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Monday, April 27, 2009

The Mysteries of Charlie Kaufman

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

I saw Synecdoche, New York over a week ago, and I've been pondering it and avoiding reviewing it ever since. It's definitely that kind of movie.

SNY (I can't handle trying to spell it every time I type it) is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the crazed genius writer behind such films as Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Malkovich is probably in my top-20 movies ever, and Eternal Sunshine in my Top 10, so you can definitely call me a Kaufman fan.

SNY follows Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a stage director who has some personal loss with the breakup of his marriage, a few health problems, and then wins a genius grant. This takes up perhaps the first 1/2 hour of the movie and is fairly easy to follow. When he gets his grant, he decides to create a recreation of the minutiae of his life. He builds a set of his world and casts people in the parts of his life. The movie continually probes deeper into his production so that you continually have to question what you are watching. It's also pitched somewhere between crazy things happening with real-life logic and a sort of dream logic. It's much more impenetrable and I think personal than any of Kaufman's other movies.

So its interesting and difficult to follow and sometimes frustrating, but what is Kaufman trying to say? I'm not quite sure. I think he is imagining the ego of an artist's gaze taken to the extreme. Could any of us take a recreation of our life over and over and never ending? At the end, Hoffman's character seems to make a choice to leave this examination of his life for another path, which spins the movie in a whole new direction. He's also playing with dreams and reality. The viewer is constantly reeling because we're not sure how to take all the new information. It's not a one-sentence hook like Malkovich (a portal enters the brain of John Malkovich) or Sunshine (a company erases memories).

Hoffman is joined by some of the best current actresses in this film. Catherine Keener as his wife, Michelle Williams as Catherine Keener (sort of), Samantha Morton as a love interest, Emily Watson as Samantha Morton, Dianne Wiest as an actress and mentor, etc. The cast keeps things lively and interesting all along.

This is perhaps the hardest movie to grade that I've seen in quite some time. It's by turns fascinating and frustrating, emotionally compelling and off-putting. I decided to give it a B+, for a fascinating idea that will take some time to figure out. However I end up feeling about the movie (and I have a feeling I will want to revisit it soon), kudos to Charlie Kaufman for having the courage to create such a personal vision that will likely be loathed by many who see it. If you like Kaufman's other movies, and don't mind a movie that doesn't "make sense," definitely see it and let me know what you think.

Grade: B+

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Clockers/ The Best of Spike Lee

Clockers (1995)

I checked out Clockers after finishing Richard Price's novel of the same name. Price was one of the lead writers on The Wire, my favorite show of all time by a large margin. His book covered many of the same complexities of the cop/drug dealer world as the show. As excited as I was by the book and by much of Lee's work, I couldn't wait to check out the movie.

Unfortunately, I found it to be one of Lee's weakest movies. The novel is a sprawling 700 pages. The movie follows Rocco, a New York City cop investigating a murder, and Strike, a young drug dealer under the sway of a drug kingpin who is involved with the murder. In order to condense the plot, the characters complexities are greatly reduced and several are turned into caricatures. Lee tries to put so much into this movie. The same material would have been covered in 6 or 7 episodes of The Wire and, thus, given the viewers a much deeper understanding of the characters. Nevertheless, Lee does prove an able director. There are some beautiful camera shots, and Mekhi Phifer is excellent as the young dealer. Nevertheless, on the whole it felt a little sketched in and incomplete. Perhaps The Wire has ruined other cop movies for me.

Grade: C+

The Best of Spike Lee

While Clockers was somewhat disappointing, I do usually admire (and sometimes love) Spike Lee as a director. While his ambition can get the better of him, at his best he is an expert and providing electric, thought-provoking entertainment. Here are my "Top 5" Lee movies. If you haven't seen any of them, I recommend checking them out right away.

1. Do the Right Thing (1989): 20 years later, and Lee's tale of racial dynamics and unrest in Brookyn still packs a thought-provoking wallop. He provides a vibrant mix of actors and characters and serves up no easy answers. The fact that this movie was denied a Best Picture nomination (the year that Driving Miss Daisy won) ranks as one of the most egregious Oscar mistakes of all time.

2. Malcolm X (1992): Lee's soaring biopic of Malcolm X is important filmmaking that is never boring, a frequent fault of screen biographies. Denzel Washington losing the Best Actor Oscar ranks as another awful oversight.

3. 25th Hour (2002): This is a great film that I think was unjustly ignored by many critics. This movie follows Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a drug dealer in his last night in New York before going to prison. Lee produces an elegiac and mournful movie. While this movie mostly addresses race only tangentially, its most powerful scene involves Norton's tirade against his city. Its a great scene, one that shows Norton's profane rage and (ultimately) love for his city.

4. Get on the Bus (1996): Lee's movie of a group of men traveling across the county to the Million Man March allows him to explore the complexity of black males and their relationship to one another and America. Fascinating stuff.

5. Inside Man (2006): Hugely entertaining heist film. Lee lets loose and provides two hours of clever fun, along with some social commentary (but not too much). The great cast is led by Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, and Christopher Plummer.

Runners-Up: Crooklyn, He Got Game, Summer of Sam

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Volver and The Times of Harvey Milk

Volver (2006)
*Second Viewing

In terms of quality, I would place this about smackdab in the middle of Almdovar's body of work, which means it's pretty darn good. All About My Mother and Talk to Her are two of my all-time favorites, and Volver doesn't quite live up to them. Penelope Cruz is magnificent as an earthy, tough, working-class Spanish mother who takes things (from cleaning up bodies to starting her own restaurant) into her own hands. This movie is truly a celebration (like many of Almodovar's films) of the strength and resilence of women. It's impressive that Almodovar can create a movie that includes death, incest, and cancer and yet still seem very fun to watch.

Grade: B+

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

If you've seen Milk, this documentary doesn't add a whole lot of new information, although you will be impressed at how much Sean Penn, James Franco, and Josh Brolin look like their characters. The best parts were hearing from a few on Milk's political allies and seeing the actual footage. And, of course, Milk's story continues to be both tragic and inspiring.

Grade: B

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Best Performances of 2008: The Leads

Now for my favorite lead roles of the year. These roles are on screen enough to make or break a movie. If they're bad, they can ruin an experience and, if they're good, it's much easier to overlook a movie's flaws. Here are the performances that made mediocre movies enjoyable, good movies more compelling, or were essential elements in great movies.


Colin Farrell, In Bruges: So beneath the bad-boy antics lies a great actor. This movie was fun if not spectacular, but Farrell had the best moments and owned his screentime in a hilarious yet somehow poignant performance. His two essential monologues (one where you find out his original crime, and his final monologue, are great.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road: Plays his tricky character with the right mix of charm, guilt, and lost dreams. Plays his entirely believable character arc very well. After The Aviator, The Departed, and this, can we finally call this former Tiger Beat cover model one of our most consistently good actors?

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor: Great to see this character actor (perhaps best known for his role on Six Feet Under) get to be the star of the show. He gives a beautiful performance as an emotionally closed economics professor opening himself to all kinds of life's pains and joys. Bonus points for 2008: very funny in Burn After Reading.

Sean Penn, Milk: Penn takes Harvey Milk and, without imitation or obvious stereotyping, makes a three-dimensional character out of him. There are many ways this performance could have gone wrong, but Penn does everything right. The best performance by one of my very favorite actors.

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler: Perfectly cast as a washed-up wrestler looking for redemption. A physically and emotionally demanding role. I'm not sure if this role will cause a resurgence in his career, or if this performance is a "one-trick pony" (like Randy the Ram), but nevertheless this performance will continue to be remembered and celebrated.

My favorite performance: Sean Penn
Runner-Up performance: Mickey Rourke


Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married: Gives a complex performance as the force of nature sister whose visit to her sister's wedding throws the family into turmoil. Hathaway never makes the cheap easy choices that would gain obvious sympathy points, yet by the end of the movie the audience cares more about Kym precisely because of her brokenness and complexity.

Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky: Has the incredibly difficult role of playing a character who is not only the main character, but also a sort of living treatise of the movie's philosophy. Director Mike Leigh allows his actors to improvise much of their roles, and Hawkins does an astonishing job. Poppy, the irrepressibly happy elementary school teacher, is one of the most memorable characters of recent years.

Melissa Leo, Frozen River: I was no superfan of this fairly predictable indie movie, but Leo captured my attention every second she was on screen. A powerhouse as a tough as nails working-class mom willing to fight for her piece of the pie.

Meryl Streep, Doubt: While at times her performance as Sister Aloysisus threatened to descend into caricature (and, OK, maybe the ending did), Streep expertly fleshes out her character to provide both humor and real emotion. Another great performance by (in my mind) one of the two greatest modern actresses. The other one being....

Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road: To my mind, Winslet's performance here was a touch more accomplished than her excellent award-winning role in The Reader. I would have put both in my top 5, but I decided to limit myself to one appearance per actor. Watching Winslet as April Wheeler is spellbinding. There's not a moment where Winslet is not truly living the dark emotions of her character.

My favorite performance: Sally Hawkins
Runner-Up: Kate Winslet