N E W
While I was entertained for the duration of this critically lauded film, I found the ending to be totally out of character for this film. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the end somewhat spoils the movie, betraying the tone and style of what had come before. Natalie Portman got a lot of positive notices for her performance, and she does the best that she can with the material, but Zach Graff's screenplay unfortunately doesn't make her out to be anything greater than a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Graff's disenchantment with his shiftless school friends is palpable, however, and the film definitely keeps the viewers interest. It just doesn't really amount to much in the end.
Which is, in an interestingly postmodern twist, the point of the film. Life, Graff is saying, is about the journey, not the end. This is literalized in a sequence towards the end of the film, which plays out very poetically (you see it coming from a mile away, but you don't mind too much).
There are a few deleted scenes in which Graff interacts with Ian Holm, who plays his father. I was somewhat annoyed that those scenes were cut, and not just because I'm such a huge Ian Holm nut. These scenes address some of the issues about life and death that the film sort of skirts around... in a sense, cutting these scenes kind of softened the film's tone, and I feel blunted its purpose. Furthermore, there is an extended version of the climax of the sequence I mentioned earlier that plays much better, more human, than the truncated version that appears in the film. It would have been nice if these scenes could have been added back to the film with seamless branching, but given that this DVD has a few features on it, I guess I shouldn't be expecting a "director's cut" anytime soon... Donnie Darko notwithstanding...
Lisa Cholodenko's brisk comedy introduces us to newly graduated psychiatrist Christian Bale, who is moving to L.A. for his residency with his fiancee, Kate Beckinsale. While they search for an apartment, they will stay at one of his mother's houses in Laurel Canyon; she is a record producer who has just finished an album with one of her bands, and shouldn't be there anymore, but... SURPRISE... the record company is demanding a single, so she's still there with the band. Bale has spent his entire life rebelling against his mother's chaotic lifestyle, and is therefore very uptight and conservative. His fiancee, however, doesn't find her or the unnamed band, led by Alessandro Nivola, so bad, actually. In fact, she actually finds her... quite... pleasurable. Meanwhile, Bale runs into Natasha McElhone at work, and... well...
His mother is played by none other than Frances McDormand, and there's no doubt as to whose film this is. From the moment she first appears on the screen, McDormand owns it completely. Her scene-stealing performance as the fun-loving Jane is the best aspect of the film. An outspoken stoner with a slippery bed but firm opinions, she may not have a grasp on some of the bigger-picture issues, but she knows damn well what she likes. This is a character who has found her niche in the music industry, and her anarchic life (and work) style is something Bale is very embarrassed about.
The film nominally tells a story, but its more about Jane than anything else. This is fine because she's being played by McDormand (who looks like she's having a ball playing the polar opposite of Elaine Miller from Almost Famous), but the film stops dead when she's not on the screen. This is not the fault of the cast, who are all very good. The problem is that since Bale is playing a character who aspires to be boring, he comes across as... well... boring. Nevertheless, the film was quite entertaining, and a great vehicle for McDormand.
Speaking of fine performances, Helen Mirren delivers a whopper of one in Pieter Jan Brugge's staring into the abyss drama. Marriage and death are the topics under discussion here today, and this is in context of a kidnapping, so one can tell already what a sunny film this is going to be.
It's not bad, really. The cast is formidable, featuring Robert Redford, Willem Dafoe, Nivola again and Matt Craven, and they all do excellent work, although Mirren's work is the most interesting. It's just that the subject matter of the film is so bleak, and Brugge's style is so distancing, that it isn't an easy ride. There's a lot of good stuff here, though. Definitely worth seeing if you're into good acting... and planning on following it up with something a bit more upbeat.
Will Smith is surprisingly good in this film, which can best be described as Bland Runner. It has every opportunity to touch on meaty issues, and disappointingly sidesteps them each time. The designs are crap, the plot is heavy and dull, the effects all look like cartoons, Marco Beltrami's score is decidedly banal (an annoying letdown after his splendid gothic scores for the three Guillermo del Toro films he did, Mimic, Blade 2 and Hellboy), James Cromwell is shamefully wasted, the "whodunit" is solvable from the moment the killer is introduced... where was the Asimov?
I know that the film was originally written with no relation to Isaac Asimov and that all references to his work (the Three Laws, Susan Calvin, etc.) was an afterthought, but to see it demonstrated with such... such... blatant disregard for anything is just... ugly.
Furthermore, the film is very inconsistent with its own points, and not in any good sort of thought-provoking, ambiguous way, I mean in a messy, confused way. The film has a Butlerian Jihad thing that never really goes anywhere, and horrific appearance of the robots themselves should have been downright embarrassing to the filmmakers. I'm sorry, but there can be no menace from a face like that, and watching these robots battle one another was more goofy than thrilling... the "robot fight" from Eurotrip was more engrossing than this. What happened to the Alex Proyas who made Dark City?
The biggest issue that I have with this film, however, is that it was almost going to be about something good. There were ambitious topics that are touched upon, but the opportunity to explore them is invariably wasted (although Smith gets to deliver a decent soliloquoy explaining his distrust of robots that is a better backstory than this movie deserves). If the action were better executed, perhaps the film could have been forgiven this, but the action sucked and the issues brought up are often too interesting to bat away for some boringly presented robot chase. The execution of "Sonny" is meant to parallel the death of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, and it shows how off-the-mark the filmmakers were when the overwrought, ingratiating antics of the former fall flat and make the death scene laughable, while Batty spent the entire length of Blade Runner wantonly killing, but still manages to evoke sympathy when he finally checks out.
This movie sucked.
Meanwhile, this film, which recieved almost unanimously tepid reviews, really shone.
The film takes place in the not-too-distant future, and it is so brilliantly depicted. Except for a few cards at the beginning of the film describing Code 46 itself, director Michael Winterbottom throws you into the water and says swim. Aspects of the world these characters inhabit gradually become revealed over the course of the film, and every single one of them is fascinating.
Reviewers were turned off by the relationship between Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, citing that the chemistry between them was off. This is perhaps, in context of how the film plays out, one of the stupidest criticisms one can level at the film. Furthermore, how can one expect unbridled passion in the world that is shown here? No, what one sees here is perfectly fitting to what we learn about this world and the characters themselves over the course of the film.
This was one of the most stimulating science fiction films I've seen in a long time. If I were to have to compare it to previous films to give an idea as to where its pitched, I'd say that1 it has as many ideas floating around in it as Zardoz, but is more concise about exploring them (a flaw of Zardoz that John Boorman admits to in the DVD commentary track of that film). It is more ambitious in scope than Andrew Niccol's stately Gattaca, and also somewhat messier in its human relationships. Like Jean Luc Godard's classic Alphaville, there are no special effects, and real, yet exotic locations are used to give the film an authentic air.
I found this film to be a superb example of filmed sci-fi, with a great indie feeling. The globe-trotting production sounds like it would have been interesting to learn about, but other than a brief documentary that's kind of like an "HBO First Look," there are no extras to be found on this disc. It figures that the film I would be most interested in here would have the least amount of information available.
R E V I S I T E D
* * * * * *
I first saw this film in a class on Robert Altman taught by Royal S. Brown. It was taped off of Cinemax or something (on Beta, so it was a pretty good recording), and it was one of the most transfixing yet bitter films I'd ever seen. This came out on DVD a few months ago (I was actually informed of this by my Film Theory professor as a comment on my filmography as listed in my mid-term paper on Altman and Popeye) and I have just finally gotten to watch it.
Well, the DVD is a revelation because, as was typical for Altman's films of the 70s, California Split was shot in anamorphic Panavision, and his faux-documentary aesthetic fills up the entire frame. This is one of the most alive movies ever, with every nook and cranny of the image full of detail and characters. Altman's roving camera takes us directly into the world of a compulsive gambler, presenting both the allure and the revulsion. Joseph Walsh's screenplay (he also appears in the film as a bookie) is very knowing, and the language is straight up. The millieu is depicted with such verisimilitude that one can practically smell the stale cigarettes and that odor icky of a bar bathroom.
The film centers on Bill and Charlie, the former played by George Segal, the latter by Elliot Gould. The two have fantastic chemistry, and one understands immediately why Bill gravitates towards the effusive Charlie. Segal handles his role wonderfully; Bill's addiction to gambling has begun to wear him down but he feels revitalized by Charlie's happy, go-lucky attitude. Gould, for his part, is sublime. This is a very different character from his schlub take on Phillip Marlowe in Altman's brilliantly deconstructionist The Long Goodbye, and Gould creates something wonderful.
The film was promoted with the horrific tagline, "A jackpot comedy about two compulsive gamblers." The film is a jackpot, all right, and there are many parts of it that are very, very funny. But I wouldn't call it a comedy. It is way too real, way too bleak in its own way. There is something definitely bitter about the film, as it is uncompromisingly about men dealing with an addiction. It is fun to watch, however, and it is a great character study. Gould and Segal are so good, and their interaction so memorable ("Captain Midnight!!!" "Brrrrr..." "Bong!!!" and the Seven Dwarves...) that you don't mind taking the trip with them, even in the latter portion of the film, some of which is decidedly ugly.
No less fascinating than the film is the DVD's sole extra, a commentary track featuring Altman, Walsh, Segal and Gould. The four of them have an amiability and are completely comfortable with one another (they have a lot of history), and its pretty cool company to be hanging out in. Like most group commentaries, they have a tendency to congratulate each other on their work, but the track is informative, and Walsh is very forthcoming with where many of the ideas were generated and at probing the others for how they accomplished what they did.
Robert Altman is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers out there. While he has certainly made a few stinkers, he has also created more masterpieces than any other prominent American filmmaker I can think of right off the bat (save Alfred Hitchcock, and he was a Brit working in America) over a greater span of time. An overview of his filmography easily shows not only how prolific he is, but at how dead-on he is so often.
Many of his films that may not have found an audience in theaters seem to be finding new ones on DVD, which is interesting. California Split, along with Images, Three Women, Quintet (and others) were never available before on home video. As of this writing, three out of these four films have been not only been issued on DVD, but as special editions... and in anamorphic widescreen to boot (the unjustly maligned Quintet remains unreleased)! These films are masterpieces that I only had the opportunity to see because Royal had an extensive library.
Back to Altman's oevre: acknowledged great works such as M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (perhaps his best ever), The Player, Gosford Park and so on (all on DVD, all with extras) are also supplemented by extremely diverting romps, such as Brewster McCloud (not on DVD yet, but I have the laser), and Popeye (no extras, but great sound on that 5.1 track!), and middle ground material such as Short Cuts (just re-issued by Criterion with all the features from the laser) and Vincent and Theo (not out on DVD yet)... there's so much to mine in each film, so much going on, such a feeling of life (okay, not with Quintet, but it's still an interesting movie... and a great score by Tom Pierson) in each one to keep one occupied for a very long time.
And he's still out there.
I didn't get to see much of Tanner '88 when it was first on, and I wasn't very politically savvy at the time, either. I expect that a collaboration between Altman and Garry Trudeau might be very, very interesting to me today, however. To tie in with the broadcast of Tanner on Tanner, Criterion has released Tanner '88 on DVD... the idea of Robert Altman fucking around at a political convention just makes my frickin' mouth water... even if it isn't going to be in Panavision. I am very strongly inclined to pick it up sight unseen. I'm also intrigued by the concept of Tanner on Tanner, though I will wait until I have seen Tanner '88 to check that out (it will come out on DVD soon enough).
Perhaps the time has come for me to join up with Netflix...
(with no LJ cuts)
Wow. I haven't done this in a while.
It felt good, though.
Sorry to be clogging up your friends pages.