Thursday, January 26, 2006


This is a film I've been wanting to see for a while, primarily because it has a soundtrack by The Polyphonic Spree, one of my favorite bands. Now that I've seen the movie, it's clear that that's only one of the good things this film has going for it. It's directed by first time director Mike Mills, who I know from the Air song that's named after him. It's a great song, and his direction lives up to the song.

Narratively, the film is a fairly standard high school teen angst dramedy. The main character's extistential angst about finding his purpose isn't something new, this doesn't necessarily mean it's not good, it's just that the film succeeds because it goes a bit beyond this. The title literally refers to Justin's continuing addiction to sucking his thumb, a hindrance now that he is seventeen years old. However, thematically, the title refers more to clinging to childhood, to the safety of the familiar. The main characters are trapped in their behavior patterns and are unable to grow up.

Justin is someone who's searching for an answer to his problems, a cure all that will resolve his issues and set him on the right path. So, over the course of the film he continually looks for quick fix answers to the issues that are plauging for him. When things go south with Rebecca at the beginning of the film, he blames it on his thumbsucking, and as a result looks to Barry for some answers. The hypnosis succeeds in getting rid of this problem, but he soon finds himself even more troubled, and finds another solution in the ADHD medication.

The film takes an interesting position on prescription drugs. The initial events surrounding them would suggest that they are a cure all, Justin is motivated and takes control of his life, rising to the top of the debate team, however, in taking the drugs he loses sight of the essential self that he is trying to seek. The drugs transform him into someone else and as time passes, he begins to realize that that indentity is a charade that he cannot maintain forever. Because they are a drug, the same as any illegal one, they will eventually affect the way he thinks and acts, so that the qualities that at first seemed desirable, the increased competitiveness and leadership drive, soon begin to hurt him in his interactions with people.

When he stops taking the drugs, Justin seems to slide off the path, and by the end he recognizes that ultimately he just has to stand up for himself, he can't be scared like he was at the beginning of the film. The drugs were a necessary step along his journey, but they weren't the ultimate destination.

The entire film is about this personal evolution, abandoning childhood and maturing into more fulfilled people. Justin's arc isn't the only one where this happens. His mother clearly has the same feelings of inadaquecy and self doubt. At the beginning of the film she looks to this fantasy figure, Matt Schram, as an escape from the monotony of her everyday life. Dissatisfied with the state of her marriage and family she seeks this fantasy escape into the glamourous world of a star.

As the film progresses, she sees that his life isn't particularly glamourous, he's got problems as well, she doesn't need him, it's ultimately he who needs her. I thought one of the best scenes in the film was the conversation between Matt and Justin, where Justin gets to see a new side of his mother. He always saw her as an authority figure, but through the conversation with Matt he understands that she's human too, she's scared and flawed, and when he insults her aspirations it really hurts.

Throughout the film there's a weird semi-incestuous vibe in the relationship between these two. It's most apparent in the scene where she's trying on dresses and is looking to Justin to see if she's hot enough to impress Matt. This puts him in a very weird position. When he tries to stop her from going with Matt, there's this sense that he's almost jealous that she would desire anything beyond what they have. This vibe is increased during the scenes that intercut Justin's sexual exploration with Rebecca with scenes of him and Audrey together, as well as Audrey wondering whether Justin has ever had sex.

This all ties in with the title and the essential theme of the film which is about Justin and Audrey separating so that they can both grow. Keanu talks about how the thumb is the substitute for the mother's breast, so Justin at first rejects the way he'd been brought up, goes off on his journey through drugs and at the end of the film returns to the love that she gave him.

So, it becomes a metaphor about creating your own identity. Justin has to throw off the ties to his childhood, try things on his own, find himself and then he can return to the family unit. As for Audrey, she too has to give up Justin, but she recognizes that it's what she has to do so that he can grow.

Barry himself sums up the theme of the film in the speech he gives at the end. The basic idea is that everyone's looking for a cure for their problems, but this very notion is a fantasy because we'll always have problems, rather than trying to become a perfect person, you just have to be comfortable with who you are. So, whereas once Justin was ashamed of his thumbsucking and saw it as a major hindrance, when he's on the plane, he's not shamed by himself, instead he gets over it and speaks to the girl next to him. So, don't try to be something you aren't, your flaws are a part of you. That seems to be the film's basic message.

The film had a lot of other strong stuff I didn't mention. The score was fantastic, though more underplayed than you would expect from the Spree. But it definitely fit with the tone of the film and I loved the final moments with "Move Away and Shine." I think this was Keanu's best performance in a long time, largely because he was playing the Keanu that everyone imagines him really being like, and it was nice to see Vince Vaughn outside of the persona that he's been using in every role for a while now.

The film was well shot, and though I think the dream sequences with the purple/pink stage were a bit cheesy, all the the rest worked well. I loved the way the narrative had a lot of episodic elements without compromising the strong throughline. Scenes that could have felt like tangents, such as the hotel room bit, worked because they were essential to the characters and were funny in their own right. I guess a lot of that is that each of the characters felt fully developed even if they didn't get much screentime. So, Mike could have been a stock disinterested dad, but you got a whole sense of history and emotion from him without knowing all the specifics. Though in that case the similarities to Unbreakable may have helped a bit. One of the little things I really liked was how Audrey mentioned that she didn't fall in love with him until he stopped playing, and he says that he stopped playing to be with her, yet neither of them could quite make the connection and convey these deep feelings they had for each other. Perhaps they will in the time following the film.

So, it's a really successful film that's thoroughly enjoyable, and also brings to the fore a lot of interesting issues. Over the course of Justin's journey, he tries to medicate a problem when it ultimately turns out there was no problem, it's just the difficulties that everyone faces. I think the most important thing to understanding the film is the line Justin reads out of the rehab book which is don't judge your interior based on everyone else's exterior. Everyone thinks they have it worse than they do, and you just need some perspective to move beyond that.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Review Revue - January 2006 (II)

I signed up for Netflix, which means I'll have a steady supply of new films coming in while I'm at school. This will allow me to catch up on some of the obscure and foreign stuff I wasn't able to get earlier. So, this post will have the first batch of those films, as well as a bunch of films I watched when I was still on break.

Spun - This was the first film I got from Netflix and it was not a good start, film wise or disc wise. I saw the censored version of the film, so I feel a bit uneasy about criticizing the film, since the impact was dulled by beeps and blurs, but from what I saw, it was pretty clear that this wasn't a particularly good movie. Jonas Ackerlund has done some good music videos, but here he stretches out his dirty, quick cut style to an entire film and it just doesn't work. I love a lot of quick cut excess movies, like Domino, but what that movie had that this lacks is a sense of fun. The whole film seems so dire, with nasty people going around doing pointless things.

I'm not saying that your characters need to be likable, but other than The Cook, there's no one here who's even interesting. They're all caricatures taken to excess and as a result, the whole film feels like it exists in a cartoon world. Most of the quick cut stylistic stuff was done better in Requiem for a Dream, and a lot of the film seemed designed solely to shock. There was no core humanity to the film, and that made it an empty viewing experience. That said, I did enjoy the Billy Corgan score and Mickey Rourke was excellent.

High Art - This was a movie I went in knowing virtually nothing about. I read that it featured Patricia Clarkson as a former Fassbinder actress and that was enough to get me interested. It's a really well done, engaging film that creates a wonderful sense of atmosphere. The most interesting place in the film is Lucy's apartment, where everything seems to move though a drug induced slow motion stupor. The lighting and acting draws you into what they're feeling, and over the course of the film, the viewer, like Syd, gets drawn into the world, starting as an outsider, but gradually becoming a part of their circle.

Clarkson is quite different from the other stuff I've seen her in, and I enjoyed the references to Fassbinder's stuff. Not to be prejudiced, but there's definitely a different feeling you get watching a film directed by a woman, particularly in terms of the way it defines relationships. Syd's boyfriend was just that, the boyfriend, he had very little depth in and of himself, a twist from the typical Hollywood way of doing things where it's the female character who's defined solely by her relation to a man. In this film, that definitely fit with the story, and I don't think you needed any more depth in that guy because he's meant to stand in for the safe, typical relationship she would expect to find.

The ending is a bit jarring and falls in with the typical art film cliche of having the main character die. I suppose that creates a more ambiguous ending, and removes the need to provide a concrete resolution for Syd and Lucy's relationship, but still, it felt like a bit of a copout. However, on the whole, it's a really strong film that I enjoyed watching, and definitely brings to the fore the fact that there's too few female directors working in film.

Lilja 4Ever - This film is shot in the handheld, jump cut, verite style that I've seen in a lot of recent films based around poor people in underdeveloped countries, most notably City of God. It's a style I really like, and in this film, it works really well. The film opens strong, with a really strong music track and a powerful image. I'm not usually a fan of the start at the end and jump back film structure, but it works here because the opening moment is so strong.

The film is a chronicle of Lilja's tragic fall through the dark corridors of human existence. The film is successful because it shows us what could be a really maudlin tale of woe in such a way that it's entertaining even as it's disturbing and tragic. The soundtrack is a constant pulse of club beats, befitting the false glamour that Lilja takes on when she goes out as a prostitute. Lilja goes through a litany of indignities, but things don't get really bad until the scenes in Sweden. The sense of claustrophobia and draining of life as is she gets further and further trapped in the life of a prostitute is devestating. The most powerful sequence is the montage of clients seen from her perspective.

The ending is very strong, I like the intrusion of fantasy imagery into the otherwise realistic, verite world of the film, in the real world, Lilja and Volodya could never find happiness, but it seems that in death, they're finally able to transcend their limitations and realize their full potential.

Malena - This was a film I really disliked, and even though I saw Miramax's cut version for US release, I don't think that would have changed my opinion. In film theory, there's discussion about the concept of the male gaze, the idea that the way the film is shot places the viewer in the role of a male observer. The idea that this is true of every film is ridiculous, but in the case of this film, it's inescapable, and the film is rather disturbing as a result. The basic premise of the film is that Renato lusts after Malena, a woman in his village, all while Italy is involved in World War II. I'd imagine there's some kind of allegorical statement about the corruption of Italy during the war, but the primary thread of the film is this kid's voyeuristic obsession with this woman.

The film reminds me of Fellini's stuff, in the way it shows these neighborhood kids ogling a beautiful woman, but at least he had some other stuff going on in his movies, and pointed out some of the flaws in this situation. Here, Renato's spying is basically condoned, and his love for her is positioned as purer than that of any of the real men she's with. So, the film starts out by creating this idealized vision of Malena, a woman in need of male protection, and then over the course of the movie gradually destroys, first turning her into a prositute, then having all the women in the village beat her in the middle of the square. And our hero after idolizing her the entire film just stands there and watches. He's pretty much a bastard, and that makes it difficult to care about what happens to him. As for Malena herself, she's a construction more than a character, a shallow male fantasy.

Monica Bellucci is someone I deeply respect after seeing her in Irreversible, that was a film that used her immeasurable beauty to serve the story, and enhance emotion. Here, it seems like Tornatore wanted to film her, so he created a story around which to do so. And the way the film is shot, it's pretty clear that he's still the same pervy kid he was back in the war years.

Match Point - Woody Allen is a filmmaker who's been in decline for most of my life, so I don't have the same high opinion of him that the previous generation had. Yet, stuff like Annie Hall and Manhattan is still great, and I'd heard that Match Point was a 'return to form.' It's actually more of a departure, it has very few of the traditional Woody Allen trademarks, and outside of the alphabetical order credits and scratchy record soundtrack, it'd be tough to tell it was his. However, that doesn't make it a great film. This is a movie that's got some really strong twists and emotional hooks, but ultimately takes too long to tell his story, such that by the time we get to the good part, it's tough to remain fully engaged.

I'm noticing that I've been saying that a lot lately, that a film is too long, and I don't think it's a reflection on a diminished attention span, rather it's films that move slowly without providing really strong visual or emotional moments. Because the filmmaking here is so conventional, everything is dependent on the actors and the writing, which puts you at something of a handicap. Wong Kar-Wai could shoot a trip to the grocery store and make it riveting and emotional, something most directors cannot do.

So, beyond those flaws, this is a nasty movie. I was aware of some of the twists, but the places it went in the end were very surprising and put the audience in a weird position. The main character in the film is a difficult guy to really like, yet he's surrounded by characters that we do like. So, no matter what he does, he's going to end up hurting someone. Seeing his wife and her family's affection for him, I didn't want him to screw up their lives by going off with Nola, yet at the same time I felt Nola's pain as Chris' hypocriscy. What happens in the end makes things easy for him, but it's a bit more troubling as an audience member, because it points to the fragile balance on which we live our lives. Chris has gotten away with a huge crime, and outside of his conscience, there's nothing that can incriminate him. So, he'll live a life with Chloe, but in some respect it will always be a lie.

It's a film that's way beyond all of Allen's recent work, and it's heartening to see someone branch out of his comfort zone. It's also another top notch performance from Scarlett Johanson, who's piling up an impressive list of credits despite being only twenty-one.

Broken Flowers

Back in the early and mid 1990s, the name Bill Murray did not garner respect. He definitely was considered a funny guy, but a funny guy on the decline. However, starting with Rushmore, Murray completely revitalized his career, to the point that now the presence of Bill Murray in a film is a near guarantee of quality. This is largely due to the creation of a new 'Bill Murray' character.

Now, star image is a very important thing in film, going back to the 1910s, but it's sort of faded away, and more importantly, it's generally considered to be at odds with 'real acting.' If method acting is all about completely becoming another person, star image is more about just being yourself, or at least the public perception of yourself. So, regardless of whether or not he's acting, in his recent films, Murray has created a very strong star image. The basic idea is that he's a guy who is extremely passive, so laid back that he almost disappears and most of the humor in the films with neo-Bill Murray comes from watching other characters struggle to penetrate the silent, ambiguous mindscape of our hero. 'Bill Murray' the character is generally despressed, at a point in his life where he struggles to care about anything, though over the course of the film he finds that perhaps there is something worth living for.

So, if Lost in Translation was 'Bill Murray' in Japan, and The Life Aquatic was 'Bill Murray' on a boat, Broken Flowers is Bill Murray on a quest for his kid. While the films may have a similar main character, I don't really mind because Bill Murray's acting in all of them is phenomenal. He does so little, yet always completely holds your attention. At the beginning of this film, there's nothing to really make you like the guy, but Murray makes him a captivating figure anyway. In the simple action of watching the Don Juan film, you can see Don contemplating his entire life.

I really liked the slow build of the film's beginning. You see this guy who has created a very comfortable, easy existence for himself, and claims that this is what he wants. Yet, when face with Winston's passion and fire for life, he allows himself to break away from the easy comforts and take a risk, to search for a deeper emotional connection beyond just material comforts.

So, he's off on his quest. Normally these quest type structures cause a movie to drag a bit. It's usually a bad sign when you see a movie that's set up more like a videogame, where you've got a set number of objectives to achieve, because it means that the entire film will just be variations on the same thing. However, Jarmusch makes each stop along Don's journey unique and interesting, each interaction revealing to Don a facet of his personality that he'd forgotten.

I liked seeing Frances Conroy outside of Six Feet Under. That segment was notable for some really great awkward moment comedy. Throughout the film there were these incredible silences, where you were just wishing someone would say something. And then Don's hinting around the issue of his son was good for some more laughs.

I don't really have too much to comment on the journey. It was all solid, funny stuff, but I think the film's real strength is in its final scenes. Up until those scenes, there was a more conventional film than the typical Jarmusch movie. All his stuff has a high level of ambiguity and frequently ends on a note of mystery. Most of the film was fairly straightforward, and while I've heard some people say that nothing happened in the film and it was slow, I thought it was constantly engaging, much more so than Stranger than Paradise or Dead Man.

Anyway, as the film progresses, Don begins to think that his son must be trying to get in touch with him, and as a result, he begins to think that anyone who's around twenty must be his son. The scene where he speaks with the kid, and tries to reach out to him is phenomenal, full of ambiguity and emotion. At this point, Don has become attached to having a kid, and despite the fact that Sherry's letter almost definitively proves that he never had a son in the first place, he's still searching for him. So, when he sees this kid, he decides that he must be his son, his desire overwhelming his logic. It's almost painful to watch Don reach out and then get rejected. He'd constructed this fantasy and is quickly brought down to reality. And at the end, Don has deluded himself, trying to construct an emotional bond to fill in for the fact that his life is ultimately empty.

The ending moments of the film were fantastic, and I'm glad that we were left not knowing exactly what happened. The letter was just a mcguffin, it forced Don to assess his life, and after symbolically reliving his past, he fails trying to create his future.

Even though I really liked the film, it did have something that always annoys me in a movie and that's when a character watches an old movie or cartoon that comments on the action in some way. I think the whole Don Juan comparison was made a few too many times at the beginning, but besides that, I don't think that many people watch old movies or cartoons. This crops up in a lot of films though, probably because old stuff is public domain and therefore is a lot easier to use.

But that doesn't obscure the fact that this was a really strong, funny and emotional movie. I think it's Jarmusch's best.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Veronica Mars

Over the past few weeks I watched the first season of Veronica Mars. This is a show that's gotten a lot of acclaim, as well as a lot of comparisons to Buffy, even from Joss Whedon himself. In terms of the basic premise it's certainly got a lot of similarities, but going through the season, it became apparent why Buffy is a truly great series, while Veronica is only a good one.

If Buffy is taking typical high school angst and putting it through the lens of a horror film, Veronica does the same but uses the crime fiction genre instead of horror. Both shows feature a blond, perky yet cynical heroine, who used to be in the popular crowd, but was pushed away by her commitment to fighting evil, yet remains conflicted about her decision to exile herself from the easy, happy life of the typical popular high schooler. And ultimately both shows are about showing an empowered girl proving that she can be more than just a pretty face.

Both shows also started out with a case of the week format, where some new problem arises, usually from a person at the school, and then is resolved by the time the hour ends. The thing is, Buffy quickly abandoned this format, recognizing its limitations and by the second season, became a serial. Veronica has some serial elements, but remains fairly strictly tied to its case of the week format, the case is always resolved within the hour and though there are some characters who return and build, the majority of them don't factor in later.

This limits the show because it means that Veronica will always succeed. She always ends up solving the case, and her father is there to stop her from getting in any real danger. Giles filled that role to some extent in Buffy, but he wasn't as strong a fighter as her, so things ultimately fell to her, whereas Veronica has a safety net. When Chris Claremont took over X-Men, he depowered Professor X, because in the original series, any really dire problem could always be solved by Xavier coming in and using his mental powers to save the day. It's not quite the same with Keith Mars, but one of the problems with the series is you never get the sense that Veronica is in any real danger. One of the reasons the season finale was so effective was because both Veronica and Keith were no longer above everyone else, they were actually in danger.

Now, having Veronica in mortal danger from every case obviously wouldn't work, but I'd like to see some more negative consequences for Veronica herself. One of the interesting things about the series is the way that Veronica semes to leave many lives destroyed in her wake, but she'll still never compormise her morality. It's a very strict moral line, most evident in the episode with the popsicle video. She feels like taking revenge on this guy is something that has to be done, she can't consider that maybe ruining this guy's life won't actually help Sabrina, it will only lead to a cycle of escalating traumas for all involved.

So, even as I admire the show for making the protagonist make the tough decision, I wonder how they feel about what she's doing. At times, Veronica seemed almost like a mary sue in the way that the creators make him this super-detective, who can simultaneously work as a near full time detective and still be one of the top five students at her school. Obviously, being a detective show, part of the fun is seeing her solve the crime and take down the criminal, but here she was so good, so far ahead of the criminals, that it seemed a bit beyond belief. I would have liked to see an episode end without her solving the case.

I feel like the show is building up to a moment where Veronica breaks down and really questions whether or not it's worth it to be so cold and calculating in her relations with people. While she does let some people in, other than a select few, she seems to view everyone else as a pawn for her to maniuplate. Eventually, she'll use someone in the wrong way, and not be able to keep her cynical cool about everything, and it'll all come crashing down.

Now, it's sort of difficult to assess the show in comparison to something like Buffy, because if you were to take the first twenty-two episodes of Buffy, it'd be a good show, but not great. It wasn't until Surprise/Innocence that Buffy really took off, and Veronica may make a similar jump in its next season, and fix some of the problems that I mention.

However, I think the show is trying to do something different than most of the shows I really like. Buffy or Six Feet Under are shows that become almost exclusively about character, the plots exist to move the characters into different situations that will expose new parts of their psyche. Veronica is a much more plot driven show, there's some character development, but it's primarily about the progression of each episode's narrative, as well as the overall mystery arc.

The overall mystery arc was entertaining, but in some respects, the show has the same problem as Lost, in that so much of the show is about revealing what happened in the past, that things don't particularly move forward in the present. This is more noticable on Lost, where the flashbacks feel completely disconnected from the main narrative progress, on Veronica it's done better, but I can't help but wonder what the show would have been like if it started with Veronica's life in the popular crew, and then proceeded to show all the stuff that happened in flashback as the first season of the show.

The problem with that would be the show wouldn't really have a status quo. People who tuned in to watch a show about a bunch of wealthy popular kids probably wouldn't be as interested in a show about a girl who investigates murders, but that's one of the problems with episodic television. There's been more a move towards thinking of the entire series as one piece, rather than just a bunch of episodes, but there's still the need for some kind of status quo. So, even though watching everything from the flashbacks unfold over the course of a season would be riveting and surprising, it wouldn't provide viewers with any sort of stable order. Yet, watching it now, you get the sense that the really interesting stuff happened in the past, and though we see pieces of it, we don't have the sense of discovery that would have been possible.

Most of the episodes were really well done, and they came up with a nice variety of cases for her to cover. However, there weren't that many really standout episodes. However, by far the best two that they did were the last two. The episode in which she tries to piece together what happens the night that she was raped was really powerful, and in those flashbacks you saw Veronica's past like she did, wondering how she could behave like that. It works both as Veronica interrogating herself in terms of being drugged up, but also in terms of Veronica interrogating the old version of herself, the popular girl living a normal life. The alien behavior that she is unable to comprehend is a consequence of both.

At the end of that episode, I was like "damn" because they had revealed that Veronica was not only dating her brother, but in fact had had sex with him. Six Feet Under flirted with it, but never went there, but Veronica had done it and I was very impressed. It was a great twist and the scene where Duncan reveals what he had done was probably the best of the series.

So, I was a bit disappointed when we find out in the next episode that they aren't actually brother and sister. It feels like Jean's ressurection, you could say that the original power of the scene is intact, because they believe it at the time, but it's in fact very dulled. I can understand not wanting to go down the road, and I figured they wouldn't, but it was precisely that subversion of expectations that made it so powerful.

However, other than that, the end of the season was great. Aaron being the murderer was a great twist, and I really liked the way they revealed it. Throughout the whole season, he's been struggling to keep his family together, even as his actions sabotage this, and murdering Lily was the ultimate extension of this. He presumably justifies the murder to himself by saying that he had to do it or else his family would be ruined by the revelation he was sleeping with Lily, and this empowers him to do something criminal and vile. So, he brings about his own destruction, and having him be the murderer works better than having anyone else be it.

So, I think it's a successful series on the whole, with the potential to be great. I'll definitely be checking out season two down the line.