Monday, August 25, 2008

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Unfortunately, I watched this film for the first time so long ago that I don't remember my initial reaction. It has, however, left an everlasting impression.

I was actually surprised when I looked at the DVDs on my shelf that neither I nor Dr. Worm have reviewed this movie yet. Eternal Sunshine falls in my top 5 films of all time, and whenever I get to chance to talk it up to an unsuspecting passer-by, I jump at it. It gets better with time, and in my opinion, this is due to the great performances and incredible attention to detail by the filmmakers. I didn't watch it in full before I wrote this review, but I popped it in to refresh myself on a scene or two, and had a hard time turning if off again.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romantic comedy starring Jim Carrey (as Joel) and Kate Winslet (Clementine), directed by the incredibly artistic Michel Gondry and written by himself and Charlie Kaufman. In this film, the exceptionally timid Joel Barish meets and falls for the demonstrative and quirky Clementine. Seemingly an unlikely pair, the two awkwardly hit it off and begin a relationship. But the film, which jumps around in time a bit, quickly fast forwards to their break-up and a broken-up Joel. After an encounter with Clementine that he doesn't understand, during which she seems to pretend she doesn't even know him, he turns to his friends in confusion and pain. Eventually Joel learns the truth: that Clementine had him erased from her memory.

Joel can't seem to wrap his mind around this idea, so he finds the doctor who performed the procedure. Angered that she would do such a thing, he decides to undergo the same procedure out of spite and a hope that maybe this would help the pain to go away. And so most of the rest of the film happens in Joel's mind, as we track his memories of his relationship with Clementine backwards through time. As he relives these memories, he feels vindicated that the recent, tumultuous times they'd been experiencing are no longer his to remember. As he goes further back, however, he begins to realize the true meaning and the gravity of his choice. Unfortunately, once the procedure has begun, there is no backing out of it.

The other characters in Eternal Sunshine complement Carrey and Winslet to a T. Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson all stand out without being overpowering. There are some really great comedic moments, but it really isn't as straightforward a comedy as most others are, more subtle and dramatic due to the fact that it's portraying a difficult break-up.

This movie is incredibly filmed. Every time I watch it, I notice some detail or nuance that I didn't see before. Even though it jumps around in time, it doesn't happen in a way that is too confusing or difficult to put together. I absolutely loved how memory is represented, and how the filmmakers depict the erasing of those memories. Carrey and Winslet are absolutely wonderful--they have great chemistry, and they seemed to effortlessly show us honest feelings and depth of character.
Finally, I really love the main thrust of the film. So often when we experience a particularly painful loss, we want relief as immediate as possible. I'm pretty sure there are a lot of people who would jump at the chance to erase someone or something from their memory. But if that happens, we lose a part of ourselves as well. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind aptly proclaims this message and helps us to see the beauty in our day to day pain.
Rating: 20
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is beautifully and creatively filmed. Joel and Clementine have a captivating story, and the outlandish nature of the plot nicely highlights some simple, basic truths about life and love. It's funny, touching, life-affirming, and well-done...just what I think a movie should be.
Favorite Lines:
"Sand is overrated. It's just tiny, little rocks."
"I'm making a birdhouse."
4-Year-Old Joel: "I really want her to pick me up. It's weird how strong that desire is."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Flags of Our Fathers

Movies, at their fundamental level, are for entertainment. They’re a way to occupy two hours, and you’ll hopefully get something out of those two hours. Now, good movies will teach you something about yourself that you didn’t know before, or connect with a part of you like nothing else can, and it will do all of this while entertaining you. The subject matter doesn’t necessarily have to be uplifting, but the story has to engage you, and reward you for investing yourself.

That’s part of why I didn’t like Flags of Our Fathers, and why I generally don’t like war films. I fully recognize that it was a competent and good movie. Acting, cinematography, plot flow, theme, music, etc., all those elements were in place for Flags; but it wasn’t entertaining. Why? It was about war.

War sucks. I don’t think anybody actually likes war. It’s tiring, it’s messy, it’s evil, and it crushes the human spirit if carried on too long. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it’s never glorious, never loving, and never a good thing to do. Nations will do what they have to do, but when they go to war, they better damn well have NO other options left. The idea that war is a last resort isn’t new, and has indeed been around since the first time a human did something that another human didn’t like.

Flags of Our Fathers didn’t suck, but its subject matter did. That’s not a death sentence for a movie, but war is pretty much the suckiest of the suck. To me, war is never a good place to start a story. You can have a war in it, but start with something else; a character, an event, a blade of grass, anything. There have been lots of good war movies, and Flags can count itself as one of those, but none of them have been entertaining experiences for me. Schindler’s List had that Spielbergian element of hope and goodness to it, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the dismal subject matter. Platoon had fantastic acting, but that’s very cold comfort among the horribleness of Vietnam. And I’m blanking out on other war films I’ve seen; I dislike them so much I black them out.

And therein lies the problem with Flags of Our Fathers. Because it wasn’t entertaining, I didn’t feel satisfied at the end. It wouldn’t even be all that different if it had a very good story, or more relatable characters, neither of which it had. It didn’t try to give you resolution or have a summation; none of the Clint Eastwood films I’ve seen do, actually. On top of that, it contained some pretty horrible things, because hey, war is pretty horrible. Two sequences in particular stuck with me; one in which a main character is having flashbacks of all the men he saw die during the war, and one in which some soldiers stumble across an underground bunker where some Japanese have set off a grenade on themselves so as not to be found. That’s the kind of thing you wish you could unsee.

Now, the themes of Flags were not lost on me. I totally got the idea that we should pass down things from generation to generation, so as to always learn from our forbears’ mistakes. I also saw the value in honoring those that made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country, those who died abroad in order to protect the safety of those at home. Also, there was the idea of what a hero actually is, and how all the people we say are heroes would strongly disagree with us. There was even an indictment of American sensationalism, and how great things are made fake and cheap through over-attention. So don’t get me wrong; I think this movie has a lot to offer. But I can’t in good conscience recommend it since I didn’t enjoy it, and sorta wish I hadn’t watched it at all.

Iconic Lines:
“Well what’d you do, raise a goddamn flag every time you stopped for lunch?”
“With all your friends dying, it’s hard enough to be called a hero for saving somebody’s life. But for putting up a pole?”
“You want us to plant a flag on a mountain of papier-mache?”

22 Rating: -2

Particle Man

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Chipmunk Adventure

It looks like a hula-hoop isn’t the only thing Alvin wants. Recently, I caught the end of the new Chipmunks’ movie. After seeing that I was inspired to watch a beloved classic from my childhood, The Chipmunk Adventure. This 1987 movie shows us an exciting chapter in the lives of these adorable and mischievous chipmunks. Dave is packing for a European trip and Alvin is begging to be allowed to tag along. The babysitter, Ms. Miller, will arrive soon and then Dave will be off. To distract themselves from missing Dave, the Chipmunks decide to hang out with the Chippettes and play videogames. After an intense argument over who would win a balloon race in real life, they are given the chance to find out by two smugglers and the adventure begins.
I really enjoy this movie. I didn’t know if it's memories of sitting in the movie theater watching it (this was the first movie I’d ever seen in theaters) or if it was just that good. There are some just movies that just stick with us. It seemed time to give it another try and measure my enjoyment. As it turns out, I would still enjoy this movie as much if it hadn’t been the first movie I saw in theaters. I love Alvin and Brittany’s narcissistic tendencies and the way they clash with another. I love cute little food obsessed Theodore who just wants one meal without a music duel or scary henchmen interrupting it. I also love Simon and Jeanette’s pragmatic views, and how they still go along with everything Brittany and Alvin decide to do.
This movie shows us the wonder of cartoons, where anything can happen and since it is a cartoon no one is really expecting reality. Don’t get me wrong, I wish I could belt out a rock song on top the ancient ruins of Greece, or return a kidnapped baby penguin to its parents, but alas I can’t. However, I can still live this fantasy vicariously through this movie. There is also something wonderfully beautiful in the simplicity of the movie. It’s not pretentious just enjoyable. I feel like (with the exception of this summer) there have been many movies in the recent past that go for that thrill factor instead of relying on the audience's enjoyment. There were no crazy plot twists; it was just a straightforward story with no real subplots. I know my readers may think I am being a bit nostalgic, but what are some older films that you just enjoy? They may not even be good, but you enjoy them.
I am actually kinda hesitant to give this movie a rating. My enjoyment of the movie is really high up, but I don’t know if the movie is actually that good. So to appease myself I’ll give it two ratings. My enjoyment rating is 15. However, the movie is nothing that is going to change the world or knock everyone’s socks off like The Dark Knight, so this movie gets a 10. Oh yeah, and a hula hoop!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Savages

Back in October of 2006, in a review of the stinkbomb Man of the Year, I included the following parenthetical: Does anyone do hard-working-but-lonely better than Laura Linney?

Since then, I've thought of Linney as essentially a one-note actress. She plays her note faithfully, dutifully, competently, but it's just one note. Well, The Savages altered my perception. Linney is still playing essentially the same note, but it sounds so much richer when it's used in just the right song.

The Savages is the story of your average American dysfunctional family, but all grown up. Wendy Savage (Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are middle-aged brother and sister, living relatively normal and successful separate lives, when Linney receives a phone call indicating that their father has dementia. The bro-and-sis combo must fly from New York to New Mexico, clear out their father's house (their mother has been out of the picture for some time), find a good nursing home for him, and basically wait for him to die. Sundance's Geoffrey Gilmore calls it a "coming-of-middle-age story," and that's really a good way to think of it.

In that vein, it's more or less a straghtforward drama. There's no big explosions, there's no steamy sex scenes, there's no huge laugh out loud moments (though there are a few mild chuckles). It's really just a pointed look at two people dealing with one of the uncomfortable realities of being adults.

That can be tiresome if it's not well-written and well-acted. Fortunately, The Savages is. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins does excellent work by almost letting you forget she had anything to do. The dialogue isn't particularly snappy, the plot twists aren't particularly brain-twisting, the camera angles aren't particularly experimental. It just feels like you're watching a slightly edited slice of life--an effect that seems much easier to produce than it actually is.

Jenkins has ample help from her cast. Linney particularly shines (she was nominated for an Academy Award)--but, again, not so much because she transcended her estabished acting ability, but because she found a vehicle that made her specialty seem special. In Man of the Year, for example, she's just the cliché of the modern conscientious-but-overwhelmed female dealing with all the demands society puts on her. She's that here, but she's more. In the context of The Savages, something about the roundness of her eyes seems to suggest that she's not just yet-another struggling, working, lonely woman, but that she's really deep down inside still a very vulnerable child who is doing everything she can do keep from being exposed by the never-ending demands of the adult world. With that infintesiminal shift, she becomes much more watchable and much more likable.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's reputation for excellence is well-established, but he, like Linney, has also found a film that suits him perfectly here. He plays the rumpled theater-teaching realist to Linney's put-together playwrighting idealist. Both seem to be struggling with the pressures of adulthood, but she looks like she's trying way too hard and he looks like he's not trying hard enough.

It's also easy to overlook the performance of Philip Bosco, who plays Len, the dying Savage father, and that's sort of the point. Jon and Wendy Savage must deal with the storage and disposal of their father, and as much as they know he's a person, his utter dependence can't help but turn him into a bit of an object. The film lures the audience into this easy-but-erroneous categorization of old-guy-as-baggage, but at two or three points subtly reminds the viewer that Len is still a person, too. The relatively unheralded Bosco does superb work in yielding the spotlight to Linney and Seymour Hoffman but in hitting all the right old, infirm, slightly demented, and human notes that he's asked to hit.

If there's a bone to pick with this movie, is that it's not particularly earth-shattering. It keeps the interest and says something both truthful in relevant, but it's not something that will particularly change the viewer. It's just a simple, well-made film about two people dealing with a difficult task. So it gets an 10. It's not a movie you need to rush out and see, but if you're at the video store and nothing else looks good, this is a perfectly suitable choice.