Sunday, April 24, 2005

Primer / **** (PG-13)

Aaron: Shane Carruth
Abe: David Sullivan
Robert: Casey Gooden
Phillip: Anand Upadhyaya
Kara: Carrie Crawford

ThinkFilm presents a film directed and written by Shane Carruth. Running time: 78 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for brief language).

I’m sitting on my couch. Mind racing. What did I just see? It was cinema. It was ideas. It was pure sci-fi without any beeps and whistles. Conjured up from the imagination of a man named Shane Carruth, yet so little presented as imagination. The time travel debate tackled in the way people tear it apart whenever they see a movie involving time travel and are unwilling to suspend their disbelief to even accept that it is possible. Does it seem possible with this film? Is it all simply a set up to present a thriller in such an original way that no one suspects what it is? Did he really want the praise it garnered when it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival? Was it whimsy? Did he foresee that result?

It is now four days later. Thursday. I have written my review at the last minute as I do each week with my self-imposed deadline, as if I actually get paid to write my thoughts down for hundreds or thousands to read each week. As if what I think of a film really matters. I give the film three and a half stars. But I will go back and fix that on Sunday night immediately after viewing the film because it occurs to me that the way the actual time travel in this film works as imagined by Carruth works literally the same as the device his character Aaron accidentally invents with his friend Abe, played by David Sullivan. Perhaps the confusion created by the convolutions of the story by the film’s end warrants some sort of deduction in star rating, but I don’t really care since this film has stimulated my brain so vigorously. Besides, that’s not really how star ratings work. At least in my imagination. I want to see this movie again and again and again, to see if I can get it straight in my head. I doubt I ever will. I think that’s the point. Maybe I’ve already seen it again.

It is Saturday afternoon. I open up my mailbox and see my favorite type of mail, the red Netflix envelope. Walking up the drive I shuffle the envelope containing the DVD to the top of my pile, almost unconsciously, as is my custom. I try to remember which disc was next in my queue. Was it The Secret of Roan Inish? I know it was one of the films playing at Roger Ebert’s 7th Annual Overlooked Film Festival, going on this very weekend in Champaign, Illinois. I was unable to attend, so I put every film available on DVD at the top of my rental queue. Primer was just released on Tuesday. It comes to me that this was the last film my e-mail box informed me was sent.

Upon opening that red envelope in my standard manner: stick my left index finger under the sealed address flap and rip open cleanly along the perforated fold, then fold other perforated end to make another clean tear along the return seal flap before sliding the disc out in its own slip case; I notice immediately the title of the film. Instead of just reading “Primer”, the people at Netflix have also included as a sub title to the film following that title and a semicolon: “What Happens If It Actually Works?”. I’ve never seen this subtitle attached to this film anywhere else.

I read the description of the film. “An engineer builds a machine (quite by accident) that can transport the user back in time. But his discovery comes with an ominous caveat, nothing is as it seems on the surface. The narrative inventively blends a patchwork story line with overlapping streams of dialogue that help build the tension and suspense in this Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner. David Sullivan and Shane Carruth star. (Please note, despite the R rating displayed when this disc is played, the movie is rated PG-13.) Rated PG-13 1 hr. 17 min. 2004.”

Wednesday night. I lie in bed thinking, “God, that description I gave of that movie is so misrepresentative of the actual film. Maybe I should go back and just use the description on the Netflix label. It is just as misrepresentative, but it is also somehow appropriate, as all brief synopses seem to be. And at least then I’ll be able to blame someone else.”

Sunday night. I’m starting the movie. Rated R? “For brief language”? That doesn’t make sense. As the strange lighting of the film’s opening shot reveals the setting to be much different than expected from the rows of lights that first appear, I can’t put the thought away that this film already is a perfect representative example of the types of movies Roger Ebert likes to pick for his Overlooked festival. It is understated, quite and deceptive. Those rows of lights turn out to be the windows of a garage door as seen from the inside of the garage at night. The theme of those lights not being what they seem makes up an important feature of the story. Not those particular lights, but the illusion of things not being what they seem. Hey, the description on the Netflix jacket had that right.

The characters talk over each other. Their conversations are confusing. Robert Altman has had a profound, far-reaching affect on film. The film itself ponders its themes and ideas in the very same way people carry on conversation. My mom always made fun of the conversations I would have with my best friends because to anyone else it sounds like gibberish, but isn’t that true with any group of friends. The conversations in the film, which is mostly conversational, are that way. I pick up slowly what these guys are talking about, but I never learn everything. Would I if I watched it enough times? I could watch it again, and it isn’t even over. Do I break my own illusion of a theatrical experience by pressing the rewind button on the remote to go back and catch something that I already missed? How would that affect my viewing experience?

It is later. How long? Days. Months. Weeks. Does it matter? Have I seen the movie again? How many times? Probably not. But could I really know? Maybe one of my other selves has seen it? Maybe I’ve given too much away in my review. I don’t really see how that is possible, since I mostly talked about myself. I think I described how I opened up my mail? Maybe I should go back and change that. I suspect that no amount of viewings could resolve all the questions I have about this film. Maybe they could. Some would say the filmmakers must know exactly what happens in it. I would almost hope not. I think the reason time travel is such a popular subject for film is because it is something we as humans want to grasp but never can. If the filmmakers have all the answers, why the hell are they making a film about it? Maybe that answer lies within the film. Maybe I should take another look at it.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Fever Pitch / ***½ (PG-13)

Lindsey Meeks: Drew Barrymore
Ben: Jimmy Fallon
Doug Meeks: James B. Sikking
Maureen Meeks: Jo Beth Williams
Molly: Ione Skye
Robin: KaDee Strickland
Sarah: Marissa Jaret Winkor
Kevin: Willie Garson
Gerard: Armando Riesco
Steve: Zen Gesner

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly. Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Based on the book by Nick Hornby. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual humor, and some sensuality).

This past weekend I had the particular pleasure of taking my son to the veritable hell on earth Chuck E. Cheese’s. That is really a story for another forum, but during our dining experience Jack’s Pop, my Dad, noticed a guy wearing a Plaxico Burress Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. He quickly pointed out that this particular jersey was now meaningless, since no more than a few days ago Burress was traded to the New York Football Giants. He knew this from reading the Giants Website. This is a man who cannot program the clock on his VCR and doesn’t know how to delete his e-mail, but he can surf the net just well enough to feed his fandom. And I myself was very excited at the prospect of the Giants actually spending some money on a bankable receiver. Such is the mindset of the sports fanatic.

Fever Pitch, the new romantic comedy by the Farrelly brothers, is pitch perfect at capturing the sports fan mentality. It isn’t too bad at putting together a more than decent modern day romance, either; one that deals with the sacrifices necessary in a relationship built around our culture of self-satisfaction and career success above all else. It expresses the romance with understatement and the fanaticism with what might be deemed from those who aren’t familiar with a true sports fan as absurd exaggeration, giving the familiar love story structure a ring of authentication.

Ben, perfectly played by former Saturday Night Live cast member Jimmy Fallon, is in the film’s own words, “the most pathetic creature in the world: a Boston Red Sox fan.” Sadly, but to the film’s advantage, this is a label that can be stuck on any franchise fan of any sport at some time or another. It is also a label that currently does not apply to the Red Sox fan, a fact dealt with in footage from and scenes re-written around last year’s ALCS Championship series and World Series. But the story begins before those historic games came to pass, when Ben’s undying love for his perennial losing team… make that obsession… has kept him on the singles market far past his due date considering what a good natured and charming fellow he is.

Drew Barrymore (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) plays Lindsey, an up and coming corporate player who can’t seem to hang onto any of her men because she only dates men who are up and coming corporate players. After she is urged by her friends to pursue someone who is her opposite, she begins seeing Ben, and it seems as if it is a match made in heaven -- that is until April arrives and it is time for Ben to devote all of his time and energy to the Red Sox.

What I really liked about this film was that it didn’t treat its couple like people who only existed to fall in love with each other. These are two complex characters that are not oblivious to their own weaknesses and strengths. They put thought into their actions and decisions rather than merely acting on the whims of the plot. Oddly enough that plot is filled with romance clich├ęs, like a breakup and miscommunications. The biggest misunderstanding has to do with the way Ben reacts to some news from Lindsey. His initial response isn’t good, but he realizes his mistake right away and tries to make it right, but his first reaction has already changed Lindsey’s perspective of their relationship and although she understands why he reacted poorly and that he truly wants to do what is right, she can’t deny how her feelings have already been altered. I put this vaguely in order that I shouldn’t give anything away, but the important part of this argument is that they act like people who have already placed some commitment into their relationship and don’t just blindly react to their misunderstanding to serve the plot.

I laughed a great deal during this picture, but it would be hard to describe where most of these laughs came from, since I didn’t have my notebook on me and didn’t get a chance to write down any of the script’s many brilliant lines of dialogue, provided by the long time life comedy screenwriting team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Robots). What really sets this movie apart from most romantic comedies, and sets it continents away from the broad gross-out humor of most of the Farrelly brothers’ (There’s Something About Mary) other work, is that it does not depend on physical and visual comedy to keep its lighthearted touch sustained throughout. Most of its comedy comes from the characters and their own intelligence. That is not to say this is a film where two smart and charming people spend two hours wooing each other with smart and charming witticisms. No, they fumble and get tongue tied like anyone, but the fact that they are smart and charming to boot makes that funny.

Jimmy Fallon can just quit now. It is too bad for him that it happened so early in his career, but he has played his perfect role in this performance. He is the perfect embodiment of the sport fanatic. He’s a squirrelly little nice guy. He makes it easy to see why someone would fall for him. No one so genuine could also do such a good job conveying that inane devotion to a sport or team that does nothing more than provide him with vicarious ups and downs. And he can act too. Unlike other SNLers, whose careers exist primarily to capitalize on the quirky characters they created on that show before everyone gets too sick of them (which, incidentally, usually only takes one film), many people may not realize that Fallon has already been out there and hasn’t stuck just to comedy. He was the band manager in Almost Famous. Did I just blow your mind? Well, probably not all of you, but someone just said, “Really? That was him? I’m gonna have to check that one out again.” And you should, but back to this one. Fallon really got me when he first goes to get Lindsey back after their breakup. He has those almost tearing eyes and a slight waver in the voice and I could just remember that feeling of trying to salvage and unsalvageable relationship. “You had me at ‘Hello’”? Yeah, right! This is what it feels like when you aren’t Tom Cruise.

Barrymore has shown an incredible knack for choosing great material for her and her production company, which produced this movie from a Nick Hornby novel of the same name, but not the same sport. The filmmakers did a wonderful job transferring that book from Britain to America and the sport from football (soccer for us American blokes) to baseball. It is only a shame they didn’t make it American football. Then the most pathetic creature on the planet could have been a New York Football Giants fan. Unfortunately, these days the label fits us oh so much better than it does Red Sox fans, and I’ve already started my own son down the dark lonesome road of fanaticism.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Final Cut / ***½ (PG-13)

Alan W. Hakman: Robin Williams
Delila: Mira Sorvino
Isabel: Genevieve Buechner
Jennifer: Stephanie Romanov
Nathalie: Leanne Adachi
Fletcher: James Caviezel
Hasan: Thom Bishops

Lions Gate Films presents a film written and directed by Omar Naim. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material, some violence, sexuality and language.)

There are two kinds of science fiction. There is the kind with laser beams and aliens and galaxies far, far away. There is also the science fiction of ideas, the science fiction that makes you think. What if we could do this? Would it be good? Would it be bad? Is this something that already exists in our society today on a not so literal scale? The first kind is not always good. The two combined can be great, or it can stink. But the science fiction that exists mostly as an exploration of ideas is almost always good, if not great.

The Final Cut is a science fiction of ideas. Yes, it takes place in the future, but there is little in this future to distinguish it from the world we live in today. There are no flying cars, no laser cannons, the police aren’t even perpetually dressed in riot gear. In fact, there was hardly a detectable police presence at all. This isn’t a future of paranoia, although paranoia does play a part in this story, but the fact that this is a time before us is barely a detail at all. The only difference in the future that this film is interested in exploring is an optional memory chip which allows a person to record their entire life, as they see it, so when they have passed away a technician known as a “cutter” can retrieve the recording from their brain and splice it together to a manageable length for their loved ones to share and keep for the remainder of their days. They produce a film of a person’s life to help ease the emotional fallout of the living.

Robin Williams plays one of these cutters in what I have begun to classify as his independent roles of genius. Genius might be a bit extreme, but this performance is one of his more restrained that is in the mode of his recent more serious roles in films like Insomnia or One Hour Photo. His Alan W. Hakman is a man whose entire existence has been shaped by the memory of a childhood trauma. It is no mere coincidence that as a cutter he makes his living by making people’s lives seem better than they were to other people. The cutter lives by a strict code (the first rule being that no one with one of these memory chips may be a cutter) and Hakman is the most ordered and mannered of the bunch.

A set up like this might suggest a thriller filled with conspiracies and assassinations and some sort of discovery of a major government secret that could change humanity for all time, but this is a smaller story than that; and better for it. Certainly there are secrets revealed about the darker nature of the deceased, but what this movie is more interested in is dissecting that voyeuristic nature in man. This subtle thriller raises two avenues of thought. The more prominently staged notions ask whether a technology like this is morally right. Is there something wrong with being able to see everything another person has experienced? Even if it is with that person’s consent? If some people have these chips and others don’t, is it fair that others are recording people without their knowledge of it? Does a person’s behavior change if they know everything they do is being recorded (either by themselves or someone else)? And do the cutters have some sort of obligation to the whole truth about a person’s life rather than editing these people’s existence down to a loving memorial tribute, which paints them all as some sort of familial saint.

These memory chip films are presented to a person’s survivors in a ceremonial screening, a kind of funeral, called a rememory. These rememory screenings are heavily protested by people opposed to the technology, including people whose parents had the memory chip implanted in them but have since destroyed their own chips with specialized tattoos, which block the chip’s receiving signal. There is also a former cutter and close friend of Hakman’s, Fletcher (James Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ), who has switched sides and now tries to obtain damning evidence against the people who develop and manufacture the technology through the memory chips of those very people. These details just add question upon theoretical question to this already intriguing concept.

The second, subtler but equally important, line of thought the film explores is the very nature of memory. You know how when somebody is telling a story that the two of you experienced together and they mention details you don’t remember, or outright remember in an entirely different way. Why is that? The phrase “People remember things the way they want to remember them” is one used enough to have some merit. Who is to say which person remembered the experience “correctly.” Is one person’s version of events more valid than another’s? During one of the rememory screenings, the deceased’s brother walks up to Hakman afterward to comment on the memory of a childhood fishing trip. “I always remembered the boat as green, but it was red in the rememory. How could that be? I could have sworn that boat was green.” Hakman answers, “Maybe it was green.”

Despite the subtle nature of the film’s story, there are some not so subtle sci-fi thriller aspects that pop up in the picture. The surname of Hakman may be just a little kitschy considering the more subtle hand of the film’s primary ideas. I am willing to forgive the blatant symbolism in the name of the editing machine used by the cutters, the Guillotine, because it is actually a pretty good name for an editing machine. And it could have been worse; it could have been the Guillotine 3000. The score by Brian Tyler (Godsend) also leaves something to be desired for its heavy handedness.

There were also a number of plot holes during the first half of the picture, the biggest being the fact that it had never occured to the Cutter’s Guild (or whatever they would want to call themselves) that someone would lie about not having a chip or even just not know, since they were implanted in utero. I’d think they’d have some way of scanning for the device to be sure no one could break the cutter’s code. But by the end of the picture all of these flaws just fall away because of the crafty way the story unfolds. There is an inevitable confrontation that must occur for the conclusion of this plot, of which I have purposely divulged little. Although, I knew this confrontation had to come to fruition, the film follows so many seemingly tangent twists before it gets there that by the time its inevitable conclusion did rear its head, I was completely blindsided by it. Perhaps my head was just swimming in the plethora of ideas this story got me thinking on. To call this little thriller thought provoking… well, that just might be an understatement.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Sin City / **** (R)

Hartigan: Bruce Willis
Marv: Mickey Rourke
Nancy: Jessica Alba
Dwight: Clive Owen
Gail: Rosario Dawson
Junior/Yellow Bastard: Nick Stahl
Jackie Boy: Benicio Del Toro
Goldie/Wendy: Jamie King
Lucille: Carla Gugino
Kevin: Elijah Wood
Bob: Michael Madsen
Manute: Michael Clarke Duncan
Shellie: Brittany Murphy

Dimension presents a film written and directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, with guest directing by Quentin Tarantino. Running time: 124 minutes. Rated R (for sustained, strong, stylized violence, nudity and sexual content including dialogue).

There was a time when film noir was a very popular movie genre. It is still revisited every once and a while in this age of blockbuster pyrotechnics, usually fairly well received by critics. It is a genre populated by bad people doing bad things to each other. Every once and a while there is a good character thrown into the mix, albeit with flaws. Invariably these unsavory lives will meet their end before the film’s credits scroll. These characters are people who will most certainly never see the inside of the pearly gates. Sin City is the hell to which these film noir characters are sent for their penance.

With Sin City writer/directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez have created one of the most unique cinematic experiences in film history. Certainly their dark sultry world draws upon the fundamentals of film noir. Certainly its action is based on that of the graphic novel/comic book format in which Miller’s original material appeared. Yes, the direction owes much to the multi-storyline/anthology format popularized in the ‘90s by director/auteur Quentin Tarantino (who is given a guest directing credit). But Sin City is like nothing ever witnessed on the silver screen before.

It is a world of sex and death, where the men are as hard as the lines formed by their square jaws or their high caliber Berettas and softness can only be found in the hourglass figure of the naked female form, but all too often that only leads back to death. It is a black and white world. A world of good and bad, and the good guys are losing. A world of shadows and light, where the only color comes in the form of thick red lips, dazzling blue paint on a classic car, buckets of crimson blood, strobic flashes of hallucination, yellow-bellied skin, or simple red tennis shoes. The car chases are like a raping of the road and life expectancy is microscopic. The men speak in low-pitched guttural growls and the women sell their sex for power and one eleven-year old girl loves eternally.

Voiceover permeates the proceedings to make up for the film medium’s lack of thought balloons and further embrace the heavy noir influence. All the characters speak with a heightened noir flare that would sound silly in a realistic setting, but only helps to build this world’s fantastic reality. All are bold statements like, “It's time to prove to your friends that you're worth a damn. Sometimes that means dying, sometimes it means killing a whole lot of people.” And when someone tells you they are going to shoot your naughty bits off, it is no mere threat; you are going to be searching for your necessities in agony for quite some time.

Never has a particular comic book so accurately been portrayed on screen before. The Spider-Man series successfully realized the human drama that is normally absent in comic book adaptations and Ang Lee’s Hulk made strides toward using the screen to replicate the layout of an actual comic book with its multiple panel screen and overlapping images, but Sin City tells this comic book story as if comic books and film were much more closely related art forms. The comic book plays around a great deal with light and dark, often contrasting moods and action using black against white silhouettes as well as white against black. There are several instances here where the exact same technique is used on screen. One character wears glasses with lenses that are almost consistently whited out as if the light is always reflecting off them. The production design lies somewhere between reality and drawn art, with the CGI backgrounds looking as if they are depicting real artifacts but moving as if they were trapped in a cartoon.
Sin City consists of three stories, with short bookends starring Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor).

“The Hard Goodbye” stars a hulking Mickey Rourke (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) as Marv, a lug only his mother could love, who is framed for the murder of a hooker named Goldie (Jamie King, White Chicks), who is one of the few people in his life that had ever shown him kindness. Rodriguez staple Carla Gugino (Snake Eyes) is Marv’s parole officer Lucille, who joins Marv in his search for justice over Goldie’s death, which brings them across the paths of predator and prey alike; including Goldie’s twin sister Wendy (also played by King), a very creepy mute named Kevin, and an arch bishop (Rutger Hauer, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) who does little to improve the image of the Catholic Church. During much of this story Marv questions his reality because he tends to “get confused,” so neither he nor the audience is ever quite sure what is real, which is as it should be for the audience with its first look into this strange universe. Elijah Wood does his best to shed his do-gooding Hobbit image from The Lord of the Rings with what is sure to be one of the most disturbing character portrayals of the year as the acrobatic, clawed, and muted Kevin.

In “The Big Fat Kill” Clive Owen (Closer) plays the criminal, but not cold-hearted hero Dwight. Dwight wears the red tennies and says things like, “I'm Shellie's new boyfriend, and I'm out of my mind. You ever so much as talk to Shellie again, you even think her name, and I'll cut you in ways that'll make you useless to a woman,” to a depraved Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) as Jackie Boy. When Jackie Boy wanders into Old Town looking for a bad time, Dwight follows him, “to make sure he didn't hurt any of the girls.” The girls of Old Town are far from fragile. Led by the beautiful but deadly Gail (Rosario Dawson, The 25th Hour), the girls find themselves in the middle of a turf war when Jackie Boy ends up at the wrong end of his own gun barrel, even though it looked like the right end. Del Toro’s role is not cut short by his character’s death and Owen shows an action personality not hinted at in his previous roles.

“That Yellow Bastard” closes the picture, serves as the film’s one glimpse of humanity that audiences have come to expect from movies, and coincidentally is the one Sin City storyline of which I myself had actually read previously in graphic novel format. The story begins as a second introduction for the entire film before either of the other two stories gets under way. It follows one of the few good cops of Basin City John Hartigan, played by a more subdued than normal Bruce Willis (Hostage). Hartigan knows that if he were the typical cowboy Willis normally plays in film, he wouldn’t last two days in the corrupt police force of ’Sin City. But Hartigan can’t sit back and let a senator’s son Junior (Nick Stahl, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) get away with atrocious acts against young girls. Hartigan almost succeeds in his heroics and at least saves young Nancy from the horrors of that monster.

When the story picks back up, Hartigan’s life has been saved by Senator Rourk (Powers Booth, HBO’s Deadwood) to take the fall for his son. Hartigan serves 8 years to protect the whereabouts of Junior’s unclaimed victim, but when Hartigan is sent evidence that the now grown Nancy (Jessica Alba, Honey) has been discovered by her former assailant, he does what he must to get out and protect her. Despite Willis’s subdued performance, he manages to prove his value as an actor in the way he so faithfully recreates, not just the character of Hartigan, but also the dramatic images of Miller’s original artwork through his performance. There is a moment where he falls to the snow in pain with his fist above his head trembling that could not be a truer representation of the comic’s original artwork, and the performance feeds that feeling as much as the shot framing. It is likely there are parallel moments like this in all three stories. And Stahl, whose roles up until this might have lacked some dynamics, brings surprising levels of bravado across in his performance even after his soul has mutated his body into the make-up heavy Yellow Bastard of the story’s title.

Those are the story plots, but plot isn’t really what this experience is about. This movie, like Tarantino’s own Kill Bill, Vol. 1, is about the style of the picture. Unlike that film, this one concentrates solely on that comic book noir style created so completely by Miller himself. This is a man who reinvented the comic book superhero, and the comic book itself, when he retooled Batman during the ‘80’s into a dark antihero. By the time he got around to his work on the Sin City comic books in the ‘90’s, he took that antihero to its furthest extreme and placed it into its natural noir environment of sex and violence, the only place these hardened men and women could be properly nurtured by its darkness. Rodriguez and Miller so faithfully recreate this harshest of realities (or unrealities is more like it) with this film, they have again transcended the format in which it is presented. Film will forever be changed by what these men have accomplished here.