Thursday, June 29, 2006

103. Stretched to the Limit

I saw Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run again, and went to the Internet Movie Database to get ready to write this, and was surprised when I saw the release date: 1998. I could've sworn it was earlier in the decade, in the post-Pulp Fiction movieworld where, at its most annoying, narrative was treated like Silly Putty all stretched--or snapped--with the ability to transfer other pictures onto its glossy surface. Then again, such a film could be exhilarating, like a Matisse cutout, not quite collage, but its own sharp self, its clear outlines bright.I'm not sure if Tykwer's movie is better or worse for having been made so relatively recently; after all, it seems, with its self-conscious multiple-version narrative, to be simply playing a game--and it actually announces itself as one, with a soccer ball (it is a German movie, after all) kicked high in our faces--and a game that was getting a bit long in the tooth by the late '90s. On the other hand, watching it again was still exciting: Its techno soundtrack, herky-jerky pace, time-travel snapshot sequences, and general exuberance once again grabbed me like Lola (Franka Potente) herself, still a sight to behold, a ripe fruit on the go, Milla Jovovich with an appetite. A Lola-come-lately it may be, but this movie still makes me grin.

And more. I had forgotten about Lola's yell, capable of shattering glass, drawing absolute attention--and, in the stunning casino scene, revealing its true power: to alter reality, tip the scales, load the dice--or, OK, fix the wheel--to make it all turn out right. By the third twenty-minute go-round of Lola's fateful haste, she ascends the final height--and no matter that Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) no longer needs the money; she shows us what she is worth, and it's more than the 100,000 marks her boyfriend needs. In two quiet interludes, Lola and Manni consider their places in the other's heart, and we see that, despite all uncertainties, all the Butterfly Effects of moving from point A to B, "the heart knows what it knows," as Stephen King (!) quotes someone somewhere.Lola not only keeps it together, she makes it happen, with every step and misstep, graceful bound and stumbling lurch. Without her, Manni would not only be sunk, he'd be not-Manni; by the end, you get the feeling Lola is no longer reacting, but creating. Lucky for us, she keeps running, or we'd go out like the small candles we are.

I am happy for Lola and Manni because they are given three chances to know what the heart knows--and worried for all of us who aren't in the cutout, who aren't able to stretch and bounce, but have to try to know the first time around, no second--let alone third--chances.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

102. Three Amigos

I didn't intend a study in contrasts--and perhaps comparisons--as I follow up Nacho Libre with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada; but I do think Tommy Lee Jones' movie shares Nacho's indulgences in the outre--except Three Burials is almost Lynchian in its exploration of friendship within the context of the Western, while Nacho is just plain silly, as Daffy Duck would say. In Three Burials, Jones gives us a story and a style that fits the Western in more ways than one: Its abrupt shifts and sudden transitions remind me of the rhythms of a campfire tale--or reminiscence--one you kinda sneak up on, then linger over, then slide by, then linger again, all the while jumping around as one detail reminds you of another. At first a bit disorienting, Jones' technique soon found me right where it wanted me: hunched expectantly by the crackling logs, my poncho pulled tight against the night, my eyes following the teller's as he laid out the beginning of the middle, then the beginning, then on to the end.

And what a tall tale Jones does tell, ably aided by Barry Pepper as the bull-moose knucklehead border patrolman who shoots the titular thrice-buried character--who in turn forms the grisly third in this sagebrush deathmarch. Sometimes comical, always Texas-flat-true, Three Burials begins as a puzzle and ends as a rumination on the ties that bind, as well as a cockeyed opportunity for redemption, for Jones' Pete Perkins as much as Pepper's Mike Norton. And as much as I enjoyed watching Jones--like Robert Duvall in Open Range, Jones has a grand time playing cowboy--I want to mention Pepper's pitch-perfect turn here. Doesn't he have one of the great American faces of the past decade? A weirdly bent straight arrow whose trials send him scurrying like a snakebit greenhorn--literally--toward self-awareness and what looks like the first real tears of his life.

But what I enjoyed most of all was Jones' direction. The film's structure, as I've mentioned, picks its way through the story in true Western rambling narrative style--but more than that is the laconic-terse editing rhythm that becomes the visual equivalent of the Gary Cooper yup-nope, marking more than anything the myth of the cowboy. Jones doesn't fuss with establishing shots or slow dissolves; instead, we see what's important--or what will be--then turn around and move on. Sometimes the scenes go by with a drawl; at others, it's barely a glance, but enough to let us know we should be watching. It is the invisible American style made visible, and the effect is often oddly comic, a bit distancing, like the campfire teller who doesn't want to get all mushy on you--then it stops, and makes you see how bad things have gotten--the ant-episode stands out as a dark-comic version of this; but in a more awful, poignant way so does the blind-man scene. And finally Jones reaches the punchline--which merely works as a rueful shrug, preceded by necessary tears and resignation, before the movie provides its own truncated version of the ride into the sunset. Pepper even gets to yelp out a Shane-like cry before the movie packs it in, quick but unhurried, a "nope" followed by a "yup." You need to watch fast, Jones' draw is so quick.

I'd like to see Tommy Lee Jones do this kind of thing more often. He has that cowboy-quality down to the bone, even when he's battling aliens and Wil Smith's distinctly East-coast bravado. It can be a parody of itself--again, his Man in Black is more Keaton than Cash--but even then it has its charm. On the other hand, when he focuses those qualities on something like Three Burials, Jones lets us see the value of that slow-to-anger-quick-in-judgment Western icon, the last man standing, even when all that remains is lies and loss, and a last question.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

101. Mucho Muchacho, or Cinema Libre

Our eldest child--who has just turned 18, and insists she is an adult; oh, what japes!--is on the verge of entering college, and has decided to accept at least one responsibility of adulthood: She has a job. Actually, I'm not sure how much of a burden she's shouldered, for two reasons. First, although she's working ostensibly to have enough money for textbooks (whose total cost will, of course, be a grand sum dreamed of only in Ali Baba's deepest, most golden slumbers), given her conspicuous consumerism, at least on the heels of her first paycheck or two, we will need to wait until September to see how much she has actually saved. (As always, though, I remain confident in my children's ability not to disappoint me or themselves. The alternative, of course, is the bitter imposition of father-guilt, almost as strong as mother's.) But, in judging the maturity of her move toward gainful employment, I am less suspicious of her goal of "financial impregnability" (a phrase favored by the president of the college where I work, evoking again a fabulous promise of "Open sesame!" and the glowing cave of treasure) than I am of the "maturity" of the nature of her work--to be honest, what I myself had considered the dream job of my youth, a dream I regretfully never realized: movie usher.

A pause as we consider the cliched but deeply true physics of falling fruit relative to distance from point-of-origin tree. The result: A Humble Viewer with a flashlight.

But all fiscal and developmental considerations melt away in the heat of the central perk of her position: free movies. And not just for her. In an effort to encourage family values--interpreted here as being able to sit next to each other in a row and stare at a movie screen--her parents get in for free, too. Aside from the fact that concession costs suddenly no longer need to be measured in parsecs, a kind of relief/elation--Can this be true? Is it possible to ignore the bullying cost of a movie ticket?--settles in, and I find myself actually not before the Home Living and Entertainment Center to watch a movie.

And which film did we choose to inaugurate this new age, this Dolby Digital dawn of the gratis widescreen? Nacho Libre, natch. Of course, in some ways it didn't matter. After all, our daughter, that light of our lives, has opened wide the curtain, so to speak (I can't write "literally," since it's been twenty-five years since I've seen an actual curtain part in a movie theater), and choosing which movie to attend is no longer a corporate affair, with spreadsheets and quarterly projections, not to mention backroom deals and hostile takeovers--oh, the careers made (and lost) in the great let's-see-King-Kong buy-in; the boardroom still quivers from the tension of that decision--but still, given our family's collective inclinations, Jack Black in tights was a fitting start.

Minutes before we left, I admit I checked Ebert's review. I hadn't read anything about Nacho Libre, but I knew it was directed and written by Jared Hess, with his wife Jerusha, whose debut, Napoleon Dynamite, I could watch at least once a week--and co-written by Mike (School of Rock/Chuck and Buck) White. There's nothing like "home-woven handicrafts." Well, Ebert pretty much dismissed Nacho, and this worried me, but my daughter reminded me how deeply I was committed to Napoleon Dynamite and all the sweet moves Hess managed with that one, so off we went.

And watching it, I was reminded how going to the movies can be a social experience. A friend of mine insists otherwise, and conjures up that culpatory image of everyone in a row in the dark. But I had forgotten how a comedy builds strength from the audience--even if, as in Nacho's case, that strength came from only five audience members: my wife, kids, and myself. No one else was laughing much, but we fell right into the deadpan sly affection of the script and performances. Jack Black's Nacho is the only non-Latino in the movie, and glaringly so: He is often shirtless, and aggressively pasty. And the rest of the cast, accepting Hess' Fellini leanings, pose in presentational deadpan, so that we can marvel at their simultaneously deep and vacant expressions. Only Ana de la Reguera as Sister Encarnacion seems to be actually acting--and almost in another movie, a more straightforwardly silly comedy, maybe with someone from the cast of Friends. Her performance, though, serves to heighten Black's improvisational self-absorption and the rest of the cast's impervious swarthiness.

At the core of Nacho are two urges: gags and God. They never quite come together, but I couldn't help noting how Nacho's wrestling partner, the chip-stealing, corn-loving Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), asserts that he doesn't believe in God, but science--then suggests Nacho eat eagle's eggs for their magical properties. And Nacho himself doesn't succeed as a wrestler until he, like a Blues Brother, makes winning a mission from God. I suppose one can easily dismiss this "spiritual" element without hurting the picture, but Hess seems in the end to salute his freaks' faith--jeez; is he the Tod Browning of comedy? Or was Felinni? I'm not sure, and I don't care. All I know is that there's something hilarious about Nacho's entire demeanor as, still glowing from his first wrestling match, he glories, "Do you remember when everyone was shouting my name, and I used my strength to rip my blouse?" And this seems perfectly to coincide with Nacho's dark night, when he prays, "Precious Father, why have you given me this desire to wrestle and then made me such a stinky warrior?" It is a question I ask myself frequently.

But before I obscure the core delights of this movie, I want to remind myself of the giddy joy of the wrestling scenes, that seem so Tex Avery-ish and startling--I know digital imaging can cut-n-paste a movie anywhere it wants to go, but Black bounds around with sudden nimbleness, as clueless as he is appealing, flinging himself into an extrovert's paradise of bare-chested abandon. And his interaction--often in terms of a collision--with the movie's often infinitely more stolid characters provides a study in opposites that's funny because it's not true, but a kind of Bizarro planet utopia, in which the fools win against all odds, as in the best silent comedies. It's just that Nacho Libre is louder.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

100. Touchy

I was well into the adulthood of my movie-life when I found out how much the French--and isn't that insulting? "The French." I know how I feel--mad, that's how--when an American does something particularly ugly, and foreigners get to disdainfully frown, "Americans." Oh, well/C'est la vie. Anyway, there I was in my thirties somewhere when I realized how much the French love--loved?--American movies, especially crime pictures. I'm glad I found out so late: Not only can I still enjoy with young eyes the sight of a French film rolling around in the noir mud--and there they go again, reminding us that we wouldn't be able even to name the darn things without them--re-imagining the genre and showing me things about American crime movies I otherwise might not have paid much attention to, such as the abundance of older--or older-looking--actors as tough-guy leading men, whether as crooks or dicks--and the level of professionalism required of such figures, once you rise above the snarling Scarface/Mike Hammer levels of crime evolution. Of course, the great self-reflexive bridge figure here is Eddie Constantine, whose private eye Lemmy Caution moved through a surreal Franco-American universe with its own timewarp, tossing him at last into the whatsis-future of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965).

But the real treat for me is in the earlier, less self-conscious French noirs--and the man to watch, Jean Gabin. I finally saw Touchez pas au grisbi/Don't Touch the Loot (1954), directed by Jacques Becker, a precise experiment in cross-pollination, and the result is a new bloom whose gunpowder bouquet and blue steel petals knocked me out in too-cool slo-mo. I've read reviews that compare Becker's approach to John Huston's, and that makes sense. Grisbi felt like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon in its brutally human attention to failure, while ironically praising the virtues of friendship and loyalty. Gabin's Max, a ready-to-retire criminal, is forced to risk everything to save his longtime friend/partner in crime, whose urge to impress a showgirl makes him slip info about a stash of gold bars they'd heisted, Max's pension fund. The resultant kidnappings, beatings/torturings, and general mayhem, while exciting in themselves, are played out with a casual hipness that seems weirdly American--but particularly French. Let's not forget how assuredly they understood jazz, and this movie shows that sensibility, giving us a world in which, as the grin-inducing Criterion Collection subtitles inform us, old French guys call people "Daddy-o," and there was a lot more honest cursing in French cinema's underworld than its American counterpart, despite the latter's ruthless sadism of the migraine-driven Cody Jarrett (White Heat/1949) or the gleeful bullying of Mickey Spillane (Kiss Me Deadly/1955).

Still, thinking of those pictures alongside Grisbi gives the French film a special glow. It seems for about a decade American and French cinema maintained an unspoken partnership in the attempt to confront the crime genre with its own darkly beating heart. The opening scene of Grisbi, in which the gamblers and crooks hang out in "their" restaurant--a party of outsiders is summarily sent across the street--shows us Max's gracious cool hard at work, keeping everyone happy, maintaining appearances, biding his time until the gold's cold enough to fence. His unflagging code-loyalty to his foolish friend is, of course, itself foolish, but to play it any other way would dismantle the point of all that cool: Not simply to gather the loot, but to hold it off, a means to a fuller end. When other crooks want it for themselves, the code kicks in again: How could they touch it when Max himself won't? As I mentioned a few days ago, I watched Goodfellas, and Grisbi reminded me of the scene in Scorsese's film in which an ever-angrier Jimmy (Robert De Niro) has to scold his heist gang for buying flashy goods, for touching the loot. Max knows it is paid for in bloody loss. Not a pink Caddy or silver fox coat, le grisbi is the Mexican mountain of greed that overmastered Bogart and company, as well as the black bird, the "stuff that dreams are made of," in Huston's films. Again, Becker's movie knows the value of loot, and the price paid for loyalty. In the end, those gold bars are nothing to Max beside his friend. As Sam Spade says, "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be." Fifteen years later--and an ocean away--Max tenders the same warning, and woe to any mug who gives it the drift.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

99. Poor Richard

I've never checked as closely as I could--although this kind of thing is not high on my to-do--but I get the feeling that many critics--and less self-conscious movie-goers--do not care much for Richard Gere, not even (especially?) during his rising years as a gigolo and a gentleman who attracted pretty women. Of course, I'm a little more than half-sure why this is: a combination of exposure--all that Dalai Lama business--career management--a general air of Serious Man at Work--and, of course, the grinding-down power of envy in the presence of such a good-looking guy. Is Richard Gere smug and self-important? Is he a mid-talent prettyboy riding on his own coattails? Is he the fortunate victim of talented filmmakers--Terrence Malick, Paul Schrader--who cast him against all better judgment?

I hope so; it gives me just that much more gadfly-room to continue to insist he's an interesting actor--like Nick Nolte, except we've given Nolte a free pass, despite his own heart-throb debut on the small screen. (I once read a Film Comment profile that ignored both Rich Man, Poor Man and 48 Hrs.; talk about revisionist history.) But I will admit there's something about Richard. As we sat down to watch The Mothman Prophecies (2002), I informed my wife--at the last moment, just to make sure she'd watch it--that it starred Gere. Of course, I couldn't leave it alone, and during the Interpol warning I faux-casually mentioned how much I liked him. She immediately jumped, because "he was mean to Letterman." Now, all Letterman-protective instincts aside, I think I remember the occasion, in which Gere was a bit stand-offish, recalibrating Dave's lack of enthusiasm for the utterly famous as doltishness. I dunno; the dynamics of the talk show are tricky, and Letterman's has a domesticated surrealism that continues to make his show a kind of mind-fu--er, I mean minefield--for celebrities, despite his post-heart/Harry soft side. But if I'm going to judge an actor by his/her treatment of David Letterman, then Drew Barrymore is the greatest thespian of our time. (OK, she's pretty good; but still.)

And so it goes for Richard Gere, bandied about and bashed, trivialized and frowned upon, puzzling and exasperating. And perhaps always on the verge of the Big Fade, if it were not for his insistence that he continue to make pictures, and intermittently big ones, like Chicago. The Internet Movie Database tells me he'll be working with Richard Shepard, who directed Pierce Brosnan to such interesting effect in The Matador. Perhaps that is what Gere needs at this stage of his career: a good old-fashioned deconstruction, blasting him down to ground zero and building up a new one. (And let us not forget an earlier, admirable, attempt at such assured de(con)struction: Internal Affairs, released the same year (1990) as Pretty Woman.)

I'm not sure, though, that it will happen, at least not to any lasting effect. He may indeed be just pompous enough not to allow it. But I don't mind, because I like him just the way he is: All wound up and quasi-internalized, good at tears as well as snaky self-protection, a sensitive jerk just beefy enough to take a punch, whether he deserves it or not. I can be stubbornly loyal: Way back when, when Zack Mayo famously tells Sergeant Foley, "I got nowhere else to go!" I was dutifully impressed; it was a De Niro-worthy moment, and it still speaks to my own ever-impending sense that we are all approaching the last-chance station before the desert opens its maw to swallow us up. I thank Gere for that thirty seconds; and he should be thankful, too, because it earned him at least one loyal, forgiving fan. The joke, of course, is that he'd be too stuck-up to show such gratitude; but I'll leave that kind of sniping to less humble viewers.

Monday, June 19, 2006

98. Lifers

The term ended yesterday for my students at the prison. In American Literature I, we looked at the humanitarian strain of Romanticism, those who urge us to face Thanatos so that we may live, like a waterfowl swallowed up by the abyss of heaven, like a ship of pearl with many mansions--or those such as Lincoln, who feign modesty as he insists we'll little note what he has to say about how we cannot consecrate any ground on which we do not sacrifice ourselves; or Frederick Douglass, who first sought sheer literacy; then, when he has it, clamps on it and refuses to let go, as he will not Mr. Covey--the man who beat him once too often--until the master relents, and never again beats the man who is no longer a slave. As a grad school professor of mine once wrote at the end of one of my more perorational essays, "drums, thunder, and curtain."

In Introduction to Film Art, though, the curtain was messier: blood-red, profane, and ruthless--just the way we like 'em--a cinematic OD that was DOA: Goodfellas, with its broad and desperate cackle--"See? I'm enjoyin' every minute of this!"--but with watchful eyes, flat and measuring--and mistaken all along: The ledge was narrower than Henry Hill could have imagined, and his skittering fall, arms pinwheeling like Harold Lloyd with the cocaine blues, splatted him on the concrete like a plate of egg noodles and ketchup, the schnook.

I always insist on a Scorsese movie. I refuse to indulge in outright competition in such matters, but he still seems to me to be the one to watch, the director who can still open up a film like a magician unfolding the box in which not one or two, oh no, but six-seven-eight and on surprises spill out, his hands nimble, his eyes still sharp. Watch Howard Hughes crash his plane or insist one can bring in the milk: Scorsese works like a young Turk bragging about what he's capable of. Or maybe even better yet, Bringing Out the Dead, a shameless coupling, right there in garish New York reds and smearing yellows, of the old story of salvation with some crankhead "with his hands on his own hardware." Add to that the movie supergeek Scorsese, cataloguing in his head--and film by film, on the screen--every shot he ever saw that meant something, anything, to the topography of movies; and I for one am always satisfied--while still hungry for the next sausage-n-peppers plate he'll serve up.

As we watch a film, I ask my students to write an answer to a question I put on the board. For Goodfellas it was, "Pick a scene that illustrates Scorsese's mixed feelings toward his subject." As usual, I asked them to pay attention not just to WHAT is happening but HOW it does; my tired old joke is that I'm dedicated to ruining their future movie-watching experiences, forcing them to notice camera placement, lighting, sound, shot length and sequence, and on and on, a self-conscious exploded diagram of the emotion-producing machine. Or, to use the earlier metaphor, swiped from Welles, their job is to figure out the trick, steal fire from the magician's fingertips even as he sparks it out with his time-tested flourishes and misdirections. To clarify the question, we considered a hypothetical scene of clowns performing at a circus, as filmed by someone who knows they're funny and beloved by millions, but is also afraid of them. How would he shoot them? So we discussed tilted frames and extreme closeups, strobelights and jumpcuts. I think they've gotten pretty good at this: Last week, they watched Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak pretty closely, noting the "mise en" a "scene" of their choosing, and capturing the techniques used to convey the scene's mood or importance to the film as a whole--or simply the preceding and following scenes. They're taking small steps, but as they go along I think they're peering at the terrain more closely.

I've read about a third of their answers, and I'm happy to say more than one of my students has noticed that Scorsese's wiseguys keep saying they're having a great time, but they are either eternally suspicious of one another or have, ahem, odd perceptions of what it means to be happy. Now, I'm not saying my students see Henry as anything but someone who "always wanted to be a gangster"; I think, though, they're feeling the weight of the film's techniques as it drags them toward the characters' reckless assertion and inevitable decline. It was the last day of class, and I was letting them leave if they'd finished writing the assignment. Most took me up on it, but four or five hung around to finish the movie. One student in particular kept his paper in front of him, writing quickly as the credits rolled. As he handed in the assignment he told me he'd seen Goodfellas before, but couldn't remember the song that played at the end, but as he recalled it somehow fit. We agreed that Sid Vicious singing "My Way" was an inspired choice, as Henry's parting shots at the square life are accompanied by an anthem for the self-apocalypse. It was funny, scary, and stupid, like Joe Pesci's Tommy De Vito, "a funny guy," and like Sid himself, who also cracked under questioning, so to speak.

After twenty years, our local community college is shutting down its program at the prison. I've heard another school may take its place; whether it allows me to offer a film course remains to be seen. In the meantime, at my regular job I'll be assisting a student who wants to complete an independent research project on docs. Something to do with children, I think. It won't be the same as the seat-of-the-pants hijinks we'd sometimes pull at the prison--What do academic felons really think of Gene Kelly in a leotard?--but between one Humble endeavor and another, I'll try to keep my hand in, as I hope will my students over the hill and, for now, far away. Of course, we'll always have Blogger.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

97. The Life Aquatic

As Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) rushes to the American Museum of Natural History to look squarely at his childhood fear/joy in the abrupt finale of Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (2005), I almost did not have time to realize the movie was over. This giddy hiccup-and-lunge, like climbing a staircase and thinking there's one step more than there really is, has its place in cinema, and I think Baumbach chooses his well. The Berkmans have been falling apart, sometimes hilariously, sometimes painfully, but never without a clear sense of direction--which makes sense, since Baumbach gives us, as my wife immediately responded when I asked her what she thought of it, "the most realistic picture of divorce" one could wish for/dread. And a breakup such as the Berkmans suffer has no direction, unless you accept the metaphors of inevitability--the storm, the plane crash--whose only "patterns" are the sickening necessities of the tumbling pull of gravity, downward movement accompanied by splatter-patterns. And in The Squid and the Whale, the last arc of trajectory in such a drop does lead to some conclusion, or re-lived recognition, as Walt reclaims his mother, and maybe then his ability to live on--as his mother does.

I'm not too sure about the father, Bernard (Jeff Daniels, once again better than we'll ever know), or his auto-eroticized son, Frank (Owen Kline, sad and true). The father's loss makes sense: His own failures, abetted by his wife, but nurtured by himself, create a trap from which he peers, and this position is oddly enough also my only remaining source of sympathy for him. There is something rueful and touching about his egoism, so that by the end I'm glad Walt is able to run from him, but I cannot forget the damage Bernard has done--and OK, the mother broke what may be the biggest promise, fidelity, and I will not lay all blame at one doorstep; but Frank's descent seems so closely linked to his father's, begun years before Frank was born, that I feel a particular measure of Bernard's culpability. Just as Frank is trying to figure out his own identity--within the family and his own body--the one he might need the most, his father, falls apart. Again, Laura Linney's Joan Berkman adds to the confusion with her own "solution": the affairs, particularly with the stay-over Ivan (William Baldwin--and aint this another gem of a performance, my brother?); Frank isn't even sure where his "bone structure" comes from, and he falls toward Ivan as a potential model, while marking his sexual territory as best he can. And let us not forget his drinking problem(!), as real a part of that realism Baumbach achieves as one could fear.

It's a mess, of course, but Baumbach keeps it all on track, with humor and ironic distance, as well as old-fashioned pathos and intimacy, until I could see the world he made with aching clarity. I was lucky, growing up, not to have to suffer such a descent--although my parents built their own working-class version of the Ph.D.'d Berkmans' urges toward distance and recrimination; The Squid and the Whale connects with my own childhood fears and uncertainties, with the added twist of Bernard's compensating disdain for just about everything around him. Now this is a sin I can identify with. I find myself resisting the urge to judge, to project my own insecurities on every little damn thing around me (read: other people), just to keep afloat the Good Ship Me. I am thankful for The Squid and the Whale's sharp light cast on such false pride, and the damage it can cause. I noticed how much I hated Bernard's faults, in part because they lurk within--or, to be honest, sometimes caper right there out in the open--while I keep trying simply to be a good man. When Bernard rejects A Tale of Two Cities and piggybacks on that a swipe against the dopes who run high schools, making students read the second-tier stuff, Baumbach gives me a much-needed double-dose: I resented Bernard's imposing of his insecurity-engendered rejection of the book onto his son, who agrees not to waste his time with it; and then cringed as I heard myself in Bernard as he bad-mouthed his son's teachers. There is something important about movies that unearth such foolishness in oneself.

In The Life Aquatic screenplay, Baumbach gives us a delirious circus-version of the confluence of ego, insight, and folly. As painful as it is, I'm thankful he settled down--although not entirely forgetting the comedy of such things (and aren't we thankful also for that? Check out Walt's discussion with his girlfriend about how Kafka-esque Kafka is; I am tempted to write another entry just to discuss the comic elements)--with The Squid and the Whale to remind me of the sad physics of the fall, and to chide me for my excursions into the greasy waters of my own pride.

Monday, June 12, 2006

96. My Fluttering Life in the Box of Ghosts

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis complains that reading newspapers leads to "an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand." He was arguing against the veracity of journalism in general, but in these comments he gets closer to a contemporary problem, which lies in the ability, via one electronic media or another, to "flutter," not in aerial beauty, like Forrest Gump's feather, but with a fractal's whim, one pattern giving way to another, until the lines between comedy, tragedy, fact, fiction, observation, and participation all become more than blurred, but erased. It worries me sometimes; such casual veering can lead to moral vacuity, an infinite "WHAT-ev-errrr" that would echo like thunder, if there were any boundaries, borders, or walls to contain the sound. But it is as good as infinite, and as full--or, sorry to sound facile, empty; but it's true: plugged in, those of us in the technologized, democracized, globalizing nations can sail blithely past death and doom until we get to the funniest home video or million-dollar, last-chance-to-call bargain--or worse, the agitprop bludgeoning of whatever "lying liars" we choose to believe--for as long as it fits our need of the moment. John Donne's most famous sermon is voided, because, caught in the electric current, I am an island, and no one's death affects me. And so OK, here it comes, the corniest irony of them all: having so much information, so many arresting images, half-truths, outright lies, and inviting sounds at my disposal, I'm asked to empty my self to make room. Filling up, I'm emptied. Plugged in, I'm isolated.

Case in point: Yesterday I watched Sunset Blvd. (1950) and half of Gandhi (1982). This is not, it seems, a double feature conducive to integrated moral reflection. Billy Wilder takes a machete to Hollywood, even while sympathy draws down the corners of the eyes--as it does Cecil B. DeMille's, who is tender toward Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, engaging, like that master masochist, Lon Chaney, in an act of self-evisceration)--yes, until it's time to get back to work. As kind as C.B.'s treatment is, it is still the "kiss-off" he earlier disdains. This is a horror film of the cruelest kind, forcing the victims to watch their own slaughter, as in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960)--but face-down, dead in the pool, narrating the decline--again, just as Swanson leers madly at her own past, "out there in the dark." Meanwhile, Richard Attenborough canonizes The Great Soul, moving with stately adoration through a gallery of the better and better acts of a man moving upward toward the only light that matters. I'll watch the rest of it today, but for now these two films co-exist, overlapping, intrusive, Lewis' vulgarization of tragedy.

But even as I watched Sunset Blvd., I saw that random access can be re-configured by one's own devices--and with one's literal devices, as the DVD player, the broadband connection, the text message and all can be enlisted in the service of pattern and purpose. I'm reminded of a kind of game I used to play in college, dialing the radio slowly along the FM band, allowing whatever was on one station to slide into the next, instantly creating connections, a self-invented meaning made in partnership with essential chaos. And just to prove how cool I (think I) was: In his liner notes for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Brian Eno reports that, "in 1951, John Cage composed 'Imaginary Landscape No. 4,' a piece for twelve radios, each with two players who control parameters." According to one of the performers, the "'snatches of music and speech ... with lengthy silences in between ... had a disturbing effect.'" But I think what is disturbed is silence, and the dominion of randomness. Art makes life, it seems. So as Billy Wilder took apart the things he hated with ruthless glee, on that sardonic grin I saw the second smile, slight, somewhat studied, but in the end pure with soul-force, that Ben Kingsley's Gandhi left on the electron stream of my Hitachi; and the Mahatma may have suffered a bit in the doubling, but still, poor Norma was rescued from absolute disregard, and became more than a horrible joke, but something closer to pity, undeserved or not. Watching both, one after the other, I knew I did not have the right--or at least the ability--to make that choice. Not with Gandhi watching, at least.

This kind of thing happens to us Humble Viewers all the time. I hope I can always connect the dot-matrixes, right or wrong, reinventing the Box as a frame for the collage each viewing contributes to, adding a small thing here and there, not fluttering vacuously but inventing meaning--and sometimes discovering it, what a treat--with each and every byte.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

95. Swann's Way

Despite my advanced years, I stayed up after 11:00 last night to watch My Favorite Year (1982) on Turner Classic Movies, and I was immediately rewarded on hearing Robert Osborne, TCM's ubiquitous host and all-around movie-lovin' fool, introduce it as one of his favorite movies. I nodded in agreement, even though I am deeply hesitant to make such commitments myself. Favorite what? Comedy? Richard Benjamin comedy? (OK, that one has some credence.) But still, I agree, Mr. Osborne: It's one of my favorites, too. I saw it multiple times in the early '80s, in a period when, as newlyweds, we had little money but a great urge for Home Living and Entertainment. So we had HBO and a VCR--and although for a year our TV was a 12" black-and-white RCA, and replaced by a friend, who gave us a belated wedding present, a 13" TV--and color--we were Home, and Living, and indulging in Entertainment. So we squinted, and watched movie after movie--on HBO multiple times.

My Favorite Year was one such perennial, and the more I watched it, the more I liked it. It's not particularly memorable in its look--the lighting is a bit too '80s sitcom-bright--but the period music is great (for instance, the opening titles use the intro for Stardust, "the music of the years gone by", Nat Cole softening the blow of the deep melancholy in Hoagy Carmichael's masterpiece); but the real draw, I think, lies in both its evocation of '50s comedy TV--that Your Show of Shows phenomenon, in which so much talent gathered in the service of breakneck silliness--and in its performances. And while everyone has fun with their roles, watching it last night I remembered how perfect Mark Linn-Baker was as Benjy Stone, the Mel Brooks figure, the junior comedy writer who idolizes--and needs to babysit--Peter O'Toole's Errol Flynn-like Alan Swann. Linn-Baker is the most '50s-ish performer in the cast--not that Benjy acts like someone from the '50s, but that, as narrator/memoirist, his '50s Benjy acts like an actor from the '50s, a rapid-fire nebbish who would have been perfectly at home with Lucille Ball or Phil Silvers--or Sid Caesar. Part Donald O'Connor ricochet, part Howard Morris panic, Linn-Baker delivers the performance of his career--unless you count Perfect Strangers, but there he had the thankless job of dampening the enthusiasms of his cousin Balki (Bronson Pinchot).

In My Favorite Year, though, he more than dampens, he jumps belly-first on the blazes set by Swann, catching on fire himself in the process, and flinging himself around, a screwy Brooklyn squirrel surrounded by nuts. Finding himself in New York, eager and young and Jewish at a time when TV comedy was all of those things as well, Benjy cannot curb his enthusiasm. Watch him dart after his would-be girlfriend, or jam those dim sum in his mouth while telling one of my favorite jokes ("A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office with a duck on his head ..."), or fly around on a rooftop, trapped and breathless as he once more attempts both to reign in Swann--literally--and become him; as Swann comments just as he is about to once again imbibe, "Stone, you can watch me or you can join me. One of them is more fun."

That urge to identify with the swashbuckler is Benjy's--and Swann's--salvation. Linn-Baker provides us with a tireless pest who loves movies just enough--that is, too much--to will them off the screen and into his life. We first see him carrying around a lifesized cutout of Swann; and by the end of the movie we are given Swann himself, on the TV screen, caught in the act of becoming a fond, dim Kinescope, something for us to remember just as dimly, and maybe catch on TV late at night, past everyone's bedtime.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

94. Song of Innocence


In the final scene of Roman Polanski's version of Oliver Twist (2005), Oliver (Barney Clarke) insists his benefactor, Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), allow him to visit Fagin (Ben Kingsley, phenomenal once more), condemned to death, and beyond the pale of all approach. Awed by mercy, Oliver attempts to soothe his one-time friend--and I quote from the novel, which I believe at this point in the scene Ronald Harwood's screenplay does as well: "Let me say a prayer. Do! Let me say one prayer. Say only one, upon your knees, with me, and we will talk till morning."

In the novel, Mr. Brownlow "thinks it well" Oliver should see Fagin; and "Oliver nearly swooned after this frightful scene, and was so weak that for an hour or more, he had not the strength to walk." In the film, however, Oliver sits in the coach, melancholy but clear-eyed, and Mr. Brownlow looks over at him, realizing what a source of virtue and strength all this has made Oliver, now literally placed in Brownlow's hands, as he puts his arm around Oliver, in part comforting, but in part I think also drawing strength himself from a boy made by cruel institutions and kind hearts into something wiser than his years, and more kind than most children could manage. The screenplay also leaves out the Dickensian connection between Brownlow and Oliver, one of those stunning revelations of kinship that some find a bit contrived in Dickens--but which for me always are emblems of Dickens' belief in the interconnectedness of souls--and a warning to be careful whom you slight, because your lives will ensure a return--and, in Dickens, a comeuppance.

But I don't mind losing that cosmology in Polanski's film: his end leaves us with another Dickensian emblem: the child who may be heard, like Blake's chimney-sweeps, "Crying 'weep! weep! in notes of woe," a victim of "God and His priest and king, / Who made up a heaven of our misery," but who also shines in his sacrifices; again, as Blake in his more innocent mood sings, "I a child, and thou a lamb, / We are called by His name." Polanski's movie works for me like a Blakean dialogue--I was pleased, for instance, to see the orphans' beds looking like Blake's sweeps', their raised sides and black rectangles "coffins of black," where one orphan exclaims, "I'm so hungry I'm scared I might eat the boy that sleeps next to me."

In this self-aware follow-up to The Pianist (2002), Polanski continues to explore the fruits of the hard labor of abandonment, cruel treatment, deprivation, and fear. His Oliver not only survives, though, but becomes a better person. Polanski has said he wanted to make a film for his children, and his Oliver Twist tells them a "moral tale" whose horrors are not merely cautionary, the heartless scolding of " ... if all do their duty, they need not fear harm" (Blake again), but a promise that suffering can have meaning--and that it can come to an end. Polanski's finely, grimily detailed London--the film opens and closes with nineteenth-century prints and etchings of daily British life, "smeared, bleared"--is Oliver's proving ground; but it is also where he provides opportunities for others to prove themselves, from Nancy to Fagin to the Artful Dodger, and in the end to his adoptive father. Mr. Brownlow has most certainly rescued Oliver; but he has gained at least as much in return: Polanski offers him a noble soul to learn from; as he muses in both film and novel on first meeting Oliver, "There is something in that boy's face ... something that touches and interests me. Can he be innocent? ... Bless my soul!--where have I seen something like that look before?" In the book, this is our first hint of Dickens' version of the Great Chain of Being, in that we are all relatives. In the film, though, it seems closer to a realization that the "something" Brownlow notes is Oliver's rare, even noble, ability not to be decimated by suffering.

In his novel, Dickens rails against the institutions that bring Oliver pain, and his anger is typically, perversely expressed in the most sadistic treatment of the boy Dickens can get his England to muster. It can be harrowing to read much of this; Polanski--despite being, after all, Polanski--shows amazing restraint as he lightens Dickens' cruel touch, constructing a children's film that does lead us into the dim, close quarters where officiousness, greed, and fear make the air filthy, but with Oliver he opens a window just enough to allow in that last wafting breeze, as Oliver sits solemnly in the coach, and Brownlow counts their blessings for both of them.

Monday, June 05, 2006

93. On the Contrary

Although I watch a dozen or so movies a week, I am by no means a true movie-geek, especially not one of the compulsive compleatists or trivial pursuers whose breath comes in short pants (there's a joke worthy of Groucho in there, if you want it) at the thought of a new Mario Bava blood-spattered color-wheel on DVD or a fellow geek's home-burned compilation disk of every B-Western scene that features the same rock outcropping in Monument Valley. True, I'm happy when I realize I've committed certain minor scenes to memory--I never get tired of mimicking the "wheat colloquy" in Woody Allen's Love and Death (1975), with its "wheat ... wheat ... an enormous quantity of wheat"--or when I know some bit of trivia: For instance, Sam Raimi's masterfully simple "shaky-cam"--a camera mounted on a two-by-four, held by two people, who then run around with it, gliding it over tree stumps and car hoods--is the secret to all those giddy-scary demon-chases in The Evil Dead (1981). But that's the kind of thing you can find under "trivia" on the Internet Movie Database--I checked; according to IMDb, star Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi were often the ones running with the board. And thank goodness I didn't know that; the day that my movie-watching is about the obsessive-compulsive attainment of an encyclopedic knowledge of film, I'm through with it. Besides, the older I get, the less I recall. Doomed on all counts.

But each to his/her own, yes? The cinematic hobby-horse I love to ride is built on contrariness, a stubborn loyalty to films and actors and directors one cadre or another loves to bash. Oh, the thrill of Tom Cruise-boosting in certain quarters, or my unwavering support of Matt Dillon--and there you go, rewards do come, as Matt showed (or reminded) 'em all with his performance in Crash. Or more exciting, the slight snobbism of maintaining Punch-Drunk Love and The Cable Guy are the only Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey, respectively, movies that matter, Man in the Moon and select moments from Anger Management notwithstanding. Not to mention my commitment to typical nerd delights, such as big-bug '50s movies or the "Carry On" series.

But such gadflying pales beside my insistence that certain directors can do no wrong. Michael Cimino, for instance. Anybody can find reasons to admire Heaven's Gate, but I see moments of grandeur in The Sicilian. True, I've never watched 1996's Sunchaser--who has? I'm not even sure it's on DVD. But there is a distinct, albeit perverse, pleasure in Cimino-philia--and not, it is important to note, as a guilty pleasure; heck, even the ultra-cool super-dudes of cinema--read: Tarantino-- can crack wise about hipster-doofus junk like '70s all-girl hit-squad flicks or tilt-o-rama Japanese groovy-gangster epics. No, the Director Protection Program requires a steady hand, an unwavering fealty that passeth all understanding--even, at times, for me. But half the fun is digging in, refusing to be wrong. It is a skill developed as a boy in an argumentative household, then honed under the watchful eyes of the Jesuits, and sustained by contentious, beloved friends, whose affections to this day hammer at my adamantine chains of conviction.

Which brings me to Brian De Palma. It's easy to take him apart: part Hitchcock rip-off artist, inappropriate humorist, and delirious disdainer of the very presence of the audience, De Palma can be seen as an Ed Wood with talent. But my admiration is not all that contrarian; he does have his not-so-secret society of near-worshippers. According to the Museum of the Moving Image's Program Notes for a 2001 De Palma retrospective, Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker, "Dressed to Kill seems to have merged De Palma's two sides: he has created a vehicle in which he can unify his ominous neo-Hitchcock lyricism with the shaggy comedy of his late-1960's Greetings days ... in his hands, the thriller form is capable of expressing almost everything--comedy, satire, sex fantasies, primal emotions." But those same Notes, ah, note, David Thompson's response: "De Palma's eye is cut off from conscience or compassion. He has contempt for his characters and his audience alike, and I suspect that he despises even his own immaculate skill." David Thompson, we should note, often has his suspicions; it is a part of his greatness as a writer on film--and a "novelist"; seek out his movie-melding wonder, Suspects, for a big astringent swallow of his own brand of contempt.

But I digress.

I agree to some extent with both Kael and Thompson. You can, too: Just watch Snake Eyes (1998). I Netflixed it for the sake of its famous opening long take; my film class at our local correctional facility was going to watch Goodfellas, and, among other things, I wanted them to compare long takes, as Henry and Karen go to the Copa--and one more, as the car bomb goes off in Touch of Evil. I had forgotten, though, how protracted the long take was in Snake Eyes, and how complicated--and there's your "lyricism" and "immaculate skill"--but also how important the scene, how much we learned, not only about the plot and the characters, but, most important, the tone and mood of the whole film, and its Rashomon-like fracturing of the crime--but with the intent of clarifying, not obscuring, it.

I think that opening sequence explains--maybe even justifies--my attraction to De Palma movies. As Kael points out, De Palma knows how to make his obsessions serve his needs. The film rewards us well for paying close attention to everything that happens--but, again, more than information we receive a sense that the Atlantic City casino in which the action takes place is a tightly wound, internalized world, with its own rules--but narrowing prospects. Despite the thirty-plus floors of rooms, arena, and massive underbelly, Nicholas Cage's Rick Santoro, a crooked cop with a caffeinated jive that seems boundless, is careening toward a trap, as the casino's eyes-in-the-sky record every moment, impaling both hero and villain, a chase watched, rewound, and watched again. So De Palma feeds our Rear-Window voyeurism, forcing us to not look away, not even for a moment, or you'll miss the one small sign--a reflection of a face in chrome, a slight spray of blood--that lays it all out. De Palma uses that long take to wrestle the periphery into clear view, and the rest of the movie becomes a reward for close observation of Rick Santoro's gliding, jarring course into a mystery whose key is the last thing he needs, as the truth is nothing but betrayal and descent.

De Palma's movies circle this territory with admirable frequency. We are encouraged to watch, and rewarded mightily for doing so--then punished. So OK, maybe there's some contempt for the audience. But that's part of the De Palma thrill, because I don't think he really hates us; just our can't-say-no attitude to the pleasure of watching. Sometimes, as in Carlito's Way, it gets beautifully tragic, the devilish glee of voyeurism enlisted in the cause of pity and compassion. At others, as in Snake Eyes, the end is rueful but cool, a whatta-ya-gonna-do shrug sweetened with a kiss--and a kiss-off, sly but not snide, world-weary but not cynical. As Rick tells his in-hot-water friend, "It isn't lying! You just tell them what you did right, and you leave out the rest!" In De Palma's case, as far as I'm concerned, what he leaves out isn't worth seeing.

Friday, June 02, 2006

92. Notes of Sadness

In The New World (2005), Terrence Malick arrests his narrative again and again to note the "mute, inglorious ministers" resting and flitting and fluttering and perching all around the human principals of his story, and what I kept seeing in his aggressively Romantic exoticism was a sense that "the little critters of Nature" (and their surroundings), those buzzing multitudes and sandy reaches and finny prey and leaf-rustling breezes he so diligently observed, comprised the actual New World--not the timber and furs and freedoms and profits--and it is a world Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) alone worships, as she does so often at the water's side, invocation and baptism all at once--and without which she dies. I think Malick wishes everyone would leave him and Pocahontas and the Good Earth alone, so they could succumb unimpeded to the mesmerism of ecstasy in the face of all that burgeoning life.

Excuse me if this seems a bit ripe, but right before I watched The New World I saw Ron Fricke's Baraka (1992), a Maya-video that indiscriminately moves from humanity to nature and back again until it's obvious how silly it was in the first place to see the two as separate. Malick as well seems determined to chart the damaging trail we've followed in separating ourselves from nature--and not with any clear eco-ethic, but, as many have noted, an Emersonian Seeing that asks the ego to become an Eye, paradoxically elevating the self by obliterating it.

And as usual I fell right in. Malick's camera moves from the ships sailing into the bay to the "naturals" emerging from the forest to stare, in a would-be cliched image that takes on a poignancy I cannot resist: They face the sea and the ships, while the continent continues to unfold in unending green at their backs, patient and waiting, but unable to stop them from staring. Mute, indeed: Nature disappears as the settlers move in, their muddy compound in a different world--not a New one, but the old one lifted and tossed down like a dirty rag. Colin Farrell's John Smith, through the ministrations of Pocahontas, sees what the settlers are undoing, and hides until it's too late. Later, Pocahontas goes to England, and Malick shows her in an exhibition hall, dressed as an Englishwoman, bending down to peer at a forlorn mammal in a cage. The image is heavy-handed--one exhibit eyeing another--but it still broke my heart, because she was so beautiful, and because she later finds a pond at her English home and still remembers her ablutions; and the motion of her arms raised, the water cupped and falling, seems more entreaty than praise. Malick turns the business of colonialism into an elegy for Pocahontas--but also Smith, as he stands alone, able only to recall the New World--which, Malick notes sadly, is all he ever could do, since it didn't belong to him, and never would. And his face, I think, reflects that knowledge, doubling the loss, as he mourns a borrowed life and a fleeting glimpse.

Malick's deliberate, lingering pace and visual sense--mixing lush exuberance with humble submission--find their best vehicle in The New World, while the sound editing hearkens to every peeper in the marsh, and the music--part Mozart invocation, part Wagner recessional, with "natural" notes of awe and sadness--heightens the bright boundaries of the images as they rise and fall. He seems to be using every language film can manage--visual, aural, narrative--to clarify the scope of the loss of the World in the act of making it New, while calling us to adore the thing lost. The result for me is at the least exhausting; still, it is a film I know I want to see again, despite the weight it asks me to carry. To misquote Elvis Costello, I cannot turn from "all that useful beauty."

Thursday, June 01, 2006

91. Fahrenheit 1984, with Extreme Prejudice

As I've always maintained, Humble Viewing is work. You have to get up early, fuss and fiddle with Netflix, wait breathlessly to see if the out-of-the-blue movie you've chosen is Humble enough for Viewing, then submit: to the movie as it makes its way into your head and then onto the page. This page.

And indeed, I'm writing about Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium (2002) at the tail-end of this laborious process. I began with Netflix's "Your Recommendations"--which, after I'd rated a few thousand movies on the site, knows me better than I do--and trawled around in Science Fiction/Fantasy, looking for stars I knew--like the present film's Christian Bale--and the good word from My Constant Guides, Ebert and Maltin. This one is mostly Ebert's. He made me curious to see a movie than sounded like a martial arts hybrid of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.

Which it is, albeit not always comfortably. The Matrix-like "gun-kata" fight sequences mixed with pitch-perfect, even nuanced, totalitarianism-bashing provide me an opportunity to employ with complete certainty the cliche that it was like watching two movies. I thought both were compelling, but as compatible as THX-1138 and The Fifth Element--and I'm only thinking of those two films' color schemes.

Fortunately, almost every scene in Equilibrium includes closeups of Bale, as though Wimmer were counting on that face to carry us from shoot-em-up to ruminate-on-it without any jostling. And it almost works. After American Psycho, The Machinist, and Batman Returns, I think Bale has managed to convince us that he has more facial control than anyone--except maybe De Niro; but the latter hasn't needed it much lately. He's an existential Cary Grant, ready to blow his lid even while half-smiling. And half the time you can't tell what the hell he's thinking, which is really cool--and I'm using that word in its proper sense. Somewhere between Steve McQueen's squint and--well, Clint Eastwood's--and somewhere between De Niro's "This is this" in The Deer Hunter and Sean Connery's disregard for your--well, your very presence in the audience--Christian Bale stares you down, and makes you attend. I think without that insistent face, Equilibrium would lose its balance (sorry).

I will add that the gun-kata stuff is pretty compelling, and that Wimmer knows how to keep me interested in illogical action sequences--at least he does in this movie: I was disappointed to read how awful his latest, Ultraviolet, seems to be. That's a shame: I'm always ready to enjoy Milla Jovovich, cinema's most beloved skinny marink. So even if Equilibrium is his one shot--but that's unfair; as a director, Wimmer's been at it for only a few years--it's not the worst head-on collision of genres one could imagine. Besides, I'm eager to point out techno-movies that have neater gunplay than The Matrix. And Bale is even better at deadpan than Keanu Reeves. (I think because the former does it on purpose; however, I'm not here to be snide, especially toward Reeves, whom I support against all odds. But I digress.) And last--and best--Equilibrium makes you remember how much fun it is to get excited over things, swearing and swooning until all that freedom tuckers you out enough to realize what you should have been feeling all along.

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