Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Kung Fu Cinema

There has never been a better time than right now to get into Kung Fu cinema. And there’s no better place to start than with the brand new Dragon Dynasty DVD release of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on Kung Fu movies – for that I could easily refer you to a few I know – but I have been dabbling in the genre off and on for several years along with countless other Kill Bill fans. I’ve seen the hilarious and exciting Jackie Chan movie Drunken Master, much better to my eyes than any of his Hollywood movies. I’ve seen The Five Deadly Venoms knowing that it was an inspiration for Kill Bill’s DiVAS. (Honestly, the biggest thrill I got from it though was seeing the famous Shaw Brothers opening logo and fanfare somewhere other than at the top of Kill Bill.)

I’ve recently watched the Dragon Dynasty DVD for Have Sword Will Travel with its thrilling sword fighting climax up and down a pagoda and went through the semi-black market to get a copy of the amazing Shaw Brothers gangster epic The Boxer of Shantung. (For this one, think Scarface set in period Hong Kong with Kung Fu instead of “Say hello to my little friend!” and you’ll start to get the idea.) I even followed the advice of one of those Kung Fu movie experts I told you about and rented We’re Going to Eat You, a great action film set almost entirely on an island of cannibals that is – my friend assures me – the only such film to feature Kung Fu fighting on rollerskates.

None of these experiences prepared me for the greatness of The 36th Chamber though. It tells the story of a village cowering at the feet of a band of oppressors. Its reluctant young hero, San Te, feels that his village would be much better off if they all knew Kung Fu and knows that the monks of Shaolin Temple are the best teachers anywhere, but he doesn’t want to go seek their help since, “They aren’t interested in worldly matters.” But when the villains kill his father, he is forced into action in a scene as wonderfully dark and chilling as Luke Skywalker’s discovery of his murdered aunt and uncle. San Te is now committed to becoming a Jedi Knight … oops, I mean a Kung Fu master.

When San Te arrives at the Temple, by stowing away with some vegetables, he finds himself in a special new world completely insulated from the one he left behind. After a year in the temple though, he complains that he wishes to learn Kung Fu but hasn’t seen anything like it yet, just a lot of yard work and doing dishes. His new masters calmly tell him that all he had to do was speak up and his training – which consists of lessons taught in a series of 35 chambers – could begin.

Again, much like Luke Skywalker, San Te is impatient and wishes to jump straight to the last and toughest chamber to get through his training quicker. And with a sigh, his master obliges and escorts him into a room full of meditating monks. He walks to the end of the room and stands before the head monk who looks up at him with scorn for his impudence and knocks him to the ground merely by the power of his thought, much like The Force. San Te then reconsiders and decides to work his way up from the bottom.

Just as Luke Skywalker had lessons to learn and skills to master before he’d be ready to face Darth Vader, San Te goes through many lessons – a Kung Fu movie expert told me that The 36th Chamber is rare in the huge amount of screen time it devotes to training scenes – and these lessons are widely varied, fun, and fascinating. And of course, just as Luke needed his training with lightsaber and trusting The Force rather than his eyes to defeat his enemies, San Te will need and make use of all of his lessons in often surprising and clever ways to defeat his village’s band of oppressors.

It’s not a coincidence of course that I’ve been comparing The 36th Chamber repeatedly to Star Wars. They’re both torn from the same mythical cloth – even The 36th Chamber’s Buddhist monks as San Te’s mentors have their parallel in Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda (Lucas has never tried to hide the Buddhist inspiration behind these elder Jedi). And I think anyone who enjoys the Star Wars movies will get a major kick out of The 36th Chamber. (No pun intended.) They’re both classic hero journeys and I’m convinced that Lucas had this and other Kung Fu films explicitly in mind when he developed his signature epic.

After watching just a few Kung Fu movies, I’m frequently amazed at all the places I note the genre's influence. It’s actually widely known that the Matrix movies are new school Hong Kong Kung Fu cinema in new clothing. When I finally got around to seeing Casino Royale, I was immediately impressed by its chase and fight scenes as being straight out of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. And just last week, I had a very eye-opening re-watch of Peter Jackson’s horror film Dead Alive. It was eye-opening because I’d forgotten just how great it is – best zombie movie ever I tell you – and because it contains a scene of a Kung Fu fighting priest who “kicks ass for the Lord.” This was a reminder that The Lord of the Rings is heavily influenced by Kung Fu cinema, from the sword fighting to the acrobatic antics of Legolas.

Anyone who really wants to understand why movies like The Lord of the Rings are made the way they are really should take a look at some Kung Fu cinema like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Quentin Tarantino also feels very strongly about this and partially intended Kill Bill as a way to get moviegoers to take an adventure and start watching this striking genre whose popularity has sadly died out since the 70s and grindhouses and disco songs – remember “Kung Fu Fighting?”

Now, how to get more people to start watching the many great horror films that paved the way for the realistic and harrowing violence in films like Saving Private Ryan. I think I’ll save that for another time.


Have you ever wondered what would’ve happened if Edward D. Wood Jr. had attempted a Godzilla movie? Until last night, the thought had honestly never crossed my mind. That all changed though while watching Michael Bay’s Transformers. As ineptly directed as humanly possible, it is also, I fear, destined like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Godzilla versus Space Godzilla to stumble its way into my pantheon of very guilty pleasures.

The “plot” involves a giant cube crashing to Earth and a bunch of non-biological aliens waging battle over some broken eye glasses left in the Arctic Circle by an adventurous scientist who happens to have been the grandfather of Shia LaBeouf. Shia is a rather un-nerdly nerd with nothing on his mind except mentally undressing the girl of his dreams who looks an awful lot like a Playboy playmate of the year. It also has a lot of actors standing around reading dialog like they’ve never seen it before and like they hope to never see it again. It even has Jon Voight and John Turturro popping up here and there apparently tricked into thinking this is a Spielberg movie by the opening image of a boy fishing from the moon. (I’d love to have seen their faces when they discovered the truth.)

We also get to watch a lot of cars race around and often transform themselves into really cool robots that fight with each other and smash other cars and houses and backyard water fountains. The good ones even protect Shia LaBeouf as if they’ve taken lessons from The Iron Giant. I chose the word “cool” because these scenes really are technically quite smashing and really did bring out my inner little boy. I found myself wondering if Michael Bay might be a pretty darn cool director if he made films without, you know, any human characters.

Transformers is the type of movie that I was ready to abandon after about ten embarrassing minutes of opening exposition. At that point, my teenage daughter who had already squirmed her way through it asked me what I thought. I gave her thumbs down and she chuckled telling me it only gets worse. I’m here to report that she was wrong, sort of.

Sure, every time a scene is slammed down in front of us with a bunch of people standing around talking without any cool robots in sight, Transformers becomes a truly dull boy. Fortunately, there are enough scenes with cool robots to allow the movie to build something close to an entertaining sense of forward momentum, even if it is of the three steps forward, two steps back variety. It also has a few aspects that I actually enjoyed.

At the center of this storm of half-baked ideas is a boy-and-his-first-car-coming-of-age-story, the boy being Shia LaBeouf. Now, of course this storyline has been penned with all the finesse of a 10-year-old boy with a box of permanent markers and Bay has once again demonstrated his history as a Playboy video director with his presentation of the love interest played by Megan Fox. (The pretty surfaces and ultimate emptiness of this boy wants girl, boy gets girl scenario is betrayed by the “big kiss” moment at the end which feels totally perfunctory and is allowed seemingly a split second of screen time amongst the hubbub.) All the same though, there is something indestructible about a boy getting his dream girl with the help of a cool car, not even Bay could completely mess it up. And when the car is this cool – the coolest movie car since Christine though of course not as benevolent – how can the boy in me not cheer?

Transformers doesn’t take itself too seriously, always a saving grace in a big bloated Summer blockbuster. There is a tiny evil robot that constantly flits about like a little spider, constantly verbalizing (all the robots talk in some sense) with little “oops” and “uh ohs.” It also gets in a bit of slapstick including a scene where it sneaks across an airport runway. The good robots get their time for slapstick fun as well by spying on and hiding from Shia LaBeouf’s parents outside their house – and totally making a mess of his father’s beloved backyard. One of the robots even gets peed on by LaBeouf’s dog and proves he learned his lesson by later peeing on the unlikable (here) John Turturro. (Okay, maybe that last bit was taking things a bit too un-seriously.)

Finally, the whole film is really, as I alluded, designed as a giant monster movie in the grand old Godzilla tradition and it is fun in this sense. We get introduced to the good monsters and the bad monsters. We get just enough – mostly very silly – background mythology to explain their existence. Then they are set loose to bash each other all over the screen. And for most of the time it is fun to watch, although, as has been my experience with most giant monster movies of the Japanese variety, the climactic battle is more drawn out and busy than exciting. In Transformers, I actually started to nod off during what should have been the most riveting battle in the movie.

I didn’t choose to compare Transformers to Godzilla versus Space Godzilla just willy-nilly. That installment is the most child oriented I’ve seen in the Godzilla franchise and it seemed to work very well at giving children something to enjoy. At least my young daughter seemed to find it engaging. Transformers seems to be aiming at the same audience – it is based on a line of children’s toys after all. And it did take me back to my six-year-old days of playing with and destroying Hot Wheels cars. But its constant references to everything from the Iraq war to masturbation and its visual homage to Playboy and Kill Bill dragged it out of character and into horny teen land. I wish that Michael Bay had shown faith that he could get enough ogle-eyed young boys (and grown men who wish they were young boys) into the theater to make this work and simply cater to their needs. I also wish he’d cut out all those damn scenes of people standing around talking.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

All of our lives are stories and we are the hero of our own stories. That is what I took away with me after reading Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. That is also what Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, learns in the movie Stranger Than Fiction.

Stranger Than Fiction tells the story of Crick, a man who lives a lonely and monotonous everyday existence. He is an IRS bean counter and his preoccupation with numbers and counting rules his life. He counts the strokes as he brushes his teeth. He counts his steps to the bus stop. He calculates the relative percentages of liquid soap remaining in a restroom’s dispensers. He even calculates the odds of his making a fool of himself as he talks to a woman of his infatuations aboard a bus. (And these calculations are cleverly illustrated for us by little graphics superimposed over the scenes with draftsman-like precision that I’m sure would meet Crick’s approval.)

Of course, a story wouldn’t be a story unless something happens that upsets things, and upsetting things is obviously especially upsetting to a man like Crick. So what happens that Crick finds so upsetting? (Have I abused that word enough to make my point that Crick finds an intrusion on his life upsetting?) He begins to hear the voice of a woman describing his actions. He starts to notice his every action is the subject of a constantly nagging omniscient narration.

At first, Crick reacts to this voice in all the ways one would expect in a movie with Ferrell contemporary Jim Carrey. (Stranger Than Fiction often reminds of Carrey movies from Liar Liar to The Truman Show and I suppose it would have worked just as well, maybe better, as a Carrey vehicle.) Crick talks back to the voice as bystanders ogle him as a raving lunatic and when the voice refuses to appear on cue, he smashes a lamp in hopes of hearing his crazed actions narrated. Happily though, the film takes a more promising turn leading Crick into the hands of an English professor played by Dustin Hoffman in one of his best character roles in ages and on a journey to learn just what sort of hero he is in this story of his life.

(Now, I’ll share a bit of honesty. Some stories require a certain leap on the viewer’s part to buy into their concept. And Stranger Than Fiction has a concept that took me two viewings to accept. It is actually constructed as two parallel narratives: the one I’ve described involving Crick and one involving a novelist, Karen Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson. Hers is the voice Crick hears. His story is being written by Eiffel as she struggles through her latest tragic work of fiction. That these two stories – of an author and the character of her story – merge together in the same reality was something I found just a bit too cute, too contrived. Then I came around and took it as a poetic expression of Eiffel’s Crick becoming so real for her that he – you see where I’m going – became really real for her.)

I don’t wish to give away much more in the way of story details. That might spoil the fun. But I’ll share some thoughts. Campbell wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that all stories across all cultures are amazingly similar. They all introduce us to a character in his normal world; they put something in his path that gives him a reason to leave that world; after some reluctance, he leaves the familiar for the unfamiliar; he meets a series of mentors and learns some lessons; he is faced with challenges that ultimately kill him (usually not literally); and he is reborn as something different, possibly better. He is then free to return to his normal world to find that his changes have altered the very weaving of how he fits into that world’s fabric. Keep Campbell’s ideas in mind while watching Stranger Than Fiction, or any movie for that matter. I do think though that Stranger Than Fiction is more about this hero’s journey than merely following it.

The movie also explores the different types of hero – specifically comedic versus tragic as if toying with Ferrell’s familiar on-screen persona – and makes some fascinating observations about how a hero’s story is affected by his knowledge of his own future. Crick and Eiffel do meet in the movie’s pivotal scene and she shares with him the final pages of her “finished” novel. How he reacts to being offered this almost forbidden knowledge and what it tells him about his destiny draws clear parallels between Stranger Than Fiction and the greatest story ever told. At the same time though, it shows that we play an active role in the writing of our own stories, nothing is predetermined and everything can be re-written.

Ultimately, what surprised me about Stranger Than Fiction was finding myself in a Will Ferrell movie that snuck up behind me and replaced the over-the-top goofiness of Ferrell running around a NASCAR speedway in his underwear with a religious inquiry into the conflict between God’s plan and human initiative while still keeping things goofy enough to be fun and without a hint of the pretentiousness that could have so easily been the result.

I’m happy to say that Stranger Than Fiction is the rare fun movie about a meaty topic.


Oh, where do I begin with Michael Moore? I have so many thoughts up and down and all around concerning him and the films that bear his name. I’ll just say off the top that I consider him one of my favorite filmmakers and perhaps one of the most important now working.

He would be the most important without a doubt except for one problem: He has an irresistible drive it seems to aim a gun at his toes and pull the trigger. He gave his attackers an easy opening by fiddling with timelines in Roger & Me. Taking cheap shots at a decrepit Charlton Heston and giving the last (albeit shrewd) word to Marilyn Manson in Bowling for Columbine probably wasn’t a good strategy. He should have known that attacking George W. Bush so viciously during an election year in Fahrenheit 9/11 would leave no room for even a single error. (He made far more than one.)

I’ve come to anticipate each new film with a cringe of anxiety and with SiCKO he is at it again. Brick by brick, he develops his case like a college student writing an essay assignment in persuasion – to persuade us to feel despairingly about the state of health care in the United States. And it worked. My wife and I left the theater ready to up and move to Canada.

But on reflection, why did he choose to open the film by stabbing the now defenseless George W. Bush? Sure, his line about gynecologists needing a chance to show more love to their patients is a classic Bush-ism, but it really didn’t have a function in the film other than to start fanning the flames in the first five seconds. It certainly doesn’t support the film’s overall position that health care is an apolitical issue.

It doesn’t take much thought to become highly unconvinced by his “typical” middle class Americans living in France or his “typical” British doctor’s lifestyle. Yes, in the moment, they make very compelling cases for things being much better in other countries than the evil and broken socialism we are warned about in a propaganda film featuring Ronald Reagan. But, come on now Michael Moore, we all know the only thing “typical” about these examples is that they support your argument.

Finally, why did he have to blow off a few little piggies in the final section by dragging a bunch of 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba to show them getting better medical care than they’ve managed here at home? Sure, the whole escapade is vintage Michael Moore theatrics, but it brings the film to a conclusion that evokes the very communist fears he’s so far spent the whole film side-stepping.

(I thought he was about to blast away at another toe by bringing Hillary Clinton into the picture. I thought, “Oh great. Last time he tried to get George W. Bush out of office. This time he’s going to try to get Hillary elected. Then he threw a curveball by incriminating the Democratic candidate for taking a fat kickback from the big health insurance corporations.)

So, why do I like Michael Moore, let alone find him so important, so valuable? For one thing, his films are very entertaining – entertaining in ways and to a degree that people never thought documentaries could (or should) be. Now, I’m sure I find them especially entertaining – while the whole “Fox News set” considers them like multiple paper cuts beneath their fingernails – because I agree with Michael Moore, maybe not in all the little details, but certainly in the big picture. I feel much disgust for large corporations and fat hog corporate executives. I am for very strong gun control laws. I know in my heart that the nation went on the critical condition list the day George W. Bush stole the White House.

That’s all very subjective though and says as much about me as anything. It demonstrates that I’m a rather radical Democrat. Woo Hoo! Where I find the most value in Moore’s cinema though is in its basic, fundamental, constitutional expression of free speech. I see Michael Moore as a ranter (MS Word’s squiggly line tells me I just coined that term) who has found a very vocal, highly visible vehicle for his rants – certainly more visible than even the highest profile blog and right up there with nationally syndicated columns and the Rush Limbaugh radio show. He gets all worked up about something and shares that passion with the world. And just like Internet bloggers, getting the facts straight or being fair and unbiased isn’t a top priority. Getting people’s attention and getting their tongues wagging is what counts.

Michael Moore is one of our most important filmmakers because he forces issues that are burning a hole through his heart out in the general consciousness where real discussion can begin. And he goes after issues that I feel should be burning holes through all of our hearts. Maybe someday he’ll put it all together and make a film that is as bulletproof in its arguments and fact-checking as it is hilarious and crafty – and effective at raising temperatures. But would that really make it a better film? Is it even possible in this bi-partisan country to pull both sides together on these issues? Or is flame fanning really our best compromise?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee has a handicap to overcome that is as challenging as anything its 11-year-old heroine has to face. It has to overcome a sense of déjà vu, that sense of “I’ve seen this oh so many times before.” The fact that it overcomes this so satisfyingly must go down as one of the major movie triumphs of 2006. I watched Akeelah with my family last night. Afterwards, I told my daughters, who were still bouncing around the room from the experience, that I was going to write a review. They told me, “It better be a good one dad.”

This was a rare occasion for me. I had no idea who directed this movie as I watched it. I’m usually really up on that sort of thing, but in this case I just wanted to see a good movie about a girl competing in a spelling bee. When the credits rolled, I saw the name Doug Atchison flash by and I was surprised. Not that it was Atchison – a name I’d never heard before and, after checking Internet Movie Database, one that still means nothing – but that it wasn’t John G. Avildsen the director of Rocky and The Karate Kid.

And there is the source of my déjà vu. If you’ve seen those movies, not to mention Bad News Bears and just about any other sports movie, you’ll feel your thoughts just a bit ahead of every twist and turn. We have a talented heroine who reluctantly starts down the road to glory with everything in her upbringing working against her. We have the stern mentor figure who insists she prove herself before he accepts the role of coach. (And of course, he also has his own skeletons that make his involvement in the relationship painful and yet also inevitable.) There are exciting training montages that felt only to be missing “wax on, wax off” to be complete although they did contain the physical challenge of holding up a rather large and heavy book and the meaningful and rhythmic use of a jump rope. We have early competitions with necessary lessons to be learned before taking on Goliath. And speaking of Goliath, he has a father as clearly and vicariously re-living his disappointing childhood through his own child as the dark pitcher (son)/coach (father) relationship in The Bad News Bears.

So, how does the movie manage to still feel fresh and alive? Well, first off and to be fair, I was caught a few times patting myself on the back for my cleverly figuring out what was going to happen next only to be surprised by an unexpected twist. This always brought a most welcome blush to my experienced movie geek sense of pride. I love it when a move that seems predictable proves me wrong. That really isn’t the reason I ended up loving Akeelah and the Bee though.

I loved it because I loved the characters. Sure a few never convincingly took flight like Akeelah’s mom played by Angela Bassett or the poor boy saddled with the thankless role of Akeelah’s sour and humorless arch rival or the poor man stuck playing the rival’s father with a steady, stern sneer, the source of his son’s sour humorlessness. But soaring far above these stock characters are the magnificent performance by the always reliable Laurence Fishburne as Akeelah’s spelling coach and the totally appealing work by the young J.R. Villarreal as Akeelah’s competitive soul mate, guide, and first crush in the dog-eat-dog world of competitive spelling. He delivers one of my favorite lines, “I almost had to start tap-dancing,” after stalling a panel of judges for what must’ve seemed an eternity on Akeelah’s behalf.

As for Akeelah played by the young and startlingly talented Keke Palmer, this is one of those star-in-the-making performances that I never wanted to see end. I could’ve watched her natural, instinctive talent win, lose, or draw spelling bees for six or eight more hours and, if she decided along the way to switch to baseball or swimming or playing the piano with her toes, I would’ve followed her there as well. She is that good. She is just that appealing. We’re going to see a lot more of this girl in the years to come and I’ll be keeping my eyes pealed.

Or, maybe, there is something more primal behind my attraction to this movie, as well as my love of every movie I earlier lumped together as examples of sports movie predictability. Perhaps, as Joseph Campbell demonstrated in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we have a collective need for heroes who take these journeys and succeed against the odds, heroes who reluctantly enter a new world, work with tough trainers who teach them important lessons, confront their dark side, and experience their own form of triumph. If it was good enough for Luke Skywalker, it’s certainly good enough for Rocky Balboa, The Karate Kid, and, now, Akeelah.

A Scanner Darkly

"Making the wearer of the scramble suit the ultimate everyman. He looks like a constantly shifting vague blur … Let's hear it for the vague blur." Laughs and applause erupt in a room full of businessmen.

This dialog occurs in an early scene from the fantastic and fascinating film A Scanner Darkly written and directed by Richard Linklater. Our protagonist, Bob, an everyman even by name, is addressing a room of generic businessmen, a twisted satire of a Lions Club luncheon. And as early scenes typically do in movies, the theme of the film is established. We are watching a film about the “faceless establishment,” “big business,” or whatever else you wish to call it versus the “people.” Bob goes on to worry about how Substance-D (more on this in a moment) is hooking our kids at a young age and to express the urgent need to rid the country of its dependency on this drug. His voice trails off to a mutter as the businessmen grow restless, their financial motivations for the continued success of Substance-D quite clear. He takes his seat and the moderator retorts, “Let’s eat.”

A Scanner Darkly is a science fiction film about a drug-addicted public of the near future based on a novel by Philip K. Dick who also brought us Blade Runner. It stars Keanu Reeves as an undercover agent, Bob, assigned to gather information about himself. (Agents wear scramble suits that hide their identities even from their superiors making this strange situation possible.) Bob shares the screen with an assortment of companions played with loopy druggie logic and behavior by Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, and Linklater regular Rory Cochrane and, as in all of Linklater’s dialog driven, often conspiracy theory fueled films, the verbal interactions between these characters are at dazzling center stage.

What a viewer will find most immediately striking about the film is its visual style. Like Linklater’s earlier film Waking Life, a technique called rotoscoping has been used throughout the film. This technique involves shooting real actors and then creatively tracing, drawing, and otherwise animating over the top of that reference footage to create a realistic yet oddly detached and dreamlike impression. Both Waking Life – about dreams – and Scanner – about characters losing grasp with reality – benefit strongly from this approach.

Back to that drug Substance-D. It is, both for the radical 60s writer Dick and for the like-minded Linklater, a metaphor for how people are subtly made dependent on the proper consumer lifestyle by “the establishment” – recall Bob’s concern about kid’s getting hooked at a young age and notice how in today’s world advertising makes it essential that kids keep up with the latest Nintendo, etc. Slacker, Linklater’s breakthrough film, depicts do-nothing Austin, TX denizens leading a laid-back resistance to America’s addiction to consumerism. The relationship of this to drug addiction is interesting. How many times have you heard that, no matter how rich you get, you never have enough? Any amount of wealth and possessions merely breeds a need to have more. And no dosage brings the same level of pleasure for long. Something -- higher taxes, higher cost of living, or the latest expensive stuff you must have to stay "happy" -- always comes along to make a level of income less satisfying this year than last.

Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is about the final day of school for some high school kids and how they blow off steam that night. What that film methodically depicts is a process of molding and shaping boys and girls to become men and women who fit acceptably into society and the ugly results of this process if it goes awry (or goes too perfectly?). Because of this, Dazed has been referred to as a horror film with a hero who resists doing what is expected and, like Scanner’s Bob, goes cold turkey by refusing to sign away his life to tradition. This makes Scanner a remake of sorts of Dazed with the making of good, proper little Americans by “the man” represented by drug addiction and high school hazing respectively.

Sadly, as is expressed in Scanner – “the world is getting worse” – things have gotten bleaker in Linklater’s outlook. In Dazed, the hero escapes and hits the road to buy Aerosmith tickets. In Scanner, Bob, now on a rehab work farm, plucks a blue flower, the source of Substance-D, and quickly tucks it into his pocket.

Talladega Nights

When the most memorable characters in the movie are supporting players, there is something very wrong in Talladega Nights. Something got lost in Will Ferrell’s attempt to turn Ricky Bobby into a comic legend of the speedway. As I sit and write this, all that sticks in my mind is a guy running around in his underwear believing he is in flames. I’m not sure if I can attribute this memory to the movie though. I had already seen this bit 247 times on television back when the trailer continuously interrupted everything from Lost to Bobby Flay’s Throw Down. (I kept count and can prove this number if you give me a few minutes to falsify my data.)

Ferrell doesn’t seem to have it in his genes for improvisation. Situation after situation gets set up, but never makes that jump from this dimension to the one where comedy re-defines the laws of nature. When he runs about in his underwear or rides a child’s bicycle, he doesn’t take it anywhere. He just keeps doing it and keeps doing it with the fierce belief that duration breeds funniness. It’s as if Charlie Chaplin’s gold prospector had waddled up to the table and started eating and eating and eating and had never been struck with the idea to make his bread rolls dance.

Farrell doesn’t seem to have any more feel for verbal improvisation. In a dinner table scene, he prays to baby Jesus and defends his preference of a child in diapers against his family’s protests that the real Jesus is a man with a beard. His protests merely lead once again to him assuming something of a seated fetal position just short of sucking his thumb and repeating over and over that his Jesus is the baby Jesus. It made me wish the scene had been handed to the young actors playing his sons. We get a snippet of their verbal invention here and elsewhere and we get far more in the DVD bonus materials.

The best evidence of Ferrell’s barely dripping faucet of comedic inspiration is the obligatory (though maybe not for Ferrell) bloopers reel during the end credits. None were funny. None made me glad to stick around and learn that the steadicam was operated by Joe Chess. None displayed the sense of easy, effortless nuttiness that flows so naturally out of Jim Carrey. One can never blame Talladega Nights’ failings on a film editor who lacked a sense of humor. He seems to have determinately kept everything in the movie that was even remotely funny.

On the memorable side is Gary Cole’s rendition of Ricky Bobby’s father. We never really get to know the guy, but Cole brings so much nuance and body language to the role that we effortlessly fill in the blanks. All his fast but pathetic living and his life-long passion for the fine art of refusing to grow up can be spotted in his odd flair for clothing, in his unkempt hair, and in his air of boyish recklessness. He is like an archetypical wayward father miraculously filled with little surprises.

Also memorable is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Jean Girard. His is a towering, slicked back, reptilian presence. I’m not entirely sure where he thought he was going with his take on the sports movie villain. He never really became someone worth hating. He just felt like a writer had grabbed the first idea that raced past him while searching for an opposite to Ricky Bobby’s unsophisticated white trash. Why of course! Make him an elitist French culture snob. All the same, Cohen played it for everything it was worth and seeing Jean Girard in the heat of a race quietly perusing a copy of Camus’ The Stranger gave me a smile and a chuckle. Now there was something I didn’t expect to see. It’s a bad sign though when an underdeveloped character and a misconceived character overshadow the hero of the story.

Maybe I’m assigning too much blame to Will Ferrell. I do find his Elf endearing and Ferrell’s testing the Jack-in-the-Boxes for defects in that movie is a bit of true comic genius, perfectly timed, perfectly funny. Maybe instead of all this meandering improvisation a sports movie needs a more predictable arc and the discipline to touch all the key bases that make us care. By the time Talladega Nights arrives at its big confrontation, it feels like a complete after thought. I didn’t care who crossed that finish line first. Imagine The Karate Kid ending with just two boys fighting instead of a kid we have grown to love coming of age by defeating pure evil. That’s what Talladega Nights gives us, just two guys working their way perfunctorily toward a checkered flag.

The Fountain

Rarely does a movie come along that captures my imagination and instantly vaults into my list of all-time favorites. It has happened twice recently with Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring – both sent my mind spinning. It happened again in 2006 with The Fountain.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), The Fountain tells three different stories involving the same characters in three widely different time periods. There is an ancient story of Spanish Conquistador Tomas (Hugh Jackman), Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz), a Grand Inquisitor, and the discovery of the Tree of Life hidden amidst some Mayan pyramids. There is a contemporary story of Dr. Tom (Jackman) and Izzy (Weisz) with her dying from a brain tumor and his frantically performing experiments on lab monkeys trying to find a cure. Finally, there is Tom (Jackman) flying through space toward a dying star in a bubble containing a large tree.

Now that’s a lot of stuff for a 96 minute movie to juggle, but Aronofsky pulls it off. In terms of plot, there has been little disagreement as to what is going on. In the contemporary story, Izzy is writing a book – her poetic thoughts on what she and Tom are going through – and the film’s editing makes it very clear that the ancient scenes are what Tom imagines as he reads her book, the book being an allegory with the Grand Inquisitor’s actions and his covering a map with blood representing Izzy’s cancer and the Conquistador Tomas’ attempt to kill the Grand Inquisitor representing Tom’s effort to conquer the cancer. (Izzy refers to Tom as her conquistador.)

There has been some disagreement as to which of the other two time periods is the present. Some feel that the contemporary stuff is the present and that the space stuff is all in Tom’s mind as he attempts to write the final chapter of her book. Others consider the space stuff to be the present and the contemporary stuff being Tom’s memories seen in flashback. I think that the editing and cinematography better support this second take, not to mention Aronofsky’s own statements in its favor. Either reading is entirely supportable though and leads to its own uniquely gratifying way of seeing the film.

The film delves deeper than mere plot though – which is where most movies stop. Aronofsky has been very interested in religion – especially the Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah – and with the ideas of Carl Jung. The Fountain consists of four parts: the ancient, the contemporary, the future, and spaceman Tom’s final separation to a vantage point outside of it all. The Kabbalah is usually depicted graphically by the Tree of Life with the lower part of the tree being man’s lower, animal nature; the middle part his human/mental nature; and the top his spiritual nature. However, man is truly the Seer who is outside of the Tree and looking at it. Jung considered our lives to contain four stages: infancy/youth, young adult, middle age, and old age/death. These are different names for the same ideas.

During the ancient scenes which correspond to the lower level, all Tomas thought would work was brute animalistic force. He wanted to kill the Priest and he was fighting with his men and ultimately against the Mayans – and that part was interesting. It symbolized his courage to defeat his lower emotions, because once the Mayans saw he was prepared to battle them, they let him pass.

The contemporary story has him trying to use human intellect and reasoning to reach his goal. But he must be guided by the spiritual and not follow the lower animal. We see him following his animal nature many times, even one time peering through an x-ray of a monkey skull with it matching the outline of his own face. We also see his turning toward the divine for inspiration when he looks up through a skylight.

The top level is the spiritual level. In space he was meditating, doing Tai Chi, and otherwise preparing spiritually to finally "finish it" and reach Nirvana/Heaven/Peace (the film gives us freedom to use whichever term we desire). When Tom has his revelation late in the film, he is able to stop nourishing himself from the base of the tree and can effortlessly climb high in its branches. He then flies away, able to look upon the complete picture.

In Jung’s work, especially involving alchemy, certain shapes are associated with these different levels or stages. Circles are symbolic of the highest stage. Squares and triangles – which are really just primitive circles, a circle being an infinite sided shape – are symbolic of less finished stages. There is a lot of interplay between these shapes in The Fountain. Triangles abound in the ancient scenes. The contemporary scenes are designed around squares and rectangles. The spaceship is a great circle. When Tom is overcome by his emotions, he turns to performing surgery on monkeys illuminated by a triangular pattern of lights that echoes the pattern on the dagger/map in the ancient story. Tom gets divine inspiration by looking up through a rectangular skylight to circular swirling clouds.

Jung called the process of finishing oneself, of becoming complete, Individuation. A very important aspect of Individuation is a mutual development of both our male and female aspects. Jung saw the Hindu God Shiva – often depicted as half man and half woman – and Jesus – sometimes depicted in androgynous terms as the returning Adam to restore the separation of the sexes begun with Eve – as perfect examples of Individuation. In Kabbalah, moving up the Tree of Life involves an intertwining of the male and the female. There is a wonderful illustration of this in The Fountain when Izzy desperately pulls Tom into the bathtub with her. (Some ancient illustrations of the Androgynous Man show an intertwining of man and woman above a circle encasing a square encasing a triangle.) What Tom lacks to be finished is a developed female aspect of his psyche and Izzy knows this. He is all aggression and driven by the need to control and to conquer. Izzy – his Eve – is helping him to finish himself.

Ultimately, all of this really boils down to a pivotal moment in Tom’s and Izzy’s lives. Will he go for a comforting walk with Izzy during her final days, or will he continue to be the conquistador. Will he become finished in the sense of being male and female? Or will he remain unfinished?

Jesus Camp

God works in mysterious ways – and so does the Devil. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady also had to work cleverly when they made the documentary Jesus Camp, perhaps the years best horror film. They had to act as devil’s advocates – ironically in this case – and work their way into the confidences of Becky Fischer and her ministerial team. They couldn’t risk Michael Moore tactics. They had to burrow carefully and silently like moles into the midst of the “Kids on Fire” summer camp and let their subjects do the rest.

Fischer says at one point, “The devil uses tactics to destroy our lives.” In a pivotal scene, a guest pastor at the camp takes 12-year-old Levi on stage and narrates to him God’s storybook of his life, cupping his hand as if holding a book. But the devil giggles at the subconscious details. The pastor scribbles the story with his finger as he tells it. He isn’t reading Levi God’s story of his life. He is re-writing God’s story to fit the camp’s goals.

Jesus Camp spends a lot of time reminding us that kids are kids. They like to scare each other in the dark with ghost stories. They hate it if their bacon gets in their syrup. They enjoy Harry Potter even if it requires sneaking a peak now and then. They like to swing on swings and they like to throw rocks.

Jesus Camp quickly settles in to focus on three kids all wonderfully cast for their effortless appeal. They’re cute and vivacious. Their potential is evident in every frame of celluloid, making the tragedy of their stolen potential all the more poignant and distressing.

We have Rachael, age 9, a chatterbox of a natural charmer. The type of kid who could walk up to a stranger’s door and sell her 25 boxes of Girl Scout cookies without batting an eye. All of her talents though have been channeled into walking up to provocatively dressed women in bowling alleys and elderly men in parks attempting to save them. She dreams of being a manicurist so she can have an endless supply of captive listeners as she spreads the good news. She shrugs off other kids who say she’s weird. One day they’ll be sorry she says.

We meet Levi during a home school lesson, a wonderfully compact study of how home schooling can go terribly wrong. His mother asks, “What if you had to go to a school where the teacher said creationism is stupid and you’re stupid if you believe in it?” Levi stammers looking for words and his mother cuts him off, “What if you had to go to a school where the teacher said evolution was stupid?” Levi answers, “I wouldn’t mind that.” His mother continues, “When you look at creationism, you realize it’s the only possible answer to all the questions.” “Yes,” he replies, “that’s exactly what dad said … I think Galileo made the right decision by giving up science for Christ.”

We meet Tory, age 10, while doing what gives her the most pleasure, dancing to heavy metal Christian rock. She is another cute chatterbox who displays a dancer’s grace in every move from answering her mother’s questions with a flip of her arm and toss of her hair to fastening her suitcase and eating breakfast with musical fluidity. She also chastises herself, filled with self-disgust over her awareness that she sometimes dances for “reasons of the flesh.” She is so ashamed of something so natural for a girl of 10 that I had to look twice to see if her mother is Margaret White from Carrie. Tory is later reduced to a tear-streaming mess as she is admonished at camp to repent for these “sins.”

The common denominator with all three kids is they have been molded into little soldiers spreading the word of Christ, and have been made so at the cost of their individuality. People are born to serve God in infinitely many ways. I know a family of siblings who glorify God every day with their singing voices. Akeelah in Akeelah and the Bee refracted God’s light through her prowess in spelling bees. I know a teenager who excels in swimming. She once told me, “When God created me, he wrote ‘swimmer’ on my forehead.”

Much of the imagery used by the “Kids on Fire” camp reminds one of the military. And it really is a basic training experience – brainwashing, I say, as evidenced by the rhythmic and hypnotic chanting and drumming that accompanies chastising the kids for their sinful, “hypocritical” lives – and is steeped in the military ideal of Us versus Them. It is Us versus Islam. It is Us versus non-believers. And, as Rachael says, it is Us versus the “dead churches” that just sing a few songs and quietly listen to a sermon.

What pop out the other end of this grinder is not God-made individuals, each with his or her unique role to play, but rather a battalion of like-minded children ready to goosestep their way back into the world. Becky Fischer tells the campers, “Do not let Satan get you off the path God has chosen for you.” I’m sure Satan would be most happy to shake her hand and offer thanks for the help

Knocked Up

Knocked Up. Hmm, I think a better title would have been Snuck Up because this baby snuck up on me twice.

When I first heard the title, I thought, “Oh great, another stupid sex comedy about some guys spending every waking moment trying to get laid and then one of them has to deal with the nightmare of getting unlucky.” Then I noticed it was by the creator of Freaks and Geeks, a TV series I’ve loved completely ever since a friend loaned me her DVD set for a long road trip. That got me interested. (The fact that I disliked the 40-Year-Old Virgin didn’t deter my interest either.)

So, I finally got around to seeing it with my wife and was pleasantly surprised. I loved every minute of it. From start to finish, I was either smiling or laughing or nodding my head with recognition of the characters’ plight. I found it wonderfully observed. It wasn’t a stupid sex comedy about getting laid. It was a stupid sex comedy about getting laid with a heart, one that cared about and understood its characters much like the first American Pie, another film that snuck up on me.

Driving home, the film snuck up on me for the second time. My wife said, “That was a complete dick flick.” I cleaned the wax from my ears and asked her to say it again. She said, “That’s a movie only a guy could love.” I thought to myself, “That’s a new one. A film containing pregnancy tests and birthing classes and women sitting in bed eating ice cream and a child delivery scene full of details – ‘Give me an epidural now!!!’ – seemed to me chick flick city. How could this be a dick flick?”

Reading back now over what I just wrote, those are all things I know from my direct experience with the whole having babies thing. Those are all things any guy with kids should know. They are all having-a-baby clichés. Maybe I overestimated the quality of observation because I was having such a good time?

Yes, I think she was right. When I pressed her to elaborate on her dick flick feelings, she said that it’s one thing for a woman that successful and that beautiful to get really, really drunk and get knocked up with a guy like that, but once she’s sobered up and sees him for the schmuck he is she would be out of there in nothing flat. “He wasn’t even very nice to her,” she added. And I can’t really argue with this, except I thought he was a pretty nice guy. In any real world situation (yes, I know this isn’t the real world, it’s the reel world), such a woman wouldn’t give such a guy any chance of success. This film stretched the idea of looking past the outside to see the inner beauty as far past the breaking point as Shallow Hal did, maybe more so. It just ain’t credible.

I found myself forced to explore why it worked so well for me and one reason was immediately obvious. It was made for me to love. Like the guy, Ben, I’m a nerd who spends a lot of time watching movies and can even imagine myself in some alternate life living like Ben with several nerdy roommates and spending all my time building a website that keeps track of how far into movies one must skip to get to the scenes of exposed boobs and bush. I could easily have been one or two different decisions at age 20 away from living Ben’s life. The girl, Alison, is like all those unobtainable goddesses of my early twenties who’d possibly allow me a dance at a club if enough alcohol was involved, but whose phone numbers always rang at some retirement home across town or at the neighborhood Taco Bell once I got up the nerve to dial them.

The other reason Knocked Up worked for me is that it truly is, like American Pie, a cut above the usual sex comedy fare. It is filled with those unexpected turns of character that are beyond the usual reach and ambition of the genre. The husband of Alison’s sister, Pete, seemed headed straight toward villain territory before taking a series of character revealing detours – my favorites involving a game of fantasy baseball and a Vegas hotel room that has a few too many mismatched chairs. For another example that really made me smile, a nightclub bouncer pulls Alison’s irate sister, Debbie, off to the side and calms her with a speech that sneaks up on you with its sad and raunchy frankness. (Another reason to re-title it Snuck Up.)

The film is also stuffed full. (My first words to my wife after leaving the movie were, “Now that movie was a very full movie. It was stuffed to the brim with great moments.”) There is the girlfriend of one of Ben’s stoner roommates who talks just like girlfriends of many stoner friends from my younger days. (Can you buy these girls in a box with instructions to just add water?) Ben and Pete escape to Vegas where they learn the answer to the eternal question: What would Cirque du Soleil be like on psychedelic mushrooms? And in still another one of those out-of-left-field moments, we learn a compelling theory for how a bunch of guys can all suddenly be stricken with pink eye. Hint: it involves farting into each other’s pillow.

So, I was learning so many unexpected things in imaginative ways and was laughing so much at myself in some alternate version of my own life that I was completely duped. I thought I was treating my wife to an afternoon out to see a chick flick – or at least a couple’s flick – when I had really dragged her to see some new breed of dick flick, one that replaces car crashes and machine guns with movie geek talk and scenes debating when to best launch an almost porn website. Maybe it was a good thing I never glanced over to gauge her reactions. It might’ve spoiled the fun.

You Can Count on Me

Well, you are in for a treat. We have saved the best for last. You Can Count on Me is a real gem of a movie that I fear very few people have seen, or even heard about. It is my favorite American movie since 2000 and one that I find myself compulsively re-watching every time the credits end. Why do I love it so? Let me count the ways:

You Can Count on Me tells the story of a brief reunion between a woman, Samantha (Sammy) and her brother Terry. They are very close but live far apart, leading very different lives. They share a tragic bond, the auto accident death of their parents when they were children. One of the things I love about the movie is how compact and efficient it is at conveying information. It is very much like a poem actually. This tragic event along with the film’s main themes is conveyed in three quick and concise scenes. The parents are driving at night. The wife asks why teenage girls always get braces at the worst emotional time in their lives. In a flash, there is a head-on collision. A police officer tries to tell the children’s babysitter, but finds no words. The young Sammy and Terry sit together at the funeral. No wasted exposition. No wasted words. The whole movie is like that.

I love how Sammy and Terry (engagingly played by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo) feel like sister and brother. They have that same wavelength, completing each other’s thoughts quality. When Terry asks Sammy if she’d like to smoke some pot, she replies, “Come on Terry, No! … Why? Do you have some?” Cut to them standing on the porch sharing a joint and looking like they’ve shared a great many others over the years.

Their characters are actually drawn in a way that makes them kind of fold over on each other. Inside Sammy is clearly Terry, inside Terry is Sammy. At the outset, Sammy is the light and Terry is the dark. The beauty in how the movie plays out is in flipping this first impression around and showing how each is both the light and dark for the other. Both could speak the line “you can count on me” to the other and it would be entirely truthful. (Fortunately, the movie is much too smart, much too subtle to be so literal.) This is the kind of subtle film where the character arc is drawn by spacing out four scenes of sister and brother. Terry sheds tears for the first two while Sammy fights back the tears in the first and is the comforter in the second. Both laugh at Sammy’s confessions in the third. In the last of these scenes, Sammy is in tears and Terry is the comforter.

I love how the movie captures rural town life. Wayward Terry returns home after a long absence filled with jail time and getting his girl friend pregnant and simply wants to sneak in, get some money from Sammy, and disappear. To his disappointment, he can’t even walk one city block without being stopped by two passers-by who wish to catch up on old times. While driving to work, Sammy drowns out her “same old same old” feelings by cranking up the radio. And Terry can’t treat his nephew, played charmingly by Rory Culkin, to a clandestine game of pool at a tavern without getting caught red-handed. (They sure have a lot of fun though.)

I love seeing Matthew Broderick in a role that is a bit different for him. (Actually, I have mixed feelings about Broderick in the movie.) Here, he plays Sammy’s bank manager boss Brian and he is, in Sammy’s own words, “the worst boss they’ve ever had.” He is like the boss from Office Space multiplied by every boss who ever didn’t give a hoot about his employees having lives outside of the office. Unfortunately, he never escapes remembrances of Ferris Bueller as if Brian is a vision of Ferris all grown up and turned cynical. This Ferris syndrome then circles around and saves the day when Sammy and Brian develop a relationship. I only believed that Sammy would see something in the pathetic Brian because he does have a dose of Ferris Bueller and who wouldn’t feel an attraction?

I love the portrayal of Sammy’s church’s pastor in a wonderfully understated performance by the movie’s writer/director Kenneth Lonergan. In a way, his character stands in for what I like most about the movie. He never says one more word than necessary and says nothing if that’s what’ll get the job done. He meets with Sammy and Terry and delivers a long speech that sees right through Terry’s exterior to his very soul. In a later scene with Sammy, he lets her do all the talking with only brief replies and nods of the head like a master counselor. And I love how, no matter what his approach, he just sits calmly in a chair with perfect posture and hands neatly folded in his lap.

Finally, I love Lonergan’s choice of the music of Steve Earle throughout the movie in association with Terry. Earle, a real-life self-obsessed outlaw, crafted country tunes that feel as if they were written with Terry in mind. (More likely, of course, Terry was written with Earle’s songs in mind although I have no evidence.) It is the final music cue with Terry riding on a bus to the strains of “Pilgrim” that has me pressing play and starting the movie all over again. I love that song. I love this movie.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Half Nelson

Sorry. If you were hoping that Half Nelson is the next in a long and proud line of drug addict movies from Cinema 100, you are bound to be disappointed. Not because it isn’t about a drug addict. It is. And not because it doesn’t take a very frank and detailed look at its drug addicted character in a way that makes one feel his pain. It does. (There is a scene early in Half Nelson set in a girls’ locker room that makes smoking crack seem like the most miserable of human pastimes.) The movie isn’t about drug addiction though.

Half Nelson tells the story of an inner city high school teacher, Dan, played superbly by Ryan Gosling. He is also the girls’ basketball coach and it is both in the classroom and on the court where he forms a relationship with 13-year-old Drey, played very charmingly by newcomer Shareeka Epps, one of many great finds giving the movie a real sense of real high school kids. Dan and Drey’s lives are forced together by the crack smoking scene I mentioned and their relationship is filled with struggle between his white, upper middle class upbringing and her streetwise childhood which includes firsthand knowledge of the drug world.

Dan is, you might say, addicted to conflict. The school principal comes down on him for not following the mandated textbooks. He instead teaches his students about dialectics, a theory that attempts to explain how change works. He fills his class time with discussions about who is “the Man” that is keeping us down and with demonstrations of struggles and breaking points using arm wrestling contests. One of his students describes the school as being “the Man” and then she points out that so is Dan since he works for the school. He counters that the machine is even bigger, encompassing all the students as well. It is a sad commentary in the movie that Dan’s self-styled approach places such light bulbs over his students’ heads while the government mandated curriculum will just leave them asleep at their desks.

Dan has become disillusioned by his own teachings though. In a telling scene, he picks up a woman in a bar and takes her to a motel. He laments to her about his Iraq war frustrations such as how many people still believe there are weapons of mass destruction to be found. He then asks the question, “What can I do? I’m one man. ” And then in a moment of crystal clear cinema, the film cuts to his preparing lines of cocaine, providing his answer to his own question.

While visiting his apartment, a woman friend notices the Communist Manifesto on his shelf and asks if he is a communist. Visiting her apartment later, he says before entering, “I am not now nor have I ever been a communist.” He then tries to have sex with her and she strikes him on the mouth. This struggle leaves him wearing a Band-Aid on his lower lip for the next few scenes. Not just any Band-Aid though, but one resembling an American flag. It is a comic touch that reminds me of the 60s counterculture figure Peter Fonda drifting through Easy Rider with an American flag protecting him in the form of a motorcycle helmet. It is actually closer in spirit though to the bandage Jack Nicholson wears in Chinatown after getting his nosed slashed for being “too nosey.” For Dan, this American flag doesn’t offer protection, just a reminder of his injury when his ideas came in conflict with real life.

Dan says at one point that “If you change one person, you change the…” But he cuts himself short almost embarrassed by the cliché. Later he says, “One man alone means nothing…” and then again cuts himself off with a laugh. His whole passion for the theory of dialectics (probably cribbed from Marx) is based on struggle between two opposing forces leading to a breaking point, this breaking point giving birth to a new idea. Dan has many struggles and many breaking points during Half Nelson. The most beautifully cinematic one has him driving his car past some drug dealers. We see him trying to decide if he should stop or continue. His windshield is bathed in the red light of a stop light. Then this switches to green light. At that moment, it is truly one man’s choice – he is free to keep on driving. Instead, he puts the car in reverse and returns to the drug dealers. At the end of Half Nelson, Dan is faced with a number of breaking points and we are left wondering what he will do. Has he completely given up on the power of one person? Will he make the right choice at least once?

So, Half Nelson isn’t just another in a long line of Cinema 100 movies about drug addicts. It is another in a long line of movies about progressive ideas and the struggles – often disheartening – to make them a reality.

The Squid and the Whale

I had a hard time with The Squid and the Whale – at first. It is a very claustrophobic film. It traps us in tight spaces with a very unlikable main character named Bernard played by Jeff Daniels. Bernard and his wife, Joan, are going through an ugly divorce. And their two sons, Walt, the elder, and Frank are having a tough go of it. Walt mirrors his father’s worst qualities while dating – or rather tormenting – his new girlfriend. Frank, about age 12, starts experimenting with alcohol and exhibits some rather disturbing behavior involving masturbation and the spreading of the result on library books and school lockers. You know, a great date night at the movies.

After viewing, I sat back and said, “What did I just watch?” Then I noticed the DVD offered a director commentary, so I gave it a listen. (That’s me, your friendly neighborhood film critic always going the extra mile so you don’t have to.) And aside from the usual anecdotes about how the director raised the money and how Laura Linney, who played Joan, was a Rock of Gibraltar hanging in there for five years waiting for the cameras to start rolling; I was pleased to find the key to the film. It was conceived as a 1960s/1970s style “direct cinema” documentary, a style of filmmaking where a small crew would hang out with a subject and simply observe. The prototype for The Squid and the Whale is probably 1974’s An American Family where the filmmakers set out to record a typical upper middle class household and ended up recording the disintegration of said household.

So, in light of this, let me offer you a few things to keep in mind while watching the film, a film that will certainly prove the most challenging of this series:

Documentarians of this stripe record a subject and then this recording becomes the film. If what they found was an over-the-hill, selfish, destructive, and self-pitying novelist like Bernard; that’s what the film ended up being about. After all, such people do exist, probably in surprising abundance. The filmmakers don’t interfere with their subjects. If Bernard didn’t pluck a few flowers to place on his wife’s pillow on his own, it is out of the question for him to be asked to do so. (I should say that Bernard is so unlikable that he becomes heroically unlikable. He is even funny in a way. Late in the film, after pleading with Joan to give him another chance, she reacts with uncontrollable laughter. I think she sees the humor in him as well.)

Direct cinema camerawork was always marked by its quality of being like a passive observer hanging out in the room, lurking in the corners, trying to catch little snatches of what is going on, forbidden to call attention to itself. And it is always handheld. That’s what we get in The Squid and the Whale. The camera is constantly just a bit shaky, just a bit uncertain of where it should be looking, always observing. We also frequently wonder whether we should even be watching. The territory feels so private, so off-limits. It is the most uncomfortable film to watch in my memory since Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence – another film that director Noah Baumbach acknowledged as an inspiration in his commentary.

Very important to an audience’s enjoyment and comfort level in a film is how both dramatic moments and non-dramatic moments are used. Films will usually give us calm little moments – often called “pillow shots” because they allow us a bit of head comfort – in between scenes of dramatic tension. You know, a shot of a sunset, a shot of grass blowing in a field, that sort of thing. The Squid and the Whale doesn’t allow us this. It is just as cruel as Bernard. Every cut takes us from one bit of conflict straight into the next. No pillow shots. Instead we often get essentially negative pillow shots. A frequent device used is to hear the sounds of the following scene before actually cutting to it. The effect is like having the two dramatic moments bleed into one another. Instead of offering us no time for comfort or reflection, we are offered less than zero time to rest our heads.

“Don’t be difficult.” These words play a significant role in The Squid and the Whale. Their reiteration spoken first by son and then by father gives Walt his crucial insight into his father’s character and leads to the film’s sudden but very fitting denouement. Those words can also be taken as a filmmaker’s tacit warning to himself that what he is attempting here may be good – I think it is really good – but it is certainly Academy Award suicide. How often has the Academy embraced a thoroughly unlikable main character? Jake La Motta from Raging Bull comes to mind, but at least Robert De Niro’s creation was allowed his moments of redemption. Jeff Daniels’s Bernard is offered no chance of gaining audience sympathy. He remains selfish, bitter, destructive, self-destructive, and self-pitying to the end.

And I was very happy about that. Anything else, any sudden turn of character, would have been a cheat. It would have felt like a documentary filmmaker breaking his promise and asking his subject to pick up and play with a kitten. You know, just so he can be at least a tiny little bit sympathetic.

Ghost World

“A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.” Those immortal words were once spoken by Alvy Singer in the movie Annie Hall. Then again, he could’ve just as easily been speaking about the movie Ghost World, an infinitely re-watchable little oddity directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb) based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes.

Ghost World tells the story of Enid and Rebecca as they move on with life post high school. They were the outsiders in school – well, mostly Enid – and they were and still are best friends. They are all attitude, mocking everyone and everything around them. Faced with impinging adulthood, Rebecca realizes time has come to move on, to grow. She realizes that adult life is a game with a new set of rules. She dresses up as a “yuppie” to try to get accepted into a nice apartment building. She ignores customer rudeness at her coffee shop job (while secretly feeling “like poisoning everyone”).

Enid resists change at every turn. When Rebecca asks her to play the yuppie role to help out with their apartment hunt, she instead dyes her hair green and evokes the most anti-social role she can muster up – the “original 1970s punk rocker.” Enid has a relationship with a lonely and pathetic soul named Seymour and makes it her mission in life to get him a date. But, once she succeeds in getting him into a relationship and sees him starting to change as a result, she can’t deal with it. Enid is, of course, the dead shark of this analogy. Seymour is in danger of sinking to the ocean floor along with her.

Okay, that’s what Ghost World is about when you get right down to it, but what I really want to write about is how well it brings its characters to life. Now, the supporting cast is about the most cantankerous collection of colligenous stereotypes you’ll ever encounter (possibly why the movie failed to sway Academy voters) but its three leads are solid gold.

Enid and Rebecca are played by Thora Birch (American Beauty) and Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) and one is immediately convinced that these two have shared the same friendship space since childhood. They are in perfect sync, one’s actions feeding the other’s reactions as if they are connected through extra-sensory-perception. There is a delightful moment where they both react to an encounter with an annoying former classmate with the same hand gesture. There are many other such moments as well. And watching these two become un-synchronized during the movie is one of its greatest pleasures.

Steve Buscemi, America’s greatest character actor (you heard it here), plays Seymour. Or rather, he is Seymour. If you’ve seen Reservoir Dogs, be prepared to be amazed that it’s gun-toting, tough-talking, and very loud Mr. Pink was played by the same actor as this mild, slightly high-strung, collector of old 78s who shuts off a car radio because the DJ is too hateful and shrill. It is an amazing and detailed transformation.

I also must admit that I really know Seymour. (I think that is the highest compliment one can pay a movie. To really feel you know it’s characters.) He has passions shared by few others, passions that wouldn’t exactly ensure his being selected on The Dating Game. He knows he doesn’t relate to, as he puts it, “99% humanity.” But he keeps on keeping on anyway, staying true to himself. I have my idiosyncrasies and my interests that few people share – anyone up for spending an evening watching hand-painted Stan Brakhage films with me? And I don’t relate to 97% of humanity (okay, I’m not quite as much a loser as Seymour). I also consider myself very lucky to have found my wife and that she still puts up with me after all these years. (Ironically, we met via a personal ad. Please, please will the similarities never end?)

Now that I think about it, there may be another reason Ghost World didn’t do so well with Academy members. It has an ending that is truly and genuinely strange. It is something of a head scratcher, open to interpretation, always a risk since winning awards means getting a lot of people to hop into the same boat. I have my own rather sad interpretation that I won’t reveal here to avoid spoiling things. I’d be curious to hear your interpretations.


“I want to know what makes you tick.” In the movie Junebug, Ashley (played beautifully by Amy Adams) speaks these words to her sister-in-law Madeleine. Finding out what makes one tick though is everywhere in the movie. And what the various characters – and us in the audience – learn and don’t learn is both the movie’s fascination and, I suppose, frustration.

You could say that a large part of the fun of watching movies is figuring out the characters. This fun is made all the more enjoyable if the movie clues the viewer in to its characters gradually and in subtle little ways spread throughout the movie. Junebug does this. But it takes it another step. The movie is about characters learning about each other bit by bit – and occasionally missing a little bit that only we in the audience get to glimpse.

The main characters, George and his new wife Madeleine, are two of the most enigmatic main characters I’ve seen in an American movie lately. (Anyone familiar with Hitchcock’s Vertigo is used to an enigmatic woman named Madeleine who inhabits art museums. Junebug’s version actually runs an art gallery.) Their entire relationship in the movie is defined by not knowing what makes each other tick. They are one of those meet cute, woo quickly, and get married within a week couples that haven’t yet really gotten past a strong physical attraction and great sex. In a terrific scene, almost at the movie’s center, Madeleine watches George sing a hymn at a church gathering – very clearly she never knew prior that he could even carry a tune. At the end of the movie, George figures “someday Madeleine will know all of my secrets.”

The plot revolves around George and Madeleine traveling to the country for two purposes. She is attempting to charm an artist into allowing her gallery to handle his work. (This subplot parallels other developments in the movie. Attracted initially by the artwork, Madeleine must face moral dilemmas while getting to know the artist.) Coincidently, George’s family lives nearby giving them a first chance to meet his new wife. And they are a quirky little family – although I am happy to say quirky in an unforced and natural sort of way unlike the usual annoying sort of quirky found in movies like Little Miss Sunshine.

George and Madeleine may be the main characters, but Ashley (George’s sister-in-law) is its heart. She makes a striking cinematic entrance. First, in an early scene, she isn’t there and characters are wondering where she is. Then suddenly, in a cut to close up, she’s there. From that point, she is a constantly and endearingly chattering little Miss Marple of a character constantly asking questions, probing, and, yes, trying to figure out what makes everyone around her tick. She acts as the catalyst that brings about the various character-revealing reactions as George and Madeleine are mixed together in situations very new to their relationship.

Ashley is not without her own “getting to know someone” problems though. She is pregnant and married to George’s brother Johnny and it is a bumpy and confusing union. He has feelings of being trapped. She has the belief that given time – and the birth of their child – he will come around. The saddest and hopefully the most hopeful moment for them is when, during Ashley’s baby shower, Johnny attempts to tape a television show that he knows she’ll love and the VCR keeps spitting the tape back out. It is the one moment where we glimpse how much he cares for her, where we glimpse something endearing within him. Unfortunately, underlining the very elusiveness of this game called “getting to know how others tick,” by the time Ashley reaches the basement all she sees is Johnny’s frustrated tantrum.

I find Junebug enormously enjoyable and satisfying. And it did deservedly receive some recognition. Amy Adams earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. (I think she clearly should have won the award. Her “big scene” is one of very few in my life that managed to bring tears to my eyes. It is a marvel of modulation through a wide range of emotions.) So, why didn’t she win? Why didn’t this little gem of a movie get more recognition? I think it all loops back to the enigmatic quality of its main characters. It is a case of a naturally quirky little movie like Junebug failing to woo Academy members because we don’t know how to feel about its characters in the end. It is a case of an annoyingly quirky little movie like Little Miss Sunshine successfully wooing the Academy because we are left with no choice how to feel about its characters.

Having a movie leave audiences hoping to one day know all of its characters’ little secrets is the much more enticing approach. I don’t know about you, but that’s how I feel about everyone I think I know.