November 9, 2012
Film Review: This Must Be The Place

Paolo Sorrentino
Score: 4.4

Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is a broken-down Raggedy Ann former rock star, with a penchant for red lipstick and a jet-black mane of Robert Smith hair. He leaves his mansion in the mornings and lopes around Dublin trailing a shopping cart behind him, spending time with a young woman, Mary (Eve Hewson), who he may or may not be related to, and hanging out with his vivacious wife, Jane (Frances McDormand), who routinely beats him in their evening handball competitions (clearly a conceit of the film is that deliberately off-beat Cheyenne be surrounded by women with the most obvious and dull names possible).

The rest of the time, however, he’s a shambling wreck, lurching forward in black leather boots and platform soles, and walking as if the lightest touch from another human would cause him excruciating pain. He no longer performs after two young fans of his took his gloomy lyrics to heart and killed themselves, and he has no particular interest in music, food or anything else. As we find him, he’s going through the motions of his daily appearance, applying make-up in the mirror and tousling his hair, but that’s his only remaining affectation of his glorious former past. Now, he’s little more than a curiosity piece, a rock dinosaur whom elicits smirks, giggles and stolen cell-phone photographs wherever he goes.

In writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s peculiar, deliberately off-beat (if not off-putting) drama, he’s also very much a character who needs Something To Do. There are a few moments early in the film where you think you can see where it might be headed: Will Cheyenne get together with his old band mates and reunite for an MTV showcase? Will he work to set Mary up with a friendly, somewhat dorky boy (Seth Adkins) he meets in the mall? Will he produce the record of a young and upcoming band whom very much want to work with him? Instead, the film takes a serious and perplexing zag in an altogether different direction: Cheyenne goes to America for the funeral of his Orthodox Jewish father, and goes on a road trip to hunt down his father’s Nazi antagonist from his time in Auschwitz (!?).

Yes, you read that correctly. Somehow, about a third of the way into the film, we are in a fish-out-of-water road movie as Cheyenne picks up the trail of clues his father left him and goes in hot pursuit of a war criminal with only the occasional assistance of a professional Nazi-hunter (Judd Hirsch). We go from having an aging, affected little man who continually has to puff his wild strands of hair out of his eyes, to watching a life or death struggle of conscience. It’s like making a chocolate birthday cake and using mayonnaise for the frosting.

As if to further prove its elusive point, the filmmakers toss in a steady stream of odd red herrings and non-sequitor moments: A man in a blue jumpsuit slips and falls while roller blading furiously past Cheyenne as he sits on a park bench in Central Park; a pretty, young Asian woman celebrates a shuffleboard throw with a skeezy older redneck in slow motion in a Midwestern bar; odd details that never add up to anything much in particular, except in a kind of cheesy music video way. In this aspect, it is more than slightly reminiscent of the debut directorial feature by a real rock star, David Byrne’s 1986 film True Stories. Little surprise then that Byrne makes an appearance of his own in the picture, as himself, playing the titular song in front of a rhapsodic audience dressed all in white.

There’s nothing wrong with confounding an audience’s expectations, of course, but when things become truly random seeming and the thin joke of Cheyenne’s made-up face, affected walk and feeble voice plays out in the wilds of the American rough-and-tumble west, there doesn’t seem to be a hell of a lot more at work here. It plays like a first-time screenwriter’s exercise in how to take a definitive character with nothing in particular to do and somehow create a storyline around them.

The end of the film — with Cheyenne taking steps to finally grow up from his past — adds a layer of confusing subterfuge that does little to enhance the increasingly grating experience that has come before it. Penn, for all his physical gifts, happily dives into his child-like character’s fey eccentricities, but is never able to fully humanize him beyond the obvious caricature he’s being asked to embody.

It doesn’t help matters that Cheyenne tends to speak in wisdom-soaked platitudes (“Life’s full of beautiful things”), no doubt meant to reflect all the hard-earned lessons he’s absorbed over the years, but he’s so disconnected from us he never rises much above a carnival sideshow. To stretch the metaphor a bit, even once you’ve paid your money and entered the darkened tent, the creature you find in the cage isn’t capable of holding your interest for terribly long.

June 9, 2011
Film Review: The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick
Score: 7.9

Terrence Malick’s new film has a couple of big name stars, sweeping vistas, extraordinary camera work and plenty of dialogue, but you could hardly call it a narrative feature. Rather, it’s a kind of rooted meditation, considering our lives in the context of a much larger scope of things, a bit like that infamous hierarchal map that can track down to the smallest molecules and atoms all the way out to the largest expanses of the known universe.

There might be a story at work, but it’s hardly the stuff of plot synopsis. Generally speaking, the film, when it is focused on people and not the natural world, follows the early life trajectories of a young family in Waco, the hard-driven father (Brad Pitt), strict and overbearing at times but not without compassion; his wife (Jessica Chastain), flirty and loving with her three sons, but with little of the authority their father imparts, and the boys themselves, Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest, and his two younger brothers, played by Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan. One of the younger brothers is eventually killed — presumably in Viet Nam, but never actually specified — an event that haunts the present-day Jack (played by Sean Penn), who is fabulously successful, working in big city Houston, but spiritually unfulfilled and still struggling with his relationship with his father.

The story, then, concerns the death of a child and the loss of innocence, but it does the film a complete disservice to suggest a standard sort of arc is involved. This isn’t the story of grief told in microcosm, it’s quite the opposite: The story of human existence in macrocosm. It doesn’t build scene upon scene in a linear fashion, crafting a dramatic story of pain and redemption. Instead, it takes snippets of things: moments of uncommon beauty and joy, and juxtaposes them against a much larger backdrop of history, beginning with the formation of the earth itself, and the primordial ooze that eventually became the dinosaurs. Just the same, it also doesn’t strive to be some sort of cosmic history lesson, retelling the scope of human history and their effect on the planet. Malick’s vision, intoned in VO by Chastain and McCracken, lies in the idea of grace and nature. Grace concerns notions of the soul, the natural world living ever present and always; nature is the human condition, striving and ever-envious, petty and too far filled with its own importance to nourish itself properly.

The friction of the film, such as it is, is the way our childhood grace transforms into nature, almost against our wishes, and leaves us miserable and self-alienated. In one whispering VO, young adolescent Jack recognizes the growing dissonance between the two and yearns to go back to the way he used to be: “How did I lose you?” he laments, and the question remains unanswered. Malick’s film doesn’t offer cheap closure and easy answers, it leaves it up to you to grapple anew with his store of wisdom.

November 26, 2008
Film Review: Milk


Dir. Gus Van Sant
Score: 7.5

Let’s take a moment to pity the plight of poor Dan White. The former cop and firefighter, elected as a City Supervisor during a year (1978) and in a city (San Francisco) at the fulcrum of a growing grass roots movement (Gay Rights, Equality) that he was ill-equipped to handle, was also saddled with a lantern jaw, beyond-square side-part haircut and an unfortunately apt surname. In other words, the man barely stood a chance.

As portrayed by Josh Brolin (who, fresh off his recent portrayal of G.W.Bush in Oliver Stone’s W., has practically curbed the market on oppressive honkies), in Gus Van Sant’s Harvey Milk bio-pic, White has the doomed countenance of a man who understands too late just what he’s up against. More than just with his elocution and delivery, fellow city supervisor Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the country’s first openly gay elected official, represented hope to all the miserable, oppressed gay/lesbian masses, having to contend with police beatings, brutal assaults and murders, and the repeated attempts of the Christian Right — here, in the form of Anita Bryant — to enact bills denying them equal rights.

Van Sant’s film is a remarkable docu-drama tour de force, weaving together original newsreel footage, still photos and 16mm grainy filmstock with his cast of talented — and understated — actors. It’s both an edgy elegiac for a not-so-far-removed time and an emotionally accessible account of the beginning of a movement, never more necessary than now in the age of California’s Prop 8 bill passing.

The key to the film is Van Sant and Penn never lose sight of the deep humanity of the man they are representing. Milk was, after all, such a powerful figure in no small part precisely because he was so charmingly self-effacing. He put people — gay or straight, believers or firm dissenters — at ease. Rather than turn him into an untouchable paragon of virtue, they show him as disheveled, often goofy, and, in many ways, the exact opposite of pitiful Dan White: Rather than getting crushed by the oncoming wave, he’s happily bodysurfing over it and into shore, giggling manically all the way.

If Van Sant occasionally has a propensity for the artful over the coherent (see Elephant), here he mostly reigns in his artistic libido for something of much stronger substance and effect. Though there are still the occasional flourishes (split screens, murky hand-held footage), he is wise enough, much like Milk himself, to keep his eyes on the prize.

September 27, 2007
Film Review: Into the Wild

Dir. Sean Penn

Score: 5.9

In his best work as an actor, Sean Penn is both natural and fully engaged, able to convey a complexity of emotion, a depth, that few other contemporaries can match. As a director, however, most of that engrossing subtlety is overpowered by Penn’s hamhanded forcefeeding of his vision. He tends to bludgeon you with his ideas, setting each scene up as an actor’s wet dream: Drama! Pathos! Resolution! So much so that scenes end up distracting rather than illuminating and become increasingly annoyed by all the endless emoting.

Here, he takes on Jon Krakauer’s true document of the life and times of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a disillusioned kid who takes to the road after college on a loose odyssey, traveling through the country with little money, no car, and an eventual dream to head up to Alaska, where he forages his own way and spends a good deal of time in an abandoned school bus in the wilderness, whiling away his days honing his skills of survival.

Despite the best of intentions — and some truly wonderful cinematography — Penn’s continual overselling dissolves a fair amount of the film’s potential power. It is always a bad sign in a film when the characters all revere and adore the protagonist more than the audience does. It’s not enough for McCandless to be simply liked by the people he meets along the way; he must become absolutely everything to them (“Are you Jesus?” one man asks him — mostly in jest). A hippie woman he meets (Catherine Keener) thinks of him as her wayward son; a young folk singer (Kristen Stewart) thinks he’s the love of her life; a good ol’ country boy (Vince Vaughn, doing his usual thing) wants to spend every minute with him; an old man (Hal Holbrook) wants to adopt him. It never ends, every person the kid encounters loves him thoroughly.

To that end, even though Hirsch is quite good, there’s a quality lacking in his performance, a certain smugness that doesn’t carry over the manner in which Penn means it to. Penn, himself, also relies overly on a bevy of camera tricks and twists to wring out the emotion (and a slightly overwrought soundtrack from Eddie Vedder doesn’t help matters), a helicopter shot here, a super close-up there, an occasional split screen, time jumps, chapter headings, place headings, date headings. In the right hands, each element can produce a startlingly effective reaction, but here it just feels like it’s piling on — forcing you to bow to the filmmaker’s will. It’s a shame that in a film so concerned with the grand beauty (and, it must be said, harshness) of nature, the director had so little faith in his audience’s connection, he had to resort to such fiddly camera fireworks.

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