Saturday, October 28, 2006

Those People!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - As I was walking up and down College Ave. at Rutgers on Thursday, I couldn't help but notice the anti-abortion activists scattered along the street, standing on the sidewalk, some of them displaying billboards of---guess what? Supposedly aborted fetuses, showing in stomach-turning, graphically dismembered detail.

There's probably a less civil, more infuriating way of getting your pro-life point across, but, in thinking about it at this late hour, I can't imagine it. Heck, I glimpsed their truck: even their truck had a huge picture of a bloody aborted fetus on it. Not exactly what I wanted to see that morning.

According to Friday's issue of the Daily Targum, these activists were part of a travelling group of activists called Repent America, a group that has apparently rallied at other universities and even high schools trying to spread their message.

What's their message? It sure ain't simply about abortion and the sanctity of human life even at the beginning of conception. No, they had to bring God into this.

"God is angry with the wicked every day," said a banner I read as I walked down College Ave. on Thursday. Supposedly that's a quote from Psalms 7:11. Maybe it's just because I'm agnostic at heart (not atheistic; I guess maybe, deep down, I hope there really is a God), but I couldn't help but groan at this. These kind of people---again??? It isn't enough to simply bring up the touchy subject of abortion and whether it's murder or not---an issue that surely deserves to be wrestled with---but they also have to use people's acceptance of abortion as some kind of proof that most of the population is going to hell, that we're all sinning, etc.? Repent America is going to show us all the light? Please.

Later in the day---at around 4 p.m.---I was walking down College Ave. again to get to a class, and what had started out as a few people handing out flyers and holding banners suddenly had grown into a real gathering in front of Brower Commons. Not only were the members of Repent America there trying to spread their save-our-souls message---"there's a reason we're anti-homosexual," I heard one of the speakers say; I didn't really stick around to hear the rest---but another group of counter-protestors stood right next to the Repent America people and protested their protest.

Again, according to Friday's Daily Targum, some of the counter-protestors shouted "racists, sexists, anti-gay, fascists, bigots, go away!" and "Fascists out, this is our community!" As if in response to those cries, Jim Deferio, a member of Repent America, was quoted at the end of the article saying, "We came out here to have rational dialogue about an important subject....A lot of our opposition wasn't open to rational dialogue."

I would agree with Mr. Deferio, except...what are we dealing with here? Religion---not exactly the most rational of subjects on which to try to start a "rational dialogue," it seems to me.

Look, of course they have the right to organize and rally. First Amendment, freedom of speech---absolutely no dispute there. But really, what were they expecting? Stepping onto a mostly liberal university such as this and loudly preaching pretty conservative, ultra-religious stuff, pulling no punches, suggesting that we're all godless sinners? Not exactly paving the way toward the most rational, levelheaded kind of discussion, especially with that bullhorn Mr. Deferio was seen holding in the photo published in Friday's Targum.

And what was with those gory aborted fetuses? That, to my mind, was the most unnecessarily confrontational touch of all. I suppose there's a crude kind of power to the use of such pictures, putting front and center their implicit belief that life really does begin at conception. Still, do they really think punting those images in our face is going to really make us think twice about our beliefs? Personally, it just made me think how crude and insensitive these people really were. Not only that: some of these Repent America members actually handed out pamphlets that tried to defend the use of their photos. ("The American Holocaust Photo Display" is what their pamphlet is titled---how's that for subtlety!)

I don't think I would necessarily have joined those counter-protestors, but could one blame them? No, Mr. Deferio, perhaps they didn't show themselves to be open to rational dialogue. But I don't think you and your group showed yourselves to be open to equally rational dialogue, either. Your images speak louder than your words.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Cell Phone Bubble

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This past weekend, my parents decided---without really telling me, just like they never really talked to me about getting Dusty---to get a cell phone plan upgrade, making a jump from T-Mobile to Verizon. Verizon is apparently a better plan, and you can get service with Verizon almost anywhere. So that's fine.

But by far the coolest thing about the upgrade: I finally got a new flip phone!

Okay, it's not really as exciting as it sounds. But, for some reason, getting a new flip phone has restored the childlike wonder in me. Now I can flip open and close a cell phone just like everyone else! Oh, and it has a cameraphone to it too. Now I can take pics with my cell phone just like everyone else!

When I had my ancient Nokia 3390 phone for the past 3+ years, I kept saying to myself that it wouldn't matter to me, getting a new, fancier phone. Taking pictures with your phone? Eh, whatever; that's what a real camera's for, ain't it? In fact, I was more concerned about getting cell phones for the rest of my family than with getting myself a new phone.

Still, now that I have a new Samsung phone, I don't think I'm going to complain about it. In fact, I've already started taking a few pics with it, and I always feel a stupid kind of rush when I flip my phone up and down. (Perhaps it's the same kind of dumb rush those businessmen in American Psycho felt when they showed off their newly-created business cards.) Yep, I've finally broken out of my cell phone bubble.

Now, how's that for triviality!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Let 'em All Eat Cake

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - It looks like this blog is becoming one movie review after another. What the hell's going on in my personal life, you might be asking?

Ah, tune in next time. For now, a few words on two new films: Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (*** out of ****) and Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers (*** out of ****).

If nothing else, both films provided a great study of contrasts: the postmodern, idiosyncratic young Coppola providing stark contrast to the distinctly classical 76-year-old Eastwood. It was interesting to see both these stylistically rather different films in two straight days. Nevertheless, I'm not going to really try to compare the two, because, though both are historical dramas, both take on very different subjects and take very different approaches. It'd be like comparing apples and oranges.

Flags of Our Fathers was interesting to see on the heels of spending over a month in my Major Filmmakers class examining the style and themes of Clint Eastwood as a director. Now I can flex my auteurist-interpretation muscles! Well, maybe.

Anyway, the film's major subject is heroism: broadly speaking, what makes a hero, but specifically, how heroism during war can sometimes be exploited, and how that exploitation might affect the veterans who experienced the war. It's a fascinating, thought-provoking subject for a war movie, and it's one that I hadn't seen explored before seeing Eastwood's new film.

But perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised. His last film, the Oscar-winning drama Million Dollar Baby, tackled, within the limits of the underdog sports-movie genre, a similar kind of theme. In that film, Maggie Fitzgerald---a female boxer who started out from nothing---nearly rises to the top, but, during her title shot, she suffers a paralyzing injury and discovers she will never be able to fight again. Then she decides to ask trainer/manager Frankie Dunn to euthanize her. Is she giving up on life at this point? The film suggests that there might be a kind of nobility to dying at the top of her game---perhaps an overly sentimental notion, to be sure (I'm still not sure if I totally buy her decision in terms of her character, either), but nevertheless it adds a layer of complexity to the question of what constitutes a champion. Perhaps she is a champion in her own way, by fighting her way to death as hard as she fought her way to a title shot.

The three main characters of Flags of Our Fathers---John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)---are widely celebrated towards the end of WWII as heroes after it is discovered that they were among the six glimpsed in Joe Rosenthal's iconic Iwo Jima photograph---you know, the one where you see six soldiers hoisting an American flag. But the film suggests that these people aren't really heroes in the usual sense; certainly, they aren't heroes in the way they're packaged and presented to the public. In fact, the photograph actually captures the second raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima; the first flag was forced down and given to a U.S. official who wanted it for himself. The point is: the people in the photograph are normal people forced to maim and kill people in a horrific war---nothing more, nothing less.

It's this restoration of humanity that's most compelling about Flags of Our Fathers, particularly during its middle section, as Doc, Rene and Ira go along, some reluctantly, on their bond publicity tour. Ira Hayes---the Native American who bears a good deal of racism during and after the war---proves to be the most fascinating story: racked with survivor's guilt after the war, he is forced to join his two other companions on the road and can't quite deal with the publicity he receives, mostly because he feels that he doesn't deserve it. He turns to alcohol and causes a few scenes before deciding to return to the tour of duty. (His sad story was turned into a Johnny Cash song, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes.") Hayes provides the emotional core of the film---and Beach rises to the occasion with a nuanced, anguished standout performance---and highlights its searching take on heroism and how it's easily exploited by a public who would rather swallow down myths of good-versus-evil rather than recognize the human being within even heroes. (That said, members of the public are admittedly characterized in a rather condescending manner by Eastwood and scriptwriters William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis; think Maggie's one-dimensional trailer-trash family in Million Dollar Baby multiplied by ten.)

Heroism may be the center of the film's drama---and the subject of its many speeches and its sometimes heavy-handed voiceover narration---but I think the film's fractured storytelling style---a little unusual for the usually pure-classicist Eastwood---takes on a different, no less worthy topic: memory, and how sometimes the truth of memories have to be dug up in layers upon layers of individual memories. Eastwood doesn't present us with a linear progression from Iwo Jima to post-WWII; instead, he intercuts present-day sequences with flashbacks---it even has flashbacks within flashbacks---and presents memories of all three characters. It's almost Cubist in its editing, and while sometimes it created a certain amount of confusion, overall I liked the effect of it, especially when we discover the film's framing device: Bradley's son is researching for an upcoming book he plans to write---and indeed, eventually did write; it's the basis of this film---about his father and the other men in that iconic photograph.

Flags of Our Fathers isn't quite a great movie: it's perhaps one of Clint Eastwood's messier films, and its distended final section, in particular, seems to fall a bit into the celebrating-war-heroes sentimentality that the middle section tries to critique. Still, it's a worthy film that actually has something interesting to add to a subject---war---that sometimes seems as if it itself is merely being exploited for mass consumption. And its final image is a memorable one: a simple shot of the six men on the shores of Iwo Jima running about in the seawater. It's a pure, innocent moment that glimpses these men as simply human beings trying to enjoy themselves in the midst of madness. A more perfect summation of Eastwood's argument would be harder to imagine.

Marie Antoinette has a terrific final shot of its own: a chilling image of Marie Antoinette's bedroom in ruins after it has been ransacked by angry peasants in the beginning stages of the French Revolution. The beauty of this image is multiplied by the fact that writer-director Sofia Coppola forgoes the expected depiction of Marie's eventual beheading. That one image basically sums up all you need to know about what happened to her.

A funny thing happened to me when I saw Marie Antoinette this weekend. I sat through this film and, while I couldn't help but admire the beautiful costumes, the sumptuous decor, the ravishing cinematography (by Lance Acord, who also shot both of Coppola's previous films, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation), and Kirsten Dunst's terrific performance, at the end I felt it to be a watchable but ultimately rather monotonous experience---a deliberately hermetically-sealed historical film that could have used more of a sense of history and dwelt less on its heroine's relatively trivial concerns about getting her husband pregnant or buying new shoes or whatever. After a while, I was almost tempted to say to the screen, Yeah, Sofia, I got it in the first 30 minutes: poor Marie Antoinette was too young and innocent to know any better about what was going on outside her little aristocratic universe.

And yet, as I drove home from the theater, I suddenly began to think more fondly of this film: not only regarding its visual beauty, but also its sympathy towards its heroine and for its very personal, idiosyncratic style. The more I thought about it, the more I admired it. In essence, I think I actually liked the film a lot more as I thought about it than I did as I sat through it. (I had similar experience last year with Sam Mendes' Gulf War drama Jarhead.)

I would recommend people to see Marie Antoinette, then, with the caveat that perhaps you're going to dislike it as you watch it, thinking it empty or trivial or overly claustrophobic. Valid reactions, possibly---and maybe part of the reason why the film was booed so lustily at Cannes earlier this year. But think about it afterward and give it time to settle, because I do think there are legitimate reasons as to why Coppola decided to make this film the way she did.

I like to think of Marie Antoinette as a big, complex conceptual stunt---something like what Stanley Kubrick tried to do in his great (and underrated) 1975 historical drama Barry Lyndon, although obviously with a less warm, more misanthropic sensibility. Barry Lyndon took pains to distance us from the characters and the situations in the film---in essence, to distance us from a long-ago past that we, Kubrick implicitly suggested, can't hope to truly understand. Marie Antoinette has that same vibe to it, although I don't think this movie is nearly as cold and ruthless in its distancing as Kubrick's film is.

An ordinary classical Hollywood narrative film might have tried to make more of an effort to characterize the world outside of Marie Antoinette's four gorgeous Versailles walls, to give us a better sense of the unrest brewing among the peasants in France. Such an approach would probably have made it easier for us to understand Sofia Coppola's point: the rich were too involved in their own petty affairs---and Marie Antoinette and husband Louis XVI perhaps simply too naive---to grasp what was going on in the underclass---an ignorance that eventually led to Marie Antoinette's downfall.

Coppola, however, decides on a more challenging (and, perhaps to some, more frustrating) approach: she trains her eye strictly on the bourgeoisie, and, for much of the movie, basically shuts out the lower class and focuses on Marie Antoinette's own relatively unimportant problems. We see, then, Marie sizing up her bourgeois colleagues and trying to make love to her shy suitor (played by a restrained Jason Schwartzman), for instance, but little of the real problems going on in the country: the lack of jobs, the decrease in food, etc. I don't think Coppola means for us to necessarily get too deeply involved in such soap-opera-ish matters; instead, we're simply meant to accept it all as a fact of life among the rich people of France at the time, and meditate on how sealed off they really were from the outside world---and how some of them seemed to prefer being blissfully ignorant of the outside world. One particular moment illustrates this: Marie Antoinette---now queen of France after the death of Louis XV---asks her husband if he'd be willing to come see the Paris Opera with her, and he says something to the effect of "I have everything I need here." When you're living an exceedingly privileged life, why step out of that pleasurable bubble?

The effect of Coppola's approach is that we feel that sense of isolation that Marie Antoinette herself probably felt at times: thrust into royalty and privilege, she always retained a bit of a headstrong individuality, but her society restricted her ways of expressing it. Marie Antoinette may not be all that political, perhaps---but, in its own way, it's sympathetic. (Maybe Sofia Coppola sees something of herself in her film's Marie Antoinette: Coppola might not have been thrust into the limelight as Marie was, but, coming from a Hollywood family, perhaps this film is her expression of her own struggle to maintain her own voice with all of Hollywood watching.)

What of the rock music on the film's soundtrack: the use of punk rock songs by Gang of Four, New Order, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and others? I'm not sure if the approach totally convinces---especially when some of the songs start awkwardly mingling diegetically with the action---but overall I liked the effect: it, too, distances us further from the time period while commenting on Marie Antoinette's emotions in a fairly accessible (for us) way. The opening song---Gang of Four's "Natural's Not In It"---immediately grips you with its fitting lyrics: "The problem of leisure / What to do for pleasure..." As the song plays, we see Kirsten Dunst luxuriously getting her toes done; she turns and looks straight at us with a sexy stare, beckoning us to join her pursuit of pleasure.

Of course, the anachronisms don't end there: most of the people in the film also speak in a deliberately modern manner. In that sense, Marie Antoinette is trying to bring contemporary relevance to the film (something Kubrick would probably have frowned upon if anyone dared to suggest such a thing with Barry Lyndon): Marie's turn toward material consumption for pleasure is still seen quite often today.

There's probably much more I could say about this film---especially its editing, which reminds me a lot of Terrence Malick's seemingly intuitive jagged editing rhythms in his marvelous recent film The New World---but I think I will leave it at that for now (read: perhaps save it for a later discussion) and simply suggest that Marie Antoinette is the kind of film that may be more interesting to think about and reflect upon than it is to necessarily watch. But I think the patience and meditation this film requires is ultimately worth the effort. It may not be the richest movie you'll ever see, but it's idiosyncratic, personal, and more challenging than its seemingly trivial surface might indicate.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Comic Failure of the Year?

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Let me be brief: Man of the Year (* out of ****), to put it crudely, sucks ass. Sure, it has a few mildly amusing bits from Robin Williams, playing a fake-TV-news comedian named Tom Dobbs who decides to run for U.S. president and wins. Sure, it has one amusing comic speech from Lewis Black (perhaps anyone who's actually seen this mess can tell me what role his character actually plays among Tom Dobbs' circle of friends) about why he's afraid of TV (he says something to the effect of "it makes everything seem real and contradictory"). And sure, it has Christopher Walken, playing Dobbs' campaign manager, giving what is probably the only genuinely inspired comic performance among the entire cast---he gives every line of his some kind of jazzy twist.

But Man of the Year represents a monumental missed opportunity otherwise. How could you miss with such a great, timely premise? A Jon Stewart-like fake newscaster gets elected into public office? As those animated Irish men in those Guinness commercials yell, "Brilliant!" Turns out Barry Levinson, the writer/director of this film, actually has something different in mind. The trailer misleads: this isn't really a political satire at all. If anything, it's meant to be some sort of thriller---although one so limp and ineffective that I can't help but question why Levinson even bothered---in which Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), a former employee of an electronics-voting company, realizes the company is trying to cover-up a glitch in the system that allowed Dobbs to get elected, and thus tries to expose them while eluding their vicious grasp. Yes, you heard that right: this movie isn't really about blowing the lid off the political machine at all. It's about a faulty voting machine and an evil corporation. How low can you go?

Don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining just because Man of the Year delivered something I didn't expect judging from a trailer. (Critics should never evaluate a movie based on the way it's marketed, I don't think.) What it does deliver, however, is ultimately lacking in anything resembling satirical sting or insight or even conviction. Yeah, so the political and corporate world is full of corruption and selfish, greedy, power-hungry men. For some people, that ain't news at all. So voters sometimes have a tendency to emphasize a political candidate's image over substance. Yawn; I've been hearing that from politically-minded professors here at Rutgers for years now.

The worst thing about Man of the Year is that Robin Williams---whose 2002 Live on Broadway HBO special, while perhaps overlong by about half-an-hour, is still one of the more amazing comedy performances I've seen---isn't even all that funny in this one. I'd like to think that's not his fault; maybe all he needed was a better writer/director than Levinson to release his natural manic energy. Granted, he's not bad at suggesting a character who uses humor to mask vulnerability---a direction that the incoherent script never even bothers to explore---but this ultimately seems more Patch Adams than Adrian Cronauer, if you know what I mean. Besides, all of his best lines were given away in the trailer, and his "stand-up" material in this film maybe adds up to about five minutes at best---and this movie lasts a little less than 2 hours!

I don't have much more to say about this dreck except: it's a bloody failure. By all means, skip it and watch The Daily Show instead.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

You Do It In the Streets

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This particular week has been my first genuinely busy week of this semester---and there's more to come! Two midterms in two days---my Editing & Layout midterm yesterday, my French Film midterm today---and two papers coming up this weekend---one short one for my journalism seminar on documentaries, and another, much longer one for my Major Filmmakers class on Clint Eastwood.

Regarding the midterms: it's funny. During high school and my first two years of college, whenever I felt like I had done less than great on a midterm exam, I'd become quite the worrywart, stressing out over a possible bad grade to the point that it felt like life or death, even though it wasn't. But, when I finished taking these two recent midterms, I felt that, though I most likely didn't do amazingly well on either, I didn't feel a sense of devastation or anything. In fact, my immediate impression was something close to...well, perhaps close to indifference. It's not that I don't care how I do in the course---I do. Perhaps I've begun to simply worry less about grades---at least, individual exam grades---in general. What do they matter? They're just letters, and it's not like grades necessarily indicate success in life or anything like that. With the prominence of the Mighty Curve in college, perhaps I've just begun to take them less seriously than I used to do in high school, when every bad grade seemed to feel like one step farther from going to a good college. (That's probably an exaggeration, but there's some truth to the hyperbole, I feel.) Even if I do surprise myself and do very well on an exam, I know I have my academic faults, heh.

Anyway, I'm taking some time out of my day to pool some of my thoughts on Martin Scorsese's recent film The Departed (** out of ****), an entertaining yet impersonal and rather nihilistic thriller which may be a sigh of relief for people who disliked the prestige pretensions of previous epics like Gangs of New York and The Aviator, but which nevertheless doesn't necessarily signal the triumphant return to form that some critics seem to be suggesting it is. In fact, I'd be more inclined to go the opposite way: it's Scorsese continuing the mainstream acclaim-mongering he's been seemingly doing since Gangs of New York, except now he's "going back to his roots" in a cynical attempt to remind people of earlier triumphs like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. The Departed is not in the league of any of those three, to say the least.

Scorsese must have thought to himself: if the Academy won't take me seriously enough with these two historical dramas, then maybe I should return to the mean streets for my next movie, and then people will really embrace me again. I think it's kind of a shame that critics seem more willing to shower macho spectacles like Goodfellas or Casino with knee-jerk acclaim---just because they're Scorsese mob movies---and seemingly take less seriously more interesting, underrated fare like, say, The King of Comedy. But hey, delving into manhood and street life---as well as bringing an impassioned visual and religious sense to those films---is what made Scorsese's reputation, and for a Scorsese who, these days, seems more like he's looking for success and acclaim than he is exploring or deepening his themes and his art, why not revisit that gangster milieu one more time?

But masterpieces like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver clearly had a sense of personal involvement that The Departed lacks. Those earlier films seemed to be about subjects close to him: religious guilt, what it means to be a man, etc. In Mean Streets, it seemed like he was trying not only to dramatize his own personal experiences and exorcise his own personal demons: he was trying to reveal the harsh reality behind the gangster lifestyle. This is what he also tried to do in Goodfellas, albeit on a broader scale than Mean Streets.

Goodfellas, really, is the film to which The Departed deserves comparison, not only because they both try to spin big stories, but also because they both display Scorsese at his most technically uninhibited. If nothing else, the gritty street life seems to bring out the energetic stylist in Scorsese, and The Departed---especially during its first hour---recalls the former film with its restless moving camera and stylistic tricks (including one surprising iris-out shot). And the soundtrack is, once again, full of classic rock songs and even opera arias, indicating the kind of operatic crime melodrama he's aiming for.

Certainly, The Departed has a brilliant premise: an undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) seems to be living a gangster's life, and a gangster (Matt Damon) is living a cop's life. Thankfully, the film is much more complex than that one-sentence summary indicates---Damon isn't exactly a gangster, but he's starting to act more and more like a cop as he keeps moving up the force; DiCaprio is desperately trying to hold on to his old cop identity as he seems to be becoming more and more of the kind of gangster he's trying to catch. It's an identity swap-movie that, as an action thriller, is certainly superior to the adolescent revenge melodrama of, say, John Woo's Face/Off. And, for its first hour, The Departed is terrifically well-constructed: in trying to chronicle these two separate lives at once, Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker create a startling parallel structure that makes for some interesting connections.

But the final impression I get from The Departed is of a technically brilliant yet ultimately impersonal gangster-genre machofest that doesn't add anything interesting---except more macho violence and profanity---to what Scorsese didn't already do, to much better and more involving effect, in his earlier gangster films. He's no longer seriously contemplating both the allure and the harsh reality of the ruthless gangster lifestyle: in The Departed, it just seems like he's rehashing his greatest hits, sans any sense of moral consideration. The result is both undeniably entertaining and rather dismaying.

Rather humbling, too, considering that The Departed is a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong action thriller, Infernal Affairs: a film which one of its directors, Alan Mak, acknowledges is partly inspired by Scorsese. Admittedly, it's been a while since I've seen Infernal Affairs, so my memory of the film is somewhat fuzzy---but what I remember is a film that stood miles apart from the usual ultraviolent Hong Kong violence-fest by virtue of the way it took its characters and their situations with real emotional gravity. It was a crackling good thriller, yes, but also a gripping character study that dared not to paint any of its characters as simply good or bad guys.

Infernal Affairs rose above genre; The Departed doesn't, although, for about an hour or so, it seems like it's really trying to. But when Jack Nicholson, as Irish mob boss Frank Costello, starts making rat faces and talking like...well, like Jack, you know that something has gone astray, as if Scorsese has let some of the movie get away from him. (DiCaprio and Damon are vastly more credible in their roles; if the film's worth watching it all, it's for them, as well as for Vera Farmiga, who makes something out of almost nothing with her role as the shrink who falls for both of them.)

I think conviction is what ultimately disappears from this movie. Scorsese isn't interested in interrogating his own fascination with the gangster milieu anymore. He's too busy trying to put on an emptily entertaining show. The Departed has its gripping moments, and it is undeniably stylish and inventively constructed. But emotionally, it's as if Scorsese went into this project thinking that he just wanted to make another gangster movie. If all you seem to be looking for now is popular acclaim, might as well revisit the genre in which you've found your greatest success, right? I suppose this movie isn't bad, but, despite its intriguing premise and some fine performances, The Departed feels more warmed-over than inspired, and its final shot---of a literal rat---puts a final, cynical exclamation point on the mostly meaningless proceedings.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

I Have An Audience!

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Found in the personals section of yesterday's edition of Rutgers' supposed "humor" newspaper The Medium:

Hey u fucking fag in film class. Just bc u right shitty ass reviews in the targum doesn't mean you are smarter than erybody. Why must u put every fucking movie e in film class from 1930 as your favorite movies on facebook? U think bc u like movies people haven't heard of you are originaland cool? Nope u still lok like u are 90, go back to japan.
I think I'll just share that with all of you readers and let you all comment on it.

Monday, October 02, 2006


NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - As much as I'd like to devote a whole long post about Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep (***½ out of ****)---which I was able to catch yesterday at the Princeton Garden Theater---I'm not really in much of an expansive-review mode. Yet at the same time to make no remark at all about this mostly remarkable new film would, I think, be close to criminal. Let me just offer a few brief comments here then.

For those who haven't heard about the film, The Science of Sleep basically weaves in and out of the reality of its main character, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), who toils at a crappy job and seems to spend the rest of his time dreaming about better things for himself: a better job, a more meaningful existence, and especially the affection of his neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

Stéphane, it must be said, isn't exactly the most appealing character you'll see in a movie this year. He's a sometimes-insufferable man-child who seems to have no mature emotional resources for dealing with problems in his life. At first, he seems like a charmingly shy, awkward fellow, but as the film goes on, the depths of his stunted growth pretty much glare straight at you even as you remain astonished by some of Gondry's startling visual coups: cities totally made out of clay, for instance, or a dream world that seems like something straight out of an Arthurian legend.

Whether you respond positively to Stéphane or find him excruciating, I suppose, will depend on personal taste. Still, I think it's fairly obvious that Gondry---who wrote and directed the film---doesn't entirely intend for us to be 100% charmed by Stéphane; I think a bit of both affection and revulsion is appropriate to the character. And the film seems to take a more complicated attitude toward dreamers than is at first apparent: Gondry understands Stéphane's need to escape from the drudgery of his ordinary life into the comfort of his dream world---at the very least, if Stéphane didn't feel the need to dream a lot, Gondry wouldn't have much of an opportunity to throw in dream sequence after astonishing dream sequence---but eventually, he seems to recognize that escaping into dreams is no way of facing real-life problems. And thus the film ends with Stéphane seeming like a bit of a loser---and yet, can't we all sometimes understand his need to escape this mortal coil, to escape our personal anxieties when they overwhelm us?

In the way this film touches upon universal human yearning, The Science of Sleep is very much a worthy companion piece of Gondry's previous feature, the great Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That said, if chosen to pick which of the two I'd prefer, I'd probably go pretty comfortably with the latter, with its best-so-far Charlie Kaufman script and a real emotional depth to support its reality-bending story and visuals. Whereas Eternal Sunshine seems to impart some genuine universal truths about the ecstasy and pain of modern romantic relationships, The Science of Sleep sometimes seems merely self-indulgent and solipsistic rather than inventive and wise. But I can't complain about such visual ingenuity, and such devotion to low-tech craft (Gondry charmingly uses stop-motion animation and paper cutouts; not much CGI here!). It may not quite have the cumulative emotional impact of Eternal Sunshine, but, in its own whimsical way, it's almost as awe-inspiring. I mean, where else---other than, I suppose, Gondry's previous music videos---will you find a film in which the water that comes out a faucet is made of cellophane, and where a mechanical horse skips around a room like something from a Ray Harryhausen picture?