Tuesday, November 25, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Synecdoche, New York

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Release Date: October 24, 2008
Running Time: 124 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Sony Picture Classics

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On a personal level, I consider Charlie Kaufman the most talented working screenwriter in Hollywood. I don’t think I am alone in this thought. His resume is one of impressive and envious of anyone in the past however many years you want to use to quantify it. It is one thing to craft a story with intelligent structure and dialogue. It is another thing altogether to create entire universes that have a distinct taste and smell to them. When you sit down to watch a Kaufman scripted film, there is an expected level of chaos and disorder. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind – all of these films have a wildly imaginative subject and scope, which is exactly the reasons we love them so much.

Synecdoche, New York marks Kaufman’s directorial debut and to the general movie-going public it will amount to little more than a confusing movie with a confusing title. Fans of his work will draw pretty much the same conclusion. On one hand it is an almost unapproachably pretentious movie with a title that is difficult to pronounce (‘si-NEK-duh-kee’, by the way). On the other hand it is a movie that sort of transcends explanation. That’s not a movie critic cop-out, it just has many, many layers beyond its face value.

On the surface it is about a theatre director making a play. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has had moderate professional success while everything else in his life seems to be failing on all levels. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) goes to Germany on vacation with their daughter and never returns. He thinks he is dying at every turn, his therapist might be crazier than he is, and his life is chalked full of failed relationships. With his wife Adele, his daughter, a string of female encounters, his body, his feces. He receives a prestegious grant that allows him the financial freedom to create his theatrical masterpiece on the stage. He sets out to gain an understanding of his life and the reasons pieces of it are always failing. The result is a never ending production of his own life, with no audience, that is built to scale in a warehouse in New York with actors and actresses playing everyone he is associated with, including himself, playing out in real time. All the time. For more than twenty years. As with any piece of self reflection, the deeper you dig the more you unearth. Caden’s solution is to sift through the confusion by piling on more. As events happen in his real life, he hires actors to replay the scenarios in voyeuristic fashion so he can observe his own misteps.

Like any other movie born of the Kaufman mind, the perception of reality is tweaked and bent until it is almost broken. Amidst the confusion it is really a story about a man who is afraid of dying without making his mark on the world. It is about a man who wants to overcome his failures, or at least understand how and why they exist, both real and perceived. A lot of writers draw from themselves at some point or another – it makes sense being the subject they are most familiar with – but Kaufman takes the unpopular approach of airing all his insecurities and dysfunctions through his characters for the audience to experience with him. It is not only self-referential but self-depreciating. There is a brutal honesty, almost an indignity, through the lens which we view his reflection. It would come across as pretension if there weren’t pieces of all of us in his view of himself. We all feel the same insecurities; they just manifest themselves differently in the Kaufman universe. Think of it as Woody Allen in an altered state and you’ll be close.

It is easy to become suffocated by the neurosis on display if there weren’t truth in them. Kaufman has a way of cutting so deeply into his subjects that he surpasses gimmickry and enters a level of honesty that others wouldn’t dare approach. I wont even try to claim that I understood everything in the movie. Even with multiple viewings certain parts of it just are what they are, without explanation. And it may be the least accessible film than the previous entries associated with the Kaufman brand but if you can get passed the perceived vanity and allow yourself to be receptive to its message you might end up surprising yourself at just how normal the whole thing ends up being.

And there’s the rub.

*** ½ out of ****

Friday, November 21, 2008


Starring: Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Release Date: November 21, 2008
Running Time: 121 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: Summit Entertainment

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The best part about being a film critic is that my sole purpose as it pertains to this site is to give my opinion. There are a few more subtleties that go into it, but for all intents and purposes my responsibility to the reader doesn’t go much farther than telling you what I think about movies. People read reviews to determine whether or not to see a particular movie and, for me, the beauty of it is that there is no wrong answer. I tell you what I think and you make up your own mind. Movies like Twilight come along every so often that make my job that much easier. I could tell you the middle hour is ruined by a subplot involving a dancing one-legged hobo fornicating with members of the Catholic Church for money and you would shrug it off and see it anyway.

I have reserved the right of non-participation in the growing recreational activity of Twilight bashing that has become so popular in the past few months. Attacking the mob mentality of zealous fans is a bandwagon that would be an easy target to jump on, but I haven’t any level of education on the subject to warrant my involvement in such practices. The Twilight fan base, loyal, loud and proud as they are, has been forced to defend their passion to those that have, raising the pitch to a deafening level. So we are left with this game of back and forth that doesn’t really amount to anything because no one had seen the movie, thereby rendering the basis of everyone’s arguments – from both sides – invalid by default.

Well I have seen it and I have good news and bad news. The good news is there really aren’t any hobos. The bad news is the movie really isn’t that good either. I would be remiss if I didn’t qualify the review by saying I have not read the books. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of them before starting to write for this site. I only say that for the sake of disclosure but it has no bearing on my ability to enjoy the movie. Look at the film adaptation of any book; if they are good, they are good in their own right – the film shouldn’t come with pre-requisite reading. Books are made into films because it is assumed the story will carry the film. The problem with Twilight is no matter how you look at it, it just doesn’t.

You all know the story, but for the few that don’t, I’ll quickly bring you up to speed. Bella (Kristen Stewart) moves to small town Washington to live with her father and meets the mysterious Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) who happens to be a vampire whose family lives secretly among the townspeople of Forks, Washington. Edward saves Bella from a near death experience and the two begin to fall in love. She finds out what he is – doesn’t care – and the two embark on a romantic journey that eventually endangers her life leaving him and his family to save her. I take no offense to the story itself, but it is very awkward and kind of unbelievable. Not ‘awkward’ as in teenagers falling in love is always a little clumsy, and not because he is a vampire and she should be scared of him (although mildly, but I can get on board with the ‘love conquers all’ motif), but the pacing is such that it takes for-EVER to get going and by the time they actually come to trust one another and fall in love it seems like they had been fighting it for nothing and now they are so swiftly and madly in love it just doesn’t make sense. I am even willing to give a pass by assuming pieces of the book were left out in lieu of a two hour run time but I can’t help an overall feeling of, well, awkwardness. It doesn’t help that the performances in the movie were laughable at times (literally, the crowd I was with laughed way too many times when it was supposed to be sincere on screen); only Pattinson showed fleeting moments of ability. His fans may be on to something because with the right material, I can see him becoming one hell of a leading man. Sadly for most of the Twilight he was resigned to looking creepy and uncomfortable. I understand what he was going for, it just didn’t work.

There have been a lot of comparisons drawn between Twilight and the Harry Potter series. Both are teen fantasy dramas based on insanely popular books with an even wilder fan base. I don’t want to start the whole Harry Potter vs. Twilight argument, but on the basis of overall appeal, there is a reason the Harry Potter films are more widely accepted that goes beyond its box office totals. The special effects are incredible (more on that in a minute) but the stories themselves are what draw the most attention. It would be easy for non-fans to dismiss them both because they don’t like stories of wizards or vampires. But strip them down to their fundamental story elements for a minute. If you take the wizardry and magic of Harry Potter out of the equation, you are left with the story of an orphan involved in a struggle with the man who killed his parents while trying to overthrow the evil surrounding him in order to free his people. It’s your basic revenge story with a splash of good vs. evil. That’s pretty heady stuff for a set of children’s books. Adults buy into the themes because they are basic enough to promote some form of emotional investment. That and they are the basis of countless great stories from film and print and something they are familiar with. Add back in your wizards and magic and kids are immediately drawn to the aesthetics of the story. All the sudden you have a story that people on a variety of levels can identify with that is worthy of their attachment.

Twilight is in the same boat except when you follow the same exercise you realize it’s got a lot of filler and sort of relies on the gimmick to propel the story. Remove the vampires from the story and you are left with the story the new girl in school that falls in love with a guy. They have some basic ‘Romeo and Juliet’ complications that could prevent them from being together but on the whole it is a teenage love story. I have absolutely no problem with that, but in terms of broad appeal it just doesn’t stack up when you look at the big picture. I thought the exact same thing when I watched Brokeback Mountain. I enjoyed the film, for the performances more than anything, but when you take away the theme of homosexuality, the element that made the film as notable as it was, and tell it as a basic love story the same way and it just doesn’t hold up. I know what you’re thinking, “Who cares?” My point is that when you add a layer of fanaticism it should be to compliment the stories not quantify them. When you start adding pieces to the story for the sake of dressing it up you are left with little more than the lipstick on a pig analogy.

I heard complaints coming out of my screening that the movie would have been better with improved special effects. I would caution the use of that as an excuse because good movies come from story telling. Not every movie has a Lord of the Rings effects budget and I don’t discredit the film for its effects. I was actually rather impressed with what they were able to accomplish without them. You start talking about adding in high dollar effects and we are back to the previous examples. The movie isn’t any better or worse because of them. And as someone who hasn’t read the books I can’t speak for what may or may not have been left from the book, nor do I care. The books may be the greatest thing in print since the bible but if you made a movie about that and left out the part about the resurrection it wouldn’t be half good either and no one would care.

I’ll be honest; I wish I liked Twilight more than I did. The fans have proven that they are nothing if not impassioned and very protective of their baby. To feel that strongly about something, however blind and misguided, is sort of endearing and actually left me a little envious. That being said, I saw Twilight at a midnight showing amidst a sea of electrified Twilight fans. They were an eager and vocal group but approachable. I talked to a row of girls sitting next to me before the film started and they told me all about how they loved the books and thought Pattinson was the dreamiest thing on wheels but they worried the movie wouldn’t live up to their expectations. There is something to be said for fans of the material – not just ill tempered critics like me – having reservations about their beloved books not adapting well to the screen.

In the second half of the movie I began watching the crowd out of the corner of my eye for reactions and I noticed about a half a dozen times the girl sitting next to me smacking her palm to her forehead and chuckling at something cheesy that had just happened onscreen. And all I could think was in that moment where both sides of the Twilight frenzy had joined in secret agreement, she was going to walk out of that theatre and tell one of her friends who wasn’t there with her all about it – the good and the bad – and the result would be the same as if I had told her myself:

It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.

And there's the rub.

** out of ****