Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Roger Ebert on "Wolverine"

Oh, the film is well-made. Gavin Hood, the director, made the great film "Tsotsi" (2005) and the damned good film "Rendition" (2007) before signing on here. Fat chance "Wolverine" fans will seek out those two. Why does a gifted director make a film none of his earlier admirers would much want to see? That's how you get to be a success in Hollywood. When you make a big box-office hit for mostly fanboys, you've hit the big time. Look at Justin Lin with "Fast & Furious."

Such films are assemblies of events. There is little dialogue, except for the snarling of threats, vows and laments, and the recitation of essential plot points. Nothing here about human nature. No personalities beyond those hauled in via typecasting. No lessons to learn. No joy to be experienced. Just mayhem, noise and pretty pictures. I have been powerfully impressed by film versions of Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, Iron Man and the Iron Giant. I wouldn't even walk across the street to meet Wolverine.

But wait! -- you say. Doesn't "X-Men Origins" at least provide a learning experience for Logan about the origins of Wolverine? Hollow laugh. Because we know that the modern Wolverine has a form of amnesia, it cannot be a spoiler for me to reveal that at the end of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," he forgets everything that has happened in the film. Lucky man.


Beyond the immaculate writing, he brings up something that is so common, which is promising directors who seem to both sell out and lose their talent in the process.

Directors take note, Pineapple Express is how you "sell out."

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Soloist: Failing to Take Flight

In 2005, I began to see advertised a new film adaptation of Jane Austen's classic Pride & Prejudice. From the advertisements, it appeared to be an unnecessary, perfunctory adaptation of a novel that had been adapted many a time for the screen, both silver and small, often times inelegantly, as with the clunky 1940 big-budget MGM adaptation ("You have too much PRIDE, sir!""And you, too much PREJUDICE!"). This new version appeared to be suffering from the same wrongheadedness, casting period-piece favorite Keira Knightley in the lead as the, ehem, prideful Elizabeth Bennet. I thought nothing of the film after seeing the advertisement, and forgot about it. Then the film opened in November of 2005, with strong reviews and praise for Knightley's performance. Out of curiosity, and strong optimism, I decided to see the film. What I saw, almost immediately, was a filmmaker interested in cinema. The film opens with a long tracking shot, taking us inside the Bennet household, in and out of rooms, through both the upstairs and downstairs worlds. It was a breathtaking introduction to a filmmaker I'd come to grow quite fond of over the next few years.

In that film, and his 2007 follow up Atonement, based on the Ian McEwan novel of the same name, the director Joe Wright carved out a place for himself as one of the pre-eminent directors in England. Here was a young, headstrong filmmaker who was willing to take chances both filmicly and thematically, chances that set him apart from his peers, and fellow "period film" purveyors. Wright was able to bring life to ideas, filling them with emotion and grandeur that never crossed over into being overwrought or mannered. He was able to draw performances from young actors not seen in any of their previous work, creating with Ms. Knightley two of the most classical, subtle, and moving female screen performances this decade has yet seen. He was able to playfully arrange actors in a frame, twisting them around one another, exploring screenspace in ways few filmmakers attempt to, and draw emotion from both his actors and his camera.

It was with this great regard and anticipation that I brought to Mr. Wright's third film, The Soloist, based again on a novel, this time the non-fiction novel of the same name by The Los Angeles Times' Steve Lopez. The film centers on Mr. Lopez (here played by Robert Downey Jr.) and his discovery of a mentally unstable former Julliard cellist, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), now living homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, and follows their subsequent friendship.

Wright directs the film from a screenplay by Susannah Grant, who chooses to structure the film around Lopez, who then brings the audience into Ayers world, a convention that has grown tiresome, as studios feel it necessary to lure in the audience with the stable, not coincidentally white character that they can hopefully identify with. It's a convention that's insulting in many ways, but also makes for a far less interesting film. This is, or it should be, a parallel story of two men forging a friendship, one providing attention and stability where there was none, and one providing a great skill at communicating through music. Part of the problem is that we cannot identify with Lopez because the screenplay, embellished by Mr. Downey's performance, saddles him with all kinds of tangetical problems, his industry is dying, he's divorced, and he's constantly being covered in urine, both his own and that of a coyote. I suppose this is to make us feel like both Ayers and Lopez have problems so their connection isn't just a one sided affair, but what Ayers suffers from is debilitating mental illness, whereas Lopez just comes off as a wealthy dick.

The other major problem with the film is the music, or should I say the lack there of. For a film about a friendship forged through music, we hear so very little of it, and even less from Ayers himself. After Lopez writes a column about Ayers, and mentions that the violin he plays only has two strings, a reader sends in a cello, and when Lopez presents it to Ayers, he hears for the first time the genius that Ayers has musically. On screen, we can see Lopez is feeling something, which we take, or would if it were written better, as something he hasn't done in quite some time because of the aforementioned "problems." While we can see Lopez experiencing the music through Downey's performance, the film robs the audience of that same experience, because not long after Ayers begins playing his Beethoven piece, an orchestra joins in, swelling the music to, well, a louder place, and Mr. Wright's camera swells too, craning up from the tunnel where Ayers sleeps and plays, to the sky, following CGI birds gliding over Los Angeles (get it, the music is soaring!), intercut with the pained expressions of Foxx and the tearing face of Downey. It's a disappointing moment because anyone whose ever delved into classical music at all knows that experiencing music like that played unadorned can be a transformative experience in and of itself. But because we're robbed of hearing that, and distracted by Wright's CGI bird visualizations, we don't share in Lopez's transformative experience, one that cements his bond to Ayers, making his being moved unrelatable, and thus fails to create the interest we should have in their connection.

That scene lies in stark contrast to the one transcendent moment of the film, when Lopez arranges for Ayers to sit in with him alone on the rehearsal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the beautiful Walt Disney Concert Hall. As the orchestra begins its Beethoven piece, we literally go inside Ayers' mind as he listens, and in a Fantasia-esque touch, see colors, dancing to the music, onscreen for minutes. It's perhaps the most astonishing moment I've seen on screen this in several years, and it's juxtaposition with what surrounds it highlights what's so wrong with the rest of the film. It's the only moment in the film where Wright seems to be escaping the screenplay and getting at the feeling of the piece and allowing the audience to experience as the characters do, something he does more adeptly in his previous two films.

Though the screenplay is flawed, Wright is not blameless here. He trusts in the screenplay and while trying to make it fit, isn't suited to the material. Wright and Grant try to shoehorn all kinds of political relevance into the film as well, showing a montage featuring former President George W. Bush, Hurricane Katrina, has characters talk about the death of the newspaper industry, lamenting the massive homeless population in Los Angeles, and in one scene seems to be condemning Atheism, and in the next pointing out the futility of religion to the homeless population. The film tries to have it both ways like that in many respects, and it only clouds its message and separates us from the story, as with the flashbacks that run throughout the film that "explain" how Ayers got to be on the street. But these flashbacks don't illuminate anything about Ayers character or his headspace, they just provide Wright with a chance to film 1960s decor and costumes, and give Foxx a chance to show just how much range he has. Mr. Downey isn't right for the role as is written, and Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Tom Hollander and Nelsan Ellis are wasted in underwritten, undynamic roles.

There's no reason with a cast like this, a director like this, and the abundance of music the story calls for, for the film to be so often lifeless. Wright is a great director, and his first two films are among the best of the decade, particularly Atonement, which in that glutted year of so-called masterpieces, I thought was the standout of 2007. Here however, his material is weak, and with his first two films being derived from Jane Austen and Ian McEwan, it's not terribly surprising that when presented with an American newspaper writer as his source material, he doesn't quite connect with it. I hope that Wright returns to England and searches for the right material, because when he's at his best, unlike those fake birds, his films do indeed soar.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"Report" Report

As a little addendum to my review "Observe and Report," specifically it's subtextual commentary on the modern hero-complex afflicted male, an interview writer/director Jody Hill did with New York Magazine where he speaks about just that.


NY Mag: You've said the film was influenced by Scorsese's The King of Comedy.

Hill: On the set, and beforehand, we were constantly talking about The King of Comedy, and, in fact, Taxi Driver, Straw Dogs, Shampoo. The end was heavily inspired by the way King of Comedy and Taxi Driver end, where it's kind of a victory but it makes you wonder: Is it a dream? Is it really a victory? Is it just kind of weird? Like the whole thing is based in realism — and then you twist it at the end and it makes people feel weird.

NY Mag: Are you mocking Bush-era heroes with this one?

Hill: We wanted to tell a good story, but the themes that run through it hopefully just represent some type of bigger picture. It's certainly not a political film by any means, but I don't think it's a disposable comedy, either, where there's no greater subtext.

NY Mag: A film like King of Comedy was really responding to its time — the rise of celebrity.

Hill: Sure — and Taxi Driver is influenced by that postwar fallout. This is definitely influenced by its time.

NY Mag: Ronnie's like one of those Reaganite kids who grew up watching Red Dawn, waiting for his chance to defend the shopping mall against the Communists.

Hill: I definitely feel like Ronnie watched those movies and took them to heart. And we play with movie clich├ęs, like sorta pseudo–Cameron Crowe, but twisted. I hope people feel themselves caught up in a Cameron Crowe moment, but the visuals are so fucked-up that it kind of produces a really uncomfortable feeling. Like, people applaud and then they stop: "Wait, what the fuck am I applauding? He just murdered somebody."

NY Mag: It's weird when he clobbers the Middle Eastern guy on the mall for no reason...

Hill: People love that. And it's not like he has a reason. People really like that. I don't know if I understand it, but maybe that speaks to like, your earlier question about the time.


In some ways I feel this analogous to last year's "Funny Games" (which I wrote about here a few times) as far as audience expectation being subverted in favor of commentary on those expectations, and luckily with this one it'll have more of an audience to try that out on, though whether that gets through to more than just a few people we'll have to wait to see. It also helps that it's hilarious.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Observe and Report: The Modern Male Psyche

In the first half of the year 2009, two major studios have released two comedies centered on characters whose occupation is a mall security guard. The first, released this past January, was "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," and the second, set to be released this Friday, is "Observe and Report." The first film starred Kevin James as the titular Paul Blart, a fat, oafish, bumbling man in a job which others look down at him for, but what he found to be a great source of pride. That film has become one of this years greatest financial successes, netting over one-hundred million dollars at the U.S. box office since it's opening at the beginning of the year. The second film, "Observe and Report," stars Seth Rogen as the fat, oafish head of mall security, a job which others look down on him for, but for which he finds as a great source of pride. You may ask yourself, is there a need for two movies so similar in premise? Much less two movies released mere months from one another? The answer to that is no, but while one is satisfied with being light, mediocre entertainment, the other has a greater task at hand.

"Observe and Report" is writer/director Jody Hill's second film, coming off the Sundance cult hit "The Foot Fist Way," and the HBO series "East Bound and Down." Both of Hill's earlier pieces dealt with failure, in "Foot Fist," the failure of a Tae Kwon Doe instructor with delusions of grandeur, and in "East Bound" the fall from grace of a superstar Major League pitcher. Each film in it's own way explored the chasm between their protagonists' self image and the way others perceived them. "Observe and Report" begins with that same theme, this time following a mall security guard, played by Seth Rogen, whose belief in the importance of his job and his ability to solve crime, he grossly overestimates. It is in this dark gray area where Hill begins to deconstruct the contemporary young-adult male psyche, one raised on video games, action movies, and raunchy comedies, like the very one that Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt is in.

"Right now the world needs a fucking hero."

As the film opens, Ronnie is being called upon to investigate a flasher who has been exposing himself to women in the mall parking lot. Ronnie, a heavily medicated twenty-something with bi-polar disorder, snaps into action, assigning tasks to his group of underlings, and arrogantly dictating the terms of the investigation to his boss and the detective who's been assigned to the case, played by a craggy Ray Liotta. Having some sense of power and purpose, Ronnie immediately informs the make-up counter girl Brandi, played by Anna Faris, that there's a flasher on the loose, but assures her without prompting that he'll protect her. After Brandi becomes the next victim of the flasher, Ronnie inflates her panic and terror, and uses it to convince her to go on a date with him. Through grizzled voice-over, Ronnie talks about Brandi being the only thing worth saving, saying that he's the one who can protect her, protect the mall, and keep order in a chaotic, punishing world. Between these scenes of plot development, Hill places Ronnie's trips to a shooting range, and long, strange conversations with his alcoholic mother, played with stupor by Celia Weston, where Ronnie espouses the luck he's had with the flasher's sudden appearance, how it's given him a sense of duty, purpose, and drive.

Though the filmmakers might admit to it, Ronnie is every kid who went to see "The Dark Knight" and came out with it's sense of vigilante justice embedded into their minds. The kind of kid who spends hours shooting opponents in video games. Ronnie relates to the world like he himself is a caped crusader, operating in fantasy in lieu of actual experience, he is a few steps removed from reality. Ronnie's bi-polar disorder is merely a physicalization of that disconnect, one lived in by teenage boys locked in their rooms for hours on end absorbing online gaming, fantasy fiction and pop culture.

As with his previous work, Hill's interest lies in the complete immersion of his characters' in their delusions. For Ronnie, this happens when he decides to stop taking his bi-polar medication at a perceived high point. At this point in the film, Ronnie has gone through the tests to become a real cop, to work side by side with Liotta, and has quit his job at the mall, said farewell, and made plans for his new life and responsibility. When the plans go awry and he is rejected for the service, Ronnie's immersion in the fantasy like of hero-hood becomes complete. Unlike the levity this delusion would be treated with in most comedies, Ronnie's immersion is similar in depth and darkness to Travis Bickle's in "Taxi Driver," or Captain Willard's in "Apocalypse Now," and unlike any comedy I've seen, Ronnie's rage is not impotent but instead explodes in violent, effectively brutal ways. Ronnie's obsession with the flasher leads him to stalk to the mall, go undercover, and lose whatever shit he had in the first place. Hill's commentary is subtle, but at last he has created the perfect image of the delusional, arrogant personality that can develop as a result of the failure of the American dream. Perhaps we cannot be whatever we want to be, perhaps we can not will the world to our liking or impede on the rights of others without consequence. In Rogen's narration, Hill adds the self-aware meta touch of a character narrating a film in the way that character would want a movie about his life to be narrated, and even at one point includes Rogen screwing up, saying he'll "do that one again" in his normal voice, and then repeating the misread line in the same Batman-ish gravely voice.

Any expectation one may have going into "Observe and Report" is likely to be shattered, reshaped, and presented in a manner that is completely unexpected. How this film was produced by a major studio, at the budget it was, is anomaly that will be turned over in the years to come. Jody Hill, with the aid of his cast and his cinematographer Tim Orr, has made the most singularly unique, daring, political comedy I've seen. It may not have the heart of "Pineapple Express," but it's a work of such layered commentary and bizarre story turns, lines and performance. Yes, there were two mall cop movies released in 2009, but only one is as fresh and exciting as "Observe and Report."