Saturday, April 11, 2009

Essay - Fahrenheit 451: At Once Real and Fake

Ray Bradbury's 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 is not so much about the censorship of literature, but about modern society's lack of interest in books, an apathy born from a preoccupation  with television (and film, similarly). So it is a contradictory exorcise to adapt this book to the movie screen, the very medium (visual story-telling) that the text accuses as it's murderer. This contradiction is epitomized by the fact that the filmmakers had to actually burn books to illustrate the horribleness of burning books. When it is read on the page, the books only burn in your mind, but to put the image on screen, the action must actually be carried out and photographed. This paradox reminds us of the inherent exploitative aspect of filmmaking. The actors must actually cry. Cars must actually crash. Punches must actually be thrown. The act of putting oneself on screen and performing things one would not otherwise do is some form of ritual sacrifice. Baring the soul to the world. In a book, we read that she and he kiss, and there is only the words and the harmless, victimless image in the reader's head. But on screen, he and she are real people, and their real lips really touch, and our eyes are provided with the real image of a kiss, no imagination required. These real people, pretending to be fictional people, are likely not really in love, and therefor the kiss is at once real and fake. When projected from the page to our mind, the kiss is in a way more real because the only people involved are the characters, who really are in love, yet at once it is not happening at all, save in the mind. But on screen, the physical act of two mouths meeting is real, there is proof, it is documented. However, it is more fake, for the kiss is only happening for show. 
Fahrenheit 451 (1966) was french auteur François Truffaut's first foray into color film, and his only film in English, a language he understood very little of at the time, as is evident from the sparse and stilted dialogue which he foolishly wrote himself. 
Austrian actor Oskar Werner is protagonist Guy Montag, a "fireman" (bookburner) who begins to question the system he is a part of. British beauty Julie Christie is on double duty, both as Montag's conformist wife, and as a rebellious school teacher who dares to illegally keep and read books. Christie is the star here, pulling off these disparate roles expertly and with flare. Werner is another story. His Montag is stiff, emotionless, and at some times appears on the verge of narcolepsy. Perhaps his Austrianess is to blame, or maybe his onset animosity with the director. Having seen none of his other work, this reviewer cannot say. 
From it's unfortunately ironic existence, to it's independent filmmaker's ill-advised and jarring transition to Hollywood, to the reported onset arguments and clashing of ego's, Fahrenheit 451 is a perfect example of why some books should not be filmed, and how moviemaking can be so absurd.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Review: I'm Not There

If writer-director Todd Haynes' film I'm Not There. (2007) is to be taken as a straight up biopic about the life and work of music icon Bob Dylan, then this is what we take away from it; Dylan was a phony, pretentious, unoriginal crybaby. But the film's beyond unconventional structure and presentation suggest that it is instead intended as something else. 
To call it experimental would be a misnomer; experimentation is connected to a lack of certainty, and this does not describe Haynes' work here. His assured vision and direction guide the film along at an intentional pace, down twisting ally ways and up into the mystifying heavens. The experience is however arthouse; the narrative, if it can rightly be called such, tennis-balls hither and thither between five different characters and timelines. Beautiful cinematography by Edward Lachman, alternately in color and black-and-white, elevates the film from insufferable pretentiousness to purer cinematic territory. 
Central to the project are the actors that play five characters based on various aspects of Dylan's life. First is newcomer Marcus Carl Franklin, who plays Woody Guthrie, a kid riding the rails with dusty guitar in hand, affecting a poor southern twang when he is in fact a middle-class northerner. Next is Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, an iteration clearly inspired by Dylan's folk days and initial rise to fame. Health Ledger shines as usual as an actor who catches his big break playing Rollins in a film. Though filmed and released before The Dark Knight, it is nonetheless worth contemplating the fact that the most recent incarnations of Batman and his arch-nemesis the Joker play two sides of the same coin here. Bale (Batman) as the honest, humble people's musician, and Ledger (the Joker) as the sociopathic, womanizing sham-artist who rides the former's fame. 
Of course, the main attraction, the exhibit everyone is talking about, is actress Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, Dylan's gone-electric Judas character. The hype is deserved; Blanchett so convincingly and casually plays a man that this reviewer would not have known the difference without being aware of the casting. From the voice to the walk to the expression, she captures Dylan at the hight of his apathetic rock star phase. 
Rounding out the ensemble is Richard Gere as Billy the Kid, probably meant to be Dylan as he is now, an outlaw of sorts and a wise, wondering old folk sage. 
As is stated above, narrative is not really a word that fits in a description of this film. It is a collection of interconnected moments, and they are juxtaposed and added up to equal something that is not immediately apparent and cannot be quantified. Haynes clearly has some wild and unique understanding of cinema, and it oozes in I'm Not There. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Review: "For Your Consideration"

Haha, okay, we get it. Actors are pretentious whores, Hollywood sucks your soul away, blah blah waah haha we get it move on. 
Christopher Guest's latest cinematic offering, "For Your Consideration" (2006), is a heavy handed, groan-inducing, inside joke about the film industry. Like his previous films, it is cast with a familiar ensemble of comedy actors and relies greatly upon improvisation. But, unlike those films, this one fails to be good or even very funny. In all his films, Guest lays everything on the skeleton of his improv troupe, but here the bones are brittle, and the whole thing collapses. It is really sort of painful to watch these usually gifted actors struggle and grasp to make things funny. There is nothing here beyond the concept that the film industry is a constant and supposedly hilarious battle between artistic integrity and commercial viability. Things never focus. There is no chance for the characters to have much depth. 
One thing that might throw viewers familiar with Guest's previous films is that this is not actually a foux-documentary. Similarly, we are let down because he has set the bar so high.
SPOILER ALERT: We are here going to relate the funniest... no, make that the only funny part of "For Your Consideration". It is a line uttered by Fred Willard (pictured), and goes like this, "You know what they say about blind prostitutes. You really have to hand it to them." There, the only funny line in the whole movie. We have just saved you 86 minutes of improv comedy at its worst. 

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: "Once"

As loath as we are to use superlatives, it is nonetheless accurate to say that "Once" (2006) is the best musical this reviewer has ever seen. It is also perhaps the most original film musical since the inception of the medium. Shot sparsely and cheaply with a handheld, digital camera in and around Dublin, it stars two non-acting musicians, essentially playing versions of themselves. They play and sing original songs that they have written, and the music is not beholden to any traditional musical theatre conventions. 
Glen Hansard plays an Irish street musician who is quickly befriended by Markéta Irglová, and young Czech girl who sings and plays piano. At first glance, Irglová threatens to be nothing more than the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but to our relief she turns out to be a complex and relatable character. 
Everything that matters is great in this film. The acting is organic and lovable, the cinematography and editing are beautiful but not distracting. What makes this the greatest musical we have seen, however, is the music, or, more specifically, how and when the music happens. There is a scene early in the picture when Irglová and Hansard go to a music shop. She sits down in front of a grand piano, then he begins playing a tune on his guitar. She joins in on piano and they both begin to sing. As we write this, we discover that words really fail to express the magic of how this scene unfolds. To attempt to describe it further would do a disservice to the film and any reader who has yet to see it.
Nothing more can be said. See "Once", and witness the deconstruction and redefinition of what a film musical is.