Somewhere – Sofia Coppola (2010)

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(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

In the opening moments of Sofia Coppola’s new film, Somewhere, we see her protagonist, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a bad boy “it” actor loosely based on people she knows and stories she’s heard, navigating in circles around a desert race track in his Ferrari. The rest of the film plays out much the same, but for Johnny real life comes along at a more glacial pace outside of his car. Still, he barely seems to notice. Johnny is just there, somewhere, not sure where.

Physically, he’s living at the fabled Chateau Marmont, the famous Hollywood hotel, as famous for celebrity deaths as celebrity guests, and where lavish parties seem to accumulate in his room. Emotionally, Johnny is harder to locate. The twin strippers that he orders up probably brought him joy at one point, but this seems to be about the rich guy equivalent to watching the same episode of Seinfeld again just because it’s on not because it’ll make you laugh, but he is just as content smoking a cigarette and staring at the wall. Sex is habitual to him now, not sexual, and he’s as likely to fall asleep in the middle of the act as he is to finish.

It isn’t at all that Coppola forgot to explore the depths of Johnny Marco’s character. It’s just that the depth of Johnny Marco doesn’t exist at the moment. If he turned sideways, you would half expect him to be a flat layer of fabric and skin. No life seems to stir in his eyes until the moment he looks up and sees his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo smiling at him, signing his cast. In the light of her smile, we don’t see the same man that fell asleep in his place the night before.

Played beautifully by Elle Fanning, Cleo is an effervescent hit of sunshine that doesn’t otherwise exist in his world, and DP Harris Savides’ lighting scheme reflects this, almost as if the light were radiating from her blonde locks down onto Johnny. In fact, the film’s main flaw is not enough Cleo. Within the framework of the film, she is just the longest lasting of the characters he brushes shoulders with. Her imprint on the film is huge, though, because she’s the only thing that nudges Johnny out of his listlessness, but her screentime starts too late in the film and ends too early.

Somewhere is less of the tone poem that the director calls it and more of a straight character piece. She has left us mostly alone with the character and left the abundant needledrop soundtrack in a drawer. At times the film almost feels like a staring contest between audience and actor, and much has to be extrapolated from small moments about Johnny’s life that we get glimpses of. He is so detached and so empty that it almost plays as a demure middle finger to Coppola’s detractors who claim her films are filled with frivolous, moneyed characters whose drifting is something only the spoiled can experience and thus has no value. This is the most frivolous, most moneyed character, and his drifting is the most aimless. This, however, does have value, and it all works in harmony with her previous films and as a standalone, as long as you give it the time to work.

Life During Wartime – Todd Solondz (2010)

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(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

In Life During Wartime, writer/director Todd Solondz’s latest sojourn into the awkwardness and fragility of the demented human experience, we are brought up to speed on the characters that inhabited his 1998 indie film, Happiness. However, it’s not quite as simple as calling it a sequel.

In the 12 years since Happiness was released it’s become something of a mythic line in the sand amongst film fans, fanatic and casual alike. It is the very definition of a love-it-or-hate-it film, with its supporters preaching it needs to be seen because of how fucked up and brilliant it is, while its detractors vocally and viciously deride it because of how fucked up and miserable it is.

The characters, even a decade plus later, are still stunted by their delusions and emotional walls, and as such tend to look more towards breaking even in life rather than getting ahead. Any thematic sense of a positive move forward the film possesses is shouldered handily by the youngest Maplewoodson, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who, on the eve of his bar mitzvah, has learned his father is not actual dead, but an imprisoned pedophile and rapist. This news throws an abrupt and considerable – but not impassable – hurdle into his path towards manhood. For everyone else, it seems to have caused them to skew into an alternate 1998 and live imitation lives.

But this is likely Soldonz’s intent. As with his previous films, his characters are, in equal measures, loved and pitied by his camera. They are not quite easy to root for sad sacks as much as living, breathing wads of neuroses and baseness. But it’s tough to root against them either. Especially Joy.

Jane Adams is replaced by Shirley Henderson as Joy, the waifish songwriter and failed do-gooder. She is still a floundering mess trying to figure it out, but is now burdened by the specter of Andy (Paul Ruebens, not Jon Lovitz) haunting her neural space, still trying to get laid. In fact, every character is bodied by a different actor, adding to the absurdity of Solondz’s charm. While not offputting, it does set the film into more of a companion piece area than a sequel, but works despite these character facelifts.

But the most remarkable makeover is Bill Maplewood. If the saying “prison changes a man” ever came to life on screen, it would be here. Once the slight, effete suburban dad played by Dylan Baker, the kind of man you might imagine jumping up on a chair and shrieking upon seeing a mouse, the character is now a sturdy, serious man who might stomp on and eat the mouse played by Ciarán Hinds. His mission, somewhat oddly, is a noble mission. Not exactly redeeming one (there is no redemption for him, ever), but it is a good and necessary first step for such a malignant, fractured character.

While Wartime may end up in the discussion for worst film of the year by some, I find it hard to dismiss so easily. Yes, gone is the shock value of the fifties throwback American family man serially raping little children and the depravity and criminality of a lonely apartment complex. But to replace it, Solondz had to try and find real stories within his characters, and he does. And, more importantly, he succeeded.

The Illusionist – Sylvain Chomet (2010)

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(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

Anyone who has seen Sylvain Chomet’s last film, the Oscar Nominated animation The Triplets of Belleville, will know that the director is capable of conjuring pure magic out of the simple tools of ink and paint and music. In The Illusionist, an animated rendering of an unproduced Jacques Tati screenplay from the 1950s, Chomet conjures visual magic and creative controversy in equal measure.

The story centers on a traveling illusionist and showman in the 1950s as he goes from town to town, entertaining rapidly diminishing crowds with his tricks and sleight of hand. While performing in a pub in rural Scotland, he comes across a young girl, around 15, who becomes attached to him and his magic. She follows him toEdinburgh, where he becomes attached to her as well, but where work is an even harder grind.

The oncoming rush of Rock N’ Roll and television are largely responsible for the small crowds his kind of show can attract, eventually leading the illusionist to take odd jobs when he is not on stage to pay the added expenses of a young girl that he likes to dote on, buying her shoes and dresses, making them magically appear to her, an extension of his magic off of the stage.

The relationship between the girl and the illusionist is a suddenly deep one, built mostly upon a foundation of gestures and glances. It’s an automatic, easy trust, but not a cheap one. It starts out as a sleight of hand that they are both willing participants in, but does not stay that way for long as she matures and he comes to grip with the change in the wind.

Chomet and his team of animators have done an astounding job bringing this story to life, even if it is over the objections of Jacques Tati’s living relatives. I wish I could list every single animator here, because they all deserve recognition. It was no simple task to bring this to the screen, and the film relies almost entirely on the quality of the animation. Words don’t get in the way because they are few and far between. It doesn’t need words. It’s about the emotional faces and the measured motion, and the whimsical interplay of shadow and light is of particular beauty and note.

It’s an understandable thing that Tati’s family should have reservations about someone else completing his work. Tati was singular; he made Tati films and only Tati films. Chomet is singular as well, however. There is no mistaking this film for another director, not even Tati. But there is a good balance struck between the two worlds, and if Chomet has perhaps misunderstood some of Tati’s motives, it was clearly not out of disrespect. It’s a controversy that doesn’t need to exist in public. It’s something for Tati aficionados to squabble about, but not of material importance to what the film is any more than Krzysztof Kieślowski’s intentions were to Tom Tykwer filming Heaven after his death. Heaven was a brilliant film in and of itself, a part of Kieślowski, but a Tykwer film. So is The Illusionist, and that’s how it should be taken: by itself, as an exceptionally well made, heartbreaking film.