Monday, March 31, 2008

GREAT FILMS: Children of Men (2006)

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

After the critical smash Y Tu Mama Tambien, and summer blockbuster Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, director Alfonso Cuaron then moved on to his passion project. A film based on the dystopian novel by P.D. James entitled Children of Men. What came forward was an incredibly bleak film, detailing a future in which all hope is lost. In the near future, woman can no longer reproduce, spelling certain doom for the human race within the century.

As a result of this, the world has become a wasteland (note the many references to T.S. Elliot's work throughout the film), and only Britain has been able to continue as a somewhat functioning society. Not that they don't have their own issues, the country has to make sure to keep out any desperate refugees who are attempting to escape the horrors of the outside world in which everyone must fend for themselves. Amidst this all, the whole country is mourning the death of Baby Diego, who was, at 18, the youngest person on the planet.

Amongst the many shoved into the small island of the U.K., there is Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a disillusioned bureaucrat who's only pleasure comes from spending time with an old pothead/dealer named Jasper (Michael Caine, in a purely Lennon-esque look). Theo's life changes when he's kidnapped by his estranged ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who is the head of the terrorist group called the Fishes, who work for the rights of illegal immigrants. She wants Theo to get transit papers in order to get a young woman to the coast.

It isn't until later in the film that we find out what makes the young woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), so special. Somehow, she has become pregnant. Realizing what is at stake, and later threatened by the crumbling Fishes, Theo convinces Kee and her midwife/bodyguard Miriam (Pam Ferris) to travel with him toward the coast in an attempt to get her to the Human Project, a mythological group of scientists who are attempting to find out what has stunted humans' abilities to make babies.

The plot, as convoluted as it sounds, is tight and flowing, as to not create confusion. The audience is left to suppose quite a bit of details for themselves. For example, there are no details given as to why most of the world has been destroyed, and until the end, you aren't even sure whether or not the Human Project exists or not. That said, those details are only complimentary, and by taking them away from us, Cuaron puts more of the film's focus on the turbulent journey of Theo and Kee.

The film is the total and complete vision of Cuaron, who experiments in long takes and grainy cinematography (by Emmanuel Lubezki). The film's violence--which there is much of--is shot entirely at eye-level, making you feel almost like an unwilling participant within this horrific society. In a moment of stunning filmmaking, a small splatter of blood gets in the lens of camera. As opposed to cutting away, the shot stays with the blood on the lens for nearly the entire six-minute take. There is even another long take, which takes place within a car. In the scene, the mood changes from cheerful to horrifying in a matter of moments, and it is all captured within one shot.

The power of the film comes from the human element. It is an unflinching meditation on the best and worst humanity is capable of, and the power of human will even through the world's darkest times. This element is supported by it's incredible cast. Clive Owen has always been an actor who has brimmed with subtle darkness under every character he plays, which makes him perfect for the role of Theo. Clare-Hope Ashitey's almost unaware portrayal of Kee is uncanny, mixing fear and toughness so well. The excellant supporting cast includes Moore, Ferris, as well as Chiwetel Fjiofor as Luke, the incredibly radical member of the Fishes. Above all, Michael Caine's small role as the long-haired, be-speckled Jasper is one of great exhilaration from a great actor, giving the film some comic relief which it desperately needs.

The film's climax is as satisfying as any classic film, and despite the film's dreary outlook, it's almost surprising to find that the film's entire theme depends on hope. Human beings have managed to survive on Earth for millions of years, and this film manages to capture the resiliency of the human race to find the light throughout all of the darkness. A true masterpiece in the tradition of 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, I do not see Children of Men as a cautionary tale. After all, we don't know why the world was destroyed, and film has no ecological preaching. Instead, the film stresses the importance of continuing soldier on, despite the desolate odds.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Stop-Loss (***)

Co-written and Directed by Kimberly Pierce


People have been waiting for a film to fully digest the War on Terror going on in Iraq. Films like In The Valley of Elah tried, but their heavy-handed messages sent more than a few people away. There has yet to be a film to comprehend this war, the way Saving Private Ryan did World War II, or Apocalypse Now did Vietnam. Hell, even the first Gulf War was perfectly dissected in Three Kings. With Stop-Loss, we have a film that's earnest--if to a fault--and brutal in it's portrayal of wartime dehumanization. What I noticed mostly when watching the film though, is that it is nearly impossible to make a coherent war movie, when the war that it's portraying makes close to no sense.

Stop-Loss is the second feature film from Kimberly Pierce, the same filmmaker who also co-wrote and directed the single most iconic film about homosexuality to date, with Boys Don't Cry. After that, though, she's seemingly been a ghost within the film industry. Like Boys Don't Cry, her latest film is pretty grizzly as well as up, close, and personal. This film pulsates with an energy that was absent from most films made about this war, and though it can't quite steer clear of unneeded sentimentality, it's brashness leaves it's mark in your mind.

The film is about Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe), a squad leader who comes home a war hero, decorated by the purple star. Coming home with him are his buddies Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They're happy to be home, but are almost immediately haunted by the images they saw during the war. Steve and Tommy both have troubles with their fiances, when their nightmares turn into blind rage. Brandon, particularly, cannot forget leading his men into an ambush where men were killed and many others were wounded.

But all is well, because Brandon's tour of duty is finished and he can stay home. That is, until he is stop-lost. Stop-loss is a part of his military contract which allows the Army to send him back into the war, even after his tour is over. "It's like a back-door draft," Brandon explains to his parents. Filled with rage, and unwilling to go back to the Middle East, Brandon goes AWOL, and takes off with Steve's fiance Michelle (Abbie Cornish) toward Washington D.C., to get help from a senator who'd previously promised to give Brandon anything he'd ask for. The closer he and Michelle get to D.C. the more they both realize the futility of Brandon's race. Brandon's options quickly begin to shrink in front of him, and so does, unfortunately, the film's steam.

The movie mostly succeeds when focused on the shell-shocked soldiers. Sure, Phillipe, Tatum, and Gordon-Levitt look more like Calvin Klein underwear models than Texas good ol' boys, but it doesn't stop each of them from expressing the pain and anguish of the three disillusioned boys. Pierce, in her two films, has shown that her imagery is generally uncompromising, particularly when showcasing raw emotion. Even during the few good times that the boys have back at home, they all walk around, morose and with a violent burst just waiting to show itself.

Being produced by MTV Films, there are definitely more than a few moments when montages are spurred together like music videos, and the melodrama becomes a bit overwrought. Essentially, these have been the issues with all the films made about the current Iraq war, and consequently, every single one of those films has been universally rejected by the public audiences. This film, though, does take a bold step forward, closely showcasing our violent intrusion into a country we know nothing about.

What keeps the film afloat for the most part is the work of it's star cast. Being a fan of Gordon-Levitt for a long time, his striking--albeit, short--performance as Tommy was more than intriguing. This is my first look at Channing Tatum, a former model, and luckily he doesn't overstep his boundaries as the sharp-shooting Steve, but instead brings a quiet, contained rage to a very complex character. Abbie Cornish's performance as Michelle is good, even if her character is puzzling. Why drive across the country with your fiance's best friend? She's able to sell the idea of it.

More than anyone, though, the work of Ryan Phillipe as Brandon is the most impressive. Phillipe has always seemed to be a member of the Keanu Reeves Wooden Actor Society, but with his startling, yet subdued portrayal of a man who is forced to go against his very own beliefs is more than uncanny. This kind of character is difficult to play, because it is so easy to slip through the cracks and begin to ham it up, but Phillipe's ability to balance between the brewing anger and the restrained leadership is not only inspired, but captivating.

I'm sure many will judge this film based on their own political beliefs, which is unfair, since this film rarely deals with any type of politics (except for one very entertaining "Fuck the president!" rant by Phillipe). That said, as long as were are still overseas, people will only respond to this movie with polarizing viewpoints. All that aside, it's a very entertaining film, even if it does slug through it's second act quite a bit. It's not the masterpiece which will help us understand this war, but it's abrasiveness has shown that non-documentaries can be made to show the horror of what our troops are going through.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Drillbit Taylor (*)

Directed by Steven Brill


The latest Judd Apatow comedy, Drillbit Taylor, deals with three bullied teenagers that hire a homeless, ex-military man to be their bodyguard. When the three boys first think over the idea, one of the boys, Ryan (Troy Gentile), exclaims "That's one of the stupidest ideas I've ever heard". Needless to say, most of the audience will feel the same way, and walk away pondering why they would then employ this very, very "stupid" idea.

Drillbit Taylor takes place in one of those Hollywood high schools where the nerdy and the not-so-nerdy are very easy to tell apart, and the bullies aren't perturbed young men with insecure complexes, but homicidal maniacs who attempt to run nerds over with their car. The nerds in question are the before mentioned Ryan, who's the usual pudgy smart-mouth, and his friend Wade (Nate Hartley) who's skinny figure leaves him victim to nicknames like "Skeletor". They eventually befriend the tiny, musical-loving Emmit (David Dorfman), who exudes nerdy-ness because he's short.

When a crazy bully named Filkins (Alex Frost) wreaks unspeakable (and unpunished) havoc on their lives, they decide to hire a bodyguard. Not only does this give the film an excuse to show a montage of unsuitable bodyguards, but it gives the kids the chance to meet Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson). Taylor is homeless, showers on the beach, and sees the three boys as a chance to make some cash, since he's saving some money to take a life-changing trip to Canada.

With ease, Drillbit penetrates the boys' high school as a substitute teacher, Dr. Illbit, and falls for the English teacher Lisa (Leslie Mann). Lisa seems to be the most unprofessional, nymphomaniacal teachers I've ever seen, as she hops into bed with Drillbit between classes, and then bemoans the fact that she "only attracts losers". Of coarse, Drillbit decides to leave his conniving plans behind when he decides that he actually cares about Wade, Ryan, and Emmit. The sentimentality isn't too forceful, but it's still enough to make you sick.

I guess I've become spoiled by films like Superbad and Juno, but it really angers me when people sit down to write scripts about high schools that NEVER existed. High schools where crazy students can punch substitute teachers with no consequence, and where that same crazy student makes the same remark to Wade after being provoked, "What? Do you think I'm dumb? Trying to get me in trouble?". It's all the more disappointing when you find out the film is co-written by Superbad's co-writer and co-star Seth Rogan.

What makes this film most irritating is this film's strange documentation of human behavior. What world does this take place? A world where supposedly smart, pretty English teachers give it up to temps who they've hardly known. A world that has a bully with no parents, yet drives a Bentley and lives in a mansion. And of coarse, a world were there are enough kicks to the crotch that you wonder how anybody produces children. Can someone please explain to me how two young boys punching each other (to learn how to "block out the pain") is funny?

Filkins, the extremely sociopathic, violent bully is played by Alex Frost, previously seen as one of the deranged killers in Gus Van Sant's meditation on school shootings, Elephant. Part of you expects Frost to begin wielding one of those M-80 rifles, since he spends most of the film darting eyes that make him look like a descendant of Charles Manson. But of coarse, he goes along unpunished, and even unscolded by anyone in school. I know it's a comedy, but are we really supposed to just buy this?

You may have noticed how I've avoided most discussion on the film's titular star, Owen Wilson. That's only because I wanted to discuss that on it's own. If anyone's ever seen Wilson's performances in his four Wes Anderson collaborations, you know that Wilson is a performer with great depth and incredible comedic timing. Yet, it seems, for the most part, his talent is left to rot on films with little to no point, and an extremely mistaken view of reality. Truth is, I gave the film one star for the few laughs Wilson's able to cook up in this abomination, but even he doesn't seem like he's enjoying himself too much. He has much more ability than say Vince Vaughn or Will Farrell, but why does he seem fixated on roles meant for those kinds of actors?

Overall, the film's laughs come few and far between. Judd Apatow has been living at the summit of film comedy for the last four years, but this film is really his first major blunder. There's nothing horrible or offensive in Drillbit Taylor, but maybe what makes this film so bland is it's lack of risks or variety. Every story line fits together with convenient erraticism, and not to mention the film's length. There was a time when films knew when they were supposed to be under 90 minutes long. This film has the cojones to go over a hundred.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Paul Thomas Anderson

How many filmmakers could juggle the complex characterization of Hard Eight? The sprite humor combined with tragedy within Boogie Nights? The labyrinth of tortured characters in the masterpiece Magnolia? Find the beauty throughout all the strangeness in Punch-Drunk Love? And then, create his most epic, ambitious picture with There Will Be Blood? To be frank, I could name plenty of filmmakers who could've accomplished each feat individually, but I honestly can't think of one who could have done all of them and within the one twelve-year period. Anderson is still young, and has yet to be sucked into his own cuteness the way Stanley Kubrick had and the way Woody Allen has, but the films are already legendary. Here's a little movie to bring it all back:

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Tracey Fragments (**1/2)

Directed by Bruce McDonald


Tracey is a trouble-maker. She hypnotized her little brother, Sonny, into thinking he was a dog. Tracey is an outcast. She is alienated by all her peers, and ridiculed relentlessly by boys and girls alike as the "Titless Wonder". Tracey is a romantic. When she sees a new boy named Billy Zero in her school she fantasizes about all the wonderful times they would share if they were sexually intimate. Tracey is fragmented, as the director Bruce McDonald, is frequently reminding us throughout the film.

While watching this exciting independent film, a lot of things told me that it didn't work, but there's something to wonder about a project brimming with ambition. IMDb lists this movie as the "First feature film to use Mondrian multi-frame compositions for the entire length", and part of me hopes it's the last, because it requires the audience to sit through constant split screens that are more annoying than the unbelievably "unsteady" use of Steadicam in Cloverfield.

And after all that, I still can't get The Tracy Fragments out of my head. The story is about a 15-year-old girl named Tracey (Ellen Page). Really, that is the most definitive plot summary I can give you, but I can give you more details. After losing her younger brother, Sonny, she runs away from home to try and find him. Also, Tracey is considered a total freak in her high school, and the only salvation she gets from attending is daydreaming about the new kid in school named Billy Zero (Slim Twig) who is equally "freakish". Also, Tracey's parents are irrational, and self-destructive, and are seemingly trying to make Tracey go insane (it can be agreed that Sonny is already insane, being he thinks he's a dog and all).

There are other sub-plots, including Tracey's relationship with an androgynous therapist (Julian Richings), and Tracey's other relationship with a man named Lance (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos), who may or may not be a drug dealer. Lance takes her in for a little while after she's run away. I think you see where I'm going here. The story lines are so convoluted, you really don't know which is being followed at any particular time, nor can you even decipher the difference between them until the end. When I felt that I'd finally understood what was actually going on in this film, I came to the conclusion: to the point that I do understand, I don't really care.

I'd be remiss to say that I watched this film for any other reason than my newfound admiration for the young actress Ellen Page. I feel safe saying that it is her unbelievably nuanced performance as Tracey that makes this film, at times, enchanting. Just like in her films Juno and Hard Candy, Page's ability to deliver such powerfully intimate dialogue while still staying true to her character is uncanny. It's important to say that the characters she plays in each of the three films are completely different, yet her performances come off so natural, to the point where she has become hypnotizing. It's no wonder Page has sometimes been confused as "playing herself".

There are moments in The Tracey Fragments when the idea of teenage alienation is shown quite honestly. I wished McDonald had toned down his use of the split screen, and I also prayed the looping of the same lines of dialogue over and over again would end. They never did. There were times when I felt comfortable with it, and others where it just flat-out got in the way. But part of me was intrigued by this style, and maybe in better hands, this type of filmmaking can inspire some true innovation. The uneasiness I felt with this film is the right kind. The kind where you know that the filmmakers involved truly stretched their imaginations as far as they could.

The Tracey Fragments is an indie from Canada, made with what seems like little to no budget, and may or may not be released in the US around May. It can be found on the internet in numerous places, but I'm sure it's chaotic style is more appropriate for the big screen. I can't go quite as far as to call the film a success because it's flaws are large and glaring, but it should be said that it delivers an iconic performance from one of the best young talents in the business. That alone, is something to watch. It's interesting to watch actors and directors take a chance. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, but it is always more enjoyable than box office fodder.