RFK is envisioned as a rock-star Jesus sent from on-high to save America from its social and Vietnam hell in Bobby, a multi-character period piece set in the Ambassador Hotel the night of His assassination that mainly reveals writer/director Emilio Estevez’s fondness for PT Anderson and Martin Scorsese’s oeuvres. Overstuffed with tracking shots unimaginatively modeled after the camerawork of the Goodfellas and Boogie Nights auteurs, the film is a preachy, liberal-courting slog, its mini-dramas superficial and stereotypical, its coincidences contrived, and its aggressive, starry-eyed idolization of the titular would-be president a frail attempt to remind contemporary Americans about a war-torn time when compelling leaders promised real hope. TV and audio clips of Kennedy – including his MLK eulogy – are strewn throughout to bolster the myriad narrative threads with a mournful “paradise lost” vibe, the effect instead being to merely drape everything in elegiac pretentiousness. Slushy, clichéd storylines abound: Ashton Kutcher’s hippy gets a couple of squares high on LSD (replete with the sounds of Jefferson Starship and Vietnam bombing hallucinations), Sharon Stone’s betrayed salon worker confronts her cheating husband (William H. Macy), Lindsay Lohan’s selfless beauty marries Elijah Wood so he won’t be sent to ‘Nam, and Freddy Rodriguez’s kitchen worker learns from a friend that “Mexicans are the new niggers,” an opinion countered by a typically wise Laurence Fishburne as a fruit cobbler-baking cook. Through these and other go-nowhere plots, Estevez proves himself neither an accomplished writer nor director – nor, as his performance as the emasculated hubby of Demi Moore’s drunken lounge singer confirms, much of an actor either. Hollow and facile, the film is high-minded gibberish populated by the one-dimensional and wrapped up with a finale in which nearly everyone wends their way to the fateful kitchen and half find themselves on the receiving end of Sirhan Sirhan’s history-changing bullets. The real tragedy is that so many of Bobby’s nobodies survive.
Last week was mainly spent seeing films that come out Wednesday. And of those new releases, it's the one apt to polarize viewers - Darren Aronofsky's tripped-out sci-fi love story The Fountain - that most impressed me.
Happy Thanksgiving to all, and check back next week for reviews of numerous Oscar contenders, including The Good German, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Blood Diamond and Señor Anti-Semitism's Apocalypto.
“Death to organization” cries Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in The Science of Sleep, and while it would be going too far to say that Michel Gondry’s whimsical film wholeheartedly echoes its character’s celebration of creative chaos, it definitely makes few concessions to logic and tidiness. Boasting a collage aesthetic whereby dream sequences, stop-motion animation, paper-maché constructions, and multiple languages all freely congregate, the director’s latest utilizes its eclectic mise-en-scène to reflect the psychological condition of Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal), an uninhibited artist in Paris whose infatuation with neighbor Stéphanie is complicated by his mounting inability to distinguish between waking and slumbering life. Segueing between Stéphane’s mundane reality and sprawling fantasies – which alternate between the quixotic, the egotistical, the self-conscious, and the nightmarish (including one in which his calendar-designing work is impeded by the unnatural growth of his hands) – The Science of Sleep instinctively and ecstatically captures the freeflowing, stream-of-association nature of the cluttered unconscious mind. It’s an achievement facilitated by Bernal’s nimble embodiment of Stéphane as a man whose runaway imagination is both the gift that makes him unique and the curse that alienates him from those he cares for, with his Stéphanie obsession stemming not only from their kindred dispositions – both of them fanciful, impulsive and more apt to work with their hands then passively watch television – but also from his need for an idealized object of adoration. Gondry’s approach to his story is far looser, more melodic and more open to random flights of fancy than his sterling Charlie Kaufman collaboration Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a tack that leads to a few slack scenes during the third act. But like “Stéphane TV,” in which the protagonist messily cooks up his dreams with ingredients from his life (and watches memories as if they were home movies), this intuitive method also infuses the film with tender hope and sadness, touching on the way our cherished dreams define us, and the lonely interiority that can result from holding them too dear.
Thanks to its metaphysical, life-as-art narrative conceit, Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction has been dubbed, in some disparaging circles, Charlie Kaufman Lite. One might add that it’s also Drama Lite, Comedy Lite, and Will Ferrell Lite, the entire production such a featherweight nothing that it engenders only indifference. In screenwriter Zach Helm’s oh-so-cute tale, IRS agent Harold Crick (Ferrell, his endearing wackiness nowhere to be found) begins hearing an omniscient voice narrate his everyday routines, a situation that becomes more dire when the voice starts discussing his impending demise. What ensues is Harold’s rebirth into a man who doesn’t count toothbrush strokes or the number of steps it takes to reach the bus stop but, instead, embraces life, which he accomplishes via the help of an anti-establishment baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman), and, eventually, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), the reclusive author of the novel in which Harold – through some inexplicable (and thus left-unexplained) twist of fate – is the tragic protagonist. Faux-profound uplift is in abundant supply throughout Stranger Than Fiction. So, ultimately, is self-conscious cleverness and precious quirkiness, the film diagramming its coincidences and calamities with such schematic precision – and unimaginatively gussying up its action with graphical touches “borrowed” from Fight Club’s IKEA catalog sequence – that any spark of spontaneity or authentic passion/misery is more or less annihilated.
Familiarity often breeds not only contempt but also boredom. That’s certainly the case with regards to the work of Christopher Guest, who continues to mine the multi-character mockumentary for ever-diminishing returns. True, the director’s latest, For Your Consideration – which takes aim at the movie biz and the infotainment culture that surrounds it – doesn’t technically utilize a phony non-fiction format. But it’s nonetheless Guest’s same old routine dressed up with a few more camera set-ups-per-scene and a smaller number of improvised moments, replete with his trademark cast of performers (including, aside from the many newcomers, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer, John Michael Higgens, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Michael McKean and Jennifer Coolidge) embodying minor variations on the outcast character types that have come to define their Guest collaborations. Thus, in this scattershot, stereotype-skewering story about the making of an old-fashioned weepy called “Home for Purim” and the award buzz that builds for its stars, Coolidge is the ditzy movie producer, Balaban is the neurotic screenwriter, O’Hara is the awkward but sympathetic actress, and Fred Willard – sporting a blond fauxhawk as the anchor of an Access Hollywood-type program – is the boob prone to utter random, offensive comments. At least the film’s subject is riper for satire than the folk music industry targeted by 2003’s dreary A Mighty Wind. And considering how many one-liners are lobbed, it’s no surprise that a handful – mostly from the reliably hilarious Willard – hit their mark. The omnipresent sense of having already been here and done this, however, permeates For Your Consideration, a feeling only accentuated by unfunny anachronistic jokes about stuffy Old Hollywood melodramas and people not knowing what the Internet is.
Now out on DVD, it’s easy to see why Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror episode Imprint was never aired – it’s about as brutally graphic as anything I’ve ever seen produced for television. The story of a forlorn American (creepy Bill Drago) who, in searching for the beloved prostitute he dreams of spiriting away to the U.S., finds himself on a malevolent island populated by whores and demons, Miike’s entry isn’t for the squeamish, piling on unrelentingly unpleasant extended scenes of torture and aborted fetuses. The subtextual purpose behind this ghost story seems to be an evisceration of turn-of-the-century Japanese attitudes toward women, as the hour-long film mainly focuses on the flashback-filtered tale of a disfigured whore named Komomo (Michie) that plays out like a horrific counterpoint to Memoirs of a Geisha. But sociological critiques aren’t what give Imprint its ghoulish impact; stark, unrelenting visions of misogynistic mayhem are, epitomized by a sequence in which one unfortunate soul suffers a stunningly painful fate via needles to the body’s most sensitive parts. Hauntingly shot by Toyomichi Kurita, Miike’s MOH episode slips up slightly when forced to rely upon sub-standard make-up effects that are as over-the-top as Drago’s performance. Its visceral and gruesome images of female-directed violence, however, linger long after the credits have rolled.
Riveting even when it borders on the hagiographic, Jeff Feuerzig’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston details the troubled life of the titular singer-songwriter, a West Virginia native born into a devout Christian family whose idiosyncratic and profuse artistic gifts (which also included drawing, painting and amateur moviemaking) were inextricably colored by mental illness. Feuerzig’s documentary hails from the Tarnation school of non-fiction filmmaking, having been crafted with an overwhelming amount of Johnston-created video and audio footage (much of it confessional), interviews with anyone and everyone who crossed his path, and performance clips that starkly reveal the man’s talents and deficiencies. It’s a fascinating journey from Johnston’s parents’ cluttered basement to a career-making 1985 appearance on MTV, stays in psychiatric hospitals, a fallout with his thanklessly loyal manager and, after countless other pit stops along the way, finally back to his parents’ home, where Johnston once again resides. The director, clearly taken with his subject, crafts his portrait with melancholic sympathy, laying out how Johnston’s successes and failures were both colored by mental disorders that led to numerous, shocking breakdowns and brushes with death (most caused by obsessive visions of Satan). Unfortunately, such compassion eventually interferes with the film’s analysis of Johnston the artist, which never thoroughly examines the degree to which his work – scraggly, soulful, and simple – was celebrated not because of its inherent greatness, but because it sprung from a disturbed mind and, thus, came equipped with a unique, irresistibly appealing origin myth.
On any list of unnecessary remakes, The Omen – that cheesy 1976 horror goof designed to shamelessly piggyback on the success of The Exorcist – has to be somewhere relatively close to the top. And yet here’s John Moore’s faithful retry anyway, simply confirming its pointlessness at every available turn. Slavishly adhering to its source material’s narrative particulars, the film recounts the many troubles inflicted upon U.S. ambassador Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) and wife Katherine (Julia Stiles) by their surreptitiously switched-at-birth son Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), who isn’t an innocent tyke but, rather, the evil minion-courting, 666 birthmark-boasting Son of Satan. Moore gussies up his familiar story with unscary, jaggedly edited nightmare sequences involving people wearing animal masks in stark white bathrooms, while the sight of numerous American flags and the burning WTC towers (it’s, believe it or not, one of the signs of the apocalypse) strive to provide political subtext to the ridiculous supernatural proceedings. One could reasonably argue that, in the context of this blatantly silly and flippant genre endeavor, invoking 9/11 is not only inane but also insulting. But then, to be insulted, you’d first have to take this needless Omen do-over seriously – a task that’s next to impossible.
Blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni’s The Story of the Weeping Camel documents a nomadic Mongolian sheepherder family’s efforts to compel a female camel to allow her rejected newborn to suckle. Where those lines are located, however, ultimately matter very little, as the directors’ majestic, clear-eyed depiction of the bonds between parents and children – with regards to both the film’s two- and four-legged protagonists – is stirring regardless of whether certain moments have been artificially staged. Mothers wash sons before delivering their camels’ calves, while an introductory fable about why the titular animal stares off into the horizon (answer: because it’s waiting for the deer to come back and return the horns it borrowed) casually speaks to the sheepherders’ position as the final remnants of a fading breed. As epitomized by two boys' trip to a market where they observe (and the little one is entranced by) modern goods like computer games and television cartoons, the disconnect between the contemporary and the archaic resonates throughout The Story of the Weeping Camel. And in scenes such as one of a ritual in which a musical instrument played against the mother camel’s side brings her to tears, the film exudes a subtle spiritual power, just as a climactic juxtaposition of animals and humans joyously sharing milk epitomizes the directors’ tender, compassionate portrait of the primacy of familial bonds.