Friday, March 27, 2009

My Top 10 Favorite Character Actors

It's been a rough couple of weeks in the film world as we recently lost two very gifted and criminally under-appreciated actors. While the media's sensationalistic coverage of Natasha Richardson's death was largely misinformed and irresponsible, it was their reporting of Tony Award winning and Emmy nominated actor Ron Silver's passing that was downright shameful. Choosing to take cheap shots at his conservative political stance rather than celebrate his contributions as an actor is as disgraceful as it gets.

If you just mention Silver's name I'm betting most people wouldn't have a clue who he is, but show a clip from any of his television or film appearances and you're likely to be greeted with a "Hey...I know him! He's in EVERYTHING." He was often typecast as villains (Blue Steel), lawyers (Reversal of Fortune), politicos (The West Wing) or slick, greedy businessmen (Skin) but only because so few could play them as well. And if you saw him in anything you knew he was capable of making the jump to A-List headliner had he just been given better opportunities.

One of my favorite Silver performances came in 1996's underrated sci-fi thriller The Arrival, a surprisingly smart film made even smarter by his presence. Richardson got slightly more recognition but also flew further under the radar than she should have. In a perfect world both would have been household names because they certainly had the talent. But that's the double-edge sword of the "character actor." They're always finding steady work because of their ability to invisibly slip into any role but it's that very skill that causes us and the studios to overlook their work and take them for granted. Usually the backbone of any film in which they appear, they often have to sit back and applaud politely while the George Clooneys, Brad Pitts and Julia Roberts' reap all the accolades.

That's why Richard Jenkins' nomination this year meant so much. It was a victory for supporting film actors everywhere proving if they were given the ball they could run with it. Kevin Spacey, William H. Macy, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman are just a few of the fortunate ones who were able to break through. I've been meaning to do this list for a long time and recent events reminded me again just how overdue the actors below are for recognition. You've seen their faces and now it's time to get their names. There's no question any one of them could step up right now and take a leading role in a major studio release and the film would be all the better for it. Believe me there are MANY, MANY more I'm leaving out but here are my favorites:

10. James Rebhorn-The tall, lanky actor is often cast as a villain, appearing frequently as government agents, lawyers, politicians and doctors. Most probably remember him for his role in as the prosecuting attorney in the series finale of Seinfeld but I'll always associate him with the final heart pounding half hour of David Fincher's The Game. Only in retrospect do you realize just how important his seemingly smallish role in that was. Who REALLY had the tough job of selling that final twist? Has also appeared in comedies like Meet The Parents.

9. Wallace Shawn-This comic actor and part-time playwright has made a career out of playing weird, wacky goofs, most famously Vizzini in Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride. Was given his wackiest and darkest role to date as industrial tycoon Baron von Westphalen in Southland Tales. Maybe you hated the film, but show me anyone who didn't love his oddball performance in it. Recently showed up on Gossip Girl, of all places. Strangely, that kind of fits. We've learned to expect the unexpected from him.

8. Jane Lynch- Scene-stealing Second City alum has been popping up all over the place for the past decade in mostly comedic roles. Has shown up in the Christopher Guest mockumentaries Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. Had a brief but very memorable stint on Arrested Development but is best known as Andy's boss in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and for her hilarious turn as a counselor in Role Models, her biggest part to date. Hopefully it leads to even bigger things for her because she might be the funniest actress working today, supporting or otherwise. Brings a real natural, down-to-Earth charm to all her performances. Very curious to see her anchor a major comedy.

7. William Fichtner- A former soap star who's clocked in the miles on television dramas (Invasion, Prison Break), he's also gone on to carve a nice niche for himself as a supporting actor in big budget studio fare (Armageddon, Black Hawk Down). Argue all you want whether The Dark Knight actually met expectations, but the opening minutes definitely did. A huge reason why was his brief but pivotal turn as the doomed Gotham Bank manager who didn't back down to Ledger's Joker. Has a creepy, distinguishable look and demeanor that's translatable as either hero or villain.

6. David Morse-The St. Elsewhere vet is probably the most intense of the actors on this list, whether he's providing valuable support in a Stephen King adaptation (The Langoliers, Hearts in Atlantis, The Green Mile) or playing the neighbor from hell in Disturbia (during which he reportedly stayed in character on set). In his greatest performance, completely outshone Jack Nicholson (!) in Sean Penn's underrated The Crossing Guard. Completely fearless in the roles he chooses, as last year's Hounddog proves.

5. Bob Gunton-Who can ever forget his Bible thumping Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption? Since then the 63- year-old has literally been popping up everywhere in everything, often playing elderly statesmen and authority figures, like recently on 24. Whenever he shows up onscreen you can't help but smile because you just know no matter how small the role, he's gonna nail it.

4. Bruce McGill- After kicking his career off as "D-Day" opposite John Belushi in National Lampoon's Animal House he's gone to play shady characters in postions of power (Timecop, Matchstick Men) and political figures (Vantage Point). But my favorite role of his was his warmest, an unforgettable, Emmy-worthy guest starring turn as a kind but mysterious bartender in the final episode of Quantum Leap, helping that series go out on the highest note possible. Has continued his political trajectory by recently appearing as George Tenet in Oliver Stone's W. and co-starring in the HBO film Recount. Has the gift of making even the smallest part burst with meaning.

3. Ken Marino- A former member of MTV's The State with director David Wain, New York native Marino is probably the most underrated performer on the list. Co-starred in Wain's hilarious Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten (which he co-wrote) and most recently in Role Models. Turned in strong dramatic work in the underseen Diggers from a few years ago (which he also co-wrote with Wain) as well as providing some memorable guest starring arcs on major television shows like Dawson's Creek, where he memorably played Katie Holmes' college professor. That and his role as goofy private eye Vinnie Van Lowe on Veronica Mars should qualify him as a national hero rather than just a great character actor.

2. Noah Emmerich-Typecast as the "best friend" in The Truman Show and Frequency, he took that part to a whole new devastating level in 2006's Little Children, delivering HANDS DOWN the best performance in that film, physically and emotionally transforming himself to deliver one of the most overlooked supporting turns of the decade as "retired" cop Larry Hedges. Stole the show again recently opposite Ed Norton and Colin Farrell in Pride and Glory. Give this man a starring role already.

1. Christopher McDonald- When the job description calls for "sleaze" McDonald is the go-to guy which can be both a blessing and a curse. Casting directors seem reluctant to give him the opportunity to stretch beyond that even though there's very little doubt he could. Sure, you know him best as Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore but he never gets credit for how much range he shows in what on paper seem to be the slightest parts. Watch him as the slimy infomercial host in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream or listen to his work in 1999's animated The Iron Giant.

Has also appeared in Quiz Show, The Rich Man's Wife, The Faculty, Nurse Betty, Broken Flowers, Rumor Has It, The Sopranos, Awake, Mad Money, Superhero Movie and The House Bunny. The list is never ending and more than a few of those films are terrible, which is exactly the point. No one has been as prolific, contributed so much to material far below him and has gotten as little credit. Like most character actors he's had to appear in a lot of garbage where he was literally the only good thing in it. I'm all for paying your dues (and the bills) but enough is enough already. This guy's proven time and again he's way too talented to be appearing in any junk. Here's hoping even at age 54 that he lands that big starring role because no one can say he hasn't earned it.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Director: Pierre Morel
Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Jansenn, Olivier Rabourdin, Holly Valance, Xander Berkeley
Running Time: 93 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It's been a while since I've seen commercial spots for a film as effective as those for the action thriller Taken. Essentially a full-length trailer, it laid all its cards out on the table by showing the entire pivotal kidnap scene and dared you not to see how it all turns out. It was a brilliant strategy that paid off as audiences flocked to the theater making it a rare successful February release at the time of year when garbage is routinely dumped into multiplexes. The only drawback to this strategy was the scene they chose to show was so exciting, well-acted and well-written that there was a great chance that the rest of it wouldn't be able to measure up. Now after finally seeing it I can say that it does and it doesn't. It has some issues that have been generously (but understandably) overlooked by many.

Maybe we've gotten so used to crap being being released at this time of year that when we're given the slightest glimpse of an intelligent action vehicle we wet our pants with excitement. There's some truth in that but the more probable explanation is that Taken as a perfect example of how a gifted dramatic actor can make B-movie potboiler material appear to be more than what it is. There is some sharp writing and incredibly choreographed fight scenes but the real reason for the film's sucess is the powerhouse performance of Liam Neeson. It's amazing how someone of his caliber can lift what would have otherwise been just a generic thriller. And who could have guessed he had this role in him?

Ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills (Neeson) is enjoying his recent retirement until he's coaxed back into action by his old buddies to handle security for a pop star (Holly Valance). He ends up saving her life, proving he's still got what it takes, which is good news because soon he's really gonna need it. Desperately trying to reconnect with his 17 year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) he eventually gives in to his nasty ex-wife Lenore's (Famke Janssen) nagging and reluctantly signs the permission slip for her to go with her best friend (Katie Cassidy) to Paris for a couple of weeks. As someone who's seen his fair share of evil in the world he knows traveling abroad is dangerous for a 17 year-old girl, especially one who acts like she's 8, dresses like she's 12, and gets a pony for her birthday. He wants her to call him immediately upon her arrival and of course within the first few minutes of her stay in the hotel she's abducted by a group of evil Arabs running a sex trafficking ring. This leads to that electrifying aforementioned scene in which Mills calmly and rationally states his intentions for the kidnappers if they continue along this path. With the window for finding her closing by the second he heads into a seedy Albanian underworld to find Kim and kill those responsible for her abduction.

It's a relief to finally see a thriller that actually makes some logical decisions and features a protagonist who uses his intellect as well as his brawn to eliminate his adversaries. From the first moment Mills discovers what's happened he lays out his plan and executes it step by step systematically destroying everyone in his path without hesitation and predicting every possible outcome. He's Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, MacGyver and James Bond all rolled into one. Helping is that script tells us very little about him other than that he worked for the CIA, a fact not even his family is privy to. This prevents us from questioning too much how this guy can do everything he does so when the film does stretch credibility to its breaking point we buy it.

The screenplay was co-written (along with Mark Kamen) by Luc Besson, best known for introducing the world to Natalie Portman in The Professional and directing the underrated sci-fi fantasy The Fifth Element. He has a knack for crafting fun films with just enough intelligence to not make you feel too guilty about enjoying yourself. It's trash done well and director Pierre Morel does about as good a job as possible staging the fight scenes in a believable enough way that we're on the edge of our seats, although I have no clue how this got away with a PG-13 rating. If there's an aspect where the movie fails miserably it's in its depiction of the family dynamic or making us care about whether this girl is actually found. Neeson's intensity makes up for a great deal of that but not everything.

Even though the role thankfully isn't large, Maggie Grace's performance is dreadful in every possible way, bordering on Razzie worthy. I was warned going in it would be bad and boy was it. Though undeniably easy on the eyes, she's too old for the role and someone made the really bad call having her act even YOUNGER to overcompensate. Grace fared fine with a more mature, age appropriate role on the first season of Lost so this feels like a giant step back. She giggles like a little school girl, cries "daddy!" and even kicks her feet up and flails her arms while she runs. If I didn't know better I'd think by the way she was playing her that the character had a developmental disability.

Whether this was a concious decision by the writers or director to stress Kim's "innocence" or improvisation on Grace's part I have no idea but either way it's an embarrassment because teenagers just don't act this way. It's especially surprising considering the script's attention to detail involving everything else related to the kidnapping. On the plus side, the performance does make it more beleivable that a girl like this wouldn't last a second overseas and turns him into the "father of the year" for having serious concerns about her going despite the approval of Janssen's one-dimensional bitch character.

None of those details should even matter though because Neeson provides all the credibility this movie needs. At 56 years-old he's every bit as believable as an action hero as either Christian Bale or Matt Damon and brings a sense of legitimacy to even the most ridiculous of circumstances. He delivers a line to his ex-wife's new husband (Xander Berkeley) that plays just right with the perfect infusion of sarcastic humor that suggests he knows exactly the type of movie he's in.

We always knew Neeson was great, but sometimes you need to see an actor slum it in B-level material to find out just how much they can do. It either drags them down (like it so often does Nicolas Cage) or they rise to the occasion unexpectedly and everything else around them improves because of it. Neeson definitely fits into the latter category. He's the reason to see this. Supposedly, there's a sequel in the works which makes sense because there are a lot of different directions Neeson could go with the Mills character considering we still know very little about what makes him tick. But for now, at a time of year where most films released are disposable, it's a nice surprise to be rewarded with a semi-intelligent thriller that knows how to have fun.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Body of Lies

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Golshifteh Farahani, Vince Colosimo, Mark Strong

Running Time: 128 min.

Rating: R

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

The worst offense committed by the political espionage thriller Body of Lies is that it fails to bring anything new to an already tired and uninspired genre. In a first, I actually found myself somewhat disappointed that the film wasn't worse or it didn't fail in a more interesting way. Given that it's directed by Ridley Scott and co-stars thespian heavyweights Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio it shouldn't be a surprise that despite a thin story it still just barely misses the mark. What is kind of surprising is how run-of-the-mill it is. Although, given its uninspired Lifetime TV movie of the week title and embarrassing promotional artwork, that may not be surprising either. It's more likely to call to mind a Direct-To-DVD clunker from the '90's starring Sean Young or Richard Grieco than the latest effort from an Academy Award winning filmmaker.

Marketing notwithstanding, this was basically destined to be a technically proficient effort featuring a pair of good performances and nothing more. And that's exactly what it is. It won't be remembered as a career highlight for anyone involved, but thanks to some exciting action sequences and impressive location shooting it isn't a complete wash. Just thank Scott for at least not shoving a political agenda down our throats and just telling the story, as uninvolving as it may be.

The plot is somewhat complicated, though not really when you think about it...or don't. DiCaprio is cocky C.I.A. field agent Roger Ferris, sent to the Middle East to take out a deadly al-Queda like terrorist organization led by Osama Bin Laden wannabe Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul). He's aided via headset and high tech survailence in this mission by his boss back in the states, Ed Hofffman (Crowe in gray-haired, paunchy Insider mode). He keeps track of him by satellite in between attending his children's soccer games. They make an uneasy bedfellow in the head of Jordan's Intelligence Agency, Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) as Ferris's emerging romantic relationship with a pretty local nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) threatens the entire operation.

There's a lot of ideas and action jammed into writer William Monahan's (The Departed) script and surprisingly more than enough to justify the film's over 2 hour running time. It's never boring since Scott is the kind of director who knows how to make things crackle visually, but the problem is I just didn't care about anything that happened or who it happened to and every plot point seemed well mapped out in advance. There's some intrigue involving the motives of the Jordanian intelligence officer and some resonating cultural observations involving the nurse's relationship with Ferris, but other than that we're just waiting for the clock to run out.

Luckily, we're left waiting with DiCaprio and Crowe, actors incapable of giving bad performances in anything. That said, this won't go down as either's strongest work. Especially DiCaprio, who seems to be delivering a less potent version of his Oscar nominated role in Blood Diamond while distractingly slipping in and out of a southern drawl. Crowe fares better except the part seems underwritten and almost inconsequential at times. He's good, but it could have been played by just about anyone as effectively. The two don't share screen time for most of the first hour but when they do finally square off it can't help but feel like a letdown considering how pedestrian the rest of the picture is.

We're also in the hands of a director who knows how to keep it moving at a brisk pace and stage exciting action sequences. There's an authenticity to the film that wouldn't be there if a less talented lensman were at the helm. While sharing the same relentless style as Scott's Black Hawk Down it doesn't contain nearly as much substance, but at least he does a good enough job hiding it while Monahan's script is thankfully lacking in the preachy ulterior motives that sunk last year's embarrassing trifecta of Rendition, Stop-Loss and Lions for Lambs.

This doesn't pretend to be any more than what it is and as a result it isn't. Ridley Scott is too talented a director to be wasting his time on projects that should go to his brother Tony. This may as well be called Enemy of the State 2. Coming up for Scott is his cinematic interpretation of the board game Monopoly and it speaks pathetic volumes that during this my thoughts turned to it as the potentially more intriguing project. At least its different and if a crazy idea like that fails it'll at least do so memorably. It's disconcerting to consider that Hollywood has run dry of ideas but after watching something like Body of Lies I start to worry if it's a real possibility.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rachel Getting Married

Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Annne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Ana Deavere Smith, Tunde Adebimpe, Debra Winger
Runnning Time: 114 min.
Rating: R

★ 1/2 (out of ★)

Rachel Getting Married
is a film full of painfully real moments, to the point where it's almost suffocating you with them. It isn't easy to watch and many times during it I was unsure if it was worth the effort of doing so. By the end I was as exhausted as its characters and wondered why I even spent my my time absorbing a situation this full of unhappiness and conflict. Let's face it, watching characters emotionally victimize one another and throw tantrums for two hours isn't anyone's idea of a great late night rental.

About ten minutes after the credits rolled I realized it was all worth it. I appreciated the film because it accomplished something that so few are able to anymore, and did it despite the fact that the situation depicted is fairly typical. It got me to care and made me invested in what happens to these people who, for a change, do actually feel and act like real people rather than scripted facsimiles of them. It stayed with me longer than I thought it would, probably because I felt as if I was really there. It just takes you in.

Director Jonathan Demme abandons his unusual mainstream bent to make us uninvited guests during a very uncomfortable day and everything that works seems to come from an acute knowledge of how people sometimes can't stop themselves from hurting each other. That isn't news and far from a groundbreaking revelation. But it comes from a real place and is told in an uncompromising, unflinching way, which is more than you can say for most other character driven dramas released by these days.

The film's title and topic may invoke memories of last year's Margot at the Wedding starred Nicole Kidman as the older sister who returns the weekend of her sister's wedding to wreck havoc. That movie's title character was a monster who seemed to take glee in destroying everyone's lives. This more complicated. And it isn't about the title character, Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt), but her younger sister Kym (Anne Hathway), fresh out of rehab for the ceremony and nine months sober. Unfortunately for overprotective (and extremely tolerant) father Paul (Bill Irwin) and step-mother Carol (Anna Deavere Smith) she's determined to complete the "make amends" stage of her 12 step program and plans to do it as publicly as possible, making things very difficult for her sister and groom-to-be Sidney (T.V. on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe).

Kym, self-centered to her core and feeling like an outsider in her own home, lashes out when she learns Rachel has chosen her best friend Emma (Anisa George) instead of her as maid of honor. She starts by sleeping with the best man Kiernan (Mather Zickel), then works her way up to a horrifying toast as things just get even worse from there. It's the reappearance of her estranged mother Abby (Debra Winger in a comeback of sorts) that really sends Kym off the deep end and brings to the forefront the real reason no one in the family can tolerate her. Let's just say by the end of the film your opinion of her may be significantly different than when it began...or it may not be.

Because this seems to be on the surface an ordinary story told in an ordinary way it's up to the script and performances to lift the material to another level, and do they ever. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet (Sidney's daughter) refuses to round off any of these characters' rough edges, which can make for some uncomfortable viewing but the film is more truthful and brutally honest because of it. Many have complained everyone in the film is "unlikable" which falsely operates under the assumption that we should only see movies featuring characters we love spending time with. Sure it would be nice but along that train of thought it would also be nice if we all got along perfectly with all of our family members.

These are difficult characters but I didn't hate them, not even the one character everyone seems to. Hathaway's performance as Kym is everything you've heard it is and more, conveying an entire movie's worth of emotions in single scenes and investing her with a sarcastic, self-deprecating edge that gets under your skin. For me it's the most layered portrayal of any of the Best Actress nominees, an impressive designation considering that as far as we know Kym can read, isn't a child molester and never once served as a Nazi guard. She has her own demons, but the big difference is that I actually felt sympathy for Kym even though Hathaway's performance never suggests that she wants it. Unfairly snubbed during most of the awards season and in the shadow of her co-star's breakthrough, DeWitt gives it out as well as she takes it in an almost equally important role.

Kym's a selfish horror but the nuance in Lumet's script lies in why. Her mother is absent, her father is a great guy but so wishy-washy he can't take a stand on anything and even though Rachel's celebrating the happiest moment of her life she's still worried her troubled little sis will steal the spotlight. Her family isn't free of blame, yet they can't possibly be held responsible either. Kym enters the house prepared for battle and everyone is ready to give her one except for Paul who desperately wants to ignore an issue that can't be ignored anymore.

There's that legendary rule that it doesn't matter what a movie's about, but how. Rachel Getting Married seems to break that rule because not only is what its about something we've seen before in dozens of other independent films, but how its told doesn't exactly re-invent the wheel either. Demme uses the hand-held shaky-cam to invest the proceedings the same claustrophobic quasi-documentary realism Darren Aronofsky used in The Wrestler. When the characters move, we move with them and we're right in their face but here it's much more jarring than in that film and if you're easily prone to nausea you'll be running for the bathroom. Cloverfield is probably a more apt comparison.

Would the film have worked just as well without it? Probably, but I can't say it's a distraction and this method does work well in a story where we're tracking many supporting characters Altman-style. Some of them have larger roles than others but because of Demme's method you're always aware that they're there. The best example is the uncomfortable toast scene, which seems to go on forever, but in the best way. We see everyone's reaction and hear what they have to say even though we're not introduced to many of them. It really does feel like you've just been dropped in on this. And what a relief it is to finally see a movie that doesn't needlessly turn race into an issue or feature writing that congratulates itself for celebrating diversity. It shouldn't be considered noteworthy at all if a white woman marries a black man and this is the rarest of films that actually understands most families would only care if the couple is happy and just want the best for them. Think of how badly another writer less in touch with reality would have screwed that up.

After helming a pair of recent interesting remake flops in The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate it's obvious that Demme is relishing telling a smaller, more intimate story, though not necessarily an accessible one. He's commented in interviews that this is the film he's always wanted to make, and it shows. It there's one flaw it's that he seems to be enjoying it a little too much, overstaying his welcome a bit in the third act. When you have characters this interesting the temptation to just keep shooting and give them more room to breath is probably too great to ignore.

Demme keeps going and the actual finale loses a little bit of steam because of it but he's forgiven. Especially when he gives us a musical moment during the ceremony that's not only unexpected, but memorable. What should come off as syrupy instead in surprisingly genuine and I didn't doubt for a second this character would do what he did. Without spoiling too much, it's one of those cases where just the right song is used perfectly at just the right moment in a film and you have trouble hearing it exactly the same way again after that. Once the actual wedding occurs there aren't many places left to go, but I appreciate that Lumet's script refused to take the easy way out with a pat resolution.

This isn't an easy picture to get into and it's no mystery that the Academy didn't embrace it as whole heartedly as many felt they should have. Rachel Getting Married requires some effort and patience on the part of the viewer to fully get behind, but if you surrender to its prickly charms you'll find yourself far better off for having experienced it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

Director: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Tom Noonan
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Leave it up to Charlie Kaufman to craft a film so bizarre and insane that it makes the idea of entering a portal into John Malkovich's brain seem completely reasonable in comparison. Who would have ever guessed the screenwriter behind such mindbenders as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation was being held back by not directing his own scripts? Here, making his directorial debut, the shackles have been cut loose and with no one there to filter his vision he goes off the deep end. "Self Indulgent" isn't even the term here. Synecdoche (pronounced Syn-ECK-duh-kee), New York is the ultimate in masturbatory filmmaking excess that will confound, confuse and frustrate everyone.

The film is bi-polar, schizophrenic, has multiple personality disorder and suffers from hypocondria. Kaufman just doesn't swing for the fences, he runs out onto the field and tries to jump over them. It's difficult to reconcile that this is actually a directorial debut as not many filmmakers are brave enough to have their first feature draw on influences like Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I talk not of the quality of the film but the level of ambition and what's scariest is the possibility that Kaufman is really serious here. When it ended I knew there was no way I could assign it a star rating. What does it all mean? Does it mean anything? Does it even matter? I had had no idea what I'd just seen. It would need AT LEAST another 3 or 4 viewings to put it in perspective, if that's even possible. You watch it the first time just to say you did. This is challenging with a capital "C," pushing viewer tolerance to the absolute breaking point.

I've stayed in Schenectady, New York (once) and I've performed in a play (once). One was a creatively fulfilling experience while the other was not. I'll let you take a guess as to which. But neither of those experiences were as memorable or maddeningly frustrating as watching Kaufman's film, or more accurately, his experimental work of art. Forgive me if this doesn't read like a standard review because there will come a point where all my thoughts will just turn to mush, much like they did about an hour into the movie.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard a depressed local theater director in Schenectady who's producing an updated version of Death of a Salesman in which he's come up with the novel idea of casting young actors in the roles of Willy and Linda Loman. The idea being that they play the roles with the fearful knowledge they someday will be old. At the same time Caden begins to come to down with a series of bizarre physical ailments that convince him he's dying even though no doctor seems able to diagnose him with anything.

A rift grows between him and his painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) who views her husband as a massive failure and soon absconds to Germany with their young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). This leaves Caden even more alone and chronically depressed than usual, seeking comfort in both the arms of box office employee Hazel (Samantha Morton) and his miscast leading lady Claire (Michelle Williams). Very little life guidance is provided by his therapist (Hope Davis in a hilarious cameo) who's much more interested in hawking her latest self-help book and showing some leg than providing him with any insight.

"Oh, this isn't that crazy at all," could easily sum up my reaction to the film's first 50 minutes. As far as Kaufman penned projects go, it almost seemed downright tame, somewhat slow building and meandering at points. There are some strange clues that weird things could go down but aside from that it plays pretty much like your standard dysfunctional relationship movie featuring a typical self-loathing protagonist. That's until Caden receives a genius grant giving him the wealth to pursue his passion project as a director--a play based on his life. He gathers his ensemble cast into a huge warehouse in Manhattan where he creates a replica of the city inside. Everything after that may as well be a blur as the film disappears down the rabbit hole.

Notions of time and space are played with as months seem to pass by in the span of a week for Caden. His daughter is grown. Lovers leave. Lovers come back. He becomes an old man as Hoffman dons prosthetic makeup but unlike The Curious Case of Benjamin Button its nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly when that happens in the timeline for Caden in the story or for us watching the film. Time just doesn't exist in Kaufman's world. There's just life and death. What's in between is only a blip on the universe's radar screen (recalling the closing hotel room sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only stretched out longer).

The play, an outlet for Caden's neuroses, is complicated with the appearance of Sammy (Tom Noonan), the actor who lands the part of Caden after confessing he's been following him for the past 20 years preparing for the role. Sammy has an affair with Hazel as the real Caden embarks on one with the actress playing her (a very naked Emily Watson). It becomes nearly impossible to distinguish between the play and reality and Caden is directing a man who's playing him directing the play that's he's directing about his life. We haven't a clue what's happening to Caden or what will become of him. Is he dreaming? Is this the final moment before his death? Is he already dead?

Watching, you might be reminded of more films that have explored similar themes of mortality, human existence, forgiveness, love and regret, and in very unconventional ways. But none like this. My mind immediately turned, in either method or execution, to pictures like Vanilla Sky, Magnolia, Adaptation, Stranger Than Fiction and I Heart Huckabees.  Just like Nicolas Cage's Kaufman doppelganger in Adaptation, Caden seems to represent the filmmakers' perception of himself and his failures. It shares its dark humor with Huckabees, as well a similarly whimsical John Brion score, but like Nicolas Cage's Kaufman doppelganger in Adaptation, Caden seems to represent the filmmakers' perception of himself and his failures.  This introduces an intriguing question. Can you criticize Kaufman for self-indulgence when the film is ABOUT a director's self-indulgence and how it destroys him?

Hoffman has built an entire career out of playing self-loathing losers but here he plunges new depths in what's easily the least mainstream project his name has ever been attached to and one of his most challenging, rewarding roles. He lifts patheticness to an art form while all three actresses are on equal ground in terms of what they bring to the film. While I may be unclear on other issues it's hard to name three supporting actress performances in 2008 that could rival Keener, Morton or Williams'. It's rare to see three female supporting roles of this size and importance contained within a single film. They're the driving engine. Remove one of them and you'd have no film as each represents something very different for Caden, serving as a reflection of his own shortcomings. Keener's Adele is gifted at painting miniature pictures so what better way for him to get back at her then to undertake a project as big as possible?

Despite its self knowing tone and moments of genuine humor this is a very, very bleak film. Just the last word of dialogue spoken in it is proof enough of that. But as full of despair as it is it's also bursting with beauty and can be viewed as a love letter to creativity and a kick in the ass to the starving artist who dares to dream big. By its conclusion you're not so sure that this story was really just about Caden or that Kaufman made it just to entertain himself. If he did, he definitely went hard on himself. The deeper possibility exists that this film was ours, representing what we do with the limited time we have and how we place people in our lives in the parts we want them to play.

Though this runs 124 minutes it feels much longer probably because it's so gigantic in scope and ideas. When the final credits rolled I was unsure whether I wanted to hug Kaufman or strangle him. He made something that's just SO inaccessible and difficult to follow, but boy does he have balls for filming it. Like Richard Kelly last year he's gotten away with murder and it's a miracle any studio released this. He can take his place alongside Kelly, Tarantino and Luhrmann in the self-indulgence hall of fame.

The irony of it all is that this sticks out like a sore thumb in a year that saw very few filmmakers take any big risks and the output was disappointingly mainstreamed. There's always the dangerous tendency to overpraise a film for being different and original without thinking first whether it's just over-the-top eccentricity masquerading as art. Similarly, nothing should ever be casually dismissed on the grounds of weirdness or overambition. I was forewarned by many going in that this would be "my kind of movie." They were right. Subsequent viewings are necessary to unravel its mysteries. Kaufman has given us something we've never seen before and it better settle in because it'll be staying for a while.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Announcement: Top 10 Films of '08 Coming Soon

Nope, I haven't forgotten. The finish line is in sight. What I'm referring to is my list of the The Top 10 Films of 2008. As many already know, since I don't catch most theatrical releases until they hit DVD, I had to sit on the sidelines while everyone else revealed their choices for the best films of the year. Last year I came up with the idea that instead of giving you a half-ass attempt at a list in December or January it would be better to wait a few months until I've seen literally EVERYTHING. That way I could give you a list that's COMPLETE and FINAL. It seemed to work well the first time around so I'm doing it again this year.

Ironically, in '08 I saw just as many films as in '07 and much more than usual in the theater yet I'm still very behind in terms of what's left. If it were a banner year (and let's be honest, it wasn't) I wouldn't mind dragging this out longer but I desperately just want to put '08 to bed already and move on. And I'm fully aware the longer I wait the less interested everyone will be when it finally goes up so I'm trying my best to really knock off remaining unseen titles that could possibly be in contention for a top 10 spot. Unfortunately the drawback to that is there isn't enough time in the day to see AND review everything so it's possible if any of those films should make the list that will be the first and only time you read my thoughts on them. Besides, if I have to review any more highbrow Oscar fare at this point I think may jump off a bridge. But if I feel compelled to share my thoughts on any of them believe me I will. Those remaining films are:

Rachel Getting Married
Revolutionary Road
Changeling (ugh)
Gran Torino
Synecdoche, New York
Man On Wire
Let The Right One In

It's possible none of those films even make the list but hopefully they're all good enough that at least it won't be a waste of my time watching them. Or there's always that possibility that one of those is number one, though looking above I'd wager it's unlikely. I do have my front runners already (many of which will receive second viewings), but in an underwhelming year like this the battle for the top spot is more wide open than usual. And it'll be interesting to see how the winner holds up against my unconventional choice last year, a film I absolutely loved with everything in me. I'd expect the list to appear sometime in April. There will a clear-cut winner and don't expect any ties. Also, look for it to be done in a slightly different way this year, reflecting the mixed bag that was '08. It won't be a paragraph of me just gushing about and praising each film.

So now the speculation begins....what will be crowned #1?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Director: Kevin Smith
Starring: Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Jason Mewes, Craig Robinson, Traci Lords, Katie Morgan, Brandon Routh, Justin Long

Running Time: 101 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

So, I’m sitting there watching Zack and Miri Make a Porno and laughing a lot, like I do most Kevin Smith films, until I realized about 40 minutes in, “Oh, it’s about THAT.” I kind of suspected the direction it was going but didn’t think he had a chance at pulling it off. Smith cranks out so many smart comedies that I’m starting to think that maybe we’ve taken for granted just how good he is. When he’s given good actors he’s even better and someone should start a petition to have Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks (who both had one hell of an ’08) to star in every studio comedy, as if they aren’t already.

With the casting of Rogen, Smith bravely opens himself up to criticism that he’s trying to tap into the Judd Apatow brand of comedy and steal a slice of his box office, but what can’t go overlooked is that he was writing and directing Apatow films long before Apatow was. He invented the R-rated raunchy comedy with heart and it’s ironic, given the subject matter and the battle he waged to have it released, that Zack and Miri feels like his most mainstream picture.

The best news is it’ll at least go down as a creative success even if it didn’t hit the commercial pay dirt it deserved. The reason it works is because it is a Smith movie through and through and he does one of his most interesting jobs slyly covering that up. It settles into a more standard, predictable rom-com groove in the final act but Smith even pulls that off pretty well. Thanks to his writing and awesome performances from the two leads, it’s a great time and delivers everything we’ve come to expect from his pictures. Just about the only difference is that its set in Pennsylvania instead of Jersey.

Lifelong platonic best friends and roomates Zack Brown (Rogen) and Miriam “Miri” Linky (Banks) are broke, unable to make rent and suffering without water or electricity. Unless they think of a plan soon they’ll be out on the street since Zack’s job as a barista at a Starbucks-like chain isn’t getting it done. After an awkward and hilarious encounter at their high school reunion with Miri’s longtime crush, Bobby Long (Brandon Routh!?) and his gay porn actor boyfriend Brandon St. Randy (a hilarious Justin Long) Zack gets the crazy idea to film and distribute a porno to pull them out of debt. He calls on favors from some of his friends to help get it done, which ends up being a bizarre combination of veteran Smith and Apatow players as well as some real life porn stars thrown in for authenticity.

Pineapple Express’ Craig Robinson is Zack’s coffee shop co-worker, henpecked at home by his wife and misinterpreting a customer’s order for their coffee “black” as a racial slur. As “producer” of this endeavor he has the tough job of auditioning women for the roles while Zack enlists his hockey buddy (Clerks’ Jeff Anderson) to film it. They hire their actresses (adult film stars Traci Lords and Katie Morgan) and find a nutjob (Jason Mewes) with a special talent as one of the male leads. Full of Smith’s trademark vulgar humor throughout, the film takes a more earnest turn later on.

Of Smith’s films, this is probably his most mature, technically put together effort thus far and a sign that he tried to step out of his comfort zone just a little despite the material he was dealing with. What works best is the fact that you really believe that Zack and Miri were best friends their entire lives. So much so that the idea of a prequel exploring their misadventures in high school wouldn’t seem like such a bad idea after witnessing the hilarious reunion scenes. The gross-out, vulgar humor you typically expect from Smith is on full display for much of the running time and even though I expected this to be more than about just making a porno I was kind of surprised just how much more there was besides that and how well it was executed. In a rather believable way making a porno brings something out of Zack and Miri that they weren’t aware they had and forces them to view each other in a different light.

Many viewers had problems buying Seth Rogen “knocking up” Katherine Heigl. With enough drinks anything is possible but where I started to have problems with credibility was when the two actually attempted to a have a real relationship. It’s hard to root for characters who not only can’t stand one another, but try to make things work only out of a sense of obligation. That movie lost me right about there. Thankfully this one doesn’t make similar mistakes and by starting Zack and Miri off as friends Rogen and Banks are able to cultivate an easygoing chemistry together that makes what comes later much more believable and rewarding.

None of this would click like it does if Banks wasn’t the female lead since we know Rogen is an old pro at playing this type of slacker role. She really had to deliver the goods to convince us that Miri could fall for someone who besides being a schlubby loser, is stuck in the “best friend” zone. But she pulls it off and so easily keeps up with the vulgar humor of the guys that we’d also believe that Zack would have problems seeing her as more than a friend. This role was originally written for Clerks 2’s Rosario Dawson who dropped out so she could star in…Eagle Eye. The less said about that choice the better. As awesome as Dawson is it’s tough to imagine her bringing anything to the table that Banks didn’t.

Also credit Smith as a writer for noticing that a meaningful relationship would translate to terrible porn. It may be the only kind of acting that requires a complete absence of real feelings to be most effective. People watch porn to seeing two people going at it like animals, not making love. As much as Zack and Miri try to leave their lifelong friendship at the door and attempt to convince each other this won’t change anything, it’s a lost cause. That detail is what I liked most about the film and in many ways represents the humanity that’s prevalent in all of Smith’s work. It’s also a real treat to see his usual View Askewniverse players like Mewes and Anderson in roles other than Jay and Randall for a change.

No, it isn’t Shakespeare, but it does take talent to mine real feelings out of a subject matter this crude and shallow. With all his commercial success, Apatow’s creative expertise in this area of comic pathos has been mixed. Smith’s never was. Zack and Miri curiously doesn’t amount to all that much when it’s over, but that's okay. It goes down like a quick, fast food meal that has you hungry again within an hour. That could be because of the rushed (and somewhat forced) false crisis that occurs in the third act that’s become a trademark of every romantic comedy for the past twenty years. It feels somewhat fresher in Smith’s capable hands but still holds back a writer/director who I don’t believe for a second has given us his best film yet. It’s no Clerks or especially Clerks 2, but what is? And none of it is funnier than Smith’s own performance as Rick Rubin (or whoever that was) in Southland Tales, but again, how can anything be? Even when he’s essentially making a standard rom-com with vulgar wrapping around it he still outmatches most of the comedies we have out there.

It’s a shame Smith had to fight a battle to get this released under its proper title, edit it tirelessly to avoid the dreaded NC-17 designation, just to see it flop because the studio wouldn’t back it. I’m convinced if this were the late ‘90’s this film would get a massive release and a huge promotional push. When did we get so uptight? And yet again, the MPAA proves that they seem to have no problems showing graphic violence and torture just so long as no one’s having sex during it. After the burnout of Oscar season this was just the kind of movie I felt like seeing right now and a healthy reminder that we see movies primarily just to be entertained. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it really is. And Smith has always been one of the few filmmakers consistently able to give it to us with no strings attached.