Shopgirl – Anand Tucker (2005)


Before it came out in 2005, Shopgirl was poised to be a hit. It starred three name brand actors in Claire Danes, Jason Schwartzman and Steve Martin (who also wrote it), and seemed to have the right pedigree of being based on Martin’s successful novella of the same title. The trailers and stills had an air to them that seemed to recall the young girl making it on her own screwball comedies of the 1940s, the kind of stories that might have had Margaret Sullivan or Ginger Rogers playing the shopgirl.

In it, Claire Danes plays Mirabelle Buttersfield, a pretty but cloistered girl who has moved to Los Angeles from Vermont to try and make it as an artist. Like most people who move with that goal in mind, she hasn’t made it yet, or even come close. She lives in a small apartment with her cat and her meds, working days at Saks Fifth Avenue selling evening gloves, which are in about as much demand as her artwork.

Doing laundry one night, she meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), an oddball starving artist who designs fonts and does logos for an amplifier company. Lonely and in need she agrees to a date with him, but ends up unfulfilled at the end of a long night. They are roughly the same age, but Mirabelle has long since passed Jeremy’s emotional age, and they are unable to make a connection, despite both grasping for one.

Enter Ray Porter (Steve Martin), the charming and successful computer mogul whose home high up in the Hills has a distant view of Mirabelle’s lowly Silverlake apartment. Ray is a different sort of guy than Mirabelle is used to – for one thing, he’s a man, not a boy. He’s accomplished, professional, and can make gestures, like paying a student loan, that are small to him, but huge to someone scraping by. He woos her as if she were the only woman he’d ever though about, and does it the old fashioned way. In contrast to Jeremy, it takes a few dates to end up back at Ray’s place where she is finally shot of her frustration.

But he travels for work a lot and he’s not looking for anything long term, which she says she understands, though she does a little bit of mental editing on, where he is not being entirely serious when he says this.

Jeremy, in turn, heads out on tour as roadie for a band fronted by The Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon front Mark Kozelek (who might look familiar from Almost Famous where he was a member of Sweetwater). It’s a journey of self discovery for Jeremy — one sort of forced on him by Kozelek, who plays a bit of a guru for Jeremy. It’s slow going, though. It’s a long process and he’s got plenty of maturity issues to work out. Simple things like owning a suit seem out of touch for him as he begins.

The film itself almost finds itself stuck in the emotional mode of 1940s films at some points, which is both a plus and minus. It’s a whimsical notion, and director Anand Tucker has fun exploring old fashioned joyous things like evening gowns, Love-in-the-Afternoon/Sabrina style relationships and simple, basic ideas like charm and grace that movies today just don’t have. But it’s interrupted so often by the modern real world of depression meds, private jets and voice mail, though, and the two worlds don’t mesh harmoniously to the point where you’ll find yourself wishing the film had just taken place in the golden age of Hollywood instead of 2005. Tucker never gets anything huge wrong, but the little things he does need a little mental editing of your own (something I found I did rather successfully when talking about the film with a friend and forgetting all about Mirabelle’s friends, and Bridgette Wilson-Sampras’ role). Danes’ turn as Mirabelle makes the mental editing entirely worthwhile, though. It’s not quite the part she was born to play, but it’s a part that only she could have played right. Her slender physique and non-assuming persona plays perfectly against Jeremy’s clueless (but growing!) aloofness and Ray’s dominant aloofness. She is elusive, it turns out, despite wishing to throw herself at both of them. Life, sometimes, has other plans.

It’s a difficult film to place in the Steve Martin filmography (much like his Silas Marner adaptation, A Simple Twist of Fate) because it’s not funny, and it’s not meant to be. Like his previous novellas, it’s meant to be charming and witty, but your sides will be firmly intact. The film means to kiss your extended hand and tickle your wrist a little with a sly, winning smile, and it does that all night long if you let it. It’s just up to you to let it.

Zelig – Woody Allen (1983)


When you think about, or talk about, Woody Allen films, its always the same few that come up. Between whatever he has out right now, Annie HallManhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters, they make up the lion’s share of the Woody Allen conversation as it stands currently.

If it’s a thought or conversation of any length, then Crimes and Misdemeanors or Bullets Over Broadway (or maybe one of the older, funnier films) might squeak in there somewhere, or else it’ll descend into some nonsense about the Soon-yi scandal, or turn to a question of which of his evil twins, exactly, made The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

The man has directed over 40 films now, going back to What’s Up, Tiger Lily? in 1966, so it’s not difficult to see why some films would necessarily get left out of the conversation. But of all of the films left out, it’s the brilliant faux documentary Zelig that seems like the greatest injustice.

It feels odd calling a film with a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes underrated. In fact, it was one of his best reviewed films upon release, and even did well at the box office for a highbrow comedy. But since then it has virtually disappeared from the Woody Allen conversation.

Zelig was written and shot in tandem with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and the two comprise his first works with Mia Farrow on board after a string of hits with Diane Keaton. It was one of his strongest periods, but it seems as if Zelig is one of the least viewed Allen films now for people under a certain age. It was even one of the last Allen films that I saw (for the record: all of them, except Alice and What’s New, Pussycat). There seemed to be no cultural pressure to see it, unlike Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors, or even Stardust Memories, Allen’s B&W take on Fellini’s 8 1/2. But I ended up seeing in Zelig one of the greatest comedies he has produced.

Allen plays Leonard Zelig, the great curiosity of the jazz age, a so-called human chameleon. So desperate is Zelig to be liked – or, more accurately, so desperate is Zelig to not be disliked – that he becomes, physically, the people he is surrounded by.  Around Greeks, he becomes Greek; around fat men, he becomes fat; around the great black jazz musicians, yes, he becomes a great black jazz musician.

It all stems from a party during his college days when he was asked his opinion on Moby Dick. Having never read it, he is seized by a fear of being ostracized by his peers for having not read something so basic and canonical, and so instead of admitting the truth, he instantly states that he has read it and enjoyed it. This simple white lie is the gateway to a deepening psychological state of ever-changing uniformity.

When he comes to the attention of the world at large (thanks in no small part to the jazz age’s other great legend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, at a party, observes Zelig morph between upper-class, old-money republican with the guests and a lower-class, poor democrat with the help), Zelig comes under the care of a female psychiatrist, Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), who is banking on making her career on solving his case and returning him to a normal life. For a woman in the ’20s to want to do this was an outrageous thing, and she comes up against the brunt of her male peers who dismiss her ideas and theories, going so far as to claim there is nothing actually wrong with Leonard. But she stands her ground in spite of private and public pressures to give it up, which serves as the perfect juxtaposition to Leonard’s easy way out.

Much of the psychology of this story stems from Allen’s childhood, which is greatly colored by the shadow of WWII. In Radio Days he spends his time in Coney Island looking for German U Boats. In Zelig, he spends his wit and insight on the ability of fascism to exploit this flaw in human nature to fit in, to be liked, or to not be disliked. Fascism depended on this willingness to get along that many, if not most of us, are the victims of. It was the great bully party, and there exists no real firewall to this flaw being exploited again aside from the easily distracted media and wonderful comedians, exploiting the exploiters.

But somehow the word mockumentary doesn’t quite fit Zelig, despite the fact that it fits both definitions of the word “mock.” At the time of its release, all anyone could talk about was that the film was a technological achievement for Allen and director of photography Gordon Willis, which is something that bothered Allen greatly. Well, it was a great technological achievement, of course – especially in the pre-CGI days when even ILM was still doing practical effects – but the story ended up being largely ignored as something funny, but frivolous, never quite reaching the heights of his previous films.

It’s an absurd stance, though. Zelig remains Allen’s most thoughtful commentary on the human condition. Yes, it looks like it will be boring from the trailer and the posters, but this is mainly because it is meant to mock those types of documentaries, the kind you were forced to sit through in school. There is just no way to accurately portray the depth and breadth of the film, promotionally speaking. There is only to sit back and watch it.

Super 8 – JJ Abrams (2011)



“Nostalgia, I hate it!” raves a disgusted Nat (Walter Matthau) in Herb Gardner’s superb 1996 film I’m Not Rappaport. “The dread disease of old people, kills more of us than heart failure!” It is, despite constantly indulging in it throughout the film, the worst thing he can possibly thing of, aside from being shipped off on the Siberian Express to a nursing home. So what is it about this extended generation — the one born around Woodstock, but before Woodstock II — that embraces nostalgia so readily and easily?

I’m guilty of it myself (for I liked this film, and the last nostalgia trip I saw, Paul), but I find that guilt a curious thing. For one, I don’t feel especially guilty about it. I enjoy these little trips down the entertainment memory lane, where everything bad could be set aside and cleared right out of your headspace for Star Wars, or a few issues of Daredevil. Was this generation coddled too much, made too afraid of the real world and its real problems? I’m sure that’s partly it, but I think it’s also partly that some of the real world problems and pressures are a lot tougher now, and things move a lot faster now that it did in the past.

In JJ Abrams’ sci-fi thriller homage to Lord High God Steven Spielberg, Super 8, budding filmmakers Charles (Riley Griffiths) and Joe (Joel Courtney) actually have to wait three days to get the film from their super 8 zombie movie processed to see just how much of the train wreck their cracked lens actually captured.

Three days! And that’s the rush job. Can you imagine that now, in this plug-and-play right now digital world? But wait they did, and rewarded for that wait they were. They caught quite a lot, it turns out.

It is just cinematic happenstance that brings Charles and Joe, and few of their friends to the train station on the outskirts of their little Ohio town one night. They are there to shoot the new dramatic scenes Charles has written to flesh his short film out, where the story’s detective, Martin (Gabriel Basso), is begged to leave the zombie infested town by his wife, Alice (Elle Fanning). The eternal search for production value has led them there, where they end up filming — really, fleeing for their lives from — a train wreck caused, seemingly on purpose, by one of their teachers at the middle school. By the time they finally see their film they and find out what terror has escaped from an overturned car in the accident, it has cast a shadow over the town, and the military do whatever they need to do to try and stop it.

The military has always played a somewhat enigmatic role in Spielberg films. He never succumbed to the paranoia of the 1970s like his peers did. The few times he has, like in War of the Worlds it felt flat and distinctly un-Spielbergian. The military in his films always had something of a redeeming factor, too, whether it be an internal redemption, such as Keys (Peter Coyote) in E.T., or an external one, like Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and Laughlin (Bob Balaban) in Close Encounters. In Super 8, the military is just plain evil, ready to kill, determined to get their way at any cost, even if that cost is the entire town of Lilian, Ohio. It’s a strange disconnect in the ability to read an audience that exists between Abrams and his mentor, where he was trying to cross Close Encounters with The Goonies and E.T., he ended up just adding children to Cloverfield.

Abrams has gotten recent praise, though, for his promotional strategy of not showing the “monster”, after initially taking quite a lot of heat for it. The problem with his strategy is not that he didn’t show the monster, but by saying he wasn’t going to show it, he gave the false impression that this was really a monster movie. It is, sure, but it also isn’t. It’s more that it happens to have a monster in it, and if you take it solely as a monster movie it fails miserably. It offers few scares, nor is it original in concept, design or action.

The meat of the film is about the somewhat complex interpersonal relationships that develop between friends over time, and how easily they are uprooted in unexpected ways when new elements are injected.

The new elements in Super 8 are both the addition of a hierarchy into the group of friends making of their short film, as well as the introduction of member into their group: Alice. Alice is pretty, smart, a surprisingly great actress and just enough of a tomboy. In short, she is the girl everyone falls for, regardless of standing in the new friendship hierarchy. Falling for a girl at that age puts you in such a tumultuous state that its hard to recognize that the kid next to you that you’ve known since kindergarten is in the same state over her as you. Worse still, if you get even the tiniest hint that she is in the same state thinking about you, you cannot possibly give any though to the fact that she is not at all in that state for your friend.

This is the real drama of the film, the Elle Fanning-shaped wedge that is finding its way between Joe and Charles. And as if everything weren’t going badly enough for Charles in Super 8, the wedge is his own fault, invited into the movie by him, the director — the boss, at the top of the new hierarchy. Even though he has no problem talking to and bossing his friends around on set, there is trouble communicating this to Joe, of course. There is an expectation on Charles’ part that Joe should just know, so close is their friendship, but Joe is in no emotional shape to see.

Aside from the misguided, tv-minded decision to have Alice kidnapped and remove Elle Fanning from the film for a half hour, there is plenty of meatiness in this fledgling, awkward triangle to sustain the film where the typical monster mayhem nonsense doesn’t. Awkward teenage romance is its own nostalgia beyond anything you saw at the movies growing up, and it’s a universal thing, especially here: if you got the girl, you can relate to Joe. If you didn’t, you can relate to Charles or use Joe and Alice as your escape.

There is a trick to actual nostalgia in film, though, and its one that Abrams hasn’t quite figured out, or at least not conveyed here. You can, and should be, inspired by the thing. Hell, even rip it off if you want to. Ford stole from Murnau, and Welles from Ford. Truffaut and Scorsese have stolen shots wholly from directors they admire. But they used it to extend their craft. It was a supplement, massaged to fit neatly into their own visual and thematic schemes. Abrams, well, I don’t know what he’s about except that he likes to play in other peoples’ sandboxes. He hasn’t personally expressed anything here as a filmmaker beyond being a fan of other peoples’ films. The lens flares in Close Encounters helped to visually build upon the themes that Spielberg was setting up. Close Encounters is as much a visual experience about light and sound as a common language as it is an emotional experience about Neary and Lacombe and their search for the truth. In Super 8 they just seem to be there. It’s not a visual experience where the quality of the light is important, it’s about the kids overcoming the things kids (and adults) need to overcome, or move beyond. It’s aimless copycatting for the sake of being a copycat. I don’t know that being up front about it changes the fact that it wasn’t necessary to the film. It wasn’t even that necessary to building an homage to Spielberg.

Quick Hits on I Am Number Four – DJ Caruso (2011)


-I wanted to like this, I really did. The concept is intriguing and had so much potential. But just like real teenagers who never do anything with their potential, this went nowhere fast.

-It does strike me that, actually, the least implausible thing about this movie is the alien factor. I can buy that aliens are hiding away on this planet to get away from evil fish-gilled, tatted aliens who overran their home planet. That trope is almost as old as film itself. What I can’t buy — what I can’t believe someone tried to sell — is Alex Pettyfer and Dianna Agron as outcasts. The film itself can’t even believe they tried to sell this, giving Agron’s Sarah the big-time jock ex-boyfriend and sticking her in cool kid parties.

-What ever happened to chemistry amongst actors? The only chemistry here comes because of a cute, protective dog, and we all know that dogs and babies is a big cheat. There is just not an ounce of it to be found anywhere else. Not a single spark, and that’s probably the biggest thing that hurt it as a movie. If there is chemistry and charm you can go back in your head later and edit out all of the bad dialogue or silly plot twists, but as a director, Caruso needed to pinpoint this right away (I think it was John Huston who said he did 90% of his directing during casting). You have to at least give the audience something to work with instead of just putting a hoodie on the hunk and giving the hot girl a weird hat and a camera and tell them Go, pretend to be freaks. It doesn’t work. It’s criminal. It’s job number 1. That’s the first thing they hammered into our head in film school: don’t roll a single frame until your cast is nailed.

-As I said, it’s quite a good concept for a movie franchise when you think about it strictly as a concept. But you have to strip it down to its bare, naked base and lose everything that it actually became. The execution on all levels was pure misery, from the dreadful script, the woeful acting and the insipid directing.

-It’s not the first time I’ve thought this about youth movies. I can remember thinking the same exact thing about Agent Cody Banks of all things, hoping Frankie Munoz might have a few chops in him, but that was an even big stinker than this. I Am Number Four merely wasn’t good.  Agent Cody Banks (and Big Far Liar while we’re at it) were actively, aggressively awful. I half guess it just means I’m old and can’t connect with what the kids are digging these days, but the kids don’t dig it either. Is this just going to be a terrible generation of filmmakers? I hesitate to claim it as my generation because these guys are all a few years older than I am, but we all did grow up on the same Jaws-Indy-Goonies-Die Hard progression of films as kids. But the problem with that is Lucas and Spielberg were mirroring their childhoods in a lot of those films, so when they’re used as inspiration they become secondhand regurgitation of the Lucas-Spielberg childhood instead of something wholly original.

Quick Hits on Paul – Greg Mattola (2011)


-I don’t quite understand why it was even attempted to keep Sigourney Weaver a secret in this film. She has one of the most distinctive film voices, and there wasn’t even really an attempt to mask it. At least it was a surprise when Madonna turned out to be The Blank in Dick Tracy, but it was rather silly to play it as a big finale reveal here. It’s obvious.

-I really appreciate the hell out of the nostalgia, though it does make me feel quite old. Most of the stuff that they’re nostalgic about is stuff that was 10 years old by the time it came out on video and I was old enough to process it, so I think it’s making me feel artificially old, not genuinely old, even though I’m about to turn 31 (that doesn’t even seem possible).

-Kristin Wiig, who I’m starting to like more and more as she gets away from SNL, was largely wasted on throwaway jokes. She handled them like a champ, but except for being adorable there was nothing really memorable about her in the movie. I suppose that is somewhat true of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, too, to be honest. Paul himself, and Zoyle, really steal the show.

-I was skeptical about Bateman as Zoyle at first, he won me over by the end, and I was thankful that it wasn’t Paul Rudd playing the character.

-Even though I did enjoy the hell out of the nostalgic elements, there were probably too many of them. I did half expect there to be a shark and a man in a fedora being chased by a band of Nazis somewhere in there. I hope Abrams handles the direct references better in Super 8.

-I enjoyed it quite a lot overall, though there are more than a few spots where I ended up groaning or rolling my eyes. It probably didn’t even need to be as long as it was, but there is going to be an extended edition DVD out soon. I guess that’s just to be expected with comedies these days, but I can’t remember anything in any of the extended edition DVDs that I’ve seen that I thought should have stayed in the theatrical cut. The most recent one I can remember watching was Get Him to the Greek, which is much better in the theatrical cut of the movie. I liked Paul but not enough to give it extra time.

The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick (2011)


Of all of the filmmakers in the world, Terrence Malick makes it the hardest to form an opinion on his films after one sitting. He doesn’t really make films as much as he makes complex, dense, highly populated visual poems with cameras and actors. While the films always maintain an airy, easygoing charm, each second that the film is unreeling a new idea presented somehow. This isn’t because his films are unfocused; rather the opposite, his films are so highly focused and expect, demand so much of the viewer that to watch it once is almost a crime.

Despite resting on the bed of a relatively simple plot about a Texas family in the 1950s and 60s, The Tree of Life simply defies description or label in the traditional sense.  It is about life, but in the most indescribable way possible, which is something that Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) himself struggles with (and eventually mucks up) greatly throughout the film. The idea of this film is what he is trying to convey to his three sons, and to his wife (the wonderful newcomer, Jessica Chastain), and he cannot do it properly. Yes, he can teach them manners, and even how to fight — but this, this is something else. Jack (Hunter McCracken) eventually takes the wrong lessons out of the fragments that his father can give to him. It’s not his fault, no one can put these concepts into words, not even Terrence Malick. Hell, not even the Bible is of any use.

To that end, it is not actually a film about a Texas family in the 1950s and 60s, that’s just where most of the concepts unfold. The film spans in time from the Big Bang through to the modern day, where the eldest son of the family, a now middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn), has become lost in some sort of emotional netherworld due to a mixture of the delayed turmoil of his brother’s death (at war, one would assume, though it is never confirmed) and the subsequent distance from his family as well as the decaying blight of modern’s man effect on the planet.

Malick finds an overriding beauty in the smallest elements of life (the most beautiful shots in the film are of a simple sunflower patch), but man has scarred this beauty with skyscrapers and greed. This natural beauty is science formed, though, not God formed. Malick goes out of his way to deliver this message with a lengthy and stunning creation sequence, where trial and error, natural experiment on a planetary level and natural selection rule. Life is eventually formed and fostered formed out of the nascent planetary gases, and man comes of this. But man ruins it: he is different. He thinks. He blushes. He destroys. He creates God for order, for peace, and the Devil to blame when, inevitably, neither of these happen.

It could be viewed as possibly the greatest argument for a Godless universe, where man is the annoyance, the “thin film of life” so invisible, yet so ignorantly wrapped up in its own existence, as Carl Sagan put it. One almost gets the sense that nature is waiting us out, and it may be.

But The Tree of Life stands upright as a visual document (the creation sequence itself will be re-released later this year in IMAX), and Malick and his team have created something more stunning than The Thin Red Line. What it stands for poetically will take a little longer to put it into proper perspective, but this is doubtlessly a major work of art, and it must be seen.

Quick Hits on X-Men: First Class – Mathew Vaughan (2011)


-As CGI makes more astounding advances, movies end up getting more dull and lazy, and that’s never been more true with any movie genre as it is right now with comic book movies. The computer was a helping hand to the story in the first X-Men, but by the third X-Men, it was all computer based story. There is very little innovation left to be found in CGI movies, just more levels of technical achievements, which is fine and all, and someone, someday will put these to amazing use (no, probably not you, James Cameron), but for now I’ve seen enough shit flying to not need a “OH MY GOD I’M FLYING” slack-jawed grin of amazement every time it happens.

-Jennifer Lawrence deserves and will get the benefit of the doubt because of what the movie is and how bad her lines were, but it’s really hard to reconcile the fact that this was the same actress from Winter’s Bone. This was a rough one for her, but no one does their best work under these circumstances.

-Are we still really doing the whole kill the only black guy thing?

-The only thing about X-Men: First Class that works is the fledgling chemistry between Michael Fassbender and James Mcavoy. It’s an uneasy chemistry at best, never developing beyond the hope of a real chemistry before the finale tears down that hope.

-Overall, I was left with the impression of watching something that was made for TV, but with better explosions. Every above the line technical aspect fell short, and as an added bonus it really cannibalized the ideas and history of the first two X-Men. They just don’t fit together, puzzle-wise. It hardly seems to matter anymore. I’m sure the franchise will be rebooted again and again, something at which comic book movies are uniquely suited for. I choose to blame it all on Bill Jemas and the Ultimate Marvel line (even though that’s not the first reboot in comics history). Mostly Bill Jemas. Okay, all on Bill Jemas. Just because.