Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Tale (2008, Arnaud Desplechin)

One of the things I value most about the films of Arnaud Desplechin is that he understands the messiness that arises when people aren’t exactly on the same page. In Desplechin’s work, there’s a tension that comes out of people’s perspectives not lining up quite right, and it’s rare to find two lives that fit together completely in a way that is largely free of this tension. In this respect, it seems almost inevitable that Desplechin would eventually make a movie about a family gathering for Christmas, since few dramatic situations are so fraught with this tension. Even the best families have their squabbles and resentments, yet when they gather together for the holidays, in the interest of decorum and “holiday cheer” they fall back on politeness and long-standing traditions to keep the long-simmering emotions at bay.

What’s more, there’s a tendency among most families to assign unspoken labels to each member at a relatively early stage, then to hold tightly to those labels through the years, even past the point where they no longer apply. Little wonder that many adults see the old-fashioned family Christmas less as a pleasure than an obligation, something to be gotten over with so they can get to celebrating everything their own chosen way.

Even under ideal circumstances, Christmas with the Vuillards, the family at the center of A Christmas Tale, would be uneasy. But with matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) gravely ill, and middle child Henri (Matthieu Amalric) back at the party for the first time since being banished six years prior, it gets near-impossible to keep those old unpleasant feelings under wraps. Junon requires a bone marrow transplant, but given her rare blood type, only two family members are compatible- Henri and Paul, the teenage son of Henri’s older sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who has long despised her little brother for reasons that are never fully explained.

In a more conventional film, Henri and Elizabeth would see this opportunity as a chance to reconcile, with the once-irresponsible brother stepping in to help their mother and save his young nephew the risk. But in A Christmas Tale, it doesn’t work out that way. Elizabeth- who spearheaded Henri’s banishment in the first place- has always been the good and responsible eldest child, and she resents that it’s her ne’er-do-well of a brother who will have the chance to help their mother. In addition, she sees the possibility of Paul helping her mom not merely as a chance to bring her closer to her son, but also to give him a renewed sense of purpose. Both of which are fairly good reasons from Elizabeth’s perspective, but (not that Elizabeth cares) this doesn’t leave much of a place for Henri. Does her antipathy for him spring solely from the incident in question, or is it indicative of something deeper- perhaps (this being a Desplechin film) an inability to deal with the messiness that Henri brings?

In this respect, Desplechin could be called a spiritual cousin of Jean Renoir, especially the Renoir who once penned the line- “the great tragedy of life is this: everyone has his reasons.” All too often in A Christmas Tale, the characters neglect or even hurt the feelings of those closest to them to satisfy their own interests, but in their eyes they’re just doing what they feel must be done. It can be as simple as Junon balking at the skin inflammations that could potentially result from the transplant, or as emotionally fraught as Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), wife of the youngest brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), sleeping with her ex-lover as a means of bringing some closure to their aborted, long-ago relationship. And then there’s Henri, who despite any efforts he might make will always be “the bad kid” to his family. Is there any wonder that we rarely see him happy until he ducks out with his girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) to drop her off at the train station?

But I’ve made A Christmas Tale sound sort of dismal, when in fact it’s anything but. In spite of all the despair flying around, the Vuillard house is filled with life and even familial warmth, particularly from the kindly paterfamilias Abel (Jean-Pierre Rousillon- I love that in a Desplechin film a jolly, potato-faced guy like him can wind up with Catherine Deneuve), and no small amount of humor. And from the very beginning of the film, when the family history is recounted using shadow puppets- thus lending it a broad, archetypal quality- Desplechin’s stylistic decisions are bold, yet perfectly used. After my first viewing, A Christmas Tale doesn’t quite measure up to his masterful Kings and Queen, but it’s so full of life, with all its messiness and unpredictability, that I’m sure my esteem for it will only grow over time.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman)

It’s not hard to see why Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York has sharply divided critics and audiences. It’s almost impossibly ambitious, yet at first glance it seems to strike many viewers as show-offy and self-indulgent, particularly given the way its sobering worldview undermines any of its potential entertainment value. Yet to dismiss the film as Kaufman getting stuck up his own ass (to quote Mike D’Angelo) is to deny just how wise and sneaky a piece of work it is.

As virtually all of its supporters have said, Synecdoche is about nothing less than Life and Death- or, more specifically, the paths our lives take as we grow older. From the outset, Caden Cotard’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) body is betraying him- pustules break out on his face, his eyes don’t dilate properly, a seizure leaves him unable to generate tears or saliva. This pileup of health disasters, coupled with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and daughter Olive leaving him, makes Caden mindful of his mortality, so he seizes on the opportunity afforded him by a McArthur Grant to turn his life into a massive theatre project.

In many films, making the protagonist a director reeks of solipsism, as though the filmmaker didn’t know anything about any other lifestyle besides a life in the arts. But here, it’s a brilliant move on Kaufman’s part, as Caden’s job and the project he mounts mirrors the impulse we’ve all felt to take control of our lives in order to make sense of them. However, Caden’s life becomes consumed by this inward-looking project, and the constant self-regard leads the production to drag on for year after year, growing far beyond his ability to control it.

But then, isn’t this how life is for all of us? In our younger years we’ve convinced that we’re the masters of our lives, only to see our worlds growing ever larger in old age while our own rules in them become smaller, until we’re not even calling the shots for ourselves anymore. Along the way, everything Caden knows and lives is lost to him- his parents, Adele and Olive, and his great love Hazel (Samantha Morton) all die, while his second wife Claire (Michelle Williams) also leaves never to return. Even time itself gets away from Caden, from the opening scene in which two nearly imperceptible temporal shifts take place, to later in the film where entire years get passed by unnoticed.

Yet for all its starkness, punctuated occasionally by typically Kaufmanesque non sequiturs, the film’s tone morphs gradually into a kind of warm ruefulness once it becomes clear how much possible happiness Caden has lost due to his inability to stop thinking about himself all the blasted time. Yet by the time this happiness comes within reach it’s too late, and the tragedy is that Caden recognizes full well that he won’t have another chance like it again. By the end, all he can do is to look back at a life of intense self-regard, and to reflect on the idea that to truly know oneself can be a source of misery rather than pleasure, and that all his attempts to create something larger than himself have fallen flat.

This is why, even in her absence, Adele may still be Synecdoche’s key supporting character, even more than Hazel, Claire, Olive, or even Sammy (Tom Noonan), who has been tailing Caden for two decades for reasons unknown but to himself. Through her art- postage stamp-sized miniature oil paints- Adele embraces smallness rather than being unwittingly consumed by largesse the way Caden is. Perhaps that’s why she needs to escape him, since she knows innately what it takes Caden a lifetime to learn. And if Caden could only stop and think about it, perhaps he might realize that Adele’s success through modestly-scaled art is a rebuke to his own ultimately-failed grandiosity.

Early in Synecdoche, New York Adele tells Caden, “everyone’s disappointing, the more you know someone.” Yes, and doubly so when that someone is yourself.

Note: Looking over this review, I can’t help but noticed that I’ve completely neglected to mention such things as direction, performances, and technical elements, although they’re all top notch, all the more impressively so for being Kaufman’s directorial debut. All I can say in my defense is that, cosmetic differences aside, I was so consumed by my own identification with Caden’s plight that I found it difficult to think of the filmic aspects of it. At numerous points in the film, Caden sees himself in the world around him, and I felt much the way watching the film itself. Make of that what you will.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle)

The key to the enduring success of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? property is its format. To begin with, it boils down the game show to its essence- one questioner, one answerer- then injects heaping helpings of built-in drama into the proceedings- the double-or-nothing scoring system, the multiple-choice questions (which puts contestants, somewhat unwisely, at ease), the lifelines, and the multi-step processes required to answer the question, which draws out the suspense almost to the breaking point. Which I suppose is a roundabout way of saying that the show is compulsively watchable, and hardly needs any more drama injected into it. Yet somehow, the game-show sequences are probably the most Earthbound parts of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a film that’s been racking up accolades on the festival circuit and now seems primed to take home beaucoup arthouse bucks and Oscar nominations. I wish I could say the melodrama that pervades Slumdog to its very bones was a good thing- being a fan of melodrama as I am- but alas, the whole thing ends up coming off as contrived through and through. To begin with, there’s the premise of the movie- that the uneducated title character has somehow gleaned all the necessary answers through his life’s experiences. While this is true to a certain extent for most game-show contestants, it feels entirely too dramatically convenient here, especially when the film milks this for drama rather than absurdist comedy like the episode of Cheers where Cliff was a contestant on Jeopardy! To wit- nearly every answer isn’t simply from the protagonist’s life, but from a significant moment in his life. Of course, the film more or less comes out and says that his winning on the show (SPOILER!) was “destiny”, so we’re pretty squarely in fantasy territory here. Yet that hardly excuses the movie’s many spurious leaps in logic, not the least of which is some highly unprofessional behavior on the part of the host. Then there’s the final question on the show, which is not only jaw-droppingly predictable from about five minutes into the movie, but also far, FAR too easy to make the cut as a “million dollar” question. I hate to say it, but I get the impression that Slumdog Millionaire wouldn’t be getting nearly the buzz that it has so far had it been set in, say, New York City- it’s the exoticism of India that really seems to smooth over the film’s many rough spots in the minds of rapturous critics and audiences (sorry, Jason). As for me, I ain’t buying- no matter where it’s set, Slumdog Millionaire is diverting in the moment but pretty shameless on balance, hardly worthy of the love it’s getting. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008, Raja Gosnell)

Well… that happened. I knew that the Offspring was looking forward to this one, so when Angela fell ill again this past weekend, I bit the bullet and took him so he wouldn’t be cooped up all day. As expected, this is pretty shabby goods- I’m not a big fan of talking-animal movies anyway (the Babe franchise notwithstanding, natch), and since Chihuahuas are more or less my least favorite dogs, I knew I was going to be in for a long slog. But what really surprised me was how little effort the filmmakers put forth in making this thing. Lord knows I was no fan of the notorious teaser, but at least that tried to show some originality and pizzazz, however misguided. The movie itself, on the other hand, is pretty much the laziest possible movie that could have made from the premise- basically, a cut-rate canine Legally Blonde Goes to Mexico. It’s as though Disney figured that the once the trailer put asses in seats, their work was done, and they were henceforth under no obligation to actually entertain the audience. About an hour in, the Offspring turned to me and asked, “when are they gonna sing?”, and at that point I realized that I was actually wanting them to sing too- anything, really, to break the monotony and show me that someone involved in the movie actually gave a damn. The only things keeping this from getting a “1” rating were (a) the surprisingly world-weary voiceover performance from Andy Garcia as a dishonored police dog, and (b) the sparkling presence of Piper Perabo, who (as I’ve said before) really deserves better than the career she’s had since her “next big thing” hype all the way back in 2000. Yeesh, has it really been seven years since Lost and Delirious? Rating: 2 out of 10.

JCVD (2008, Mabrouk El-Mechri)

During my teenage years, B-grade action movies were one of the many staples of my moviewatching, and since this was the early nineties, the filmography of Jean-Claude Van Damme was intensely familiar to me. So while my Van Damme education stopped around the time I went to college (I never managed to watch the allegedly awesome/crazy Double Team), I was nonetheless heartened to see him turn up in this lacerating quasi-self-portrait. At its best, JCVD holds its star up to audience scorn in a way that few star vehicles do- instead of the gentle ribbing found in most movies of this kind, the blows in this one sting, and a few even draw blood. Alas, the self-inflicted Van Dammage only takes up roughly a third of the movie, and director El-Mechri fills most of the rest of his time with a hostage storyline that drags on for far too long, and which no amount of directorial flourishes or stylistic noodling can make liven up. And while Van Damme himself proves surprisingly game as an anti-action hero, he mostly whiffs his big climactic monologue, in which he’s literally pulled out of the movie to offer an apology for his life and work. Yet I would still recommend the film to Van Damme watchers both old and new, not least for the shit-hot incredible opening shot (even the logos are awesome), as well as the final ten minutes or so, when the story defies the audience’s expectations and hopes for how a Van Damme movie really should end. If Van Damme’s not your bag, adjust your rating accordingly. Rating: 6 out of 10.