Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Charlie Kaufman and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

Charlie Kaufman is an endlessly fascinating writer. He takes strange ideas that many people have, and in his screenplays creates worlds that allow those things to take place. His first movie as a writer, 1999's Being John Malkovich, starts with the basic idea of: what if you could see the world through someone elses eyes? From there he created a surreal comic masterpiece starring John Cusack as a puppeteer who finds a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich (who plays a fictionalized version of himself). With his next movie, Adaptation., directed by Malkovich's director Spike Jonze, he gave us a movie sort of about Charlie Kaufman. At least, a version of Charlie (brilliantly played by Nicolas Cage). A version that is having so much trouble adapting the book The Orchid Thief into a movie that he begins writing a screenplay about a guy named Charlie Kaufman having trouble adapting The Orchid Thief into a movie. And that's only the basic idea behind it. He most recently made his directorial debut with the supremely odd Synecdoche, New York, about a theater director who begins staging a play of his life, acted on a replica of New York City built in a warehouse, employing thousands of cast and crew to help him examine his life by acting it out in front of him, aided by his assistant, directing an actor playing him (as well as the one playing his assistant), and so on and so on down the rabbit hole.

The crowning achievement in his catalog, in my eyes, is the 2004 comic romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which teamed him again with French music video director Michel Gondry (who had previously directed Kaufman's script Human Nature, unseen by me). It concerns the relationship of Joel and Clementine, characters extraordinarily brought to life by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Kaufman started from the idea of erasing someone from your memory (who hasn't wanted to do that before?) and the impact that memories have on us as people. The way a loved one can get so associated with something that to remove it would be to remove a part of your own being. The impulsive Clem has had Joel erased from her memory by a company called Lacuna that provides such a service. As a way of getting back at her, Joel decides to erase her from his memory. Joel at one point asks Dr. Mierzwiak (the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson) if there's any chance of brain damage caused by the erasing. He answers "Well, technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage." There's an achingly sad moment when you realize that Joel doesn't remember the song "My Darling Clementine", even though it had deep meaning to him long before meeting Clem. It had become so associated with her in his mind that to remove her removes all traces of the song as well as his childhood favorite, Huckleberry Hound. For the majority of the movie we travel with Joel through the good and bad memories of the two years he spent with Clem. It's hysterical, heartbreaking, amazingly true to life while being totally surreal. The brilliant score by Jon Brion is worth mentioning. It plays more like an accompaniment to the action onscreen, instead of trying to underline it, or try and inform the audience how to react emotionally. It's one of my favorite scores in recent memory. Actually, come to think of it, the movie as a whole is one of my favorites of recent years.

Monday, April 27, 2009

At long last, my 2008 top ten

I guess this Friday, with the release of the Wolverine movie, the summer movie season is officially upon us. So now that I've caught up with most of the movies I planned on seeing from last year (there are still some stragglers, but that's not a big deal), I guess I'll finally post my top ten list from last year. I won't re-post what I wrote before, I'll just do the movie titles, directors in parentheses:

1. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)
2. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
3. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)
4. Iron Man (Jon Favreau)
5. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
6. Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)
7. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller)
8. Vicky Christina Barcelona (Woody Allen)
9. Milk (Gus Van Sant)
10. Synechdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)

With honorable mentions for Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, and Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire.

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Woody Allen has made some great movies over the years, and Vicky Christina Barcelona is one of his best. While spending a summer in Barcelona, best friends Vicky and Christina come across exciting Spanish painter Juan Antonio, who promptly propositions them for a weekend getaway and possible three-some. Intrigued, Christina goes along with it, and Vicky comes to try and keep her friend from making a mistake. Later, things get further complicated by the appearances of Vicky's fiance Doug, and Juan Antonio's ex wife Maria Elena. This is somewhat familiar territory for Allen. Outside of the Spanish setting, Allen has dealt with these kind of love stories before, but never in this way. This is the most sensual movie he's ever made, oozing all aspects of love and sex in every frame. His dialog is top notch, and he gets tremendous performances from all of his actors.

Javier Bardem can be such an imposing figure onscreen. If I didn't already know how talented of an actor he was, I would've never thought the same guy could play Juan Antonio and Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. In that movie he was an ominous figure of death and evil, in Vicky Christina Barcelona he's a sensitive, passionate, and charmingly sexual presence. He's so effortlessly good I think many people overlook his versatility because of the fiery performance given by his Spanish colleague Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena. It's a big showy role, and she's tremendous in it. The interplay she and Bardem have gives such a sense of history, the way they talk over one another (in two languages!), their body language when together, everything about them tells the audience that these two people really do have a lifetime of shared experiences. Surprising, given that this is her third time working with Allen, but Scarlett Johansson's role of Christina is the most underwritten of the main 4 parts. Still, she does some good work with what she's given. But the biggest surprise for me was from Rebecca Hall as Vicky. I'd seen her in a few other movies before (Frost/Nixon, The Prestige), but here the British actress dons a perfect American accent, and gives a tremendously layered performance of a woman at a crossroads in her life. She's in love with two men. Does she stay with the safe pick that she loves but has little passion for? Or does she take her chance with the spirited artist in a relationship that would likely not last?

It's Allen's best looking movie since Gordon Willis shot the gorgeous black-and-white of Manhattan, and that was 30 years ago. So much credit must go to the superb Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. That he was not nominated for an Oscar for his work is shameful. This is one of the most beautifully, sensuously photographed movies of the past few years. Of course, it helps that Aguirresarobe's photography is in support of a terrific script by Allen. He still throws in a bit of the "Woody Allen-type" character, Vicky definitely has shades of the typical main character that Allen often played in his own movies. But I never get tired of listening to Allen's intelligent characters talk their way through his movies. It sometimes seems like he's one of the few filmmakers that actually gives a shit about the dialog in their movie.
It's nice to see Allen in top form again. Even after some of the crap he's put out in the past few years, every once in a while he'll still give us a Match Point, or Sweet and Lowdown. It's not on the level of his greatest movies Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors. But even if it's not a masterpiece, I think we can happily add Vicky Christina Barcelona to the list of Allen's triumphs.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Shattered Glass-the truth comes out

Billy Ray's 2003 directorial debut Shattered Glass is kind of a throwback to movies from the 1970's. It's driven by characters, and its drama is derived from their interactions and the slowly unveiled truth that changes the dynamics between them. It's based on the true story of Stephen Glass, a former writer for The New Republic ("the in-flight magazine of Air Force One"), who in 1998 was fired for lying in a story he wrote for the magazine. By "lying", I mean that he just completely made everything up out of thin air. The real Stephen Glass has said that it all started by re-writing a quote from a source. When fact checked, the quote was ok'd and Glass just kind of went from there into making up more things in his stories until he finally just made them up completely. Glass had made his name as the most vigorous of fact checkers when he was an intern, and had so developed a reputation that when something from his story didn't quite check out, the fact checker would still ok it because Stephen wouldn't have put it in his story without checking it first. Right?

Glass is played in the movie by Hayden Christensen, showing that George Lucas just didn't know how to handle actors in the newest Star Wars trilogy. Christensen brilliantly portrays Glass as a sort of self-concious wounded child that people feel a little bit sorry for, so they cut him some slack when they shouldn't. He has demanding parents he's trying to please by going to Georgetown Law School, writing full time for The New Republic, and occasionally freelancing for other magazines as his name gets known more and more. He writes a piece about hackers that is picked up by Forbes Digital Tool, the fledgling online publication from Forbes magazine. They've never heard of any of the things mentioned in the Glass piece, even though it's right up their alley. So writer Adam Pennenberg (an amazingly subtle Steve Zahn) starts doing some digging. When Pennenberg can't verify anything in the story outside of that there is a state called Nevada, they bring it up to The New Republic's editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard, nominated for a Golden Globe for his terrific performance). Chuck starts pressuring Glass to come up with some answers for what he wrote, and is offended at the answers he finds. It's a wonderfully done cat-and-mouse game between the two of them, as Chuck pressures while not wanting to believe the truth, with Stephen wriggling any which way he can to try to get out of his lies.

Having never been a journalist, I can't speak to whether or not Shattered Glass gets the details of the profession right. But it feels right. It feels more real than in most movies about journalists. These actually seem like people's desks, and it feels like they're working in a real office. The awkward moment when Chuck takes over his position from beloved editor Michael Kelly (a surprisingly great dramatic turn from Hank Azaria) feels true to life, even though Billy Ray says on the DVD commentary that it's one of the few moments in the movie that didn't actually happen that way.

At a brisk 94 minutes, you would tend to think that maybe Ray short changed his subject, but he and his actors create their world so vividly that the movie doesn't feel truncated in the slightest. It feels like they just told their story with no fat added on to pad the running time. Shattered Glass is one of the most sadly overlooked movies of the decade, and having now watched it 4 or 5 times, I can say that its impact only strengthens on repeat viewings. I wish there were more like it, but maybe that would make it less special when we find these kind of movies.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ingrid Bergman-one of the great actresses, also, a babe

I recently re-watched Hitchcock's Spellbound, and although one of its stars is the great Gregory Peck, I absolutely couldn't take my eyes off of the female lead, Ingrid Bergman. She has long been one of my favorite actresses, and I've also always thought she was incredibly gorgeous. She's not as impossibly beautiful as Audrey Hepburn nor as otherworldly sexy as Salma Hayek, but she simply commands the screen in a way that I can't really explain. There are few actresses that have ever really had that kind of magnetism. Meryl Streep has it, most certainly Bergman's fellow Scandinavian Liv Ullmann had it, but the list probably doesn't go much further past that. In a wide variety of performances ranging from her tremendous work in Casablanca, to Anastasia, Gaslight, and Hitchcock's Notorious (probably my favorite performance from her), she was nothing less than brilliant. But it doesn't hurt that she was easy on the eyes too.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Adventureland-the first great movie of the year

Movies like Adventureland are rare. They see their characters lovingly without idealizing them. They see a place and time so truly that we forget we are watching a period piece. They remember what it felt like to be young and in love. Remembering the friends you wish would go away when you're talking to a girl, the awkward silences before you figured out how to really talk with women, the feeling of what it's like to be accepted by the one person you wish would accept you (that one's not exclusive to younger days), and the myriad of memorable people that may only come into your life during the course of one crazy summer.

It's 1987 and James (Jesse Eisenberg) has to get a summer job when his parents aren't able to help him pay for his graduation trip through Europe or pay for graduate school and an apartment in New York City. After being turned down by everyone because he has no job experience, James gets a job at Adventureland, the local theme park. There he meets the managers Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig), who put him to work in the games section of the park alongside Emily (Kristen Stewart), whom he quickly falls for. James also gets to be friends with the maintenance guy Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who just may have jammed with Lou Reed, one of James' heroes.

Jesse Eisenberg is just so subtly good as James I'm afraid people will underestimate him as an actor. He has the kind of effortless charm and real emotions that John Cusack used to bring to these kinds of young adult roles. He has a bit of Woody Allen in his performance as well, but never comes off like a caricature of either actor. He's his own person. Kristen Stewart is so beautifully fascinating that you can't help but fall in love with her at least a little bit. She brings a certain delicate intelligence to her character that I'm not sure many actresses her age could pull off. Each supporting performance is spot on, with Martin Starr in particular being worthy of mention as James' fellow game booth worker Joel. He sees himself and the world around him with a clarity that none of the other characters possess, giving James the kind of advice that he needs, rather than the kind he's been taking from Connell.

Director Greg Mottola's last movie, Superbad, was one of the most realistic depictions of teenage mindset, life, and emotions that I've ever seen (barring the McLovin storyline). At the time, I gave most of the credit for that to writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and stars Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. Adventureland makes me think that maybe a lot of that credit deserves to go to Mottola. He takes on writing duties this time, telling a semi-autobiographical story that he just flat out nails as director. It's a hard movie to classify because everything in it works so well, and it's basically about life. So it has comedy, drama, romance, awkwardness, friendship, punches to the crotch, and maybe a chase scene or two.

Sometimes you watch a movie so good you just sit in your seat and hope it knows how good it could be if it doesn't screw it up in the end. Adventureland is that kind of movie, and it doesn't screw up anything.