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2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film
Irreversible

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Thursday, March 18, 2004
 

Dawn of the Dead



Usually you hear about studio interference when reading an article about a film, but it’s rare to actually experience it while in the theater. Dawn of the Dead suffers from a war of sensibilities that I have to assume is between the director, first-timer Zack Snyder, and Universal Pictures, the Hollywood machine that wanted to keep Synder’s misanthropic, mean-spirited talent at bay while it tried to increase box office potential.

The film is basically a non-stop bloodthirsty assault on humanity, and as such it’s consistently unsettling. The first ten minutes or so is a truly horrific pre-credit sequence that should go down in some warped history book of grueling disaster-horror masterstrokes. When it starts to go downhill afterwards, you can see where Snyder and Universal part ways. Nothing is sacred to Snyder’s camera, as he destroys the pillars of complacency that allow us to rest between shocks and bask in the other-worldliness of the atmosphere. Instead, the movie is gory without being phantasmagoric, and horrifying without being grand guignol. Little girls and babies die, good deeds go punished, and so do bad ones. There is no rest for the wicked or the saintly in Dawn of the Dead, and that’s how a horror movie should be.

Unfortunately, studios also think horror movies need to make a lot of money, so they make sure to add in concessions. There’s a ridiculous love interest subplot between Sarah Polley and Jake Weber, which is absurd not only because Polley’s live-in boyfriend was just murdered, but because the two characters have no reason to be linked like this and also because Weber turns in such a crappy performance. (Obviously I should admit there’s no way for an audience member to know if any of these flaws are due to the studio, to Scooby-Doo writer James Gunn, or to Snyder himself, but a little conjecture goes a long way). While many of the set pieces are slick and creative, there are also inexcusable ones like the pregnant couple’s zombie baby (right out of The Passion of the Christ), which is more silly than it is tasteless (much like Gunn’s inane dialogue, whose idea of wit is when someone says “drink a nice tall glass of shut the fuck up”). And within the parameters of everyone losing, they still find a way to make the “bad” guys of the flick (the Sarcastic Rich guy, the Redneck Security Guard, and the Slutty Blonde) die particularly gruesome deaths while the “good” guys get to last longer. Almost like in a Friday the 13th movie, some sense of morality starts to appear when those who have sex or are mean to each other die, while the selfless and compassionate humans get to live; then add the preachy Christian allegory about hell filling up and the End of the World (something I never understood about even the original film’s tagline: if hell is full, why are heaven-bound characters turning into zombies too?), and you get a bizarrely moralistic-cum-pessimistic exercise in religious misanthropy.

What Gunn and Snyder should have been doing is paying more attention to Romero’s terrific original, which did a far better job of exploring the materialist social commentary involved with a shopping mall and class warfare. While Romero went for quiet creeps and mounting dread, Snyder goes for quick shocks, loud roars, and visceral punishment. Both approaches “work,” even if one is a bit more sophisticated. But give Snyder credit for pulling it off by at least coming through with the unsettling viciousness. His film lacks the cool confidence of Danny Boyle’s superior 28 Days Later while appropriating Boyle’s conception of sprinting zombies, but it starts off by forcing you to confront a fairly realistic apocalypse, then makes sure you never relax “knowing” that a few sacred conventions still hold true. They don’t. And when a horror movie has the balls to remove your comfort foundation and scare the hell out of you, then even if it lacks the brains to be clever about it, it’s hard not to admire and recommend the experience.


Tuesday, March 16, 2004
 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind



Compromise. It's a difficult action to write about, since it involves the regression and sublimation of a part in an effort to improve the whole. The most mature love stories have often focused on the need for compromise, or at least the need for some balance of power in the relationship so that the struggle doesn't tip the scales too far in one direction. With his fine reflexive script Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman explored the other connotation of compromise -- the negative one we associate with backing down: compromising our artistic values and our moral principles. With Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his best work to date -- and luckily the best film made from one of his scripts as well -- he has made that mature love story which deals with that positive form of compromise; the one that involves accepting defeat, living with pain, and sacrificing something of yourself in order to make the best of a connection to someone else.

Kaufman's worlds are rarely realistic, and this one is no different; yet its characters seem to exist in a far more natural state than the clever constructs of his previous scripts. Whether his minds are dangerous, confessional, schizophrenic and split, or merely clouded by celebrity, Kaufman's protagonists have never been as touching as Joel Barish, played by a worn-looking Jim Carrey in what is easily the best thing he's ever done. In Joel's mind, Kaufman finds a place to make a poignant statement about memories and yearning, and about the benefits of experience over purity. Joel discovers a Vanilla Sky-esque doctor's office that will erase from your mind all traces of a person so you can start fresh and avoid painful histories. But what if you find out that painful memories are also all that you have of some small ephemeral happiness you once felt; if the lingering ugliness of time and routine aren't filthy enough to blot out the joy of the best things you've done? Indeed, what good is having no sense of loss if you have no sense of love?

To these ideas, Kaufman adds an explicitly Nietzschean theme of repeated cycles. Our nature and our fixed identity will cause us to behave the same way, and any other artificial recreation of that behavior will only feel unnatural and synthetic. Nietzsche's famous idea of the "eternal recurrence of the same" hasn't been visualized so acutely since Kubrick's 2001, even if the eternity of the title comes from an Alexander Pope poem. What Joel uncovers about himself is that given the opportunity to be re-born and live a fresh life, he will follow a similar path regardless, and must then confront an existential crisis of knowing the end of a romance before he enjoys the beginning. If this is possible, how would that change our approach to the romance? Kaufman leaves it up to us to answer.

Spike Jonze has handled Kaufman material before with understated skill and character-based comedy that centered on storytelling before style. Michel Gondry directed Kaufman's quirky and slightly underrated Human Nature, but nothing in that film or his impressive music videos indicated he would be as brilliant as he is here. Gondry's control of cinematic language is immense; his camera and special effects crew barrel and tear through the celluloid with the kind of zeal usually reserved for 30-second commercials. Gondry manages to extend his enthusiasm for a middle section that lasts over an hour -- in fact, the structure of this film is so bizarre that because of its brief prologue, brief epilogue, and incredibly intense and thorough central sequence, it feels like the film is over before we barely get settled in our chairs.

As Gondry puts the finishing touches on Joel's mind-trip, we begin to see where it's all coming together and how to put the pieces we've observed into a coherent whole. He's a smart enough filmmaker to almost totally ignore exposition and let the images shout the message from rooftops. By the time Joel is frantically attempting to insert the woman who dumped him into every corner of his recessed childhood memories, the emotional impact of the necessity to recall details is enough to make the viewer burst into tears. And if you never thought the words "lost and gone forever" in the song "My Darlin' Clementine" could break your heart, you haven't seen this film.

While Carrey is surprisingly wonderful as Joel (I've never been overly impressed with either his comic or dramatic acting, but here he tones down his physical abilities in order to convey the weight of a life re-examined), Kate Winslet as Clementine explodes with an energy matched only in Holy Smoke and her astounding debut, Heavenly Creatures. Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, and Mark Ruffalo also excel in their smaller roles, especially Dunst in another complicated part for a girl coming of age and trying to reconcile her desires with her fears. At times Ruffalo and Dunst are given too much stoner humor by Kaufman's spontaneous dialogue, and Wood's motivations come close to the contrivances that marked Being John Malkovich and Adaptation's machinery. But there is so much passion and intelligence in this blazingly original film that any false notes will fall on deaf ears already ringing from the melodious beauty of Gondry's camerawork (aided by delirious inspiration from Spike Lee vet DP Ellen Kuras) and Kaufman's writing. When this film confronts us with the question of how to live with the knowledge of the past and the knowledge of the future, it's an absolute thrill to re-discover the perfection of that fleeting present which knows no pain, no loss, and -- for a moment -- no compromise.

***

[Note: a second viewing has lessened some of my small problems with the film, which has just grown in brilliance as I've spent time thinking about it and seeing it again to get a better read on the structure -- which marvelously maps out a relationship in reverse and culminates in a powerful scene that reduces a lifetime's worth of love into one night, making Gondry's masterpiece the most emotionally touching movie I've seen in years; this is one for the books, folks]


 
Spartan

The whole of Spartan can be seen and understood by its title. The film, its plot, and all characters within its world, function with the ruthless cold efficiency of a machine. These people are from a different world, one of severe utilitarianism. Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) is far down on the food chain, a respected but lower echelon military worker bee. The film opens with him on autopilot, training new recruits on the violent principals of determination but Scott’s skilled gears whirl into life when the daughter of a VIP gets kidnapped. Initially plot strands explode all over the place-the college student had just fought with her boyfriend, the secret service provided to protect her was mysteriously called off, she has a professor who likes to date his students-but Scott and his superiors eliminate extraneous possibilities with a fearsome level of skill and resolve. The movie itself is the same way; instead of engaging in the smug and comical one-liners of the conning thieves in Heist, David Mamet’s script is a model of concision. Words are only said to get something done, and only repeated when something must get done. Actions are the same way; Spartan seems to introduce and rapidly jettison more plot strands than a dozen ordinary thrillers as Scott simply uses each conspiratorial development as a means to the end-to find the girl. Case in point is a terrific centerpiece of misdirection, which occurs when Scott poses as a convenience-store robber in order to hijack a police transport that is carrying a criminal who is known for being involved in the sex slave trade. Mamet stages the sting brilliantly but when something goes wrong Scott and his team abandon the effort and rapidly switch gears to pursue the objective in a different manner, discarding an intricately setup plotline and a new character at the drop of a hat. The ever-evolving dynamics of the business is startlingly to behold.

In adherence with the film’s title Mamet has filled his thriller not with characters but with faces. Val Kilmer, William H. Macy, Ed O’Neil, Derek Luke, Clark Gregg, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Kristen Bell round out a cast of characters who are slotted into a utilitarian professional roles where all that can be seen of them are their emblematic faces and their relentless ability to get their jobs done. Mamet seems to have gone out of his way to cast people who have a unique presence without ever really having a character; these people, and thus the film itself, do not have time to indulge in psychology. Even the Spartan of the title, Scott, stubbornly refuses humanism. When he goes off the meter to find the girl himself it initially appears to be inspired by some form of compassion or sympathy, but a previous conversation between him and a superior recalls that he was instructed to do anything in his power to return to the girl. In a cold-blooded irony his persistence to find the girl may in fact simply be an extension of his ascetic professionalism than any kind of human feeling.

Complimenting Mamet’s lean thriller-world is a markedly improved visual style. Heist was a step forward for the director, utilizing P.T. Anderson’s stellar cinematographer, but Spartan’s visual look, using Juan Ruiz Anchía is far more stylized than anything Mamet has done in the past. Slick dramatic lighting and a varied, enjoyable color design smooth out the film’s disjointing plot jump-cuts and occasional coincidences. The look, bathed in shadowy conspiracy, helps alleviate and makeup for the fact that Spartan’s characters are nonexistent in a sympathetic sense, and its depth, including hints of pseudo-mythological allegory, do not seem well developed. But such narrative leanness is only part and parcel for a film with such a title and such a focus, and with Mamet’s ever increasing talent as a director and very welcome and much needed strong role for Val Kilmer, Spartan is difficult to fault.