The Orphanage(12/28/2007)

 

            Spain has recently emerged as one of the most important European countries for film productions.  It’s no coincidence that Spain is tied with Germany as the nation that has won the most foreign language Oscars this decade.  The Spanish film industry has produced such great cinematic talents as Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Alejandro Amenábar, and of course the great Pedro Almodóvar.  Spain is also a frequent stomping ground for the great Mexican genre filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who choose to make his recent crossover hit Pan’s Labyrinth in Spain.  Now Guillermo del Toro, acting as a producer, has made a film with a man who could well end up on the same level as the aforementioned filmmakers: Juan Antonio Bayona.

            The film is set in an old abandoned orphanage on the coast of Spain and centers on a woman named Laura (Belén Rueda) who was briefly raised at this orphanage and now wants to restore it.  Laura is raising an adopted child named Simón (Roger Príncep) with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and soon plans to bring a new set of children to be raised at the orphanage.  As Laura prepares to re-open the orphanage, Simón begins to tell her about a number of imaginary friends he’s made, who she dismisses as the result of loneliness and boredom.  But Simón continues to act increasingly strange until finally he disappears in one of the film’s most intense scenes.  Distraught, Laura begins to explore what happened to Simón and begin examining the supernatural as a possibility, she continues on a search that leads her to uncover the Orphanage’s grizzly history and the frightening secrets within.

            The Orphanage is by no means the most original film you’ll see this year, in fact several of its features will be quite familiar.  The story at first feels like a take on The Sixth Sense, before it becomes something more along the lines of The Haunting.  Like many other ghost stories the film uses creepy children to freak the audience out, and it also has a scene with a psychic medium straight out of Poltergiest. Additionally Bayona seems to idolize del Toro a little too much as the setting is very reminiscent of del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, and the ending (though very good) feels a bit too close to Pan’s Labyrinth for comfort.  However, it is in the way that these familiar elements are so perfectly brought together and perfectly executed that makes The Orphanage such an effective thriller, it’s as if they took every play from the ghost story playbook and brought them all together in just the right order. 

            I’m generally unimpressed by horror films because they all too frequently fail to actually scare me.  In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever been scared by a movie, not even by classics like The Exorcist.  I’m not trying to sound like some kind of tough guy, in fact I’m the first to admit that I’m a complete coward whenever it comes to real life situations, just never when it comes to movies.  Though I’ve never found myself “scared,” every once in a while one will get under my skin and make me shiver; further, I do react to suspense, tension and the occasional cheap jump scene.  As such, The Orphanage is like the perfect horror film for me; this is filled with great atmosphere and manages to build the tension perfectly, than has something jump out at you at just the right moment.

            This is a film with no discernable CGI, at least none related to the moments that are supposed to scare you, and it also as almost no gore.  This flies in the face of even the best horror movies coming out of Hollywood (or anywhere else for that matter) recently.  Even the (few) major successes of the genre lately have either had to resort to gore (The Decent), or CGI (The Ring), but not The Orphanage.  This is a film that relies almost entirely on traditional techniques to provide scares, namely disturbing imagery and straight up suspense.  It takes a real stroke of brilliance to be able to get so much suspense out of a door closing.

            The major selling point here is the suspense and the scares, but these are backed up by a strong, if not overly original, story.  Part of the movie’s brilliance is that it actually provides the main character with a plausible reason not to simply get the hell out of the haunted orphanage while she still has a chance, namely that she is trying to find her son, who she believes has been kidnapped by the ghosts present in the orphanage.  The Laura character and her desperation really shine through here, thanks in part to Belén Rueda’s great performance.  I also really liked how the script managed to set things up in an unobtrusive way and bring them back later on.  However, this script does fall back on cliché a bit more than I had hoped from a Guillermo del Toro production.  This is not really the first time we’ve seen any of elements on display here, it’s just that they’re rarely all done this well in a single movie. 

            It’s ultimately this lack of true originality that just keeps The Orphanage from being something truly great, which is unfortunate because this really could have been the ultimate ghost story.  However, that should not diminish the fact that this is a very solid thriller that deserves to be seen on the large screen where its atmosphere and tension can really play out.   I’m very excited to see what first time director Juan Antonio Bayona does next, as this is a truly solid debut.  I’m inclined to wonder what Bayona could have done if he had made 1408, which was probably the more original haunting film made this year, but it wasn’t nearly as tense or downright freaky as this.  If the best elements of both films had come together that would really make one hell of a ghost story.

***1/2 out of four

The Diving Bell and Butterfly(12/26/2007)

 

            There have been many films made about handicapped people overcoming the odds and making a good life for themselves.  Most of them are sappy “inspirational” garbage designed to appeal to Hallmark greeting card readers.  The Diving Bell and Butterfly is a film that takes similar subject matter and attempts to make a real work of art rather than a sentimental fluff piece. 

            The film tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the successful editor of Elle Magazine, who at the age of 43 had a massive stroke and found himself paralyzed from head to toe.  After this debilitating stroke, Bauby was left with only his left eye under control.  Bauby eventually comes to terms with the state he’s in and find a system to communicate with in which a nurse list off the alphabet and he blinks when they get to the letter he wants.  Bauby eventually decides to write an entire memoir using this system, the memoir on which the film is based.

            A lesser film would take the perspective of Bauby’s doctor, physical therapist or wife.  Such a choice would have resulted in an inability to truly emphasize with the film’s real protagonist: Bauby himself.  To fully put the viewer in Bauby’s shoes the film’s first act is almost entirely from his point of view.  The camera becomes Bauby’s eye, it turns as his eye turns and when he blinks the viewer sees it as well.  This would seem like a very claustrophobic technique, and indeed it is, but to a good end.  The viewer really comes to empathize with Bauby and realize his plight. 

            Eventually Bauby comes to accept his situation; at this point the camera moves away from his point of view and the film take a more conventional third person style.  Oddly, once you begin seeing Bauby as he has become, he becomes even more sympathetic than he was during the claustrophobic point of view parts.    It’s hard to judge Mathieu Amalric’s performance, as he has the challenge of performing with only one eye.  It’s hard to tell how much of his work is raw human performance or how much is makeup.  The film does have a number flashbacks with Bauby in his former glory, and Amalric is fine during these portions.

            Other good performances can be found from Marie-Josee Croze as Bauby’s physical therapist and Emmanuelle Seigner as the mother of Bauby’s children.  The real acting highlight however comes from the legendary Max Von Sydow, who plays Bauby’s 92 year old father.  Sydow is only in two scenes but he really steals the show, the second scene is particularly touching. 

            The man most responsible for the success of this film is the New York film director and professional artist Julian Schnabel.  A lesser filmmaker would have done everything in his power to try to emphasize the tragedy of Bauby’s situation and/or the triumph that was his ability to write the book.  Schabel, however, realized that Bauby’s story spoke for itself and decided to simply tell the story as best he could, then let the audience come to their own conclusions.  The result is a beautiful movie that tells an inspiring story in a way that never feels schmaltzy or insults its audience’s intelligence.  In the wrong hands this flm could have been as bad as such disability movies as Children of a Lesser God or Radio.  Instead what is delivered is a film more in the tradition of Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot or Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside.

            Like My Left Foot, the film never makes the mistake of turning its main protagonist into a saint simply because he’s disabled.  Bauby was fairly self absorbed before he had his stroke and he never really treated his children’s mother very well.  Schabel does not judge Bauby, but he also doesn’t overlook these aspects of his life the way something like A Beautiful Mind does.  Instead the film looks at Bauby as a complex human being with both good and bad qualities. 

            The film’s ultimate message is that it is best to keep hold of your humanity even in the worst of situations.  Jean-Dominique Bauby managed to accomplish more with one eye than many able bodied people were able to, but again, this is no mere message movie; it’s a complex character study of a man in an extreme situation, as well as a fascinating look at his day to day life.  The audience is treated with anecdotes about the everyday struggles Bauby faces, like not being able to change the channel on his television or having to make telephone conversations through an interpreter.  Occasionally his plight reminded me of an even poorer soul in Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun who didn’t even have on eye or the ability to hear as Bauby did.

            This is a beautiful and inspiring film that dodges all the traps that beautiful and inspiring movies all too often fall into.  A triumph of both style and substance; this is a fascinating, non-formulaic work of art from a brilliant filmmaker who will go to any length to tell a story as best as he can.

**** out of four

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street(12/23/2007)

 

            Tim Burton’s grim adaptation of Sweeny Todd is probably one of the grimmest musicals ever produced by a major studio.  The film could best be described as a cross between Chicago and Eastern Promises, a combination one doesn’t instantly expect to see. The film is based on a Stephen Sondheim musical that debuted on Broadway in 1979.  I know very little about this or many other Broadway musicals, so this was my first experience with Sweeney Todd. 

            The opens as the title character (Johnny Depp) returns to London after a fifteen year exile in Australia.  Todd, who was known as Benjamin Baker before his Exile, was a barber married to a woman named Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly).  This marriage had been cut short by a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) who sent Baker away and kidnapped their daughter.  After Baker returned he quickly found an old friend Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who informs him that since he departed his wife had killed herself and his daughter is still living with the judge who caused all this trouble.  Todd vows to have his revenge, and to do it he plans to lure the judge to his barber shop where he plans to cut his throat.  In the meantime Todd and Lovett decide to rejuvenate Lovett’s meat pie restaurant with a newly found source of free meat.

            Johnny Depp’s ability to create characters seemed particularly apt with this project.  The art on the Sweeny Todd playbill make this look like the part Depp was born to play.  However I really wish Depp had streached himself for the role a little more than he did.  As it stands his Sweeney Todd character is little more than an extention of his Edward Scissorhands character.  Depp has the same blank face on through most of the film, I would have liked a little more emotion from him; there is little of the rage her that one would expect from someone bent on revenge.  Depp’s singing voice would probably not impress a Broadway musical vet, but it works for the movie.  He joins a long tradition of male leads like Rex Harrington, James Cagney, and Yul Brennor who can’t really sing, but can fool the audience into thinking they can. 

Helena Bonham Carter also looks like a perfect fit for the part of Mrs. Lovett, but she has been criticized for her singing voice much more harshly than Depp.  I however do not share that sentiment, I thought Carter’s singing voice sounded fine, although she did sound a lot better when partnered with other singers than when she sang alone.  Alan Rickman is always great as a villain and this is no exception, his musical role is not as extensive as either Depp or Carter, but he sings his one song pretty well. 

Also present is Sasha Baron Cohen, who has a small role as a flamboyant con artist who has a barber duel with Sweeny Todd.  Cohen is appropriately over the top here, but his performance is ultimately in support of a weak character.  Cohen’s segments simply strike me as an attempt at humor that wasn’t very funny.  The young assistant of Cohen’s character, Tobais (Ed Sanders), eventually take’s on a larger role in the film.  Sanders’ singing voice actually sounds better trained than a lot of the star’s, but it also didn’t really fit the scene’s as well; it sounded a lot more like it was recorded in a studio and dubbed in than it did with the other actors. The final addition to the cast is a young sailor named Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), who seems like the romantic lead from a normal musical, he makes quite a contrast to the rest of these throat slashing freaks.

            The film’s music is probably its most compelling element, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the songs here but I was pleasantly surprised.  While the film’s orchestration was good but it seemed fairly typical of Broadway music, Sondheim’s lyrics on the other hand were extremely catchy.  The film was full of catch, fast paced and well rhymed lyrical exchanges that were consistently fun to keep track of.  The film’s story was really told through lyrics, this isn’t the type of musical where the songs are interruptions in the film’s narrative flow, but rather this is a musical where the story and its underlying mood are entrenched in the music.  Unfortunately, I was consistently annoyed by the film’s sound mix which placed too much emphasis on orchestration and frequently made following the lyrics a chore.  This wasn’t bad enough to kill the songs but it was a constant irritation. 

            Tim Burton’s design skills are in full swing here; this twisted vision of Victorian London is consistently fun to watch.  The film mixes the city-scapes of Batman with the dark, gothic turn of the century revisionism of the under-rated Sleepy Hollow.  This is a very dark film both in its tone and photography.  The cinematography uses de-saturated colors throughout and goes to great lengths to contrast this throughout.  One particular highlight of the design and photography on display here is a sequence where Mrs. Lovett fantasizes of an escape from this dreary world, but it’s clear that there’s no place for the chronically depressed Sweeney Todd in this fantasy world.

Juxtaposed with all the blacks and blues of the films normal color pallet is the extremely bright and jarring red bursts of blood during the murder scenes.  Make no mistake; this is an extremely violent and somewhat depraved film.  There are murder scenes here that would make Wes Craven blush. Not only are there violent murder scenes but there’s also a disgusting subplot about a business that learned to get raw materials from the Leatherface school of small business.  None of this material would be overly shocking to the average horror veteran like me, but to a mainstream musical audience it may be very shocking.  One wonders what the audience of this film is.  Musical fans would be disgusted by the gore, and horror fans would be turned off by the music.  The likely audience for this will probably be emo kids, which is unfortunate because this film does deserve better than to be lumped in with that retarded sub-culture.

            While Stephen Sondheim’s music is the film’s major strength, his story is one of its biggest weaknesses.  The film’s storyline really isn’t that different from any revenge film, and by the film’s anti-climactic finale I couldn’t help but ask myself “what’s the point of all this?”  The film tells us nothing we haven’t already heard about the nature of revenge and none of the characters are as complex as the story thinks they are.  The film, despite its elaborate sets, is oddly stage bound.  Most of the action takes place in Lovett’s hellish restaurant/barbershop and the film’s script seems to expect the evil judge to come to this crappy set rather than having Todd seek him out in the larger world of London that’s been set up. 

            Despite my reservations about the film’s ultimate storyline, I’m still going to hesitantly recommend the film because of the grade-A Burton atmosphere and visual styling.  The story is fairly empty, but I enjoyed the film when I experienced it in the moment and there is some real brilliance in the music even if the songs are poorly mixed.  This is definitely worth seeing for fans of Burton and/or Sondheim, just don’t expect the story to blow you away.

*** out of four

Atonement(12/19/2007)

 

            It seems that every year a movie emerges whose identity is so completely tied to its chances of winning an Oscar that its actually strengths or weaknesses begin to take a back seat.  People talk so much about the odds of the film getting an Oscar that they forget to talk about the movie itself; often this actually leads movies like Cold Mountain and Dreamgirls to not even be nominated.  This year the overhyped Oscar frontrunner is Joe Wright’s Atonement, an epic romance based on the uber-acclaimed Ian McEwan novel of the same name.

            The film is set in 1935 England on a country estate owned by a wealthy man named Jack Tallis.  Jack has two daughters; the first is the thirteen year old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) who has taken to writing.  The other daughter, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), is in her twenties and has become engaging in some sly flirtations with the housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy).  Through a series of misunderstandings, the young Briony comes to believe that Turner is a sexual pervert, and because of this she baselessly accuses him of a sexual assault that had occurred on the estate.  Turner is sent to prison and is eventually let out to join the army when World War two begins.  Before they are separated, Turner and Cecilia declare their love for one another. 

            Atonement is a hard film to summarize, and an even harder film to discuss, without revealing many of the film’s twists.  From the description, it would be easy to confuse this for a Merchant-Ivory style costume drama, but that is not accurate at all.  Though the film begins at a country estate, the film does not delve into all the usual issues of class and etiquette one would expect from such a setting.  After the film’s first act that setting is abandoned and the film ventures into the wider world of WW2 era England.

            Part of what makes the film special is that it never reveals what its central conflict is going to be.  Initial it appears to be a conventional romantic conflict with Robbie trying to win over the heart of Cecilia, then it appears to turn into a Homeric story of a man trying to return to his lover, then the story’s perspective unexpectedly shifts and the film goes down a different and more unique path.  Because I don’t want to reveal this perspective shift and its importance, this review is going to be very hard to write.

            Because perspective is such a prevalent theme in the film, it must employ a variety of tricks to allow various scenes to be seen from multiple points of view.  This is one of the elements of the movie that works best.  The film consistently employs interesting tricks to depict the passage of time and tell parallel stories.

            The performances here are all solid but not transcendent, mainly because the actors avoid showing off.  You will find no Academy baiting in the acting here, which is in some ways a relief.  James McAvoy has the most actively transformative performance here and must be believable on both a country estate and the Normandy battlefield.  McAvoy (who was Forrest Forest Whitaker’s scene partner is last year’s The Last King of Scotland) really makes his presence known here.  Keira Knightley, who doesn’t have as much screen time as the film’s advertising would leave you to believe, is also quite nice as Cecilia.  Finally there is the character of Briony who is played by Saoirse Ronan at 13, and later by Romola Garai at 18.  Both actresses manage to convince the audience that they are playing the same person.  I’m not sure whether Garai was trying to play an older Ronan or if Ronan was playing a younger Garai or they both planned it out, either way someone did a great job in the role.

            Joe Wright emerged in 2005 with a fairly solid adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  Though that Jane Austin novel was a work the world did not need another adaptation of, Wrights ambitious visual style was a breath of fresh air; it was a bad project to establish a directorial style with.  Here Wright is again using crisp cinematography but with a more subdued color pallet to match the slightly more melancholy story.  Gone are the widescreen vistas of Pride and Prejudice, though they appear to still be present in the first act, they disappear as soon as the war starts.  That doesn’t mean Joe Wright has taken to some sort of neo-realist approach, it just means that his style has been adjusted to fit the mood of this very different source material.  The highlight of Wrights visual trick bag is a five minute tracking shot showing the Dunkirk beach during the evacuation.  The extended tracking shot is an old trick that’s been used many times before, but it hasn’t quite worn out its appeal yet, it is still a very impressive stunt.

            Less successful is Dario Marianelli’s overbearing orchestral score that seeks to guide the viewer through the film’s emotional peaks and valleys with very little subtlety.  This is not bad music, but it does become an annoyance, the sound mix places way too much emphasis on it.  Marianelli also made the poor decision to incorporate the sound of a typewriter into the score and use it to mark moments of thought and emotion that occurs onscreen, but ultimately only annoys the viewer.

            What really justifies this film and makes everything really come together is a very strong ending which I wouldn’t even dream of giving away.  I’ll just say that it is a very creative ending that is completely unexpected, but also a little bit abrupt.   

            Ultimately Atonement is a very strong piece of work that avoided all the literary clichés I was afraid it would fall into.  I wish I could talk more about it without spoiling it, but I think my vague descriptions will ultimately help the viewer more than a spoiler heavy review.  This is a well made movie that I have a lot of respect for, but I wish it hadn’t waited until the last fifteen minutes to really explain itself, everything before feels like an elaborate set-up to a great reveal.  This is a movie that’s easier to respect then love, but still it should definitely be seen.

***1/2 out of four

I’m Not There(12/17/2007)

 

            Bob Dylan is one really weird guy.  This is a man who went from being a kid from Hibbing, Minnesota to being a folk artist, to being the voice of a generation, to being a rock and roll legend, to being a recluse, to being a born again Christian, only to emerge in the 90s as a revered musical legend.  That’s a lot of changes for one person to go through; that’s why he’s such a hard person to understand and, more importantly, such a hard person to document.  Martin Scorsese’s excellent PBS documentary No Direction Home needed 208 minutes in order to explain just two of these transitions.  In making a dramatic biopic about Bob Dylan, many filmmakers would try to downplay all of these contradictions and transitions.  The fearless and experimental filmmaker Todd Haynes however has decided to do just the opposite with I’m Not There, an unconventional but fascinating project that attempts to dissect the Dylan person by casting six different actors as the central figure.

            I should start by establishing my level of experience with Bob Dylan.  Like many people from generations to emerge after the height of Bob Dylan’s fame, I first embarked on a Dylan Odyssey in high school simply to see what all the fuss was about.  Like most I started with his seminal album “Highway 61 Revisited” which at the time didn’t do much for me aside from “Like a Rolling Stone” which is a pretty hard track to dislike.  However the question of “what’s all the fuss about?” continued to nag me, and I began to explore his folk roots.  I could respect some of the political messages in this folk music but the acoustic instrumentation kind of bored me; I was a hardcore rock fan and the sound of a single guitar didn’t do much to excite me.  However there was a certain something that kept making me want to come to Dylan. 

            The more that I’ve learned about Dylan the more I’ve come to respect him, but respecting him isn’t the same thing as liking him.  I definitely love a good handful of Dylan’s greatest hits; “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “Master of War” are among a select cannon of Dylan track that I definitely love.  However I definitely stop far short of the praise if not worship that many people place on the guy.  I like the guy and respect his work, but many people go way further with their extreme praise than I’m willing too.  

            I mention all this because I’m Not There is definitely a film for Dylan’s existing fans.  Unless you’re already familiar to some degree with Dylan and his career, this movie will be nearly incoherent.  That’s not to say you need to be an expert, but you will need to know the basic outline of his life story.  The No Direction Home documentary was just enough of a prerequisite for me to mostly understand the film, and you may also want to read through Dylan’s Wikipedia page before you go. 

            The film uses an outlandishly unique style that greatly differentiates it from conventional music biopics like Walk the Line.  This is less of an exploration of Dylan’s life than it is about his persona and particularly its evolution.  To do this, Todd Haynes has created six characters that represent separate Dylan personas.  Each of these six characters is played by a different person and is shot with a different film stock.  None of these characters are actually named Bob Dylan and it is questionable whether they are actually supposed to be linked.  This isn’t nearly as disorienting as it sounds and there is a method to this madness.  The problem though, is that some of these segments work better than others.

            The first segment depicts a young Dylan as played by an eleven year old African American child named Marcus Carl Franklin.  This young man, who goes by the name Woody Guthrie, is meant to represent the Dylan youth of myth rather than reflect his actual childhood.  This is why Haynes went to the extreme length of changing Dylan’s race, it is meant to show that these stories Dylan made up about his youth were supposed to be outlandish, that they were never meant to be taken seriously.  These segments, shot in lush 35mm, are actually some of the most enjoyable parts of the movie.  It is really understandable why Dylan would make up this type of story, it’s some of the most entertaining stuff here.  Franklin, interestingly gives one of the film’s most memorable and interesting performances, this kid may have a good future ahead of him.

            The second person to play Dylan is the relatively unknown Ben Whishaw.  Whishaw probably has the least screen time of all these characters and his character is less specifically tied to any single period in Dylan’s life.  His character, Arthur Rimbaud, appears to be Dylan before fame but after he emerged on the New York folk scene.  These portions of the film are shot on grainy, cheap looking black and white film stock in a fashion that appears to be mimicking the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back.  Rimbaud mainly enters into the film time to time via interview footage in order to act as something of a conscience for the various characters.

            The third portion of the film, and one of the less compelling shows Dylan during his glory folk days.  Here he is called Jack Rollins and is played by Christian Bale.  Haynes doesn’t seem to have many insights into Dylan at this stage.  The Rollins version mainly only seems to be here in order to establish his relationships, and act as a face during a somewhat misguided diversion into mockumentary.   This is also the only version of the character that is allowed to change without switching actors.  It is Rollins as played by Bale, not some other performer, who is present during the Christian part of Dylans life.  This was mainly done to underscore that this born-again version of Dylan really was the same guy who wrote “Blowing in the Wind.”  Bale appropriately looks more like the real Dylan than any of the other actors. In the movie Blae looks nearly identical to Dylan’s photograph on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”  However Bale is never really given the screen time to do much with his performance other than imitate.  Also problematic is the aforementioned mockumentary footage which slows down the film and is a little to cute about replacing Dylan’s name with the name Jack Rollins.

            The fourth and probably most talked about persona is that of Jude Quinn, as played by Cate Blanchet.  I don’t know what Todd Haynes was smoking when he came up with the idea of casting Cate Blanchet as Bob Dylan, but I’m glad he was smoking it, as this is one of the most compelling potions of the film.  Jude Quinn represents Dylan as he went electric and was shunned for it.  These segments, shot in slick high contrast black and white, take a surreal approach and borrow the visual style of Fellini’s 8 ½.  These segments work the best mainly because they contain the most interesting conflict throughout the film.  Quinn finds himself at odds with his fans massively over-reacting as he tries to change his musical style.  This conflict eventually manifests itself in Quinn’s war of words with a spiteful journalist played by Bruce Greenwood named Keenan Jones (yes, the Mr. Jones).  Cate Blanchet’s give one of the most unique and interesting you’re likely to see for a while; she not only gets the look and mannerisms of “Blonde on Blonde” era Dylan, but she also manages to convey his internal struggles very well.  Interesting as this persona is, a little bit of it goes a long way, and this is where the film started to drag a little bit.  There is one really unpleasant scene in some kind of art gallery with Dylan tripping out, that really tried my patience.

            The next persona is that of Robbie Clark as played by Heath Ledger.  This is the persona of Dylan as he exited the public eye and focused on more personal troubles.  Interestingly, Clark is not supposed to be a musician as these other personas were, but rather an actor who co-stared with him in a movie called Grain of Salt.  The idea here is that this is the real Dylan finally emerging while the other personas were all roles to some degree.  Ledger pretty effectively plays on of the most down to earth roles in the film, and is also the best part of these segments.  This portion is where the film began to confuse me a little, possibly because my main resource on Dylan’s life was No Direction Home which cut off after Dylan’s motorcycle accident.  Ledger is what really keeps this portion working because this is where the film really begins to drag. 

            The sixth and final segment of the film frankly makes the casting of Blanchet seem completely natural.  This portion features Richard Gere as Billy the Kid.  Billy roams through some vast landscape modeled somewhat after the old west, but decorated like some kind of crazy circus.  The setting seems to be some kind of crazy Americana mishmash.  What occurs at this point is completely surreal and trippy.  I’m sure Haynes had some sort of grandiose intention for this scene, but to be perfectly honest, it mostly just weirded me out.  Clearly this has something to do with Dylan’s role in Sam Peckenpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, but I frankly can’t figure out what the point is otherwise except that it leads to a fairly nifty ending that brings everything full circle.

            Unlike the pretentious and plodding musical biopic La Vie En Rose, Haynes has a very compelling reason for employing such an outlandish format.  The film is about changes, why Dylan changed and how Dylan changed.  The use of different actors accentuates these changes in a way that makes it very easy to separate them over the course of the film.  The film places many of these segments out of chronological order, but unlike La Vie En Rose (which used such a tactic for seemingly no reason other than to differentiate it from other biopics), this is done for a very specific reason.  Had Haynes maintained a chronological order the film would have felt extremely episodic, almost like a collection of short films rather than a single whole.  Also unlike La Vie En Rose this chronology never felt disorienting because of the multiple actors and film stocks (although in all fairness to La Vie En Rose, I knew significantly more about Dylan ahead of time than I did about Edith Piaf).

            Those looking for musical performances of major Dylan hits may go away disappointed.  I’m Not There’s soundtrack focuses more on album tracks than on major hits.  “Blowing in the Wind” and “All Along the Watchtower” only make very brief appearances and “Like a Rolling stone” isn’t heard until the end credits.  However the film is not without its musical moments.  There is a very nice, if brief, bluesy take on “Tombstone Blues” during the Marcus Carl Franklin segment, and there’s a very well performed version of the song “Pressing on” from Dylan’s mostly forgotten Christian period during Christian Bale segment.  But the real musical highlight here comes during a great montage in the Cate Blanchet segment where “The Ballad of a Thin Man” is performed by the Cate Blanchet persona as Mr. Jones finds himself embarrassed and begins to fight back.

            I’m Not There is a sprawling, ambitious film that sometimes feels like a bit of a glorious mess.  What’s missing here is the happy ending where Dylan emerges from obscurity in the 90s to make Grammy winning albums like Time Out of Mind.  Martin Scorsese wisely choose to end his No Direction Home documentary at Dylan’s motorcycle accident giving it a fairly simple rise and fall narrative.  In going pat this point but not as far as Dylan’s 90s comeback, Haynes has basically made a film about how Dylan went from being the voice of a generation to being a boring jerk, and that is not a particularly compelling character arc. 

            Of the six narratives, I loved the Franklin one, was indifferent to the Whitshaw one, had grave problems with the Bale segments, felt mixed feelings about the Blanchet parts, slight boredom during the Ledger parts, and was downright confused by the Richard Gere parts.  A simple tally of this would seem to suggest I rather disliked I’m Not There, but that’s not really the case.  Even in the segments that didn’t really seem to work as a whole there were a lot of moments that I really loved and the whole film generally manages to flow with a certain disjointed energy.  There are a lot of good and interesting performances here that are well worth checking out.  The film is definitely worth checking out if only to admire Todd Haynes’ genuine experimentation but one should be warned that your enjoyment of the film would seem to be directionally proportional to how much you like Dylan.  Like my own opinion Dylan himself, there is a lot here to turn me off, but also a lot of individual parts that I really liked.  It’s a film that keeps making me want to come back to it in my mind, if only out of respect.

*** out of four

Juno(12/14/2007)

 

            It’s amazing how frequently duels emerge between similar sounding films that get released over the course of a single year.  Last year the big duel was between a pair of magician related films The Prestige and The Illusionist; most will agree that the critical and financial winner of that duel was The Prestige.    Many may remember the asteroid duel of 1998 between Armageddon and Deep Impact, a duel that shows how many of these match ups are superficial; both films involved asteroids but ultimately were pretty different.  This year the big coincidence matchup is between a pair of unwanted pregnancy comedies, the Judd Apatow comedy Knocked Up, from earlier this year and the new independent darling from Jason Reitman: Juno.

            The film’s title character, Juno (Ellen Page), is a precocious sixteen year old girl who walks to the beat of her own drum.  Juno and her platonic male friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), found themselves having sex once mostly out of boredom.  This act of experimentation has resulted in Juno finding herself pregnant.  Juno considers but ultimately rejects plans to get an abortion and tells her parents (played by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) about her condition.  Her parents are not happy about the situation but manage to keep a snce of humor about it.  Looking at al her options Juno begins to strongly consider giving her baby up for adoption and finds a pair of yuppies (played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) willing to take the child. 

            The success of Juno is mostly rooted in the likability of the characters, specifically Juno herself as played by Ellen Page.  Juno is a unique character who’s easy-going attitude is the source of most of the film’s humor.  Juno has a style all her own, she has above average taste in music and slasher films and also speaks with a vocabulary of invented slang which is always a pleasure to hear.  She is a larger than life character, almost an Annie Hall for the 21st century, and like the Annie Hall character I suspect Juno’s style will be imitated over the next few years.  Most of Juno’s charm derives from Ellen Page’s excellent performance that fills the character with humanity.  The twenty year old actress inhabits the characteristics of a sixteen year old in a transformation reminiscent of Alison Lohman’s underappreciated turn in the 2003 Ridley Scott film Matchstick Men.  More importantly, Page is able to deliver some highly stylized dialogue in a very organic and believable way.

            The rest of this ensemble cast is also completely solid.  Michael Cera has been having a great year with breakthrough performances in Superbad and this film.  His character is not the film’s strongest, but Cera is almost perfect for the role.  Another “Arrested Development” alumni featured here is Jason Bateman playing Mark Loring, the potential adoptive father of Juno’s baby.  The character is a musician who composes advertising jingles but claims to have once opened for The Melvins.  He gets into arguments with Juno over whether 1993 or 1977 was a better year for rock and roll (his arguments in favor of 1993 is of course correct, but she makes a good case for 1977).  Jennifer Garner’s performance as Loring’s wife is probably the strongest of the film’s supporting characters.  Garner adds a certain sadness to the role and does a lot with limited screen time.  Also worth mentioning are J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s parents.  Simmons, who is probably best known for his turn as a white supremacist prisoner named Vernon Schillinger in the HBO original series “Oz,” manages to make his role both gruff and caring at the same time.  Allison Janney, playing Juno’s mother, should be given special credit for managing to make one scene involving and ultrasound work when it would have failed miserably in any other hands.

            Diablo Cody, a first time screenwriter, has a real knack for writing funny dialogue that is quirky but not absurd.  The film’s dialogue is one of its best assets and it would have been its biggest problem were it not so well written.  One should not forget that this is a comedy and one that doesn’t disappoint.  There are a lot of very funny moments here and they are all well deserved and naturalistic.  The film is populated with likable, and multi facetted characters to grow and develop over the course of the film.  By the films end none of the viewers initial impressions of any of the characters prove to hold up over the film’s duration.  I’m going to avoid giving away the way these characters change over the course of the film, but I will simply say that this screenplay is full of surprises.

            Superficially, Juno would seem to fit very well into the mold of independent comedies like Rushmore, Garden State, and Little Miss Sunshine.  If the movie has any problem it is that it is occasionally a bit to conscious of its place in this movement.  This is particularly notable in the film’s first fifteen minutes where the dialogue is a bit to sharp, the soundtrack is a bit too ironically hip, and the opening credit sequence is a bit too quirky for its own good.  However, the film quickly abandons these indie conventions and like the Juno character, begins to forge its own identity.   If this is anyone’s fault its Jason Reitman’s; this director’s last film, Thank You for Smoking, was also a little bit to conscious of its place as satire.  There’s still room for improvement for is Jason Rietman’s skills as a director, but he’s delivered a hell of a sophomore effort.  He’s definitely on my directors to watch list.

This small annoyance is hardly enough to have tainted my experience with Juno.  This is a charming, lovable film, which is loaded with sheer likability.  As for the inevitable comparisons with Knocked Up: I think it’s a non story.  Knocked Up for adults” I’d object to this simplistic characterization, firstly because this underestimates the tastes of teenagers, secondly because Knocked Up deserves more than to be called “Juno for juviniles,” thirdly because the entire comparison is pointless.  These films are every bit as different as Deep Impact and Armageddon were, and that shouldn’t be an insult to either party.

This Oscar season is going to be filled with dark, challenging films, and there’s nothing wrong at all with that.  But cinemagoers deserve this highly enjoyable oasis in dark this holiday season. 

**** out of four