Friday, March 27, 2009

Happy, Sad, Spooky, Bland and Overdone- These ain’t no dwarfs

So many interesting flicks out this month! First in “Happy-Go-Lucky!” director Mike Leigh leaves behind the gritty realism that he obviously enjoys for a fresh look at life. Initially I was annoyed by the painfully chipper Poppy (Oscar nom Sally Hawkins), however over the course of this film you see her cheery optimism as a shield and a tactic. She will use her calculated optimism in an attempt to bring people out: a pretentious bookstore clerk, a troubled child who bullies, a homeless man. She directly challenges people’s anger and depression as a sport but also with much empathy. Poppy will enjoy her life regardless of the many reasons not to. In other films she would be a minor character, a friend in a group. By making her the hero Mike Leigh is giving us a life lesson in these trying times. The core of this film is the relationship between Poppy and her angry, bigoted driving instructor (a brilliant, intense Eddie Marsan). Seeing these two interact is so organic and interesting that it’s reminiscent of early Martin Scorsese. This is a great little film, a new “Amelie” for our times.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is a thoroughly depressing “Synecdoche, New York” This would have made a great short film, maybe 20 minutes or so. However it weighs in at over two hours and that’s just too much time to spend in a surreal dream world- thanks! Charlie Kaufman who wrote the great “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” makes his directorial debut and like his main character here, he’s too locked in his own creation. After a promising start where we see the breakup of Caden Cotard’s (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) marriage, the film gets progressively absurd. In this dream world, he spends 20 years making a play about his life that continues to intersect with his real life (or does it?) If nothing is real and the characters playing characters playing characters are neither really living nor really acting; why does anything matter? In “Brazil” Terry Gilliam gave us a truly brilliant parallel universe that had fun with its own dark view. Kaufman’s film is just confusing and morose. Stay out of Synecdoche, it’s a dark place.

I thought “Let the Right One In” was original and creepy. However, it seems a lot of people really liked this far more than I did. The setting of a cold, dark, depressing Swedish town is spot on. The little girl vampire concept is truly original. So although I am a bit sick of the vampire flick this still seemed much more interesting than the over-hyped “Twilight”. I think I may be a little jaded though since I am myself, a vampire.

The film “The Rocker” has Rainn Wilson breaking out of his Office cube to play an ex-hair band drummer who gets a second chance. The veteran, dream team supporting cast and the fun newcomers rally around our hero, but it’s too bad this film is way too predictable and not as funny as it should be. If it wasn’t so tame and eager to please this may have been something. As it stands, it’s as if “Spinal Tap” met a Lifetime TV movie and that doesn’t rock mate.

Finally we arrive back in Seattle. I was a lad working in a luxury hotel and condo-sitting during the WTO conference. So I had to work and live in the streets during the infamous 1999 riots. I was a spectator, but I felt correctly that it was a foreboding sign of things to come. I saw quirky, passionate and fun loving protestors as well as the masked and easily identifiable teenage ‘anarchists’ who were a very small minority. Then I watched the jack-booted riot police showing that they obviously didn’t care to tell the difference. It was bizarre to see rush hour commuters having to deal with a rowdy police force who were gassing downtown streets and pepper-spraying 16 year old girls. In short it was outrageous. Then you would switch on the TV and see the clueless reporting that repeatedly showed the smashing of a Starbucks window, and characterized all the protestors as vandals while totally ignoring the police brutality. Fractionized, angry protestors, biased media, corporate control issues, and strong arm police tactics- it was like a crash course in political awareness.

It is this defining incident that is the basis for Stuart Townsend’s “Battle in Seattle” a film that uses the “Crash” model of multiple storylines. The characters here feel more like designated representatives: the angry cop, the pregnant wife, the reporter who (laughably) grows a conscience, the lovebird protestors plus Andre 3000, the guy who sings the “Hey Ya” song. Like 2006s’ “Bobby” this film has its’ heart in the right place but just lays it on too thick. Although the recreations are nicely edited into the actual footage, the story is way too contrived and the actors struggle vainly in their one dimensional roles. A documentary on these events would be more impactful than this well-meaning but hollow film. The one thing that felt dead on was the portrayal of the mayor and police chief who are truly confused and dumbfounded by the events that they themselves were responsible for. It was a small justice to see them both lose their jobs.

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