic-pixie-dream-girl, Locke/Robertson is able to keep one step ahead of his past.

All of this results in a beautifully photographed and acted meditation on what could casually be called the meaning of life. More specifically we're talking about identity, fate, duality and how we try to define ourselves vs. how others define us. It actually reminded me of how well, despite what Padraic thinks, these same themes were also dealt with in The Fountain which then simply made me marvel at the malleability of cinema. Stylistically, these two movies couldn't be more different. But both are personal takes on what it is we're supposed to be doing with the time we have. Are we simply part of an infinite cycle? Are we merely a passenger or are we in control? Can we help but have it be anything but our relationships that end up defining our lives?

The Passenger mulls over these questions while picking over small moments of what leads a man to change his identity and how that decision effects the rest of his life. But we never really get that close to him. This was a common choice made in films from the 70's. Nowadays, even if you're Michael Myers you need to have a very specific answer as to what makes you tick and any kind of mystery stripped away. But these answers don't necessarily make your character any more interesting or identifiable. You could look at Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle as one of the more interesting characters from 1970's and notice that we never really got that close to this guy. We got bits and pieces of his history but he was already unstable when we first meet him. There's a mystery and today's filmmakers would be wise to notice that this mystery can lead to better stories and more memorable characters. It allows the viewer to invest more of themselves into the story and in especially great movies like this it can make the whole experience more personal and memorable.

I hand the wheel over to Padraic:

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Better stories and more memorable characters? Who wants that?

A few weeks ago, you were trying to turn one of the masters of story and character (Wes Anderson) into an action director!

Yes, The Passenger is a very welcome break from the formulaic arc that is a part of most movies today. I was speaking with a Film History professor the other day and he said that in most Hollywood movies, you can pick out when the major breaks will happen to within seconds. Like this creepy product, Hollywood movies are simply well engineered consumer products, little different from Swiffer mops or storage bins: they give people what they think they want, and they cost money. There are a few independent directors out there, but even most of the movies from the studio's independent divisions follow this path.

It's amazing to think that The Passenger was not some art-house flick showing in the Village, but an actual real MGM production, with a bona fide superstar in the lead role. Nicholson here has to suppress most of his charm, but he is still good as the elusive Locke.

I really like your idea Sean as the movie as metaphor for life as a passenger. Locke, by giving up control, frees himself from not only responsibility to other people, but for determining his life's course. Instead, it is the international arms market that controls his movement, and what had only been an abstract world of hate and violence becomes the guiding force (if not principle) for his life. I think the addition of the wild underground makes it superior to a lot of "drop-out" films Time Out or Into the Wild, and more similar to the novels of Paul Auster.

If there is one flaw in the film, it is in the writing. While there is not much dialogue, there is a painfully written scene late in the movie where Locke and "The Girl" are on the bed, discussing life. Locke tells a tragic story of his friend that is so overwrought with obvious symbolism that you wish it would have been cut from the film. It is something I think would have been perfect if written in a novel, but feels forced. Fortunately, after this scene we are treated to a masterful long take that surely must be one of the great shots in history. The slow framing of the bars, the elusive Girl, and the obstructed view of the action all capture the layered meanings of the movie: the impossibility of control, the freedom in loss, and ultimately, the impossibility of complete freedom in life. It may be a cultural stereotype to say that an Italian director like Antinoini films like a painter, but the intricate composition and the way he lingers over a shot make it an obvious comparison.

Just a beautiful film.

=============================================

Sean wraps up another winner!

Is there some language barrier here? Can we go one review without you painfully misquoting me? What's with the Wes Anderson remark? What the fuck does it have to do with this movie? Is your hard-on for him that bad that you have to bring him up without provocation? I said, as a remark after watching the trailer for The Darjeeling Limited, "I'd love to see Wes do something at least a little different than this. He seems to love picking at quirky families with issues. I wish he actually was working on some international thriller with bayonet tipped revolvers." Am I saying I want him to turn into an "action director". Fuck no. "At least a little different" I said. Lord almighty.

And what's with the sarcasm? Do you feel the need to antagonize me because we're in agreement the majority of the time? Mercy! Uncle! How many Hollywood movies is it going to take before you drop the cliches? Your precious Anderson swims in the same fucking water as the rest of them. Oh Mangold's the exception, oh Nolan's the exception, oh Kurt Russell is the exception! You know what -- it's either a good movie or it isn't. How about we stick to what makes it a good movie and what doesn't -- you know, the story, the acting, the directing, the photography, etc. Who gives two flying monkey fucks what studio it came out of? Do you even know how a production company works? MGM released Antonioni, Kubrick, Peckinpah, Polanski... Drop the goddamn pretense and bullshit. You know who produced Bottle Rocket? The same fucking guy who produced The Simpson's Movie. Get over it. Summer's over. You can start your lame broken record bitchfest rolling again in 9 months.

In the meantime, can we just get down to business and take movies/tv/whathaveyou to task for their lack of merits and not because of their pedigree? Can we not pass judgement on things we haven't seen and dial down the hot air being let out in here? It's making me irritable.


I'll leave this bitch of a review with a recent quote taken from a hell of a good film critic -- he's answering a different question than the one you pose Paddy, but I think there's a whole lotta wisdom for you in this statement:

What you don’t want to do is become one of those willfully ignorant movie buffs who becomes convinced that film art has been perfected in the last ten years or so and that everything that came before was just a trial run, not worth studying in and of itself. That’s such a shallow, arrogant, wasteful way to approach art. It’s basically saying, “Since I only want to see what’s familiar and immediately enjoyable to me, yet I still want to think of myself as a person of taste and intelligence, I have to find some way to assert that the things that I already like are the best, and the things I don’t want to deal with are inferior.” Brian, you seen smart and well-meaning… please, don’t be that guy.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Reviews of the New Old TV

(and a recap on the new new)

House

Fuck Kumar. The guy has Derek Jeter disease; (to paraphrase a friend) every time I see his face it needs punching. Not to mention Harold & Kumar sucked and that trailer for the sequel has scabies all over it. Oh, so yeah, Kal Penn has showed up in this new season of House. In fact a lot of shitty actors have showed up -- some good, but for some reason as House whittles down the members of his new team he seems adamant about choosing the most annoying. I'm holding out for the old guy with the Alan Arkin impersonation but dear lord do I miss House's old team. Thankfully, they kind of showed up in the second episode this season. My loyalties to House tend to waver at some point during every season but it's starting early this year.

Heroes

Even though I officially gave up on you last year, Heroes, I tuned in for the first episode of this, your second season, to see if you might be able to drag me back in so that I might be able to watch Kristen Bell in a TV show this year. Instead you made me feel like the biggest sucker in the world for falling into your ploy. What a sack of cheap-ass recycled cliches and ham-fisted plot points to shove down a bunch of gaping maws who seemingly are only too pleased to be served up this cold, joyless tripe. Unoriginal, poorly scripted junk.

The Office

Stop it with the one hour episodes. Please. I think there's good to be had for you, NBC, in doing the extended material on your website after the 30 minute episode is over. Anyway, you're still great, American Office. Cutting the fat would be preferable, and though you dipped into a bit of unfunny with that whole car in the lake thing on the second episode, I feel you'll bounce back fine.

[Sorry, no more talking to the shows from here on out.]

30 Rock

Not as weak an opener as House but the first episode featured an unusual amount of jokes that fell flat. I know it's gotta be hard to debut your second season when you're coming off a first year being the best half-hour comedy on TV... I'm nit picking, though, you still offered up more laughs in 30 minutes than any other show on tv. Seinfeld's gotten a bit rusty with the acting since his show went off the air, eh? It's like he's reset himself to the skills he possessed in his first season (shudder). Good to see Alec is still game though even if he'd rather be somewhere else. Maybe he's just happy 30 Rock isn't a certified hit and NBC is making them do one hour shows every week to make up for a lack of programing.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent

The first four or five seasons of this show (before they brought back the Noth) were some of the best tv to have Law & Order in it's title. But the past few years have seen it's creator and long time head writer leave and it's been hurting ever since. Last year it even got all CSI in it's cinematography. But I can't quit my Goran and Eames. This first one of it's new life on the USA cable channel wasn't that great, but it wasn't that bad either. In fact there was a little more life in the show than I remembered seeing last season (as well as a few more pounds on D'Onofrio).

Supernatural

Did you know the second season of this show was pretty damn rockin'? If you were a fan of the X-Files, or even Buffy, you might enjoy playing some catch-up with this one. It doesn't take itself too seriously and has built up some good three-dimensional characters worth hanging out with. It took some time finding it's feet but coming off a well crafted second season it's created itself a solid mythology and plenty of self-referential material to make for appreciative, rewarding tv. From the looks of last weeks episode it's still firing on all cylinders (yeah, a couple of one-liners hit the floor DOA, but it's all easily forgiven around here) -- the Brad Pitt in Seven impersonation had me laughing for a good minute. Smart sci-fi is a thing to treasure, and with Ben Edlund still on board I'll keep tuning in. Which leads me to...

Recap of New New TV

Bionic Woman

Sorry, even though Starbuck, the Leather-Clad Kick-Ass Evil Bionic Babe, is fun to watch, the rest of your shit simply ain't. I'm giving up.

Life

I do like crazy-ass, comically unstable detectives. And I did like the second episode of this one. It replaces BW on the fence.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Reviews of New New TV

The first solid week of the new television season has passed and here's the reaction so far.

The Best

Lucy, Daughter of the Devil

Ok, this has been out a few weeks not but until The Venture Brothers finally makes it's way back on to Adult Swim, Lucy: DOTD is the best cartoon out there. Created by one half of the Home Movies team, Loren Bouchard (Brendon Small is one half of the intermittently hilarious "Metalocalypse"), who plays the titular Lucy, the show finds a new reason each week for Lucy, her had the Devil, and DJ Jesus, to become involved in some situation where hilarity ensues. These have more often then not involved the Devil trying to bring down humanity in seemingly mundane yet funny ways like getting more women masturbating by opening up a dildo factory, or taking the world down a notch by opening up another horrible tex-mex restaurant. The unmistakable H. Jon Benjamin provides the voice for the Devil and just as he did in Home Movies as Coach McGurk, he makes me laugh dearly until tears form.


The Surprisingly All Right

Chuck

Yeah, I wasn't expecting this to be any good at all but I found myself being drawn in by the lack of Zach Braffiness of lead Zachary Levi. Some of the computer nerd humor is a bit obvious but most of it is successfully tongue in cheek if not somewhat clever. While the whole NSA/CIA interpretation is indeed otherworldly, which my barber found to be too distracting, I thought it stuck to the tone well enough for me not to care even if it can tend to be a bit ridiculous. The pilot's seeming promise of Yvonne Strahovski in her underwear every episode is more distracting if anything -- but certainly not detracting.


Reaper

Again, not expecting to enjoy this one as much as I did. Who'd of thought Kevin Smith would make his most solid directorial effort on a CW show? Even though he has no credits for writing or creating the show it has his trademarks all over it: two 20 something "losers" with dead-end jobs; one dude is the nice guy trying to score an out of his league babe while his best friend is more of a no-care-in-the-world, always "on" chucklefest Charlie -- or Bert in this case. There's even hockey philosophy and a reference to the New Jersey Devils. But the real revelation here is that in getting Kevin Smith away from his regular team of friends, yes-men and non-actors, he's actually done some effective work here. It's odd that his most cinematic work would show up on the CW but there you have it. I hope it sparks some lights to go off on his head to hire professionals for his future movies and not just the last guys he hung out with at the comic shop. Or whatever man, your shit looked good here, the actors actually were caught on screen acting and I'm proud of you. Some say it's a bit Buffyesque but I'm not going to go that far with it. While it is the story of a "chosen one" type of character who enlists his two best buddies to help him take down monsters it lacks much of Buffy's scrappy low budget charm, potent homemade feminist based mythology and charming teenage to young adult metaphors. But hey, I've only seen one episode.


The Undecided

Gossip Girl

This is how far my mourning for Veronica Mars goes -- I've watched two episodes of something called Gossip Girl (VM's Kristen Bell narrates). I don't know, my threshold for soap opera material only goes so far. Usually it has to involve someone like David Lynch or Mike White to get me interested. And I don't think that rule has changed. The words "from the creator of the O.C." don't carry much weight with me. While he did good stuff with a co-creator on "Chuck", this show dives deep into teenage angst land but with none of the O.C.'s attempts at humor. While part of me thinks this show could topple into some good Bret Easton Ellis type territory, I have the feeling it's going to try and stick by it's chick-lit fan base and flounder in cat fights and back-stabbings. Oh well. Did I just decide? There's enough on Wednesday nights...


Bionic Woman

... like this attempt at substantial sci-fi. While it has some of that girl-power theme I tend to gravitate towards it's first episode didn't have quite the punch that say, the Alias pilot did. It also lacks even the dramatic lead that even a Jennifer Garner could provide. This Michele Ryan looks like she's got the shit kickin' part of the role down but she needs to get some fire behind those pretty vacant eyes. It's true that Katee Sackhoff (BSG's Starbuck) comes away from the pilot as the bionic woman worth talking about. But series worse than this one have survived for a while on the strength of it's peripheral characters and actors picking up the slack of the main protagonist. It could be that Katee, the always dependable Miguel Ferrer, and the rest of a seemingly competent cast can keep this one on the tracks until Ms. Ryan gets a hold of her character. I'll give this one a couple more episodes.


Dirty Sexy Money

So I missed the first half of this one. But speaking of dependable casts. You have Peter Krause and Donald Sutherland headlining and even Billy Baldwin seems to be well cast for a change. (Imagine that -- 3 Baldwins on tv this season... a good sign or a bad one? You be the judge. Me, as long as Stephen keeps his profile low, I'm fine.) This is the kind of soap I can get behind -- and it has a decent central mystery to unravel which I appreciate in these kinds of shows but know it can also lead to a quick demise if it keeps new viewers from finding the show later on. Anyway, I hope it sticks around a little while so that this cast can get comfortable and break in their roles because Sutherland looks to be having some fun in the maniacal patriarch role.


The Rotten

Kitchen Nightmares

Leave it Fox to take a good BBC reality show and strip it of all "reality".


This is the pilot episode for Lucy Daughter of the Devil: