Friday, August 25, 2006
Written and Directed by Francois Ozon
To a great extent, the premise of French director, Francois Ozon’s latest film, LE TEMPS QUI RESTE, reads like a daytime drama storyline. An attractive 31-year-old photographer is told he has an extreme cancer that has spread through his body. It cannot be removed and, though treatment is an option, he does not have a strong chance of survival. He has but a few months left to live. What elevates this film above the potential for clichéd melodrama is the way the photographer, Romain (played by Melvil Poupaud), reacts to this news. He has little time to resolve his life and relationships. He has little time to fully embrace who he is. Yet he does not make peace with everyone in his life, one by one. Instead, he avoids the whole damn thing. Only, as he avoids, he manages to find the foundation of these relationships and begins to understand their significance, how they have helped shape the man he is. He puts his life into perspective his way and finds out that all this time, despite his selfish existence, he has also been a part of something much bigger.
LE TEMPS QUI RESTE is thankfully brief as no one wants to spend too much time watching someone die. It does however make the most of the time it has. When Romain first learns the news, he avoids sharing it with anyone in his life, from his family to his boyfriend to his employer. As he sits at a family dinner and people ask what is new in his life, it is painful to watch him say nothing, especially as he continues to withdraw. Poupaud’s performance humbles Romain as he goes from cocky and assured to constantly being overwhelmed by his own grief. He looks afraid to say that he is dying, to make it real, to place that pain on anyone else. Instead, he buries it and suffers silently. You want so much for him to reach out to the people who clearly love him that when he doesn’t, you just want to wrap your own arms around him. When he finally does share the news, his choice of confidante is calculated. He chooses to tell someone who can understand because, as Romain so plainly puts it, she too will be dying soon.
Along with Romain, the viewer has some resolution, some peace brought back to a time of chaos. Romain spends so much time convincing himself that the people around him do not need nor deserve to know about his condition because their relationships are so complicated. Only his solitude brings him the clarity necessary to remember how these relationships began. More importantly, these memories are the ones he associates most cleanly with naïve, unchecked happiness. With death imminently waiting for him, the search for happiness that he gave up on is rejuvenated when he sees how close he was to it all the while. Romain’s memories come to him at random moments and their nature demonstrates the talent of Ozon as writer and director. They are simple memories that may have seemed all too simple at the time they took place but these memories went on to bring Romain closer to others and himself. And as the memories come more frequently, he learns to integrate them into his current reality. Thus when he goes, he goes having lived a short but full life.
Death is a construct, an inevitability, a mystery, a fear to face. In LE TEMPS QUI RESTE, it is also a process that is nothing more than the last clue to understanding your life. In Romain’s final moments, death becomes necessary to complete the journey, a journey that would mean nothing at all if it weren’t ending to begin with.
Monday, August 14, 2006
Written by Michael Arndt
Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is this year’s Sundance breakout and nearly all the press its received thus far has lauded it as, well, a little ray of sunshine to carry audiences through the last month of summer. It is the independent underdog that will tickle your funny bone, stimulate your mind and warm your heart. This little movie has so much to live up to and it has barely even gone wide at the moment I am writing this. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE isn’t generating its own buzz; it’s having its buzz generated by the machine that wants so badly for it to be that movie it could. Y’know which one I’m talking about. The smaller, simpler movie that allows a more mature audience to wind down their summer, to let the ringing in their ears from all the explosive blockbusters subside. What the machine doesn’t understand is that the movie that fills that particular void is not manufactured. It is genuine and it earns that honour all by itself.
This honour is not one I feel LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE would have earned if it weren’t manufactured for it. Albeit an endearing film with authentic moments of hilarity and sentiment, it is often disconnected and unresolved. The dual director team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris create a believable family unit by giving each member their own personal touch. Dad is a failed motivational speaker; Mom has to deal with loser dad; Grandpa has a heroine problem; older brother has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a fighter pilot; and gay uncle Frank is fresh out of the hospital after trying to kill himself. Dealing themselves such a diverse hand of characters leaves many opportunities to cross the line between quirky and just plain awkward, which they do more often then they should. Then of course there’s Little Miss Sunshine wannabe herself, Olive. With an earnest enthusiasm and innocence beaming from her face (like a ray of … sorry), untouched and uncorrupted Olive reminds the family that they are in fact a family. It’s a lovely story but it is one that only takes shape in the final moments of the film. Prior to that, each character’s individual problems guide all of their own motivations and they only barely have any depth past these problems. Shifting each characters’ focus outwards gives the film some much needed structure but it leaves many an issue either unresolved or resolved far too quickly.
The ensemble cast of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE reigns as the true heart of this organism. Cramped together in their yellow mini-bus, many different personalities fester. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are the heads of the family. Collette is merely a device to highlight the failures of her husband through her aggravation with him. Kinnear’s role however is hefty and he stridently carries that weight as an emasculated patriarch who preaches his failed life lessons to his daughter because she is the only one still buying them. Like another successful family piece, Noah Baumbach’s THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, the influence of the parents on the children manifests before your eyes in a difficult and painful fashion. Steve Carrell plays suicidal uncle, Frank, like a seemingly dormant volcano that may or may not erupt. You just can’t tell. His mystery is heartening and shows promise for his developing capabilities.
As a critic, shedding expectations is a higher state of being I try to achieve before I watch anything. I don’t read other reviews before I see the movie or even before I sit down to write my own, all as an effort to keep it real (dawg). It only takes a quick glance at a magazine cover to get whether people are hating, liking or really loving a movie so it is hard to avoid entirely. But as much as I try to approach each film with a fresh piece of paper to write on, buzz manages to influence the way we see things. When I’m told that something is really solid and it isn’t, even just a little, my disappointment is magnified. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE has so many things going for it that what it is lacking makes it all the more frustrating because you really want it to live up to the hype. Still ...
Sunday, August 6, 2006
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
MATCHPOINT was a welcome and impressive return for Woody Allen as a director and a writer. Lush art direction and intuitive camera movement framed performances that brought Allen’s best script in over a decade to a dangerously high boil. It was sensual and provocative with deeply layered imagery. It earned four Golden Globe nominations, an original screenplay Oscar nomination and made this critic’s best film of 2006 short list. It now seems its success has spawned a somewhat awkward offshoot, a relationship between Allen and lead actress of both MATCHPOINT and Allen’s latest picture, SCOOP, Scarlett Johansson. According to the SCOOP press (or perhaps a spirit appeared to me and told me about this while I was being dematerialized, I can’t be sure), Johansson and Allen enjoyed their quick-witted off-screen banter so much that she felt it a shame that the two did not have any plans to work together on camera. I suppose its possible he too felt this was a sad situation, or I suppose its also possible he saw this as a great way to spend more intimate time with his new muse, but anyway you look at it, Allen decided to write a script that would feature the two as the film’s leads. And so SCOOP was born, the story of an American journalism student in London who is on the verge of uncovering the identity of the infamous tarot card serial killer and thus breaking a ginormous story that will give her budding career an enormous head start. Great for her but SCOOP negates in an hour a half all the momentum Allen regained in the first two brilliant minutes of MATCHPOINT. I laughed my way through SCOOP but most of the time I was laughing at the entirely ludicrous root of the story and Allen’s obvious concessions in his script that were necessary to make it still questionably plausible.
Is this exchange between Allen and Johansson really worth all this trouble? Admittedly, they play well off of each other, both in their limited capacities. Hers, despite exhibiting a drastically wide range of emotions in MATCHPOINT, is her sometimes-hollow comedic delivery and his is that distant, glassy look that comes naturally with age but here makes him look like he’s drifting in and out of his senses. They meet when he calls her on stage. He is a magician; she is his unsuspecting audience member who must step into a box. Then, because it was in Allen’s box that she first encounters a spirit that gives her the scoop while she is being dematerialized (now that earlier comment makes sense to you, it?), she insists on solving this mystery with Allen’s help. They quickly become inseparable despite having any good reason to be in this caper together. He is constantly tripping over the lies the pair tells to get close to their suspect, often nearly ruining all their work. Meanwhile, he has no real stake to gain by helping her at all. A typical scene will have the two snapping back and forth, reaching points where they both alternately ask why they bother with the other, followed by the two inexplicably reconciling and eating dinner together.
Allen has been directing films since the 1960’s. He should have been able to spot some fairly simple story adjustments that would have better justified the pairing of the two. Instead of perhaps lying to people about Allen being her father, maybe he could have just been written as her father. No way Daddy will walk away and let his daughter investigate a serial killer no matter how much she yells. Instead, Allen plays a relative stranger, leaving the only reason for them to spend time together being that they share some solid chemistry and the same sense of humour. Oh, that was the reason for writing this to begin with. And that glassy look that Allen sports onscreen also found its way off-screen. SCOOP’s aesthetic elements are strained and clumsy. The set designed for the boat to Hades scenes (yes, you read correctly), looks cheap and static. It doesn’t even appear as if the boat were moving amidst the abundant smoke from the machine off camera. The framing and camera work are also uncomfortable and sometimes amateurish. As I found it difficult to focus on anything other than the strange movement, I just became sad realizing the depth and purpose in MATCHPOINT’s aesthetics may have been fleeting. Thank God Hugh Jackman is on hand as the suspected serial killer to distract with his effortless talent and impeccably smooth good looks.
It isn’t entirely fair to repeatedly compare SCOOP to its predecessor, MATCHPOINT, but I cannot comprehend how the same person directed the two. MATCHPOINT has so much cunning and energy whereas SCOOP suffers from Allen’s longtime philosophy that there is no reason why he cannot unleash one movie every year. Here's the reason, Woody. The result is a rushed work full of holes that expose it as a weak excuse to indulge two actors’ egos. Chemistry alone does not a good movie make, especially when the chemistry in question is far from perfect. Um, see MATCHPOINT instead.