Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Dead Girl: Morbid Malaise

"The biggest problem with The Dead Girl is that it doesn’t offer anything rewarding for the viewer other than the novelty of each individual story."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

We Are Marshall: Mob Mentality at its Finest

"Audiences may be skeptical about the need for yet another football movie this year but We Are Marshall nonetheless offers an entertaining piece of uplifting football jingoism. "

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rocky Balboa: One Night with the Champ

"... getting to see Rocky train one last time is probably the three most invigorating moments from any film released this year."

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Venus: Eros & Death

"...Venus is a romantic comedy - of sorts - and every frame of the film relies upon O’Toole’s performance, even the ones he’s absent from physically. "

The Painted Veil: Unmasked Prestige

"In a time when so many movies rely on fractured editing and narrative incomprehensibility, it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a film with such a straightforward and reverent approach to filmmaking."

Monday, December 18, 2006

Charlotte's Web: Spinning its Legs

"On the whole, there isn’t anything that parents will find offensive and young children will definitely be entertained by the plights of Wilbur and his furry friends but experienced viewers will quickly realize that Charlotte’s literal web weaving is far more enthralling than the film’s figurative web weaving."

Friday, December 08, 2006

Apocalypto: Tribal Lunacy

"Apocalypto is old-fashioned storytelling at its most basic level. Moreover, it’s a largely successful piece of filmmaking..."

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Nativity Story: Preaching to the Choir

"...Other than some of the beautiful vistas, there isn’t anything in this big screen production that you can’t already see on the History Channel or your standard Visual Bible video series..."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada: Bitch Work

"The film, based on a best-selling novel by Lauren Weisberger, is cheery and fluffy and goes down as smoothly as the Starbucks confections guzzled by the high-powered, fashion industry impresarios depicted in the film. "

Read my entire DVD review at

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Fountain: Evanescent Immortality

"The Fountain begins as cinematic poetry, gets waylaid with maudlin melodrama and concludes somewhere in between metaphysics and spirituality. "

Read my entire review at

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale: Nobody Does it Better

In the immortal words of Carly Simon in the title track from The Spy who Loved Me, “Nobody does it better.” Quite lofty praise for Mr. Bond indeed. Is it deserved? Well, almost. Is it the best action/adventure movie of the year? Of course not, The Departed is. But that blend of popcorn entertainment, auteur cinema and quality storytelling is an anomaly. In any other year, Casino Royale would likely be the best popcorn action extravaganza. The climactic chase along the Venetian canals easily trumps the half-speed histrionics of Mission: Impossible III and the Bahaman locations that are nearly identical to former Bond Pierce Brosnan’s campy After the Sunset are nonetheless much more captivating and picturesque.

The debut of a new lead actor as the immortal James Bond character is a watershed moment for cinema and it doesn’t matter how many TV spots or production stills you’ve seen, it’s an undeniable thrill to see Daniel Craig pose for the trademark down-the-gun-barrel shot. Craig adopts a new approach to Bond and the filmmakers have complete faith in him. In the final frame of the opening credit sequence, Craig stands front and center and the camera lingers. Yes, he’s blond. Yes, he has blue eyes. No, he’s not conventionally handsome.

I’ve never been very good at comparing Bonds in terms of who’s “the best.” But I can say definitively, Craig is the most intimidating Bond to date. He follows through with what Timothy Dalton tried to achieve but ultimately couldn’t properly supply: a darker Bond with less quips and more introspectiveness. He also exhibits signs of misanthropy and masochism on top of it. For the first time in the series, we sense that if Bond wasn’t a OO-agent, he’d be a terrorist. (The blurred line between cop and criminal being a constant motif in 2006 cinema: from the aforementioned The Departed to the lackluster Miami Vice.)

Another likely first for the series is that Bond shows more skin than the Bond girls. Gender theorists will have a field day with Casino Royale. The lynchpin is the harrowing torture sequence in which a nude Bond is strapped to a chair and has his private parts mercilessly assaulted by the villain. After which, when Bond has been metaphorically neutered, he’s suddenly able to tell the female interest that he loves her. Wacky gender theories aside, the torture scene is pretty brutal, especially for a PG-13 movie. It’s an unforgettable scene and one of the crucial scenes in establishing the film as a unique entry to the series. It’s a scene that will leave audiences shaken, not stirred.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The History Boys: Artificial Intelligence

"...After garnering heaps of critical praise on Broadway and proudly becoming the recipients of “the most Tonys in 50 years” - as the trailer proudly boasts - the entire original cast reunites on screen for what feels more like a reward than a significant contribution to the cinematic medium... "

Read my entire review at

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Flannel Pajamas: A Chamber Drama of Dirty Laundry

"There’s a lot of flab hanging around the edges of this film and while it’s true, virtually every scene has at least one line of insightful dialogue, they aren’t enough to keep the film from dragging its heels on the way toward its inevitable conclusion."

Read my entire review at

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction: The Pen is Mightier

"...And yet, all this derision is not to say that Stranger Than Fiction is a bad movie. It’s an enjoyable and entertaining film, albeit a slight and passively pleasing one."

Read my entire review at

Monday, October 30, 2006

Scrubs Season Four: Still Loopy After All These Years

"... even during its slumps, Scrubs is still one of the more charming and earnest shows on television and it’s hard to fault a show this genuine and eager to please."

Read my entire review at

Friday, October 27, 2006

Babel: Heavy Duty Trauma

"It’s not the movie stars (Pitt, Blanchett, Bernal) who demand the most attention in these continent-spanning stories. Rather it’s the fearless performance by Kikuchi and the heart-wrenching sympathy evoked by Barraza that are the most memorable and emotionally devastating."

Read my entire review at

Friday, October 13, 2006

Man of the Year: Save Your Vote

"...A political comedy of this nature works best as either an all-out farce or a sobering allegory, not the limp shape of a film that Man of the Year adopts. The film works only as campaign material for Williams’ candidacy as a successful talk show host."

Read my entire review at

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Monday, May 08, 2006

Wannabe Intellectuals and the Women Who Love Them

Gender Politics in Dogville and Pierrot Le Fou

Laura Mulvey’s seminal article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” proposes a number of ideas about spectator identification. The revolutionary theories she presented have been refuted and reinterpreted extensively over the past thirty years. Mulvey’s writing pertains predominantly to mainstream narrative features. However, her text is a very useful one and many of her ideas can be applied to films that skewer the fundamentals of traditional cinema. Even two directors with approaches to film form as radical as Jean-Luc Godard and Lars Von Trier have produced works that are applicable to Mulvey’s teachings. This analysis will compare representations of Mulvey’s arguments in a film by each respective director. The two films being compared are Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Dogville (2003). The extreme difference in production time period serves as a symbol for how enduring an argument Mulvey makes.

Ostensibly, the films make an odd pair for this type of analysis. The starting point for comparing the two films lies in the similarities of their lead male characters. Both Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in Pierrot and Tom (Paul Bettany) in Dogville are pseudo-intellectuals who bury themselves in ideals, analytical dissection and philosophical musings. If forced to label them, one could say Ferdinand is characterized by Sartre’s Existentialism in the sense of denying the universe has any meaning or purpose, therefore the individual must take power into own hands. On the other hand, Tom is Derrida’s Deconstruction, dealing with the ways that meaning is constructed and understood by its readers. Their pursuit of academic enlightenment and intellectualism comes at the cost of not being able to identify with their female counterparts. The male protagonists ignore the emotional desires of their lovers and because of this inability to relate to women, they eventually meet their demise at the hands of the woman (Tom’s case) or the woman’s influence (Ferdinand’s case).

One of Mulvey’s major themes is the casting of the male as active and the female as passive - constructing a male gaze that projects its fantasy on to the female figure. “Presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moment’s of erotic contemplation” (Mulvey, 840). Pierrot le Fou reverses this theory in a variety of ways. The female protagonist, Marianne (Anna Karina), is presented alongside Ferdinand as a co-narrator in a few important sequences. Voice-over narrations provided by the two characters are spliced together to give equal time to the characters as they comment on the plot’s events seen in the sequence following their first murder and subsequent getaway. Marianne’s repeated, “Leave in a hurry,” line is delivered with urgency and expediency. Marianne is also positioned as the sole proponent for propelling the plot forward during the middle section of the film. After making it to the island, Ferdinand is content to sit around and contemplate life but Marianne is more interested in living life, complaining about there being nothing to do. This representation inverts Mulvey’s theory, presenting us with an active female and passive male. It is Marianne’s restlessness that directs the film’s plot back onto the path of gun-running and gangsters. In a scene that can be looked at in comparison with Mulvey’s characterization of women in films existing as showgirls who pause the narrative through song and dance, Marianne appears singing and dancing on the beach while meeting with the gun-runner and orchestrating the plan to set up Ferdinand. Marianne simultaneously progresses the plot and appears as a song-and-dance spectacle.

One of Mulvey’s issues that bears greater importance in Dogville than in Pierrot is the practice of scopophilia. The term refers to the primary act of looking itself as a “source of pleasure… taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey, 839). Dogville is intrinsically linked to this practice by its approach to filmic style. Trier considers the work “a fusion film” (Bjorkman 241). He achieves this product by directly incorporating elements of theatre and literature into a cinematic discourse. He instills the medium of literature through the presence of a third-person narrator voiced by John Hurt. The narrator is omniscient and does not appear as a character in the diegesis, a form that Gérard Genette dubs heterodiegetic. The voice-over is excessive and blatantly invokes the literary format through its constant description of events and internal character reflection.

It is in the incorporation of theater that Dogville attains its most scopophilic aspect. In an approach that calls upon Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and the theater of Brecht, Trier shoots the film on a single sound stage with minimal set design. There is the occasional prop (a telephone, a baby carriage, beds, etc.) but chalk outlines delineate houses and walls and characters mime opening and closing non-existent doors. This creates a paradoxically open- and closed-environment for the characters to inhabit. In wide shots, the viewer is given visual access to the private lives of the characters via the absence of physical walls but the characters’ vision is constricted by the diegetic presence of walls. The scene in which this dichotomy is best articulated is Grace’s rape at the hands of Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard). Chuck decides not to inform Grace that the police official is coming and proceeds to blackmail Grace into having sex with him in order to keep him from alerting the police of her whereabouts. In a long shot, the viewer sees the townspeople talking to the police in the middle of the street completely oblivious of Chuck and Grace in the background, despite them being in plain sight for the viewer. To tackle this issue we must address Mulvey’s theory about the three different looks associated with the cinema:
The camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness on the audience. (Mulvey, 847)

The rape scene in Dogville perfectly illustrates Mulvey’s distinction between the look of the audience and the look of the characters. However, the scene fundamentally disproves her statement that narrative film subordinates the look of the audience to the look of the characters because in this example the reverse is true. The audience is privileged over the characters in their unobstructed visual access to the town. Ultimately, this look is subordinate to the look of the camera because the camera decides where and when to look during the filming of the event. The viewer cannot choose to suddenly look at the coal mine or the meeting hall at any given moment because the camera dictates what is present on the visual plane. What the audience can do is look anywhere they like within the frame, something the characters cannot do due to physical obstructions.

The importance of characters looking is reprised in the film’s violent conclusion. After initially trying to defend the town, Grace gives the ultimate order for her father’s gangsters to destroy the town and murder all the townspeople. Seated in the backseat of her father’s car, she is asked if they should open the curtains and look out while the town is sacked. Grace responds, “I think we should open them, it’s appropriate.” She observes the town’s demolition in tearful contemplation, occasionally looking away but always returning to the view of the violence. Grace exhibits a certain kind of pleasure in this sequence as she exacts revenge on the townspeople for her constant abuse. She appears particularly vindictive by ordering that the seven children be murdered in front of their mother while she watches. By forcing the mother to witness her children’s death, she is administering and controlling the gaze upon others. In this sequence, Grace asserts herself as the active male, repositioning her role from that of the one looked at by the townspeople. Mulvey says that in mainstream cinema, the man is positioned as in control of the power “by structuring the film around a main controlling figure with whom the spectator can identify” (Mulvey, 842). For almost the entire narrative, Grace has been the subject of a to-be-looked-at-ness by the townspeople. In this final sequence, she overthrows the hierarchy and assumes the position of the main controlling figure. Even though she achieves this authority through the arrival of her father, she is the one issuing the orders and determining the peoples’ fates. Grace even graduates from looking and proves her physical prowess by shooting Tom in the back of the head. The conclusion reaffirms Grace’s autonomy in the narrative, casting her presence as disruptive to the town of Dogville. While the townspeople’s behavior is held responsible for their fates, it is Grace’s role in the narrative that spurs them to behave in the way that they do.

Given her integrality to the plot’s events and her ultimate act of vengeance, Grace can be positioned alongside Marianne as the active female. However, there are also elements of her treatment that adhere to Mulvey’s hypotheses about the male gaze. At one point Liz (Chloë Sevigny) thanks Grace for redirecting the male characters’ looks to her, implying she was tired of being viewed as a sexual object and glad to rid herself of that kind of attention. Once the townspeople begin to blackmail Grace into working overtime, the men also begin to take advantage of her sexually. The narrator informs us that almost all the men were having their turn with her and it was common knowledge throughout the town as the children would ring the town bell to commemorate each occasion. The narrator says the events could not really be considered sexual acts and they were more a form of embarrassment, akin to the way a hillbilly would abuse a cow. Mulvey says that scopophilia gets complicated when forced to consider the act of voyeurism, which “has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt… asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness” (Mulvey, 844). Sadism aptly describes the way in which Grace is treated after the townspeople find out she is wanted by the authorities in connection with some bank robberies. Grace mirrors their sadistic behavior in her explosive act of revenge.

Tom is one of the few male characters who does not take advantage of Grace’s body. While he has lustful intentions, he does not force her to have sex with him. Instead he takes advantage of her by approaching her from an academic standpoint disguised as an emotional attachment. Tom attempts to position himself as a figure of influence upon the town by holding moral sermons of enlightenment that he refers to as “illustrations.” He takes pride in being able to analyze the townspeople and gleefully informs Grace about all their shortcomings and character flaws. On the fourth of July he pulls Grace aside and confesses he cannot get a read on her. Grace goads him into saying the feelings mean that he is in love with her and tells him she thinks she is in love with him too. Tom responds to this declaration of love with, “Very interesting. Interesting in a psychological…” before trailing off. This instance distinguishes Grace’s feelings as emotional and Tom’s as scientific. Tom cannot reciprocate Grace’s feelings of intimacy and love, becoming preoccupied with his carnal desires. He also disrespects her intelligence after he lies about stealing money from the medicine closet by telling her “I’m here to do the thinking for you.” Tom not only acts as her brain but also as her voice, representing her at the town meetings which she is rarely allowed to attend.

The pivotal scene for Tom’s character is his decision to call the gangsters. After defending Grace at the meeting, he returns to Grace’s house and expects her to have sex with him. As Tom gets on top of her and begins to thrust, the camera zooms out, suggesting that Grace has finally agreed. After a few seconds Grace contests and the camera zooms back in, teasing the viewer’s presupposed notions about camera movement. The narrator informs the viewer that Tom is angry his feelings of temptation have been found out by God and that Grace had become a threat to his career as a writer. “Tom allows sincerity and ideals in life without getting sentimental about it.” Here Tom chooses academics over emotion and uses his experience with Grace as inspiration for the first chapter of his novel. In this way, Tom enacts a type of his own abuse, using her suffering and torture to jumpstart his literary career. Tom’s mistreatment of Grace can be tied in with Mulvey’s psychoanalytic association of the female figure with the threat of castration:
Ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the absence of the penis as visually ascertainable… Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. (844).
Mulvey says the male unconscious has two options for dealing with this, either demystifying her image through rigorous deconstruction, as Tom does, or by fetishizing - turning her into a simple sex object, as the other men in town do.

In Pierrot le Fou, Ferdinand puts a similar preference for writing over emotional attachment to people. Douglas Morrey posits that there is a tendency to “associate Marianne with nature, and with a concrete reality, while Ferdinand is associated with language and abstraction (he spends much of the film reading and writing)” (Morey, 27). It is also important to note how much of the film he spends quoting philosophical thinkers or behaving like characters he has seen in a movie: his driving the car into the ocean is a good example of his penchant for cinematic spectacle. Once on the island all he wants to do is write, telling the camera directly that he wants to write about life itself and create something worthwhile. When Marianne brings out a record, he yells “Literature before music!” Marianne later tells the camera that she wanted to buy a record but all their money was spent on books, which she doesn’t care about. Nor does she care about records or money, she just wants to live. Ferdinand also belittles her when she does not catch a reference he makes to the film Pepé le Moko. Ultimately Marianne double crosses Ferdinand and runs off with the gun-runner she had referred to as her “brother.” It is unclear at what point Marianne decides to double cross Ferdinand. It is possible she was planning it from the beginning and there is also the generic constraint of having a femme fatale in a film noir. But if we look at it sequentially, it appears as a result of his ignoring her needs and desires. She repeatedly tells him she loves him but Ferdinand seems too much in love with himself to reciprocate. A scene early in the film articulates their respective desires. Marianne catches Ferdinand looking at himself in the rear view mirror. When questioned, he says he sees “a man about to drive off a cliff.” Marianne looks at herself in the mirror and says she sees “a woman in love with a man about to drive off a cliff.” Ferdinand admits his self-centeredness and inability to relate to her when he tells the camera, “When Marianne says ‘It’s a nice day,’ what is she thinking? All I have is the appearance of her saying ‘It’s a nice day.”

Both Ferdinand and Tom put their writing before their women and both ultimately pay the price for it. Their demises are slightly different. Tom meets his death at the hands of Grace while Ferdinand kills himself after shooting Marianne. In Ferdinand’s case he gets revenge on Marianne for being double crossed but he loses his mind in the process. Both endings signify their failure to become writers. Even when given the opportunity for repentance, Tom hides behind academics, telling Grace that her experience in Dogville has been an illustration and that a lot can be learned from it. Following this, Grace gives the order to destroy the town. Just before Grace shoots him, he makes one last bid for literary fame, asking if he can use this as inspiration for his writing. Tom’s clear disillusionment over the situation reiterates his incompetence at personal relations. Conversely, Ferdinand regards Marianne as a distraction that keeps him from obtaining literary enlightenment. However, this proves not to be the case as when he has freed himself from her in the end, he blows himself up with dynamite, saying he is tired anyway. Both Dogville and Pierrot le Fou ultimately position their female protagonists as the dominant figures of control over their weaker male counterparts.

Bjorkman, Stig. Trier on Von Trier. London: Faber and Faber, 2003.
Morrey, Douglas. Jean-Luc Godard. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism. Ed.
Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 837- 848.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Lucky Number Slevin: Hedge Your Bets

Lucky Number Slevin marks the reunion between Wicker Park collaborators Josh Hartnett and director Paul McGuigan. Their first effort was a mildly diverting, watered-down remake of a French psychological thriller, L’Appartement. Their second work together is a considerable step-up in prestige.The first element of notice is the massive upgrade in star talent. Gone is Matthew Lillard, replaced by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Lucy Liu, Stanley Tucci and Bruce Willis. The production scale is higher, the violence is more gruesome and the plot is more intricately woven. Unfortunately all these enrichments in talent and resources do not correlate to an increase in quality.

The film’s complex plotting revolves around a case of mistaken identity within the enacting of a Kansas City Shuffle. Bruce Willis plays Mr. Goodkat, a widely-revered contract killer who explains early on that a Kansas City Shuffle refers to a coup in which you make them look left while they should be looking right. So immediately we know the film is going to have a surprise ending. Given the opening credits in which the identity of a killer is carefully disguised, it’s not difficult to guess at what that’s going to be. Josh Hartnett plays Slevin Kelevra, the misidentified man stuck in the midst of a major crime war. Through Goodkat’s careful administration, he finds himself at the mercy of both The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley). The two are in charge of New York City’s most intimidating crime syndicates. There was a time that they worked together but now they inhabit dueling perches in their offices; neither one ever leaving their building for fear of the other’s wrath.

There is also Lucy Liu as Lindsey, the next door neighbor to Nick Fisher, the man Slevin has been mistaken for. Her main purposes in the movie are to be attracted to Slevin and to recap events in a rapid-fire delivery for comedic effect – granted she is good at both. The always entertaining Stanley Tucci is also on hand as a detective trying to monitor the actions between the gangsters. He is solid as usual but his character is the same prickly, self-involved narcissist that he so often plays. Bruce Willis suffers from a similar fate, as he is resting on the soft-spoken, steely-eyed presence he perfected in the 90s. After a string of interesting roles, this is his blandest role in years. Josh Hartnett is serviceable in the lead role but orchestrates his own downfall through his pitch-perfect performance in the romantic scenes with Lucy Liu as opposed to his inconsistency as the sarcastic wise-ass when interacting with the gangsters. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley give performances worthy of their esteemed reputations – there is an absolutely sublime scene where the two talk face-to-face and are given the opportunity to flesh out their characters more than anyone else in the film.

To say that McGuigan directs with visual flair would be to complement his distracting over direction. While there is one scene that is inventive and expedient in the way it constructs a three-way conversation that manipulates past and present, most of the style is just distracting. The filmmakers feel so proud of their clearly CGI-enhanced-shot panning from The Boss’ window to The Rabbi’s window that they not only plaster it in every trailer and TV spot, they have the audacity to play it twice in the movie. There is also a maddening scene in which the camera continually moves back and forth behind a wall during a conversation between Lindsey and Slevin. McGuigan does manage to incorporate two nice visual motifs: numbers and Slevin getting punched, the latter being more the most satisfying of the two.

For those who are fans of the genre, there is a lot to enjoy in its adherence to the post-Pulp Fiction crime film. There is the obligatory monologue about a comic book character (delivered by poor Morgan Freeman), a Hitchcock reference, excessively bloody kill shots, stylish camera work and even a peppy song over the end credits. However, non-fans will tire from the unlikable characters and the script’s desires to continually reverse the viewers’ expectations at the expense of character consistency. Most offensive is the way the film takes pride in being unpleasant and sadistic, only to cop out with a sappy conclusion at an airport, almost identical to the ending that plagued Wicker Park.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Benchwarmers: Bring on the B-Team

There was a time during the mid to late 90s when motion picture comedies were dominated by SNL alumni. It seemed as if every box office success either starred Adam Sandler or someone closely related to him. After a couple of hits, these films became readily identifiable by the helpful Happy Madison production company logo being branded onto these seemingly identical movies about goofy stunted adolescents who often suffer from uncontrollable rage and limited intelligence. They repeatedly find themselves in gimmicky plots that always manage to culminate in their coupling with a tall, skinny, blond woman with mediocre acting skills. To further decreasen distinctiveness, the titles were conveniently named after their lead character (Happy Gilmore) or their lead character's gimmick (The Animal) or even both (Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo).

As time has passed, their success has weakened. The ringleader, Adam Sandler, has managed to survive with box office smashes like 50 First Dates and The Longest Yard while garnering respect by acting in projects that still resemble his traditioal fare but are given prestige due to their director's established talents as is the case with Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish. Aside from Sandler, the rest of the troupe have sunk into mediocrity with embarrassing vanity projects. The Benchwarmers marks the materialization of this degradation for Rob Schneider and David Spade.

Now that the comedy scene is dominated by what has come to be referred to as the "frat pack" (Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, etc.), the Happy Madison troupe has run into trouble headlining films on their own. While a Schneider or Spade vehicle can no longer be relied on to make more than $30 million theatrically (not the end of the world since their films generally carry $15-20 million production budgets and some such as Joe Dirt make a killing on DVD), maybe if they pool their talents then can eek something up to the $50 million mark. And so, The Benchwarmers, a film about three geeky adults who are given the chance to play against the best (and meanest) little league teams to promote tolerance ad affection for the less talented kids in the baseball world, the film becomes a metaphor for the three lead actors' careers. Late in the film, a member of the bully team remarks "they're congratulating him for striking out! The coach isn't yelling or anything!" We assume the director isn't doing much yelling at the actors either, instead letting these three has-beens and second rate movie stars show the bankable stars that the losers can still have a little fun too.

David Spade has shown himself to be humble and resigned about his celebrity status as of late: going on record that the only reason he is still getting work in movies is because of Adam Sandler's wealth and generosity. Schneider has been less admirable, garnering a reputation as a pompous egomaniac but in spite of this he still plays the nice, sensible guy with irresistibly hammy relish. Admittedly the ignominy of has-been is a little harsh on Napoleon Dynamite star, Jon Heder, but his decision to join this crew by-passes his star descent and goes straight to the bargain bin. Problematically, Heder is attached to co-star with Will Ferrell in the figure skating comedy, Blades of Glory. But will this mark Heder's trope ascension or Ferrell's demotion?

As for The Benchwarmers as a movie, there isn't much to say. There are a few laughs here and there but never anything consistent. Jon Lovitz is at the top of his game as always and Schneider, Spade and Heder add at least one or two bright moments each but most scenes are undercut by unjustified vomiting or midget exploitation. The soundtrack mimics the hodgepodge approach to comedy by bombarding us with eclectic pop music with complete disregard for context or synthesizing with the visuals. Recycled opening chords of Dire Straits songs or instrumental refrains from a New Found Glory hit take the place of a musical score. It's as if the record company shoved a bunch of songs on the music supervisor's desk, who preceeded to throw them all in and assume one or two would stick. In their defense, the occasional song works. However one of the successes is the indestructible "Jerk it Out" by The Caesars which has made its way from Ipod commercial to Yours Mine & Ours to The Pink Panther trailers, so no points for originality there. Overall it's pretty poor craftsmanship but mercifully the cast and crew acknowledge this throughout, most beautifully articulated in the final end credit outtake where Jon Lovitz asks "Has this been a big waste of time?" to which Schneider replies, "Yeah pretty much."

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Fiction and Documentary Self-Reflexivity in Breathless and The Idiots

By the mid-1950s, interest in French film was on a steady decline. The major production forces had become preoccupied with “generic historical reconstructions and uninspired literary adaptations” that left the public restless and gave little room for creative pioneering (Neupart, xvii). Fortunately, the end of the decade saw the beginning of a rejuvenation period for French cinema known as the Nuevelle Vague or the French New Wave. The movement was comprised of a series of young filmmakers who were making low-budget films that focused on the youthful sentiments of the time. The filmmakers “followed the lead of the neo-realists, shooting primarily on location, using new or lesser-known actors and small production crews” (Neupart, xvii). While the classification of French New Wave has come to be a bit of a slippery term in reference to exactly what it classifies, Richard Neupart defines the period as lasting from 1958-1964 in his A History of the French New Wave.
Many of the filmmakers (but not all) who headlined this movement began as critics for the extremely influential French publication, Cahiers du cinema. One such critic-turned-filmmaker is Jean-Luc Godard, a name that has become synonymous with the French New Wave. While Godard has long outlived the French New Wave and continues to make films today, his later work became fiercely political and operates in a style somewhat removed from his early work. His films during the French New Wave are characterized as more playful and more reverent of film history and pop culture than his more recent work. His debut feature, À Bout de Souffle or Breathless (1959) is regarded as particularly laudatory of the American cinema and specifically the film noir genre.
One quality that has remained constant throughout his work is his penchant for self-reflexivity. The notion of self-reflexivity, as it is seen in Godard’s work, owes a great deal to the German dramatist of the early 20th century, Bertolt Brecht, and his notion of the “epic theater” or “theater of alienation.” Brecht “called for a fragmented, distantiated, ‘theater of interruptions’ which fostered critical distance” (Stam, 224). The aim was to constantly remind the audience that they were watching a constructed work of art and not a real life occurrence. One of the prominent ways of achieving this was having the actors break the fourth wall on stage and interact directly with the audience, a technique that came to be referred to as direct address.
Transferring this practice to the cinema directly opposed the early practices in film composition that strived to mimic reality, sometimes referred to as illusionism: “the belief that we are in the presence of real events and real characters” (Gaut, 90). Godard achieved a Brechtian distantiation in film through a number of elements; his most innovative feature may well have been his approach to editing. This can be seen perfectly in Breathless. While classical Hollywood cinema followed a highly structuralized editing system of establishing shots and shot/reverse shot sequences and André Bazin continually touted the merits of depth-of-focus and long takes to show continuous motion, Godard looked to instill a fractured nature in his editing process. By using a technique known as the jump-cut (two shots of the same subject cut together with little change in camera distance and angle), he jarred audiences by rupturing the flow of temporal and spatial continuity that had previously been the norm. One of the most notable instances of this appears during the first time Patricia (Jean Seberg) gets in Michel’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo) car. While the two drive around Paris, the shot is held on a relatively static Patricia’s head in the passenger seat but the location radically changes by way of jump-cuts. In this sequence the editing violently calls attention to itself, reminding the viewer that the film is put together by an authorial force. Given that the figure of Patricia is not radically displaced by the cuts, it conveys the impression of a long take that has been abbreviated, as if the camera has decided to cut ahead and skip certain parts of their drive in order to create its own plot.
The scene in which the camera is most anthropomorphized occurs at the beginning of the film when Michel steals the car and the camera seemingly jumps into the passenger seat as if it is along for the ride with Michel. From the amount of hood that is visible we can see that the camera is situated in the passenger seat and the shot takes on a POV connotation through its shaky handheld qualities. In the same scene, the camera definitively asserts itself as an active character when Michel turns and talks directly to it without being spurred by any force other than his internal need to comment on his situation.
Of course, Brechtian techniques and self-reflexivity in film is not a trait exclusive to the French New Wave. Another group that utilizes some of the characteristics set forth by Brecht is the Dogma 95 movement spearheaded by Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. While the movement is not identical to the French New Wave (for starters one of the goals is to avoid valorizing the auteur), it does share the same low-budget attitude in their “practice of rule-following to articulate and circulate a stripped-down and hence widely affordable concept of filmmaking” (Hjort, 31). The French New Wave shot on location and in the streets as a way to avoid studio costs. Similarly, the first entry in the Dogma 95 ‘vows of chastity’ is “Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in” (Hjort, 199). In addition, Dogma was eager to get away from the film of illusion approach which they believed to be “decadent and bourgeois, its supreme task being to fool the audience” (Hjort, 89). One way they combated this was by utilizing a documentary approach to filmmaking. In a sense, this brought a quality of Bazanian realism in that the camera could run for long periods of time while the actors improvised. Even though the Dogma 95 films do not present the sense of realism that we would expect based on classical Hollywood cinema foundations, it does create a sense of documentary realism.
The second film to bear the Dogma 95 seal of approval, Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) playfully straddles the line between documentary and fictional narrative. Since it is in fact a fiction film, the documentary techniques serve as self-reflexive because they draw attention to the filmmaking process and cause the viewer to question what form of cinema they are actually watching. In certain shots we can briefly make out the filming equipment, most notably in the factory scene when the boom microphone is clearly in the frame as the handheld camera jerks back. There is also the element of having the characters perform direct address while they answer questions posed by an off-screen interviewer during confessional scenes scattered throughout the film. Just like Godard physically inserted himself into the film Breathless, Von Trier inscribes himself into the Idiots by supplying the voice of the off-screen interviewer. Godard performed the same function in his 1967 film Two or Three Things I Know About Her, although in that case he alternated between interviewing the actual actress and the character whereas the interviewees in The Idiots stay in character throughout.
Returning to Godard and by way of him, Breathless, another element of self-reflexivity that must be touched upon is the presence of the cinema as a physical site in the diegesis. Author Douglas Morey makes note of this in his book Jean-Luc Godard: “Actual Parisian cinemas feature a number of times in the film as hiding places and lieux de passage and a young woman is seen selling copies of cahiers du cinema on the street” (Morey, 8). It is important here to make the slight distinction between the occasions in which Breathless acknowledges the medium of film and when it acknowledges that the viewer is actively watching a film because of the construction. While the roaming camera, editing and direct address are self-reflexive in the traditional Brechtian sense, the references to the filmic medium often become self-reflexive as well. While it may not be empirically self-reflexive for Michel and Patricia to choose to hide in a cinema while the police are pursuing them or for Michel to mention he worked as an assistant on a film production in Rome, there are times when the medium is acknowledged in interetextual ways.
One such example occurs near the beginning when Michel is trying to round up money from his friends. After having no luck he tells his friend that “Bob the gambler would have helped me out,” to which he is reminded, “Bob is in jail.” This is a direct reference to the 1955 French film Bob le flambeur, a work that is often considered a precursor to the French New Wave. If not indicative of the movement as a whole, it is certainly a great influence on Breathless as it is shot in the similar black-and-white film noir style. The verbal cue is a tribute to Bob le flambeur and to accentuate it visually, the film’s director, Jean-Pierre Melville appears on-screen as Parvulesco. Another example of a director acting in the film occurs when Godard himself appears as a man on the street that recognizes Michel from the newspaper articles. The scene happens just after the lengthy hotel sequence and it is as if we see the director physically reintroducing the conflict after such a long reprieve for the characters.
One scene that blends the role of cinema within the diegesis and the acknowledgement that the viewer is watching a film is when Michel stops outside the theater and regards a photograph of Humphrey Bogart. Morey points out that on several occasions, Bogart’s “mannerism of wiping his thumb across his lips is appropriated by Michel” (Morey, 9). This motif is brought to a crescendo outside the movie theater. The diegetic sound is muted and there is a close-up on the still image of Bogart which is followed by a close-up of Michel in a shot/reverse shot pattern that evokes the standard format of conversation scenes in classical Hollywood cinema. On the cut back to Bogart’s photograph, Michel’s smoke blows into Bogart’s face, emphasizing the spatial proximity of the character to the image. Simultaneously, this scene acknowledges Michel’s desire to mimic his Bogart within the diegesis and the required knowledge of filmic discourse to notice that standard film practices are being manipulated to create the illusion of a conversation between the man and the photograph.
In Breathless and The Idiots we have two examples of early films from two very radical movements of filmmaking. Both are aimed to deviate drastically from the mainstream and as we have seen, one of their main ways of accomplishing this is self-reflexivity. Be it the acknowledgement of fictional filmmaking in Breathless or the acknowledgment of documentary filmmaking in The Idiots, the construction of the medium takes front and center and the films’ perceptions are dramatically changed. The passive viewer of the illusion film has morphed into the active viewer of the self-reflexive film, a viewer who must have a vast knowledge of cultural capital and the filmmaking process in order to appreciate the films on the level that they are designed.

Gaut, Berys. “Naked Film: Dogma and Its Limits.” Purity and Provocation: Dogma 95.
Eds. Hjort, Mette, and Scott MacKenzie. London: BFI, 2003, 89-101.
Hjort, Mette. “Dogma 95: A Small Nation’s Response to Globalization.” Purity and
Provocation: Dogma 95. Eds. Hjort, Mette, and Scott MacKenzie. London: BFI,
2003, 31-47.
Morrey, Douglas. Jean-Luc Godard. Manchester and New York: Manchester University
Press, 2005.
Neupart, Richard. A History of the French New Wave. Madison: The University of
Wisconsin Press, 2002.
Stam, Robert, and Toby Miller. Film Theory: An Anthology. Malden, Massachusetts:
Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Top 10 of 2005

10. Walk the Line

9. Brokeback Mountain
8. Walk on Water
7. Junebug
6. Oldboy
5. The Weather Man
4. The New World
3. Grizzly Man
2. Pride & Prejudice
1. King Kong

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Another Hit Man with a Heart Strikes Gold

In The Matador, Pierce Brosnan plays Julian Noble, a professional assassin dealing with the mental turmoil that comes with a life of killing. While on a job in Mexico he meets Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a pleasant and unassuming business man dealing with the prospect of upcoming economic and marital crisis. The two meet over some drinks and forge an unlikely friendship based on mutual interest in the other’s very different lifestyle. The film legitimizes its gimmicky plot by creating two very real characters who deal with real emotional problems. Death is given great credence and professional killing is not just an artifice but a central theme and ongoing motif. Some of the dialogue is silly and there are moments of fantasy and whimsy but the film never becomes whacky. The characters ground the film with sympathy through the emotional weight of their confessions. The script is brought to life by two actors who take their roles seriously and know how to deliver comedy without it feeling contrived. Brosnan impressively excises traces of James Bond despite playing a character not very far removed occupationally. Greg Kinnear seems to be one of the busiest actors around today turning in supporting roles in a number of diverse projects over the past few years without ever suffering from overexposure.

The dark nature of the film’s themes is counterbalanced by the colorful mise-en-scene that revels in bright backgrounds and sunny exteriors. The effective combination wards off gloom and over-sentimentality creating a consistently fun and engaging experience. This synthesis is similarly expressed in the music choices. The source music is primarily made up of peppy-sounding classic rock tracks that slyly feature meaningful lyrics accentuating the film’s mood. Examples include The Jam’s “A Town Called Malice” and Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual.” Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” is a bit of a stretch but by the time it appears in the movie, the inclusion of the upbeat crowd-pleasing 80s relic is irresistible. The original score is also very successful at leveling the film’s mood, giving just the right amount of sincerity and somberness to the heavier scenes. Composer Rolfe Kent has established himself as one of the best in the business when it comes to comedic scores with his recent work in the offbeat Sideways and the more traditional Wedding Crashers. Special attention should also be given to the music editor who morphs a mildly annoying Killers song into a poignant ode to friendship in time of need, making it the perfect choice for the story’s closing song.