Sunday, November 23, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

To be honest, I have no idea whether or not I liked Synecdoche, New York. On one side it is wildly original, fiercely acted and beautifully imaginative. On the other hand, it is almost completely incoherent, pointless and seemingly dull.

Charlie Kaufman, the wondrously twisted mind behind the screenplays of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directs his first feature which appears to be a little too weird for its own good.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (consistently great) plays Caden, a mildly depressed, quick aging theatre director who gets a genius grant that lets him create whatever kind of production he wants. Caden decides to make a never-ending play featuring thousands of actors and sets as large as city blocks. Caden wants something real, something true to life. This explains why the actors play the people around them. For instance, Caden hires a man to play Caden. He hires a woman to play his love interest, a woman to pay his wife and so on. This creates something of a mess.

The idea is terrific in a Kaufman sort of way, but the execution is flawed. I couldn’t understand, for instance, the ironcal signifigance of one of the main character’s houses always being on fire. The people in the film know it’s on fire, they acknowledge it frequently, yet they go on living in it. Sleeping, eating, having sex, and so on. Do we take it at face value? Of course not. But what then? Or why? I have no idea.

To its benefit, Synecdoche, New York has a great, female friendly supporting cast including Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams (at her very best), Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson and Diane Wiest. But even that many talented faces aren’t enough to comprehend what is happening.

Synecdoche, New York will make you think, and it could very well inspire some post-film chatter, but mostly out of annoyance. Seeing this won’t do you any favors, skipping it may. C-

Quantum of Solace

Bond is back, and better yet, he’s back as Daniel Craig. Craig, the best Bond since Sean Connery (and may prove to be better, in time) kills it as our favorite international spy. Only this time, his antics are a little less distinguishable.

If you like Bond films for the gadgets, the corny dialogue and the cheesy slogans, you better skip this one. Quantum of Solace is far more like Craig’s first outing as Bond, Casino Royale than such farce as Moonraker.

Casino Royale breathed life into a seemingly dead franchise with awesome power. It will go down as one of the very best Bond films. Quantum of Solace is not so lucky. Yes, Craig is good, but that is about it. In addition to having one of the worst titles in franchise history, Quantum of Solace does little to impress.

Sure there are explosions and chases and machine guns and gorgeous femme fatales, but the film lacks any real substance. If you’re worried about plot (is that really why we see these?) then here it goes. In the franchise’s first straight-up sequel, Bond is out to find the people that axed off his love from the last movie. He chases after them and gets wind of a secret organization that wants to control… water. Not oil, not weapons, but… water. Amazing.

My first question is, why hire brilliantly subtle director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) to helm a Bond film? I was hoping to be shocked, but I wasn’t. Forster is in way over his head, and it shows.

All of my quips aside, Quantum of Solace did entertain me, but it lacked the startling originality of Casino Royale. Shame, considering the incredible energy Craig brings to the table. Craig, who is contracted for two more Bond films, will benefit from some better material next time around. Until then, go rent Casino Royale. B-

Role Models

Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott bring their respective senses of humor to this somehow refreshing comedy romp.

Rudd, a consistently sarcastic, quick-bantered everyman; and Scott, consistently stuck as Stiffler, are two energy drink salesmen who ran their truck a little ramped and end up doing community service for a Boys and Girls-type foundation.

Rudd is paired with a shy dork (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, aka McLovin) who likes to reenact live-action medieval games. Scott is teamed up with the much funnier, foul-mouthed hellion Ronnie (Bobb’e Thompson).

The film delivers some genuine laughs, most from Thompson and Jane Lynch as the whacko who runs the organization. But it stalls hard in the third act. I understand that director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) wants to put a delicate action-humor spin on the film, but it takes away from the rest of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong, Role Models is funny and Rudd and Scott make a good a pair. I just wish things turned out a little differently. Side note: if you like Elizabeth Banks and don’t want to see two movies, skip Zack and Miri Make a Porno, this is far better. B

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Welcome to this year’s hidden-indie wonder. Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme’s new mini-masterpiece, is completely alive.

Kym (Anne Hathaway) gets a temporary release from rehab to attend her older sister’s wedding. The funny, educated Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting hitched to subtle musician Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of indie-rock bank TV on the Radio), at their beautiful childhood home.

The film follows Kym around for the wedding weekend. We meet her protective, flamboyant dad (Bill Irwin), old friends, step mothers and so on. But what we’re privy too, and what we notice right away, is the tension between these people.

To call this family dysfunctional would be a complement. They have past tortures (mostly caused by Kym), that has all but ruined them. The characters engage in long, brutally honest conversations that feel as authentic as any conversation I’ve heard in film.

Many of these scenes are hard to watch, due to their shear realistic nature. There is one such scene, when Rachel blows up at Kym in front of the whole family, that felt like it was taken right out of my own life. I’ve had conversations like these, I’ve lived through some of these times. And that’s why Rachel Getting Married is so brilliant, it touches chords in us that are rarely exposed in the film medium.

Anne Hathaway is a revelation. You don’t too often find a character in rehabilation who is actually happy to be there. There is no relapsed scene, no use of drugs at all in fact, there is just a blatant honesty that echoes off the walls. Each one of Hathaway’s scenes is better than the one before. She’ll grab you just as easily in an NA meeting as she will fighting with her mother (Debra Winger). This is a flawless performance. Oscar, here she comes.

While I was so utterly impressed with Hathaway, it must be said that the real marvel here is DeWitt. I can’t recall seeing her in anything before, but she’s the one that has stayed with me. DeWitt gives Rachel a presumed innocence of a life lived in the shadow of her troubled younger sister. But don’t let her charm fool you. Rachel is ready to go pound for pound with any family member, her wedding be damned. There is a scene towards the end of this film, involving a long hug between mother and daughters, that could very well earn DeWitt an Oscar nomination, or even the award.

Demme hasn’t been around much lately. Hot in the late ‘80s- early ‘90s with films like Married to the Mob, The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme now directs his best work in over a decade. Using low-quality HD cameras, no real musical score and a heartbreaking script by Jenny Lumet (Sidney “Dog Day Afternoon” Lumet’s daughter), Demme gives us an unforgettable experience. He also gives what I’m sure will remain one of the very best films of the year. This is a triumph in cinema, everyone will be moved. A+

Changeling

At 78, who’s better than Clint Eastwood? The man has released four masterful films in the last five years. And he has another one out in December. Most directors get lazy with old age. Not Eastwood. He’s ripened with glory.

Changeling is the true story about Christine Collins, a single mother whose son as abducted in the late ‘20s. Collins fought a corrupt LAPD system, imposters and serial killers. She was a single, working mother in a time when single, working mothers were very hard to come by.

To be honest, I don’t want to say any more. There is a sudden shift in the storyline about halfway through that people may already know about (it’s not Million Dollar Baby drastic, but it is significant.) So rather than revealing it here, I’ll focus more on the acting and technical proficiency that goes into making an Eastwood film.

Angelina Jolie is fantastic. She embodies the very essence of loss and grief, something she did marvelously just last year in the underrated A Mighty Heart. I can’t say if she is better in Changeling, but I’d say she’s damn close. I believed her intentions in every single scene of the film, it’s a knockout performance.

The supporting players, mostly male, are terrific as well. John Malkovich is convincing as an unselfish pastor, willing to help Christine at any cost. He despises the LAPD and he uses his church influence to magnificently persuade. Jeffrey Donovan does horrific wonders with his slimy LAPD captain; desperate to conceal what he knows is true. Michael Kelly shines as a cop with a clue. Even Amy Ryan shows up as a mental patient with a harsh tongue.

But the real scene-stealer is Jason Butler Harner, an actor I had never heard of. I’m reluctant to say what role he plays but believe me, you won’t be able to get his face out of your head. He's charming yet monsterous. Think Heath Ledger's Joker.

Eastwood uses grim photography and a subtle piano score (by him) to capture the time period. The costumes and makeup are spot on, bleeding with fluid authenticity.

Like his other recent films, Changeling has some hard scenes to watch. They’re meant to disturb and they do a great deal. But be patient, Eastwood respects his audience, he’ll never do you wrong. Just when I thought this movie was over, he kept on going, usually a problem in today’s cinema. But here, I didn’t want the trip down memory lane to end.

I can’t say if this film is better than Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby (although few are to me). What I can say is that Changeling stands on its own. It has a compelling vision that locks you in right away. Enjoy the ride. A

RocknRolla

Let’s face it, Guy Ritchie has never been able to live up to his explosive debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He came close with Snatch, sure. But each film he’s done since has been a worse reimagining of those first two.

RocknRolla is no different. Here we get Ritchie’s usually mash-up of crooks and gangsters. There’s a bald and fat Tom Wilkinson as a high-level mob guy who controls the real estate market. The badguys who work for him, (and subsequently rip him off… twice.) The cool, calm and collected Russian. The junkie rock star. And on and on.

RocknRolla, while mildly entertaining, is still muddled with Ritchie clich├ęs. His characters go off on long, pointless monologues about things like crawfish, and his violence is drawn out and tiring.
So, what’s good about it? Criminally sexy British actress, Thandie Newton is radiant as a crooked accountant. She gives vibrancy to a seemingly throwaway role. Another actress may have made this character forgettable, not Newton. You can’t take your eyes off her.

And there’s Mark Strong as Wilkinson’s right-hand man. Strong is known for his villains (he tore off George Clooney’s fingernail in Syriana). I actually enjoyed Strong in this. His sly gestures and swift smacks to the face almost kept RocknRolla afloat. Almost. C-

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

You don’t have to be too imaginative to guess what this one’s about. Life-long pals Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Eizabeth Banks) need cash in order to keep the apartment they share. Because the two lack any dignity and family members, Zack says, they decide to make a low-budget porno.

Kevin Smith, one of the pioneering indie filmmakers of the ‘90s, directs his latest with the same raunch that he’s know for cooking up. Zack and Miri is nowhere near as original or clever as his Clerks, but it does have its moments.

There is a great, all-too-brief scene with Justin Long as a gay porn actor from LA. Long, the funnyman from Accepted, The Break-Up and Waiting…, gives this film its best scene. He talks with a deep, raspy voice while sipping a cosmo. It’s flat-out hilarious. And is that the most recent Superman as his lover? You bet.

Unfortunately, the rest of Zack and Miri lacks any real comic zeal. Sure a few of the gags are funny, (I particularly liked the result of the cameraman filming underneath two people during the porno shoot.) But for the most part, this is throwaway humor that almost mocks your stupidity. D+