Sunday, December 2

Disturbia, or I know what's coming but damn I'm scared

As always, spoilers lie within.

If thrillers are not my favorite genre of movies, Disturbia does a great job of refreshing the conventions and updating the Rear Window motifs.

Efficient exposition, but something's fishy

Screenwriters Christopher B. Landon and Carl Ellsworth show us what motivates the protagonist quickly, neatly, and violently. Kale Brecht (Shia LeBoeuf) and his father are buddies. We get it. When they crash on the way home from a day of fly fishing and the father Daniel dies, and Kale later decks a teacher in school, we get that. It’s a lot of mayhem, but it works. For efficiency and an adrenaline spike, it’s perfect.

But it’s such a big event – traumatic for characters and graphic for viewers – that it weighs in as more than an expository beat. Granted, it shows how the privileged, suburban kid will come to be clapped into house arrest. But if you’re still thinking at the end, you're wondering about Kale and his father. Hold that thought until we get to the third act.

Trapping Kale at home is a great dramatic situation that limits the characters, settings, and action, and all of these put pressure on the protagonist. Also, it observes Aristotle’s unity of place and Hitchock’s unity of paranoia. That is, given enough time and insufficient entertainment, a human being will make up stories about what he sees and develop a free-floating terror of it. Kale becomes convinced that his neighbor Robert Turner (the unfailingly creepy David Morse) is a serial killer. The story Kale and Ronnie and Ashley tell themselves soon convinces them all that Kale’s right.

While there’s little question who the sociopath is, finding out what he’s done, where he did it, and what the teens will do to answer those questions left me with half-moon fingernail cuts in my forearms. The best of the second act reversals comes when Kale’s friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) has been caught, killed, and narrow-cast on video into Kale’s bedroom. Or perhaps his dead body is in Kale's closet. Or not.

Bottom of the seventh and, Ohhh, where did that knuckleball come from?

But dramatically, two stories develop in parallel rather than entangling in one another to focus the storytelling and the audience’s emotional reaction. Kale pulls out all the geeky digital stops of 'kids these days' to capture evidence of violence, murder - anything. When his limits bar him from getting into Turner’s house, he sends Ronnie. At the same time, he’s befriended and be-flirting with Ashley Carlson (Sarah Roemer). She joins their cabal, spys on Turner, and increasingly commits herself to the conclusion that he’s a killer. Ronnie serves as a sounding board for Kale, allowing us to know what he’s thinking. But he's rarely more than an extension of Kale, for purposes of dialog and in the phystical world behind the limits of Kale’s electronic surveillance anklet.

Maybe it seemed too close to the Rear Window plot to put Ashley in the role of Kale’s confidante, reluctant co-conspirator, daring partner, threatened amateur investigator, and love interest. Though she gets involved, Ashley is well out of harm’s way in the concluding sequences. Rather than focusing on the girl Kale cares about most, at the denouement the focus shifts to his mother Julie Brecht (Carrie-Ann Moss), who Turner kidnaps and imprisons in a desparate moment.

Sure, it makes sense that Julie would try to convince Turner not to press breaking-and-entering charges against her son. And what son wouldn’t rescue his mother, no matter the past antagonism between them? (Are you reading this, Mom?) But why, with so much risky turf to explore, such a pretty girl do it, and such strict limitations on Kale - why didn’t we get the goose-pimple inducing pleasure of watching Ashley fall into murderous peril? Then we would have had the satisfaction of seeing Kale rescue her, confirm his suspicions about Turner, and serve up primal justice?

Everybody's got a hungry heart. Except this guy.

That nagging first act question about Kale’s father didn’t quite bite the story in the ass, but the more I thought, the more I heard it barking. Inwardly, Kale suffers an emotional blow that leaves his bruised or scarred, maybe for life. What part of his story is informed by his father’s death and that wound? Is he seeking forgiveness, redemption, a father figure, a resolution of the rage he feels at the universe? Any of these would have been good if they were glimpsed through the thriller plot. Because the emotional goal of Kale’s story is absent, the violent dispatching of his father seems like a heartless trick of screenwriting, “Well, if he loves his father, kill him off. That’ll get him going.” I’m not complaining about the tricks. I just believe in finishing what you start.

I know, I know. You're going to say, "Dude, it's a movie. Chill!" That's it exactly. It's a movie.

[The disclaimer, a.k.a. 'Respek': All movies are hard to make, hard to write, hard to hold to the original vision when collaborating, even with the best intentions. The “movie” is the story we saw, not the story the screenwriter wrote. Every story can be better. I love a good story. I break things to see how they work. Go out and buy a ticket or purchase the DVD. Support a screenwriter. Decide for yourself.]

Friday, November 30

Enchanted. Yes I was.

If you ever believed in believing, Enchanted is a story so full of hope that you'll be glad you lost your magical thinking so that you can remember it fondly throughout this movie.

Great set-up and exposition

Plunging headlong from familiar fairy tales (principally Cinderella by way of The Princess Bride) Giselle (the perfect Amy Adams) meets her destined true love and Prince (James Marsden) and they pledge to marry tomorrow. But his mother is the evil Queen Narissa who'll lose her crown when her son, Prince Edward, marries.

Turning Grimm, the Queen lures Giselle to a deep well and pushes her to a fate worse than death – launched from a three-dimensional manhole in the 21st century Times Square. If that’s not shock enough, wait ‘til she sees the price of hotels! Giselle wanders the neighborhood looking for someone who’ll help her until she sees a billboard for a theme restaurant, The Prince’s Castle. She cannot understand why no one will answer the 2-D door. Enter our reluctant protagonist, Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey).

The set-up and exposition in which the audience learns who loves and hates whom among the cartoon characters breathlessly unfolds thanks to cultural memory. We all know Cinderella and a couple other rags to riches romances. As Rossio and Elliot sagely say, beware the story that no one knows. First the screenwriter has to educate the audience, then she has to tell the story, and together they take a lot of time.

The second act that won’t make you think about refilling that giant drink

The second act – so often, sigh – is the wasteland where story focus and entertainment die a slow unwatchable death. Not Enchanted. Though we have no doubt where the story is going, the obstacles facing Robert and Giselle, force their stories to converge. Robert tries to get rid of Giselle; she can’t resist teaching him how to win his girlfriend. But in a spectacularly winning scene, Giselle confronts Robert. He’s negative. Always. They shout “NO,” at each other until she realizes she’s angry, which of course means she’s in love. Thank you, Amy Adams, for single-handedly making that scene work. And that’s the midpoint, because what was two parallel stories about getting back to the status quo turns into a love story.

Drama swallowed by evil dragon in the third act

Things go off the rails when the wicked queen reappears in the third act. Seems like the real evil in the real world would be the burden of familiarity. But, no. The fairy tale evil for Robert and Giselle threatens in the form of the transformed Queen, now a giant lizard, namely Susan Sarandon. She returns to steal Robert from Giselle. Why? Evil, I suppose, but certainly not for reasons made clear in this CGI sequence.

Honestly, at this point, so little made sense about the final conflict that I completely lost interest. Some stuff happened: on a rainy rooftop, Giselle rescues Robert and slays the dragon, both nearly fall to their deaths, over which the Queen natters about the story. Seriously, wherefore this meta-comment rather than dialog directed at her victim. Why not dramatize? Okay, screenwriting is hard. I sympathize with the choices that led to these conclusions. Turning Giselle into the dragon-slayer is a nice touch. And they must live happily every after. Blame the director or CGI or the weak performance by Sarandon (was it just me, or was the terrific actress phoning it in?), but somebody let us all down.

Innocence is good

Finally, I want to praise the movie for it’s unapologetically wishful tone of possibility. We all have to lose our innocence, but this movie should make you nostalgic for it. Save those rotten tomatoes labeled “arrested development” aimed at me. I’ve praised Knocked Up and relished Team America: World Police. This thing is full of clever storytelling.

By setting the rules of the story in cartoon fairy tales, the demands of believability are reframed as “everything believable in childhood tales can happen here.” So when the incredible, but archetypal, characters are exiled to our world, we feel affection for Giselle while we question whether she can steer by her fairy tale compass. Buoyed up on this a good-hearted hoot, it’s worth a second thought at this time of year. It worked for Giselle. Maybe we can all try a little harder to believe in love, regardless the opposition.

Wednesday, November 21

Dan in Real Life

After being misled by The New York Times review, I recommended "Dan..." to my in laws. "Awesome," they said. When folks get an emotional charge out of a movie, I see it. What do they know? Anyhow? Usually, more than me.

A.O.Scott did such a good job pointing out the movie's charming and unexpected beats:
The characters are funny not just to us but also to one another. Like most people, they use humor as a means of communication and self-defense, which gives the movie a genial, unhurried, lived-in feeling.
...that I missed his complaints:

"The story and the characters do wear a little thin in places. ...exactly who Marie is, apart from the embodiment of wonderfulness, is never quite clear. Nor is it entirely plausible that she would fall for both the dim, genial Mitch and the cerebral, uptight Dan.

"Dan, like many characters played by Mr. Carell, has the curious quality of seeming to be more complicated than he really is."
Doesn't matter what A.O. Scott and I think. The movie's going to do box office.

Dan starts out so well. A widower and advice columnist, Dan is less confident raising his three daughters than he is answering other parents' questions. He loves his girls and they test him. So far, pretty real. Dan's goal? To protect his daughters from the worst blows of growing up. We love him for that. He and the girls head to the family lake for the annual reunion and ritual of closing it for the season.

Mopey and just bad company, his mother throws him out the next morning for a little alone time. He meets Marie (Juliet Binoche) in a bookstore and all at once he feels something like love. With it, the weight of being a widower and besieged father lifts. But when he gets to back to the family cabin, he meets Marie again, his brother Mitch's girlfriend. The story quickly turns into Dan's reluctant but sure pursuit of Marie and the problem of what to do about their infatuation once he knows she returns his feelings. His family looks primed to become the barrel of monkeys that will get in his way, but they are sweet, gentle, and sometimes knowing. Mitch is dense and forgiving, mostly.

Dan's three daughters, the other women in his life, would seem to be the source of his inner conflict over whether to give up his responsibilities and seize the chance for love again.. But he's so busy keeping the secret of his infatuation with Marie from his brother and the family, that the girls are reduced to (pretty funny) noise in three registers. If Dan really was dedicated to his daughters, the ease with which he lets go of that responsibility makes him a shallower character. And he stays that way to the end.

The lesson: The protagonist's goal in the first three scenes must be his goal throughout, unless it's pried from his hands with difficulty. Dan's second act arc is admitting that he loves Marie despite the secrets and inopportune timing. But the arc we wanted was to watch him struggle to choose between his love for his daughters and romantic love with Marie.

Wednesday, July 25

Knocked Up Delivers

So here's the pitch: a movie - passingly anti-abortion but let's not focus on that - that makes pin-up pretty blond Katherine Heigl look, well, ordinary, paired with donut-fit stoner Seth Rogen. Oh, yeah, and Paul Rudd, that old softy - he'll play the prick. Boffo, right?

But when was the last time you got choked up in a movie? Spiderman 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates? I'm an unrepentant Die Hard fan and whatever the shortcomings of Live Free or..., I believe in the big action hero on the big screen. But Knocked Up is just as inspiring and often funnier. And unlike Life Free..., I wasn't being tickled to death by gags.

For those of you reading (both of you) who are swearing a blue streak because you spotted Apatow way back - Freaks and Geeks - well carry on swearing. Because for all the cleverness and good writing in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, this is twice as bright and frame-full of warm-blooded people.

Sweet situations:
  • Pete (Paul Rudd), the put-upon husband and new friend of Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), gets an ass-chewing at his daughter's first birthday party from Ben for being the guy Allison is afraid he'll become. The wrong guy. Ben walks, and Pete, holding the cake, sings "Happy birthday to you..."
  • Rather than resisting Ben, Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) gives herself over to the man as he is. A man, it turns out, who is building a website that enumerates nudity in movies. At his place, she's watching the credits of a movie and she sees girls in a shower. She cries out, "Boobs. In the credits. Bush!" Delightful and unexpected, since the man is commonly the one who has to come to terms with what the woman cares about. And, unlike cliches of "battle of sexes" setups in which she stores it up as as ammo against him, it's just a step toward acceptance.
  • Some moments seem so true and tragicomic that they hardly need the movie to exist but they'd be a throwaway line in a novel, and lost in a sitcom. Pete, talking about all the pent up tension in his marriage. "Our biggest problem is that she wants to spend more time with me. That's our biggest problem."
  • And over dinner, when Pete and Ben trade lines from Back to the Future, they form an immediate bond that implies the hours of affection and lethargy committed to watching and re-watching the movie. Jealous of their connection, Debbie stabs at them with, "Hey, I have a really good idea. Why don't the two of you get into your time machine, go back in time and fuck each other?" Ben responds, "Who needs a time machine?"
That is the source of this movie's charm: Ben gives voice to emotions, not directly and on the nose, but with a shrug of "hell yeah, I feel that way." It turns out he has heart, not heroism or courage or the strength to kill his narcissism. In fact, the sequence in which he changes his life from slack to responsible is over without fanfare almost as soon as it begins.

It's a pleasure to reflect on this movie. You don't find yourself thinking about the craft or the scenes. Instead you note the light touch and richness of situations that Apatow's created in the very unreal world of comedy. If you're up to it, it will pose the question, "What the heck do we want and do we have to frustrate each other?" Not you and me. You and your wife, lover, boyfriend, FITB [fill in the blank]. Though there are many "refrigerator moments" - Katherine Heigl can't do better than Rogen? Even on a good day? - I'm willing to forgive this crew the lot of them.

Friday, June 29

Where have you gone, Bill Forsyth?

My good friend, and now prospective best man, Bruce Campbell introduced me to Forsyth back in the eighties, insisting that we see Local Hero in the theater. Gregory's Girl had been a big indie hit, and Hero looks like a movie that was made with wary cooperation between Glasgow and Hollywood. Burt Lancaster is there as Felix Happer, the corporate titan longing for meaning. Young Peter Riegert is our hero, following his debut in M*A*S*H and a follow up in Animal House, but long before The Sopranos brought him to the attention of a whole new generation.

I watched Local Hero because it's the story of business vs. environment and town vs. corporation. Call it research. But the conflict between opposing forces is as anti-operatic as you'll find in any film. In fact, by any standard today - any of mine - the plot bored me. Though the action is droll, the characters reveal few new facets as we come to know them, and the only apparent complication develops out of limp negotiations between Mac and Gordon.

Ben, who actually owns the ancient beach, provides the final second act obstacle. There are enough major characters interested in this spot for reasons other than money that when Happer changes his mind about building the sprawling refinery, the audience had been waiting for it for at least a half hour. Unaccountably, the townspeople who would have been enriched, for no apparent reason, don't feel had. Everything's fine.

Twenty four years after seeing Local Hero for the first time, I've lost a lot of my vaguely remembered respect for it. But I've lost little of my youthful affection. It's not a well-made story. In many places, the acting is so contained that I can't tell whether to blame Scottish reserve, unexportable drollness of the British Isles, or a very tired cast. But it is sweet, patient, and dry, like Forsyth's more successful story Comfort and Joy.

Finally, Local Hero is a story of an American fish out of water in a Scottish fishing village who comes to feel that his life is empty by comparison with what he finds in Furness. (Though at least one pilgrim looking for what Mac found had some of her visions of Local Hero badly shaken.). But it's also Forsyth's homage to a place where the sky is full of wonder and mythical creatures still swim off shore. Mac falls in love with something there - we don't see it dramatized - and it seems that that indefinable thing is Scotland. The story may not show it, but the writer director implies it.

The single new delight come from the only truly dramatic moment of the second act. The town has learned that Ben is stalling the deal that will make them all millionaires and it looks less and less likely he'll budge. He teeters out of the ceilidh ("KAY-lee"), a drunken town dance, and finds a knot of locals eager to pursuade him to sell. Mac and Gordon follow Ben to his beach shack to insure his safety. But once they're on the sand, the late-sun setting hanging over the ocean, it appears the whole town has streamed out of the hall to confront the old beachcomber. They trot in from all directions, stop in silouhette, and wait as if to see who will start this dirty work. From the sea's horizon though, what looks like the last sliver of sun wavers and, by god, gets bigger, closer, whiter. It's Felix Happer's helicopter. The superstitious old exec. has come to see the sky and negotiate with Ben directly. The surprise of that reversal and it's visual execution is so delightful, the moreso because the scale of action and dramatic tricks is set so low throughout the movie.

Tuesday, June 26

Hot Fuzz: Hot, not Fuzzy

Hot Fuzz a jigsaw puzzle of cliches from some of the best cop/action/thriller/Clint Eastwood/procedural Hollywood movies stitched together. But rather than quickening an incontinent Frankenstein, this is a delightful, wry Bionic Man of an homage to the genres. Wright and Pegg have the technology.

The procedural style and direction of close up, insert shots is so conspicuously fast-paced, the sound effects so like Michael-Bay-meets-Bruce-Lee-classics that the simplest transactions - making change, for example - are a delight. By calling attention to these typically portentous or red-herring shots, the filmmakers give us a pause from worrying about their significance. We can be confident they'll return, purposefully and hilariously.

Buddy movies, we all know now, are romances without sexual consummation. At least, on screen. Take Two Weeks Notice, change Sandra Bullock into Josh Duhamel, and you've got a detective plot in the making. Take Simon Pegg and turn him into Julia Roberts (no relation), do a dialogue pass, and you've got Notting Hill. Okay, more than a dialogue pass. Hot Fuzz doesn't hesitate to play the superficially sublimated romance in the foreground, showing how these two crazy cops complete each other.

But the best quality of the movie is it's unwillingness to wink at the audience. I learned this notion from Jason Bateman, if memory serves, who explained it was Jeffrey Tambor's advice during rehearsals of Arrested Development. As an actor, he explained, the audience knows you're playing a deep, desperate idiocy. But three dimensions of entertainment flatten to two when the audience sees the character acting "as if" he were an idiot. Hot Fuzz is as committed to its comic purpose as Nick Angel, the hyper-cop protagonist, is to uncovering the true source of crime in Sanford. And it's a delight to ride shotgun.

There's a lot to be said for sincerity. Not sentiment, lazy earnestness, kids and dogs. But belief in the story and commitment to the principles of its telling. Hot Fuzz has it. Privately, I'm worried that Live Free or Die Hard doesn't. The ironic, knowing, wise cracking John McClane was so seldom sincere about anything except his family, and then he was sincerely, desperately misguided. Severance used sincerity of purpose and execution to exploit the genre. Movies I haven't liked lately have been trying to hard to be liked, including Shrek the Third. It seems we have finally reached the much discussed post-ironic period, that is, if the independents are our leading indicator. I hope so.

Thursday, June 14

Die Hard. Already Dead?

Who needs a hero like John McClane? A man who is motivated by...
  • Absolute standards of good and evil
  • An irrational sense of loyalty
  • A loose grasp on the purpose and value of the justice system
  • Emotions that are both intense and inexpressible
  • An unquestioned sense of personal power
He may be a high-functioning psychopath with a blind if admirable love for his wife. A man like that begins to sound familiar to another everyman who, after failing at other endeavors, succeeded by taking on "evil men." That man looks like an international buffoon.

If the zeitgeist is always rendering the hero in a new form - the cowboy, captain of industry, cop, astronaut, the judge, the rapper - then I think it's time the Die Hard franchise died, hard or otherwise. I don't wish them ill. I just think we need a hero. McClane is no longer my man, or our man, or everyman.

I love this character. For years, even when talking with film snobs, I said Die Hard was my favorite movie: fantastic, entertaining, with a hero I could admire. In fact, McClane is a hero who gives dramatic vent to the frustrations of everyman in the face of bureaucracy and big institutions. But that was back in 1988. And Inside Man seemed to be the last word on him. Or some people say he karmically became Jack Bauer. But now he's back and he's got gray hair on his back like the Geico Neanderthals.

Jack Bauer may be a response to 9/11. John McClane was a response to America under Ronald Regan. Bauer: unfailingly earnest. McClane: dripping irony. Bauer: willing to do almost anything for country. McClane: Willing to do almost anything to get his estranged wife back.

Our next heros:
  • First, assume that they fought in Iraq and then,
  • Went to Harvard Business School
  • Started a socially-conscious business
  • Went into a business that's based on selling responsibility to low- to moderate-income families
  • Refuse to battle institutions, "What's that?"
  • Use pot recreationally
  • Get angry at people who litter
If you draw a line from John McClane in Die Hard (1988) through all the knockoffs and the real progeny of that fresh take on the everyman hero - NYPD Blue, The Shield, The Long Kiss Goodbye, House, 24's Jack Bauer to name a few - and draw it back to McClane in Live Free or Die Hard (DH4), you have to ask yourself, who needs a hero like McClane today?

Wednesday, June 13

Severance, or Never Trust Management

Combine The Office with any good vengeful-killer slasher movie and you've got Severance. You'll want to like both parents to sit comfortably with their offspring. But if you do, you've got a treat in store.

Folks who'd seen Severance at the Toronto(?) film festival called it the most interesting, buzz-inducing movie of the festival. I'd read, I responded, that it was a rollicking parody of a corporate retreat gone wrong. No, it's a bloody slasher. Well, we're both right.

Severance is winking at the genre while making a clever, but by the numbers, slasher. The scrim of corporate venality and teamwork claptrap is delightful, but in fact, a distraction from the main story. I know, that's the po-mo, 21st century way and I'm on board with it. I laughed, I was horrified, I was scared. And some of the most hackneyed character moments were neatly subverted by playing on the bumbling shortcomings of this team of weapons marketers.

The best one of these came at the moment when, driven back to the lodge with a mortally wounded go-getter, the pretty blond and the good-looking stoner, Steve (yeah, the unlikely romance at the center of the story) pause and reflect on the current danger. Steve confesses that he's not a very good guy. Then - head slap - he remembers that he's left Go-Getter's severed in the frig. inside the van that crashed a half mile down the road. That's high quality comedy. It lifted the cliche to a new level by winning a laugh while simultaneously proving his confession.

The slasher movie within is real, including all the beats and set-ups you expect: unlikely group in unfamiliar territory; unwelcome conditions; rage-driven furies to pursue them; characters - movie meat - cut down for their predominating flaws; pursuits; flight; entrapment; characters split off as targets; lovers prevail; guilty are punished; evil vanquished by unlikely agents, or in this case, angels (think Victoria Secret, not Renaissance painting).

But the biggest challenge while watching lay in not knowing whether to trust the director and screenwriter. Good storytelling throws us off guard to delight and surprise us. By distracting us from danger by mocking easy corporate stereotypes the filmmakers also showed that they lacked interest in the people who live withing those types and the themes this story might embody. Animating the otherwise clever plot, like many offerings in the genre, nearly every character was two-dimensional.

Perhaps the director and screenwriter pointing out the bankruptcy of the genre. "You're here for the adrenaline," they seem to be saying in effect, "Not for our take on characters who embody the murderous emotions and anxious fear that we sense all around us so, what the hell, let's have a go at self-important managers." But we all know that managers are more dangerous than that. Corporations are more dangerous than that. Think of the rage to which they've driven you.

Saturday, June 9

The Science of Sleep

Just this week I remembered a dream. That's rare for me. It seemed to tell me the importance of a decision - very - and my role in the world in which it takes place. It has already proved the seed of an idea for another screenplay. The power of dreams is so potent but so personal only someone as inventive as Michel Gondry should take us inside. But the story of real dreams - the what happens, who cares? - is the most elusive quality of dreams. Also, this movie.

In the middle of Gondry's rĂªve, I woke up more tired then when I settled down. At the one hour point, Stephane's dream - and his love-life ceased being interesting. This antic story should have taken flight by practical magic and in-camera effects such as Gondry is famous for. But by the middle no questions remained to be answered. Stephanie was already leaning toward Stephane, dramatically. With the slightest provocation she would fall into his arms. And the strength of Stephane's dream world presented too few problems and too little pressure on his growing love.

The calendar artist's boyishness prevented the story from developing stakes that we invested in, though there were at least two directions to chase them down. On one hand, his dream-life could crowd a real life that he finds he wants more and more desperately as he falls in love. On the other hand, his dream-life could become so attractive that he wins Stephanie's love by inviting her in and succeeds, against all obstacles, in making her at home there. Those of you who saw the end will tell me that this is how it ends, right? One performance note: If Gael Garcia-Bernal can't convince me that this world is charming and irresistible, who could?

Lemme see. What was I going to say? I think I need a nap.

Thursday, April 12

The Namesake

After trying and failing to read Jumpha Lahiri's novel twice, the prose in which is direct and stylish, I was cheered to find that reviewers praised the movie. The fault of the novel lies with this reader. There's no accounting for taste.

This is a strange and wonderful movie. It should not work. But it does. It's Merchant Ivory meets Ang Lee (of The Ice Storm). The Namesake is Gogol Ganguli, son of Ashoke Ganguli and his wife Ashima. But his story pales in comparison to Ashima's, the story of a woman to whom things happen. "Strike one," calls the screenwriting line judge. The protagonist must act!

But Ashima's is the story of endurance and America is her gauntlet. Early on, she shrinks Ashoke's clothes when she takes it upon herself to do laundry without help the first day she's in the country. She learns to drive tentatively, and remains a lifelong nuisance on the road. And though their devotion is real, her children are strange, American creatures. Gogol, in particular, brings home a self-assured blond beauty who shows no sensitivity for the differences between her and him, and even less for his parents. These Ashima bears, not without comment, but without histrionics or depression.

The movie was once about Gogol and the mantle passed down to him by fathers and grandfathers and filliped by his father when he named him for the Russian novelist. "Was once," I say, because his drops to the background again and again. He comes of age sometimes clumsily, lurching from a happy-go-lucky love affair with brilliant, upper-class New York blonde to a marriage to a Bengali intellectual who will leave him for a French lover. He is always threading the needle of history with his own experience of Bengali-American family tradition, of Indians in America. The shadow of India is always looming behind him and bright, easy America is always before him.

When Gogol's story disappears, director Mira Nair brings the love story between Ashoke and Ashima to the fore. Neither the love story nor the coming of age story has an explicit, concrete goal, which screenwriting teachers tell you the character's gotta have. Ashoke and Ashima's implied goal is not to lose one another. Each is the other's tie to distant family and India. But they share the lonely pioneer days when the other made it bearable to call America home. The hollow echo in Ashima's life when Ashoke suddenly dies is loud and beautifully portrayed. Gogol's goal is not clear to him, but to the audience, it's obvious that he wants what his birth country has to offer. But he cannot bring himself to repudiate family and history. He and his sister move in with his mother after his father's death, if temporarily.

The movie is a triumph. It perks in memory like a story that's strange and familiar. Without pandering to a storytelling formula, a target audience, or even sniffing for a boomer audience to identify with Ashoke. It's the story of a family, pulled one way by American life and propelled in another by its inner springs. And that is the story of all families.

Friday, March 16

Borat, or Who Cares?

Finally saw Borat. I settled in expecting to be embarrassed. And to laugh my ass off.

Embarrassing? Let's see. Americans hold jingoistic political views? Shocking! Homophobes? Misogynists? Xenophobes in denial? You don't say? Not "embarrassing" but a case of, "So what else is new?"

I was impelled to see this movie because of reviews that had critics squirming in a puddle of collusion. This guy is hilarious, they said, about things that shouldn't be hilarious - the black kids in Atlanta talk and dress, uh, "urban." D'uh! But when Borat gets them to coach him how to do it, it gets him thrown out of a hotel lobby. Before he registers. So....that means....we like our "urban" out there, arms length, on TV, and black. Yes. Outrageous! So...that means...uh, black people...they have a culture...that nice hotels don't like to see. Wow! Let me just deal with that for a moment. Relax, all you professors and journalists. American cultural criticism hasn't been co-opted by this fictional Kazakh.

So what the heck did the people that drove it to $250M in grosses love? Idiot id. It's a fart in church, which come to think of it is a missed opportunity, given the straight way they played the Pentecostal segment. It expresses the repressed, with a story line. I don't mean we're all anti-semites or think the other guy is. I mean that it's hard not to tiptoe through a garden of individual sensitivities in this late century. And Borat has big feet.

What Borat spends most of his time on is the flip side of network television. He shows us we're different. Americans aren't similar, admirable, don't exemplify the land of the free and home of the brave. We're fragmented, fractured, and intolerant. We're siloed with people like ourselves and pity or condescend to Borat and others who aren't like us. We're none of the things we say we are. Maybe the only thing we share is the pursuit of happiness. And get the hell out of my way.

Here are some clever features of the movie:
  • The search for Pamela Anderson. Very American and aimed right at the audience demographic. They made perfect use of the famous Tommy Lee video to dash Borat's romantic dream.
  • The prostitute with a heart of gold, to whom he returns in a trope on the Hollywood movie chestnut we know too well, that love is staring you in face but your blind and twisted heart can't see it.
  • The underplayed sight gag of the bear's head on a plate in Azamat's refrigerator.
  • The reunion of Borat and Azamat, now incognito as Charlie Chaplin, on Hollywood Boulevard.
  • Crazy risks for small-scale entertainment: the national anthem, the naked ballroom wrestling, the dinner down south, bagging Pamela Anderson. This is the kind of stuff that gets people beat up by private security, or bruised and booked by local police. For all of you who laughed 'til you peed, he earned it. From the rest of us, I say, "Jesus, but a desperate man will do anything to get a break."
When Borat ended, I flipped to Comedy Central and caught the Colbert Report. And for the first time that evening, I laughed out loud.

Thursday, February 8

Blog Update and Why No Lessons Lately

A new look for a new year. However, I my silence has not been for lack of seeing interesting movies. I've restarted the movie list in the sidebar for the new year. But I find that the more I learn the less I have to say.

I mean that as I practice screenwriting, it becomes that much clearer when I see a solid, well-written screenplay. Not that I haven't always got improvements to suggest.

But when I see movies these days, I don't know whether to praise or damn them. Enjoyment, yes. Delight. Not so much.

I'm impossible to please, because of the movies on the list at left, I keep my heart firmly in place. Babel? Blood Diamond? Pan's Labyrinth? Good stuff all. Far from a revelation, any of them. One day soon, I'll praise ambition and it's failures.

In the meantime, look for further improvements to the blog layout.