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by Bill Gibron

6 May 2008


After years living in his shadow, Zach (Aaron Eckhart) decides to try and piece together the truth about his famous father’s tragic suicide. So he leaves Cornell, where he’s a top psychiatrist, and takes a job at a small-town mental hospital known as Millwood. He lies to the resident administrator Dr. Reed (William Hurt), making up a story about “helping a friend” to get hired on, and, almost immediately, he’s confronted with aging loony Gabriel Finch (Sir Ian McKellen).

Turns out, Zach is really hoping to uncover information about his dad—who was a patient at Millwood - and his new insane charge just may have some crucial knowledge. Of course, getting it out of his manic mind may be difficult, especially since Gabriel is convinced he is the King of Neverwas - the fictional land Zach’s father wrote about. The connection between the two is immediate, but the path to personal discovery is long and very complicated.

It’s not made much better by an old friend of the family (Brittany Murphy) or Zach’s fragile mother (Jessica Lange), both of whom have their own ideas about where this investigation should go. But our hero wants closure, and the only way to get it seems to b e to help Gabriel discover the truth about Neverwas. Oddly enough, it may be Zach who needs to open his mind to the potential possibilities.

Neverwas should have never been. Cinematic minds smarter than the ones behind the production should have stopped this cloying claptrap before it even made it to the storyboard stage. They should have seen that nothing good could come out of this manipulative M. Night Shyamalan-style spiel, a narrative overflowing with way too many clues and not enough answers. There is a vagueness and insularity to Joshua Michael Stern’s script that acts like a barricade to understanding the relevance of what is happening, keeping us from caring about Zach’s familial issues, Gabriel’s mental condition, and the secret behind the fairytale at the center of the story.

If Stern - who also directed - was brave enough to confront the issues head-on, to really take a chance and offer up an ending that would gel with all his portents and symbols, we might walk away satisfied. But the first-time filmmaker is just too in love with everything he’s doing—heading a major, A-list cast, creating an ethereal piece of motion-picture magic, mixing the allegorical with the artful - to worry about connecting with the viewer.

Since his characters are all so calm, never really letting go with passion or opinion, they sink directly into the story, acting as mere catalysts for the numerous twists and turns ahead. Indeed, when one looks at Neverwas overall, it’s not really a movie about people. It’s about pawns in a massive game of three-tiered cinematic chess, and not even Mr. Spock understands the logic this time around.

Going back to the finale for a moment, a bit of plot point spoiling is required to discuss its destructive impact. Those who, even after this review, would probably find themselves interested in viewing this film may want to move on to the end of this discussion. For all those who either don’t care, or are immune from the aftereffects of such pre-knowledge, here we go. All throughout the 90-plus minutes that Stern drags us through, there is one major question left unanswered: Does the land of Neverwas really exist? Is it real or just a figment of Gabriel’s dementia? Stern makes almost all the plot threads lead up to such a revelation. The answer, oddly enough, is a cop-out.

Gabriel indeed made up the entire thing in his mind. It is his elaborate fantasy world that Zach’s father usurped for his own benefit. The guilt, in combination with the overwhelming success of the book, drove the man to depression and self-destruction. In order to understand that his father was not a bad man, our hero must realize the truth behind the false fairytale kingdom and see how the obsession eventually destroyed him. Now all of that is well and good, except Stern has prepared us for none of it.

Indeed, his version of these concepts leads to only one logical conclusion: Neverwas is a real place. Two men visited it and it drove them crazy (crashing between reality and the magical will do that). By learning of its existence, Zach could understand his father’s feelings, and give Gabriel his mind back. It would be satisfying and symbolic, believing in your dreams vs. believing in what doctors and drugs tell you.

But Neverwas never intended to be so brave. Stern is out to play it safe, to scrounge around the outskirts of innovation while delivering derivative Hollywood hokum. As a director, he’s desperate to copy other filmmaker’s stylistic tricks (fractured editing, overcranking, saturated golden light, mostly monochrome flashbacks), while his dialogue is all suggestions and incomplete concepts. No one ever comes right out and says things in this movie. Instead, they beat around the bush like groundskeepers looking for gophers.

Perhaps more importantly, he lets his accomplished actors languish in pointless moments of meaningless behavior. Jessica Lange, sporting a new fright mask façade, is reduced to playing a delicate matron without a single subtextual reason for being so brittle. William Hurt has a nice unsettled quality to his part as a clinic administrator, but he has so little to do that his impact remains marginal. It’s good to see Brittany Murphy playing something other than a doormat ditz, and Aaron Eckhart does decent open-faced consternation well. But because of Stern’s sloppy way with the written word, we never come to care about these people’s problems.

Instead, we keep wondering how this all will end, where this filmmaker will finally go with his attempted warm and fuzzy fairytale. The answer undermines everything that came before, creating the kind of anger that only a half-baked bit of blithering balderdash can generate. Again, Neverwas never needed to be. Such a finite finding is the only way to evaluate this incomplete effort.

by Bill Gibron

5 May 2008


Had they only made three movies - Bound, The Matrix, and the upcoming Speed Racer, the writing/ directing team of brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski would be considered cinematic gods. They’d hold a place right next to Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher as outright geek gladiators who took mainstream cinema by the throat and throttled it until it cried “uncle”. Through their unique visual style, overripe expression of film’s formative language, and pure joy in the art of the image, they’ve been both incredibly blessed and unduly cursed. They have made some remarkable movies. Yet it appears that the two intriguing sequels to their virtual reality hit were more harmful to their reputation than once thought. The spectacular Speed Racer probably won’t change that, and it’s a shame. It should.

Like eye candy forged out of Olympus’ own ambrosia, their adaptation of the classic ‘60s cartoon series (itself an Americanized recasting of the Japanese anime) is breathtaking in what it accomplishes, as well as what it avoids. While clichés abound, the brothers have managed to literally reinvent them, bringing back the sense of wholesome fun and larger than life feats symbolic of the animation genre. And they do it in live action. There will be critics who cast this aside as nothing more than candy floss fluff, flummoxed to find a purpose or a passion, but that would be a doomed voice of post-modern irony-laced cynicism speaking. If you don’t like this movie (it opens this Friday, 9 May - full review then), you’re clearly locked in a downward spiral of self-important aesthetic impotence.

The brothers have often been accused of having an imagination on Viagra, and their last few films have born this out. The Matrix Trilogy in particular is an unfairly marginalized masterwork that requires a lot of Tabula Rosa perspective to really work. The Wachowskis were doomed by two things going into their sequels - anticipation and expectations. The first film, while a semi-success at the box office, made DVD the format that it is today (something Racer may do to Blu-ray come time of home theater release), and revitalized an already flat-lining sci-fi genre. With their inventive F/X and philosophically deep narrative, The Matrix made many into believers of the brothers - perhaps, too many. By the time The Animatrix had explored the prequel dynamic, the converts needed the new films to be brilliant.

Instead, they were dense and disturbing, offering questions while unconcerned with providing answers, utilizing themes that harkened back to the days of amphitheaters and emperors. In this critic’s opinion, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are amazing achievements, stories of sacrifice and struggle that may provide a wrong turn here or there (who greenlit the PC populated cave rave, huh?) but still play completely within the rules the Wachowskis set up. Still, it’s easy to see why audiences dismissed them. The main heroes die. Zion is not the vast wonderland Morpheus made it out to be. There is a great deal of hubris and heartache involved in the last chapters, and everyone tends to get swept up in waves of CGI inspired stunt work. While remaining highly influential, it will be a good decade or two before these films are finally treated with the reverence and respect they deserve.

As a result, it seems like the Wachowskis have been unfairly dismissed along with their movies. It’s as if Reloaded and Revolutions literally wiped up everything else they’ve done. Even now, a few days before Racer opens, early reviews are taking the duo to task with column space devoted to how crappy the Matrix movies were. It’s like arguing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (a nominal commercial hit 40 years ago that took eons to gain its revered status) made every film the director created afterwards a lesser experience (and that would include A Clockwork Orange and The Shining). Racer will eventually find those willing to forgive the guys, but it seems strange that so much contempt could be created out of, what are essentially, the myths of the superman.

Neo - for all intents and purporses - is a Messianic figure offered three clear temptations by the unseen powers behind his computerized world. The first is power. The second is import. The third is love. In each case, he conquers and then is corrupted by said enticements. When flying around like a superhero, he is stripped of his grace as a program infiltrator. When blind and battling an onslaught of machine sentries before making it to their city, he’s the last hope of mankind cast as a reluctant warrior. His final fight with Agent Smith isn’t about superiority or skill - it’s about pride, the very sin that cast him out of the first film’s garden and into a series of iniquitous dens. And then it all turns back on the villains themselves.

Defending the Matrix movies is not easy - especially since online consensus seems to rule all serious discussions - and the brothers have made matters worse by playing the elusive auteur game. They don’t like to “discuss” their work, instead letting the product speak for itself. Of course, this doesn’t stop the fanbase from foaming, or keep the rumor mills from recycling stories about Larry’s supposed sex-change (denied outright, and eventually proven false). Nor does it delight those who see Racer (or V for Vendetta, which they only produced) as another attempt by the pair to substitute pretty pictures for characterization or sophistication. And let’s not even discuss how Bound gets blown apart in these arraignments, reduced to a “good little thriller” since it doesn’t comport to the optical wow of their recent efforts.

It’s a lot like the grief Peter Jackson received for making King Kong after the stellar Lord of the Rings. Given a chance to do anything he wanted, the New Zealand genius went back to his roots to reinvent the classic giant monkey movie. He took a drubbing as a result, though that film was equally adept and quite stellar. And naturally everyone forgot about his first few films, wonderfully gory delights like Bad Taste and Dead Alive, and small storied dramas like Heavenly Creatures. It seems that, once you deliver an over the top, overly hyped homage to everything the blockbuster stands for, you get your reputation handed back to you - along with your ass.

One assumes the Wachowskis can whether the storm. Only George Lucas has suffered such a post-movie backlash, and while his horrid Star Wars prequels definitely deserved the attack, too many dedicated fans of the franchise have kept the flames from fanning too high. There is no similar amount of communal love for the Matrix movies. The first remains solidly supported. None but a few fly a flag for the follow-ups. It’s a shame that Speed Racer may end up consumed in the wake of such out of place hate. If allowed, it will find that audience antsy for something new and wholly original, production design and execution pushed to the very limits of the medium. If it does succeed, there is still one thing that’s guaranteed - The Wachowskis will still be locked in the critical crosshairs. It’s about time they stopped being a target. Their amazing movies speak for themselves.

by Bill Gibron

4 May 2008


What does $100 million mean anymore? Not to the average person, who could bankroll said sum into a whole new life - or at least a pay-off of his (or her) zero down mortgage, and then some. No, what does the figure mean to Hollywood, and specifically, the studio suits and the talent behind the movies. Making that kind of scratch used to be a mind-blowing commercial concept. Ben Hur only made a staggering $39 million in 1959, while The Sound of Music raked in over $70 million. Yet it wasn’t until Jaws that a film officially made $100 million during its initial box office run (and that history has been hacked at quite a bit in recent years). Still, time was that the century mark for money meant something noteworthy. Now, the significance isn’t clear at all.

In 2008, $100 million is not really a milestone, Instead, it’s mandatory. A big budget blockbuster looks anemic without it. In fact, it technically can’t even exist. The faster you get to the number, the better, and it never hurts to do so in record time.  With Iron Man just eking out a $100 million dollar payday over the 2 May weekend (including some early screenings Thursday evening), it joins a very elite group. Few films have done the business it has done this early in the season. It could have taken five days to get there and few would have complained. In fact, reaching the magic number seemed impossible four days ago, according to most prognosticators. They were looking at something closer to $80 million - nothing to sneeze at, but not the cinematic slamdunk $100 million infers.

Of course, there is more cash to be had before Speed Racer and his family step in to rewrite the revenue rules, Wachowski style. Still., by coming in strong, Iron Man settles a lot of questions while raising a few more of its own, specifically regarding the various talents involved. Where does such a fiscal accomplishment lead the powers behind the movie, and better yet, does $100 million really mean much to individuals (and companies) used to dealing in such legitimately large numbers. Of course, we no longer consider a franchise a true blockbuster until it reaches a higher level of accomplishment - say triple the initial take - but in the case of Iron Man, $100 million is major, and here’s the how and why:

The Studios

Paramount
With this long time popcorn factory only handling the distribution, it’s more or less a mixed victory. Success always breeds an aura of same, but without a real stake in the outcome, there’s a hollowness to their dollar sign happiness. At least their next offering, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull flies under their production banner (as does Mike Myers upcoming The Love Guru), so they still have a chance to add real money to their commercial coffers.

Marvel
The decision to drop indirect participation (read: studio made movies) and set up their own projects appears to have paid off - at least for now. Iron Man is a solid mainstream event. The Incredible Hulk will be the real test, considering that there was already a big green meany project a mere five years ago, and the controversy regarding this version’s final cut (suits vs. star Edward Norton) has already tarnished some of its reboot sheen. Still, the new trailer appears promising, and the media’s myopic short attention span means that no one will probably remember the dust up come opening day.

The Producers

Avi Arad & Kevin Feige
As CEO of Marvel and their chief cinematic voice, respectively, Arad and Feige have a lot riding on this Summer. Iron Man is a wonderful first volley, and seems to support their decision to go pseudo-indie. But once again, the Hulk is still sitting out there, ready to divide the devotees and make Ang Lee look like a genius in retrospect. So they better hope Norton and director Louis Leterrier deliver, or this one time windfall will be all 2008 has to offer the duo.

Peter Billingsley
Yes, little Ralphie finally runs with the big dogs. As Favreau’s partner since their Dinner for Five days, he’s been on board for all of his pal’s directorial turns with the exception of Elf. He even gets a clever cameo role. As long as Favreau has a shingle, the star of A Christmas Story always has an awning to hang his burgeoning behind the scenes credentials.

The Director

Jon Favreau
For the actor turned auteur, $100 million means a lot…a whole Helluva lot. It means he can deliver the action goods when necessary. It means a studio can count of him to recognize the difference between art, artifice, and straight up commerciality. It means that film fans can finally embrace someone who shares their aesthetic needs without forgetting that Joe Sixpack also fills theaters seats. Iron Man‘s success may cause some Sam Raimi like repercussions (locked into the sequels, a designer label of his own to distribute subpar genre fare), but for someone whose made respectable, if not quite sensational movies, this opening is monumental. And oddly enough, he seems like the kind of decent, good natured guy who deserves the reward. 

The Actors

Robert Downey Jr.
He’ll never have to worry about money ever again. He can ride this puppy all the way to Westminster if he wants. Here’s hoping he doesn’t do a Michael Keaton and feign disinterest and a “need to grow” instead of hitching his wagon to this inevitable franchise gravy train. There will still be the challenging roles (including comedic controversies like August’s Tropic Thunder), and the ‘aimed at award season’ selections. Clout like this is impossible to come by, and since most reviews have pointed out his crucial role in Iron Man‘s triumph, he’s got more than a couple trump cards up his negotiation sleeves. Let’s hope the contract he signed is flexible, not fatal. 

Terrence Howard
As the next character to get the superhero treatment (along with Samuel L. Jackson, who makes a surprise post-credits appearance as Nick Fury), Howard can bank on gaining some of the series’ cultural buzz. He’s still a very unusual onscreen presence - laconic without being lost, casual while still showing command. While War Machine may be a geek mandate, the novices are still getting used to all the Iron mythos. If anyone can sell future scenarios however, it’s him. 

Gwyneth Paltrow
As Katie Holmes proved in Batman Begins, ladies in superhero films are readily replaceable. Still, Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is pretty great. As long as she doesn’t let the notices go to her head, and doesn’t suffer through another bout of “bored with acting/gotta be a mommy” syndrome, she could stick around for a while. Her cache won’t increase, but she’s already got an Oscar, so what more can she really want?

The Franchise

Marvel’s miracle here is taking a marginal character from their comic universe (unless you’ve followed Stark and his saga since the beginning, you probably only know the hero via the classic Black Sabbath anthem) and turning him into something solid and bankable. Unlike Batman or Superman (and in some post-modern ways, the X-Men), the icon had no real juice prior to the premiere, and they managed to deliver a jolt. Give it up for marketing as well as excellent mainstream moviemaking. If the film goes on to do gangbuster business, earning between $250 and $300 million (as some are predicting), we’ll be involved in this metallic crusader’s cause for years to come. Even with something less in the till, Iron Man is here to stay - that is, until the next tent pole production hits the Cineplex.

by Bill Gibron

4 May 2008


It sounds both sinister, and kind of silly: vagina dentata - literal translation, female genitalia with teeth. Believe it or not, cultures all around the world have legends about this mysterious gender power, a clear cut allegory for the control women have over men. While much of what makes up the folklore derives from ignorance, imagination, and just a wee bit of old world paternal superstition, it’s clear that the biological battle of the sexes is less than a fair fight. Women mandate conception, give birth to the future, and more or less determines the destiny of the human race. The indie horror comedy Teeth wants to add a few more mixed metaphors to this situation. Sometimes, it succeeds. At other instances, it’s the crotch version of a circus geek.

Abstinent Dawn is dedicated to ‘The Promise’, a school program that promotes purity and virginity. Ever since she reached puberty, she’s been at war with her hormones, and so far, religious fervor has kept them at bay. Then Tobey, a new boy in town, tests her moralistic mantle. When an innocent date turns deadly, Dawn fears something is wrong with her womb. Seeking the counsel of the Internet, she learns a shocking truth - she may have vagina dentate, or a toothed vulva. A horrific trip to the gynecologist confirms the worst. With her home life in shambles - sick mother, distant stepfather, perverted stepbrother - she turns to another neighborhood boy for help. But with everyone’s thoughts on sex, it’s not long before her mandibled mommy parts start seeking revenge.

As a first film from Mitchell, the son of famed artist Roy, Lichtenstein, Teeth doesn’t seem like the work of mature 52 year old. Instead, the tone of this devious dark comedy is like John Hughes filtered through John Waters via a teenager’s impression of what a parable is. Much of the material here is mired in a too cutesy, too clever idea of how to portray uncontrollable instinct. On the other hand, the performances of Jess Weixler as Dawn, John Hensley as metalhead sibling Brad, and Lenny von Dohlen as tormented stepdad Bill bring a real truth to the subject’s treatment. What could have easily been a Hustler Magazine level joke gets some subtle, somewhat substantive treatment. Yet Lichtenstein never comes right out and shows us the ‘monster’. Instead, we have to view Dawn as a suggested symbol, and that’s where some of the problem lies.

On the newly released DVD from Genius Products, The Weinstein Company, and their Dimension Extreme subdivision, the filmmaker gets a chance to defend his choices. Over the course of a feature length commentary, Lichtenstein points to the fact that he’s dealing with actual tradition here, and that he’s simply following many of the narratives and myths derived within. Yet he never explains his scattershot approach, randomness taking over moments that need more clarity or focus. Take Dawn’s parents. Bill and his ailing wife Kim seem like nice enough people. But their relationship starts off ambiguously (shown in flashback at the beginning) and never develops beyond that. Even the mother’s terminal illness is kept a secret, the better to confuse our empathy.

And then there is the tone taken toward males. Dawn’s stepbrother Brad only wants to explore the incestual aspects of their relationship. New boy Tobey becomes an ersatz rapist before meeting his demise. A doctor drops the professional decorum to more or less violate his client, and the mixed up neighbor who lusts for Dawn longingly goes the Ruffee route to get in her goodies. To hear Lichtenstein tell it, a man’s libido is the most angry and aggressive facet of foreplay and fornication. Our heroine responds by using her inner ‘protection’ to insure “No means NO!” Much of Teeth is puzzling and rather muddled. For his part, when he’s confused, our director simply calls on the F/X to give us some gory castration shots.

Other potential satiric targets are never explored. Dawn lives, Simpsons’ style, near a nuclear power plant. The potential genetic jerryrigging such a facility could create is completely ignored. So is Brad’s preference for anal sex. Of course, we make the connection (it must have something to do with that game of ‘Doctor’ he played with Dawn when they were kids), but the movie fails to address it upfront. If all that’s important is our lead’s coming of age, and her decision to use her privates as punishment, Teeth certainly spends a lot of time beating around the bush (no pun intended). In fact, if you took away all the periphery and simply focused on the girl and her gimmick, the running time would end up on the short film side.

Clearly, Lichtenstein could have done more with the premise. The ending feels like the middle act of the movie - or worse, the set up for a sequel. It’s possible to see Dawn as a post-modern feminist heroine, a gal harnessing the power of her gender to eliminate those who merely want to exploit it. And unlike men, who are constantly reminded that they think with their penis more than anything else, such a story could be the antithesis of a ‘weaker sex’ sentiment. It could be smart, funny, profane, uncompromising, and deeply thought provoking. None of this is evident in the approach Lichtenstein takes, however. He’s just happy to push a few teen proto-porn buttons and move on. Even the making of material suggests that nothing much deeper than a slightly dirty joke was intended.

Still, thanks to some sensational performances and a clever insight or two, Teeth manages to transcend its implied trashiness. We can even forgive the unnecessary nude scene that Weixler had to endure. Had Lichtenstein taken a more Funny Games style look at his subject (in a good way), deconstructing the sex comedy and our expectations of same, this might have been a minor masterpiece. Instead, it’s a rock solid b-movie, schlock masquerading as something more meaningful. This is the kind of premise that Doris Wishman would have driven into the ground - or better yet, imagine what Dave Friedman or Harry Novak would have done. Teeth is too polite and PC to follow in those glorious grindhouse footsteps. It really should have reconsidered such a stance.

by Bill Gibron

3 May 2008


While driving across country a few years ago, filmmaker Todd Haynes decided to get reacquainted with an old friend. The man’s music had always meant something to him, but he never really made the link between the breadth of what he accomplished (and continued to do so) vs. the scope of how he changed the cultural landscape. The name Bob Dylan still demands the kind of respect worthy of a major historical icon, and he continues to make meaningful contributions to the craft of songwriting. But once Haynes began to dig into his four decade long catalog, he realized that there was more to this man than just his art. For his entire career, Dylan was a shapeshifting chameleon who used his place and position to explore many facets of the American experience. As a result, any biography would have to examine him from as many perspectives as possible.

Thus, I’m Not There was born, a sinfully rich reduction of everything Bob Dylan meant to music since his folk revisionism hit New York’s Village in the late ‘50s. Breaking down the man’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), his conversion to Christianity (Bale again) 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 this legend’s ample aura. Using nods to films and filmmakers of the specific era, Haynes wraps everything up in a visual grace that is astounding, and then populates it with performances that actually boggle the mind.

For Haynes, perhaps best known as the idiosyncratic mind behind the deconstructionist dramas Safe and Far from Heaven, tackling the life and times of one Bob “Zimmerman” Dylan, was not really a stretch. This was a man who had previously unraveled the days and death of Karen Carpenter, and a fairytale view of Iggy/Bowie glam rock. So a musician, even one of his import, wasn’t out of the question. Yet the decision to go with several different actors, including a young black boy and a woman raised a few eyebrows. Then 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. Yet many did question the multilayered motivation. Luckily, we now have a medium that allows for Haynes to provide some backstory.

If you’re looking for a definitive DVD, a combination of movie and making-of material that redefines and expands on the overall experience, The Weinstein Company’s new two disc version of I’m Not There is it. Over the course of a wonderful, informative, and in-depth commentary track, Haynes tells all. He explains the approach, the importance and symbolic stance of each idea and angle. Like learning the secrets of a complicated novel, or unraveling the truth inside a dense allegory, the co-writer/director adds heretofore unknown elements to his film, making the movie that much more intriguing. Wonder why Richard Gere lives in a circus sort of old world weirdness? Haynes explains. Why did he hire a minority to play a precocious, troubled Jewish boy from Minnesota? Again, there’s a reason. Nods to famous films (8&1/2, Masculin Feminin) are explored, as are lines quoted directly from Dylan interviews, lyrics, and other public presentations.

 

It all takes a bit of getting used to at first. While Haynes tosses in all these asides, in-jokes, and visual cues to keep us connected, seeing a small boy of color mimic Dylan’s earliest poses is still visually puzzling. As he makes his way from locale to locale, hoping trains and trading war stories with his fellow hobos, we can just see the dream being formed in a young child’s impressionable 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. Thanks to the commentary, everything is made clear. In fact, I’m Not There becomes the Gravity’s Rainbow of rock star bio-pics thanks to this DVD overview.

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 the late, great Heath Ledger, as long as we’re talking about enigmatic men. His was and remains a hard chapter to deliver. He’s the private Dylan – married man, cheat, father, deadbeat – and it’s often not a pretty picture. In fact, the emotions are so raw that Haynes chokes up when revisiting the actor’s work.

And then Cate Blanchett arrives. To call her turn 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. 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. In the second disc’s deleted/extended/alternative scenes, we can see how her performance grew. The auditions and interview material also provide some insight into how a glamorous beauty turned into an androgynous ‘60s stalwart.

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 via Arthur Rambeau witticisms. He definitely looks the part – naïve wordsmith playing with his philosophies – but without the commentary, his purpose would be much harder to define. Things are even worse for Gere - until now. In theaters, he was the weakest link in this material, his Dylan as resident of the aforementioned surreal turn of the century backwater burg. The carnival 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). Luckily, Haynes is there to uncover the many mysteries. 

One needs to remember that I’m Not There is definitely not a realistic, fact-based overview of the seminal pop culture figure’s life. 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.

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. Thanks to its treatment on DVD, what was a daring, difficult masterwork becomes a certified masterpiece.
 
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