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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

Charlie Wilson’s War [dir. Mike Nichols]


Politicians will forever be known as slick speaking, backslapping, good old boys, re-feeding the coffers that got them into office with promises, perks and mindless policy decisions. Anything they accomplish is instantly compromised by shady dealings, special interests, and the ever-present perfume of scandal. Charlie Wilson had that undeniable aroma. He was a loose living, morally ambiguous Congressman carousing in a town overflowing with such specious experts, and he would have served out his terms in relative anonymity if it wasn’t for Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded the tiny Arab country, Wilson saw it as an affront to the cause of freedom. His eventual efforts on behalf of the nation resulted in one of the first major defeats of Communism ever recorded. And according to the new political comedy by American original Mike Nichols, he had a damn good time making it happen.


While on a ‘fact finding mission’ in a Las Vegas hot tub loaded with strippers and cocaine, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson learns of the ongoing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Wondering why the US hasn’t responded to such a blatant act of invasion, he soon discovers that no one considers the situation a threat. But when Houston socialite Joanne Herring asks him to look into some covert funding for the freedom fighters, their longstanding relationship fuels Wilson’s interest. Before long, the Congressman is visiting refugee camps and bringing his fight to the floor of his House Subcommittee. With the help of CIA operative Gust Avrakotos and many insider connections, Wilson discovers what the Afghanis need - surface to air missiles that can take down the plague of Russian helicopters decimating the landscape. Getting the money won’t be easy, but with his reputation both in and outside of the Rotunda, if anyone can do it, Charlie Wilson can.


At this point in his illustrious career, Mike Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would blame him for such passivity. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the emerging ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant proto-slacker statement, The Graduate), but has also helmed other symbols of cinematic significance like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, Nichols is less than nimble. His tendency is to beat people over the head with his stances, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). It’s not a terrible habit - many of the movies he’s made have the same entertainment spark as his commercial successes (Working Girl, The Birdcage). But those looking for insight usually wind up settling for irony, satire strangulating even the most powerful of big picture pronouncements.


Perhaps this is why Charlie Wilson’s War feels like such a triumph. It’s the first legitimate marriage between Nichols the comedian and Nichols the commentator. Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritan PC times, this story of a lecherous Congressman and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort. Nichols can be accused of pandering or taking sides. The script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular in that regard. And Wilson may have been, in real life, a cad of unconscionable proportions, but the message this movie delivers is loud and crystal clear - the US funded covert war against the Soviets in the early ‘80s led directly to the rise of the Taliban, the establishment of Al-Qaeda, and the events of 9/11.


It’s not that obvious at first. Tom Hanks, handling the lead roll like he’s just been cast in The Rat Pack Swing Washington, is all beaming smiles and smacked female backsides. He’s James Bond without the continental charms and license to kill. At first, Wilson seems to be formed out of swaggers and excess appetites. Even when he takes up the cause in Afghanistan, it’s more of a show of personal power (he’s the key vote that many of his fellow politicians count on) than a real concern or cause. During these sequences of backdoor wheeling and debauchery fueled dealing, Nichols lulls us into a sense of satiric complacency. We wonder how a movie so mired in moxie is going to turn around and deliver the proper policy denouement.


And then we move to the battlefield. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, Wilson views a Pakistani refugee camp firsthand, and the brutality and carnage is unbearable: Children missing limbs, adults minus eyes, faces shorn off by shrapnel and bodies battered by an inability to properly defend themselves. These scenes are crucial to Charlie Wilson’s War and its effectiveness. A 2007 audience, already sick to death of the morass in the Middle East, has to buy a non-Red State rationale for our lead’s heroics. Jingoism and the pull of the patriot just won’t fly. But when given a human image, and a human toll, we instantly side with the concerned Congressman. Ethics violations or not, his role in Washington has to prompt the appropriate change.


As the baffles which this character careens off of, Nichols provides two stellar stalwarts. Looking a lot less glamorous than her rich witch Texas money baroness would bear out, Julie Roberts is excellent as Joanne Herring. With untold wealth to waste and Wilson as her power pawn, she’s more than just a bank account. There’s a brilliant scene where a post-coital Herring reapplies her face, and the diligence and dedication she shows in putting on this powder and pancake façade is just fabulous. Besides, Roberts has great chemistry with Hanks. One could easily see the two helming a series of retro-romantic comedies. They’re so winning, so endearingly effervescent that you can’t help but love them.


But the real maverick here is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the gruff, gritty Greek CIA analyst Gust Avrakotos, the kind of man whose done it all and seen it all. His no nonsense, world weary wisdom is a breath of protocol breaching candor in rooms full of stagnant Washington air. He’s the cutting edge to Wilson’s wide-eyed optimism, the calculated con to the Congressman’s cheerleading pro. If he wasn’t already an established star, it’s the kind of performance that would elevate an actor’s game. As the fulcrum between Hanks and Roberts, the realistic against their pert smile optimism, Hoffman is sensational.


And so is the rest of the film. Nichols does a good job of balancing moments of meaning against just plain partying. Wilson is viewed as a hard drinking womanizer, but there are times when the director let’s Hanks get reflective and hurt. They work to keep the film from falling over into parody. Similarly, the last act revitalization of the Afghan forces has a wonderful Fox News fakeness to it. It makes it easy to forget that this is the same rebellion that will eventually revert to Islamic fundamentalism and provide a proving ground for future terrorists in training. Nichols doesn’t let us off the hook either. During a balcony scene between Hanks and Hoffman, a sound is heard that reminds us of why Wilson’s fervor eventually became his folly.


Of course, the movie doesn’t martyr the man. Instead, it continues his position as prescient and prophetic. A final quote before the closing credits reveals such insights, and the cleverly crafted scenes before said statement show just how shortsighted our government can be. Still, audiences shouldn’t come to Charlie Wilson’s War expecting the kind of political resonance achieved by directors such as Oliver Stone or films like All the President’s Men. Nichols is more than happy to stay solidly in entertainer mode. If some minor message gets out, all the better. Some may see this solid bit of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking as all celebrity smoke and mirrors. In fact, it’s much more biting - and brazen than that. 


 



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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [dir. Tim Burton]


The reemergence of the musical as a viable, awards season showcase has been fraught with inconsistency. For every example of the genre that seems to click with voters and moviegoers (Chicago), there’s ambitious flops (The Phantom of the Opera) and pandering populism (Dreamgirls). Finding the right balance between Broadway and the big screen is never easy, mainly because the source material inherently thwarts a carefree translation. What works on a stage before a live audience turns odd and even ineffectual within the two dimensional medium. Similarly, even the most gifted filmmaker can fail in capturing the true spirit of a piece. 


So fans of Stephen Sondheim had ever reason to be worried. His Tony Award winning masterwork Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is perhaps the most difficult and obtuse of his shows to make the cinematic leap - and with a track record that includes the unbalanced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the miserably miscast A Little Night Music, he’s far from foolproof. Luckily, the right auteur came along, a director so perfectly in tune with the composer’s layered conceits that one imagines it was written specifically for him. Many have dismissed Tim Burton as a goofy Goth visionary who has never met a narrative he couldn’t defang. Even worse, some have suggested that, as his mainstream acceptance has grown, his artistic acumen has faded.


Not true - and his brand new version of Sweeney Todd is more than enough proof. As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007. It is an outright masterpiece, a work of bravura craftsmanship by a man whose been preparing for this creative moment all his directorial life. Like soulmates bound at the most primal, bloodlusting level, Sondheim and Burton merge to form a cohesive, craven whole, the show’s thematic undercurrents of malice, corruption, and revenge splashing across the screen in monochrome mise-en-scene and torrents of arterial inevitability. Stripped of its need for constant self-referencing (fans may balk at the cutting of some key expositional numbers) and reduced down to its nastiest nature, it’s the reason that film continues its status as art.


When we first meet Sweeney Todd, he is returning to London after a long stint in prison. Jailed by a jealous Judge named Turpin for crimes he did not commit, the former Benjamin Barker learns that his beautiful wife was raped, and later committed suicide. Even worse, his equally attractive daughter Johanna has been taken in as the Magistrate’s ward. Desperate for retribution, Todd decides to take up his old profession - barbering - only this time, his clients won’t be leaving his shop through the front door. Upon meeting and conspiring with the impoverished pie merchant Mrs. Lovett, Todd attempts to reestablish his trade.


He challenges Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli to a shaving competition, and with the win, must face the dandy’s considerable wrath. In the meantime, a young sailor has fallen for Todd’s teenage daughter, and warns the barber of the terrible news - Turpin is in love with her, and is planning on taking her as his bride. Through murder, the anguished father will work his way to the man he feels is responsible for his miserable fate. It will also help Mrs. Lovett’s failing shop, as meat for her pies is hard to come by…


There are two ways to look at Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd - both of them successful. Fans of the original may wince at a few of the obvious edits (no “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, a truncated “City on Fire”) yet should embrace the stark and quite stunning way in which the film illustrates Sondheim’s main symbol - the shedding of blood as a balm for the troubled soul. While the truth of this legend’s actual existence may never be fully known (people still swear Todd was a real person, without any proof of same), the notion of his mark as a frightening figure of unhinged justice is fully realized. Both tragic and terrifying, without pity and full of passion, Sweeney Todd is a crushed spirit working out his anguish in rivers of the red stuff, one slit throat at a time.


Anyone unfamiliar with the show, or simply showing up to see Johnny Depp deliver another remarkable acting turn will also come away more than satisfied. In a career arc that’s seen its fair share of experimentation and excess, the now marketable mainstream superstar is absolutely brilliant here. It’s a risky role - the music lacks a standard pop song structure, and for all his glorified depression, Todd remains a wicked, wicked man - but thanks to his undeniable talent, Depp turns a figure of immense evil into something somber and quite sad. He is not the bombastic vocal presence of a Len Cariou (the original Great White Way Todd) or George Hearn, but his performance of the musical material is heartbreaking. He syncs up flawlessly with Sondheim’s sentiments, resulting in the most menacing, mercurial Todd ever.


His is matched equally well by Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. Unlike the stage versions of the character, which hinge on a broad based sense of surrealistic bawdy cockney slapstick to sell the cannibalism, this version of the pie merchant is all grime and desperation. Lovett is not comic relief or audience friendly joviality. She’s a shattered soul, just like Todd, and her ready kinship and scheming with the barber is never forced or implausible. Carter may possess the smallest of voices, but like Depp, she delivers in the mandatory emotional ranges. During their brilliant bits of byplay (the clever ” A Little Priest”) or her shattering solo spots (the hilarious “By the Sea”), Lovett is the levelheaded version of Todd’s evil. She wants the same results that he does - and by some accounts, a whole lot more.


The remainder of the cast is just outstanding. Timothy Spall is like a vile Victorian woodcarving come to life as the disgusting, devilish Beadle Bamford. Alan Rickman is also marvelously malevolent as the vile Judge Turpin. The movie’s brief bits of comedy are handled with amazing adeptness by Borat‘s Sacha Baron Cohen, and little Ed Sanders is a sensational Tobias Raggs. He handles the seminal song “Not While I’m Around” with a beautiful bravery. Since their roles are reduced here, the actors playing Johanna and Anthony don’t get much screen time. But both Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower offer powerful voices and memorable moments.


But it’s Burton who ends up the true hero, his eye for the unusual and the downtrodden in full, flowering effect. Aside from the gallons of grue, he works in a very muted palette, the almost black and whiteness of his color scheme leaving room for lots and lots of blood. This is Grand Guignol glorification, a movie that celebrates arterial spray in ways genre efforts can’t embrace. Every spurting throat, every gaping wound, is an extension of Todd’s pent up anguish. He needs release, and the only way it can be found is via the blade. But Burton’s not just a slave to the slice and dice. He stages the many songs in a smaller, more minor note, keeping the multifaceted emotions inside Sondheim’s occasionally obtuse lyrics front and center.


The result is the year’s finest cinematic experience, a movie completely awash in its own outsized elements and internalized treats. Like all great artists, the talent involved here didn’t dishonor Sondheim, but instead, they make the material their own. That’s the true test of any adaptation. Perhaps the reason other recent musicals have failed is because of a disingenuous desire to stay true to the original while modernizing (or in other cases, pointlessly modifying) the source to satisfy unclear demographical concerns. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is proof that, when left to their own devices, the gifted will give over to something quite special. The undeniable greatness exhibited here certainly supports such a conclusion.


 



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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

THE SINGING REVOLUTION [dir. James Tusty]


The fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.


As portrayed in James Tusty’s memorable documentary of the same name, Estonia suffered greatly throughout the course of its harried history. Directly in the middle of the fray between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s armies during World War II, they were occupied by both factions before finally succumbing to Communist control in the ‘50s. From that point on, a nation previously devoted to peace and personal freedom found itself under the heavy dogmatic thumb of Moscow’s ruling junta, and the lack of sovereignty sparked a sense of national pride that lingered, underground, until the 100th anniversary of the annual Singing Festival became the focal point for a call to change. From there, all that was required to unseat Soviet rule was a commitment from brave members of the citizenry, and the use of nonviolent protest in light of a mighty military crackdown.


Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region. While the annual celebration and its symbolic performance grounds did become an aggregate space for spontaneous protests and planned rallies, the backdoor machinations that resulted in secret deals, unusual alliances, and dangerous stands were far more responsible for the eventual change than the actual reliance on traditional folksongs. What the singing did symbolize, however, was the previously unknown national consciousness. People who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as activists could use the cover of communal participation as a means of protest.


Tusty goes into great detail here, speaking with individuals who were actually there on the front lines. As much as story about Russia’s fall as Estonia’s rise, he is careful to include contextual information, how Gorbachev’s calculated move to make the Soviet Union more modern opened a can of free speech worms he couldn’t contain. Indeed, while there are several other factors that helped form Estonia’s break, the ability to freely and openly address the nation’s rich cultural past was the catalyst that many newly formed factions used to advance their call to arms. Even more astounding, Tusty gets everyday Estonians to describe the terror they lived under, the undeniable knowledge that the KGB sat at every corner, recording their every move and word.


Indeed, what a film like The Singing Revolution reminds us of is that, unlike life in America, the threat of overthrow by an imperialistic or theocratic system is typically a political campaign away for these minor nations. Even when Gorbachev’s reforms seemed to suggest a lack of reasonable response from Russia, Estonia knew there was still a chance that tanks and troops would sweep across the border and take back control forcibly - and that’s just what happened…almost. One of the most compelling parts of the narrative is the last ditch effort by Communist hardliners to take back the Union. A coup led to Gorbachev being placed under house arrest, and with the Central Committee in the hands of those who’d return power no matter the consequences, things looked grim. It was thanks to two industrious police officers, given the task of protecting Estonia’s radio and television tower, and Boris Yeltsin back in Moscow, that truly saved the day.


As with any political thriller, this is incredibly compelling stuff, and Tusty doesn’t amplify or marginalize the material. Instead, he lets narrator Linda Hunt provide the plainspoken facts. Then he will accentuate the ‘you are there’ moments and newsreel/television footage with the voices of those who were actually involved. The humble cop who secured the nation’s sole source of information is relatively down to earth regarding his part in history. Similarly, those who staged the concerts and the rallies are on hand to describe the feeling of seeing hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women coming together for the noblest of citizenry causes.


In fact, if there is one minor flaw in Tusty’s approach, it’s that we don’t get enough of the title element. Songs are indeed sung, but they are only offered in snippets. It would be wonderful to see just one of these important melodies completed all the way through. In addition, there is very little input from the Russian side of things. Though their handling of the matter is not what’s important here, a little more scope would seal the documentary’s importance. Still, it’s hard to deny the human drama that plays out over the course of these mesmerizing 90 minutes. Just listening to the participants casually rattle off their stints in Siberian labor camps and as political prisoners (some for many years) is inspiring enough.


It’s the kind of confrontation that makes one question their own commitment to country. The United States has been incredibly lucky in that no foreign nation has ever literally tried to invade and take over. We’ve stood by across decades as other countries claim rights to and overthrow empowered governments for completely incomprehensible or selfish reasons. It’s clear that there’s authority in the voice of dissent, and when matched to a tune that proclaims native roots and right to self-determination, the force is strengthened further. Without its annual proclamation of music, Estonia might still be a Russian stronghold today. But thanks to The Singing Revolution, it’s a proud, prosperous democracy. It proves that power always remains where it begins - with the people.


 



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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING [dir. Noah Baumbach]


To steal a line from one Homer J. Simpson, familial dysfunction is the Washington Generals of the independent film genre. When writers and directors want to work outside the parameters of the mainstream, they typically use their own autobiographical angst to portray parents as insensitive louts, brothers and sisters as distant and depressed, and their own immediate relatives as messed up, maudlin burdens. From their perspective, there is no such thing as a happy brood. Instead, every clan is a craven collection of psychosis just waiting for an event to well up and erupt. In the case of Noah Baumbach, it’s a marriage that causes the commotion. Unfortunately, what happens in the days since the arrival of Margot at the Wedding add up to very little that’s believable or enjoyable.


Though she hasn’t seen her sister in years, Margot wants to travel to the Northeast to attend Pauline’s wedding. While there, she can hook up with her writing partner/lover Dick, and even work in a reading at a local bookstore. Son Claude has come along as well, and he finds an immediate bond with his distant relatives. He loves Pauline’s compassion, enjoys her fiancé Malcolm’s unmannered pretense, and finds the ongoing property struggle with the neighboring Voglers a source of constant curiosity. As the big day approaches, Margot’s natural buttinski personality takes over, and she questions everything about Pauline’s life - her choice of man (whose jobless and sketchy at best), where she lives (hermetically sealed in the family home), and her obvious lingering animosity. From her perspective, this marriage should never happen. Pauline, however, just wants her sister back, if only to share in her miserable memories of an abusive and empty childhood. Yet while they try to love and support each other, their past keeps coming back to haunt and harm them.


Busy, overdrawn, and working much too hard to get to its less than impressive point, Margot at the Wedding is entertainment as inference. Nothing is spelled out in this quasi-quirk out, actors with substantial performance chops trying to carry writer/director Noah Baumbach’s idiosyncrasies all the way to the awards podium. Unfortunately, we are dealing with subterfuge so scattered that we fail to see the forest for the failing family tree (which we get a literal example of). This is the kind of film where you don’t learn the character’s professions until midway through. It’s a narrative that hints at parental horrors, but never spells them out in obvious ways. It will introduce characters without explaining who they are or their import (the gay couple at dinner, the oddball next door neighbors) and drop situations that suggest there are major issues that need to be dealt with (sex with a teenage girl, a bad bite mark on a child’s neck).


Instead, what Baumbach hopes to achieve is a kind of snapshot of siblings struggling to reconnect. For Pauline, her ‘famous’ author sister is a constant source of pride…and embarrassment. While they haven’t spoken in years, Margot will take individual tragedy and personal pain and translate it into her own snobbish literature. For the know-it-all authoress, Pauline is a pathetic shell of what she really could be. She settles for men who Margot feel are far too flawed (including new slacker Malcolm) and limits her own potential by hiding inside the clan’s old seaside abode. The wedding itself is a ruse - a chance to get together and trade oh so clever quips and languid insights about the human condition…and we are supposed to convert these hoary heart to hearts into something meaningful.


Unfortunately, Margot at the Wedding doesn’t provide us with a primer. We don’t know why the family fights (though Margot’s use of their past in her fiction seems to drive some of the friction) and the whole issue with the neighbors and a dying tree seems lifted out of a bad TV drama. People as peculiar as the Voglers shouldn’t be feared - they should be locked up by the local authorities. Yet like a novelist without an editor, Baumbach keeps adding more, hinting that there are mountained molehills that the tone of this movie can’t manage. You keep expecting Tom Hanks and Corey Feldman to show up and start riffing on life in the ‘burbs. Since he has the talent to take on the material he wants to address, the mind behind The Squid and the Whale should have let his actors loose. Instead, his sense of surreality constantly hems them in.


The performances are indeed wonderful. While she’s usually a marquee mannequin, Nicole Kidman shows a nice ditzy vulnerability as Margot. She’s also one of the bitterest pills her relatives have ever had to swallow, and she balances both emotions with exceptional ease. Also marvelous is the usually showy Jennifer Jason Leigh. Dialed down to a more dour, reserved presence, she is perfect in a role that requires her to be both strong and stupid, enlightened and lost. When they are on screen together, these stars light up the limited dialogue. Supporting them are substantial turns by Jack Black, Ciaran Hinds, and Flora Cross. Mr. Tenacious D may loose some of his focus toward the end (his crying tends to play as goofy instead of genuine), but he matches wits with Hinds’ haughty outsider expertly.


If there is a weak link in all this thespianism, it’s newcomer Zane Pais. Granted, he has the hardest role in the entire film, trying to portray adolescent coming of age, a parental breakup paradigm, and the budding interest in his long lost relatives all at once. Unfortunately, he’s too unrefined and raw to make it all work. Instead, he seems adrift, his unusually long hair constantly masking the emotion rippling across his face. Baumbach may have a way with words, but he fails to give Claude anything but a series of inquiries and arguments. We never know his place in the vague dust up between Margot, her absent husband, and the man she is sleeping with. Instead, we keep focusing on the tree, and a meaningless shoe that’s supposed to symbolize…something.


Still, anyone who’s got a closet full of mother/father/offspring skeletons will probably connect with this movie on some primitive level. Margot at the Wedding tells a story perfectly poised for those who’ve yet to deal with their ever-present personal baggage. Even worse, it argues that there are no answers, that nosy sisters and reactionary siblings will always stay the same, that therapy brings no closure and relationship seminars don’t teach potential mates anything about staying away from temptation. There is a lot of good motion picture meat here (John Turturro’s cameo as Margot’s husband, Malcolm and Pauline discussing children), but you have to chew through so much mannered fat and gristle that it barely seems worth it. In the end, it’s the performances that will stay with you. The rest of Margot at the Wedding is like that socially mandated ritual - filled with preplanned pomp, resulting in very little actual finality.



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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

LOOK [dir. Adam Rifkin]


There is no such thing as privacy. Stop kidding yourself. From the moment you leave the house to the second you step back in your supposedly secure abode, the world’s many Big Brothers are constantly watching you. There are cameras on street corners, lenses trained on you as you drive, fill up, or pay your daily tolls. Once at work, bosses monitor your computer, gauging Internet access for abuses and reading email to gain a managerial advantage. In the mall, every fitting room is monitored, every store a shoplifting prevention zone with more manpower than on a military base. Even our leisure is a source of surveillance, marketers and advertisers buying credit histories and charge plate purchases info as a means of making informed demographic decisions. Yet as writer/director Adam Rifkin points out in his intriguing new film Look, life goes on - and we seem oblivious to the fact that someone is constantly watching.


We follow five different stories here - a young high school girl, desperate to show off her sexuality, decides to target a teacher. A pair of ruthless spree killers murder various victims around town. They go unnoticed mostly, except to a gas station clerk, his on again/off again gal pal, and his slacker buddy. In the meantime, a high priced lawyer with a wife and kids sets up a Nanny-cam to keep the new au pair in check. Of course, when he’s away at work, he has the occasional lunch meeting with his hunky attorney boyfriend. Then there’s the department store manager who snorts coke, watches porn on his computer, and screws every floorwalking gal on his watch. Finally, a disgruntled insurance adjuster who’s the butt of every prank pulled by those in his office decides there’s only one way to gain control of his life - and it’s not a very pretty solution.


Like Short Cuts absent Altman’s metaphysical heft, Look is an oddly compelling little film. Rifkin, perhaps best known for his work as both a writer (Underdog, Zoom) and director (The Dark Backward, Detroit Rock City), takes the intriguing premise of life captured by surveillance camera and adds a few fictional twists to spice up the situations. Of course, no one will believe this is actual ‘caught on tape’ drama. The actors are obvious, everyone is miked for ease in understanding the dialogue, and logistical truths (how long would a store tolerate the outsized sexual appetite of such a supervisor/lothario) are pushed in order to puff up the running time. Still, any movie that lets the great Giuseppe Andrews preview a few of his masterful songs while playing a Clerks-like convenience store stooge has got to be doing something right.


It has to be said that not every story works here. The killers’ tale is interesting, and ends with a literal bang. And the teen sex queen and her desire to conquer her married (and soon to be a father) teacher has a nice level of lewdness and necessary law abiding…for both sides. Yet the whole narrative surrounding office dork Marty is too cruel and takes way too long to truly pay off, and the gay lover attorneys appear to be homosexual for the sake of something different, not an actual interpersonal dynamic. Still, we remain fascinated by Rifkin’s approach, wondering to ourselves how often supposedly private acts become part of a constant camcorder ideal. In fact, he’s careful to show both standard security footage intermixed with material captured on cellphones and other recording devices in order to emphasize the point.


Rifkin also found actors who walk the fine line between fake and fully aware. Andrews may sound like a mannered moron, but there’s a savant like specialty to what he does with a basically underwritten role. Similarly, Ben Weber is pathetic as Marty, just sad and clueless enough to earn our sympathy - that is, until his true side emerges. We’d love to know more about how Chris Williams’ George and Paul Schackman’s Ben ever got together, but they seem like a happy closeted couple. Indeed, all throughout Look, Rifkin’s attention to personal detail makes the frequently pat stories seem all the more real. In fact, one can easily see each scenario expanded and added to in a special edition DVD.


The most important thing the film establishes, however, is the theme of false privacy. When our school slut seduces her teacher, she’s shocked that it’s caught on tape. Our department story manwhore does things that no right minded person would ever attempt were they to know about the ever-present eye watching them. Look loves to push that concept to understandable extremes. The killers murder a cop, knowing full well it’s being captured on a windshield monitor, and every act in the convenience store - from singing to outright stealing - is preserved for future reference. This leads to the movie’s one minor complaint - the lack of realistic follow-up. Unless we are to believe that no one reviews these recordings, many of the situations repeated would have been legally nipped in the bud a long, long time ago.


Still, the human instinct to play voyeur matched by the morbid curiosity that comes when people are trapped in the act of being unbelievably inappropriate (to paraphrase one Candid Camera) makes Look a laudable effort. It may not be the landmark film that critics are cawing over - there have been other examples of the cinematic gimmick used here, including a crime thriller from 2001 created by Max Allan Collins entitled Real Time: Siege at the Lucas Street Market - but that doesn’t lessen the wonder in Rifkin’s approach. Indeed, in a new weird world order where we gladly substitute security for inherent rights, where we complain about the invasion but chalk it up to being protected, Look appears less like a stunt and more like a salient bit of future shock. Unfortunately, from what we see here, Orwell was right. 


 


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