Friday, September 22, 2006

The Science of Sleep

A dream truly is a remarkable phenomenon. For all of our scientific advances, we still can’t explain away the mystery and power of our own dreams. Imagination can take us wherever we want, but dreams come upon us differently; when we’re unconscious and at our most vulnerable, our mind makes a journey without our permission. At times our dreams seem random, calling on people and events which have no discernible correlation or relevance. They can be frightening, funny, erotic, or perhaps a bizarre combination of all three. All dreams are different, but the common thread running throughout our dreams is an element of fantasy. Dreams occupy worlds that are entirely their own.

In The Science of Sleep, Stéphane (Gael Garciá Bernal) seems unable to distinguish between the various realms of his own mind. He returns to France after his father’s death and quickly forms a friendship with his next-door neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Besides the obvious connection between their names, they both share an interest in imaginative fantasy and the mystery of dreams. Stéphane’s fantasies are contrasted by his incredibly boring job with a company that makes calendars. He has trouble deciding how to handle a potential romance with Stéphanie, but he has even more trouble deciding how to handle himself, and he never seems as comfortable with the outside world as with the world of his own dreams.

The film does indeed feel very dreamlike. For starters, the screenplay drifts in and out of multiple languages, a choice that few films make. Many scenes take place in Stéphane’s mind, which is visualized as a television studio made entirely of cardboard. Stéphane hosts his own imaginary show in which he shares whatever is on his mind. I enjoyed these moments in the studio; the cardboard surroundings immediately conjure childhood fantasies in which ordinary cardboard boxes became spacecrafts or giant fortresses. These scenes are fun, but the film really shines in its dream sequences. Most of the dream elements are achieved with stop-motion animation, an old visual effects technique that has also found a home in animated films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Chicken Run.

Writer/Director Michel Gondry is onto something with his use of stop-motion to convey dreams; there has always been something dreamlike and otherworldly about this particular artistic method. It’s refreshing to see this technique amid today’s onslaught of computer-generated animation, which has opened every visual door. No story, however imaginative, escapes the cinema’s reach, yet the effects in today’s films don’t have quite the same intrigue as the old stop-motion visuals. In King Kong (1933), for instance, the gorilla’s movements appear odd and jerky, and at times you can even see fingerprints from the animator’s hands appear in his fur. It’s a very dated visual effect, yet it still holds a unique air of mystery, and continues to captivate audiences more than 70 years after the film’s release. The dream sequences in The Science of Sleep remind me of these early effects achievements; the scenes are jerky, outdated, and absolutely wonderful. There’s a real beauty and power behind them, and I can’t think of any other film that incorporates animation in the same way this one does.

Unfortunately, few of the film’s characters are as interesting as its visuals. Stéphane works as the story’s centerpiece, though the romance between he and Stépahnie is ultimately lacking. Gondry’s screenplay has some clever exchanges and is surprisingly funny at times, though, as its title suggests, the film’s strength comes in its dreamlike visions. There are some explorations of scientific information about dreams, but the film is mostly a celebration of all the things we can’t explain. Early in the film, we’re able to distinguish between the sequences occurring in the “real” world and those occurring in Stéphane’s subconscious, but around the film’s halfway mark all lines begin to blur, until ultimately we have to decide for ourselves which elements represent reality and which occur only in dreams. When the dust settles, I think you’ll find that it doesn’t matter. Whether Stéphane’s memories were dreamt or played out while he was awake, he allows them to actively reflect and shape who he is. Leaving the theater, I was reminded of a line from Dead Poets Society: “Only in our dreams can men be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”

Friday, July 21, 2006

Lady In the Water

Well, I’ve got to hand it to him; M. Night Shyamalan has created one of the boldest, most original, and most demanding Summer movies I’ve ever seen. Much more than any of Shyamalan’s others, Lady In the Water will polarize viewers. Audiences were largely divided on his films Unbreakable and The Village, but this latest tale practically draws a line in the sand, demanding that you either get on board and appreciate it, or promptly leave the theater. Many will call this one of the worst films of the year for the same reasons that others will call it one of the year’s best. The eccentric plot unfolds through an absolutely audacious presentation. Interestingly enough, I enjoyed it.

Lady In the Water tells the story of Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a maintenance worker at a typical apartment complex in Philadelphia. After hearing splashing in the pool after hours, Cleveland discovers a Narf, or water-nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard), named Story. She tells him that she must return to her world, named “the Blue World.” Cleveland decides to rally the tenants in the apartment complex to help Story return to her world, but doing so won’t be easy. Her ticket home involves being carried off by the great Eatlon, a giant eagle, but she can’t safely do so because of the presence of a Scrunt, a deadly creature whose skin is covered in grass. Her only hope is that the Tartutic, a clan of justice-enforcing monkeys from the Blue World, will come to take the Scrunt away.

If you’re wondering at this point what the hell I’m talking about, I don’t blame you. The story was originally crafted as a bedtime story for Shyamalan’s children, and the plot feels that way: spontaneously made up, one element at a time. All of the characters quickly hop on board with this Narf legend, without question. No one ever stops to say things like, “What do you mean, she’s a Narf?”, or, “This makes no sense!” Because the characters don’t raise these questions, it stands to reason that many audience members will, but I just chose to let go. In order to enjoy this movie, you have to accept the rules and limitations of a bedtime story. There’s no room for cynicism, or any level of believability, for that matter. Shyamalan’s rewriting all the rules this time, and he invites you to come along only on his own terms.

Here are some examples. Cleveland has multiple conversations with an elderly Korean tenant who knows the Narf legends. Rather than letting Lady In the Water tell us the Narf story, we hear a Korean woman tell the story first, so that as it unfolds we feel like we’ve seen it already. The most obvious example of Shyamalan’s boldness is the presence of Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban), a film critic who roams in and out of scenes predicting what will happen based on his knowledge of film clichés. It’s as though he knows he’s in a movie and seems unimpressed with it. As always, Shyamalan himself makes an appearance, but he gives himself more of lead role this time, playing a visionary whose ideas will change the world. It’s an audacious move, but Shyamalan knows what he’s doing. He presents himself as a visionary, while showing a film critic as arrogant; no wonder this movie has received a lot of negative reviews.

Like Shyamalan’s other films, there’s a crafty creepiness and strange mysticism. Performances are fitting all around, including Shyamalan himself. My hat is off especially to Paul Giamatti, who manages to bring real sensitivity and gravity to material that’s potentially disastrous. M. Night Shyamalan has made a movie that many won’t connect with, but I think he ultimately made it for himself and for his children. As for Mr. Farber, the film critic, he really represents an inability to accept the fantastic. After more than a century’s worth of movies, most audiences are unwilling to condone “silly” story lines and overlook gaping plot holes. Shyamalan demands that you leave all inhibitions behind and absorb the moment. Maybe that’s too much to ask, but so be it. I found Lady In the Water to be surprisingly sweet and enjoyable, and for me, that was enough. “There is no creativity left in the world,” Farber says to Cleveland. M. Night Shyamalan has proven him wrong, and I respect him for that.

Friday, July 7, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

The film that started this series, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, achieved the only goal that matters in a summer movie: it was just plain fun. Everything about it was designed to give the audience a good time, most notably the performance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. In this second installment, the entire cast returns, but the film carries a much more ominous tone. Part of what made the original film so fun was the lack of real danger. It possessed a sense of adventure, but never became truly intense. The stakes are somewhat higher this time.

The film opens intriguingly, with rain drops pattering onto settings of fine china. Elizabeth Swan’s (Keira Knightly) wedding has been interrupted as both she and her fiancee, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), are arrested for having helped Captain Jack Sparrow escape from the gallows (think back to the first film). Meanwhile, Captain Jack has a run-in with Will’s father, the sort-of-dead “Bootstrap” Bill Turner (Stellan Skarsgård). Bootstrap informs Jack that Jack’s time is up; he owes his soul to the sea’s most fearsome pirate, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). Suddenly, the race is on as Will desperately needs Jack’s help in saving Elizabeth, and Sparrow hunts after the mysterious contents of the legendary Dead Man’s Chest.

While the film has a considerably darker feel to it, it also has its fair share of humorous moments. I think most fans will enjoy this sequel and appreciate it’s numerous allusions to the first Pirates film, as well as some fresh character developments. Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), for example, was a fairly stereotypical and unexciting villain in the original film. In Dead Man’s Chest, Norrington has lost his job and has become a desperate loser, willing to do anything to regain his military status. There are other character developments similar to this that are both surprising and fitting. Bill Nighy plays Davy Jones with a cold sincerity, even though most of his face has been computer-enhanced to resemble an octopus. In fact, every member of Jones’ crew has physically bonded with the sea in some way, allowing for some creative visuals; Bootstrap Bill has barnacles growing on his face and small hermit crabs crawling across his body.

There’s plenty of adventure and swashbuckling fun, but both the content and color-palette of the film suggest darker, heavier themes. Apart from the devilish Davy Jones, the East India Trading Company emerges as the film’s other villain, spearheaded by Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander). Beckett desires the contents of the Dead Man’s Chest for himself, adding another major player in the film’s events. It’s strange that this film should feel more tense; on the one hand, it makes sense because more characters’ lives are in danger. On the other hand, if this franchise has taught us anything, it’s that no one ever really dies. Even the characters we thought were dead (like Bootstrap Bill) can appear in some mystical half-dead form.

This film doesn’t exactly live up to the first, but I think it wisely avoids any such attempt and just moves the story ahead. Unlike the original film, Dead Man’s Chest doesn’t stand completely on its own. It’s obviously dependent on a third installment, and can therefore be compared to sequels like The Matrix Reloaded or Back To the Future: Part II. This isn’t a complaint, so much as an observation. Without disclosing any plot details, Dead Man’s Chest ends with a wonderful surprise that will leave viewers excited about what awaits them in Pirates 3. In fact, the whole film feels like something of a setup for the series’ inevitably epic finale. That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t carry any weight of its own; Dead Man’s Chest works, but mostly it sets the stage for what should be a spectacular conclusion to the Pirates saga. I left the theater looking forward to it, already anxious to climb aboard for one last ride.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

There’s no safe way to adapt one of the best-selling and most controversial novels of all time to the screen. Having said that, I applaud Ron Howard for his fairly solid result. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has caused more furor than any book since Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988. As far as I know, the Vatican hasn’t put any bounties on Dan Brown’s life, but still; conservative Christians everywhere are furious. Everyone seems to either love Brown’s book or despise it. Interestingly enough, most people who despise it haven’t actually read it.

The film remains faithful to the novel in most respects. A famous symbologist named Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) gives a lecture explaining the power of symbols and the plethora of possible interpretations. Langdon shows a picture of men in white hoods and asks the crowd for one-word responses. Audience members quickly shout words like, “hatred,” and “racism,” to which he responds, “They would disagree with you in Spain where these hoods are worn by priests in religious ceremonies.” Immediately after his lecture, the French police escort Langdon to the Louvre Museum where renowned art curator Jacques Sauniére (Jean Pierre Marielle) lies dead on the floor, surrounded by mysterious symbols written in blood. “Why would anyone do this to him?” Langdon asks. “You misunderstand,” the officer tells Langdon. “Monsieur Sauniére did that to himself.”

So begins the epic quest to solve the mystery and unravel the secrets of Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings. Other key players are Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a beautiful, young cryptographer who assists Langdon, and Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), a history buff who offers his expertise to help unlock the code. At this point, I’m not quite sure how to proceed; if you don’t know the true focal point of the plot, I don’t want to ruin it for you. Also, if you don’t know it, you really should read the book first. However, if you’ve been alive for the past three years you’ve probably heard something of it by now. The true secret of the murder concerns a quest for the holy grail and a revelation about Jesus that could topple the Church’s power forever.

The film establishes the proper mood through eerie cinematography and music. The film has great intensity at times, especially during one scene of self-inflicted torture that almost transcends its PG-13 rating. However, the intensity is sometimes misplaced. On the whole, fans of the novel will find themselves experiencing many of the same feelings Brown’s original narrative conjured up, which is what you hope for from an adaptation. Ron Howard’s film does an excellent job consolidating the novel’s vast amounts of historical data into a typical movie timeframe, but it doesn’t cover all of it; it’s just not possible. Because of this, The Da Vinci Code as a film doesn’t carry the same level of believability and confusion as the novel does. The premise of the film feels slightly more absurd at times than the novel ever did, but we must remember that the mediums are different. Howard’s film achieves as much as it can in the realm of believability, and no more should be expected. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t always meet its potential for overall intrigue and excitement.

There are times where the overload of explanations almost grows monotonous, but again, was this avoidable? I don’t know; with such explosive subject matter, the film could’ve benefitted from a greater sense of danger. The story was explained craftily and the film was well-paced, but at the end of the day my palms just weren’t sweaty enough, nor had I spent enough time on the edge of my seat. As for the performances, some have already criticized the lack of chemistry between the principal actors, Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, but I submit that the two have the same level of chemistry as the characters have in Brown’s novel. The frequent moviegoer, dulled by age-old formulas, will no doubt expect a romantic connection to develop between the two, but I’ll go ahead and spoil this aspect of the story by saying that romance isn’t on the film’s agenda. The novel barely dabbles in a pseudo-romance between Langdon and Neveu, and the film version purposefully avoids it. When the credits roll, these characters haven’t gotten together, and that’s OK. In fact, I found it slightly refreshing.

Tom Hanks works as the story’s smart guy. Symbology isn’t the most adventurous field of study, and even within that field, Robert Langdon is no action hero (don’t think of Indiana Jones’ “archaeology”). The character of Robert Langdon embodies the biggest difference between The Da Vinci Code as a novel and as a film. On screen, he has a great hesitancy about everything happening around him. He doesn’t seem excited or vindicated that his years of study are now proving useful. The film version uses Langdon’s character as a means of responding to some of the novel’s criticism. He periodically reminds Sophie/the audience that these are just theories and that Christians shouldn’t be in an uproar about all of this. The novel had no need to defend itself, but the film’s use of Langdon’s skepticism in the face of controversy effectively responds to the very people who will be boycotting the film. In the film’s final moments, he tells Sophie, “In the end, it’s about what you believe.” I don’t know if people will be pleased, disappointed, bored, encouraged, or outraged by The Da Vinci Code, but if people take anything from it, I hope they heed Langdon’s final advice.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

V for Vendetta

“Artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.”

On November 4, 1605, a terrorist named Guy Fawkes was discovered in the basement of the British Parliament with 2.5 tons of gunpowder, enough to destroy it many times over. V for Vendetta begins here, with a history lesson. The story then cuts to a not-too-distant future in which America has collapsed and Great Britain is under the rule of a Fascist dictatorship. Curfews are enforced, religious freedoms are gone, and most great art (music, movies, paintings, etc.) has been made illegal. The government uses the slogan, “Strength through unity; unity through faith.”

When Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is caught roaming the streets after curfew by government officials and almost raped, a mysterious stranger rescues her wearing a mask of Guy Fawkes. Known only as “V” (Hugo Weaving), this renegade makes a public announcement that in one year, on November 5, he intends to carry out the unfinished work of Guy Fawkes by destroying both houses of Parliament. The film takes place over the course of that year, which V spends violently getting back at those in power who have wronged his country.

Based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore, the film has more in common with comic book adaptations like Road to Perdition and A History of Violence than it does with typical superhero fare. In fact, V is no superhero; he’s a terrorist ... or is he a revolutionary? Both, I suppose; it’s a fine line. Some have already spoken out against V for Vendetta, calling it an endorsement of terrorism, but this film doesn’t suggest that violent revolution should be used against the British government of today. The film is a bold reminder of how a powerful government can, in the name of freedom, scare people into giving their freedoms away. There are multiple allusions to Nazism, but there are also implications that America’s “War on Terror” could lead to dangerous infringements on freedom. While trying to analyze V’s plan of action, a government official says, “He’s a terrorist; we can’t expect him to act like you or me.” When people begin to dehumanize terrorists, they fall victim to the same illogic used by the terrorists themselves.

The all-powerful, tyrannical government greatly resembles other futuristic stories, such as George Orwell’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. What this film does well is make the future seem immediate; there are enough allusions to modern situations that we feel as though this could all transpire within our lifetime. That’s not to say that it all seems realistic; many scenes lack believability. The film succeeds, not because all that transpires seems real, but because the ideas and emotions are real.

V for Vendetta oozes with style, which comes as no surprise seeing as how the Wachowski Brothers (creators of The Matrix Trilogy) wrote the script and produced the film. The director, James McTeigue, was an assistant-director on all three Matrix films. V for Vendetta has action sequences, but that’s not all it has. It’s simultaneously a political thriller, a science fiction story, and an action film. I know some will criticize the film for stretching itself too thin, but I think it really succeeds in all three genres. As for the script, some fans of the graphic novel have criticized it for straying from the original source material. In the graphic novel, Evey Hammond is a prostitute; in the film, she works for a television station. The novel contains no romance between Evey and V and some of the other characters have been reworked. The film does retain the spirit of the original, though, and much of the film’s dialogue is adapted directly from it. There are lines and images that are very poignant and will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

V for Vendetta is violent and disturbing at times. There are some who will undoubtedly see it as dangerous and continue to put it down, but I think that’s fitting. The story and its ideas are smart, confusing, interesting, and engaging, and I hope this film causes people to think about what political freedom really means to them. V’s plan to destroy Parliament isn’t about a building, after all; it’s about a symbol. Depending on how it’s used, a symbol can inspire fear or hope. One of the best decisions in the film is to never show us V’s face; he tells Evey that the face behind his Guy Fawkes mask isn’t his true self, any more than the muscles beneath his face. “Behind this mask is an idea,” he says, “and ideas are bulletproof.”