December 8, 2006

Movielog: Copying Beethoven

Filed under: movielog — ted @ 9:17 pm

Copying Beethoven
Rating: Fair

I simply love Ed Harris, and I think he’s one of the few people — no one else comes immediately to mind — who could have played this role and not made a fool of himself. Harris proved in Pollock his ability to inhabit the skin of a familiar artist, meeting and exceeding the expectations audience members have of a familiar figure, and infusing his character with an organic intensity which was deep and true. He dishes out another great performance in Copying Beethoven, although he is held back by the shortcomings of the film’s script and his co-star, Diane Kruger.

I’d rather not to be too hard on Ms. Kruger. She is, first of all, very beautiful, with an equal mix of stern and fair — qualities which landed her the role of Helen in Troy (where, unlike her lover, Orlando Bloom’s Paris, she was well-cast). In Copying Beethoven, she plays Anna Holtz, the (this is entirely fictional) copyist and hopeful composer who must help Beethoven prepare the 9th Symphony, as well as put up with his moodiness, personal attacks, and rapturous philosophizing. Her head-to-head scenes with Beethoven are fine, as she meets his fiery rebukes and doesn’t allow Ed Harris to chew her to pieces (the rest of the scene doesn’t fair too well). She also handles the unavoidable sexual tension between herself and Harris’ Beethoven well — namely in that they doesn’t overdo it. But anytime the character demands more weight, and an existential struggle is called for, she is not able to rise to the demands. The performance is by no means a complete failure, and I would be inclined to label it as “competent, if uninspired,” except for the key scene in which she helps Beethoven by “conducting” the 9th, acting as a cue for the deaf composer. As she flails and floats her arms about, with an expectant, furrowed expression upon her face, she — sadly — looks like a complete fool. Indeed, it’s painful to watch.

The overarching form of the script’s narrative is serviceable, but its language, especially when calling upon Harris to make an “important” speech about the divinity of music, is dismal. There is nothing unexpected or especially insightful to be found here, and the numerous scenes in which Beethoven shares his thoughts on the creative process are more irritating than inspirational. Harris does much better when left to his own devices, without a scripted speech, dashing around his messy apartment and infusing the composer’s bursts of creative brilliance with a physicality that says more about the act of creation than any of his rhetorical flourishes. Also lacking are the two main characters: Beethoven’s nephew, Karl, played very poorly by Joe Anderson, and Anna’s boyfriend, Martin, who are meant to add dramatic tension to the story, but mostly just spoil it.

The best thing about this movie is Beethoven’s music, which plays throughout. After watching Copying Beethoven, I am more convinced than ever that the 9th Symphony is the best thing I have ever heard, and though I left the theater disappointed on the whole, I was grateful for having spent two hours listening to some of the finest music ever created.


November 23, 2006

Movielog: The Fountain

Filed under: movielog — ted @ 11:20 am

The Fountain
Rating: Fair

Director Darren Aronofsky has been working on this film for at least six years, suffering budget cuts and studio rejections, even losing Brad Pitt to “creative differences” when attempting to film it in 2002. I don’t have the highest regard for Mr. Pitt’s taste, but I think I can see why he abandoned the film. The Fountain bears all the hallmarks of a pet project: it is epic in scope, infused with a decidedly personal religious flavor — and it stars the director’s wife (the lovely Rachel Weisz) as an awe-inspiring Muse. Weisz plays this role in two forms: primarily, as Izzy, the cancer-stricken wife of the film’s main character, research scientist Tommy (Hugh Jackman), and also as Queen Isabella, who sends Spanish conquistador “Tomas” (also played by Jackman) on a quest to New Spain to find the Tree of Life in the ruins of an ancient Mayan empire. There’s also a future version of Tommy, soaring through space in a gorgeous bubble-ship which contains what appears to be the same Tree of Life sought by his exploring counterpart.

Yes, it’s as interconnected as it sounds, and it does all come together in the end. The Fountain is a striking film visually, but I found it to be way over-the-top in its aesthetic. Overall, the scenes in space are attractive and appropriately other-worldly. Aronofsky filmed them without using computer imagery — according to IMDb, because “CGI would take away from the timelessness of the film and he wants the film to stand the test of time.” (For more on this, read the article which recently appeared in Wired.) Unfortunately, the film’s themes and storyline don’t support the intensity of the images, and this is especially true of the score, which is ruthless. I think I understood what Aronofsky wanted me to understand — I just didn’t think it was all that wonderful, profound, or even especially beautiful.

People will likely refer to The Fountain as a movie you “either love or hate,” creating a distinction between people who understand it (and therefore love it) and people who are unable to. This is a false dichotomy. The trouble with The Fountain isn’t that it’s hard to understand, but that the truth it leads us into is one that will either move you or it won’t. The difference between two observers, in this case, isn’t one of comprehension, but closer to the difference between two churchgoers who receive a pastor’s story in different ways: for one, it contains profound truths which are deeply meaningful to their life at the present time — but to the other, the response is nothing more than a deadening “yeah, so what?”

(For more on the filmmaker’s intent, I would strongly suggest reading this recent interview in Seed, in which Aronofsky is quite candid in explaining what the film means to him. Also, check out David Edelstein’s brief review: “I’m glad he made it, and I hope he got the Transcendental Messianic Artist virus out of his system.”)

November 15, 2006

Movielog: Old Joy

Filed under: movielog — ted @ 5:11 pm

Old Joy
Rating: Excellent

I’ve been looking forward to Old Joy for quite some time, ever since seeing the first trailer. It’s aesthetic, soundtrack, and theme were very appealing. The rave review by one of my favorite critics, Manohla Dargis, helped too. Here’s a taste of what she had to say:

There is a universal aspect to this story about memory and loss, and how we use the past to take refuge from the present. You can’t go home again; sometimes, you can’t even share a bowl of pot the way you once did. Yet if Mark and Kurt’s excursion resembles any number of classic adventures across time and space, the film is also insistently about this specific moment in time and space. Namely, an America in which progressive radio (actually, snippets from Air America) delivers the relentless grind of bad news that Mark can only listen to without comment and with a face locked in worry, a face on which Ms. Reichardt invites us to project the shell shock, despair and hopelessness of everyone else listening in across the country.

You’d do well to read the full-review after seeing the film; even though there’s nothing to “spoil,” it is a film in which interpretation plays a large role, and Dargis offers an excellent one.

I was astounded by Old Joy, even though it was not what I expected. Old Joy is a small film, but no less enjoyable — or profound — as a result. On the contrary, by zoning in on the undercurrents present in the relationship of the two protagonists, Old Joy achieves a great deal. Mark and Kurt are recognizable characters — I would go as far as to claim them as contemporary archetypes — and the strain they feel is immediately felt and identified by the audience. One particular scene, in which Kurt attempts to draw attention to the divide between the two friends, only to have Mark insist that “everything’s fine,” is exquisitely painful.

Old Joy is remarkable in that it not only depicts feelings of strain and sorrow, but embodies them. Every shot, scene, and note (the score was written by Yo La Tengo) is full of slow, precious tenderness. The tone is very fine, and lands the viewer somewhere in the uncharted territory between sadness, expectation, and frustration. Beauty lurks about the film, but in an everyday way we are not accustomed to seeing on screen. Because Old Joy feels so much like life, the feelings and responses it evokes are among the most specific I have ever experienced in a movie theater.

November 9, 2006

Movielog: Babel

Filed under: movielog — ted @ 1:55 pm

Rating: Fair

I did see Babel this weekend, with great solemnity. I must say that the reviews I read were right on the mark: the film certainly does, in A. O. Scott’s words, “belong to an increasingly common, as yet unnamed genre — “Crash” is perhaps the most prominent recent example — in which drama is created by the juxtaposition of distinct stories, rather than by the progress of a single narrative arc.” The movie’s poster clearly indicates this, and most moviegoers will know what they’re in for early on: the actions shifts between four story lines, which take place on four continents on an skewed timeline. These lines do have points of intersection, but we don’t see them on-screen; the connections are indicated by key lines and scenes, but the characters do not meet.

It’s apparent that the filmmakers, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Writing Guillermo, have a message and theme they’d like to share, in addition to wowing us with their technical skills (which are considerable, although not to my taste). The message, to simplify it, is one of connection and shared experience overcoming linguistic and cultural boundaries. It is this effort that leads Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir to write:

the risk that “Babel” takes, in laboriously and lovingly connecting the private tragedies of four families in four different countries, is turning that observation, which may be lovely as a momentary flash of insight, into a stoned college freshman’s profound theory about the universe. Tremendous resources have been expended here so that Cate Blanchett can lie on a dirt floor and moan, while we ponder why we can’t all get along, and whether we aren’t all the same under the skin.

This commendable piece of writing captures my reaction to Babel perfectly — bluntly, is that all? As the credits rolled, I couldn’t believe that so little had been done with the film’s individual stories and their potential. Plenty of things had happened on the screen, and many of them were very moving in isolation, but the movie as a whole carried very little force. Granted, movies should not be judged by whether they communicate profound insights and ideas, but Babel is unique in that it sets four deeply interesting stories, and a handful of promising characters, in a film that drips with political and cultural ambition. It’s failure is, therefore, particularly lamentable.

November 2, 2006

Movielog: Little Children

Filed under: movielog — ted @ 5:11 pm

Little Children
Rating: Very Good

A few days ago I posted clippings from reviews of Babel, the upcoming movie by Alejandro González Iñárritu. A.O. Scott of the Times forwarded that Babel “belongs to an increasingly common, as yet unnamed genre — “Crash” is perhaps the most prominent recent example — in which drama is created by the juxtaposition of distinct stories, rather than by the progress of a single narrative arc.” This was immensely interesting to me, and I’ve been looking for it in other movies of late.

Little Children is not in this vein, but it does have a two-tiered story rather than a single narrative. The main story is the adulterous relationship between Kate Winslet’s Sarah and Patrick Wilson’s Brad, who are the primary caregivers of their small children, and forge a bond while watching their offspring at the playground and the pool. But the second story, that of Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted sex offender who moves into a calm ex-suburban community, and his foil, Larry (Noah Emmerich), a former police man who takes it upon himself to harass Ronnie, plastering WARNING signs around town and forming a Coalition of Concerned Parents, comes increasingly to the forefront as the movie progresses. The two stories are not treated equally, occur in the same location, and do intersect, so any comparison to Crash or Babel is a stretch — but it’s one I’m willing to make so I can flush out the thoughts I’m spinning right now…

My hope is that filmmakers who create movies with crashing story lines will have enough faith in their stories, and in their audience, to allow their elements to meld, rather than force them together (this, I think, is fatal flaw of Crash — especially it’s lack of faith in its audience). The slippery matter at the heart of this is intent: a writer and/or filmmaker always has one, and by putting two or more stories together in the same work of art, he connects them together in his mind. Ideally, the stories should connect in such a way that the connection is apparent without the creator’s intent becoming equally apparent. The best way to counter the problem of intent is to put one’s faith in form itself: if a film is well-made, and every aspect is firing on the right cylinders, the meaning should emerge without the filmmaker having to worry about whether his intent is coming across. Many artists have dealt with this by stifling their desire to communicate their intent, and simply focusing on the work and concerning themselves with its excellence.

Little Children avoids this for the most part, although its two serious flaws stem from the desire to over-communicate. The first is the presence of a third-person narrator, who delivers his omniscient observations with a touch of irony, as if to say: “I’m telling you what the character is thinking, but I’m winking, so it should be funny.” The narration is a failure: it disappears for over an hour, and emerges at just the wrong time — as if the filmmakers didn’t know what else to do. Not only did this expose the filmmaker’s intent, but it belied it but taking an ironic stance. As for the second error, to fully explain would be a spoiler, but it comes at the very end of the film, concerns the minor narrative, and taints what is otherwise a wonderfully understated film.

I’ve offered nothing but criticism, yet I do think this film is “very good.” The tension between Sarah and Paul is marvelous, and both characters are well-written and well-acted (I just adore Kate Winslet, any and all the time — I can’t think of an actress I think is better). The particular sadnesses and discontent of the two main characters is deeply felt, and just the right sort of uncomfortable. All told, it’s one of the best I’ve seen this year.

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