Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

I'm not quite sure how to explain a movie like Synecdoche, New York. So let's just start with some facts, in the order in which they become apparent.

The title, of course, is a pun. There is a city in New York called Schenectady, but synecdoche is a literary technique in which a part of something is used to represent the whole. Mickey Mouse is an simple example that comes readily to mind--his iconic circular ears are often used to denote the full Mickey, or sometimes the full Disney empire.

And the film is written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman has established a reputation as a writer with his screenplays for Adapdation, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But Synecdoche is his first time in the director's chair as well.

So, if you're me, you're really excited. The film is named after a literary device, it contains a pun, and it's written/directed by Charlie Kaufman. Maybe not everyone's cup o' tea, but it's an English geek's wet dream. Throw in a starring-Philip-Seymour-Hoffman and I'm sold.

The results? Sadly, it's a bit underwhelming. Or, rather, the type of whelm it aims for ends up trapping it into earning the prefix under-. Let me unpack that.

In the film, Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard, a director living in Schenectady who, upon receiving a MacArthur "genius" grant, decides to finally write and direct his opus. Cotard puts his opus together on an enormous stage in New York City, bringing in thousands of actors, all of whom perform semi-related, equally important little vignettes. Essentially, it's New York City in miniature. It's one way the title gets enacted.

But really, the movie is about Cotard. Not just about his weirdly enormous, ever-evolving, and ultimately never-finished play. But also about his life and about his relationships--with Catherine Keener, his artist-wife who abandons him and takes his daughter with her; with Michelle Williams, his vapidish perennial actress; and with Samantha Morton, his box office assistant turned personal assistant turned true love. 

The movie is very into being "real" -- for example, it spends an uncomfortable amount of time on Cotard's weird medical issues, such as seizures, an inability to salivate, and his sycosis (inflammation of hair follicles, not the more well known "psychosis" (another pun)). But it also gets at the real by injecting a lot of the surreal. As the play moves forward, the timeline becomes more and more confused (both in Cotard's head and in the viewer's.) His psychologist (Hope Davis) seems weirdly telepathic. Samantha Morton's home is always shown as burning (and no one seems to mind).  This being Charlie Kaufman -- and this movie being named "Synecdoche" -- these things all mean something. But it seems like there's a lot that can't be fully comprehended in a first pass; the movie needs a second, third, fourth, fifth viewing. (Kaufman states as much himself. In an interview with IonCinema, he says: "You need to see it more than once. The trick is to get people to watch it more than once.")

But therein lies the problem. Because of its focus on being "real", it's also quite a bit sad, a tad hopeless, a little bleak. One of Cotard's remarks to his actors is that he "won't settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal. Brutal." And brutal is not so bad a word for this movie; it's so emotionally raw that it hurts to be a part of, and so it's not something a viewer is necessarily eager to revisit. Which is a shame, because I'm sure much of Kaufman's use of symbol in this movie is brilliant, but I'm also sure that I won't be sitting through the entire film again anytime soon to find out.

To foist a bit of synecdoche upon you, dear reader, for me the film is summed up by Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), whom Cotard hires to portray himself in his play. Sammy does a marvelous job capturing Cotard, but when he's not in character, he can smile. The smile really stuck out to me while I was watching the film, and I think it's because Cotard doesn't really have a smile in him (thus making fake-Cotard's smile all the more glaring). Sure, Philip Seymour Hoffman does turn the corners of his mouth up from time to time, but it's always an awkward, embarrassed, or unsetted smile. Never genuine. But Sammy's smile--the actor's smile--is genuine. And as a result, I'd suggest that he, not Cotard, is the more real, more genuine person.

In all his obsession to make his film "real," Charlie Kaufman left out joy, happiness, and (with a few notable exceptions) laughter. He seems to have given in to something that was always an impulse but never a controlling feature of his earlier work -- the equating of "real" with obscene, or uncomfortable, or upsetting. And those things are just part of the real, no more or less part than mirth is. And the tragedy is this focus on the ickiness in "real" has actually made Cotard--whom I imagine has more than a bit of Kaufman in him--into something like a two-dimensional character. Which means that, even for all its artfulness, I can't give Synecdoche, New York any more than a 2. 

Quotes that serve as a part to represent the whole:
Caden Cotard: I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That's what I want to explore. We're all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we're going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't.

Sammy: (handing Cotard a slip of paper with his ex-wife's address on it) I want to follow you there and see how you lose even more of yourself. ... ... Research.

Minister: Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won't know for twenty years. And you'll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it's what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn't really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved. And the truth is I'm so angry and the truth is I'm so fucking sad, and the truth is I've been so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long have been pretending I'm OK, just to get along, just for, I don't know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own, and their own is too overwhelming to allow them to listen to or care about mine. Well, fuck everybody. Amen. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Repo! The Genetic Opera

Last year, I started seeing and hearing about some weird movie called Repo! The Genetic Opera. I knew that it was going to be directed by Darren Lyunn Bousman, of Saw infamy, and that it had a really interesting cast including Anthony Stewart Head (Giles, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Sarah Brightman(!). The movie got delayed for a while, but then got a limited release in about 10 theaters before hitting video. I was disappointed, since it sounded interesting, and since Lionsgate is starting to get a reputation for This Sort of Thing. I rented Repo! a few weeks ago, and the reasons for the limited release were very, very clear: this is one musical that the curtain should have stayed down on.
Repo! takes place in the future, in your cookie-cutter post-apocalyptic world, with the same Road Warrior/Blade Runner aesthetic that you've come to expect from this type of movie. Sickness is rampant, and replacement organs have become commonplace. So commonplace, that they are treated like houses or cars, or other expensive commodities: miss a payment, and the Repo Man comes calling to take the merchandise back. There is a company run by dying magnate Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino), and his useless children (Bill Moseley, Paris Hilton, and Nivek Ogre). There is Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman), the singer whose eyes Largo replaced, and who unbeknownst to her is due for repossession. There is Nathan Wallace (Anthony Stewart Head), the reluctant Repo Man; and his sick, rebellious daughter Shilo (Alexa Vega). And you know, there's a lot of blood, gore, and singing.
If it seems like I'm not doing a very good job recalling the plot, the problem is that there wasn't much plot to recall. There's something about Rotti dying, and trying in vain to pick an heir to his company. There's something about Nathan getting fed up with having to hide his gruesome profession from his daughter, and her feeling locked in by her father due to her health. Situations change for some characters, but nobody who survives to the end of the film grows or really learns anything. I didn't care about a single character. That is bad, bad script design. Strike One.
There are some puzzling choices made in this movie. For a musical (and one with no spoken dialogue that I can remember), there are an awful lot of non/poor singers in the film. Sarah Brightman is an opera singer, and acquits herself nicely as expected. Repo! writer/composer Terrance Zudnich does an ok job, and Anthony Stewart Head does ok despite the fact that he is forced to do an American accent. That aside, he shows great range and versatility with some gutteral, quasi-death-metal deliveries. But those of us who have heard what an incredible singer he is know that the material is holding him back. Ogre does an ok job, but Sorvino, Hilton, Moseley, and Vega should have restraining orders issued against them from the microphones of the world. Strike Two.
But for all the bad/mediocre performances, the best actor/singers in the world couldn't have saved this movie from its biggest enemy: its insufferably boring music and story. Out of 58 songs, I would deem ONE of them "ok" at best. There are no strong hooks or memorable melodies. And this is a MUSICAL. WITH HARDLY ANY TALKING. Strike Three. You're out, Repo.
A movie as weird and graphic as this should never be boring, but I was suffering for virtually every minute of its hour and a half running time. I give Repo! a -18 out of 22 on the 22 scale. I would have given it a lower score, but an actor as compelling as Tony Head will always bring something to the table, even in a movie as abysmally incompetent as this one.
-Your Racist Friend

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


The word "doubt" is a word that for most frequently elicits feelings of discomfort and uncertainty. Often seen as something negative, doubt is usually something that haunts us rather than blesses us. And because of that, people don't want to feel it, talk about it, or deal with it.

I recognize Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams to be some of the best, if not the best in the business. The previews for this movie looked dramatic and intense, and the content potentially troubling. This combined with the title created an unconscious aversion for me. I mentioned to several people that I had seen Doubt, and the common reaction was "How was that? I was interested in seeing that but didn't get around to it." This answer makes me believe that I wasn't alone in my intrigued yet hesitant feelings.

Some have said that the movie is slow, which I can see but don't necessarily agree with. This is one of those films that centers mostly around the dialogue of a few characters without a lot of plot twists, bells or whistles. Meryl Streep is Sister Aloysius, a severe nun whose by-the-book approach to the church and school is powerful, yet unappreciated by most. Opposite her is Hoffman who plays Father Flynn. (Opposite being the operative word.) Where she is condemning, he is forgiving. Where she finds fault, he finds potential to learn and grow. Where she is cold and distant, he is warm and approachable. And yet director John Patrick Shanley somehow avoids the tempting "good cop/bad cop" formula and gives them an impressive amount of depth. Why impressive? Because for most of the film, we see each character around other people, interacting in conversations in church and class, projecting how they want to be perceived, not necessarily how they really are. The third member in this triumvirate is Amy Adams as Sister James. She is a gentle and caring woman who teaches for the private school and seems to have a love for what she does. She is nervous, however, and doesn't assert herself as much as Sister Aloysius, who criticizes her for this very reason.

The year in which the story is set is 1964, and the school has it's first black student named Donald Miller. Each of the adults want things to go well with him, but go about making that happen in different ways. Father Flynn decides to befriend him and at one point calls him out of Sister James' class to go to his office. When Donald returns he seems upset, and out of concern Sister James talks to Sister Aloysius. Sister Aloysius assumes the worst and begins a crusade to discover what Father Flynn has done and bring him down.

These three characters completely drive the story. Adams beautifully and sincerely portrayed a less experienced nun with a fresh love for for people who is caught in the middle of a potential scandal. She filled some important shoes, because her thoughts and motivations most closely resemble our own as we watch the whole thing unfold. I've always loved Philip Seymour Hoffman, and this film gives me no reason to doubt this love. While some might say he was out-acted, I think an important piece of puzzle here is that his character is a mild-mannered "man of the cloth." And this type of character next to Meryl Streep's large and ominous presence is going to experience some shrinkage.

Meryl Streep...do I really need to go on? Dr. Worm described her in this film as "in her own orbit," and this description fits aptly. What I love about her is that even though she's played threatening and powerful characters before, they aren't the same person. This is a problem many actors face in that they lean towards having character categories, whereas Streep avoids duplicating personalities. Sister Aloysius is a complete person which I think in the end makes her even more threatening...

Despite its obvious strengths, Doubt was a tough one for me to rate. I recognized the aspects that set the film apart as well-acted, well-scripted, and well-directed. My eyes were glued to the screen throughout, and I was blown away by so many wonderful performances and scenes. And yet...something was missing. "What on earth could be missing??" I wondered. Eventually I figured it out: clarity. Now, I'm not one of those people who needs or wants movies to spell out every little thing for me...I appreciate uncertainty and ambiguity in general. However, ambiguity, as the title might leave you to believe, is the main ingredient here. And when we have very little idea what has actually occurred, it's difficult to invest ourselves in one particular person or idea. And this is was distanced me from Doubt.

Rating: 13

It's tough to give a research paper a low grade when it provides all the correct facts and includes the appropriate information, but fails to create a big picture and a reason to exist. That's the best metaphor I can come up with for my feelings about Doubt. Excellent on pretty much all counts, for me, it still failed to be something more than the sum of its parts. This is because I felt unable to invest in something or someone, and the actual content of the film wasn't what I would generally consider "enjoyable." Doubt is definitely worth a watch, especially with its wonderfully appropriate ending. But I consider my appreciation of it like that of the C&E Catholics for church: nominal at best.

Monday, April 06, 2009


Frequent readers of this blog will have surely noted my constant complaints about how sameness is a problem at the cinema. In my defense, this shouldn't be a big surprise since I'm the oldest member of TMBC, and the one whose seen the most films in a wide variety of genres (though I think Wicked Little Critta is catching up fast....). Therefore, it only makes sense that I get more excited and impressed when I find something truly original. And I get REALLY gratified if and when I see something that not only breaks the mold, but smashes it into dust, and sweeps it into the gutter, to never been seen again. And after seeing innovative horror like Deadgirl, all other common horror films can say is this: Hello from the gutter.
Deadgirl is a film unlike anything I've see before, and has the most intriguing/mortifying hook I've seen come down the pike in a long time. I saw Deadgirl at the Boston Underground Film Festival, where festival co-director Kevin Monaghan told the audience something to the effect of, "I can't say that I hope you enjoy Deadgirl, but I hope that you take something away from it, that it affects you". I'm leaped at the chance to see this film at BUFF, because when I read about what the film was about, I doubted that it would get even a very limited theatrical release. After actually seeing it, I'm sure of that. But...enough foreplay.
Deadgirl follows the story of two teenagers, Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and JT (Noah Segan), local high school rejects, Trenchcoat Mafia types. At the beginning of the film, they cut class during a fire alarm to smoke weed and drink beer at an abandoned local asylum. There, they find themselves in the basement where they make a startling discovery: a beautiful, naked woman handcuffed to a gurney. And she's dead.....or at least she looks it........JT wants to free her, call 9/11, and GTFO. But Rickie? He wants to....keep her. To say much more would be going into very heavy spoiler territory, but the "dead girl" has a secret that makes deciding what to do with her (or to her.....) very squarely into "morally grey"....or at least squarely into that territory for Rickie.
If you're thinking that this sounds pretty tasteless, you would actually be very wrong. Deadgirl deals with it's very unorthodox and very dark subject matter with a lot of insight and restraint, and some very black humor, as appropriate. It does not revel in the extreme levels of gore and shock of it's ugly, stupid cousins in the "torture porn" genre. Having said that, this film is clearly NOT for the squeamish. Horror films have frequently been somewhat simplistic morality plays in America, but Deadgirl takes a very clear situation, and builds the plot and action around it, as opposed to shoehorning in lazy subtext in which teenagers who drink, do drugs, and engage in premarital sex are killed arbitrarily.
I liked Deadgirl, at least as much as I actually can like a film that has such brutal subject matter. The acting, directing, and writing are all very, very good. This film disturbed me, made me jump from time to time (but not in that cheap way), and made me shake my head with disbelief with it's final scene. I wish that I could go into more depth about the plot, but it's one of those films with a very minimal plot, so even simple elements of the story constitute huge spoilers. If requested, I might be able to put up an addendum on I Should Be Allowed To Think, TMBC's sister site.
Deadgirl is a powerful film about slippery slope moralities, and how "little deaths" become so much bigger. I will never forget this film. For originality, solid content, and superb craftsmanship, I give Deadgirl a 17 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

P.S. HUGE props go to Radiohead for letting this film use one of their songs.

-Your Racist Friend