Friday, July 09, 2010

Time to Revisit Some Films from the Past

I recently started re-watching some movies that I had liked in the past, but with a certain degree of ambivalence. In these cases I had the feeling that I was watching something important, or at least meaningful, but my perception was usually marred by a state of advanced inebriation. The three movies that I revisited this week were Barton Fink; Synecdoche, New York; and Young Adam.


This movie made many “Best of the 2000s” lists and was declared to be the best film of the decade by Roger Ebert. Upon re-watching, armed with a notebook and relative sobriety, I found the movie to be much less incomprehensible than the first time around. It's a film with almost infinite layers of detail that could be endlessly picked apart and debated. In my opinion it's an interesting and profound film, but also happens to be marred by an exceptionally dark worldview.

I don't feel qualified to make any sort of deep analysis of the film (which would be impossible after only two viewings at any rate), but I feel like a few possible broad readings exist. One would be that the entire film happens in the main protagonist's mind, possibly as he's hallucinating on his deathbed. Another is that the entire film happens in some sort of alternate universe that doesn't really follow our universe's laws of space and time. Regardless of how the movie is viewed, the main character Caden Cotard (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is shuffling through his life in a state of extreme depression, unable to enjoy even one small moment because of the knowledge of his impending death. He has grand ambition and wants to leave behind something which will last after he dies, and does this by staging an ever-growing theater production that ultimately has the scale of an entire city. Caden is stymied by his mind which endlessly runs in self-defeating circles, and as a result the play is always stuck in production.

There are clues that suggest the movie is taking place in the protagonist's mind, such as Caden's appearance in cartoons and commercials on the TV set, and a sudden cascade of horrific medical complaints that would never occur simultaneously in real life. The conventions of how time is portrayed in movies is also thrown out the window, and it's difficult to tell whether it's minutes or years that have passed between successive scenes. These could also just indicate that Caden is too solipsistic to even attempt to see things from anything but his own perspective.

Other clues suggest the movie is taking place in a different universe: A war is raging in the streets outside (although all the main characters are oblivious to it), people walk down the streets in gas masks, and a huge blimp floats over the city, searching the streets below with a giant light. The movie does not allow you to get a solid sense of time or place and has a vaguely hallucinatory quality as a result.

I believe the basic theme of the movie is stated explicitly: “The end is built into the beginning.” Armed with the inescapable fact that he will die, Caden attempts to stage his grandiose play in an attempt to break through the facade of humanity and reach “the brutal truth.” Unfortunately in this film, the brutal truth can only mean the basic facts of sickness, sadness, and death, ignoring the infinity of other possibilities contained in a human life. I certainly hope that the director Charlie Kaufman doesn't share Caden's worldview (at least not all the time - his other films have shown considerably more lightness), because if this is indeed his perspective, it must be awful to be trapped in his head.


This movie is also about a playwright, named Barton Fink (played by John Turturro). He has reached a certain level of success as a writer in New York, and is hired to write for the “pictures” in Los Angeles. Fink thinks that he is an important artist and continually sets himself apart from others, but also ironically tries to empathize with “the common man” by portraying his plight. Once he arrives in Los Angeles he discovers that the producer wants him to work on wrestling pictures (which he considers beneath him) and is only concerned with profit, not art. This begins an internal struggle which results in a severe case of writer's block, during which he meets and converses with his neighbor, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman.)

This is another film which may take place in large parts entirely in the protagonist's mind, and although the structure and setting are much more simplistic than those of Synecdoche, New York, it is not any more obvious what is really happening. Word gets out that a serial killer is on the loose in L.A., and Barton Fink becomes convinced that Charlie is the killer. Then there's the troublesome box that Charlie left for him to watch, neatly wrapped with a bow, and just the right size for a human head...

In spite of the tone of uncertainty and dread, I was never completely engaged by this film (and felt the same way the first time I saw it, many years ago.) It's nice to see the Coen Brothers' regular actors in one of their earlier films, and the film is concise and carefully paced. In spite of all this the movie seems slight - there are so many unknowns by the end of the film that rather than discuss or argue the possibilities, I'd rather just forget it and admit that it could mean anything, but we'll never really know.


I saw this movie when it was new in the theaters, and haven't seen it since then. It struck me then as a minimal masterpiece of existential angst, sort of a modern spin on The Stranger by Albert Camus. All the details are different of course, but the tone is nearly identical. I have to admit I have not read the source material, a novel by Alexander Trocchi.

The setting is a constantly gray and overcast Scotland in what seems to be the early 1960s. The sexual revolution is in full swing, but the characters are just going through the motions out of what seems to be a basic, animal necessity. I thought this movie was released in 2004 as an unrated version, but the only DVD available in the U.S. is rated R. The sex scenes (and there are many) are relatively graphic, but I don't recall anything from the theater version which is missing on the DVD. There is a scene which would have entered the lexicon of disturbing cinematic sex scenes if only Young Adam had been better-received; it's an homage to the infamous butter scene from Last Tango in Paris, only this time custard is involved. And of course even the casual moviegoer knows by now that Ewan McGregor is uncircumcised.

The main character played by McGregor, named Joe, works on a coal barge in Glasgow, which must be one of the least glamorous jobs of all time. He initiates an affair with his boss's wife (Tilda Swinton, amazing in everything) by staring at her creepily until she finally gives in to his advances. In fact, he seduces every woman in the movie with this same creepy-stare technique, which I should point out will only work for guys who happen to look like Ewan McGregor. Joe and his boss fish a female corpse out of the water, and through a chain of flashbacks that I won't discuss here, it's revealed that Joe knows more about the situation than he admits to; later he discovers that an innocent man is being prosecuted for the woman's murder. It's difficult to determine whether Joe is amoral or simply incapable of action; earlier in the film it is established that Joe is an aspiring writer, but ends up merely getting drunk every day while his girlfriend goes to work to earn money. Later in the film while he is working on the barge, he nearly always has a book in hand, and conveys a general sense of profound intelligence merely by being quiet and reading a lot. In the end I think the movie may depict not a profound man having an existential crisis, but rather a self-centered man who merely gets away with whatever he can get away with, and who seems profound only because of his total emptiness of character.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I remember seeing a teaser trailer for 2002's Solaris: The 30-second spot showed an image of the purple planet with its computer-generated currents of twisting, turning energy, followed by the words “produced by James Cameron.” I remember scoffing aloud, and maybe even cursing at the screen. Solaris was a Serious Film directed by one of the world's greatest filmmakers, Andrei Tarkovsky, not to mention a very important and influential work of science fiction by Stanislaw Lem. Solaris seemed like the last movie that would need an American remake... seriously, what could be the point?

Years later, I'm still trying to figure out why this movie almost instantly found a place in my top 10 favorite movies and hasn't budged since. There are a few movies that I enjoy rewatching multiple times, some of which find a spot in my personal top 10 only to be bumped out later by a rediscovered or new movie which I've fallen in love with. The American Solaris directed by Steven Soderbergh, however, has crept into my top 10 for what seems to be a permanent spot. I could seriously be offered a bin of world film classics, many of which I would concede are more important movies than Solaris, and still would chuck them all to the curb if it meant I could just keep my DVD of Solaris.

“We don't want other worlds, we want mirrors.”

This movie is precise and minimalist on the surface. Nearly all the action (if you can call it that) takes place on a space station orbiting a distant planet Solaris, which has rendered the inhabitants of said space station insane by generating facsimiles of dead loved ones. The key point of the regenerated dead is that they have not been merely brought back to life, but are projections of how the living remembered them, and therefore are incomplete by nature. This film very carefully tackles the idea that we are not who we think we are, but exist only as an amalgam of how others perceive us. Soderbergh neatly brings this point home by filming long takes of dialog where the camera is not watching the person who's speaking, but rather the person he is speaking to. Thus the audience watches the reaction of someone who is watching the main character speak, adding another layer of distance and changing our perception of the dialog that is being spoken. Everything is a reflection in this movie; there is no pure and simple truth.

The Russian Solaris is an undisputed masterpiece with one of the greatest “shock” endings of all time. As an American, I found it difficult to sit through. Yes, I'm an American who was raised on art films and literature, but even I have problems sitting through austere, quiet Russian epics. There's something about the old Russian film aesthetic that seems particularly inaccessible to me. The films display an almost surgical lack of emotion, and move along at the pace of paint drying. As much as I love Tarkovsky's films, I've had to stop every single one halfway through for an “intermission,” apart from his transcendent film The Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975.) I had the same problem when reading the original novel by Stanislaw Lem. I admit that I don't speak Russian and am probably missing quite a bit in translation, but the novel was just so dry and cold that I constantly put it down, even though it was quite short.

I've spoken to many of my friends about Solaris, and very few of them are willing to watch it with me. I saw it in the theater with a good friend who also enjoyed it, and I know one other person who loves it. Everyone else's reaction ranges from boredom to disgust. My sister falls asleep every time I try to make her watch it. The movie currently registers a 65% on the Tomatometer (actually higher than I expected, I remember it being pretty universally panned.) Even George Clooney has made quips about the movie (it was not a box-office success, to put it kindly.) But there's something about this film that just brings me back to it over and over again; I watched it yesterday and could watch it tonight, and tomorrow...

For me, all the parts fit together. The casting is perfect, and the camerawork is simple and effective. Most of the actors are doing a deceptively incredible job, and layers of meaning seem to open up with each repetitive viewing. On my new 50” TV I realized how much the camera dwells on peoples' faces, and how their eyes light up with a liquid glow. In most movies these days you're lucky if the camera lingers on an actor's face for one second before cutting away; even supposed “indie” films have fallen prey to this trend. In Solaris there are many scenes where the camera stays fixed on one person for a minute or more. George Clooney and Natascha McElhone are incredibly emotive actors (and are unfortunately rarely utilized as such).

The flashbacks in the American version are a major departure from the novel and the Russian version, and really make the movie in my opinion. They provide an emotional accessibility lacking from the other interpretations, and as much as I'm not a romantic person by nature, I lose it during these brief interludes. They take place in a slightly bizarre, futuristic Chicago, where the weather is always dreary and rainy and everyone wears high, severe collars. The dreamy soundtrack by Cliff Martinez (formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) is heavy on the marimba, strings, and horns, and is tonally perfect. Overall Solaris is a perfect example of good science fiction not being about explosions and action and weird aliens, but rather being an exploration of the unknown depths of the human soul.

All of the other actors are fabulous: Jeremy Davies plays another of his trademark quirky characters, but this time with a dark secret; Viola Davis is wonderful as the disturbed but logical scientist; John Cho stars as a blink-and-you'll-miss-him courier. There is a lot more to recommend about this movie, but I don't want to go into any more detail in the very rare chance that someone who hasn't seen either of the versions is reading this. I really feel that Solaris has something profound to say about life, human interaction, and how we perceive everything around us, and will resonate strongly with anyone who has been haunted by a loss. Many of us may regret our actions in the past, but if we could redo them, would we? Or should we?

Thursday, June 17, 2010


I have recently become underemployed due to one of my employers shutting down because of the “difficult economic climate” or something like that. If Disney can't keep their businesses open, the rest of us just may be screwed. I still work three days a week but that's not a whole lot to keep me occupied, especially in Chicago in the summertime. So I've made a vow that I must use my brain at least one time each day, and the least painful way for me to do that is to go back and start watching all the films I've missed recently. I'll try to write something about each film that I watch whether I like it or not, and may revisit some of my old favorites for the hell of it. I haven't been on my blogspot since early 2007 apparently, so I'm not even sure I can write anymore.

Mike Leigh's latest movie, Another Year, premiered at Cannes this year to generally great reviews, so I decided it was time to go back and watch his other recent film which I had missed, Happy-Go-Lucky. The movie feels slight even by Leigh's standards - his scripts are not plot-heavy, and his characters generally show no development whatsoever. This results in the majority of people who are not film nerds agreeing that his movies are boring. Some of his movies showcase characters who are such pathological losers that it's difficult to get through them without feeling acute discomfort (Naked and All or Nothing come to mind, as well as Life is Sweet.) In general his films come from the viewpoint of rather nihilistic people, but in Happy-Go-Lucky he acknowledges the possibility of another way of looking at things, even though it's clear this is not the view he shares.

The main character, Poppy, is a cheerful schoolteacher who chatters incessantly to strangers and spends most of her free time getting wasted with her girlfriends. Most of us know someone who is so relentlessly positive that she ends up being an annoyance rather than an inspiration. Poppy is that person, and Eddie Marsan, who plays Scott, is her driving instructor and polar opposite. As a plot device, having her thrust into an inescapable situation (a car) with Scott is neat, but it doesn't quite ring true. Scott's vile outlook on life quickly results in casual racist remarks and clear warning signs of an impending psychotic breakdown, but Poppy doesn't seem to pick up on these, which I think would be hard not to notice when trapped with a person in a car. Her interactions with her potential suitor also seem a little off; usually talking to your date in a squeaky baby voice and referring to yourself in the third person is the easiest way to scare a man off, but apparently not in this movie. There is also an extended scene where Poppy tries to have a meaningful conversation with a homeless man who randomly lashes his fists out towards nothing and gibbers nonsensically. I doubt any person in the world would try to cozy up to someone in that state unless they were being paid to do some sort of outreach.

A couple scenes stand out as vintage Mike Leigh, however: When Poppy and her sister visit their third sister Helen who is supposedly living the “dream life” in suburbia (pregnant and married, living in her own house), the situation quickly swirls down the drain as Helen berates Poppy for living an irresponsible and carefree life. It is clear that Helen is insecure in her situation and can't admit that two people living such different lives could each be happy in their own way. The premise of the movie is that you can choose to see the world however you wish to, and expresses this by focusing on the stark counterpoint of Poppy and her driving instructor; it might have been interesting to use more of the interactions between the sisters as a less extreme, but just as uncomfortable, example.


Saturday, February 03, 2007

BEST OF 2006

I’ve been postponing this for awhile… for some reason, I found the Best of 2006 list a little more difficult to assemble than usual. I’m certain about the first 7 I’m listing; the rest I keep switching, so I’ll tack on an additional list of must-sees/movies to look for in the following year.

Best of 2006, in no particular order (except for the first three):

I think most people have heard me go on and on about this… so, enough said.

This seems to be dividing people, and I have no idea why. Everyone should agree, it’s great enough to be the second best film of the year!

One of the prettiest and most ambitious “pretentious art films” ever.

This one slipped by me in the theaters, but I recently caught it on DVD and have been forcing my friends to watch it ever since then – so far, 100% of them love it. This is a perfect little film, and it deals with some heavy issues without being overbearing (Mexican/American culture clash, being gay in Latino cultures, gentrification, teen pregnancy, alternative family units, etc.) It’s rare to find an independent film with such honest performances from the lead actors, and the Echo Park, L.A. locale is beautifully used.

This movie is two things I usually skip: A musical, and a religious film. It wasn’t widely released in theaters, and it might not be, because it’s South African and has an all-black cast. It’s a modern retelling of the Jesus story, and it made me hopeful for humankind, however briefly. It seems pretty clear that if Jesus came to earth today (as he was in the Bible, basically a dirty hippie), the conservative right-wingers and politicians wouldn’t recognize him in spite of their professed faith – this movie expresses that idea, somehow without being preachy. And the music is phenomenal!

Great job by Martin Scorsese – I wasn’t crazy about his last couple of films, even though I like the fact that he’s working with Leonardo DiCaprio – the dude is a solid actor. This remakes the Hong Kong original in a way that gives remakes a good name. And it’s a lot darker! I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

Another Hollywood film that I’m looking forward to rewatching. I can never tell if I place unfair importance upon movies that star certain people (Christian Bale, Gael Garcia) – but does it really matter?

This movie made my brain explode – something I wasn’t really expecting at 10 a.m. in the morning. Since I saw this at Toronto, I’m not sure when or if it’ll be released here… but if you see it, I’m sure you’ll agree that you’ve never seen a movie like it before.

Am I being a jerk for picking movies that haven’t technically been released yet? Well, this came out in Europe ages ago, so I’m going with it. Check it out when it’s released here, whenever that may be.

Should I put Inside Man on my list? I saw it so long ago, I’m not sure – but I’d love to see it again, and thought it was one of Spike Lee’s most successful recent movies. Rescue Dawn is being released soon, I think, and probably deserves a spot on this list. It’s a nailbiter, and Christian Bale is beyond perfect, as usual.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Here are some movies which I loved and want to rewatch soon, but decided not to put in the top ten for some reason or another:

Here are some more movies which I loved, and which should be released in 2007… Keep your eyes open!

Hmmm… the golden boys of 2006 appear to be Christian Bale, Clive Owen, and Hugh Jackman.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Recently somebody wrote into the “Ask a Critic” feature in Entertainment Weekly with the question “What subject matter can’t you stand in movies?” – in other words, what makes a great movie so incredibly painful to sit through that you don’t want to watch the movie again? The EW critic answered “anything with needles.” That would rule out any junkie movies. I have no problem with needles, as you all know.

For me, there is a triumvirate of painful scenarios. Here they are, in no particular order:

This is an obvious one. I have to avert my eyes anytime an animal is hurt or killed onscreen – it makes me panic. I’m not talking about fake animal violence, where I’m able to keep repeating, “the ASPCA was supervising, no one was hurt, that’s a fake doggie!” One example of that is American Psycho.
However, some of my favorite movies contain scenes of animals being slaughtered: Apocalypse Now and Cyclo both come to mind. I can’t handle this, and still look away every time I know the throat-slashing is about to occur.

I hate watching people’s fingers being cut off. It sends a chill to the very core of my being. I would rather watch someone’s leg being crushed with a sledgehammer than someone getting a paper cut underneath their fingernail. The other night I had this bizarre image of razorblades under my fingernails; I couldn’t get it out of my head and it tortured me for hours. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s just how it is. To me, a leg stump is less gross than someone who’s missing the tip of one finger. This general category also includes fingernails getting pulled off. Some great movies which fall into this category are The Wind That Shakes the Barley, The Machinist, and the grand-prize winner: The Piano.

In a lot of movies, a person is about to be executed, or murdered, or whatever, and they stand there stoically, being brave and noble before the end. I find it pretty easy to sit through scenes like this. In a lot of other (probably more believable) movies, a person is about to be killed, and totally flips out. This is my cue to panic. Plenty of great movies contain these delightful scenes, including The Wind That Shakes the Barley (again), and the mother of all such movies, Dancer in the Dark.

I’ll add others as I remember them. There are so many other movies that fall into these categories, but I honestly feel like I’ve mentally blocked most of them out.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Lessons from Season One of the X-Files

Well, it’s taken me a little longer than I thought it would to watch and dissect the X-Files season by season. That might be due to the fact that I once again have to work for a living… talk about cramping my style… Anyway, here is what I learned from season one when I watched with a critical eye (at least, as critical as I can be).

1. Scully is not a bitch (yet). Don’t get me wrong, I almost always love Scully, but I forgot that in the first season she was actually pretty flexible and open-minded. She goes along with Mulder’s conspiracy theories almost all the time and rarely butts heads with him. She smiles at least 15 times (not counting smirks and insincere smiles, by the way). She only doubts Mulder’s conclusions outright on five occasions.
2. Scully and Mulder are due for some major worker’s comp already – Scully is knocked down and/or unconscious on five occasions and gets to stay in a quarantined hospital ward once. Mulder requires medical attention on three occasions (including the aforementioned quarantine and one gunshot wound), gets beaten up once, and is taken hostage and fried by the gas escaping the body of an alien-human hybrid.
3. No one is too trigger-happy yet. Mulder and Scully each kill only one person (Mulder kills two, if you count Tooms as a person). At least 12 people have been killed for “The Truth” by others at this point.

4. On the fashion front, Scully suffers egregiously while Mulder escapes relatively unscathed. Yeah, the early 90s were basically still the 80s, and this season proves that fact over and over again. Scully is forced to trudge around in clothes at least two sizes too large for her; she swims in shapeless trenchcoats with linebacker-style shoulderpads. The color palette of her clothing ranges from bad to worse – some examples:
A mud brown skirt suit paired with white tights
A lacy Victorian schoolmarm shirt, worn on a “date”
A pink collarless tee under a trenchcoat, with accompanying duckbutt hairstyle
Another mud brown ensemble with diagonal navy stripes
It goes on and on…
Mulder looks snazzy, even in his not-exactly-fitted suits. His hair sometimes teeters dangerously close to being feathered, but mainly looks like a cute ‘do in the style of Chris Isaak. Time has been much kinder to men’s early 90s fashion, apparently.
5. In case you care, aliens and/or spacecraft are seen a total of 7 times, and Mulder and Scully commit a total of 7 illegal break-and-enters. Evidence is also lost forever a total of 7 times. Wait a second… I think this is a case for Mulder and Scully…
6. The X-Files are shut down forever (but not really) twice.
I think that’s about all the insight I have at this moment. Yet to come: Season Two – the plot thickens. If my memory serves me, Scully’s clothes improve slightly and Mulder’s hair worsens.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Is it annoying when people proclaim that a certain actor is the incarnation of a revered actor from a previous generation? I don’t know, because I do it all the time. I’ve been mulling over a couple of possibilities recently.
1. Sacha Baron Cohen is the next Peter Sellers. It seems like I’ve seen this claim in print somewhere, most likely Entertainment Weekly or another of those idiotic entertainment magazines I’m addicted to. Cohen has the ability to completely disappear into a persona like Sellers did. He’s also disturbingly culturally relevant, and manages to make smart, cutting commentaries on modern society while still entertaining the drooling masses.
To seal the deal: Now someone just needs to create a Dr. Strangelove type vehicle for him. Is it possible that he’s not the next Peter Sellers? Yes, if he stays in Borat character for the rest of his career, but somehow that seems unlikely.

2. Cillian Murphy is the next Jeremy Irons. I thought this one up all on my own! For a long time I thought James Spader was the next Jeremy Irons because of his propensity to play dark and sexually aberrant characters. But in interviews Spader seems downright benign, approachable, and fun. Jeremy Irons has this bizarre edge that never completely goes away, even when he’s not acting. Yeah, I’ve had a crush on him for twenty years, but I still find him slightly scary. Cillian Murphy has that same weirdness about him. He’s a truly great actor for starters, and already has a corner on ruthless villains that you end up rooting for. He’s also a great against-type leading man. Also, he’s far too thin and seems kind of creepy onscreen, just like Jeremy Irons!
To seal the deal: The one thing Murphy hasn’t done is play a sexually disturbing character (Breakfast on Pluto played with sexuality, but was more of a quirky character study). Once he does this, I think my point will be proven.