Sunday, November 26, 2006
Written by Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest
Directed by Christopher Guest
It starts around September and goes right through until January when the nominations are announced. Hollywood slowly unveils their most thought-provoking, most dramatic, most controversial films. Some launch in hundreds of theatres throughout North America; others launch in just dozens. Every facet of the way the film is marketed needs to be just right. The stars need to make the talk-show rounds while the critical circles lay claim to their yearly favorites. You don’t want to be oversold and disappoint nor do you want to go unnoticed. What you want is your name called at that ungodly hour. When it is, you will no longer be introduced by your name alone. From now on, your name will always be preceded by Academy Award Nominee. The moniker will open doors for you, get you better scripts with better directors and better paychecks. If you’re none too careful though, it could also get you an overinflated ego that could cause major rifts on set. The doors that open lead to bigger rooms which means bigger possibility for public humiliation when you start to think you’re so much better than you actually are. All of this also means huge potential for laughs and jabs should the entire process of an actor’s performance on it’s way to an Oscar nomination be parodied, especially if it is to be parodied by writers, Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, of BEST IN SHOW and WAITING FOR GUFFMAN fame. Huge potential can go either way though and sadly for Guest, Levy and the rest of the gang, their latest, FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, a movie about a movie that starts to generate Oscar buzz, does not live up to its own awards season hype.
As the cast of characters is introduced and the scene is set, promise is shown. Guest himself plays Jay Berman, the director of the small Hollywood production, “Home for Purim.” The film stars veteran film actress, Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara), as a mother nearing her death whose family has come home for the Jewish holiday. Joining Hack in front of the camera are Dad (Harry Shearer), son (Christoper Moynihan), daughter (Parker Posey) and her (scandal!) girlfriend (Mary Pat Hooligan). Other Guest regulars like John Michael Higgins as a neurotic PR guy and Jennifer Coolidge as a vapid producer fill out the space behind the camera. Bob Balaban and Michael McKean play the possessive writing team while Fred Willard and Jane Lynch play entertainment show hosts with permanent smiles hiding their empty souls. The size of the cast stretches so far that when Marilyn learns that an internet site believes her performance to be Oscar worthy, the reaction ripples further than it should. There is no time to develop anyone past the quirkiness that exemplifies most Guest character creations. With a running time of under an hour and half, clearly the time could have been taken. O’Hara’s Hack does receive more focus than any other but even her storyline seems to be missing an enormous chunk as her progression goes from intriguing to perplexing. The Oscar buzz leads to more attention and more focus on the cast and then suddenly, the film ends. I felt as though nothing had happened when so much should have.
While the film does not satisfy on the surface, it does make a strong statement on the ridiculousness of the awards season. Now I’m an Oscar enthusiast but even I can acknowledge how silly the whole thing is. The title, FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, comes from a common practice for production companies to take out full page ads in Variety asking Academy voters to consider a particular performance when they are making their picks. In the context of Guest’s film, it seems to be asking voters to consider something else entirely, like how out of control this process has become. Recognizing certain performances over others negates the craft itself and creates a hierarchy of status amidst the acting community. As if actors didn’t doubt their abilities enough to begin with, the need for an Oscar to validate your career choice forces talent to become second to recognition. Guest’s inclusion of the entertainment show or film critics and fair-weather executive producers only further criticizes all the hands that manipulate the machine. No role in Hollywood goes untouched by Guest; they all get swept up in the false reality of the pinnacle of success known as the Academy Awards.
Ironically, Catherine O’Hara’s performance in FOR YOUR COSIDERATION has begun to generate some Oscar buzz of its own (which I just contributed to). But anyone who knows a thing or two about what gets a name onto an Oscar ballot knows that no matter how good a performance is (and this one is pretty darn good but not that good), if said performance is better than the film it comes from, the walk to the podium gets that much longer. Christopher Guest better make sure he books ad space in Variety early.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Written by Eric Schlosser & Richard Linklater
Directed by Richard Linklater
I’ve tried on a number of occasions to eliminate McDonald’s from my diet. The first time I tried was a few years back, after reading Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction work, FAST FOOD NATION. I remember going to buy fries for the last time before reading the chapter entitled, “Why the Fries Taste so Good.” I had to go for that last fry before I could never look at them the same way again. I went for months without a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder with cheese but it didn’t last. Eventually I succumbed to my cravings that persisted despite the time that had elapsed. I knew what I was doing was wrong but as I bit into my two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame seed bun, I conveniently forgot about all the chemicals in the meat, the subliminal advertising geared towards toddlers and the migrant, illegal workers in dangerous meat rendering factories that made my burger possible. No sooner had I had my last bite did my stomach twist into a tangled mess. The pain was both horrible and familiar. Unfortunately, Richard Linklater’s narrative interpretation of Schlosser’s novel is nowhere near as nauseating or as a big a turn-off as the feeling of a Big Mac sitting at the bottom of your stomach.
The decision to translate FAST FOOD NATION from a non-fiction work of in-depth investigative journalism into a narrative film is a bold one. I was apprehensive at first but Schlosser’s involvement co-writing the screenplay with Linklater made me less so. Shaping facts into a story certainly humanizes the global implications of the fast food industry but if the narrative is not compelling then there isn’t much of a point. FAST FOOD NATION tells different stories to show the wide reach of how many are affected by the fast food industry. Greg Kinnear plays Don Anderson, an advertising executive responsible for The Big One, the latest burger success at Mickey’s, the fictional fast food chain at the center of the film. Don must investigate reports that there are significant traces of cow manure in the meat (Fun!). Ashley Johnson plays Amber, a teenage Mickey’s employee who juggles school and work while she begins to see her role in the corporate machine that is waiting in her future. Wilmer Valderrama and Catalina Sandino Moreno play Raul and Sylvia, two Mexican illegal immigrants who have been brought into the United States specifically to work at the rendering plant that manufactures the millions of patties that become The Big One. Very little is revealed about the characters themselves as they are merely symbols for the bigger picture. Consequently, there is very little identification with the film. A film that is trying to tell everyone, “America … this is what you’ve become,” needs the audience to feel like this is their America.
What FAST FOOD NATION best exemplifies is America’s complacency with the progression of its society. The problems don’t stop at Mickey’s. The fast food industry is merely just one faceless industry that is driving the American people into hopeless futures. Kinnear’s Don is a prime example. He has spent his life packaging products, feeding them to people the way they like it. All the while, he has also been feeding his convenient lies to himself as well. A successful burger comes at a cost and as he travels from his board room to the assembly line and begins speaking with people who don’t have any stake in the production of The Big One, he understands that there are truths under his lies that he cannot go on ignoring. By the time we see him bite into his third burger, his apprehension to do so is rampant. Yet, he still takes that bite. This is what we do. We get fed a ton of information from different angles. The product pushers tell us how wonderful it is and the non-believers prove otherwise. Schlosser’s book, which clearly details all the subtle atrocities the fast food industry unleashes into the fabric of America to make one more dollar at the expense of its loyal customers, is well researched and fact-checked. The flip side to the convenience of fast food, from obesity to the exploitation of underage employees, is being discussed by too many people and with increasing validity to be ignored. Yet millions still take that bite.
Linklater does not shy away from expressing his disappointment in the American people nor does he mince words about his lack of optimism relating to making change on the subject. Each character’s story is brought to a close and none of them are any better for any of their efforts. Some end up exactly where they wanted not to. Some end up continuing to support the industry despite their newfound knowledge. All these choices are made to ensure money is still coming in, to ensure the American dream is still within reach. Even the youth of tomorrow fail at their attempts to affect the future. The attempt itself does show a trace of Linklater’s hope, albeit it fleeting. Despite all this, Linkalter still wants to do his part. The last ten minutes of FAST FOOD NATION bring about some of the more gruesome footage found in the film. We finally get a tour of the “kill floor” at the rendering plant, with plenty of blood and eaad cow to go around. The nausea comes too late in FAST FOOD NATION but you certainly won’t be rushing for another burger any time soon.
Friday, November 17, 2006
Written by Todd Field and Tom Perrotta
Directed by Todd Field
Writer and director, Todd Field has a special talent. He has a knack for making his audience squirm in their seats while their stomachs turn. He is not a master horror filmmaker but rather a minimal dramatist with a keen understanding of the peculiarities of human behaviour. I left his latest film, LITTLE CHILDREN, feeling like I might throw up, just as I had when I left his first and last film, IN THE BEDROOM. Only this time, I left with more than just feeling that I had been emotionally hollowed; this time I left feeling puzzled. At this point, I would ordinarily explain briefly what LITTLE CHILDREN was about but that is a task I cannot do briefly. Put simply, without grasping any of its scope at all, LITTLE CHILDREN is another slice of life picture about the banalities of suburban existence. The mommies meet in the park on a daily basis and ogle the one single dad amongst them as their kids run amuck. Husbands turn to internet pornography or other women to get the fixes they stopped getting from their wives before sitting down to dinner with them. And this particular neighborhood welcomes back a former resident, fresh from his stint in jail for exposing himself to a minor, by plastering every post on the street with signs that ask, “Are your children safe?” Field’s timely reveal of the story elements and skillfully vigorous visuals draw you in to the raw unraveling of his characters, gracefully played by Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Connelly. LITTLE CHILDREN is fascinating and compelling without having any clear reason why it is either of these things. You may ask yourself where this is all going when you watch but you won’t care to know the answer.
Life gets stale when you aren’t paying attention or even when you’re just trying to master the juggling act. Life is also very good at throwing another ball into the mess when you’ve just gotten the hang of juggling three. On one day, in the park and on a dare, Sarah Pierce (Winslet) introduces herself to Brad Adamson (Wilson). She has wagered five dollars with the other mommies that she can get Brad’s phone number. Both Brad and Sarah are married but that doesn’t factor into this game. At least it doesn’t until the bet somehow goes too far and the two kiss. They catch themselves and each other completely off guard. Sarah is married to a man she doesn’t love and has a three-year-old daughter for whom she has more distaste than love for. Brad has not been able to pass the bar exam since finishing law school and spends his evenings away from his wife (Connelly) watching teenagers skateboard when he’s supposed to be studying. Their kiss is meant to taunt the other mommies but instead it cracks their worlds open to reveal new possibilities. It isn’t long before they meet again and it isn’t long after that until they end up naked in Sarah’s laundry room. Given what an inattentive sap her husband is, it is a joy to watch Sarah send Brad signals, showing off her new bathing suit at the public pool or asking Brad to rub lotion on her back. It is also exciting to watch Brad reluctantly respond to these signals. He has a stunning and brilliant woman in his life and yet he navigates towards Sarah. It isn’t love that is growing between them but an energy that affirms to each that they are in fact alive.
LITTLE CHILDREN’s secondary plot is also brilliantly executed but adds a level of depth to a film that was already dug pretty deep to start with. When Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) moves back in with his mother (Phyllis Somerville), there is outrage amongst the residents of this suburb at the “pervert’s” arrival. Whereas Ronnie’s return defines the period in which Sarah and Brad’s affair takes place, it also makes the film seem as if it were trying to tackle more than it should have. The abuse Ronnie endures from some of the locals encourages sympathy for him but he is not reformed. Tying both plots together seamlessly, Ronnie violates his parole and, with flippers and snorkel in place, crashes the public pool in the middle of a heat wave, while Sarah and Brad flirt carefully in the shade. Ronnie lusts for all the tiny legs treading in the water until he is discovered. Amidst hysteria, all the children exit the pool into the arms of their parents and they all stare horrifically as authorities escort him out. What happens next is the perfect example of the dark humour that runs throughout LITTLE CHILDREN. Panic turns back into play in a split second as all the children jump back into the pool and the parents resume their previous conversations. Is Ronnie’s presence in the neighborhood truly causing anyone to lose sleep or is it just the drama that they all love? Crave? Need?
It was only after I left the theatre that I was able to reel in all my thoughts on LITTLE CHILDREN. A conversation in a yellow cab led me to see that the key lies in the title. As Sarah runs from the responsibility of having a daughter, as Brad plays football with his buddies when he should be studying, as Sarah’s husband surfs for porn while he’s at work, as Brad’s wife purposefully drops her spoon on the floor so she can look under the table to catch her husband playing with Sarah’s feet, it becomes clear that every one of these adults is doing the exact same thing; they are all acting like little children.
Written by Zach Helm
Directed by Mark Forster
“Life is stranger than fiction,” or so the saying goes. Borrowing from the expression, Mark Forster’s STRANGER THAN FICTION is about one man’s life that has become the subject of soon-to-be published fiction. An as yet undetermined narrator announces at the very start that, “This is a story about a man named Harold Crick.” That narrator is revealed to be author Karen Eiffel (the always absorbing Emma Thompson), whose previous novels have all ended with her protagonists dying to serve the story’s greater purpose. Somehow, her voice has found its way from the pages that tell Harold’s story to the head of a man actually named Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). As she pushes through the novel that has taken her a decade to complete, Harold begins to hear her voice wherever he goes. As she points out his obsessive-compulsive behaviour, he begins to question the strict structure that has kept his life in order for years. When Eiffel announces that he is unknowingly spiraling towards his imminent death, he has heard enough. The funny thing is Harold’s death was imminent before someone told him it was. He just needed someone to remind him that he should probably get around to doing some living while he was still alive.
But is this actually a story about Harold Crick? Is it not just as much a story about Karen Eiffel? After all, she knows the story she is telling so well that her words and voice have torn some line in the fabric of the universe to make it into Harold’s head. I don’t know how likely that is in real life but I’m pretty sure it would never happen if there weren’t an intense cerebral connection between the two parties involved or if he weren’t a complete fabrication of one’s imagination. At first glance, Crick and Eiffel seem like people on entirely opposite ends of the spectrum. After a closer look, they are clearly in opposition to each other but they inhabit the very same spectrum. Both are shown as obsessive-compulsive people. Harold counts his brush strokes and goes to bed at exactly the same time each night. Karen lives a reclusive life in a starkly white apartment, extinguishing her cigarettes in spit-damp tissues she tucks away in her pockets. Both attempt to exert high levels of restraint in their lives to maintain the illusion that they command the direction their lives will take, one through chaos and the other through control. It is also a convenient way to avoid experiencing anything frighteningly unknown.
Eiffel struggles with how to kill Crick for most of the film. How do you kill someone to make a literary point when their life barely has any relevance to begin with? Meanwhile, Harold’s recent bout with schizophrenia has him seeing how the tiniest changes in his life can make it all the more exciting. Funny how the knowledge that death may be around the corner acts as a good kick in the ass. The connection between Crick and Eiffel also exposes their attitudes towards life and death while helping each of them heal their apprehensions towards both realities. Crick had conveniently eliminated the possibility of death from his calculated existence. Eiffel’s eerie fascination with death had stopped her from seeing her own possibilities for happiness in life. As the two become more aware of the other’s existence, and subsequently more comfortable with that, they each begin to see what they were not seeing prior. Life will not be and will never seem worth living if you don’t take risks, no matter how small they may be; from wearing a sweater instead of a tie for a change to stepping outside your apartment and meeting new people.
STRANGER THAN FICTION is smart without being superior, funny without being asinine. Forster’s previous work has either bored me (MONSTER’S BALL), frustrated me (STAY) or filled my heart with warmth and my eyes with tears (FINDING NEVERLAND). Here he creates a poignant piece about a woman telling the story of a man because its easier than telling her own story. Her real problem with killing Harold Crick is that she no longer knows if she wants to. Killing Harold would just mean metaphorically killing herself again. Writing Harold’s newfound appreciation for life has sparked her own and Forster hopes her reminder will be one to us as well. Not to sound too morbid but our deaths are as imminent as Harold’s. The film’s subtle layers expose a simple insight about the distance between our lives and the stories we tell about our lives. These stories are told to create meaning and give shape but we all run the risk of missing out in the process if we don’t allow for the unexpected.
Sunday, November 05, 2006
Written by Guillermo Arriaga
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has a point to make with his second Hollywood offering, BABEL. He wants us to see how we don’t listen to each other and to what extent that is making all of our lives more difficult. To do this, he tells four different stories where characters find themselves in situations where they are not understood despite all their efforts to be. These stories stretch across the globe, from Tokyo to Mexico and center around an incident in Morocco that sparks an international scandal. Inarritu treats his imagery like poetry and has created a stunning picture with pacing that ranges from peacefully prophetic to tensely wrenching. But despite its unmitigated design, there is a larger irony undermining BABEL. It is a film concerned with the struggles faced when trying to get your point across that also wants to show how our lives are all connected yet its four storylines stretch to connect to each other and the point gets somewhat lost in that process.
Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play Richard and Susan, an American married couple on a sour vacation in Morocco. Their youngest child has just died of natural causes and they have come to try to forget. Instead, the guilt and anger they could not express at home has only become more prominent in their isolation. A stray bullet hits Susan in the shoulder while she glares out her tour bus window and her vacation goes from bad to potentially tragic. The unfolding of this scenario best exemplifies Inarritu’s views on the frustration that often goes alongside communication. A desperately frightened Richard must get his wife medical attention in a town without a hospital and where no one speaks his language. He finds one tour guide who carries him through the experience, facilitating his translation. Speech is not his only barrier as this small Moroccan village’s medical treatment is far from what Richard is accustomed to in his privileged life at home in California. He then runs into trouble where one would not expect him to. He is unable to convey the seriousness of his wife’s condition to the remaining tour bus passengers, most of them American. He requires their support but they don’t listen to a word he says, focusing solely on their own needs, some selfish and some reasonable. As Richard is rightfully focused on his wife’s needs, he isn’t listening to them either and arguments ensue. Richard’s communicative difficulties also extend to one other person, Susan. Writer Guillermo Arriaga brings us to the most intimate frustration with understanding here when these two people require a brush with death to get them to be quiet enough to hear how afraid each other is and how responsible each feels for the death of their child.
The remaining plots branch out from this incident but whereas the execution of the plights is poignantly told, the connections themselves are weak or vice versa. Richard and Susan’s children run into trouble of their own when their Mexican Nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza) takes them over the border so that she can attend her son’s wedding. When reentering the United States, the border patrol are suspicious and begin asking many questions. Amelia does not have difficulties speaking English but does not answer their questions as well as she should. The film loses some focus here, as the patrollers’ approaches are more racist in nature than anything else. Whereas racism is certainly another form of fear and misunderstanding, this dire situation feels easily unavoidable and contrived to serve the film’s purpose. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a deaf and mute teenage girl deals with the loss of her mother and fights to be heard when she can’t make any noise. Cheiko is played by Rinko Kikuchi; it is a vibrant and commanding performance. She herself cannot hear what others are trying to say and is limited in how she can communicate her own feelings and desires. Her struggle is only intensified by her lack of physical connection to other people, as she is an aggravated virgin. All of her attempts to entice are thwarted by her silent aggression and her incapacity to get anyone to hear her is heartbreaking. In many ways, her storyline is the most effective but it is only tied to the whole of the film because her father’s rifle was used in Susan’s shooting in Morocco.
The word “babel” finds its roots in an association to the Hebrew verb “balal,” which means to confuse or confound. Hence, when someone is said to be babbling, they are not communicating their point properly, just spewing out a bunch of unnecessary words that end up being entirely pointless. All of Inarritu’s words and images are carefully chosen and constructed in a concise fashion that is on many levels successful, but by trying to get across so much, he ends up narrowly but sadly missing his own point.