Sunday, October 29, 2006
Written and Directed by Ryan Murphy
In 2002, author Augusten Burroughs published his memoir, entitled RUNNING WITH SCISSORS. It went on to find success and praise, as well as skepticism regarding its authenticity. The book chronicles Augusten’s formative years where he was sent to live with his mother’s psychiatrist and his family (the Finches) while she dealt with her manic depression. The book has a dry humour that refuses pity for Augusten’s numerous woes. Reading it brings about many laughs but at no point in time does it come across as a factual retelling of events. One almost needs to distrust the author to find his humour. To ponder Augusten’s perils as if they were plausible would plunge any heart into deep pain. So we laugh instead. That is after all what Augusten’s style incites. What is lacking in the book finds even less presence in the film. Purpose. You can tell your own story and you can embellish it all you like but if your journey doesn’t lend any meaning to my own then it becomes more useful in serving your own ego than enriching mine. Writer/Director Ryan Murphy’s translation segments Augusten’s book into a visual compilation of his favorite literary moments that lead nowhere and reveal very little about the man behind the memoir.
Bearing Burroughs’ weight is actor Joseph Cross. Cross plays Burroughs with a near-permanent face of silent awe throughout. He cannot comprehend how his life took such a bizarre turn. His youthful grin hints to his strong character while his conscientious eyes confirm his understanding that the path he has been forced upon will not lead to a fulfilling life. Augusten must bounce back and forth between his mother’s (Annette Bening) home and the Finch’s, where he is further bounced around from one psychological mess to another. Whether Augusten is sitting in the Finch parlor with feeble, subservient mother, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) while she nibbles at dog kibble or passively accepting older daughter Hope’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) abuse towards her cat or hovering over a toilet bowl to observe the sign from God that has come in the form of Dr. Finch’s (Brian Cox) stool, he always looks lost. Going home doesn’t help either as what waits for him there is often just as outlandish but more so scarring as his mother’s psychoses could one day kill her or one day be his. As lost as he gets, at times joining in the mentally unstable fun, he never lets go entirely of the railing that has helped him maintain his balance all the while. Respectful but problematic as someone in his position needs to become mostly unrecognizable in order to find himself again, Augusten’s lines of sanity are much more blurred in print then on screen as Murphy does not construct any build in character, shuffling Cross around repeatedly as though his life took place in a pinball machine.
RUNNING WITH SCISSORS is both a dream and a nightmare for actors. It all depends on who you are and whom you’re playing. Bening and Cross get the most screen time by far. The rest of the cast drift in and out of the narrative, giving each of them very little time to make their mark. It also doesn’t help matters that everyone is playing a character with some degree of mental defect. As a result, Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes (as Augusten’s thirty something year old lover, Bookman) overact their characters into caricature. More veteraned actors like Clayburgh and Alec Baldwin (as Augustan’s father) have very little screen time but manage to subtly give humanity to their madness, making some of the most evident impacts on Augusten. Of course, Augusten is overshadowed by Bening as Deirdre. His mother needed to be the focus whenever she was in the room so it is only fitting that Augusten struggle for attention in a movie about himself. Thankfully, Bening delivers a performance that is as layered as her character is medicated, justifying the spotlight and delighting her audiences yet again.
The chemistry between the ensemble and a sundry soundtrack make RUNNING WITH SCISSORS reasonably enjoyable but it does not bring you anywhere near Augusten’s heart. A new hair style and a fashionable scarf are not character development. RUNNING WITH SCISSORS may amuse in its audacity but despite surrounding Augusten with psychologically damaging absurdities every step of the way, it fails to show any real insight into what made Augusten the man he became.
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Written and Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
I can’t speak for all the ladies out there but there comes a point in every boy’s life when he discovers he has a penis and how good it feels to lavish said penis with much attention. Sadly, the realization that there is more to life than satisfying your penis’ urges does not subsequently occur for every boy. In the opening scene of John Cameron Mitchell’s provocative new film, SHORTBUS, James (Paul Dawson) sits immersed in his bathtub. He has a video camera in hand and it is not long before he turns his focus to his flaccid member. What follows is a pulsating montage that introduces most of the film’s other players and sets the tone, announcing in a barrage of eruptions exactly what to expect. Broken up by sweeping spurts of an animated New York City (strikingly animated by John Bair), James bends over backwards for some good old fashioned auto-fellatio until his boyfriend, Jamie (PJ DeBoy), comes home; sex therapist, Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) gets busy with her husband (Raphael Barker) all over their apartment before she fakes an orgasm rather convincingly; and dominatrix/prostitute, Severin (Lindsay Beamish), whips her latest John while he asks her views on world events and adds his own, uh, personal squiggles to the Jackson Pollock above his bed. There is no use hiding the sex in a movie about sex and you know instantly whether this is a movie for you or not. Sex controls these people’s lives. It motivates their decisions, stands in the way of their happiness and, for a little while, their frustrations become mirrors unto our own sexuality.
John Cameron Mitchell is a man who clearly thinks about sex very often. That being said, he clearly doesn’t just think about it with the head between his legs but the one on top of his shoulders as well. His previous feature film, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (which he also wrote and starred in), smashed walls surrounding gender identification and forced people to see the person and not just the genitalia. With SHORTBUS, Mitchell dives deeper into desire and sexual identity. Characters like lovers, James and Jamie, want to open up their relationship and talk themselves through it to make sure they survive the transition. When they let a third man in on their fun, they blur the lines between love and sex. Like many others, they want to push themselves towards the exploration of their desires but they also ignore the emotional ramifications of being so open-minded. Meanwhile, Severin’s persona is hyper-sexualized to the point of being one-dimensional. She makes sure she comes across as a powerful sexual being but owning one’s sexuality outright means running the risk of having that become the dominant facet of your identity or, as in Severin’s case, it becomes a convenient rock to hide behind. In one of the film’s more touching plot lines, Severin’s rebellion pushes her so far from herself that she can no longer even say her real name out loud.
Serving as the opposing repression to Severin’s expression is the relationship between Sofia and Rob. Given her role as a couples’ therapist, the twosome strive for complete openness but what they maintain hidden are their deepest sexual desires and issues. In one of the film’s more brilliant moments of subtlety, Sofia, locked in her bathroom, is determined to give herself an orgasm, something she has never been able to do by herself or with the aid of someone else. The progression is coming along smoothly until Rob’s music blaring from the living room takes her out of the moment. The funny thing is that his music is purposefully that loud so that Sofia can’t hear him masturbating. When she storms in on him, he hurries to close his laptop so that she doesn’t see the sadomasochistic porn he’s watching. Whereas they seemed earlier to have a very healthy sex life together, it is revealed here that their connection only goes so far. Sofia does not know of Rob’s S&M interests and he doesn’t know she’s never been able to climax. As a result, neither is being fully honest with themselves or with each other causing their hang-ups to transition into actual marital problems.
SHORTBUS is not without its shortcomings. Hiring actors who are willing to do almost anything on camera means potentially not hiring the best people for the roles. While Lee and Beamish exhibit both strength and vulnerability in their roles, creating a quiet intimacy between them, the Jamie’s are merely amateurish. Deboy is devoid of personality and Dawson is meant to be downtrodden but comes off more as passive. Their surface performances lend to the film’s inability to go to the depths it needs to. Given that the film is trying to delineate between the physical and emotional permeation of one’s body and soul, just scratching the surface is not enough. In that sense, SHORTBUS is like mediocre sex – it passes the time and it is enjoyable but it doesn’t make your body ache for more and everything you felt during is gone by the time you get out of the shower.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
It is very quiet. Austrian Archduchess, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), aged 15, has just been betrothed to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), the future king on France. Throughout the long trip from Austria to France, there is an odd expression on everyone’s face. It’s as if the air itself is uncomfortable. As the French court awaits Marie Antoinette’s arrival, they putter around amidst the leaves and talk amongst themselves about nothing at all. They all seem to be thinking something to themselves. Judging from the same puzzled expressions on the moviegoers’ faces at the screening of Sofia Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE I attended, I think they might be thinking how strange the entire scenario seems. Everything feels a little bit slow, a little too quiet and mostly out of place. It is too early to give up on the film at this point. After all, this is Coppola’s follow-up to the haunting, offbeat LOST IN TRANSLATION. We are in good hands. This uneasiness must be in step with what Marie Antoinette is going through. Once she finds her footing, I’m sure she will break out of her shell and show these French folk how to live freely and the film will follow. Well, Marie Antoinette, the person, gets the hang of it but sadly, MARIE ANTOINETTE, the movie, never does. It remains hollow and aimless, leaving me wondering how Coppola could have been happy with it.
Coppola took a decidedly different and brave approach to chronicling the woman who became the queen of France at
age 19. She cast American actors in French roles and did not have them speak French or even with an accent. She boosts the soundtrack with 80’s new wave music instead of music of the period. The choices are meant to highlight the lonely plight of Marie Antoinette, to show that her emotional journey is timeless. Only Dunst shows hardly any emotion in the title role so there is nothing to take away. She can handle isolated and she can party with the best of them but she doesn’t show any turmoil or inner-conflict. It doesn’t help that Coppola’s script features naturalistic dialogue either. People rattle on about nonsense and gossip but rarely ever say anything of note to each other. Perhaps this is what Coppola had intended to show but meaningless conversation needs to give insight into a character’s mind at the very least. Here, all the minds are empty.
If it weren’t for the fashion and the food (and the fortune that must have been spent on making everything look so lavish), there would be nothing at all to focus on. For such famous historical figures, very little actually seems to happen to them. For what seems like half the movie, the entire plot focuses on how Louis won’t have sex with Marie Antoinette. It is certainly a pressing matter as an heir has to be produced in order to validate their marriage. If it is not consummated, it may even be annulled. When the “great work” was finally done, Marie Antoinette is elated but there is no explanation as to why it was so difficult to begin with nor does it seem like it became any more frequent afterwards. Her brother had a chat with the future king and that supposedly did the trick. There is no mention as to what that chat was about so your guess is as good as mine as to what finally turned him on. Historically, Marie Antoinette became the scapegoat for France’s increasing deficit. Whereas the majority of France’s money had been sunk into the 7 Years’ War and aiding the Americans in their struggle for independence from England, the masses pointed their fingers at Marie Antoinette’s frivolous spending. She went from an adored queen to being chased from her palace. The build that led to that change must have been tumultuous but Coppola leaves history at the door while very little happens inside. By the time the mob shows up to drive her and the king out, it feels more like a device than a moment in time.
I can see why the French booed at Cannes. MARIE ANTOINETTE is a calculated project that was troubled since its conception (Coppola abandoned it during the script writing process to create LOST IN TRANSLATION because she wasn’t sure how to make it work). The deliberate disregard for historical accuracy may have been valiant to start but finished feeling labored. Coppola’s previous works relied on emotion more so than dialogue to get under the skin of the viewer. Their success announced great promise for MARIE ANTOINETTE but Coppola lost her edge somewhere amongst the hundreds of pairs of Minolo Blahniks custom made for the film. A lesser director would not have taken such an ambitious approach to this story. A lesser director would have made a film far worse than this one. May MARIE ANTOINETTE be but a misstep along the path of a brilliant career.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Stephen Frears
In August of 1997, Diana, the former Princess of Wales, was killed in a car accident. An international sense of grief overtook the modern world. She was charitable, a humanitarian, and a beautiful one at that. She was adored by millions for being flawed, for never rising above the level of the people or appearing entitled. She was modern royalty, a royalty that connected with the masses instead of one that looked down at its people from a pedestal. And while the families of the world grieved the loss of an icon with an outpouring of emotion, one family chose to keep the loss to themselves, a private family matter. That family was the Royal Family. Director Stephen Frears (MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS) bravely crosses the gates of Buckingham Palace to show the millions who watched from outside what might have been going on inside during the week following Diana’s death in this intimate and delicate portrayal of THE QUEEN.
Frears shows both respect and restraint in his telling of this tale. No one character, including Diana, is over glorified, making all points of view and perspectives relevant and reasonable. For all his nobility, Frears’ directorial efforts are surpassed by a sensitive and balanced script by writer Peter Morgan (and by the delightfully enigmatic performance by Helen Mirren as The Queen, but more on that later). Morgan’s script came together from a collection of interviews and discreet contacts. The remaining details were filled in by his imagination. The result draws many lines, leaving opposing forces on each side of the gate. Two months prior to Diana’s death, Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) was elected to office with a landslide win. He represented the modern man and the people hoped his youth would bring England a desperate revolution. England though, will always be caught between the old and the new as long as the Monarchy exists. The Monarchy by nature cannot be modern. It is steeped in tradition, some that even the family laugh at. But though they may laugh at them, they are always upheld. What the Queen does not see coming is that her allegiance to tradition has brought her and her family so far removed from her people that they no longer understand them. As the Royal Family continued to say nothing regarding Diana’s death, the public pointed their anger for their loss directly at them, insinuating that they had no compassion, no hearts. But as much as the Queen did not consider their feelings, the people did not consider hers. Different people grieve in different fashions and Morgan’s script shows the Queen’s decision to not speak publicly about Diana’s death not as a cold decision, but one that placed her family first, especially her grandsons. The very public death was also a very private matter. The closed gate between both parties never allowed either to fully comprehend the other.
By now you have heard how good Mirren is as The Queen. Trust me, you will continue to hear this until the moment she walks up to the stage to accept her Oscar (or at the very least, a BAFTA). Mirren’s humane performance is often hilarious and always insightful. In one moment, she is sarcastically dismissing the newly elected Blair; in another she is lost but determined to understand, her eyes fixed on a television interview of Diana talking about the way the Royal Family treated her. From her side of the gate, she has given her entire life to her people; they will always love her for it and respect her decisions. Mirren’s eyes are always searching for understanding, while maintaining her dignity and exhibiting restraint. At first it seems she is searching to understand why the reaction to Diana’s death is so massive. To her, Diana had always been trouble and had brought so much shame upon her family. As her search continues though, she is striving to make sense of the disdain and contempt she feels growing in her people. It is not that she is no longer connected to them; it is just that she doesn’t see where they are coming from anymore. How could she? She knows a very different side of Diana’s story than they do. In one very simple yet overwhelming scene, The Queen gets her four-wheel drive vehicle stuck in a stream. She is alone, surrounded by nature and waiting for someone to come pick her up. In that moment, she is overtaken. She says nothing but her mind’s thoughts echo the daunting position she is in. The mother of her grandsons is dead; her people have turned on her; she is the bloody Queen of England and she is stuck in a stream! It is all too much and she bursts into tears. She is only human after all.
I must admit, I did not get swept up in the worldwide grief over Diana’s death. Of course, I saw the enormous size of it but I was just not taken in by it. Even with my detached position, it is impossible to avoid being taken in to it when watching THE QUEEN. It is also not possible to support but one side thanks to Frears and Morgan. Being placed on both sides only allows for the possibility of tapping in to both expressions of grief. The grief is only heightened by the inability for both sides to empathize with the other. There is no way to know for certain how the Royal Family actually grieved the death of Diana but when THE QUEEN impartially opens the gates that have since been closed, one might hope this telling is close to the truth, if only because this possible truth will certainly heal.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Written by William Monahan
Directed by Martin Scorcese
This is it, folks. It’s the one you’ve all been waiting for. It is a true return to form, style and relevance. It has been all too easy, almost expected, to laud Martin Scorcese pictures with praise in recent years. The man has talent and has crafted some of cinema’s landmark films, from TAXI DRIVER to GOODFELLAS. The industry was naming his last picture, THE AVIATOR, the film of the year. That seemed exaggerated, an all too safe a thing to say. To name the same of his previous epic mess, GANGS OF NEW YORK, was even more absurd. There seemed to be regret for not crowning him king earlier for more deserving efforts. The later pity praise felt apologetic instead of congratulatory. The films themselves felt manufactured for mass appeal, devoid of personal involvement and often a courting of industry acceptance. This time is different. This time Scorcese feels concise and calculated, like a man with a purpose, focus. This time Scorcese has left his hopes for accolades behind him and engineered his own cinematic rebirth. This time Scorcese says goodbye to his past and embraces THE DEPARTED.
Borrowing its intricately woven story from the 2002 Japanese film, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, THE DEPARTED stars Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon as moles infiltrating both sides of a war between the law and organized crime. Dicaprio plays Billy Costigan, a Boston State Policeman with a family history entrenched in crime. As he is trying to make a new name for his family, he is thrown back into the world he worked so hard to escape. Costigan will go undercover and make his way into the confidence of Boston’s biggest crime boss, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costello, meanwhile, has his own man on the inside of the Boston State Police, Colin Sullivan (Damon). Sullivan was brought under Costello’s wing when he was just a boy who was doing well in school. Both Costigan and Sullivan sought power. Costigan’s power lied in authority and changing his apparent destiny through hard work. Sullivan was seduced by a different kind of power. He still had to work hard but he had the muscle to back him up when he needed it. Dicaprio’s and Damon’s solid performances heighten the tension and make for insightful character studies. As Costigan, Dicaprio is anxious and unstable. Pretending to be a brute with nothing to live for and no reason to do bad other than it being his genetic makeup goes against everything he’s ever struggled with. His eyes flare up and his whole body flinches every time he is around intense violence; he never seems to get used to it. As Sullivan, Damon is a confident, cocky liar who gets off on how many people he’s fooling and just how well he is fooling them, from his colleagues on the force (a supporting cast consisting of Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin) to his psychiatrist girlfriend, Madolyn (the relatively unknown and engaging Vera Farmiga). When it becomes apparent that both teams have been permeated, the game to catch the rat becomes tenser the closer each gets to figuring the other out. Amidst growing suspicion and fear of getting caught, THE DEPARTED becomes unpredictable and entrancing.
The surprisingly layered performance of Nicholson as Costello is one of THE DEPARTED’s best features. I expected that Nicholson could pull off a mob boss in his sleep but he brings experience and the effects of time to the role. Like one would expect, one doesn’t become a mob boss from being a nice guy. Costello is evil right through. He finds amusement in how a body slumps over to the side instead of forward when he blows a bullet through the back of her head. He has grown accustomed to getting everything he wants, to having no one stand in his way. To some extent though, he has grown bored and complacent with this lifestyle. He knows of nothing else but knows that alternatives exist. He seems to live his life appreciative of his position but with regret, or at least an awareness, that he did not make other decisions. When he speaks of Costigan’s father as a guy who could have been a big boss if he wanted to but didn’t, the acknowledgment alone highlights the power of choice. When he tells Costigan that he should go back to school, it highlights his own choices.
Something Costello is fond of saying is that “No one gives it to you; you have to take it.” It is a mantra for Costello and it seems like one for Scorcese as well regarding his approach to this film. Scorcese’s command of THE DEPARTED can be felt in the composition of each shot, in the energy of the omnipresent soundtrack and the grasp of the subject matter. Like Costello, Scorcese has been coasting in recent years; the results have been passable, at times solid, but always tired. THE DEPARTED announces Scorcese’s return to making affirmative choices again, and the right one’s at that.