Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

Refreshingly low on the pop-culture references and fart jokes that have made so many computer-animated films so far below par, DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon arrives with a heaping dose of sentimentality and a cadre of adorable beasts that would make it a huge hit if not for the lame title and even-more-lame marketing campaign that pass it off as just more of the same. The product itself represents a huge leap forward for the studio in the race to be number two behind Pixar.

One major problem with the film (and I’ll try not to extrapolate this into a wider point about where our culture is headed) is the humans. These characters - from their physical design and their dialogue right down to their cutesy names and B-list celebrity voice acting - just aren’t up to snuff. The film attempts a shaky balance between cartoonish and realistic in its design. The characters say "Oh my gods" (because they're Vikings) but also, "This is pretty cool!" (because riding dragons is cool). That it succeeds to the extent that it does despite this is a testament to the power of the story.

The skinny hero is Hiccup; his giant father is a dragon fighter named Stoick who, as though no one looked up “stoic” in a dictionary, shouts and complains constantly about his worthless son. One character suggests Hiccup’s only value would be as a toothpick for the dragons that nightly torment the Vikings’ village. Hiccup’s spindly frame contrasted with that of his spherical father is a nice attempt at a visual gag, but like Hiccup himself, it falls flat.

Sick of being an endless embarrassment, Hiccup is compelled to use his blacksmith apprenticeship to construct a contraption that he hopes will trap a Night Fury, the least-seen and most-feared breed of dragon. Inevitably, he succeeds and inevitably, he can’t bring himself to kill the beast. Instead Hiccup goes back to the shop to create a prosthetic wing to replace the one he damaged and restore the creature’s flight.

Hiccup dubs his pet dragon “Toothless” (his teeth are retractable) and the movie mines its considerable pathos from the ensuing scenes of their blossoming friendship. The twist is that the dragons are little more than overgrown, misunderstood puppies. The dragons, as opposed to the humans, are created with dimension and depth (and not just of the gimmicky, 3D-glasses variety, though some of those effects are admittedly neat). There is an abundance of imagination poured into the creation of a wide variety of dragon breeds, from fire-breathing to hut-crushing; at night the dragons are fearsome and shrouded in black but by day they are quirky in shape and size and wide-eyed such that we, along with Hiccup, will learn to love them. They like fish but detest eel and they love being scratched behind the ears.

How To Train Your Dragon follows a tried-and-true formula; it’s about a boy with a dangerous secret who has to teach his community of ignorant elders the error of their ways. As in E.T. or The Iron Giant, the adults fear what the child knows to be a simple messenger of love (much like the way the adults in the theater treated the film: with ignorance, and paying more attention to their cell phones). Dragon does what it can to ape those classics and where it ultimately fails is in its sense of danger.

There is no analogue to Spielberg’s hazmat-suited spooks or Giant’s communist scare; Dragon meekly strays from putting its protagonist in any palpable danger. Have the filmmakers seen Up? You’re supposed to raise your protagonist’s stakes by putting him in danger, even in a “children’s” movie. Especially in a children’s movie.

This is obvious from the beginning. The film opens with a spectacular dragon-on-viking battle (most of the scenic animation in the film, from the wafting clouds to the rocky outcroppings of the Vikings’ island home, is gorgeous), but we soon realize that while they set the houses on fire and steal all the sheep, the dragons aren’t interested in the humans. Even during the second-act reveal of the Big Bad Boss dragon, we witness a mass-feeding of … sheep, fish, and other animals. There is one major character with a couple of missing limbs, but he is played for laughs. To make matters worse, the dragons’ lack of interest in human flesh actually creates a decent plot hole. The film isn’t interested in inflating any real threat to its heroes. Pete Docter drew blood in the opening minutes of Up and WALLE lived in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. How To Train Your Dragon makes great strides for populist animation, but with every Pixar success it's harder and harder to catch up.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Armond White and The Greenberg Problem

The following piece, like Armond White's notorious review, only barely touches on the film in question. Accordingly, the Spoiler Threat Level is green.

How do you solve a problem like Roger Greenberg? Armond White isn’t interested.

In a fascinating debacle of life imitating art and the journalist becoming his own story, New York Press film critic and NY Film Critics Circle chair Armond White has launched himself into the position of being the most-discussed aspect of Noah Baumbach's new film. It started when White was allegedly "disinvited" from a press screening of Greenberg and an anonymous email began circulating calling for a critical boycott of the film as a response to the (alleged, again) censorship.

Or maybe it started in 1998, when White suggested that Baumbach's mother ought to seek "retroactive abortion" - a quip White has recently tucked between his legs, claiming it's "not a death warrant; its impact is in your inference." Or maybe it started much earlier, when White and Baumbach's mother Georgia Brown (film critic at the Press' opposition Village Voice) had a running feud that culminated on live radio with White, as he so often does, pulling his race card.

Several people have entered the debate, which has been more-or-less put to rest with White's inevitable screed against Baumbach and his films. In his piece at the Press, White posits himself as a lone warrior, a martyr in the futile battle between publicists and critics for free speech. In what he terms the "Greenberg problem", White discusses the rampant isolation of critics from their proper pedestals and throws around accusations of Nazism, fascism and communism.

He's unhinged, and he's losing much of what little cachet he had left as a responsible, intelligent critic. The best response I've read to all this is Walter Chaw's "Armond Hammer" post at the Film Freak Central blog. I agree with Chaw in several respects, most crucially in regard to this notion that if only we had more critics speaking their mind instead of the gospel of the press release - and if we had more respect for criticism as a viable art/science - White wouldn't seem nearly as crazy as he does.

White was responsible for the most high-profile take-down of Precious, something for which I want to hold him in high regard. One man's insane rant is another man's sermon.

But re-reading White's "review" after seeing the film in question - a relatively quiet, simple story to have stirred up all this gunk - it's pretty clear that for all the talk of critical dialogue and free speech, White barely seems to have watched the (admittedly imperfect) film at all. I'd also say that for a writer who so frequently brings up issues of race (White calls J. Hoberman's reprinting of White's own words a "racist lynching by white critics of a black critic"), he's hedging unbearably close to anti-Semitism. In comparing Greenberg to Zelig, he draws a dangerous link between Greenberg's ethnicity (and the character, onscreen, explicitly eschews his Jewish heritage) and his social standing. Also, if I were Armond White, I'd try not to use phrases like "Indian-giver".

Greenberg has, arguably, two protagonists. Ben Stiller is a self-possessed jerk who gets involved with a girl who's unhealthily submissive, both sexually and emotionally. It's a pretty honest portrayal of both types - you'll likely cringe at the way he treats her. I don't think it's incidental that Baumbach opens his story with Greta Gerwig's Florence and doesn't introduce Roger for about fifteen minutes. We're meant to sympathize with both of our very-flawed heroes, but to suggest that the film "coddles" Roger Greenberg is simply inaccurate. Greenberg is an asshole, to be sure, and if there's something I truly admire about Baumbach's films it's his relentless posing of the asshole as the hero through the prism of daring semi-autobiography. To view his work as a whole, you might say Baumbach's thesis is "Assholes are people, too." The challenge of his films, and some (The Squid and the Whale) are more successful at this than others (Margot at the Wedding), is in engendering sympathy for a jerk. To dismiss the entire body of work as a lionization of anti-social behavior and a series of love letters to a bunch of pricks is, well, dismissive.

For White to assert, as he so often has, that Baumbach is himself an asshole ("You look at Noah Baumbach's work, and you see he's an asshole. I would say it to his face.") represents either a totally cross-wired auteurist theory or a trans-generational grudge. Did The New Yorker run a review of a Baumbach film written by a friend and former employer of Baumbach himself? If so, that's probably a conflict of interest and it likely shouldn't have gone to print. But for White to suggest that scenario as a violation of journalistic ethics while at the same time freely admitting to his decades-long grudge with Baumbach's mother seems exposing of a deep hypocrisy.

This all brings me back to a point that Walter Chaw put better and more succinctly. White is a crazy, raving loon and also a crucial member of the critical community. We need more like him and we need more people in intelligent oppostition to him. But in refusing to take the film on its own merits, White is falling on his own sword and letting the publicists win.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dogtooth [Kynodontas]

Dogtooth is a fable about a Greek family steered by a grievously misguided - yet, we must admit, loving - patriarch into a clandestine system of games and rules that will inevitably break down in a terrifying manner.

There are two girls and a boy, all fully grown, living with their mother and father on a not-quite-luxurious estate with a finely-groomed lawn and in-ground pool surrounded by fifteen-foot walls and bushes to keep the family in and the outside world out. Nobody is allowed to leave except the father, who holds a desk job at a factory and brings home supplies. These rules are so ingrained that when given the opportunity, the boy will stop at an open gate, touching an invisible boundary with his toes.

The two parents coach the children to fear and misunderstand the world they've never seen and have only heard about. They teach them intentional malapropisms (asked to "pass the telephone" at the dinner table, the mother hands over the salt) and when an airplane flies overhead, they toss a small toy plane in the yard and tell the kids that it fell. A cat is a monstrous animal that will tear you apart with its jaws and talons; the kids are taught to bark on all fours in case one ever shows up.

No one has any names, either. The three children are simply the boy, the older girl and the younger girl. He, she and she.

Framed by the varying perspectives of all five family members, writer-director Giorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Fillipou stir up a remarkable mixture of unmitigated terror and sympathetic innocence. Comparisons to Michael Haneke's exercises in suspense are apt - from pretty much the first frame to the last there is a palpable dread, punctuated (not perforated) by shocking instances of violence. From the increasingly bizarre and supremely abusive games the children are forced to act out to the insidious leak of catalysts from the world outside their fence, Dogtooth is a gripping, provocative ticking clock. It's also the first movie in ages that's actually made me, for one brief moment, involuntarily bring a hand up to block my eyesight because I couldn't bear to watch what was unfolding.

It gets to the point where, as terrible as their lives are, you find yourself almost (almost) rooting for the father's experiments to continue successfully just so the twenty-something-year-old children can be kept safe. This, then, leads you to consider that very primal definition of "safety", which maybe (maybe) results in the kind of twisted logic that led the father and mother to develop their scheme in the first place. If you never let your children leave the house, you never have to worry about them talking to (or having sex with or learning from) anyone you don't want them to. But almost anything can be a weapon of dissent in the right circumstance.

There's room for an allegorical interpretation, but I can't presume to come up with the correct one and it's unnecessary besides. Dogtooth is effective even as a story about something as simple as a father trying to maintain control of his family and watching as an exponential increase in entropy destroys his carefully constructed system and wrests his kin from his hands.

These kids, of course, were lost long ago, as soon as the mother and father began their experiments. There will be no saving anybody here; what could be described as a 'Sopranos ending' is merely a tacit acknowledgment that if any of these characters tries to save themselves or each other, it will only make things worse. It's pretty damn bleak, and it's gonna stick with you.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Green Zone

Paul Greengrass is the director behind United 93, the first entry in the pantheon of mainstream Hollywood reactions to 9/11. That film was released in spring 2006, written and produced just four years-and-change after the attacks. At the time, there was an uproar. "How can we let Hollywood make movies out of this?" 9/11, we thought at one time or another, marked the death not only of 3,000 people but also of irony and the action movie. How the times have changed.

United 93 was one of the more fascinating moviegoing experiences I've had in my lifetime: I saw it in a very sold out house on opening night in Columbus, Ohio.

One of the remarkable things about United 93 is Greengrass' humanization of the four terrorists. He doesn't condone their actions, but he doesn't condemn them either. This is, partially, due to his shaky-cam aesthetic - getting into the heads of his characters just isn't his thing. He directs action movies. He was the perfect hired gun for the two Bourne sequels.

Now Columbus is, generally, a pretty liberal town. But that opening night crowd was, understandably, not interested in Ahmed al-Haznawi hesitating in the airplane bathroom while assembling the bomb. When the passengers ultimately rushed the terrorists in the cockpit, everyone started cheering and clapping. With conviction. But the heroism of the passengers onboard United 93 was not the point of that movie.

I'm remembering all this now because Green Zone is Greengrass' follow-up to the non-fiction scenario of United 93. Both films take a beginning and an end that are based on true events and connect them with speculative "inspired by" fictions. In Green Zone, the ending is the revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But where Greengrass inadvertently mined pathos from the doomed characters in United 93, he's here more interested in straight-forward action/thriller heroics. And boy, does he fall on his face.

There are two big problems with the premise of the film. One is that its major statement is that we went to war under false pretenses - this will inevitably still rile some folks, but to this viewer it's nothing new. Two - and this is the big one, because even a well-constructed thriller with lame politics is better than a poorly-constructed thriller I "agree" with - is when that big reveal comes half an hour in.

The bulk of the running time doesn't involve Matt Damon discovering that the WMD-threat was a lie. It's about him trying to prove it. But even this goal proves unnecessary. Why go through several impressively-staged gun-fights and a kidnapping just to get the guy who can tell the press the truth when you can just tell the press yourself? Here, the press is personified by Amy Ryan, and Damon was already in her hotel room once (not for anything saucy, though that might've at least made the scene interesting).

In the end, it's a lot of ado over nothing, appropriately described early in the film when one character refers to Iraq as "full of anarchy". These guys are running around trying to find someone they don't need to prove something doesn't exist. It's dramatically inert even as I'm politically aligned with the filmmakers, leaving me with nobody to root for even if I wanted to. It's like watching a porn where the guy can't get it up. Whatever, I got the point anyway.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Remember Me

Most of the reviews written exclusively for this site are written for people who have already seen the films discussed. I created the Spoiler Threat Advisory System because I know that "people who have seen Valentine's Day" probably very rarely describes my readership; review by review, it's a professional imperative to warn you if reading what I write might spoil the movie in any real way.

The STAS varies in usefulness from film to film. There are movies like Avatar that are essentially spoiler-proof in their inherent predictability and there are movies like Shutter Island, which spoils itself. In the internet age, as we become overly conscious of "spoilers", we start to think of movies as living or dying by their plot twists (Thanks, M. Night). The problem with Remember Me is that it defies what have become our conventions for how we discuss movies we haven't seen.

I can tell you something about Remember Me that will make you want to go watch it. But part of what makes the experience of watching it so jaw-dropping is not knowing what's coming. So I don't want you to find out.

Three of my friends had already heard about the film's ending not only without having seen the thing but before opening day. This didn't seem like too big a deal to them, however, as what had been spoiled was just the new Robert Pattinson vehicle; they weren't going to see it, anyway. If I wasn't close friends with a Pattinson-fanatic, I might've skipped it, too.

A lot of people aren't going to see Remember Me but a lot of them are going to tear the movie down anyway because of the ending. I think that's as cheap on our part as the movie is in its ending, if not more so. Calling it 'good' or 'bad' doesn't even come into it; this movie, by prank, hubris or earnest failure, earns our discussion.

So: if you haven't seen Remember Me and you've managed to escape hearing about it, do yourself a favor. Stop reading now, get off the internet, don't talk to anybody and go watch the movie. If you have any interest in that special purity of the moviegoing experience, you'll thank me later. Regardless of the movie's quality (or lack thereof), this is a unique piece the likes of which I've really never seen.

With all this in mind, I am now raising the Spoiler Alert Level to red.

So here's a movie that we dismiss without seeing because we've already seen it a hundred times. A dark, brooding rebel courts a blonde goody-two-shoes, they bond over common daddy issues and his moppet little sister, there is some fighting and some reconciliation and then everyone works out their issues and lives happily ever after. Remember Me, however, places its hero at his moment of catharsis and resulting peace in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and then kills him in the attack. Spoiler and Security Threat Levels will both be red after Remember Me.

What I'm interested in is an in-depth investigation into the film's production. One companion of mine - who'd already heard about the ending before seeing it - described the finale as an afterthought, tagged on to the story to give it a punch and rouse the rabble. Watching the film, this feels like exactly the case, but I find myself desperate to give the film the benefit of the doubt.

We come back to that age-old question: "What were they thinking?" In the case of Remember Me - which in one single scene provides the highest WTF-were-they-thinking quotient of any movie since ... maybe Southland Tales - there are two possible answers. One is that this was an earnest attempt at telling a 9/11 story - we've already had several of them and this is just another angle. The other, as my friend suggested, is that the ending is a manipulative slap in the face. Part of me wonders if we're reacting to this the same way we did to the attacks themselves and that the movie successfully recreates the feelings of shock and anger so many people had back in 2001.

Now, the film opens with a prologue in 1991, in which Emilie de Ravin's character, as a little girl, witnesses her mother's (Martha Plimpton, in an inexplicable cameo) murder on an elevated MTA platform. The World Trade Center towers loom in the background of the scene, which is followed by a title card reading, "ten years later". De Ravin's Ally is introduced as an adult ten minutes on in a classroom she shares unknowingly with Pattinson's Tyler. The class is having a discussion about "recent terrorist attacks".

Given the final-moments reveal of the actual date, this is clearly a deliberate mislead. Does this classroom scene qualify as Shyamalan-esque trickery, Remember Me's equivalent of Olivia Williams not talking at dinner? Because here's the thing: as a savvy film watcher, I took these parcels of information and leapt to the inaccurate assumption that the events of the film were taking place in the aftermath of the attacks. This lead directly to my misinterpretation of pretty much the entire bulk of the story.

"What a bizarre idea," I thought, "to follow around these self-absorbed assholes so concerned with their own drama in post-9/11 New York City." It actually makes for an interesting premise: what must it have been like to live in New York City and not lose anyone in the attacks but still have a great personal tragedy to deal with?

Part of my fallacy was to assume that this was an indirect 9/11 story, rather than an explicit one. Almost every film about New York City made since 9/11 has been, in one way or another, a response to those attacks; viewed as a cultural (rather than political) milestone, we can trace the evolution of our coping mechanism in NYC-set films. For several years a filmmaker would have to make a choice whether or not to mention 9/11 explicitly in even the most innocuous of romantic comedies. When a film now ignores it, you can see us 'forgetting' in a way our bumper stickers claimed we never would.

Almost as a response to this trend, I viewed Remember Me as a coolly weird little movie about New Yorkers who didn't care about 9/11 - and in a way I was right, because within the melodrama of the romance, it hadn't happened yet. Nevertheless, the film is dripping in tragedy and loss, much of it overwritten and much of it not. It was easy to watch the film as being about 9/11 even as it never brought it up.

Several different moments elicited collective gasps from Team Edward in the theater - the final one, in fact, was not nearly so loud as the reaction to Tyler's sister Caroline's surprise haircut. It's an almost profoundly silly film, scoring the folly of youth with Sigur Rós while fairly effectively demonstrating the generational divides between Tyler, his father and his much-younger sister, all of whom believe, at one point or another, that the others just cannot understand their pain.

In fact, the dynamic between these three carries the film in a way that I have to describe as surprisingly unterrible. Pattinson and father Pierce Brosnan have one particularly over-the-top blowout in the latter's conference room (turns out they were at the World Trade Center! The whole time!) that really ought to boil over into absurdity but reveals both men, Pattinson especially, as able actors capable of rising above the pablum. Ruby Jerins, as Caroline, steals the show: she's too young to process the pain she's in and she's getting used as a tether ball for two (of three, come to think of it) father figures in constant battle to show each other up. Jerins' quiet dignity, taken apart from the film as a whole, is something to behold.

In the same way that Remember Me confounds expectations by giving the lead dreamboat a precocious little sister who isn't obnoxious, it gives him an evil corporate father who turns out to be a relatively decent guy. Now, obviously, a lot of this is the result of playing the Low Expectations Game, but I really want to give this movie some points [one] for having the rebellious hero learn that his father loves him and his sister and is trying as hard as he can and [two] for having the hero forgive his father's failures.

And it's at that moment, sitting in his father's office watching a screensaver slideshow of pictures of him and his family, that Tyler's newfound peace is destroyed by his father's office being at the World Trade Center and the date being September 11, 2001.

Fighting my impulse to write this off as a mad grab for pathos and an exploitative, offensive one at that, I'm fascinated by the fact that this movie wraps itself up with an entirely tidy, happy ending immediately prior to the 9/11 attacks. Given that the reveal of the date is inarguably set up as a plot twist - something we're not supposed to have seen coming - are we intended to view the previous two hours as incidental? Or are we intended to take the characters' arcs as a how-to on coping with tragedy as lead-up to the greatest tragedy of the decade we just laid to rest? Is this what Tyler's roommate is referring to when he accuses Tyler of nihilism?

As I previously suggested, could the whole thing be an elaborate experiment to recreate the feelings of horror we experienced on 9/11? "What does it all even mean anymore?" The only way, after all, to make a 9/11 movie and nail that specific emotion is to not let anybody know it's coming. Especially don't let on in any of the marketing or promotion that your movie is even in any way a period film.

But to set out to hit that note is cheap or easy at best and cruel or offensive at worst. There are plenty of people out there you don't have to trick into being moved by 9/11.

Does it even matter? There aren't any rules about what we should or shouldn't adapt into our popular entertainments; if you look at the amount of tasteless co-optations of actual human tragedy in our theaters, this is actually one of the less offensive ones. For example, we can be thankful that director Allen Coulter has the grace to film this ending with a lot of ash but zero shots of the actual attack.

Still, we should be aiming for something more than "less offensive than Precious". And for as angry as Remember Me is going to make people, I wonder that nobody involved in the production saw this coming. Can you imagine the reaction from an audience-member who lost somebody on 9/11 unknowingly walking into this movie, which uses the shock of terrorist attack to withdraw tears for Robert Pattinson? And what of the 14-year-olds comprising Team Edward, five years old in 2001, walking away from this in tears like they'd just seen Titanic?

Regardless, artists will continue drawing inspiration from 9/11 for decades, and there's nothing you can do about it if you wanted to. I don't believe in the idea that Remember Me shouldn't be about what it's about, I just believe that it mostly fails at doing so with anything resembling honor. Rules are meant to be broken and if I say You Can't Successfully Turn 9/11 Into A Plot Twist, somebody like Quentin Tarantino will come along and do just that. In the meantime, what could've been a successful B-level romantic vehicle for an actor stuck in association to the creepiest of terrible roles becomes something far more emotionally invasive than anything Stephanie Meyer could ever hope to put her name on. What an epic misfire.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Last Station & The Ghost Writer

I know approximately as much about the social and economic philosophies of Leo Tolstoy coming out of The Last Station as I did going in (read: not very much). The film opens with a title card quoting Tolstoy: "Everything I understand, I understand only because of love." Now, the only halfway-viable defense of Twilight I've heard is that its love-conquers-all message is timeless, beautiful and irrefutable; I suppose we could look at The Last Station as a Twilight for the geriatric costume drama set. Nothing much matters here except that love is a pervasive, binding force or some such nonsense. Do with this what you will, but when the first act proves to be a lighthearted sex comedy, I find it decidedly refreshing. When the whole thing inevitably devolves into a protracted death knell, it's then only marginally disappointing.

Both The Last Station and The Ghost Writer follow meek protagonists navigating the epic dramas of larger-than-life political figures to whom they are only tenuously connected.

Here, professional supporting lead James McAvoy is Valentin, recruited as private secretary to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) just in time to witness the dissolution of the writer's marriage, the scramble to control his estate and, in a single scene that seems to last the better part of an hour, the death of the writer himself.

At first barely interested in politics, writer-director Michael Hoffman stays true to the perspective of his inactive hero. Valentin is quickly (and against his will) cast as a quadruple agent answering first to Vladimir (Paul Giamatti, trying to wrest control over Tolstoy's valuable intellectual property); then to the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren, trying to provide for her kids rather than the people of Russia); then to Tolstoy himself (dying and attempting to impart some wisdom upon Valentin-as-next-generation); finally to Tolstoyan commune worker Masha (Kerry Condon, who just wants to fuck).

So: sex, money, family or wisdom? As a farce, this thing flies through its first half with a surprising levity. There is a lot of grandstanding from all the Oscar nominees, and McAvoy's able straight-manning keeps the circus grounded. In his dalliance with Masha, he goes from anxious celibacy to premature ejaculation in about as much time as it would take a Freshman under the bleachers at the homecoming game.

Bearing witness to the arguments over Tolstoy's estate, Valentin is seen and not heard - an audience surrogate, sure, but in the same way a silent jury for the contested legacy. What's fun isn't watching Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer shout at each other: it's watching them play up their opera for Valentin's sake as if to convince his "common man" of their own side's righteousness.

The picture runs out of steam, though, right as Tolstoy does. There's an interesting moment where, as Tolstoy is finally resigned to putting his signature on Vladimir's contract, it is discovered that nobody has a pen1 - nobody, that is except for our hero Valentin. Finally, he gets to play a role, and a rather important one at that. Obviously, by withholding his pen, Valentin will effectively halt the endowment of Tolstoy's work to Vladimir's scheming business pursuits and save the day for Sofya.

But he doesn't.

This, I suppose, is where the movie takes a sharp turn towards the political by offering the plebe the agency to affect the dispersion of Tolstoy's teachings. Unfortunately, the film has done little up to this point to convince me that this is for the best and, more importantly, Valentin himself had seemed to have been siding with Sofya the whole time. Around this same point, Valentin confesses his true love for Masha - a decidedly adolescent concern, I think, given his previous celibacy.

This crux of the story takes place about halfway through, after which there is another smackdown between the elderly couple that results, somehow, in Sofya trying to drown herself and Tolstoy getting on a train so he can go die of pneumonia in peace. From this point on the picture runs on fumes as Valentin scrambles to reunite the elderly couple before its too late while also trying to cling to Masha. It's a harsh tonal shift. I'm never as wrapped up in the emotions of these wackos as Hoffman seems to want me to be, especially after laughing at them for the first hour.

Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer arrives quietly shrouded in the negative publicity of the director's recent arrest and extradition on a decades-old statutory rape charge2. I'd eschew even mentioning this had Polanski not turned in a political thriller that easily reads as - at least in part - a plea of innocence. Or a plea of irrelevance, at least. This one has a definite political message, and it's summed up two-thirds of the way in by Ewan McGregor: "It's all bollocks, anyway."

MacGregor's hero goes unnamed. Like Valentin, he is hired because of his malleability into the inner circle of a controversial leader and tasked with writing down secrets. His charge is ghostwriting the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan); he is replacing a previous employee who washed up on a beach. Simultaneously investigating both Lang's alleged war crimes and his predecessor's death, The Ghost stumbles upon an intricate conspiracy involving all kinds of governmental branches and shadowy intrigue.

One key to The Ghost Writer's success is its Hitchcockian sense of humor. 'Hitchcockian' is a word that gets bandied about a lot3, but all too often we forget how funny ol' Hitch was. A dark sense of humor reminiscent of North by Northwest hangs over The Ghost Writer, keeping us giggling as The Ghost encounters creepy strangers and is tailed by faceless henchman. His predecessor was killed for digging into this very same mess, and Polanski maintains the tension with deflating one-liners. "You can't drown two bloody ghost writers. You're not kittens." He's in so far over is head that for the bulk of the running time it feels like every single character, major and minor alike, might somehow have it in for him.

The film works on several levels. As a mystery, it's tightly plotted, shot and cut with surgical precision. As political screed, it's downright nifty, sticking a pin in the overdone subject matter by hanging onto a protagonist who doesn't care about politics and exposes, ultimately, the power-mongering of the government operatives to be a facile charade. As Lang is being called to trial for war crimes in England, he's hiding out in an American sanctuary made of glass.

As a personal statement, Polanski drops only the barest hints at his own problems - just enough to ring true as a plea of not guilty by reason of decades-old relevance, the legal entanglement of spotlight-grubbing lawyers and the contagions of American cultural imperialism. It functions as an apology if you want it to: a tacile acknowledgment of crimes long-ago forgiven and a cry for a second chance. Lang is trying to write his memoirs but nobody seems interested in his side of the story; he works with a ghostwriter because he can't atone for himself.

If he ends up in jail for the rest of his life, at least he got to turn out one last masterpiece.

1.) This seems unlikely, given that everyone in the movie is constantly scratching away in their Moleskines. [back]

2.) I certainly don't want to sound like I approve of Polanski's alleged crimes, but this is a judgment best left to our justice system. I also cannot pretend to broach the level of scrutiny the case deserves; rather, I suggest finding Jeffrey Toobin's late '09 article for The New Yorker, "The Celebrity Defense". [back]

3.) ...most recently in regards to a certain other prestige thriller about a dude on an island during a storm getting in over his head... [back]

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Marriage Ref: "Pilot"

An ill-conceived, poorly-executed disaster any way you look at it, NBC's sorry attempt at a post-Tonight Show-fiasco tent pole The Marriage Ref is exactly the kind of programming that gives "Reality TV" a bad name.

Divided into two segments, the pilot episode presents a pair of ridiculous, made-for-Prime-Time marital spats for the judgment of a self-worshiping "celebrity" panel.

First up is Danielle Ridolfi, whose husband Kevin reacts to the death of his 14-year-old Boston Terrier by having the animal stuffed and mounted. This might actually be an interesting conflict if the producers dug into the trauma of loss, but instead they cut together creepy shots of the "sleeping" animal with a lot of hamming from Danielle, who never liked the dog anyway. Following the Ridolfis are Greg and Dianah Hunter, who argue over whether or not Greg should install a stripper pole in the bedroom so he can encourage Dianah to give him a private show.

Both couples act out their tiffs in front of the cameras, but as they are clearly being filmed single-camera and in glorious HD, their rejoinders come off as (obviously) false and staged. In addition, the disagreements chosen for this pilot are supremely weird and creepy, produced for an easy siding-with-the-wife in both cases. Wouldn't this format work better as a stage for debate and empathy? The show will live and die by its audience's understanding of both sides of an argument. Nobody needs a Marriage Ref to tell you that if Dianah doesn't want to dance on a stripper pole for her husband, she's not going to and shouldn't be expected to. Kelly Ripa, believe it or not, makes the one trenchant observation of the whole half-hour in pointing out that Greg might be trying in earnest to spice up their sex life, but this gets tossed out rather than considered or explored.

The panel here is made up of Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa and Jerry Seinfeld, exposing finally just how much of the genius behind Seinfeld must be attributable to Larry David if this is the best he could come up with after more than ten years' vacation from the network. The meat of the show is dedicated to the threesome exchanging pre-scripted one-liners with emcee/referee/charisma vacuum Tom Papa and laughing at each others' terrible jokes.

You know you're in trouble when a full minute of the pilot's slim twenty-five is dedicated to replaying 'favorite' lines from the couples' arguments, on top of the quotations already recited by the anxious panel.

If memory serves, this scheme was presented with a more successfully prurient dedication on MTV's The Blame Game in the late '90s. That show put warring exes on opposite sides of a judge and let the studio audience "Jury of Your Peers" vote for who was responsible for the relationship's dissolve. The court-of-law format, complete with "lawyers" defending each sides' case, was both more entertaining and actually made or a more intelligent, right-vs-wrong debate on the issues presented. The Marriage Ref's lazy premise, with a lazy baseball-game animated opening and a lazy Marv Albert as the announcer, feels undercooked, underdeveloped and desperate. Unfunny, uninteresting and more apathetic than pathetic, I don't see this one lasting into next season.