Synecdoche, New York is a startlingly ambitious movie about the pitfalls of the artistic life. Elsewhere, Taxi to the Dark Side shocks and angers, and the underrated W. goes beyond parody to understand Dubya.
The presidential election is over. Some of you can now rest and recover. For others, it’s time to dive right into another race – the annual Oscar derby. But even if awards don’t mean anything to you, hey, at least the movies get a little better this time of year.
Synecdoche, New York (Sony Pictures Classics) Those who claim that Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut is a bold masterpiece are as right as those who claim that it's one of the most navel-gazing pieces of pretension ever visited upon the viewing public. But I can't think of a recent film that rewrites the rulebook so completely – in this regard, Kaufman's only competing with himself. Less cutesy than Being John Malkovich, tougher in its handling of the artistic temperament than Adaptation, and more despairing and philosophical than Eternal Sunshine, Synecdoche is a great head-trip movie, the sort of film you endlessly discuss afterward because the clues and riddles are part of the fun. So while the film is definitely Lynch-ian, it's worth noting that unlike, say, Inland Empire, the deepening oddness of Synecdoche is all built around the very personal viewpoint of an artist who's trying to connect with his audience on a profound level. I still think Kaufman can be too cutesy, and Synecdoche’s endlessly unraveling-and-rebuilding play-within-the-movie sometimes proves too clever for its own good, depriving this life force of a movie of precious oxygen. But the film's radical reinvention of some eternal deep-thinking themes – the passage of time, the decay of the body, the difficulties of relationships, the futile hope that art can fix the problems of the artist's real life – are utterly striking. Ultimately, I wish Synecdoche was about more than itself, and its last stretch is easily its weakest. But this is a grand, bold vision. Some smart people will please themselves by telling other people how flawed it is, which is very true. But despite his digressions that grate, Charlie Kaufman mostly approaches his deep-thinking themes with sincerity, candor and a hell of a lot of invention. He doesn't get all the way there, but I was amazed and impressed by how far he did get.
W. (Lionsgate) Again and again I hear people are “disappointed” with this movie. Me, I’m thrilled Oliver Stone stuck to his word and didn’t just do a hatchet job. The trick to “getting” Bush, I think, is to neither regard him as a blithering idiot or as an evil bastard. That’s why I think Stone’s decision to jumble W.’s chronology is the right one – rather than doing a straight biopic, he wants to connect emotional moments and recurring themes of the man’s life. Nixon is the movie this one’s being compared to, which I think is valid in that they both dare to be sympathetic so as to understand what makes a dislikeable person tick, but I also thought of I’m Not There, another anti-biopic which took another nearly mythical figure and deconstructed him so as to address the done-to-death highlights of his life. Josh Brolin’s Dubya is great work, but nobody talks about Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney because he doesn’t go for easy parody. (Someday, Thandie Newton will realize how off-putting her Condi Rice impression is.) For the most part, Stone is studiously fair in his portrayal of Bush and his underlings – First Lady Laura, George Herbert Walker Bush, Karl Rove, Colin Powell – and the care given to Bush’s religious conversion is some of the best work the filmmaker has ever done. If Stone related to Nixon’s paranoia, my hunch is that Stone feels a kinship to Bush’s long wanderings looking for his place in the world. Stone found success as a filmmaker later than most, and his career is a landscape of failures and triumphs, just like the (soon-to-be former) president. Stone doesn’t want you to like Bush. But there’s a real poignancy that emanates from the 30 years or so of American (and Bush family) history that W. chronicles. Another unheralded strength of this film: Stone has spent most of his career getting off on macho hysterics, and W. effectively demonstrates how little testosterone has helped us as a nation of late.
Moving Midway (First Run Features) Film critic Godfrey Cheshire returns to his North Carolina home to watch the moving of his family’s plantation home, which stirs up warm feelings, Southern guilt and a good film. Moving Midway, like Stone Reader before it, makes the “personal documentary” format work because he doesn’t allow himself to dominate the emotional center of the film, instead exploring his family ancestry and their past ownership of slaves in order to open the door for a lot of understated revelations about race and geography. I don’t intend for this to come across as mean, but I had to confess, though, that the least-interesting element for me was Cheshire’s family. Though they all seem like nice people, they’re not terribly compelling – better is the black NYU professor of Africana Studies who discovers he’s related to Cheshire, which inspires thoughtful contemplation on the professor’s part about his mixed feelings regarding his own stake in this family history. And since Cheshire is a film critic, he digs into the meanings of Southern iconography in the movies, which is endlessly interesting material to chew over. In the end, Moving Midway is a lot of bits and pieces of intriguing ideas and nice moments. But Cheshire never allows it to be self-indulgent, which is its saving grace.
Taxi to the Dark Side (THINKFilm DVD) Director Alex Gibney's Enron and Gonzo documentaries suggested a guy a little too slick but certainly well-meaning. Taxi to the Dark Side suggests he just needed to be totally invested in his subject to make a great film. Where once he went for the easy out – the lazy song cue or the predictable boo-hiss response from the audience – here he does something akin to only one other recent documentary, Charles Ferguson's startling, despairing No End in Sight, which Gibney executive produced. Companion films of a sort, No End in Sight authoritatively explains how the Iraq War and subsequent occupation were a moral and strategic failure, while Taxi to the Dark Side does the same for our treatment of Middle Eastern prisoners. Taxi is also a companion piece to Standard Operating Procedure, the Errol Morris documentary that focused on Abu Ghraib and the peer-pressure mindset that contributed to the atrocities there. But Taxi betters Standard Operating Procedure by being more calm and exhaustive in its investigation, going from Afghanistan to Iraq to Gitmo with a real deftness – only in retrospect will you notice how comprehensive this film is. Small revelation after small revelation, the documentary goes beyond simple liberal hand-wringing to look at both the ineptitude and the arrogance of the Bush administration’s handling of terrorist suspects, most of whom weren't even close to being terrorists, not that such a detail kept us from killing a few of them. I still prefer the unblinking, nearly emotionless sweep of No End in Sight. But no one should miss either film – especially if you voted for Obama and now think that the whole world has instantly been made right.
In Bruges (Universal Pictures DVD) A minor little gem, with the emphasis on the word “minor.” As he did in the underrated Cassandra’s Dream, Colin Farrell is quite good here as a well-intentioned, fumbling young man who discovers too late that he doesn’t have the stuff to be a first-class baddie. He and Brendan Gleeson play London hitmen who end up in the Belgian city of Bruges after a job goes badly. The male bonding and crime drama that ensues is in one regard predictable, but writer-director Martin McDonagh makes everything a half-twist different than what you’re expecting. A playwright by trade, McDonagh cares about language and character, and he doesn’t mind if his story drifts here and there if his larger philosophical points resonate. Which they do. Plus, Ralph Fiennes reminded me all over again how great an actor he is. With this and The Duchess, he’s done some of his best recent work, and these are supporting roles, ones that he doesn’t try to inflate with ego or Great Acting. He just does them – his mob boss here is a small marvel of good humor, cold menace and a strict code of conduct that he holds himself to as well.
Boy A (Miriam Collection DVD) Not quite a thriller, not quite a character piece, not quite a discussion on the limits of forgiveness, Boy A dips its toe into several intriguing rivers without diving in. A 24-year-old Englishman is released from prison after serving time for murdering a classmate about 15 years ago. He goes under an assumed name and tries to lay low, lest his true identity be revealed. Love and friendship get in the way, though, and Boy A keeps its audience wondering how long he can maintain this new life. Director John Crowley’s film is defiantly modest and small-scaled – I fear the Hollywood producer who sees this movie and decides McG has to do the American remake – and it has a short-story quality to it that I always enjoy. (It’s actually based on a novel by Jonathan Trigell.) Andrew Garfield is good as the titular young man, especially showing how being behind bars has impacted the character’s entire adolescence, leaving him stunted and, in a way, absent from himself – even when he’s right there in front of you. But the small-scale story ultimately doesn’t have enough room for major surprises either plot-wise or emotionally – you basically can see where it’s going. But still, its mildly pessimistic worldview feels earned rather than fashionably bleak. And there’s a really funny David Brent joke early on.
Summer Palace (Palm Pictures DVD) Director Lou Ye’s drama depicts the Chinese generation that came of age around the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 through the eyes of Yu Hong (Hao Lei), a young college student who falls for one of her classmates, Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong). Their on-again/off-again relationship, which spans more than a decade, is meant to symbolize the glowing optimism of youth crashing into the hard realities of adulthood, and it’s beautifully made, erotically charged and more than a little sad. My problem with personal stories told against the backdrop of a major historical moment is that the historical event often dwarfs the drama that’s unfolding. It’s true of movies as popular as Titanic or as accomplished (and largely unseen) as Regular Lovers – without the major historical moment, the film’s central characters’ thinness would be more exposed, but thankfully the famous event clouds over those problems a little. Or, put another way, I think Lou does a good job explaining a generation he’s a part of, but I don’t think he does a transcendent job.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.