Saturday, December 5, 2009

Melinda and Melinda (2004)

The fundamental problem here is that the film is not true to it's own premise. The movie does not tell the same story, once as a comedy and once as a drama. Instead, it tells 2 different stories, whose only real similarity is that Radha Mitchell appears in both, playing a character named "Melinda."

Neither story is especially comedic -- save for one amusing scene involving Will Ferrell and a door jamb. Neither story is dramatic. You could say that the drama's attempt at tragedy is comically weak. That's as much genre analysis as the flick inspires.

What you have here is two short films, both only modestly compelling. That's a shame because the premise: that the only difference between comedy and drama, humor and pain, is perspective -- is an intriguing and true one.

It would have been quite an achievement to use dialogue, acting and exaggeration, to highlight the similarities between satire and sincerity. I would have loved seeing identical plots take different paths. Instead, we got two storylines on separate tracks, that converged only superficially.

Neither story plumbs the characters or their relationships deeply enough to unearth any discoveries about human nature. Infidelity is a theme, but it means little, impacting the plot but not the people. Adultery doesn't hurt. It doesn't anger. It just exists. At one point, Will Ferrell's Hobie declares that he's in love with Melinda, but we don't know her well enough to understand why he would be. She showed up at his apartment one night fresh from a drug overdose. She stayed for his party and if anything moving happened between her suicide attempt and his hor dourves, it happened off screen.

The tale of two Melindas shortchanges each of them. We switch back from one story, just in time to prevent the other from achieving any substance. If the device of showing comedy and tragedy as sides of the same coin had succeeded, then maybe the story itself would not have mattered. But once that experiment failed, its remaining components were insufficient to sustain a movie, let alone two of them.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Michael Clayton (2007)

Well, I wasn't bored. Clooney and Swinton were great. But the plot didn't have much tension. The details were deliberately murky for the first 25 minutes, which resulted in inherent suspense, because it was unclear who everyone was. Once that was straightened out and you could recognize the lawyer, client and indian chief, it was fairly predictable. You'll find more surprises in a half hour of Damages.

In the opening minutes, we saw Clooney's Clayton walking to his car, fresh from a round of illegal gambling, weary against the dark night, alone. When he reached for the door handle, I was afraid the car would explode. One sensed that there was danger lurking, even when you couldn't see it. Yet, when actual assasins were unveiled in that same scene later, there was little menace at all. Funny how when the moment rolls around again, it's anticlimatic, not mysterious. The repeat wasn't needed to explain anything. It only served to show how uncomplicated the plot all was from the start. A jigsaw puzzle whose pieces only seemed scrambled from a distance. Film noir exposed to the light of day.

I did leave with questions: what made Michael stop to look at the horses in the first place? Why were those 3, unbridled horses standing out in an open field right off of the highway? Why in the famous confrontation scene with Karen does Michael say he sold Arthur out for $80,000? He never betrayed Arthur. Even if he could have done it legally, I doubt that he would have committed the man -- who seriously needed mental help anyway. Clayton wouldn't have been selling him out, so much as saving him.

When we met Michael, he was telling an angry client that he couldn't get away with a hit-and-run. Michael's integrity was never questioned in the viewer's mind. The fact that it was in his only served as testament to, well, his integrity.

Yes, he was in debt (protecting his brother), but there was no suggestion that he was going to sacrifice Arthur, or even compromise his own values, to pay off that debt. When he told Marty he was not demanding $80,000 in exchange for resolving the problem with Arthur, it was the truth.

Things started off slick, but in the end we learned that Michael was a great guy, with problems more human than gripping.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ghost Town (2008)

If you watched the last episode of The Office, where David Brent desperately wants to impress what turns out to be a promising blind date or were touched when Andy expressed gentleness towards Maggie in Extras, then perhaps you've longed to see Ricky Gervais as a romantic lead. Well, Ghost Town grants your wish.

Here, Gervais plays an anti-social dentist (Bertram Pincus) who briefly dies during a colonoscopy and, thereafter, finds he is able to talk to the dead. Since he's not enamored of the living, he abhors his new extra-sensory gift and runs from the ghosts who stalk him for assistance. One sharp and aggressive apparition, Frank, played by Greg Kinnear, threatens rather than pleads with Pincus to do his bidding.

Frank wants Pincus to ruin his wife's pending engagement, to a humorless philanthropist. Pincus begrudgingly undertakes the assignment and soon falls for Kinnear's wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) himself.

The first half of the movie is laden with strange and cynical wit, which Gervais handles with deft style and timing. He's especially good in a scene with the doctor who performed his colonoscopy, who is trying to avoid revealing that Pincus actually died during the procedure. No one exhibits charmless ego better than Gervais and he does so with an intelligence that justifies his condescending air. There is no actual reason to suffer fools gladly and when Pincus does not, he scores one for all of us who are too self-important to be bothered by mere mortals.

As Gwen and Pincus get to know one another, the dry wit and geek minded interests (paleontological gum disease) they share are refreshing. Gwen is a compassionate and attractive brainiac. If you want to know the way to her heart, think resin, not roses. Resin being the black goo used to preserve mummies! Pincus' nerdiness engages her intellect, An attraction based on common peccadilloes rather than passion is very realistic, yet not regularly explored in films.

Pincus and Gwen are most enjoyable when interracting on this offbeat level. Once things get mushy and both Pincus and Frank, plagued by conscious, begin rhapsodizing about their love for Gwen and how she deserves more than they can offer, the movie becomes trite and quite traditional.

To be fair, Gwen and Pincus don't exactly fall into each other's arms, but they might as well. Like Scrooge, Pincus decides to right the error of his ways and help the needy -- or dead, as the case may be and, when he has become "worthy" of her love, boy gets girl. Natch.

I think Gervais was well-used during the first part of the film. It played to his skills. However, the finale was a bit of let down, if for no other reason than that one senses that Ricky could have written it better, given half the quill. Gervais (and Merchant) fans who watched Tim Canterbury and Dawn Tinsley come together know just how satisfying a sharply-turned romance can be and can't help but think that Gwen and Pincus' fell short, in the end.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Proposal (2009)

I read a New York Times review of this movie before seeing it and now wonder if that reviewer and I saw the same film. The critic saw this as an updated version of the Taming of the Shrew, with Sandra Bullock's character (Margaret) learning to bow to her man. Not at all.

Margaret doesn't start off as a spirited woman who doesn't know her place. She's a heartless tyrant. Furthermore, she doesn't change because she is spanked (or otherwise humiliated) by Petruchio. She changes because she realized her callousness had the potential to hurt people and she wanted to avoid doing so. She wasn't "tamed" because she was an uppity female any more than Ebenezer Scrooge was henpecked into redemption by the ghost. She changed because she realized her own flaws, compounded by the ability to misuse her power over others, and wanted to correct them. This was more a movie about personal growth than sexual restriction.

It should be noted that although you could see the ending coming at you from a continent away, even rote is sometimes refreshing, especially in the hands of the entertaining Bullock and Reynolds.

Do they have chemistry? Who can say? They don't need it for most of the movie, where the very point is supposed to be their awkwardness together.

Margaret, conveniently Canadian, is a beastly boss who, shortly after telling the hard-working Andrew that he cannot take the weekend off to attend his Grandma's (Gammy's) 90th birthday, learns that she will be deported out of the United States for failing to update her visa status. Since Andrew is an American, she quickly announces to her superior that she will be marrying him, paving the way for her to remain in the country. Of course, she doesn't consult with Andrew about this decision and, when he protests, crisply points out that if she loses her job, he will promptly lose his.

Andrew agrees to the plan under duress, but not without finagling of his own, pressuring Margaret to give him an immediate promotion if he marries her. Under the watchful eye of a comically determined immigration officer, Margaret promises Andrew the raise.

As they compare personal statistics, the better to convince the immigration officer that they are a genuine couple, Margaret tells him that they will, of course, tell the INS that they live in her Central Park apartment. Why must they automatically live in his place, he asks, because his is probably a dump she snaps back. I think this statement is one of the first keys to Margaret's eventual change. She assumes that Andrew has been so conveniently tacked under her thumb for the last 3 years because he desperately needs his job and that he puts up with her 24/7 demands because to do otherwise would lead to his personal and professional ruin.

As part of the immigration ruse, the couple must tell Andrew's family about their impending nuptials. When they arrive at Andrew's home town in Sitka, Alaska, Margaret is shocked to discover that Andrew's family owns half of it. That twist reminds me more of Jane Austen's Darcy than Shakespeare's Petruchio. Cynically, I wonder if Andrew wouldn't be half as lovable, if he were half as wealthy.

Pivotally, though, Andrew's background is the first step in Margaret's change of view. It slowly dawns on her that Andrew wasn't working for her because he had no other choice. When he told her that he wanted to work his way up in publishing to print books that made a difference, she was unimpressed. She probably passed the statement off as the type of shallow gushing to be found on the resumes of every publishing ingenue aspiring to fame and fortune. But once Margaret is introduced into Andrew's spacious family digs and learns both of his parents want him to return to their monied home, albeit for different reasons, she knows that it wasn't financial concerns that kept him working (slaving) for her.

She learns that he was toiling his way up the publishing ladder for more lofty reasons -- because he really did want to make a difference. Further, she sees that he has a stereotypically overbearing father who scoffs at his career and a doting mother and grandmother who easily shower the kind of affection on their son (and his fiancee) that Margaret hasn't enjoyed since she was orphaned at the age of 16.

Finally, Margaret is aware that Andrew not only has other financial options, but romantic ones too. She knew that the Starbucks cashier had a thing for him (having written her number on a coffee cup that Andrew picked up for Margaret), but he also has a home town girl who's been missing him as well.

Margaret not only slowly begins to see Andrew as a person, rather than just an assistant, but she sees him as a person with a rich life. The kind she's been lacking.

Andrew, whose character is charming, but even less layered, doesn't tame Margaret. She evolves on her own and there's no big event that changes her, just exposure to a quirky family and a view of relationships she couldn't see from behind her business desk. If Margaret kowtows to anyone, it's not Andrew, but his grandmother (as when she politely asks if it's ok with the older woman, when Margaret leaves their wacky tribal dance to go into town). While I liked the metamorphosis, it wasn't entirely realistic. With very little stimulus, Margaret's icy facade melted away faster than anything ever has in Alaska.

Other than the proposal premise, the movie is not heavy on plot. It's basically just likable characters interspersed with a few truly, funny exchanges. For me, the verbal quips work better than the sight gags and slapstick.

The conclusion is entirely predictable -- unless you thought he was going to catch her plane on the runway. We were only teased with that particular cliche. The ending credits add finishing touches to the happy ending.

The movie was entertaining, if not outstanding. Certainly, it contains no put-her-in-her-place misoygyny, save for one dubious line where Margaret admits to weeping in the ladies' room after a subordinate calls her a "poisonous bitch." The New York Times used the movie as an excuse to revisit the popular plaint that this society labels a forceful man as strong, while a forceful woman's a "bitch." Work place Margaret isn't offensive because she's strong. It's because she's just obnoxious and her conduct (announcing to others that Andrew would be marrying her, before advising him) would be even less acceptable practiced by a man towards a woman, not more so.

Sure, when the lovers kiss as the movie fades to black, one spectating co-worker goads Andrew on, insisting that he "show her who's boss." But the audience is not left with the impression that Andrew has the upper hand. This woman hasn't learned to respect a man. Instead, like Scrooge, she's just learned to be human.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Knowing (2009)

For me, the most intriguing thing about Knowing was the similarity between the film's poster featuring Nicholas Cage in profile, against a red background, reminded me so much of the poster for the first X-Files movie: Fight the Future.

The similarities between the tv series and the sci fi movie didn't end there, but my interest in them did. With its lack of character depth, Knowing would have made a very poor episode of X-Files. The main players were more type than real.

The movie started well with a 50 year old flashback, remarkable for the way it showcased a teacher's alternate concern for and frustration with an intense and intensely troubled student, Lucinda. The movie could have used more of such relationship cementing moments.

After the flashback, we switch to present day and meet John, your stock alcoholic widower. Actually, it's unfair to call him an alcoholic. He drinks too much, but is a loving father, if absent-minded father, and an unjaded professor who himself is still learning, questioning, even as he teaches.

When we first see John's son, Caleb, he seems smarter than his years, but his keen intelligence and curiousity is soon discarded and he goes through the rest of the film with wide, wondrous eyes, which are ultimately vacant. He watches, but doesn't ask, is pulled along, rather than engaged. There's nothing special about him, so one leaves the theater wondering why he was one of the chosen two.

Yes, we ultimately learn that Caleb is the second coming of Adam, destined to rebuild and repopulate the world after it is destroyed.

The apocalyptic turn the movie takes is far less appealing than its more mundane -- and more suspenseful -- second leg, during which John connects the clues left in a time capsule by a school girl (Lucinda) fifty years earlier. Once he realizes that the girl's nonsensical writings were actually disaster predictions, he frantically tries to prevent the tragedies that have not yet unfolded, but he fails. Life is predetermined. Knowing your fate does not give you the power to change it. John resigns himself to this fact.

Before doing so, he hunts down Diana, the daughter of the girl who made the predictions decades ago. Diana wrote off Lucinda, now dead, as crazy and has been living in denial about the events her mother foretold until John's interpretation renders them to specific to ignore. Within hours, Diana and John are racing against time to protect themselves and their children (Caleb and Diana's daughter Abby) against the coming Doomsday.

The plot would have been more compelling, if it had remained less adventurous. Watching the tension mount as John unraveled Lucinda's coded musings then tried to avert the manmade accidents (subway and plane wrecks) she predicted drew me in, but once his cipherings disclosed that EVERYONE was fated to die, then aliens landed on to claim the planet's pre-selected refugees (Caleb and Abby), well . . . the aliens were alienating. Once it broached the otherworldly, the movie soon lost any sense of import or realism.

That is not to say that every movie about aliens and the world's end is inherently artificial. Fantasies regularly teach every day lessons and if characters are true to life, their problems don't need to be (which is a lesson Knowing should have learned from the X-Files). Thus, it's entirely possible for a "realistic" plot to take an otherworldly turn, without distancing the viewer. But Knowing's heroes were never that solid to begin with, so when they take off in flight (literally and figuratively) it's hard for us to travel with them.

When first seen, the aliens are threatening, but we soon perceive the unspoken bond they share with Abby and Caleb and realize that they have come in peace to safeguard Destiny's Children. When the world ends in flames and the aliens return Caleb and Abby to the barren, reborn earth, to start civilization all over again, one is just left wondering: why them? They aren't especially innocent, sharp or singular. We saw them visiting a museum once and they were both entranced by various exhibits, but is that all it takes? Was Noah chosen to survive the flood because he was a good, moral leader or because he really, really liked animals? If that was the only qualification you needed to colonize earth, then we should all be calling Jane Goodall "mama." Besides, to be honest, there's no real evidence that these kids love animals, exactly. They aren't pet owners. They're just Discovery Channel enthusiasts who can sprout statistics.

Unfortunately for Abby and Caleb, their knowledge will largely go to waste. They aren't gifted with an ark full of friends. The stingy aliens only give them a measly pair of rabbits with which to kick things off. I know bunnies procreate constantly, so Abby and Caleb will always have fur skins for warmth, but they're going to get tired of rabbit stew pretty quickly. I suppose watching the rabbits will teach the kids how to mate, but if Blue Lagoon taught me anything, it's that puberty helps you figure that kind of thing out on your own.

The movie just left me thinking that Abby and Caleb's kids will pretty much have to date each other (at least Adam and Eve's brood had women from Nod to hook up with) and I began musing about the hazards of incest, rather than reflecting on any of the flick's real messages, such as they were.

Mainly, I felt that, except for their knowledge of and love for animals, there was nothing about Abby and Caleb that made me think they would make great world parents. They were not sensitive, strong-minded or independent. To the extent that they remembered the technology that existed before the world was regenerated, I think it would be in their nature to try to recreate what had been lost, rather than to chart a new, unspoiled beginning.

As for the film's most innovative character, John, we last saw him bid Caleb a tearful farewell, before huddling in a parlour with his parents and sister, awaiting imminent destruction. At one point, realizing what was coming, his plan was to hide underground, where there would be the most protection from the burning scourge. He was going to seek safety in an underground cave or -- at the very least, a basement. His religious father disdained such an idea, insisting that when your time comes, you should not avoid it, but accept your inevitable fate. John apparently adopted his father's way of thinking.

I believe in God's Will, but I also think that He gave us free will for a reason. Doris Day sang che sara sara, while making the bed, while making her own bed.

That is, perpahs "What will be, will be," but why were we given the good sense to come in out of the rain, if we weren't supposed to exercise it now and then? We may all have a destiny that was determined before our birth, but that doesn't mean we aren't supposed to contribute to its fulfillment. Maybe something is only pre-determined, if you don't make the choice to help shape the determination.

I'm not saying that as one man John could have stopped the destruction of all mankind, or even have averted his own death. I'm just saying, it wouldn't have hurt him to descend a flight of steps and take shelter in the basement, just in case that might have made a difference. If the movie's viewpoint was that man had destroyed the environment and deserved the ending that he helped create, then John's final resignation would be understandable, but that was not the truth imparted. Rather, we were told that life and death happen no matter what you do, so don't bother trying to change the moments in between. The conclusion tells us that knowing isn't enough, when you can't do anything about it, but doesn't explain why we should accept that the inevitable has to be.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Waitress (2007)

The movie was charming, but full of moments, rather than movement.

In the lead role Keri Russell is luminescent, in a way that transcends her character Jenna's circumstances. Yes, Jenna is from a small town, but her sense of self-awareness is so keen that it's hard to imagine how she got where she is.

Apparently, Jenna's greatest evolution took place before we meet her. We learn almost immediately that she despises her husband, conveniently named Earl, as that moniker has become shorthand for "ignorant lowlife." Witness the NBC comedy My Name is Earl. Indeed, this particular Earl could also have been the title character in the Dixie Chicks' infamous dirge Goodbye Earl. Earl is demanding, dimwitted and self-centered on a good day and violent on occasion. In fact, the character vacillates between humorous and disturbing in a way that leaves the viewer teetering. So much of the movie seems to be fable that when Earl threatens Jenna in a very real way, it's hard to process. It's as if Goldilocks had suddenly been mauled by one of the three, whimsical bears.

We're introduced to Jenna at work, a dinerwhere she bakes delectable pies that express her emotion and possess magnetic appeal to the customers she serves. To partake of Jenna's pie is to dissect a slice of life that would otherwise elude one. While her customers and fellow waitresses realize this, Jenna's gruff boss is indifferent to her culinary skills and comports himself as a less oppressive version of Earl.

Jenna stands out in the small diner where she works, as someone wiser than her years, sharper than her peers. So much so that it doesn't seem realistic that she's there. Such cream would rise to the top. Even if born poor and hopeless, Jenna doesn't seem like the type of person who would remain that way.

Certainly, there are many high school girls who fall for the captain of the football team and marry him before discovering he is a lout, but Jenna doesn't seem like the type who would have been drawn to such a man in the first place, not even as a teen. Surely, she would have been dazzled by the nerd in wood shop class, the dreamy boy who painted, the lead in the school play, not Earl. She would have caught a teacher's eye and been chosen for a grant or apprenticeship. Perhaps, she would never have left her small town, but she would easily have risen to its highest ranks. Of course, ultimately she does reach them, but the movie's problem is we don't see her rise. Rather, she magically alights, in a sudden manner that teaches both Jenna and the audience nothing.

We learn that Jenna has been saving her tip money to plot an escape from the controlling Earl. She plans to leave him, enter a nearby pie-baking contest, win, and then build an independent life for herself. Her plans are side-tracked by an unexpected pregnancy. Upon seeking prenatal care, she meets a new doctor and is promptly attracted to him. They soon begin a bumbling affair. These events, though enlightening for Jenna, combine to make her more imprisoned than ever. When she fumbles to hide the affair from Earl, he discovers both her pregnancy and the cash she'd stashed away. Enraged he tightens his grip on her, both literally and figuratively. Rather than breaking away, Jenna is given a "get out of jail free" card.

One of Jenna's customers is "Old Joe," a character who resonates more than his screen time merits, due to the fact that he's played by the familiar Andy Griffith, whose very visage strikes an immediate rapport with the audience. Jenna is not particularly nice to Joe. In fact, the best that can be said of her attitude is that she doesn't mind waiting on him. Ever observant, Joe gives her unsolicited advice, keeps her secrets and tells her his stories, but it's not a reciprocal relationship. She doesn't give him anything in return. If he develops an affection for her, she hasn't particularly earned it.

Meanwhile, though she never considers ending her pregnancy, Jenna frankly admits to her lover (and her diary) that she is unexcited about the prospect of motherhood. The baby's advent has made her more a victim than ever. She sees the child as bringing no good for her and she feels she has nothing of value to give it. Her feelings don't change until minutes after the child's birth. When she draws the infant to her, she is suddenly consumed by a love so fierce that she immediately finds the strength to challenge Earl that she'd been lacking for years. When she turns on him, we see that Earl knows as well as we do that Jenna was always the superior one. His only power came from the fact that she did not know it. Maternity opened her eyes, but it happened in an instant. A movie is supposed to be a journey, not a second's revelation.

Minutes after tossing Earl on his ear, Jenna also learns that "Old Joe" has died, leaving her his fortune. Suddenly, she's wealthy and has the wherewithal to survive without Earl or her waitressing job. Dumping her married lover, she buys her own diner and bakes happily ever after. While I don't begrudge the charming Jenna this idyllic ending, I can't help wondering what would have happened if "Old Joe" hadn't died. If her story was a fable (and the vibrant colors that surround Jenna and her infant daughter as the movie closes confirm it's a fairy tale) then it's magic is permitted, as long as it teaches us something. There's little to learn from Jenna's story. She didn't prevail due to goodness, faith,or ingenuity. Instead, a generous customer saved the day, leaving money to her, as his "only friend." But that bequest just revealed the depth of emptiness in Joe's life. I think he did more to fill his own void than Jenna ever did hers.