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by Bill Gibron

15 Nov 2007

Whimsy is a tenuous cinematic element. Apply it too thickly, and audiences recoil under its treaclely tenets. Not enough, and viewers will wonder what the puff and stuff is about. Few filmmakers have actually managed the shaky aesthetic quality – and all of them are named Tim Burton. For all others, the quixotic or idealized becomes a motion picture burden that they are ill-prepared to bear. It takes the skills of a surgeon and the metal acuity of a genius to avoid the sappy, the sentimental, the predictable or the ditzy. Manage everything well and you have a lasting work of visionary art. Mess it up, however, and you’re stuck scrambling for significance. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium suffers from some of whimsy’s generic blight. When it’s good, it glows. When it fails, it’s almost fatal.

After living to the ripe old age of 243, and down to his last pair of favored shoes, Mr. Magorium is preparing to permanently leave his amazing metropolitan toy store. Hoping that his protégé and long time manager Molly Mahoney will take over the shop, he confides his oncoming mortality to her. Things don’t go quite as planned. Mahoney fancies herself a composer and concert pianist, a fledging career as a prodigy cut short by her own self doubt. She’d rather explore the world of music than be stuck running the Emporium. Still, Mr. Magorium has his mind made up, and he hires a “counting mutant”/accountant named Henry Weston to balance his books. Oblivious to the wonders around him, the bureaucrat discovers a disorganized mess of out of date receipts and unpaid accounts. It will take a lonely child named Eric Applebaum to bring all three factions together. For him, life would be empty without Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.

Featuring one of those Method actor turns that gives the post-modern movement a ridiculous, rose-colored bruise and just enough imagination to keep the protests at bay, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is a lighthearted and less noxious Night at the Museum. Where the god-awful Ben Stiller family film was a mess of maudlin eye candy and derivative showboating spectacle, Zach Helm’s take on the fanciful is a lot more appealing. Best known for scripting the Will Ferrell meta-comedy Stranger than Fiction, this first time director puts a whole lot of possibilities on his plate. He must contend with a goofball Dustin Hoffman, a slightly off-kilter Natalie Portman, a winning (if wasted) Jason Bateman, and the typical kid actor baggage of child star Zach Mills. Cram it all into a frame overloaded with CGI bewilderment and peppered with EST-level pronouncements re: finding your bliss, and you’ve got a New Age Roald Dahl without any of said author’s caustic commentary.

Indeed, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is so gosh darned closed off you wish it could find a way out. There has to be some reality to your daydreams or the whole thing plays like an elaborate joke – and the audience isn’t typically in on the punchline. That juxtaposition is crucial, since it sets up a frame of reference for us to work within. We buy the bedazzling that much more readily. Helm hasn’t quite figured this out yet. Indeed, when Henry the Mutant arrives, we think the film has finally found its fulcrum. All the jaw-dropping dizziness onscreen will finally be moderated by a “Bah! Humbug!” bad guy. Instead, Bateman comes across as trapped in his own bumbling officiousness. Instead of reflecting Magorium’s magic back at us, he thinks about the forms he has to fill out in order to maintain the plot’s purpose. This may be the first film that requires paperwork in order to settle its story.

Hoffman doesn’t help matters much, though he’s hardly a problem. Combing several previous over the top tendencies – the voice from Tootise, the false bravado from Hook – and adding the slightest lisp to remove any last trace of manliness, he’s an ephemeral imp, more noted for his shop’s otherworldly abilities than his own prestidigitation. We buy into the gimmick essentially because the actor seems to be having so much fun. Yet one can’t escape the ‘doing it for the grandkids’ motive of this one time above the marquee name. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the same man who redefined the ‘60s with his turn as the ultimate counterculture hero in The Graduate. Apparently age and growing financial obligations will do that to an actor – just ask Robert DeNiro.

And then there’s Natalie Portman. Talk about your schizophrenic sidekicks. One moment, she’s happy as a couple of clams working the Emporium’s many mysteries. The next, she’s lost in a haze of self doubt and disgruntled employee ennui. We get some initial indications that she doesn’t believe the store is her life’s ambition, but the way she protects it from those outside the Magorium “family’ tends to negate such a stance. She’s a walking, talking, breathing, bewildering set of contradictions, and Helm does very little to straighten her out. This makes the last act epiphany emotionally hollow. Instead of celebrating her decision, we are left wondering how she arrived at it. While Bateman is just fine, and Mills grows on you after a while, our two leads make the going simultaneously smooth and oh so rough.

Still, if you can shake off their conflicting continence and simply enjoy the visual splendor and invention at hand, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium will basically win you over. Unlike Barry Levinson’s Toys, which tried to impart a “No War” initiative onto what was, essentially, a veiled star vehicle for the then tolerable Robin Williams, Helm isn’t out to make some grand political or social statement. Instead, he just wants us all to revert to childhood and go with the flight of fancy flow – and in some cases, it’s dead easy. A room full of CGI balls is a wondrous treat, while a similarly styled collection of trains whisks us away on its HO scale scope. The Big Book, a tome that can instantly produce any item imaginable, gets a nice if far too short celebration, and a lone sock monkey seems to carry all the sadness and sentiment the rest of the movie misses.

Even better, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium doesn’t test our sense of schmaltz – at least, not that often. It wanders between sharp and sugary, honest and hokey, and never offers up the kind of cynical, post-modern bill of goods that leaves films like Museum struggling for sustainability. Of course, what’s missing from this and other examples like it is a sense of timelessness. While it may be perfectly feasible for a festive holiday getaway, a chance to park the kiddies while you gird their advancing materialism with more examples of the season’s crass commercialization, it just doesn’t have much staying power. Indeed, when it comes to future viewings, it’s hard to see the wee ones scrambling to stick this into the DVD player over and over again. As a one time experience, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is fresh, fun, and deeply flawed. There’s a great story buried inside its uneven tone and lack of creative classicism. It’s good, but not great. 

by Bill Gibron

15 Nov 2007

When it was first announced that Todd Haynes, the idiosyncratic mind behind the deconstructionist dramas Safe and Far from Heaven, was tackling the life and times of one Bob “Zimmerman” Dylan, few balked. Sure the protest poet laureate and last legitimate link to the more idealistic and inventive elements of the ‘60s seemed like an unusual choice for the filmmaker, but this was a man who had previously tackled the days and death of Karen Carpenter, and a revisionist view of Iggy/Bowie glam rock. So a musician, even one of his import, wasn’t out of the question. No, what raised many eyebrows was Haynes’ decision to cast five different actors as Dylan, including a young black boy and a woman (actress Cate Blanchett). Again, few should have stirred. This is the man, after all, who used Barbie dolls to tell the tragic story of the anorexic AOR star. A little invention should have been anticipated.

What couldn’t have been predicted is how brilliant the end result would be. I’m Not There, a vignette oriented tale of the folk singing troubadour told in distinct personality ‘acts’ is wildly over the top and often too enraptured by its own chutzpah. It shouts when it should whisper and defies when it should redefine. But when it’s wrapped up in a visual grace this astounding, and populated with performances that actually boggle the mind, we can forgive the loftier, sometimes loony ambitions. Breaking down Dylan’s personality into his roots (African American adolescent Marcus Carl Franklin), his workingman blues (a fierce Christian Bale), his poetic side (Ben Whishaw), his superstar sizzle (the magnificent Ms. Blanchett), his personal life struggles (Heath Ledger), and his old age iconography (Richard Gere), we get biography as ballyhoo, the truth tempered by the surrounding myths, folklore, rumors and innuendos that tend to make up a legend’s aura.

It all takes a bit of getting used to at first. While Haynes tosses in enough asides, in-jokes, and visual cues to keep us connected, seeing a small boy of color mimic Dylan’s earliest poses is just flat out puzzling. As he makes his way from locale to locale, hoping trains and trading war stories with his fellow hobos, we see the dream being formed in a young Minnesota child’s head. But that doesn’t explain the weird, almost off kilter design. Dylan’s youth wasn’t factually similar to the events that happen here. Instead, Haynes appears to be reaching across a more metaphysical interpretation of the man’s make-up. He may have been an old soul at a very young age, but there was much more calculation in the musician’s career arc than how it’s portrayed in this section.

Once we get to Bale, however, the cinematic stars literally align. Frankly, had Haynes decided to make a straightforward biopic with the superb UK young gun as his muse, no one would have complained. He’s got the Greenwich glower of the coffee house Dylan down pat, and when he lip syncs to versions of the bard’s best songs, he really does capture the subject’s stern determinism. Granted, Bale is a little too hunky to play the whisper thin folkie (all that Batman bulk just can’t be hidden), but from an inner angst standpoint, he’s amazing. So is Heath Ledger, as long as we’re talking about enigmatic men. Alongside Gere (who we’ll get to in a moment), the too pretty Aussie performer has a very odd chapter to deliver. He’s the private Dylan – married man, cheat, father, deadbeat – and it’s often not a pretty picture. Indeed, there are times when we think we’ve stumbled into a classic kitchen sinker, not some manner of musician overview.

And then Cate Blanchett arrives. To call her work here magnificent is too undeserving an understatement. She is regal, almost unrecognizable. She masterfully morphs into the pot-scented genius who ruled his world with a typewriter and a six string. She is I’m Not There’s trump card, its piecemeal paradigm of fame, disillusion, influence, and flaws. If there is any justice in the award season shuffle (and Lord knows there usually isn’t) she’d win the Oscar as both Best Actress and Actor. Again, Haynes could have simply hired the Australian beauty and built an entire narrative around her pre-electrified edifice. During a fictional recreation of Dylan’s disastrous Newport Jazz Festival plug-in, Blanchett is so callous and cool we can feel the vibe resonating off the screen. If she manages to go unrecognized throughout the year end Best Ofs, it’s a critical crime.

This just leaves Whishaw and Gere. Of the two, the Perfume: Story of a Murderer star comes off best. He’s not given much to do. He simply stares at the camera and reads off a list of inspired Dylan witticisms. He definitely looks the part – naïve wordsmith playing with his philosophies – but his purpose is much harder to define. Things are even worse for Gere. Clearly the weakest link in this material, his Dylan as resident of a surreal turn of the century backwater burg is supposed to be referencing a combination of the artist’s ‘70s stigma (aging rock act) with dribs and drabs of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The Wild West inferences seem especially odd, particularly when the midsection of his career is so intriguing (we do see Bale, momentarily reprising his role, during Dylan’s conversion to Christianity).

In fact, anyone coming to I’m Not There hoping to see a realistic, fact-based overview of the seminal pop culture figure’s life will be antsy within the first five minutes. This is not Walk the Line, or even Ray. It’s more like Lisztomania, and other outrageous biographical freak shows created by that cinematic savant Ken Russell. In fact, with a few more bloody crucifixes and a rasher of naked girls, this could be a hidden gem from the now 80 year old English oddball. Haynes treats his creative canvas like a slightly less sloppy Pollack, infusing his images with a contrasting color/black and white visual friction that breeds both contemplation and contempt. Even more confusing, we get actual Dylan recordings juxtaposed against obvious imitators. It’s as if Haynes decided to throw out the motion picture playbook this time and simply go on instinct. Luckily, most of his impulses are dead on.

Of course, none of this addresses I’m Not There’s lingering question – will anyone outside the Dylan devotees and fans of aesthetically challenging cinema find this film entertaining. It does occasionally feel like a work of wounded art that experts stand around and shame you into enjoying. For every life affirming sequence of Blanchett paling around with a cartoonish bunch of Beatles (or the time when she calls the Rolling Stones “that cover band”), there are instances when you wonder what the positively 4th street is going on. Then, just as Gere is dragging down the entire experience, Haynes interjects one of Whishaw’s rants, or puts Ledger back into failed family man mode, and all is forgiven.

If you want a realistic recreation of Dylan’s cultural impact, of how he turned a love of Woody Guthrie and traditional music into a significant social stance, grab a copy of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent documentary No Direction Home and enjoy. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind a wonderful, if slightly uneven, look at how one man becomes many, figuratively redefining his art along the way, stick with I’m Not There. It’s a daring, difficult masterwork. 

by Bill Gibron

15 Nov 2007

Somehow, you get the impression they are doing it on purpose. After a pair of underperforming efforts (the tame Intolerable Cruelty and the way too reverent remake of The Ladykillers) Joel and Ethan Coen are back – and they’re trading on their unmitigated masterpieces from the past to achieve something quite startling. As with any great artist, the threads of their genius are laced throughout all facets of their work. And in the case of the majestic No Country for Old Men, the brothers have fashioned a clever combination of everything they’ve tackled before – the Southwestern dread of Blood Simple, the cruel criminality of Miller’s Crossing, etc. – and wound it up into a tight little ball of cinematic razor wire. And as viewers, we are lucky enough to traipse through the stealthy steel death trappings of what is instantly 2007’s best film.

While on a hunting trip, Llewelyn Moss stumbles across a massacre. Bodies are strewn across the desert, cars and trucks riddled with hundreds of bullet holes. Following a trail of blood to a nearby tree, he discovers another corpse – and a case containing over $2 million. Wise enough to realize someone will come looking for the cash, he sends his wife off to her mother’s and prepares to make off with the loot. Unfortunately, insane hitman Anton Chigurh is instantly on his scent. Armed with a pneumatic bolt gun, the kind used by butchers in the slaughter house, he is making a murderous bee line to Moss and the money. The only thing standing in his way – aside from various criminal types and innocent victims – is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Grizzled and wise, he’s seen it all. But with blood flowing this freely and no end to the carnage in sight, he may have finally met his metaphysical match.

Shockingly effective and incomprehensibly great, No Country for Old Men proves that the Coen Brothers are America’s reigning motion picture Gods. Looking over their creative canon, a body of work that includes Oscar nods, a single win, several career defining films and more than a couple cult classics (“We want the money, Lebowski!”), they argue for their place among the artform’s true greats. Sure, some find them unusually quirky and lost in their own insular world of homages, references, and crudely hidden in-jokes, and in the past, all of those caveats would be concerning. Fact is, they are painted over every frame of their consistently fascinating flights of fancy. But No Country for Old Men is different. Instead of going outside their sphere of influence to the cinematic stalwarts that defined the medium, the Coen’s are riffing on themselves – and by doing so, they forge a near flawless filmic experience.

Acting has never been a problem for the boys. They consistently cast people clued into their eccentric, distinctive style and watch as they deliver performances of stunning depth and clarity. It’s the same here. Josh Brolin moves instantly into the A-list with his turn as Llewelyn, a man just smart enough to stay one step ahead of a psychopath, but too brazen and bullish to see the fatality of such a decision. He’s not really a tragic character in the traditional sense – his smugness is not a flaw so much as the main facet of his personality. But when he finds himself in harm’s way, we do sympathize. That’s because Javier Bardem’s Anton is so horrific. The man is literally evil incarnate. He is instantly one of the top five movie villains of all time.

From the opening sequence where he’s handcuffed and wide-eyed, strangling a police officer with a glee that’s almost erotic, we sense something unhinged about this hired killer. Bardem plays him stealthy and closed-off, trapped in his own realm of murderous intent. When he asks a passing motorist to stand still, bolt gun poised precariously on the forehead of said intended victim, we wince at the proposed slaughter. With his bad Beatle haircut, matinee idol glare, and dogged determination, he electrifies every moment in the movie, even when he’s not onscreen. Like the Terminator (except far more lethal) or a mindless disease, he is terror brought home, an interpersonal plague that has no intention of stopping.

Acting as equalizer between the two is the magnificent Tommy Lee Jones. Completely in his element here and given loads of well written bon mots by the brothers, it’s an Oscar caliber turn by the Academy recognized star. Unlike other small town lawmen that the Coens have focused on (Marge Gunderson in Fargo), Jones is a more seasoned, less naïve peacemaker. He recognizes the inherent wickedness in man, and doesn’t deny it within himself. During No Country for Old Men’s last act, when faced with a particularly difficult decision regarding Llewelyn, the look on his craggy, character-riddled face is almost priceless. It argues for his brilliance as an actor, and the boys’ decision as directors.

Indeed, the Coens typical cinematic fluidity and love of the camera is in full effect here. No Country for Old Men may play out in places that are dry as a dead coyote’s coat and as tumble down as a collection of knotted sagebrush, but these are filmmakers who understand the natural beauty in a desolate landscape, the innate malevolence in a roadside motel. Aside from their typically brilliant compositions and framing, they fill the image with depth and deliver astoundingly pristine tableaus. Forget Grant Wood – this is the real American Gothic. Like the best kind of fright film, No Country for Old Men doesn’t give its characters – or the audience – a break. It’s relentless in its pursuit of pure, unadulterated thrills.

And don’t let others sell this movie short. Some have argued that the ending lacks the vigilante snap we’ve come to expect from our crime genre. Without giving much away, the Coens track the conventional confrontations that should come with this type of material and then throw said motion picture principles right out the door. Things happen to characters that we don’t expect, action plays out in the moments before we, the audience, arrive on the scene. Playing with time and frequently fooling the viewer with the actual continuum of events, such a narrative strategy leaves a lot of air in No Country for Old Men. But when a movie is this tightly wound, when the open prairies of Texas feel as claustrophobic as a locked vehicle on a scorching summer’s day, we’ll gladly take the space.

Lacking anything remotely resembling a weak link and populated by supporting players – Barry Corbin, Woody Harrelson, an almost unrecognizable Kelly Macdonald – that illuminate the screen with their talent, No Country for Old Men feels like the culmination of something significant for the Coens. Maybe it was the need to shake off the criticism of their previous passable misfires and find a way back to their almost universally acclaimed past. It could be a simple case of cause and effect – a great project produced an equally stellar film. Perhaps the boys work best when they’re the underdog, shaking off commercial success and mainstream popularity to worm their way along the fringes once again. Whatever the case, they’ve created one of their finest films ever. No Country for Old Men is indeed masterful. That will teach us to doubt Joel and Ethan Coen ever again.

by PopMatters Staff

15 Nov 2007

Here’s the brand new Talib Kweli video, “Everything Man”, the first track off the PopMatters Pick, Ear Drum.

by Jason Gross

15 Nov 2007

First is a Wall Street Journal story about the cleverly named “Rcrd Lbl” (get it) which is looking to give away music free and without DRM on its own blog.  As always, money is the sticking point and in this example, the company looks to get their money from advertising and then to pay off the participating bands a percentage of their take from that.  Even the label itself admits that this ain’t the ultimate solution to the music biz’s woes but expect to see other experiments like this in a post-Radiohead (expect to hear that term a lot) world where the industry is getting more and more interested in finding new models.  It’s gotten to the point where the head of Warner Bros has gone from damning to praising iTunes, even though you know that he’s still cursing Steve Jobs under his breath, especially since Apple’s still makes its profits selling iPods and not music per se.

On a happier note, there’s this inspiring article about music therapy and one its greatest practitioners, Clive Robbins.  Along with the important work of Oliver Sacks, this is more proof of what a strong, stirring effect music has our bodies and souls.

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