So, the National Book Awards for 2007 have finally been decided on, giving us now very little time to scour through reviews of the winners in order to pretend as though we’ve read them (one has to have some conversational gambit, besides the price of Manhattan real estate and whether to donate to Clinton or Obama, to fall back on at all those fabulous cocktail soirees cluttering up the evening calendar, doesn’t one?). There are four winners—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and kids’ stuff—and I can only honestly speak to two of them.
The winner for fiction was Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which I considered recently in a review elsewhere in the PopMatters voluminous book reviews section. According to myself, “This is a novel drunk on the power of language, which is a critic’s way of saying that it’s self-indulgent, madly so.” It’s also a critic’s way of having it both ways. For a real laceration of the book’s sloppy pretensions, read B.R. Myers’ contrarian review in the new Atlantic; he’s not entirely right but when he says about Johnson that “He is often called “a writer’s writer,” with the customary implication that this is far better than being a reader’s writer”, he’s far from wrong.
As for non-fiction, Tim Weiner’s massive, horrific CIA history Legacy of Ashes took home the gold, and it damn sure deserves it. I spent far too many words arguing just that in a PopMatters feature here. There were winners for poetry and books for kids, as well, but honestly, who has time for such things?
All of this is a way of skirting the biggest issue which seemed to arise from the festivities the other night, as reported by New York‘s Boris Kachka—in other words, why was that editor supposedly feeling up Christopher Hitchens?
Shockingly effective and incomprehensibly great, No Country for Old Men proves that the Coen Brothers are America’s reigning motion picture Gods.
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.read full review…
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.
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.read full review…
Beowulf brays and boasts, it overwhelms and it soars. Like the tendency to exaggerate inherent in its hero, it’s a majestic movie that doesn’t quite add up to the epic we anticipate.
The reason we respond to myth is simple. The epic paints the plainest of universal pronouncements – good vs. evil, right vs. wrong – in images so stunning that we can’t help but embrace the message. It simultaneously taps into our philosophical and faith-based pleasure centers while manipulating our impressions along massive moralistic lines. Still, this doesn’t mean that all legend makes great cinema. For every Lord of the Rings, there are dozens of preachy period pieces. Indeed, one of the main reason the classics avoid motion picture manipulation is that what sounded good as spoken history frequently plays as stodgy and almost inert on screen. Such is the case with Beowulf. Like a Woody Allen joke gone awry, anyone attempting to bring the story to life has had to overcome a litany of high school literature lessons. Luckily Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis was up to the challenge. read full review…
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.
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. read full review…
The reason we respond to myth is simple. The epic paints the plainest of universal pronouncements – good vs. evil, right vs. wrong – in images so stunning that we can’t help but embrace the message. It simultaneously taps into our philosophical and faith-based pleasure centers while manipulating our impressions along massive moralistic lines. Still, this doesn’t mean that all legend makes great cinema. For every Lord of the Rings, there are dozens of preachy period pieces. Indeed, one of the main reason the classics avoid motion picture manipulation is that what sounded good as spoken history frequently plays as stodgy and almost inert on screen. Such is the case with Beowulf. Like a Woody Allen joke gone awry, anyone attempting to bring the story to life has had to overcome a litany of high school literature lessons. Luckily Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis was up to the challenge.
After his kingdom is continuously attacked by a wicked mountain troll named Grendel, King Hrothgar puts out a call to any hero who will slay the beast. For them, a solid gold mead horn and the honor of the royal bed is the reward. Into the fray walks Beowulf, legendary conqueror, slayer of all sorts of vile monsters. After being warned of the demon’s foul temper, our champion tempts fate and lures it to the Great Hall. There, they battle to the death. With victory in hand, Beowulf then heads into the caves to kill the wicked witch who begat such demonic despair. Instead of slaughter, however, he’s seduced. Decades pass, and with it, the infallibility of Beowulf’s rule. When a new creature arrives to destroy the realm, the longtime leader must face the mistakes he made in his arrogance, a chance to save his legacy once and for all.
Beowulf brays and boasts, it overwhelms and it soars. Like the tendency to exaggerate inherent in its hero, it’s a majestic movie that doesn’t quite add up to the epic we anticipate. But by pushing the very edges of the CG’s technological tolerances, and introducing the third dimension as a way to heighten the histrionics, director Roger Zemeckis has fashioned one of the most satisfying popcorn flicks of the year. No other film in what is rapidly becoming an impressive mainstream movie going season is as awe-inspiring, as totally given over to the visual splendor of the artform as this warhorse telling of the classic poem. Sure, the storyline has been retrofitted to encompass more modern ideals, and animation tends to dull what are usually overripe human posturing, but when it looks this good, and entertains this well, who cares if its cartoons doing the job.
Granted, these are some remarkable looking bitmaps, the realism missing from most of the medium’s stylized renderings in full effect here. Ray Winstone’s title character will make the maidens swoon, especially during his infamous nude battle with key monster Grendel. And Angelina Jolie is on hand to keep the lads lathered up, though her gold gilding and high heeled demon is a tad too modern for the era she exists in. From Anthony Hopkins portly king to John Malkovich’s conniving court advisor, the closeness to true human performance is absolutely astounding. Miles away from Zemeckis’ previous experiment in motion capture (the cool but quite plastic Polar Express) there is a roughness and a texture here that is hard to escape. When we see Beowulf in close-up, his chin stubble and wispy blond hair respond to every movement. Equally impressive are sequences where physical endurance and acumen must be recreated. Instead of robotic and limited, we see actual stuntwork and spectacle.
This is an eyepopping experience, especially given the fact that it is only being shown in either IMAX or standard 3D. Yes, you have to wear the goofy glasses (polarized, not the never quite effective two color kind) but it’s well worth it. The stereoscopic image is truly breathtaking. When we travel across the sea, watching Beowulf’s boat battle a series of Perfect Storm style waves, the terror and triumph of the sequence are unmatched. Similarly, the celebrated mead hall where much of the action takes place has the proper balance of video game perspective and backdrop believability. From the last act dragon attack that sees our hero literally hanging by a thread as the beast lunges and leaps from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the highest tower, to the introduction of Grendel with an amazing tracking shot that ends up on the creature’s throbbing eardrum and profusely bleeding head, Zemeckis and his artisans have amplified the aesthetic range of this kind of creativity.
That goes for the aforementioned fiend in particular. Voiced by the godlike Crispin Glover (who should be in every movie by cinematic mandate) and rendered rotting and repugnant, there is a true soul buried inside this crude collection of cartilage and pain. At first, one is unsure of the design being utilized. Zemeckis goes a tad overboard in turning Grendel into something all together otherworldly. His misshapen misery is so pronounced, it’s virtually intolerable. Add in the agonizing vocalizations by Glover and the tortured nature of the character is sickening. But when given over to quieter moments, when we see an injured Grendel speaking to his mother, the interaction is intriguing – and then enlightening. We grow in our appreciation of this fiend, and find ourselves missing him once the movie dispenses with his importance.
Indeed, once Beowulf moves into Act Two, it tends to lag a little. Hopkins’ boorish ruler does enliven things, but Robin Wright Penn is not the most compelling love/lust object. Her queen is too clued in, to post-modern manipulative to warrant a conqueror’s ardor. It’s a similar situation with Jolie. Unless we are to believe that every 6th Century Dane was incapable of refusing a vixen’s charms, her come hither slink smacks of Hollywood, not the hinterland. Indeed, the women are the weak link throughout Beowulf, and if there’s one lesson to be learned from the monster success of 300, it’s to keep the ladies as far in the background as possible. They need only be brought out as plot catalysts, not narrative foundations.
Similarly, the film fumbles its pacing. The first half, dealing almost exclusively with Grendel, is so adrenaline pumping and kinetic that whatever comes after is bound to disappoint. Even more telling, the next section more or less repeats what we’ve seen before. While not completely faithful to the original epic, the plot points from said literary hallmark are all in place. This means there’s a marginal predictability, a familiarity that may soften your initial enthusiasm. But when eye candy is this sumptuous, when we can literally watch a rat travel from great hall rafter to falcon’s claw, when our hero’s post-conflict sweat glistens with a real sense of exertion and effort, you know you’re in the hands of cinematic masters.
Beowulf will probably not be a hit, unfortunately. The storytelling is too fractured and the initial majesty muted by one too many maudlin heart-to-hearts. In an era when action typically means nonstop ballistics, where scene longevity trumps logic every time, Zemeckis’ recast myth is just too abjectly old school. It wants to luxuriate in its visuals and crush with the unbridled power of cinematic imagination. And for the most part, it does. Audiences may not appreciate the over the top tendencies and cheeky chest-thumping, but there is something delightfully appealing about such 3D bravado. CGI or not, this Beowulf demands attention. So what if it has to move a few outsized mountains to do it.
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.
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.