Sunday, October 31, 2004

Sometimes political correctness can get in the way of appreciating a movie. Nowhere was this more in evidence than yesterday when I went to watch Jonathan Glazer's Birth. It seemed like the audience (infantile audience, is what I thought when I was watching the movie) just could not get beyond the fact that a thirty-odd year old woman had just fallen in love with a ten year old boy who claims to be her dead husband (reincarnated, of course). When Kidman and Cameron Bright (who plays the boy) get into a tub together, the theatre was awash with screams, shrieks, nervous tittering and loud shouts of "NO!! NO!!". I mean, please.

The point of this rant is that it reduced the affect of the movie for me, even if it did not destroy it altogether. Birth is above all a movie of rich brooding atmosphere, that is enhanced by Jonathan Glazer's glacial pacing and Alexandre Desplat's plangent score. Realizing the controversial nature of their material, Glazer and his collaborating screenwriters have constructed their mise-en-scenes with deliberation, with lots of care being taken to see that the movie does not seem exploitative (think Gaspar Noe's Irresistable or Bruno Dumont's TwentyNine Palms). In doing so, they have made a conscious choice to drench the movie in atmosphere as opposed to emotions. (I shudder to think what the finished screenplay must have looked like. The movie is so full of pauses and long silences that its a wonder that Glazer didn't screw up.) In a virtuoso opening, the camera tracks a hooded figure running in the park while the background score signals unease. At the end, as the jogger falls to his death in a tunnel, the camera tracks out and we fade out to a shot of a baby just emerging from the birth canal. Its perfect. In another brilliant move, the camera stays on Kidman's face for a tight hard close-up for more than two minutes as the opera rages around her.

There is something about Kidman so that when she smiles, the smile strains to reach her eyes, probably something to do with her cold sculpted beauty and albaster skin. Her performance here somehow reminded me of her turn as Grace in the superlative The Others. She is tightly controlled here and along with Cameron Bright, she absorbs the movie's atmosphere so that it seems to be emerging right out of her. Bright's performance here is the opposite of Eamonn Owen's spell-binding turn as Neil Jordan's butcher boy but just as effective. Somehow Glazer has directed Bright to the point of stillness and the young boy rises to the challenge. I'm not sure that Bright has the same remote quality that Kidman has, when he smiles during the film, he looks beatific, almost saintly. It would be hard to take Birth seriously without Bright; indeed, he makes the leap of faith required to believe subject matter such as this easy.

Which brings me back to all the carping critics. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon says that "Birth is the kind of movie that keeps alerting you to its resonant emotional undertow without actually having one." Zacharek misses the point, I think. Glazer and his collaborators, in an effort to avoid the relentless melodrama that a plot like this entails (think of the horrible Ghost), have instead taken a step in the other direction. They've constructed a motion picture without an emotional undertow, a mood piece that encourages a viewer to meditate. The Manhattan that cinematographer Harris Savides conjures up is like no Manhattan that I've seen. Its cold, wintry and a little distant. Even the only scene of Kidman walking in a crowd is subtly anesthetized by its silence. But the mood is fragile, Birth needs rapt attention to absorb it completely, which is why I was so irritated by the reactions of my fellow-viewers.

Other critics have simply dismissed the movie as paedophilia or at least more benign variations of it. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, normally the voice of reason, gave up on the movie after the bathtub scene. Its interesting that Gleiberman recounts that scene as "When Kidman slithers into the bathtub with her young husband ..." when in fact, it is he who "slithers" in with her (if Bright's character ever did anything in the movie that even remotely resembled slithering). The local Phoenix New Times Birth calls it "the nuttiest apologia ever for pedophilia". What exactly are we talking about here? Is this an objection to a 38-year old actress and a 10-year old boy actually being in a bathtub together during the shoot? Or are we objecting to the themes? Like I said before, political correctness may not be such a good thing after all.

Though, if there's something that sinks the movie, its the cop-out ending. By the (seemingly) hurried incorporation of a subplot (involving Ann Heche, no less), the movie simply takes the easy way out of the tantalizing possibilities that it's first three-quarters brought up. I thought it was a shame that the film-makers never thought of the interesting metaphysical possibilities that their "twist" had. (In the movie, the 10-year old Sean discovers that he can't be the "real" Sean since the real Sean apparently loved another woman more than his wife.) But I guess, they finally ran out of ideas.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Is it any wonder that I liked the soundtrack of Garden State more than the movie itself? Zach Braff's debut is definitely impressive but the movie is so bereft of an anchor that it wanders around a seemingly endless space accompanied by a litany of gorgeous pop-songs. Again, not a bad thing but where is the theme, that director's vision that connects together the dots into one spell-binding weave? Perhaps the theme is "offbeat". Word has it that Baff kept a little scrap-book which he filled with all the bizarre news that he read in newspapers. That he felt like putting all of those anecdotes right into the first movie he made, seems to me an indication that he was desperate and maybe, thought about making an making an offbeat indie movie as an end in itself.

Consider this. At home, for his mother's funeral service, a relative offers him a shirt made from the same material as the curtains in the bathroom. Cut to Braff watching himself in the mirror wearing a shirt thats matches the shower curtains to a T. This does get some cheap laughs but the seeming lack of connection between anecdotes is a little wearying. In another scene, on an odyssey-like ride with his friend (played by Peter Sarasgard) we glimpse a hotel where everyone (including a cop) is watching a couple have sex through a hole in the wall. Braff's main failure as a writer-director is that he inserts far too many non-sequiters in the hope of being "interesting" but he fails to concentrate on the most interesting sub-plot of all: the romance between his character and a pathological liar called Sam played with bewitching sweetness by Natalie Portman.

I never thought I'd say this about Portman after watching her sleep-walk through two of the star Wars prequels (Her "Oh, Annie ... "s in the Attack of the Clones brought down the house everytime) but she's like the light that shines through this movie. The first meeting between Andrew and Sam takes place in a neurologist's office and she invites him back to her house. That meeting (which concludes with them burying her pet hamster together) lasts around 15 minutes in the movie and it is alive - alive with a kind of dramatic weight that the rest of the film never attains. Garden State is an entertaining wisp of a movie but like its title, it is purposeless and uncohesive, a failure of the Braff the writer-director.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Ken Tucker has a thoughtful article in New York Metro on the whole Stewart-Carlson fracas. I first saw the Daily Show (and South Park) when I lived in Boston (with three white room-mates). The Daily Show was something they all watched regularly and pretty soon, I was a fan of the show as well. (South Park took a lot more of getting used to; it's in-your-face style redefines the whole notion of in-your-face.)
It had bothered me when I watched the video (I've seen it at least five times now) and Tucker articulates it: Can Stewart have it both ways? Can he toss puffballs to the guests on his show (and say "Hey, this is a comedy show after all!") and then criticize cable news shows for miserably failing in their duty to public discourse? If not, then what middle-ground should he pursue? After all, he is a comic. Tucker has a smart line at the end of his piece:
So this is the dilemma Jon Stewart now finds himself facing: Is he the Emmy- winning “monkey,” idol to millions of young couch-skeptics, or the thoughtful partisan satirist who’d like to be a player in the national discourse? It would take a genius comic to pull off both roles. But for the moment—his moment; his make-or-break moment up until the election—I’m sad to say, my money’s on the monkey to win out.
I'd say not. It strikes me that Stewart just might manage to pull it off. After all, how many people can lecture cable-news show anchors so sternly and yet be so funny?

Sunday, October 24, 2004

I read Anna Quindlen's "One true thing" when I was at Columbia. It was one of the two books that I read, novels without far-reaching plots, whose focus is more on relationships than narrative. The second was Stephen McCauley's "The Object of My Affection" which was so so soooo different from the movie that I'd seen before. I'd liked the movie well enough, it had deepened my appreciation for Jennifer Aniston, who I think, (and still think) is an unparalled comic actress. But the book itself, with its exploration of the lifestyle of a gay kindergarten teacher and his (pregnant) room-mate lives beyond these two (albeit endearing) protagonists. Its instead a funny, tender look at relationships and how they can't be slotted, about how the world is alive with infinite possibilities. (God! Whats happened to me? I can't believe I'm writing such sentimental rubbish!)

Reading "The Object of My affection" didn't lessen my liking for the movie, I only saw them as disparate, focussing on two different things. I saw the movie version of "One True thing" yesterday and I was dissapointed. That book above all, is about the relationship between a daughter, Ellen Gullen, and her cancer-struck mother, and what she learns anew about her parents as she moves back in with them to take care of her mom. The daughter has always admired her father and somehow looked down on her mother for her lack of intellectual glamour and her homey attitude to life. Now she learns that her mother is not who she thought she was. The book is, in a way, about the misplaced contempt of feminists for the stay-at-home woman. I liked the novel, it had an understated tone and above all, seemed to be sincerely written.

The movie, directed by Carl Franklin, instead of being about the mother and her daughter, focusses more on the travails of a cancer-struck patients and their relationship between their care-givers. Ellen and Kate rarely talk in the movie and the film never quite captures the change in Ellen's thinking. Still, the most damning thing about it is way the movie treats the father, George, who in the novel, comes off as selfish, slightly narcissistic but still undeniably human. In a middle-brow tasteful production, such as this, the director is ambivalent so most of the movie is devoted to showing how selfish the father is and yet in the end, he's made to rattle off a monologue about how his wife was his "one true thing". This is so cynically absurd and so transparently false that it almost destroys the movie. (If I'm not mistaken, in the book, that particular statement comes from the narrator herself, that her mother was the "one true thing" in the world). The novel ends on a somber note, with an almost impossible-to-bridge chasm that separates the girl from her father. The movie's ending is again a cliche (literally) with Ellen and George talking about daffodils and flowers (instead, as we should note, about Steinbeck and Whitman), while the camera zooms out.

I found Streep's performance (she was nominated for an Oscar for this), rather actorly, full of little tics and mannerisms but still somewhat opaque. William Hurt, not surprisingly, cannot overcome his badly written role. On the other hand, Renee Zellwegger grows into the part slowly but surely. She's a limited actress, and certainly, like Streep, Moore or even Kidman, she can never dissapear completely into her part. I found her unconvincing in the beginning, it seemed like the Dorothy Boyd of Jerry Maguire, had been transplanted into a WASPy New England milieu, and she doesn't seem like a publishing-type New York yuppie at all. But in the end, it's she who holds the movie together and her performance is nuanced, muted and ultimately great.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Is there a better poet for romantic love than Cameron Crowe? I finished watching Singles just now and this completes the Crowe ouevre for me. I've loved all his movies: Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous. The only stumbling block, was Vanilla Sky, which had Crowe adapting from Alejandro Amenabar's Open Your Eyes. Constructed as a philosophical piece of science fiction, it never quite worked and confirmed for me, that what Crowe does best is romantic comedy (and also that Penelope Cruz, whatever her charms, should stop speaking English and quit English-speaking movies altogether). But wait, I'm being unfair to Crowe here. The truth is that Crowe's movies go far beyond romance. In the words of A. O. Scott, he is perhaps the least cynical film-maker we have today, who wears his heart on his sleeve (and in his movies). His movies are forgiving, generous, innocent and sweet. Just like him.

Crowe was a music journalist before turning director and music, particularly rock music, is central to his films. But he also has a way of drawing upon his experiences that makes his movies deeply personal; to speak, his films are his way of meditating on life. In Almost Famous, a deeply resentful band-aid rebukes star-singer of the band Stillwater (played by Billy Crudrup), "What do you know about being a fan? To love some silly little piece of music so hard that it hurts." Thats Crowe speaking and to him, being a fan is important, life is about loving something so much that it hurts. I responded immediately when I heard that line in the movie, its as close as one gets to the heart of being a fan.

Crowe is a film-maker who is romantic without getting sentimental; he is also unabashedly preachy without being sanctimonious. His best film, Jerry Maguire (and probably one of the best romantic comedies ever made), is about a man, a sports agent, who rediscovers that life is not all about money and power, but instead about connecting with people. Put like that, it sounds as sanctimonious a piece of Hollywood puff as they come. But every time the final monologue begins ("We live in a cynical world. A cynical world. And we work in a business of tough competitors. ...."), I get this lump in my throat.

One of the reasons that I like Crowe's movies is that they are populated with people I identify with, middle-class young men and women with little or no financial worries who are nevertheless grappling with issues of their own. Here he is closer to Whit Stillman, whose talky wonderful trilogy of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco remains one of my favourites. Still, Stillman never got to the heart of romantic love the way Crowe does. (In a scene from Maguire, Dorothy Boyd says about Jerry Maguire, "I love him for the man he wants to be. And I love him for the man he almost always is. I love him. I love him!!) Romantic montages take on a life of their own in a Crowe film. He is probably the only film-maker who really really REALLY believes in the redemptive power of rock music and romantic love. And the two may even be inter-related. We just might never know.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

I just thought I'd do my version of the hottest story on the weekend: the dust-up between Jon Stewart and the hosts of CNN's crossfire. (For those who don't know yet, Stewart called Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson "partisian hacks" and then called Carlson a "dick").

The first thing about Stewart is that he's funny (intentionally, i think) even when he's being dead serious. His earnest "Why do you argue?" was hilarious. When he told Begala and Carlson to "Stop", I was in splits. And when he said "coz they're h-h-hurting us ..", I was almost rolling on the floor laughing. And of course, there was the way he pulled Carlson's leg about his bow-tie. ("How old're you?" "Thirty-five" "And you wear a *bowtie*!!!!") .

Whether Stewart had any business telling the hosts of Crossfire to stop "hurting America" when he himself runs a faux comedy news program is something I am still confused about. Yet the fact remains that his main strength is as a comic. And he is severe on politicians and "hacks" simply by being funny. What is sure though is that Tucker Carlson made an utter fool of himself on the show. Paul Begala wisely tried changing the subject. But realizing that Stewart meant business, he restricted himself to giving a half-hearted defence of his program. ("I think of it as debate.". Stewart retaliated by calling it "theater".) Carlson, on the other hand, tried taking the attack to the other side. But he ended up in the laughable position of comparing CrossFire to the Daily Show. The striking thing about Carlson was how querulous he managed to sound. He was angry - and showed it in the most childish way imaginable. (" Do you go to people's homes for dinner and lecture them like this? Man, I wouldn't like to have dinnner with you". "I'm sorry Jon, I think you're funny on your show, I just don't think you lecture very well". "You need to teach at journalism school, I think." To each of these remarks, Sttewart replied with unbelievable ripostes.). This may seem strange but Carlson reminds me somehow of that epitome of phallic male narcissism: Tom Cruise. What Carlson probably resented that day about Stewart was not his criticism of CrossFire but rather his own loss of face. That probably was the reason he took to the attack and came off worse in the bargain.

It also seemed to me that Carlson and Begala were a trifle condescending to Stewart, which must have probably incensed him more. (Carlson: Be funny. Please, please, be funny. Stewart: I'm not your monkey). I also disliked Carlson's in-your-face confrontational style ("Couldn't the Democrats find anyone better than Kerry? Was he *all* they could come up with?"). I thought that he was using this style to strike the jokes up a notch but apparently this is how he speaks. And now I know why Stewart called Crossfire pure "theater". This is no way to conduct a rational debate. Which is what we need today.

Postscript: Incidentally check out this page with Carlson's response to Stewart's criticism. Frankly, it bothers me that these hacks cannot even respond constructively to criticism. If journalists don't, then how on earth do we expect our politicians to act on the criticism they receive?

Sunday, October 03, 2004

I was just thinking today about how my list of favorite actors includes no male actors but only actresses. I mean, I love Ewan McGregor's work (plus he's cute too), I think he's not given credit for some of the amazing roles that he has done (and I don't mean the Star Wars trilogy). But there don't seem to be any male actors (besides McGregor) that I can recall at the moment whose work I really really admire in, say, the way I admire Julianne Moore's work. (And I've written about that in this blog as well). I think Sean Penn is over-rated, not because I dislike his work (I loved his turn in Dead Man Walking and I - almost - liked his turn in Mystic River) but because I think he's too ostentatious an actor; he eclipses the movie itself unless he's kept on a tight leash. Russell Crowe? Yes, but again he's too flashy. Anybody else?? Right at this moment, I can't think of any.

But my list of actresses goes on expanding. Julianne Moore, of course, is the best actress today, for my money. But I like both Cate Blanchette and Kate Winslet's work. And Kirsten Dunst is slowly but surely rising up my charts. Isn't it amazing that she's managed to be in two great movies this season? There was her solid supporting turn in Eternal Sunshine (the best movie so far this year) and there was her splendid turn as Mary Jane Watson in Spidey 2. In Crazy/Beautiful, which I saw recently, Dunst hits notes that exceed the movie itself. It's not that the movie is bad - it's a fairly conventional movie that tries to be a little different from all the others - but just a little. Some of the dialogue is just screamingly bad: in one scene, Dunst asks her father, "Why would you do that to me? Don't you think I am worth loving?". I am just amazed that dialogue such as this is even considered realistic. But Dunst all but carries it off. At the end of the movie, she even has a cringingly bad speech ("I know there is something beautiful in all my imperfections, the beauty which he held up for me to see") but she nails that too. And she manages to hit the right notes in Bring It On too - a nice little movie where I was able to look beyond all the short skirts and little blouses (for reasons you probably have guessed) and appreciate it. I saw her in Wimbledon recently where she's paired with the natty Paul Bettany. I don't know why but I am a sucker for the foppy-brit-meets-glossy-hard-American kind of movies and I liked the way Dunst portrayed a rising ambitious tennis star. Is at any wonder that she's the female lead in Cameron Crowe's next? Or that Sofia Coppola cast her in her upcoming biopic (or whatever) of Marie Antoniette? Man, this girl's going to go places. And she's just 22.!!!
In the utterly preposterous thriller The Forgotten, Julianne Moore (yes, the great Julianne Moore herself) plays a grieving mother who discovers that her child had never existed - or rather, that everyone else has forgotten he existed. Of course, she rebels and unearths a conspiracy of mind-boggling proportions with a fellow-sufferer called Ash (played by Dominic West). It is not an understatement to say that the movie is bad - it just plain sucks. And I'm not really talking about the leap of faith that the plot requires us to make. That, in itself, wouldn't matter. What thriller doesn't require you to make a leap of faith? What thriller doesn't have a token romantic storyline and campy dialogue?. But The Forgotten is just bad. It is as if the movie was made on auto-pilot. No one seems serious about it - not the director, not the screenwriter and definitely not the stars.

The movie has a lot of running around. But these scenes are desultory and the background score is uninspiring. There is no palpable sense of fear and the scenes of grief are contrived. Moore and West are supposed to have some kind of chemistry between them. The fact is: none exists. And the campy dialogue doesn't help either. This is a sloppily made, tired movie - a movie which could have been much better only if a little more thought had been spent on it. Worse still, the plot is non-existent. I mean, the most important question, why!!, is never answered except for some mumbo-jumbo about discovering the psychic, almost fleshy link between a mother and a child. Please. And why would someone want to know that? The denouement is so silly that its absurd. Moore's character calls the villain (who's supposed to be an alien or something) a son-of-a-bitch and - bam! - he vanishes because - and this is a scream - he needs more time apparently. More time for what? Will he be back? And who was he anyway and why was he doing all that? Sometimes, in the movies, some questions are better left unanswered but in the Forgotten, it seems as if the screenwriters forgot the plot as they were writing the chase scenes.

I wonder how Moore got hooked into this disaster. But perhaps that's easily explained. Moore's most famous roles have always been about suffering (safe, Far from Heaven, The End of the Affair, The Hours, even Boogie Nights, perhaps) that she inevitably jumps at the chance to expand her repertoire. Hence Evolution, The Big Lebowski, and Laws of Attraction. That's also probably why she agreed to star in Hannibal - a film I enjoyed very much - and managed to convey convincingly an older, more bitter Clarice Starling. Maybe someone came up to Moore and said - "Hey, I've got this great idea of a thriller of a mother who blah blah blah". Lets face it, the plot synopsis sounds good. The only thing is - the screenwriters lost interest while writing the screen-play, the director lost interest while shooting the horrible screen-play and the editor lost it because of the sheer yuck nature of the material he had. Moore probably lost her interest during the production itself. To her credit though, she manages to be impressively manic in two or three scenes (maybe less than that) but how can any actor, even one as great as Moore, overcome the flat tired material?

I know I am being unfair to Moore here and I love her work. She is not only an impressive actress but also an articulate one. The Hours DVD has commentary by Streep, Moore and Kidman on their respective scenes. Kidman, whose performance in the movie is its highlight, drove me nuts - as she went on and on about how great it was to work with a director like Stephen Daldry, how Virginia Woolf was an inspiration to her et al. I mean: Please!! Streep was hard too - not because she blathered on and on but because her commentary seemed vaguely contemptuous and condescending. Moore however was sublime, she was articulate in explaining her acting choices and it's obvious how much thought goes into her acting. Interestingly Moore described Streep as "formidable", a word I thought I understood particularly since I was also listening to Streep's commentary. By now, I have heard Moore's commentary on the End of the Affair DVD and her take on Safe and I am desperate to hear her on Far from Heaven too.