Sunday, March 30, 2008

La Promesse (1996) & Rosetta (1999)

Okay, so after the empty calories of Doomsday, it was time for something a little more filling. I'm late in catching up with the Dardenne brothers, the Belgian filmmakers who already have two Palmes d'Or under their belt after only four films - I hadn't seen any of their movies until their most recent, L'Enfant, in 2006. So allow me to make up for lost time with enthusiasm: these guys are f$*&ing geniuses.

One of the major weaknesses in modern filmmaking is that Hollywood has so concentrated on making films that are escapist fantasies that they've all but stopped making films about life as it is lived by the majority of their audiences. I know this is nothing new - Fred Astaire's dance rhythms didn't have much to do with the Great Depression - but I think the modern corporate mindset most films are made in these days has made things worse. The Dardennes worked for years making documentaries in Belgium about working-class peole, and the result is that their feature films are shot as virtual documentaries as well, but precisely conceived and executed ones.

Their first major film, La Promesse, tells the story of a teenage boy, Igor (Jeremie Renier) who's growing up in the shadow of his father Roger, a charming, self-centered con man who, among other enterprises, smuggles immigrants into Belgium, then puts them up in his own apartment building and hires them to work cheap. When an African laborer dies in an accident, he makes young Igor promise to take care of his wife and baby son; Roger's reaction is to bury the man in cement rather than take him to a hospital. From this point on, the movie is Igor's education, his road to redemption as he tries to make amends for the sins he has been complicit in, his path to independence from his monstrous, yet still sympathetic, father. Through all of this, the Dardennes capture the action in long, unbroken shots in gloomy industrial settings, meaning that it feels like we're watching real life unspooling before our eyes, but with a clear moral and spiritual focus on the characters and their choices.

Their next film, Rosetta, is even better. Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) is a 17-year old girl living with her mother in a trailer park, and the movie portrays her desperate search for employment. Cheerful, eh? And on top of that, Rosetta herself is something of a pain in the ass, introduced in a scene where she gets fired from a factory and proceeds to storm around in a tantrum and scream at her boss until she gets thrown out by security guards. Every Dardenne movie has good fights, but Rosetta has a virtually non-stop series of scuffles, screaming matches, and characters who fall into rivers. It's great! These movies are immensely simple, and therefore immensely risky - you can only get away with having your characters bicker at each other in an unbroken five-minute shot if the actors know what they're doing and if the filmmakers know what to show us.

Rosetta is, ultimately, a film in which a young character is totally beaten down by life and, in a magical final scene, regains her hope. It's the kind of tiny crystallized moment that every filmmaker aspires to, that you try and build towards over the entire design of a film. And in today's world it's a refreshing blast of clarity amidst a sea of mediocrity.

La Promesse: 8/10
Rosetta: 9/10

Friday, March 28, 2008

Doomsday (2008)

Whee, cinematic junk food! There's a Twinkie cook book out there where you can make Twinkie Sushi or Twinkie Pigs in a Blanket (just add wieners) and Neil Marshall's Doomsday is like that: a creatively-made, undeniably unoriginal junk food achievement, without substance or nutrition. But as Pauline Kael said, or perhaps it was Julia Child, 'movies are so rarely great art, we must be able to appreciate great trash', and Doomsday is pretty great trash.

Twenty-odd years in the future, British authorities have quarantined a disease-ridden Scotland behind a wall (what took them so long, ba-dum-bump); when the same virulence breaks out in London, hardened cop/hottie Rhona Mitra is sent, Snake Plissken-esque, into the forbidden zone to bring out any hint of a cure that can be found. Director Neil Marshall cherry-picks elements from a bunch of different movies - the basic structure of Escape from New York, the car chase from The Road Warrior, a scene or two from Gladiator, a character archetype from Underworld, London tormented by a disease out of one of the 28 Weeks movies - and gives us a fever dream of post-apocalyptic action. Hell, I knew the movie was going to be fun when I saw the titles were in the John Carpenter font.

This is yet another of the many modern movies cobbled together from parts of other movies, like Hot Fuzz or Superhero Movie or anything made by Quentin Tarantino; what makes Doomsday work is its total lack of pretension, its simple desire to give us decapitations and people roasted alive and then cut into like a Thanksgiving turkey and Malcolm McDowell as a neo-Luddite medieval lord, complete with castle, utilizing maximum technical ability, can be enjoyed as simple pleasure (literally, simple). Marshall sticks with John Carpenter's '70s-era cynicism about government and authority, tempered by a fanboy's adoration of the thrill of geek cinema. Doomsday isn't for all tastes - I always prefer horror-type movies - your mileage may vary, especially because of its high empty-calorie quotient. But for anyone looking for a movie quickie, this is the movie for you (or it was, since it seems to be almost gone from theaters already).


Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

I still intend to see the new Funny Games if it's not hustled out of theaters too quickly, but in the meantime I revisited the original home invasion movie (alongside Straw Dogs).

A Clockwork Orange is a 'statement' movie, but Kubrick's cinematic argument is complex and multifaceted. He presents his scenes of violence in ways that are both cinematically exciting and entertaining, as with the movie's opening fight scene with another gang, and then the film makes a sharp turn to gives us the same characters in a brutal assault on a quiet country home. This is the fine line that Kubrick is constantly walking - we're entertained and charmed by Malcolm McDowell's Alex, but we never forget that he's a dangerous sociopath motivated by nothing beyond his own narcissism, and the thought hovers in our minds through all of Alex's ups and downs. And I think this is a key to the movie's success, because Kubrick gets us to see ourselves in Alex, thrilled and horrified alternately.

Ultimately, though, Alex is only a figure in Kubrick's landscape, because his larger point has to do with how violent individuals function within a modern society, and the nature of punitive measures vs. free will. Alex receives the Ludovico treatment, which makes him nauseated in the presence of sex or violence (and Beethoven), and his prison chaplain argues that his now-'cured' actions are not motivated by free will, but merely by simple self-interest. But this treatment is merely an exagerrated version of every punitive system, from 'scared straight' programs all the way up to the promise that if you sin, you go to Hell.

On top of all that, I realized that the original Funny Games is Haneke's own version of the Ludovico treatment, a form of cinematic Pavlovian conditioning.

These days, I think that A Clockwork Orange is one of Kubrick's weaker films, a film motivated by snarky anger as opposed to his real masterpieces (for me, 2001 and Barry Lyndon), which tend to have a greater degree of compassion and spiritual reflection. In addition, it's probably the most dated of all of Kubrick's movies in terms of production and costume design, and I've never really understood the ending - that final shot of a crowd of people applauding copulation in the middle of some freakshow desert? But this is all relative, and even a 'weak' film from Kubrick is better than most filmmakers can manage in their careers.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Hot Fuzz (2007) & Face/Off (1997)

So I was watching the new movie (from last year) from the Edgar Wright/ Simon Pegg team, and generally enjoying it. It's a fun comedy, full of Michael Bay-esque camera tricks and juicy dialogue and great performances from Pegg, Nick Frost, and a great supporting cast, from Paddy Considine as a moustached detective to Timothy Dalton as a smarmy tycoon.

My reaction to the movie is complicated. On the one hand, I'm totally jealous of Edgar Wright and his ability to absorb the directing style of a Michael Bay wanna-be and adopt it into comedy form. He's totally learned how to move the camera and edit and where to stick music to make for a successful homage to that kind of style, and as a young filmmaker myself, I'm totally envious.

At the same time, the film that Wright has made never transcends the mode of 'homage' to become its own thing. In making fun of dumb action movies, Wright never really says anything about his chosen genre in which cops take down bad guys with ruthless, cool efficiency beyond 'yeah, these movies are stupid, but they're so much fun!' which isn't exactly an original or rigorous stance. Hot Fuzz is a movie about movies which never really goes beyond its own source material, which becomes ultimately disappointing. Considering that Wright and Pegg's previous film, Shaun of the Dead, was a fully competent, entertaining zombie movie which also doubled as a critique of late-period slacker mentality, Hot Fuzz has to be seen as both a step backward in content even as it is a step forward in craft.

So after I watched the Hot Fuzz DVD, I had a hunger for some similar action movie. But as it happens, my trash genre-of-choice is horror, and I have very few shoot-em-ups in my DVD collection. So I chose to watch a movie from one of Michael Bay's antecedents, the very Christian, very intelligent John Woo. Face/Off is probably my favorite of his films, a totally wacko action movie about split identities that Fritz Lang might have made in one of his less restrained moments, decades ago. The premise is the kind of thing that only could work in a movie: the only way supercop John Travolta can learn where a bomb is hidden is by disguising himself, via high-tech surgery, as terrorist Nicolas Cage; who then proceeds to disguise himself as master cop John Travolta, leading to a complicated dance of identity within a thriller framework. The result is a messy, chaotic action movie that doesn't make total sense within real-world logic but almost completely works within movie-logic, which is all that matters. John Woo is able to render his idea that criminals and their pursuers have more in common than either want to admit, and boat chases ensue. Both Travolta and Cage overact as the bad guy while flailing as the good guy, indicating an underwritten script, but it still has an action sequence set to "Over the Rainbow" so that's something.

I love it anyway, because of Woo's capacity in handling big emotions in an otherwise absurd premise and his ability to craft satisfying action sequences. This is one of the only movies I can think of that, when it became clear that there would be a gratuitious action sequence at the end of the movie involving a boat chase, my thought in 1997 was, 'great!'. So even thought this movie doesn't say anything deep about cops and criminals, its entertainment value makes it worthwhile, as one of the better action films of the era , a thoughtful piece of pulp.

Hot Fuzz: 7/10
Face/Off: 8/10

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Band's Visit (2007)

Here's something we don't get enough of these days: the simple, sweet, character-based comedy. Most American movies these days are so plot-heavy that it's refreshing to see a film with just enough story to set its characters in motion, and once they're bumping into each other director Eran Kolirin can sit back and let his fine cast do the rest of the work, without needing to juice the proceedings with melodrama or contrivance.

The premise is simple: an Egyptian Police band, travelling to perform at an Arab cultural center, gets lost and finds themselves in a backwater Israeli town. There, the proud, bottled-up leader of the band (played by a terrific Sasson Gabai) asks for help from the saucy owner of a barely-open restaurant (Ronit Elkabetz). The film proceeds as a string of finely-realized emotional moments: one Egyptian is inspired by the melody of an Israeli lullaby; an girl-shy Israeli takes tips from the ladies' man of the Egyptians, and so on, with no big moments, just a soft, carefully nuanced series of moments.

What's most striking in the movie is its careful insistence on putting the Arab-Israeli conflict in the background, always present but never addressed by the film in any way beyond a basic constant tension, and one Egyptian's discreet placement of his cap over a photo of an Israeli tank. While the movie could be seen as a fairy tale of uncomplicated Mideast peace (why don't the Palestinians just exchance flatbread recipes with the Israelis and call the whole thing off?) the filmmakers succeed in balancing sentiment and realism in a satisfying, refreshing way.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

This one is less of a surprise, but for me it's even more painful, because I grew up as a sci-fi nerd and Clarke was one of my trinity of favorite writers, along with Asimov and Bradbury.

Clarke's particular focus had to do with an expansive view of the universe, in which people are only a tiny part of a vast, grand cosmos, but with our own unique potential. His was an optimistic, humanistic voice that has been a huge influence on not just science-fiction but in popularizing science and making people aware of the larger world around that we all share.

But as he said last year on his 90th birthday, he mostly wanted to be known as a writer and as an entertainer, and he succeeded at that admirable: 2001, Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood's End, all terrifically entertaining and inspiring.

Also, he wasn't above wondering about ape-men and the Loch Ness monster:

Anthony Minghella, 1954-2008

This was a sudden surprise, a talented guy gone too soon. Of the films he directed I've only seen The English Patient, Cold Mountain, and my favorite of the three, the elegantly twisted identity thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I love. But I also knew Minghella from his writing (Jim Henson's The Storyteller) and producing (The Interpreter and Michael Clayton). Above all, though, I knew him through his interviews on filmmaking and writing and editing where he demonstrated class, erudition, and artistic passion. His films are well-made and classy (almost to a fault) in an old-fashioned Hollywood way that's increasingly hard to find in a world of empty spectacle and pale recycling.

Condolences to his friends and family.

Abar (1977)

Or as the IMDB wants to call it, Abar, the First Black Superman, which is a much better name for a movie in which a brilliant Black scientist invents a potion that allows a young radical to develop mystical mental superpowers to avenge society's ills. Cops hassling you and planting guns on the innocent victims? Abar uses his mind powers to get the cops to decide to go home and sleep with their wives. Too many men in the ghetto sitting around on stoops drinking 40s in the middle of the day? Abar turns the bottles into clean, nutritious milk, and so on.

I like to think that movies illustrate, on a large, society-wide scale, the same psychological principles that apply to an individual, like repression, fantasy, wish-fulfillment, etc. This movie is what happens when ideas not covered in mainstream movies in the mid-1970s (rage about institutional racism in housing, discrimination, the general problems of urban African-Americans) are ignored by mainstream popular culture and only taken up by artists at the fringes who just barely know what they're doing, but do it with passionate intensity. The acting, blocking, cinematography, and sound in Abar are terrible, but the movie is intensely watchable because of its own uniqueness and the ideas and feelings it gives vent to. Not much of the movie is Abar's superpowered reign of niceness; most of its length is a sustained debate between the brilliant Dr. Kincade, who wants the freedom to live where he chooses to live with his family, in a white part of town, in spite of the immediate presence of racist whites on his front lawn with pickets and Nazi emblems; and Abar, the urban radical who urges a retrenchment in the Black community, to clean up their own problems while presenting a strong outward face to the white oppressors (and every white person in this movie is a bigoted asshole).

I'm also a fan of movies that are either so uncaring of Hollywood mainstream tradition (or so incompetent) that you never know what's going to happen next. For example, why the sequence where the movie suddenly jumps back to the 1800s where Abar is a cowboy hero saving Dr. Kincade's 40 acres and mule? The best answer is, why not? Of course, the movie's greatest narrative surprise is that it ends with a curious, almost lyrical sequence in which Abar, having transmuted malt liquor into milk, apparently makes the entire White race disappear from the face of the Earth, and proceeds to stride down the newly empty streets of Los Angeles to the most triumphant sections of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Funny what squeezes out of our collective heads when nobody's looking.


Monday, March 17, 2008

10,000 B.C. (2008)

I was all set to enjoy this one, since in years past I've enjoyed Roland Emmerich'sIndependence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, but oh man, this one is no good. When your movie pales in comparison to the Godzilla remake, you've got problems.

It's almost exactly the same movie as Apocalypto - tribal warfare sets a young hero on a journey through a primitive world to a corrupt city, with pyramids, even. But whereas Mel Gibson's movie actually had a perspective and something to say through a detailed recreation of pre-Columbian life, Emmerich is only interested in the hollow CGI spectacles of wooly mammoths and slaves building pyramids.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that- my enjoyment of Emmerich's earlier movies mostly stems from his ability to show us things that we've never seen before, from alien spaceships destroying American cities to vast weather formations wreaking havoc on, er, American cities. In his own adolescent, uncomplicated way, Emmerich is a visionary.

But in this movie, it feels like he's just going through the motions. The spectacle of huge pyramids being constructed by swarms of slaves and mammoth stampedes and giant flightless birds are impressive, but pointless. The narrative is just your standard self-actualization through special effects for young men, because who can prove their mettle if not by leading a multi-ethnic army of slaves against a phony god-king?

On the plus side, for a movie that's five hours long, it really flies by and only feels like 3 or 4, tops. In addition, I applaud the effort that seems to have been made to make the various 'good guys' an inclusive, multi-racial group with the hero's tribe consisting of Caucasian, African-American, Asian, and Middle Eastern actors, (including the always reliable Cliff Curtis). But the movie also falls into the same lazy trap of 300 by having the bad guys be effete 'Eastern' barbarians.

Basically, if the movie had been willing to be sillier and less earnest, with so many ponderous mid-Atlantic speeches and pointless narration, and with some more honest violence or unpretentious thrills, it could have at least been as entertaining as Lucio Fulci's Conquest or The Beastmaster. I am, however, looking forward to the sequel, 10,000 C.B., about a group of prehistoric truckers.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Be Kind Rewind (2008)

So I think your enjoyment of this film is going to depend on your tolerance of whimsy, and how important you think 'coherence' is vs. 'emotion' in a movie. Personally, I think Michel Gondry's newest film is terrific, an ode not just to movies in general but to what they mean to us as people, as members of a society and a larger culture.

This isn't a movie like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (which I hated) or Sin City (which I liked), where the filmmakers get off on rehashing the cinematic achievements of yesteryear. Gondry is smart enough to illustrate the process of movie literacy: most of today's filmmakers start like Be Kind Rewind's Jack Black and Mos Def, literally re-creating scenes from their favorite movies verbatim, as those kids who made the shot-for-shot Raiders of the Lost Ark remake did, or as way too many people who go to film school do - when I was at USC it seemed like half of the class projects were cheap imitations of the style of 24 or Scorsese or Borat. But after a while that gets boring (for some people - for others, never) and you have to move on to telling your own stories, and Gondry dramatizes this in a lovely way, by showing a distressed, working-class neighborhood uniting under the spell of homemade art, finding both escapism and self-reflection in their own stories.

Special notice needs to go to Jack Black and Mos Def for their easy-going charm and improvisational skills, but also to the rest of the cast for simply acting like real people, not movie people, the kind who pop into a film just long enough to deliver some exposition or get saved from peril by the hero. Gondry could use a little more discipline in his screenwriting, but I'm happy to take some messiness if the result is this sweet.

One extra notice: I was mostly lost in the recreation scenes of Rush Hour 2 because I'm pretty sure I never saw it - I assume Gondry was obliged to include at least one high-grossing New Line movie, and since Peter Jackson was suing the company, the Lord of the Rings movies were out. Kind of sucks, but it's probably better that we didn't have to deal with Jack Black's impersonation of Austin Powers.


Sunday, March 09, 2008

Forrest Gump (1994) & Contact (1997)

So the way it worked was, after Roy Scheider died I rented 2010 and watched it for the first time in probably fifteen years, then I felt like watching another alien-contact movie and I had Contact in my stack of movies I haven't seen in a long time, and that was around Oscar time so I rewatched Zemeckis's Oscar-winner.

Forrest Gump is a tricky movie. It was never the full-on conservative screed that its attackers claimed it to be (the common complaint is that Forrest was rewarded for being a simpleton in the turbulent '60s, while girlfriend Jenny is punished with a lifetime of misery and death by AIDS for being politically aware), and it's not a mere feel-good heartwarmer. If the movie was summed up in one sentence, it would have to be: "The last forty years: what the f*$& was all that about?" The central irony of the movie is that while Forrest doesn't understand what's going on around him, we-the-audience do, and the effect is to decontexualize history through his perspective - John Lennon is no longer the Beatles member and Plastic Ono Band associate, but merely a nice young British man who Forrest met one day and who was murdered years later. The movie's intention is to reiterate, in fresh terms, the tragedies of the era, and what Zemeckis did was to make a movie about the contemporary American memory of the 1950s-'70s, rather than about the actual history itself. There is a flattening of history at work here, but Zemeckis doesn't distort the past any more than David Lean does in Doctor Zhivago or Robert Altman does in MASH - in each movie it's history as Macguffin, using actual events as springboards for specific artistic goals. If you lived through the specific events described, I can understand why this kind of movie might be distressing, but for someone like myself who's the child of Baby Boomers, I feel like that's missing the Forrest for the trees. (Sorry.) Just look at the last shot of Forrest Gump, the widowed Forrest sitting forlornly on a bench as his son gets on a school bus, and you see what the movie really has been all along: a lament.

Whatever you think of Forrest Gump's ideological issues, it's a very well-crafted, crowd-pleasing piece of work (granted, the movie totally jumps the shark around the 1:55 mark, when in rapid succession Forrest invents jogging, the smiley face t-shirt, and the "Shit Happens" bumper sticker) which means that when Robert Zemeckis suddenly found himself an official Oscar-Winning Director, he had to live up to it, and thus made Contact, almost certainly the most blocky, talky, stiff movie of his career.

I'm an astronomy geek, so I have a soft spot for the big load of scientific jargon that Contact lays down, its warm Carl Sagan-derived optimism, and its mostly intelligent debate between science and faith. Which is all to say that I can only forgive it for Jodie Foster's shrill, uptight performance (in twenty years she'll be the star of a Hillary Clinton biopic), the unnecessary presence of Matthew McConaughey as a hipster neo-Christian religious leader, and the tediously earnest dialogue exchanges. I still think it's a good movie because of what style Zemeckis lends it, and because it addresses issues of science and our place in the universe that few pieces of popular culture bother with, but it's also a good example of an earnest Hollywood vehicle striving for importance where a less direct approach, as in Spielberg's Close Encounters or hell, Men in Black, yields greater success.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

"Bush to veto waterboarding bill"

This is why George W. Bush is the worst President to occupy the White House in living memory. This is why his legacy needs to be swept away from the history of the United States of America. This is why Americans of all stripes should be ashamed of our elected government and be working for a new generation of leaders to bring America back into the community of nations, to rebuild our credibility with the rest of the world.

This is literally disgusting.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Parallax View (1974) and Klute (1971)

An Alan J. Pakula double feature at the New Beverly, especially nice for watching master cinematographer and 'prince of darkness' Gordon Willis's widescreen compositions and moody lighting on the big screen.

I had seen The Parallax View before back in college and written a paper about it, but seeing it now confirmed one of my initial impressions: it's kind of a mess. Parallax is a fully paranoid, post-'60s thriller produced by and starring Warren Beatty as a small-time reporter who stumbles into investigating a shadowy corporation that may or may not be involved with a massive conspiracy to assassinate political leaders. In this world, the paranoia is bone-deep and the conspiracy has tendrils at every level of society, from the highest levels of government down to a local small-town sheriff. Even the politician targeted at the film's climax is a pitch-black joke, a Presidential candidate more interested in telling golf jokes and flirting with campaign aides than taking on the world's problems - he's no Bobby Kennedy, and he's barely even a George Wallace.

There's nothing wrong with the craft of the movie, Willis's cinematography, or Beatty's smart, angry performance, but the movie awkwardly tries to straddle a dry '70s naturalism with a more moody, expressionistic sense of visual dread and darkness - sort of as if Robert Altman had tried to remake a Fritz Lang film. And it could have worked, except that the screenplay has a rambling, uneven quality that never really lets us get too close to any characters or any emotions aside from dislocation. I'm a fan of conspiracy thrillers, but this one feels too much like an exercise. All that said, within the flawed package there are a number of great individual sequences, including a dazzling montage at the movie's midpoint that dissects the American dream and illustrates the spiritual malaise of America in the post-Watergate era. Given that the movie was made right at the height of that period, it's not a big surprise that the movie should give vent to the most dismal, pessimistic attitudes of the time and not have much room beyond that for characterization.

Pakula's Klute, meanwhile, is a very different animal, a more conventional romance/thriller that could have been made in the 1940s with Bogart and Bacall, except back then the movie would have been more interested in the hard-boiled detective's sense of moral outrage and honor instead of the personal emotional crisis of a high-class prostitute, which is what we get here.

Klute's set-up is classical: Jane Fonda's jaded call girl has to work with Donald Sutherland's uptight detective to solve a case. From that simple starting point Pakula takes his audience into a realm of subtle yet pervasive visual menace and modern psychological insight. Fonda's Bree Daniels is a sometime-actress and model who's managed to build a cozy little nest of denial in her secret life. Suddenly she's forced to come face-to-face with the seedy side of the world she's fallen into, and to open up to interactions with a man she can't seduce and manipulate, and who she finds herself falling for. That makes the movie sound like it has a conservative slant (detective gets hooker to wise up) but this is balanced by the movie's lack of moralizing about Bree's role as a prostitute, that she serves her clients' emotional needs more than she does their physical ones; and the movie's general sense of sympathy towards the have-nots, as highlighted in a scene where a pair of frantic heroine addicts are denied their fix by the presence of Sutherland, obviously a cop, in their apartment. A lesser movie would have smirked at these junkies, but Pakula chooses to simply watch and silently commiserate with the couple in their moment of woe. Add in Fonda's Oscar-winning work and Sutherland's understated yet strong supporting role as John Klute, plus a world-class creep performance from the movie's bad guy, and you have a modern classic, which I'm glad to have finally seen.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Charlie Bartlett (2008)

Just because this movie is going to be a staple on Comedy Central in a couple of years is no reason to punish it unduly, or ignore that it's generally charming and likeable.

Just like Max Fischer from Rushmore, Charlie Bartlett is an intelligent, ambitious young man with little in the way of conventional social skills, but with a deep need for love and acceptance. In fact, Max and Charlie have so much in common, that screenwriter Gustin Nash begins Charlie Bartlett with a fantasy sequence of peer approval which the lead character is abruptly woken up from, just like the opening of Rushmore. From that point on, there are plenty of parallels, but director Jon Poll doesn't have Wes Anderson's unique visual sensibility and the movie typically makes safe, conventional teen-movie decisions. When you're borrowing the same back-of-the-car sex scene from The Girl Next Door, you can't be given too much credit for originality.

But let's move on from that and give Charlie Bartlett credit for what it does have, which is a sharp cast and a reasonably engrossing story that, even if it's not breaking any new ground, at least holds your attention for an hour and a half as Charlie uses his intelligence and empathy (and financial resources) to help his fellow students with their hidden problems and anxieties and in the process learns that popularity isn't the most important thing. Special credit should to go newcomers Anton Yelchin, Kat Dennings, and Tyler Hilton as Charlie, his teen love interest, and the school-bully-with-a-heart-of-gold, respectively. Faint praise? So be it, but charm shouldn't be underrated, even in our post-Juno world.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Celebrity Sighting of the Day

Lindsay Lohan, if you can count not really seeing somebody as a 'sighting'. I understand she was in the same Hollywood bar as I was at the same time, but since she wasn't accompanied by her usual halo of paparazzi flashbulbs I didn't actually notice her.

Anybody else up to anything?