Sunday, September 30, 2007

INTO THE WILD

Y’know, a week ago I wasn’t even going to see this damn thing. For one thing, I don’t really care for Sean Penn all that much. Guy’s a fine actor and all, but he’s a big mess of ego and a little crazy, and while that either works wonders for, or doesn’t at all affect, his performances, it matters a LOT when he’s the guy in charge of the whole damn production (in addition to the directorial credit, he wrote the adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book and produced the thing). But this film reads instead like the one he wanted to make his whole life.

The story revolves around Christopher McCandless, who just graduated college and is just about a shoo-in for Harvard Law School. Instead, he burns his money (literally), destroys all his identification, calls himself Alexander Supertramp and sets off…into the wild. His ultimate goal is his great Alaskan adventure, to basically live off the land somewhere in Alaska. It’s a vague goal, but he plans meticulously for it.

These kinds of stories have only a passing interest for me. People just packing up (or unpacking) their lives and heading on the road just “to be out there” are so often described idealistically by people who have no idea how tough it actually is out there. But while McClandless might not have known all he was in for, he definitely had an idea.

If there’s any fault in the movie (and there are a couple), it’s that Penn is in love with his subject. He tries to approach him with a critical eye by putting most of the narration on Christopher’s younger sister, but a) it’s pretty poorly written; it might be from the book, but it doesn’t sound as good as it may read, and b) in the end, we’ll end up with a beautiful (God, is this film beautiful) shot of Christopher against a sunset, away from the things of man. Another film that comes to mind constantly while watching this is Werner Herzog’s masterful documentary GRIZZLY MAN, which analyzes Timothy Treadwell, who spent a good chunk of each year in Alaska to live amongst the grizzly bears. That movie’s brilliance comes from its fascination with Treadwell’s life without celebrating it.

But in the end, it’s a minor quibble, because while Penn misses the opportunity for masterpiece, he ends up creating something that resonates emotionally deeper. It puts us right there with him, so when he fires a gun into the air over frustration of the lack of animals in Alaska, we feel that loss. When the people he encounters (people who almost seem invented, they’re so rich) question his goals, we also wonder how they don’t see the opportunity. It’s a young man’s ambition, but at least there was one young man who was willing to go for it.

I was just mentioning the people he comes into contact with along the way, and while they're great on page, they're even better onscreen. Penn casted the hell out of this one, even using Vince Vaughn as a wheat farmer (to perfection). Even better, though, are Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker (who isn't even an actor, but you wouldn't know it watching him) as on-the-road hippies. But the one that brings the house down is Hal Holbrook as Ron Franz, an elderly man who helps Christopher on the last leg of his trip before heading into Alaska. I don't want to discuss him too much, but his performance is more beautiful than any of the shots in the film.

I’d be remiss to not talk about Emile Hirsch, who plays Christopher. Hirsch first came on my radar with 2005’s LORDS OF DOGTOWN, a performance that (I’m told) didn’t work for everyone, but I thought was a downright revelation. I knew that if he was lucky enough, he’d be destined for big stuff, and this film solidifies it even more (and gives me hope for his starring role in next year’s SPEED RACER from the Wachowskis…no, really). It’s a spare performance, verbally, and so much is communicated with body language and his eyes, and at only twenty-two, Hirsch handles his character’s downfall better than other actors who have been doing this for much, much longer. He also looks freakishly like McCandless.

Anyway. The film’s long at 2 hours, 20 minutes, but there are parts that feel a bit spare. It often rushes from location to location and character to character, and in the editing stage, I can see why Penn made the choices he did. But somewhere out there (maybe among the films that’ll never be, hopefully in an eventual DVD release) is the real deal. One that doesn’t skirt the hardship Christopher placed on his family, and better tackles (what’s known of) the nuts-and-bolts of how he got from place to place. But as it stands, it’s a very impressive, deeply moving film. Man, those are overused words, but they definitely apply.

I just scored a pass to The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford for Tuesday, which I'm impossibly excited for, so I'll be writing about that as soon as the words come together. Next weekend also sees the release of the new Wes Anderson movie, The Darjeeling Limited (you can read my pre-release thoughts here), as well as the new Clooney flick, Michael Clayton. It's really starting now.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE

As the Columbia logo came up at the beginning of this film, the only thing I could think was “I could probably do without seeing this movie.” It’d been a long week, and I’d already seen David Cronenberg’s awesome Eastern Promises a few hours earlier, and this was two and a half hours long and besides Roger Ebert’s four-star review (which came as a surprise), nothing out there made me believe this movie would be any good.

Don’t listen to any of it (except Ebert...good man that Ebert). This is an extraordinary accomplishment on every level – musically, cinematically…wow. I understand how this could have gone wrong for a lot of people, and I’m not going to say it’s a future classic, but for some circles. All doubts I had about the success of this film were shot from the second the “Hold Me Tight” montage starts up about a minute and a half into the film. It had me from then onward. And yeah, there are sequences that don’t completely work (putting “I Am the Walrus,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and “Because,” with all the visual extremes that should accompany each, back to back to back is a little jarring), but this film falling short is ten times more interesting than many, MANY films “succeeding.” And yeah, sometimes it’s a little too clever for its own good (all the main characters’ names are taken from Beatles songs, and there are a ton of lines that reference songs), but that was far from what was on my mind when I walked out of the theater.

What was on my mind was the sheer joy I had watching it. Sure, it helps to have some of the most beautifully-written songs of all time, but my personal connections that come along when Lucy goes into “If I Fell” will only get a film so far. The rest is up to one of the true artistic visionaries, Julie Taymor. I’ve been loosely familiar with Taymor for a long time, but even without this, she’d have my loyalty for Broadway version of The Lion King. There are things Taymor does in this film that…I mean, I don’t know how to describe it. For those of you who love musicals, you’ll find this an extremely rewarding experience.

But to have any shot at getting this film, you’re going to have to love or be interested in any number of things – first, The Beatles. Not just some of The Beatles. Everything from the pop-rock “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (beautifully rearranged in this film) to the nonsensical insanity of “I Am the Walrus.” Second, musicals. If people breaking out into song doesn’t fly with you, why are you even reading this? This film is a musical from its opening frames to its last. It hits you over the head with themes, plot, characters, ideas, and emotions. THAT’S why I love musicals, and as much as Julie Taymor is breaking new ground, she’s not reinventing the wheel here, and I commend her. Finally…you have to buy into the romance of the story. The romantic ideals of a bohemian lifestyle, the romance of the music, and of course…the romance of love. It’s a musical, remember, so realism (and certainly cynicism) have little place in this world. Everything’s a little brighter, and all you need is love.

It came as a huge relief to discover the cover versions of the songs were (mostly) the cast themselves singing. One of the big issues a lot of people (myself included) had early on was that they were using all cover versions of the Beatles songs, without really realizing that the covers might be the cast’s versions, which is what you would do (naturally) if you were to stage it. Jude (Jim Sturgess) may be from Liverpool, but that doesn’t mean he’d sing like Lennon or McCartney. Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) certainly wouldn’t. Even more relieving is that they can sing damn well, and in some cases (“Hold Me Tight” for sure) they improved on The Beatles originals. Yeah, I said it. Look, I LOVE The Beatles, but I’m no purist for any band. And even when they don’t improve on the originals, they at least work wonderfully within the film.

Anyway…I’m spending too much space discussing the movie, but I couldn’t quite find the words to express how much fun I had watching it, and how easily it carried me for the entire two and a half hours (which, for you fans of musicals, is pretty standard if you include intermission). There are some rough patches, but this is ambitious as hell, and I always give some leeway for ambition. I’ve been saying over and over how exciting this fall’s gonna be, but I’d be surprised (and very, very happy) if anything this inventive hit the screen.

P.S. No, Ben, I'm not pumped for The Darjeeling Limited (I'm barely anticipating it on any level). I have a sinking suspicion writer/director Wes Anderson lost his magic as soon as he lost Owen Wilson as a writing partner, and he's stuck relying on the same story. I hope with everything in me I'm wrong, but my feeling about it (it comes out October 5, at least in some parts of the world) is one of dread.
in the library today, i found a book called "What Nuns Read (Besides Hustler)". no seriously though, it was called "What Nuns Read", proving my point that for every obscure, useless topic, there is a faux-intellectual biting at the chomp to publish a book about it

Thursday, September 13, 2007

SHOOT 'EM UP and ROCKET SCIENCE

In an effort to try not to think of the pure awesomeness happening right now at the Toronto Film Festival (they’re basically screening all the films I want to see this fall…this happens every year…for this reason, I’m always a little bitter at the beginning of September), here are some catch-up reviews. I should mention that lack of a review aside, Superbad is one of the best movies I've seen all year.

SHOOT ‘EM UP

As with any profession, or at least a hobby you want to be really good at, I have a lot to work on when it comes to writing about film. One significant advantage I could give myself is to stop looking at anything that’s released about the film prior to its release (trailers, mostly). Another is to at least eliminate from my brain all expectations I had going into a film. Because going into Shoot 'Em Up, I was expecting something just insane. Maybe the best action movie ever. At least top five. And I heard a LOT of comparisons to Looney Tunes, of which I’m a massive fan and hold in high artistic esteem. Well…none of that’s true. It is a silly movie. It’s silly as hell. And a lot of fun. But for a movie called Shoot 'Em Up, there are way too many parts where people aren’t shooting each other, and its characters and plot aren’t nearly strong enough to fill these voids. And there are a lot of very, very failed attempts at humor. Action movie fans will appreciate the use (and subsequent table-turning) of clichés – the one-liners, the love interest, the idea that some sort of moral ideal can be used as a reason to kill dozens, maybe hundreds, of people. But for my money, the insane, ridiculous, hilarious action movie was done twice in the last year, and better – Smokin' Aces in January, and Crank in September ’06. And Domino the year before that. And the only recent film that deserves to be in the same breath as LOONEY TUNES is KUNG FU HUSTLE.

But one thing Shoot 'Em Up has that none of those others do is that classy bastard, Clive Owen. My dad, for YEARS, complained about the lack of real MEN in cinema, and rightfully so. Even our damn action movies were filled with pretty boys! Sin City changed all that, mostly for Mickey Rourke, but you gotta give it up for Clive. And he brings that same level of badass to this film. But unfortunately, the film wasn't as badass as him. There just weren’t nearly enough moments that had me on the edge of my seat (the car chase and skydiving shootout are the two major exceptions), largely because the only kinds of action in this movie are gunfights, and that just doesn’t hold. I LOVE gun fights, but they don’t sustain a movie. At some point, someone’s going to have to go all fisticuffs.

So this is a solid middle-of-the-road film for me. I’d like to blame expectations, but my massive expectations have been shattered before, so it can’t just be that. Still, if you’re sitting around your house/dorm/apartment sometime in a few months and are in the mood for what a film called Shoot 'Em Up would deliver, I definitely recommend making the trek to the video store.

ROCKET SCIENCE

“There's a new indie comedy about high school coming out this weekend that I will not be seeing this weekend (too much glory), but will be seeing next week if anyone else wants to come. It's called Rocket Science. And even though this increasing trend of quirky, indie movies about teenagers that are all ripping off the vastly-superior Rushmore kind of annoys me, I can't deny that I enjoy the ones I see.”
-Me; Wednesday, August 15, 2007

This is not one of those movies. There are some really inspired moments in this film – the opening prologue of the film is beautiful and poetic, but the rest of the film just can’t sustain it. Not only is this a rip-off of Rushmore, it’s a rip-off of Thumbsucker too (and really, who rips off Thumbsucker?), but without an ounce of the heart of either. There are a lot of moments constructed so that they try to elicit some sort of emotional response, but…this is where the director really shines or just falls flat. There have been so many movies made about heartbreak that, really, if you can’t construct the basics of a heartbreak scene just using what you’ve seen in other movies, time to find a different job. That isn’t the director’s problem here…his problem is that he understands all the necessary ingredients (including the indie comedy staple of having your wildly underage protagonist drink heavily…see also the unbearable The Squid and the Whale), but he puts NO emotion into it. Maybe I was just fed up at that point and there really was something going on, but as a man who has had many, many women disappoint and reject him in many, many different ways, even I couldn’t connect beyond the basic “oh yeah, that kinda blows.”

I should mention that at the start of the third act, I was so certain the film was going to redeem itself, but instead it just took a nosedive into more and more indie film clichés. I should also mention that in spite of the film’s total running time of 98 minutes, I was trying to figure out if we were actually into a fourth act, and was quite certain the film had been running for close to two hours (with still a whole act to go).