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by Bill Gibron

29 Jun 2008

One really does have to feel bad for the Romantic Comedy. It’s a genre that’s life support system is more or less irretrievably broken. Of course, part of the problem lies in the two categories it contains. By its very nature, big screen humor has been running on empty for almost a decade. Besides, it’s hard to find love inside a stratagem consisting of tawdry gross out gags and juvenile Jokes from the John. And then there’s the ‘Moon/June’ part of the picture. In 2008, we no longer comport to the ‘love and marriage’ ideals of relationships. Instead, like the rest of our overcomplicated lives, we want to micromanage affection, leaving it less like a sunny summer sentiment and more like an emotional wash. Leave it to this past February’s Definitely, Maybe to try and revive the flat-lining film style. That it almost works is a testament to the category’s - and creator’s - staying power.

Former political consultant turned ad executive Will Hayes should have a wonderful life. His career choice has found him working on high profile campaigns for former President Bill Clinton, and now he’s a big success. He’s also got a precocious little daughter named Maya who just adores him. But when it comes to his love life, Will is always on the losing side. On the verge of a divorce from his wife, he is confronted by his inquisitive child, her questions framed around his seemingly failed romances. Agreeing to explain his past, with one small exception (he will change the women’s names), Will begins by outlining his exploits, starting with college sweetheart, Emily. After he moves to NYC, he finds himself embroiled in elections, and an affair with the idealistic Summer. Finally, he hooks up with April, an ambitious copy girl who seems to challenge his very purpose. It’s up to Maya to put together the clues, and discover who her mother represents…and if there’s a chance to save her freefalling family.

All throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Hollywood was convinced that the only way to make love stories truly work was to dress them up in outrageous, high concept fantasy. Unless you were Woody Allen, Tinsel Town thought you needed otherworldly help in creating something quixotic. Be it literally bewitched gals pining for a ‘mortal’ man, or angels desperate to connect with their humorless human charges, real people just can’t get together anymore. Instead, certain types - either freakishly fictional or meet cute manipulative - have to be devised, and then their escapes framed around a certain narrative device (frequently fashioned after an old school cinematic tearjerker) to get dates to dish out the dollars. Happily, Definitely, Maybe (new to DVD from Universal) avoids some of these pitfalls, instead hoping that a post-modern nostalgia guides the audience’s affections.

Thanks to the capable direction of Adam Brooks and a stellar cast including Ryan Reynolds as the put upon Will, Abigail Breslin as his daughter Maya, and a trio of charming fantasy gals - Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher - this fluffy piece of celluloid cotton candy has a tad more heft that your average heartstring strainer. By using the unique (if slightly wonky) narrative device of presenting all three ladies as possible partners, we get a much more viable view of how love and loss works. Even better, the political backing and time warp realizations (this is the early ‘90s, when grunge is still a novelty and Bill Clinton represents the future of America) aid in our sense of recognition. Unlike other RomComs that rely on ancient concepts of companionship to meter out their meaning, Definitely, Maybe tracks a more contemporary, quasi-ironic bent.

Most of this is done on purpose. As part of the full length audio commentary offered as part of the digital package, Brooks defends the whodunit like story structure, arguing that it helps sustain a focus as well as a certain likeability rooting interest in what is going on. One of the reasons the film functions so efficiently is that we see where Will made his mistakes, as well as the pain they caused. There is also the genuineness generated by Breslin. As one of the best child stars of her generation, she creates a kind of psychic sphere of influence, her perception reflecting our own take on the material. Through her, we sense the sentimentality in her father’s predicament, and hope for the genre-mandated happy ending.

Again, it’s the performances that support our attention. Reynolds, who can be a bit too jock cocky in his mannerism, finds a perfect balance between machismo and melancholy. Though he never comes across as lame, he’s definitely a leading man in training. As for his female co-stars, all create the necessary sense of boy/girl balance. Weisz in particular seems an expert at both the seduction and the send-off, while Elizabeth Banks’ Parker Posing could be toned down a bit. After an introductory sequence where she discovers the particulars of sex (it’s part of her school’s new educational regime), Breslin isn’t given much more to do. But thanks to the aforementioned openness in her expressions, we instantly forgive the limits.

Oddly enough, when viewed as a whole, Definitely, Maybe isn’t all that impactful. In fact, the reason Allen’s name gets tossed into the mix is that, with films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, the American auteur managed to mix humor with heartbreak in a way that seemed to resonate on a more universal, communal level. Even those of us who never lived a day in an uptown loft understood the pleasures and problems his characters were going through. Brooks is clearly no Wood-man, but he’s also not one of the numerous hacks who hopelessly exploit the inherent value of a screen kiss to contemplate all manner of middling to miserable contrivances. There are a lot worse things for a post-millennial RomCom to be besides ‘enjoyable’, and yet that’s an apt description of this film’s pixie stick commerciality. It may not be a dense, delectable treat, but while it’s around, Definitely, Maybe is pleasant enough.

by Bill Gibron

29 Jun 2008

True fans of cinema generally hate dubbed foreign films. Not only do they miss the beauty of the native language, but every rerecording job seems to feature Western actors misinterpreting the onscreen emotions to screech poorly scripted words to impossible to match lip movements. No matter how well done the final attempt is, or how much it complements the original’s intent, something seems to be off, a vibe that’s as visible as those misjudged mouth inflections. For his first film in English, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046) has created a vignette oriented road picture following one lonely woman as she casts off the shadows of her prior life (and lover) and looks for redemption and rebirth along the byways and backwaters of the US. And just like those inexplicably unsettling translations from one idiom to another, something just doesn’t feel right.

Smarting after being dumped by her boyfriend, a dark and brooding Elizabeth stumbles into the NY café run by bubbly Brit Jeremy. Looking for a sympathetic voice, and maybe a slice of pie, the two strike up a curious friendship. One night, Elizabeth up and leaves, running off to Memphis to escape her ever-present heartache. There, she finds an alcoholic policeman named Arnie who refuses to give up on his cheating wife, Sue Lynn. Sadly, their feelings can’t transcend a relationship in freefall and a couple in deep denial. Later, our heroine finds herself in Reno, working in a casino and befriending a lying young card sharp named Leslie. When a poker game goes sour, both girls head to Vegas to connect with Leslie’s dad. What they discover there has Elizabeth wondering about who she is, where she’s comes from, and those “Blueberry Nights” with Jeremy.

As with any film that divides up its narrative into more than one section, My Blueberry Nights (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) lives or dies by the effectiveness of these pieces. If one fails, or fully overwhelms the others, the whole sensation of the movie can be thrown off. In the case of Wong Kar Wai’s contemplation upon the meaning of love and all its painful complications, the internal elements are far more intriguing than the set up and resolution. During the two middle acts of the narrative, we learn about addiction, obsession, denial, and youthful rebellion. We see how one man’s inability to stay connected to his slut styled trophy wife leads to a battle with the bottle, while a cocksure daughter demands her father accept her on her own, indirect terms. With excellent performances by David Straitham, Rachel Weisz, and Natalie Portman, these moments manage to soar.

But the wraparound story, featuring Jude Law and Norah Jones is nothing short of ordinary. Aside from the performance aspect, which finds the singing sensation putting on her acting garb for the first time (and only partially succeeding), we never understand the deeper connection between the two. As they swap stories and symbolic rituals, comparing how life has left them both in the lurch when it comes to companionship, we never see the supposed smoldering chemistry. So when Jones’ Elizabeth heads out on the road, leaving Law’s Jeremy to wonder where his nightly pie pal has disappeared to, we aren’t moved, but confused. It makes the later actions of both characters - her writing lovelorn postcards from parts unknown, his incessant calls to all the bars and cafés in Tennessee - seem meaningless.

The final stumbling block that many will have to manage, aesthetically, is Wong Kar Wai’s visual choices. There is a heightened neon candy colored sense to the cinematography, the greens and reds shimmering like jewels amongst a dark Manhattan/Memphis backdrop. As he states in the extras found on the DVD, the director considered his first “American” film a chance to create a love letter to the city and state of mind he knows all too well (his wife’s family is from New York City). You can really see that care and attention in the way the sprawling Southwestern landscapes of Arizona and Nevada cascade past the lens. Such an attention to detail even translates down to the actors. Their close-ups are held within a concept of glamour shot respect - even when the sentiment inside a scene fails to mandate such glitz.

Yet there’s that ‘stranger in a strange land’ attempt at a cultural connection that doesn’t quite gel. Wong Kar Wai may think he knows how humans interact (and his past efforts prove this out), but having to translate said approach from East to West just can’t cut it. Characters in My Blueberry Nights tend to modulate between cutesy cliché and biting realism. At one moment, their hearts are clearly on their sleeves. The next, they are dead inside, the result of a life spent in pursuit of a personal passion that has left them hallowed out and hopeless. Straitham has a moment revolving around AA chips that is breathtaking, while Portman’s entire performance feels like a borderline breakdown. If there is promise to be found here, Wong Kar Wai buries it in a baffling blurred camera trickery that tends to turn everything into an overly arty advertisement.

Still, for what it strives to accomplish, for the stunning way this filmmaker moderates his vision and design, for the backdrops that betray the frequently infantile emotions of the characters, My Blueberry Nights must be considered a success. While it’s a shame that this DVD didn’t include the additional 20 minutes that Wong Kar Wai cut after the film’s disastrous Cannes premiere (especially in a format that allows for the retention of a director’s original vision), what remains is a strong statement of one man’s cinematic station, a viewpoint that, at least in this initial English outing, requires a little fine tuning. There is no denying the creative capabilities present. But just like other talent transplants, something here is not quite right. It’s still fascinating to watch it almost fail, however

by Chris Barsanti

28 Jun 2008

Filmed back in 2004 but for some reason only trickling out into indie release now, Take Out is a video verite snapshot of a day in the life of a hapless Chinese delivery man trying to come up with hundreds of dollars to pay off a rapacious loan shark. While never trying to overdraw on the meager funds of this simple premise, the film contains a rich wealth of acutely observed sociological detail layered behind the pay-up-or-else storyline. There is no music, very little in the way of a script, and not much hope for a big payoff. Nevertheless, Take Out still stands as more of the more exciting indie releases of the year, inexplicably delayed though it may have been.

Co-written and -directed by Sean Baker, a former writer for Greg the Bunny, Take Out is cast entirely by nonprofessionals and was shot in surprisingly crisp video at a real Manhattan takeout joint up on 103rd and Amsterdam that the filmmakers rigged with microphones. The rhythms of the day are well observed, the opening and closing of the heavy iron shutters, the lunch and dinner rushes, and the endless haggling with customers trying to chisel just a little bit more (“I thought you said it was $3.25, not $4.25;” “Can I get more duck sauce?”).

Having been woken up earlier by the loan shark’s goons who left a warning in the form of a bruising hammer blow to his back, Ming Ding (a moon-faced Charles Jang) borrows over $600 in a couple frantic hours, but is left with a day’s work to make the final $150. After a friendly co-worker lets him take all the deliveries in order to maximize tips, Ming spends the day biking through rain and traffic, delivering to businesses, the projects, luxury apartments, and tiny walk-ups. After a half-hour or so of this, the average viewer will be reduced to Ming’s tunnel vision, eagerly watching every dollar that the customers give out, grimacing at the constant slights (“No speakee English?!”) and overwhelmingly thankful for the tiniest glimpses of human warmth.

For Ming, life in America is all about the looking in, usually just a glimpse of another crowded New York apartment (some elegant, many not so). Amidst the squalling traffic and relentless rain, even the claustrophobic restaurant—the kind of place where the faded photos of all the dishes are on display, and they also serve fries and chicken wings—with its tight-knit band of workers seems like a harbor in the storm. Having put his parents in debt to get to America, leaving behind a wife and a son born after he left, Ming has nobody but these fellow immigrants (most of whom seem to be illegal) to look out for him and no real connection to this raging, squalling, honking city but the money.

At some point Ming may become like the assured pair of cooks who spend the film expertly flinging food in and out of their woks—the filmmakers keep a journalist’s eye on the workings of the restaurant, particularly the voluble Big Sister (effortlessly scene-stealing Wang-Thye Lee) who runs the counter and phone like a master conductor —or he may easily fall the other way, into destitution or deportation. The lack of any safety apparatus or backup plan whatsoever is never spelled out but looms there nonetheless.

There are some who will say that they will never think the same way about ordering Chinese takeout after seeing this film. These, of course, are probably just people who have never had to take minimum-wage (or less) service industry positions in life, and so need to be prodded by something like this film to even consider the lives of those who serve them. But carping about class issues aside, there is something to the idea that Take Out does a service by taking its viewpoint from the outside. Here, the aliens are those strange people who open up their doors for the deliveryman and sigh impatiently as he counts out their change, griping out getting chicken instead of beef or how long the delivery took. Some will at least think twice about welshing on a tip after seeing Take Out, which is more effect than many films with one thousand times the budget have on society.

by Bill Gibron

27 Jun 2008

By its very definition, imagination is limitless. The only true restrictions to the notion exist in the connection to actual human thought. Clearly, whoever is hiring (or perhaps, cloning) the creative forces at Pixar have found a way to circumvent said biological boundary. In an artistic endeavor where there are no sure things, this astounding animation studio has that most unprecedented of reputations - they never make a mistake. Not only are their films fantastic examples of motion picture craftsmanship, but they keep getting better with each and every new offering. Take their latest, the special sci-fi allegory WALL*E. It a stunning achievement in computer generated imagery, and once again expands the company’s range in dealing with subject matter both speculative and wonderfully sly.

It’s been 700 years since humans inhabited Earth. Leaving it in an environmentally decimated state, waste removal robots are the only thing left behind. Their job - to compact and eliminate the mess. Centuries later, all that’s left is one surviving unit. WALL*E is a determined little droid that has developed a sort of consciousness. Picking through the rubble while listening to songs from Hello Dolly on his internal recording unit, the small service entity spends his days building skyscrapers out of trash. At night, however, he appears lonely, pining for someone, or perhaps something, besides his cockroach companion to share his dump-derived treasure trove. His prayers are answered one day in the form of EVE. She’s a automated sentry looking for any signs of life returning to the planet. Though she seems to have little time for our tin hero, he is instantly smitten. And when she has to leave, he’s not letting her go away.

While the aforementioned synopsis only addresses the first 25 minutes or so of WALL*E, to go any further would ruin this brilliant film’s many discernible delights. There is also a need for a narrative caveat - don’t believe the hype that Disney is dishing out over this latest supposed kiddie fare. This is not Pixar’s version of Robots, or a cutesy combination of silent comedy and Silent Running. Instead, this is complex, comparative evaluation of a planet and a people out of control, a coolly cynical (and often quite touching) swipe at junk culture, ‘Superstore’ suburban society, and all those who require comfort as their waistlines expand to match the malaise. If those statements fail to make sense, don’t be too distressed. After watching this fascinating film, you’ll completely understand what writer/director Andrew Stanton is after.

As the mind behind many of Pixar’s biggest hits - Toy Story, Monster’s Inc., Finding Nemo - Stanton is clearly reaching for a more mature theme here, one that centers on clear cause and effect, reality and revisionism, and an unspoken need for ecological concern. The first third of the film, taking place within a sadly scorched environment, hints at consumerism gone chaotic. All around are remnants of shopping centers, mega-marts, and harsh hard sell advertising. At times, WALL*E closely resembles John Carpenter’s cautionary satire They Live, only in this future shock society, the mandates to ‘buy or die’ are not subliminal…and definitely not of invading alien design. When EVE arrives, WALL*E stretches the subtext even further, her scanning ray rendering everything she explores “red”, or “inhabitable” - including the cityscapes which once defined civilization. 

How some small fry raised on a routine diet of previous Pixar anthropomorphized animals will react to this material is intriguing, since it stands in sharp contrast to the stunt casting standards usually found within the genre. WALL*E speaks in a strange electronic whine, occasional blips enunciating actual words. EVE is more coherent, singular statements like “Directive” and “Plant” easily understood. But Stanton is much more interested in character development than any internal game of name that celebrity. This is the least fame driven collection of any Pixar company, many behind the scenes staying more or less unrecognizable. And while the visual antics are intriguing and downright clever, most of the jokes take place in locales that will test a wee one’s personal patience.

Once the story moves interstellar, so to speak, things get even dicier. WALL*E works best when you’re in on the razz, and no one under the age of 12 will get the insightful inferences. They will see the circumstances, the disconnect between people and place, the blob like behavior of a populace that no longer cares, and scratch their pointed little heads. Sure, the malfunctioning robot gang that becomes our heroes’ protectors, and some of the mesmerizing anarchic action sequences, will clearly keep younger audiences tuned in, but what’s self evident within WALL*E‘s world is that, for once, Pixar has purposefully inserted a far more complicated and multi-layered concept of story inside its flawlessly rendered designs.

And what a gorgeous set of images they are. WALL*E announces yet another massive leap in technological talent for the fabled filmmakers, a textural, tactile quality that continues to push CG 3D into uncharted artistic arenas. The visual element really helps sell much of what Stanton and crew are commenting on, the vast vistas with their epic scope and suggestive details filling the screen with more eye candy than even the most seasoned cinematic sugar junky can handle. If there is one minor flaw here, a pet peeve for those of us who enjoy good science fiction, it’s that WALL*E doesn’t spend more time in and around the dead planet. A mind could free associate for hours on the prophetic pictures that Pixar chooses to paint. Along with the tale told, we have quality of an unmatched caliber.

Of course, the animation giant has once again set itself up for one of the mightiest of (potential) falls. As each film opens, as Oscars continue to poor in, as accolades build and revisionist criticism starts to bubble, it’s hard to see where the company can go next. And you just know there are dozens of A/V villains out there waiting for Pixar to tank, to provide a problematic flop that fails to live up to Ratatouille‘s tenderness, Nemo‘s naturalism, Monsters’ amazing sense of invention, or The Incredibles aced super heroism. Hopefully, it never happens, but if it does, Stanton and his gang can probably point to WALL*E as the beginning of the end. When you raise the bar as high as this, down seems the only logical next step. If anyone can buck such motion picture providence, it’s this unflappable filmmaking co-op. A masterpiece like WALL*E proves that perfectly.

by Bill Gibron

26 Jun 2008

Feel that heat? Summer just continues to sizzle. For 24 June, here are the films in focus:

Wanted [rating: 9]

...if they’re not careful, those Marvel superheroes better watch out. Wanted could usurp their position as 2008’s best popcorn escape.

Hollywood is notorious for repeating ideas. When something is successful, you can guarantee studio suits are desperate to find a way of copying it. With this Friday’s release of Wanted, something even more unusual takes place. While it’s clear that this movie borrows liberally from the Wachowski’s action packed bullet time virtual reality revisionism, it also incorporates much of Fight Club‘s insignificant rebel in a crass corporate pond philosophizing. Together, the combination adds up to a strangely unique experience. On the one hand, you easily recognize the various references. On the other, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the homage as a means of manufacturing his own incredible full review…

Wall*E [rating: 10]

WALL*E announces yet another massive leap in technological talent for the fabled filmmakers, a textural, tactile quality that continues to push CG 3D into uncharted artistic arenas.

By its very definition, imagination is limitless. The only true restrictions to the notion exist in the connection to actual human thought. Clearly, whoever is hiring (or perhaps, cloning) the creative forces at Pixar have found a way to circumvent said biological boundary. In an artistic endeavor where there are no sure things, this astounding animation studio has that most unprecedented of reputations - they never make a mistake. Not only are their films fantastic examples of motion picture craftsmanship, but they keep getting better with each and every new offering. Take their latest, the special sci-fi allegory WALL*E. It a stunning achievement in computer generated imagery, and once again expands the company’s range in dealing with subject matter both speculative and wonderfully sly.  read full review…

Standard Operating Procedure [rating: 8]

In some ways, Standard Operating Procedure is too appalling to appreciate. It’s like watching the Nuremberg Trials, Nazis purposefully passing the buck higher and higher up, fully aware that no one above a certain rank is around to take the blame.

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of the horrifying images witnessed by the world as part of the investigation of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, very little of said commentary centered on context. The acts inferred by the photos were shocking, even more so when placed alongside the Bush Administration rhetoric that the United States was functioning as “liberators” and “peacekeepers” in a nation already haunted by a ruthless, tyrannical dictator. Yet there were photos of American soldiers, seemingly torturing, humiliating, and endangering the lives of so-called ‘enemy combatants’, all in the name of the War on Terror. read full review…

The Counterfeiters [rating: 8]

What’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era are reduced to a filmic footnote.

By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered. read full review…

Married Life [rating: 4]

There will definitely be an audience for this kind of slow burn situational potboiler, but for many, there will be too much stagnancy and not enough sizzle

Marriage might just be the perfect cinematic allegory. You can infer so many differing metaphoric elements in the dissection of why men and women marry - and sometimes separate - that the permutations appear endless. There’s the emotional facet, the sexual supposition, the commitment and loyalty facets, and of course, the scandal ridden and adulterous angles. Together with an equal array of stylistic approaches, we wind up with a veritable cornucopia of combinations, a wealth of possibilities linked invariably to the age old notion of vows taken and knots tied. So why is it that Ira Sachs period piece drama, Married Life, is so downright flat? Could it be that this filmmaker has finally found the one cinematic category - the noir-tinged whodunit - that defies matrimony’s easy explanations and illustrations? read full review…

The Legend of God’s Gun [rating: 9]

...a shot on video fever dream filtered through the latest high tech post-production optical candy factories to produce one of the most original and unforgettable films of the newly crowned “noughts”.

It’s an interesting time for the once dead film genre known as the Western. Ever since Clint Eastwood snagged an Oscar for his “revisionist” revival of the spiraling cinematic favorite, post-modern moviemakers have embraced a more deconstructed version of the oater. In their mind, the standard element of black hat/white hat, good vs evil no longer holds sway in a society far more ambiguous and ethically unsure. While recent horse operas have tried to trade on those wholesome, old fashioned values (the recently released 3:10 to Yuma), others have actually tried to dig deeper into that dilemma. The 2006 Australian hit The Proposition was one such example, as is the upcoming Brad Pitt ‘epic’ The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both movies see the stereotypical symbolism inherent in the category as a means of making larger, more metaphysical points.  read full review…

//Mixed media

Tricks or Treats? Ten Halloween Blu-rays That May Disrupt Your Life

// Short Ends and Leader

"The best of this stuff'll kill you.

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