Wednesday, November 22, 2006

For Your Consideration (Guest, 2006)

In one of the most shocking developments of the cinematic season, I am grieved to report that the most dependable and likable comedic ensemble in film today has lined up a seemingly unmissable target from point blank range and then forgotten the ammunition. All of the critical players from Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind are back and director Christopher Guest has made a wise addition in The Office’s Ricky Gervais. The subject matter concerned the hype and overall inanity of Hollywood’s award season and what happens to the production of a film once the buzz starts to build. Best of all, the film has been structured to provide a deserving showcase for the comedic gifts of Catherine O’Hara, consistently one of the funniest actors around. Sounds promising enough so far, yes? So wha’ happened?

The problem seems to stem from Guest’s decision to veer away from the documentary structure that has served the team well in their past projects, allowing the ensemble to work off of each other and improvise moments of unpredictable magic. While Guest’s desire and willingness to attempt something new is to be commended, he has unfortunately settled upon a film that is in an awkward limbo between his past work and something more conventional. In interviews supporting the film, Guest and his co-writer, Eugene Levy, have boasted that their ensemble works without rehearsal, simply working from meticulous bios that have been constructed for each character. This is all well and good when trying to simulate the feeling of a documentary where the subjects would naturally be speaking off the cuff. However, Guest and Levy have dropped the documentary trappings and neglected to supply their ensemble with a legitimate script or even a fruitful sequence of events. Consequently, For Your Consideration plays out like a depressing shadow of a film that could have been. The jokes never rise above the level of a basic premise that isn’t terribly funny to begin with. The director’s too Jewish! The veteran actor has to do demeaning commercials! The wealthy producer doesn’t know anything about film! Nobody’s respecting the writers’ script! The media asks vacant questions! It’s possible to see how employing these stereotypes might have been a possible starting point for Guest and company to supply amusing riffs. But sadly, the characterizations never progress past the first dimension. Whole scenes go by and we not only wonder about their purpose – we wonder where the punchline was supposed to be. One thing becomes abundantly clear: either the ensemble needs to return to the documentary format and find a way to inject new energy (Ricky Gervais was a good step), or they need to put the work into a polished script and – horror of horrors – take the time to rehearse.

It would have made a great story: Catherine O’Hara playing an aging actress whose fictional performance generates Oscar buzz actually generating real-life Oscar buzz and earning a long-deserved nomination. But alas, this outcome is not likely to come to pass, as For Your Consideration paradoxically gives O’Hara far less to do than her supporting roles in previous films. I will not spoil her character’s fate out of basic respect; however, if I spoiled it for you, you would likely think that I must have been leaving something out – that her character arc couldn’t possibly be so incredibly flimsy. Unfortunately, it is. And unfortunately, this is the rule with For Your Consideration rather than the exception. Characters either make the most obvious change that you could conceive, don’t change at all, or disappear completely. It is with astonishment that we see the closing credits begin, because we are still waiting for the film to begin. The greatest indignity of all is that Guest and company have produced a film that is even more vacant and ill-conceived than the Oscar bait films they have attempted to skewer.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Happy Feet (Miller, 2006)

If you’re thinking Happy Feet is going to be just another average animated film trading on a combo of cute animals, hip pop culture references and hammy celebrity voiceovers, boy are you in for a surprise. Happy Feet is nothing short of an epic. The title comes from the particular quirk of Mumble, the penguin protagonist whom we gleefully follow from egg to misfit to hero as he struggles to gain acceptance in community that does not recognize, let alone appreciate his talents. In a world of birds that find love and companionship by finding and unleashing their ‘heart songs’, Mumble is tone-def. But man, can that boy boogie. By this point, you may be thinking that you have seen this film several times before – an awkward young character struggling to be accepted by the mainstream for their individuality. However, Happy Feet’s greatness comes not only in the roundabout way that it treads upon this familiar path, but also in the way that it travels far beyond the expected destination. Most films such as this are content with self-discovery. Happy Feet encourages viewers to apply their gifts towards a greater good.

There comes a moment early on in Happy Feet where it becomes clear that the viewer will have to either submit to George Miller’s stylistic tone or resist it. It is simply too aggressive to watch without investment. An early medley of recognizable popular music temporarily calls to mind the disastrous bombast of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge; however, there is a key difference. Unlike Luhrmann, Miller does not beg and plead like a puppy for our appreciation. Rather, he confidently asserts his alternate penguin universe with resonant song selection and character interaction that is three-dimensional. He does not overuse his gimmick. Instead, he continually finds new ways to engage us in his hero’s journey: song, dance, drama, humor, suspense and passion. Even when one of his supporting characters is the frequently unbearable Robin Williams, Miller is able to use him in just the right doses, reminding us why he shot to superstardom and not allowing him to grow tiresome. Even Williams’ Latino accent, which was distressing in the film’s trailer, makes sense here because of the context. Mumble has traveled to a different community and the change is used to underscore the transition.

Along his journey, Mumble also has encounters with creatures more threatening that would just assume make him a meal. Invariably, these encounters are genuinely thrilling with extraordinary animation rendering the various species of marine life. There are several sequences in Happy Feet that simply gorgeous, particularly a nighttime song set against the backdrop of the aurora australis. Purely on a technical level, Happy Feet sets a new standard in computer animation. However, it is the substance that Miller ultimately delivers in the form of a thoroughly convincing moral plea that is sure to make the film a work that will endure for years to come. Without stridency, Miller makes an environmental statement that is simple enough for a child to understand and yet carries with it the power to stir and shame an adult. Even if you can see the ending coming, it is a marvel to witness. Yes, Happy Feet is a ‘feel good’ film; but, it is a film that provides that good feeling by showing us our better nature, rather than indulging in embarrassing sappiness and pop psychology. Dreamworks and Pixar, take note. The bar has been raised. Happy Feet is one of the year’s best films.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Forgotten Silver (Jackson/Botes, 1995)

Peter Jackson’s follow-up to the remarkable Heavenly Creatures, one of the very best films of the nineties, was Forgotten Silver, a television collaboration with Costa Botes, a man whose contribution to film is, apart from this particular picture, unknown to me. Together they have created a film, made in documentary style, about the fictional New Zealand director, Colin McKenzie. As the legend goes, McKenzie was a pioneer whose remarkable innovations such as synchronized sound, close-ups and hidden cameras went largely unrecognized due to his tumultuous and tragic life. Jackson and Botes’ central conceit is that they have stumbled upon a treasure trove of previously unseen material from Colin McKenzie, a man who is like the D.W. Griffith of an alternate universe. Mostly, it seems, the film is a thinly veiled excuse for the filmmakers to work with silent film conventions, creating scenes from McKenzie lost epic Salome, as well as installments of Stan the Man, a primitive version of Candid Camera. The major problem is that these films, supposedly created by McKenzie, do not warrant the kind of excitement that would lead the interviewed historians to place them on par with Citizen Kane. For a Peter Jackson creation, they are actually quite conservative. They are also not incompetent or ridiculous enough to inspire laughter in the spirit of satire or parody. In constructing their ruse, Jackson and Botes have aimed for plausibility and get able support from talking heads like Harvey Weinstein, Leonard Maltin and Sam Neill playing themselves. However, what they sacrifice is any spirit of fun. The gags are too sporadic and too tame when they finally do arrive. In the end, we truly know very little about the personality of Colin McKenzie apart from the fact that he is a generic impassioned director, driven by generic dreams. The story of his life is ludicrous – not in a Zelig kind of a way, but rather like his bio was hastily sketched for a first draft and then never improved. Perhaps the film’s greatest pleasure, apart from a funny sequence in which McKenzie accidentally shoots a ‘lewd’ film, is watching scruffy Peter Jackson make his way through the New Zealand jungle in ridiculously colored shorts on a mock search for the lost set of Salome. Despite its convincing deadpan and nods to film history, Forgotten Silver is short on defining gags that you will want to recount for your friends. Consequently, the film ends up eventually feeling tedious and hardly worth the effort.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Babel (Iñárritu, 2006)

The name Alejandro González Iñárritu is quickly becoming synonymous with the word ‘visceral’. As evidenced by his Amores Perros, 21 Grams, his segment in the film 11’09”01 and especially his most recent work, Babel, Iñárritu is an artist that bypasses our brain and our heart in order to latch a firm hold on our gut. This is not to say that his films lack intelligence or compassion. It simply means that Iñárritu’s top priority is to capture the way we respond to the world instinctually. Perhaps this is why he prefers to work with scripts that bounce around between various storylines. It allows him to build towards a critical moment and then quickly dart away while we are still left with that initial feeling. Michael Haneke, a filmmaker focused primarily on the intellect, would take precisely the opposite approach. He would linger on the critical moment for an extremely lengthy period of time until viewers work past what they feel about the thing they have seen and into what they think about it. There is merit in both approaches.

With Babel, Iñárritu offers us the world as powder keg, a place where a small twitch of the right muscle in the right moment can be enough to send reverberations throughout the world. As one might guess from the title, one of Babel’s major themes is how language and culture often provide barriers to communication. Spread out around the globe, our communities give us a sense of comfort and identity; however, they can also become an obstacle when cultures collide, leading to communication in the international ‘language’ of violence. In selecting his moments of culture shock, Iñárritu does not merely stop with the obvious, such as two American children visiting a Mexican wedding. He also offers us cultural divides that we may not have considered, such as a group of young, deaf-mute friends living in urban Japan. The complexity of Babel’s layering is perhaps best on display in a scene where a troubled girl from this group attends a dance club. Without dialogue, Iñárritu offers us Japanese culture meeting deaf culture meeting youth culture meeting rave culture and allows us to consider how the way we identify ourselves impacts the choices we make.

Thankfully, Iñárritu’s writer, Guillermo Arriaga, does not condescend to the viewer with overwrought speeches about how we crash into each other in order to feel something. On the contrary, he sets his situations in motion, allows them to follow a logical course and then lingers gently over the details that may prove revelatory. What does it mean, for example, that a parental figure offers the same slap to a boy that has committed a horrifying act of violence and a girl that has allowed others to spy upon her naked body? During a high-speed chase, how does the racial identity of the passengers in the back seat affect the way that we experience the scene? Does it make a difference? From start to finish, Babel is tense and gripping, as well as being impeccably performed. Initially, we are skeptical about the way that Iñárritu and Arriaga will tie together their story lines; however, when the final piece in the puzzle comes, it takes the film to new heights rather than exposing any lack of credibility. Don’t avoid the film thinking that you have seen this kind of ‘everybody’s connected’ storyline before. Babel is something special.


Monday, November 06, 2006

Borat (Charles, 2006)

The most complimentary thing that can probably be said about Sacha Baron Cohen, the man behind the character of Borat - a cultural reporter from an alternate reality Kazakhstan – is that he has the nerve and audacity of the late, great Andy Kaufman. I have no idea how he is able to will his way through the various confrontational situations we see in his most recent film without eventually letting his targets in on the joke or even cracking a smile. When Cohen is going well, this skill works to great advantage. His projected foreignness and his disregard of conventional American etiquette often allow his interviewees to reveal something unexpected about themselves. With Borat as a catalyst, some reveal that an enthusiastic gesture of goodwill from a foreigner is enough to cause them to spew profanities or run away in fear. Others, prompted by Borat’s own biases, feel secure in talking on camera about their distrust of minorities. However, there are also other occasions where, as viewers, we have to wonder whether Cohen’s ability to divorce himself from others’ feelings is really something to be admired.

Over the course of Borat’s 80-plus minutes, we are offered a mixture of mischievous pranks and short mockumentary-style material used to provide the film with a throughline. As one might expect from such a structure, the results are hit-and-miss. There are about three moments in Borat that are sheer gold and several others which are genuinely amusing. However, where Cohen and director Larry Charles fail is in bringing all of their footage together into a film that has a clear purpose or, at the very least, a consistent point of view. The story of Borat becomes not the story of a pseudo-Muslim reporter let loose in a Christian nation, but rather the story of Sacha Baron Cohen’s personality. What situation is too dangerous for him to place himself into? Why is he willing to subject himself to extreme discomfort and humiliation in the name of a moderately funny joke? What does he feel that he is ultimately accomplishing?

When Cohen’s stunts work, it is because there is a kind of poetic justice at work. I would argue that Cohen is actually funniest when he is at his most fair. When Borat attends a church service and asks to be saved, we see that his ridiculous contortions are not considered anything out of the ordinary. In moments like this, Cohen has crystallized something that is insightful and revealing. However, it is unfortunate that this oft-funny film builds to a climax that contains what is perhaps Cohen’s lowest and most bewildering moment. While the concept for Borat’s encounter with Pamela Anderson is funny in theory, the reality that we witness is, to be honest, disturbing and borderline cruel. Making the assumption that Anderson was not in on the joke – she’s not that good of an actress – I wondered to myself what she had done to deserve such treatment. To be sure she is aggressively superficial. However, the moment struck me as being poetically out-of-whack. Never mind whether or not such behavior is ethical. It’s not very funny.

And yet, all told, I would recommend Borat. It is an unfocused, often misguided work, and it frequently seems as if Cohen is abusing his unbelievable sense of courage. However, it also displays Cohen’s undeniable charisma, is consistently watchable and is likely to provoke a reaction in the viewer worth analyzing if you are indeed the self-reflective type. It is a film where the high points make the low points worth enduring and where you can safely say you will see and hear things you have not seen and heard before.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

Pulse (K. Kurosawa, 2001)

Although it has been lumped in with other recent Japanese horror films such as The Grudge and Ringu, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse is something else entirely. You wouldn’t know it from the premise which involves a deadly curse that seems to be spreading via the internet; however, Pulse is no mere gimmick film. On the contrary, it is a somber, serious exploration of postmodern emptiness. Upon an initial viewing, there is still much about the events in Pulse that I am not sure I completely understand. This much is clear. Each of the characters affected by the curse turn on their computers to find a website that offers a view of someone else’s existence. It is as if they are peering into a webcam, although we learn that there is no physical reason why these visions should be transmitted. The person they spy upon is invariably in a state of severe distress. However, there is no apparent way for the two parties to communicate. Afterwards, the viewer grows sullen and goes through a few various stages before disappearing completely. It is important to note that the victims are interconnected, with one incident linking into another.

I fear that I have made the film sound like the very thing it is not. It is not awkwardly goofy, nor a film in which the actions seem contrived and forced to produce artificial scares. On the contrary, Kurosawa has done an effective job of painting an ever-so-slightly exaggerated version of our own world in which increased connection only leads to more profound feelings of loneliness. With the explosion of the internet, most of has within our homes a portal which allows us to interact with the outside world without even getting out of our pajamas. Even the dial-up sound that Kurosawa uses in key places here is quickly becoming a thing of the past as more and more of us switch to a connection that is ‘always on’. The question is whether or not this development has led to a populace that is in fact more disconnected from meaningful human interaction. With increased efficiency comes more time for us to be left alone with our own thoughts and insecurities. The moments of horror in Pulse are not cheap thrills in which someone is in danger of being hacked to pieces. That, after all, is an experience few of us are likely to encounter. The horror is something much more unsettling. It is the terror of our unavoidable mortality, the terror of human uncertainty, the terror of being alone.

Kurosawa succeeds by resisting the typical rhythms of the modern horror film. He does not try to scare us through ‘gotcha’ surprises. He allows the fear to seep slowly into us. He does not offer clumsy exposition followed by tiresome explanations. He allows his world to be much like our own – mysterious from start to finish. In the end, surrounded by chaos and uncertainty, two characters arrive at the only reasonable strategy: keep going as long as possible. This conclusion may seem somewhat non-committal for some; however, it ensures that Kurosawa’s film will latch onto us and linger. Whereas so many horror films are forgotten as soon as the lights come up, Pulse has an energy and an impact that extends well beyond the closing credits.