Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Saboteur (Hitchcock, 1942)

Alfred Hitchcock’s wartime thriller, Saboteur, starts with a bang in Los Angeles and ends in New York City in a scene that seems intentionally geared towards one-upping the finale of King Kong. Our central character is Barry Kane, a man who has been framed for the sabotage of an airplane plant, a fiery disaster that claimed the life of his close friend. We follow his journey across the country as he attempts to clear his name and discover more information about the shady forces responsible for undermining the nation’s security. Along the way, he meets a curious collection of characters including a chatty truck driver, a benevolent blind man and a caboose full of circus freaks. His enemies are not tied to any specific nation. They do not speak with a detectable accent, although they do seem more likely to sport a wispy moustache. They are, the film suggests, all around us – so indistinguishable from you and me that they could be swarming at a fancy dinner party and no one would believe you if you tried to point them out. Their purpose is vague; however, when one key villain explains his motivation, it sounds remarkably like what the current American President might suspect: they hate us for our freedom.

The film’s politics are not terribly sophisticated. In an impassioned moment, Barry Kane, caught in a tense predicament, nonetheless finds the composure to deliver a patriotic speech about the heart of America. Drawing from the memory of those who have assisted him, he asserts that there numerous people across the country who will always be willing to stand up for what is right and resist those who wish to undermine American prosperity. The film’s climax emphasizes this idea with a symbol of liberty that is almost comically overt. The events that lead our primary villain to a location where escape is extremely difficult are not terribly logical; however, they do allow Hitchcock to stage another of his famous tension-filled setpieces, a sequence that is rather admirable, albeit primarily on a technical level.

More problematic than the simplistic picture of good and evil or the lapses in logic (which, to be honest, are present in most Hitchcock films) is the way in which Barry’s unlikely accomplices determine that he is on the right side. After all, based on the information these characters have, Barry is a wanted man, responsible for a despicable crime. So how do these good Samaritans make a decision about whether or not Barry is trustworthy? Blind hunches. Just because they happen to be right in this particular case does not make their actions advisable. Even a woman determined to bring Kane in to the police cozies up to him as soon as it gets a little chilly out in the desert. What are audiences to take away from this? That it is OK to place your trust in a stranger as long as he is a clean-cut American boy and gives you a warm feeling inside? Lest we give Hitchcock’s film a pass for being a product of simpler times, we only have to look at Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die, released one year later, to see a film that explores similar ideas with a firmer grasp on common sense and yet does not sacrifice thrills.

Taken purely as light entertainment, there are many things about Saboteur to enjoy, including supporting performances by Otto Kruger and Norman Lloyd, the aforementioned climax and one really impressive stunt. However, the film’s lead performances, typically a Hitchcock strength, never match the quality of the supporting cast. Robert Cummings, in particular, lends little finesse to his two-dimensional do-gooder and renders much his more important dialogue ineffective. Most of all though, it is the film’s muddled wartime message – spies are everywhere, so trust no one … unless you sense that it is OK – that keeps it from being a completely satisfactory experience.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang, 2006)

In ancient Greek drama, the stories told by Sophocles and Euripides often centered on a royal family with some sort of internal corruption or imbalance. The events of the play then were a matter of restoring order and ensuring that the state was able to move forward. Zhang Yimou’s most recent film, Curse of the Golden Flower takes that pattern, adds glorious color and martial arts, then offers a conclusion that does indeed offer reconciliation, though perhaps not in the way we might expect.

Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li play the central roles as the Emperor and Empress respectively, though their union is anything but a pleasant one. For three years he has been away from the palace and in his absence, the Empress has been conducting an affair with the Emperor’s oldest son – a man who calls her Mother although he was born of a different wife. On the flip side, the Emperor has arranged to have his wife’s daily medicine spiked with an herb that will lead her steadily towards insanity. The other key players in the household are the royal doctor and his daughter, a servant, as well as the Empress’ two true sons. Instinctively we know that each of these people will have a role to play in how the story unravels and influence the balance of power. Most often, we are at a least a step ahead of the characters in figuring out who is connected to whom. And yet, the joy of Zhang’s film is in watching just how it all happens.

First and foremost, Zhang’s players enact their melodrama in costumes and a setting that are ornate nearly to the point of absurdity. In nearly every frame, we are bombarded with walls, floors, ornaments, robes and gowns that are so utterly decadent that it becomes something of a relief for us when we finally have a scene that takes place outside. It is as if the royals are being smothered in luxury, their outward show a futile attempt to mask their moral decay. Secondly, Zhang gives his drama an appropriate sense of size and magic with battles that are not physically possible, yet convey in a short amount of time the cosmic import of their outcome. In the film’s most thrilling sequence, warriors clad in black descend from high above into a deep valley to surprise a seemingly defenseless target. In this and other scenes, the faceless tend to die simultaneously in the same fashion. After all, they are merely pawns in the struggle amongst a handful of key players. When the leader of an army survives miraculously while all around him fall, it is because they are not intended to be individuals; rather, they are a visual extension of his own personality and power.

Finally, the acting, while not uniformly excellent, does contain compelling performances where it counts. It is no surprise that Gong Li leads the way, excelling as she does in expressing stubborn determination. Liu Ye, as the eldest son, also turns in a captivating turn, finding humor in dire situations, but never sacrificing the honesty of the moment. I also admired Chen Jin’s performance in the role of a woman with a mysterious background – though it does not remain terribly mysterious for long. Somewhere in between Hero and House of Flying Daggers in terms of political content, Curse of the Golden Flower is, for the most part, simply a broad tale of power and deceit told with uncommon flair. Still, there is enough ambiguity in the closing scenes to fuel a reading that would either support or attack the Chinese government. Because it does not end in typical crowd-pleasing fashion, the sense a viewer makes of this conclusion may prove critical to one’s ultimate satisfaction with the film. Even so, Zhang offers so much that it is hard to imagine a viewer who will not find at least something to admire.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Road Home (Zhang, 1999)

The two young people in a small Chinese village barely speak to each other throughout the entire film and yet director Zhang Yimou is able to offer us in shorthand the power of a union that lasted a lifetime. Here is a story that conveys its central message of love, honor and respect with an extraordinary amount of economy. Although The Road Home spans several decades, it is not epic in scope. There is only one setting really, as we never leave the small mountain village – two if you want to count the long dirt road than winds its way into the horizon and makes the city seem so hopelessly distant. Zhang also focuses on just two moments in time. The first is the tentative courtship of a shy young girl who lives with her blind mother and a teacher from the city whose voice may as well be a siren song. The second – occurring shortly after the teacher’s death some decades later - serves as the bookend for the film’s beginning and ending.

We enter the film through the character of a young man who is the son of the teacher and the young girl who has grown into an old woman. He has returned to the small village from the city in order to assist with funeral arrangements, particularly an unusual request made by his mother. She wants to have her husband’s coffin carried along the long road leading to the village so that he will never forget how to return home. Initially, this may seem like a silly superstition, the loopy demands of a grieving widow. Indeed, it is not a task easily accomplished. All of the young people are out of town and all there is left to do the heavy lifting is a handful of elderly men. However, to understand the significance of this gesture, we are taken back to the moment when the teacher from the big city first caught the attention of the young village girl.

The tale of his father and mother first meeting is told through the mind of their son. As it is being passed on without first-hand knowledge of what occurred, the story rightfully takes on the feeling of legend. The details are sparse, and his father has an effortless magnetism that sends his mother into a dreamlike trance. Little moments of humor and sorrow are told simply but passionately, as if they have been rehearsed and improved over the course of a generation. Even the colors are extra-vibrant, contrasting sharply with the dreary palate that Zhang uses for the scenes that take place in the present day. The attraction between these two people is common – it happens all over the world every day – but to the son who resulted from their union, these fragments of information from before he was born may as well be treasured artifacts. It is not a story of high drama (although there is some unspecified political trouble that we never fully understand); yet, because of the context and the care with which the memories are conveyed, the emotional impact is overwhelming. It is not necessarily the events that occur which draw out our tears, but rather the way in which the son comes to honor the people who gave him life.

Naturally, in the flashback, we come to learn more about the central metaphor that serves as the film’s title and also about its significance to the protagonist’s grieving mother. However, Zhang never pushes his sentiment too forcefully and is successful in finding moments of joy and tension in places that we may not expect – a broken bowl, a lost hair clip, recitations from a teacher’s lesson book. With its G-rating, The Road Home may very well be to Zhang Yimou what The Straight Story (released in the same year) is to David Lynch – a pure, affecting dose of unsophistication that embraces the importance of family and recognizes that life is paradoxically a long, arduous journey that takes place in what can seem like an instant.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Fourth Man (Verhoeven, 1983)

A clear precursor to his early nineties box-office hit, Basic Instinct, Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man tells the story of a man who finds himself ensnared by a woman who is dynamite in bed, but possibly very dangerous out of it. Much like his American output, The Fourth Man aspires no higher than schlock. In this respect, the film is certainly at least a partial success with its casual use of nudity (genitals arrive just after the opening credits!), its over-the-top violence and its occasional moments of “oh-no-you-didn’t” audacity. Verhoeven uses symbols – notably a statue of Jesus that receives adoration above and beyond the call of duty – however, it is clear that he doesn’t really believe in them. They are employed not necessarily to provide his film with depth, but in order to allow Verhoeven opportunities to titillate the viewer with perversions and grotesqueries.

Gerard is a successful writer who is scheduled to give a lecture in Vlissingen, but along the way has a dark premonition that seems to warn of impending danger. Because the vision features the town’s local hotel, he opts to spend the night with one of the lecture’s attendees, a beautician named Christine who has the curious habit of continuously videotaping Gerard. Though he has a live-in boyfriend, Gerard is more than happy to share his hostess’ bed, particularly because she has boyish features. Quickly though, Gerard’s attention turns to Christine’s other lover, a plumber named Herman who has the kind of body that actually looks decent in a Speedo. He encourages Christine to invite her lover over while he is still around, secretly hoping to get a piece of the action. However, left alone to sift through Christine’s video footage, he uncovers a rather distressing pattern.

Though the film is not much different than Basic Instinct in the way it prioritizes sensationalism, it is more tolerable due to the absence of actors like Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone whose self-importance seemed to act as a roadblock to Verhoeven achieving an appropriate tone. Whereas Stone and Douglas seemed to beg us to take them seriously in the midst of tawdry absurdities, Renée Soutendijk and Jeroen Krabbé are refreshingly goofy, pitching their performances somewhere between Fassbinder and Hitchcock. I was particularly fond of Krabbé’s drunken video screening session in which he expresses disgust with what he sees on-screen, all the while failing to reach the conclusions that seem to us as viewers quite obvious. And for all the praise of Stone’s performance, it is rather doubtful that she would have been game enough to allow her breasts to be covered while her male partner raved about how much her naked body resembled a boy’s.

Despite the odd moment of humor and amusing naughtiness, it is difficult to respond to The Fourth Man with a high degree of enthusiasm. It is a mystery that is never mysterious and a thriller that is seldom thrilling. Verhoeven mixes in a dose of religious imagery, but only because such things are certain to get a rise out of somebody and not because he wishes to make any sort of sustained commentary. A little bit of kinkiness and perversion is always at least a little bit fun, but with Verhoeven, it is somehow less so. Perhaps it is because there is no sense of taboo – thus taking away our thrill when a taboo is broken. Depending on your mood, The Fourth Man is either amusing enough to exceed low expectations or too insubstantial to be bothered with.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Inland Empire (Lynch, 2006)

An even more savage assault on the corruption and soul-sucking nature of Hollywood than Mulholland Dr., David Lynch’s Inland Empire is exhilarating filmmaking, giving the illusion of a nightmare run out of control, but holding together because it is meticulously constructed and clear about which pieces of its elaborate puzzle are important. The film’s basic storyline involves an actress who is cast in a remake of a film that no one knows because it was never completed. The original production is thought to have been cursed - and indeed, the actress begins to experience unusual occurrences before she even attends the first readthrough. A strange prophet arrives at her front door with cryptic information about both her present and her future – two states of being that will become increasingly difficult for her to distinguish between.

Complicating matters is that the film’s script seems to parallel her own life. Behind-the-scenes flirtations with the film’s lead actor get intertwined with the fictional tale of adultery being told in front of the camera and Lynch himself encourages the blurriness, creating a palpable sense of unease and disorientation. Further complicating matters is the fact that scenes from the original film (apparently shot in a foreign language) appear interspersed throughout, as well as a bizarre sitcom starring human-sized rabbits. Detractors may wish to point to the rabbits as meaningless strangeness; however, like a Shakespearean dumb show, they set the stage for what follows. A mistimed laugh track responds to non-existent punchlines and the players go through the motions like zombies. Why rabbits? Well, think to yourself … what activity is it that both rabbits and Hollywood actors are famous for really enjoying?

The film’s basic premise - a cursed film script – could be something right out of one of the recent flood of Japanese horror films like The Ring. However, Lynch is able to take the somewhat silly starting point and use it as an opportunity to create masterful riffs on the vampiric nature of Hollywood. Much like his heroine in Mulholland Dr. is eaten alive by the city of dreams, his central character in Inland Empire is put through a wringer, draining her personal emotion and putting it on camera so that it can become a commodity and having her personal life discussed luridly on a vacuous gossip program. From the very beginning of the film, Lynch makes a direct connection between Hollywood stardom and whoredom. When Dern’s character finds herself trapped in a small living room with a large group of young women, it is no accident that it is hard for us to tell whether they are intended to be hot up-and-coming movie starlets or streetwalking hookers. Deftly, Lynch accomplishes everything to which Christopher’s Guest’s For Your Consideration aspired and much, much more. In case we didn’t get the message, he places a critical scene – the closest we get to an explanation – at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. As Dern’s character reaches her lowest point, a homeless person draws a clear connection between the immediate pain being felt in the scene and the big-picture pain that awaits many actresses who are used for their sexuality and then discarded once they are no longer of use. Sometimes a screwdriver isn’t just a screwdriver.

It is a shame that Lynch’s reputation is for being an artist that is contemptuous of his audience and who is willing to string random bizarre images together just to confuse people. The truth is that few contemporary directors give their audiences more respect and few contemporary writers produce scripts so masterfully constructed. As you watch Inland Empire, there will definitely be moments that you cannot immediately digest or put into place. The trick is not to write these moments off as meaningless meandering. Hold them in the back of your mind and Lynch will be certain to offer space for the puzzle piece to fit later in the film. Every clue is repeated in a different context, allowing the viewer to make a meaningful connection in the space in between. Perhaps the only thing that Inland Empire lacks is a moment as emotionally resonant as the ‘silencio’ scene in Mulholland Dr. Nonetheless, Inland Empire is disturbing, funny, thrilling, witty and provocative and deserves to be considered amongst Lynch’s best work.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tykwer, 2006)

The central characters in Tom Tykwer’s films do not live their lives the way most film characters do. The actions that they take and the events that they experience have a significance that I can only describe as cosmic. Many characters in film are introspective or highly concerned about the purpose of their existence. However, there is something particular about Tykwer’s brand of existentialism. In Tykwer’s universe, human suffering and confusion can be transcended by seizing the right moment, taking the right leap of faith, being in the right place at the right time or finding the right combination. In one film, the gateway is literally a roulette wheel. No finer crystallization of Tykwerian existence could be found. In his vision of the world, we are bounced around by chance. If we are fortunate, we may land upon the right number. That which we gain will be determined by how much we risked. If we have been playing for high enough stakes, the windfall can be nothing short of miraculous.

Curiously, Tykwer has typically built his film around characters that are either on the wrong side of the law or out-and-out criminals. Perfume’s Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is without a doubt the worst of the bunch. Born into a pile of fish entrails and raised in an orphanage, Grenouille has little to no sense of morality or compassion. As he grows older, he learns what others consider acceptable behavior and therefore manages to stay mostly out of trouble, but never does he seem to a full-fledged member of the human race. He has been blessed with a highly developed sense of smell, and as the various smells of the city assault his senses, Grenouille is led to investigate, absorb and catalog. It is here where Tykwer is able to assert his notion of human lives being largely at the mercy of chance. Grenouille is lead around - quite literally - by the nose.

Grenouille does not place much value in conventional ideas of right and wrong. For him, there are only good and bad smells. It is therefore extraordinarily distressing for him to discover that he can detect no scent of his own. In Grenouille’s mind, to have no scent is not to exist. This realization sends him into despair and makes him more determined than ever to make a lasting mark on the world. If his lack of body odor verifies his insignificance, then he will find a way to manufacture the finest scent ever known to man. Unfortunately for the local population, it is Grenouille’s belief that this perfume must be produced from a combination of distilled human essence. Obviously Grenouille’s goals are misguided and amoral; however, they are also essentially a repetition of a pathway followed characters in Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior and Heaven leading the way to the Tykwer Miracle, that moment when the roulette ball falls into place and something impossible can happen.

Although it initially seemed to me that the film’s final twenty minutes were dreamlike delusions – and there is much to suggest that they are – further reflection has convinced me that the extent of their reality does not much matter. Tykwer is wise not to dilute the finale’s impact with apologies or explanations. We are presented with a development that flies in the face of logic, yet represents the will of our central character pushing back against the universe that has determined so much of his identity. In the miracle, Grenouille finds vindication, purpose and an opportunity to escape. Although bogged down somewhat by a miscast Dustin Hoffman (Ian Holm would have fared better) and a tired, clichéd murder investigation, Perfume is still a welcome addition to Tykwer’s filmography and contains enough visual delights and provocative questions to be likely to linger within the imagination.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Children of Men (Cuaron, 2006)

Twenty years into the future, the human race faces an extraordinary crisis. For nearly two decades, there has been nary a human birth. The entire planet, it seems, has grown infertile – although it is worth noting that this phenomenon has not extended to the animal kingdom. Whatever it is that has caused reproduction to cease has focused on human beings alone. Although the film remains vague about the specifics of the cause of the mass infertility, it seems clear that it is directly related somehow to mankind’s propensity for perpetual violence. All around the world, countries are devastated and some literally in flames. The answer to the mystery of the missing children may be as simple as this: we no longer deserve them.

The most noteworthy accomplishment to come from Children of Men is how director Alfonso Cuaron immerses us in this sad, damaged world that unfortunately does not look terribly dissimilar to our own. Governmental slogans abound, warning citizens about the dangers of hiring illegal aliens and avoiding fertility tests. In one of the film’s most chilling social commentaries, euthanasia devices are now abundant and advertised on buses throughout the city. In Cuaron’s vision, the human race is dying and not going out with grace. From the advanced technology to the jarring outbursts of violence, Cuaron’s vision of futuristic England is thoroughly convincing. Children of Men will no doubt be best remembered for at least three virtuoso sequences involving long takes that move through meticulously choreographed stunts, effects and high drama. Cuaron works against the typical action scene rhythm and astonishes us with how much he can convey without cutting away. As we follow Clive Owen’s central character, there always seems to be something going on in the periphery that is either posing a potential threat or revealing new information. Only a couple minor problems diminish the thrills, such as a scene involving an uncooperative engine that stretches plausibility too far and some unwelcome blood drops on the camera lens that disrupt the film’s reality by making the camera a concrete part of the scene. Is Owen’s character being followed by a documentary film team?

However, where the film really falls short of its extraordinary potential is exploring the ramifications of its extraordinary premise. A few characters offer brief thoughts on what it was like to have children and how the world has changed since their disappearance; however, the film’s writers seem more concerned with the various machinations of their plot and who will betray whom than they are with allowing the film’s potentially devastating themes to hit home. Despite not-so-subtle visual accusations directed against President Bush and his misguided war in Iraq, Cuaron and his writers are unable to convey the seriousness of the dark world we are creating. The film’s ending is technically complete in that it brings the central mission to a close; however, it leaves us with no idea as to how the accomplishment of this mission has changed those involved. It does not tell us what impact (if any) the mission will have on the world at large. Does the film’s brief moment of peace towards the end of the film tell us enough? It is a nice moment, but not a resolution large enough for the enormous questions that have been unleashed.

Despite all this, you would be crazy to miss seeing this film in the most ideal conditions possible. The film’s core themes may not linger, but Alfonso Cuaron will treat you to a couple things that you’ve never seen before.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Friday Night (Denis, 2002)

Free of extraneous drama or verbiage, Claire Denis’ delightful film, Friday Night chooses to focus on basically one event in the life of an ordinary woman. What we learn initially about Laure, our protagonist, is very basic. We know that she is packing up her apartment and preparing to move in with a man named Francois. Quietly, she lingers over a party dress and wonders, half-muttering to herself, whether or not it is something she should keep. Left alone, without anyone to please, Clare’s preparations resemble a solemn ritual more than a task filled with giddy excitement. Clare does not seem overtly sad; however, there is no mistaking her trepidation. Her anxiety, as best we can tell, does not stem from an abusive boyfriend or anything else quite so dramatic. She merely has typical concerns that are likely to accompany the merging of two lives. Over the course of Friday night, she will set out for dinner plans with a female companion, get caught in traffic because of a Parisian transit strike and hook up for a one-night stand with an attractive stranger. Clearly that last bit is going to be awfully difficult to explain to Francois.

The thrilling aspect of Denis’ film is the way in which she offers an explanation of Laure’s impulsive action not through words or complicated psychology, but rather by powerfully evoking the intoxicating spirit of the evening. This is a difficult sensation to try to convey to someone who has not seen the film - but despite the fact that there are longs stretches in the film where nothing significant happens, it is the way that Denis lingers over specific details that gives Laure’s journey texture and shape. Laure’s infidelity is entirely free of malice and ultimately can only be described as selfish in a positive sense. Would Francois (who we never see) be understanding if he were to find out? Of course not. But unlike Francois, we get to be there with Laure every step of the way. We get to hear the radio message that encourages drivers to pick up hitchhikers. We get to see Laure struggle initially with fear and distrust of a male stranger. Merely by observing her actions, we come to understand her need to retain independence and control of her life. There are even tiny bits of cinema magic, so subtle that you may wonder if you really saw them.

To describe Denis’ film as surreal would be far too strong. To describe it as naturalistic would be selling it short. The events that occur are all quite plausible, and yet with her pacing, editing and frequent close-ups, Denis creates a kind of light haze that helps us to process why Laure makes her decision. Most love affairs – both in cinema and in life – are reckless, with the lack on control fueling the passion. Not so with Laure, as Denis makes her path seem virtually inevitable. Although he would no doubt be outraged to learn what has transpired - as would most of us in his situation - Francois has, by the end of the film, inherited a lover more likely to be secure with her pivotal decision to give up a share of her independence.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton/Faris, 2006)

Little Miss Sunshine is yet another in a long line of film comedies in which the central characters walk a thin line between being lovable misfits and being complete and utter horse’s asses. Imagine if you will National Lampoon’s Vacation except half as funny and twice as schmaltzy. Indeed, Little Miss Sunshine borrows liberally from Vacation, from the pater familias with an artificially sunny disposition to the goofy family vehicle that miraculously holds itself together to an unusual encounter with a highway patrolman to another plot development that I will refrain from revealing here.

Unfortunately, Little Miss Sunshine wants to have it both ways. It wants to be both cold, wicked farce and a touching statement on how a dysfunctional family can come together. It offers us both cruel gags disrespectful of human life and sincere talks on the pier about the nature and purpose of human suffering. It asks us to respect a young girl’s dream and then openly mocks that which she has aspired to be. And when did daring to walk out of step with the mainstream become equated with making a fool and a nuisance of yourself in a public forum?

Having audacity can be an admirable quality; but, it would be nice if that audacity was applied to something more worthwhile than parading your idiocy at a children’s beauty queen pageant. When Chevy Chase stormed Wally World at gunpoint, you could see the mad joy in his eyes as he fulfilled his absurd quest. The characters in Little Miss Sunshine can attain victory only by surrounding themselves with human beings more out of touch with reality than themselves. But no amount of manipulation with bureaucratic hospital employees or icy pageant organizers is going to make a surly Nietzsche-reading teenager who refuses to speak endearing. We don’t want him to find a way to connect with his family. We want him to be beaten with large sticks. Likewise, the revelation of what Grandpa has been teaching our young heroine in his private lessons is not so much humorous as it is sickening.

Taken strictly for cheap laughs, the film is moderately successful with Steve Carell mining some humor out of his character’s deep depression and Alan Arkin dishing out obscenity without flinching. However, the film accomplishes the remarkable task of turning one of today’s great actresses, Toni Collette, into a non-entity. As the sensible mom, Collette is tasked with holding this rickety ship together and playing an actual human being while her cast mates are allowed to indulge their particular quirks. Most importantly though, Little Miss Sunshine fails as a family bonding picture largely because it does not know whether or not it wants to be sincere. In the end, we are not convinced by the power of familial bonds to overcome obstacles. We are convinced that this group should be broken up and kept as far away from each other as possible.