Once upon a time I used to blog about films all the time. But then I got fat and lazy and started having sex again and I pretty much threw my blog out the window so I could follow less noble pursuits. Well I’ve been feeling the itch lately and on top of everything else I’ve got AFI in a few weeks and I’d like to try and document the experience as I used to back in the good old days. So here I am, exercising my writing muscles.
These represent some of the more stream of conscious writing I’ve done but they certainly get the point across whether I fall on the “yay” or “nay” side of a film. This may be a rolling entry where I continue to add new titles or it may be the latest in a long-line of “one-off’s.” Either way, enjoy.
Changeling (2008 Clint Eastwood C) As has become Eastwood’s tradition with recent films, we get the studio logo at the head of the film in old fashion black and white, one would imagine harkening back to an earlier era of filmmaking where 70-something Clint might feel himself more at home. Who knew it would serve as a nifty metaphor for his distressingly limited world view? Essentially a Lars von Trier film without the irony or meta-context, here we get (a woefully miscast) Angelina Jolie in the Bjork-like role of the long-suffering woman crushed by a cruel, indifferent system while a host of TV actors including Jeffrey Donnovan using a distracting brogue, are trotted out as callous oppressors. Eastwood’s painting with a very wide brush here, never calling into question our heroine’s sanity, while simply presenting the LAPD as corrupt and lazy with no motivation beyond self-preservation. I mean was there nothing more to the entire scandal than a desire not to be publicly embarrassed? Actually the word “simple” seems the most apt adjective to employ here. Cheers for the wronged woman! Hisses for the evil institutions! Jolie murmurs and caterwauls her way to awards attention (she’s working from the Sean Penn playbook of parental suffering), Amy Ryan reprises a variation of the foul-mouthed hard-living working class character from Gone Baby Gone, John Malkovich is once again unable to disguise his Walken-like weirdness in a relatively normal character, and on it goes. To be honest, I’m not even sure what Eastwood is trying for here. Guess I’ll just have to look forward to Gran Torino.
Synecdoche, New York (2008 Charlie Kaufman B+) I understand the hatred towards this film but I think it’s misplaced. Complaints that it’s merely Kaufman chasing a rabbit up his own asshole are, frankly, several films too late. A couple days removed and I’ve already doodled out a handful of theories about the film: Is it a celebration of collaboration, with Hoffman’s ever-expanding merry troop following him blindly for decades, going to a place where their performances end up merging, superseding and defining their actual lives? Or is it an indictment of endless self-analysis from Hope Davis’ Lynchian in her omnipresence shrink to characters literally being able to stand back and look at how others would perform their lives (and in the most on the nose allusion, the film’s unending curiosity with human’s examining their own excrement)? Or for that matter is it anything more than a Buñuel -like head trip, creating small worlds within the confines of its own ellipses, never really pausing to explain itself or ground the film in an easy to place logic? I guess the point is that it doesn’t matter what reading you take (although I personally prefer the cautionary tale second one) because the journey is so surprising and lovingly melancholy. There’s elements of Southland Tales-type hubris on display but Kaufman admirably seems to have both hands on the wheel at all times even when the road we’re on is windy and opaque. This isn’t to say every gambit pays off; not by a long shot. Everything relating to Hoffman’s daughter is utterly baffling (and not helped by the curious casting of the nearly 40-year-old Robin Weigert), Kaufman’s patented preciousness (including a house that’s perennially on fire) can be a bit, um, suffocating. There’s also an inherent redundancy to the premise which can be patience trying (by my unofficial count there are four “real” funerals and an equal amount of staged ones). Still, I find myself returning to the film in my mind repeatedly, which I really could never say for Kaufman’s more widely accepted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Bonus: Emily Watson as Samantha Morton is perhaps the single funniest joke of the year.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008 Danny Boyle B) I’m prefacing this by saying that I’m overrating this, but only as it applies to my own scale. Most people will (and already do) like this a whole lot more than I did, which considering my disproportionate admiration for late-period Boyle (I’m even a pretty big Sunshine apologist) surprises no one more than myself. Which is a long convoluted way of saying that if I wasn’t such a Boyle fanboy I’d really nail this for being the facile and morally sanitized City of God (by way of Dickens) rip-off that it is. The star here is the setting (as it was in City) and Boyle’s joyous direction. When the film is divorced from its own dopey, high-concept premise it’s energetic and vital, casting a light on what still remains an under-documented third world culture. The film’s characters never really transcend their roles as ciphers (which isn’t to say the performances are bad by any means) so they’re often only as transcendent as the story they’re intertwined in. So, in summation, stuff with kids working as urchins for Fagin-like figure (complete with involuntary maiming) is riveting. Stuff with now adult characters working under the thumb of hazily defined mob boss plays like a bad FX show. Plus, as alluded to earlier, I’m not overly impressed with Simon Beaufoy’s gimmicky screenplay which makes the adorable mistake of confusing contrivance with destiny (then again Shyamalan’s been doing the same thing for the past decade and he comes from the same part of the world as this film, so maybe it’s a cultural thing). I’m willing to forgive how every question our hero is asked dovetails into a vignette explaining how he knew the answer but does it always have to come together in such a quaint and tidy bow? Eminently worth seeing though for the naturalistic child performances, Boyle’s zippy direction (there’s a fantastic early chase sequence through the streets of Bombay that puts to shame incoherent gibberish like the Bourne sequels) and Anthony Dod Mantle’s gorgeous photography which explodes in Technicolor hues of yellow, brown, read and green. It’s unfortunate that Pineapple Express co-opted M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” this summer as the film features a heck of a sequence cut to it, the effect of which is mostly lost due to over-familiarity. Also, I hate to be “that guy,” but would it have killed them to just subtitle the whole thing?
Role Models (2008 David Wain B+) This is being compared to Judd Apatow, which really isn’t very fair. As far as I’m concerned Wain has been making me laugh for just as long (and with more regularity than) Apatow has and Rudd and Banks were in Wet Hot American Summer long before 40-Year-Old Virgin. As sell-out projects go, this might be without peer in melding formulaic high concept comedy (Wain and his co-writers came to the project late in development) with more scatological almost dada-inspired digression and grotesque characterizations. Sure, I could point out that once the plot kicks in you can anticipate every single dramatic beat about twenty minutes in advance and it all more or less ends up exactly where you would expect it to (complete with lessons learned and hugs). And yeah, the advertising for the film seems to highlight every dopey comedic set-piece and bit of broad physical comedy, but there’s a very good reason for that: everything else in the film is way too vulgar, angry or inside to ever put in a commercial. You’ve got Paul Rudd putting on a master class of passive annoyance and casual misanthropy. Snark has never been wielded with more laser specific precision which does wonders in cutting through much of the third act hokum that’s par for the course. And really, what more needs to be said about Jane Lynch who as a recovering coke addict turned community leader cheerfully over shares an increasingly horrifying back-story of degradation (there’s also a bit of business involving a hot dog bagel that’s so juvenile I feel like my driver’s license should be revoked for laughing at it). Plus, unlike Apatow, Wain can appreciate the comedic value of female nudity as well as male. I’m truly stunned something this acidic and angry even got greenlit. I suppose the best thing I can say for the film is I found myself annoyed at the density of jokes prevented me from hearing every third joke over my own laughter. Also, is Seann William Scott turning into a strong comedic actor or is he just blessed with exceptional taste in material (see also: The Promotion)? Who knew there was so much intentional comedic value in KISS?