Brainal Leakage & Suburban Blues
Following are dead-on reviews of the two most recent movies I saw at the theater. One film was really good (Little Children), one was really bad (300). Both reviews are really accurate.
First, the good news.
LITTLE CHILDREN (Todd Fields, 2006, 130 minutes)
by David Denby (The New Yorker, October 16, 2006)
Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), the thirtyish heroine of Todd Field’s extraordinary new movie, “Little Children,” dropped out of graduate school to marry an older man—a business consultant—and moved into a neo-Colonial house near Boston that he inherited from his mother. Some years have gone by, and the marriage is not in the best shape: Sarah’s husband communes on the Internet with a friendly person known as Slutty Kay, and Sarah, unwilling to hire any help, feels imprisoned by their three-year-old daughter, whom she (rather negligently) looks after by herself. Sarah is the latest version of the baffled Americans that Betty Friedan wrote about forty years ago in “The Feminine Mystique”—the women supposedly living the American dream. What’s particularly embittering in this case is that Sarah knew all about the trap and still stepped into it. Her face pale with disgust, she sits in a tiny suburban playground with three other young mothers who ruthlessly put down anyone who’s even slightly different from themselves. These three witches—the only element of caricature in the movie—live on a rigidly controlled schedule. But there’s an unaccountable element in their lives: Brad (Patrick Wilson), the good-looking, strongly built young man who makes them all flutter when he shows up at the playground with his little boy. Brad is married to a beautiful filmmaker (Jennifer Connelly) who works for PBS, leaving him at home to take care of the baby and to study for the state bar exam, which he has failed twice. A former golden-boy college jock stranded in adulthood, Brad is decent, not too bright, irresistibly attractive—a man designed for adultery. As the children take their daily nap, Sarah and Brad run to an empty corner of her house. If they leave town together, where will the kids fit in?
There’s an element of garden-variety suspense in “Little Children,” but sex and possible home-wrecking are only part of what the movie is about. “Little Children” is based on a best-selling 2004 novel by Tom Perrotta, who worked on the adaptation with Todd Field. Together, the men have preserved Perrotta’s tone, which fluctuates between slightly satirical, even mischievous, irony and the most generous sympathy. Perrotta and Field make you see how their characters are weak or screwed up without allowing you to despise them. Moral realists, they know the world does not yield easily to desire. “Little Children” is a sharply intelligent and affecting view of suburban blues—a much bigger canvas than Field’s previous movie, “In the Bedroom” (2001), which was about a placid middle-aged couple thrown into turmoil when their son takes up with an older woman separated from a violent man. Field has grown in ambition, but he still works on an intimate scale. He surrounds his characters with an intense stillness, and then slowly introduces the ungovernable into their lives.
Handsome Brad, it turns out, is not the only disturber of the peace. A convicted sex offender, Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a polite, childlike fellow, has been released from prison and is living in the neighborhood with his mother. For parents who have moved to the suburbs to protect their children, Ronnie’s presence is an unbearable outrage. Everyone is obsessed with him, especially a troubled ex-cop (Noah Emmerich), who runs around putting up pictures of Ronnie and forming committees to guard against him. After a while, one realizes that Perrotta and Field may be creating a metaphor of life under terrorism. It’s not that Ronnie isn’t a genuine threat, but he causes people to lose all sense. At the least, the filmmakers are hinting that both men and women are projecting their sexual frustrations and fears onto a pervert. What fuses Ronnie’s story and the rest of the movie is the charged suggestion that outright perversion and ordinary unhappiness (sexual indifference, adultery, porn obsession, semi-psychotic rage) belong on the same spectrum of recognizable behavior. Almost everyone in town has a secret, or at least an itch.
Field works with such fluid grace and perception that the movie goes right to the top of the suburban-anguish genre. The picture is not as aggressively designed or as witty as “American Beauty”; nor is it as malicious as Todd Solondz’s “Happiness.” It’s smarter, tougher, closer to the common life. Field captures, for instance, the way the daily routines of child care—getting a kid into a car seat or a hat, putting him down for a nap—have to be accommodated within the furious passions of adultery. The picture moves swiftly and surely; the separate shots that evoke the town are fitted together with uncanny precision, and Field neatly pulls off a big set piece that another director might have ruined with overemphasis. When Ronnie jumps into the town pool on a very hot day, the parents scream for their children and haul them out of the water, leaving Ronnie, in a mask, alone under the surface. As the police expel the invader, the children riotously jump back in, and the mass hysteria, followed by mass relief, is both sinister and funny—an interruption of summer pleasure that intentionally leaves our sympathy split between the alarmed parents and the sad outcast.
The sexual awakening of a disappointed wife may seem like an old movie turn, but when has it been done with such candor? At the beginning of the movie, Kate Winslet’s hair looks dead, and she hides her body in denim overalls. Her Sarah is a slightly clumsy woman who has lost her confidence. When she falls in love with Brad, the transformation comes slowly and painfully: at first, a nervous gesture, a smile that turns anxious, and then a golden aureole of beauty, a body in movement. The sex scenes are brief, naked, heated, startling. But Winslet never quite loses the awkwardness and uncertainty that will always be Sarah’s signature. Brad is not a type, either. Patrick Wilson, a stage actor who appeared in the movie version of “Phantom of the Opera,” has a slightly puzzled air: his Brad is pleased by the attention of women, but he doesn’t think much of himself, and Wilson, as a performer, seems quite without vanity. Looking at teen-age boys flying through the air on skateboards, Brad falls into a rapt silence; his longing for lost youth is so defenseless that it’s impossible to dislike him, however irresolute he is as an adult. At first, Sarah and Brad seem prematurely defeated. Yet the filmmakers hold out the possibility of new life stirring under the domestic halter and the intellectual sloth. Adults may not be happier than overgrown children, but at least they have a chance of finding out who they are.
And now for the bad news.
300 (Zack Snyder, 2006, 117 minutes)
by Mark Harris (EW.com, March 15, 2007)
Remember Olestra? You know, the magical fat alternative that was supposed to enhance the greasy mouthfeel of our favorite junk foods and then zip right through us, leaving no trace of anything that would trouble our waistlines or arteries? The stuff that sounded good until all those stories about ''anal leakage'' came out? I just saw 300, Zack Snyder's blood-and-body-oil blockbuster about the battle of Thermopylae, and I think I had an Olestra experience. Not only did the movie immediately exit my mind after I saw it, it practically slid away while I was still watching. I think the reason — other than its belligerent stupidity — was Snyder's decision to use CGI for just about every element of 300 except the actors (for whom it might have done the most good). Oatmeal-colored CGI skies that don't look skylike; CGI hills that don't appear hard to climb; CGI blood that spurts in unconvincing geysers; a dinky CGI thunderstorm that looks like a tempest in an iMac. Nothing in 300 has weight, dimension, or density; every overstylized, joysticky frame has been sprayed with a coat of I Can't Believe It's Not Movie. Warning: May cause brainal leakage.
Computer technology is not the enemy of art, or of great filmmaking, as anyone who has seen The Lord of the Rings (or even Letters From Iwo Jima) can attest. But CGI is no friend to a director who imagines it will help him achieve a kind of visual perfection that would otherwise be thwarted by the annoying humanness and/or variability of stuff like production designers, extras, weather, changes in the light, physical landscape, and the spur-of-the-moment inspiration that can bring a film to messy, exciting life. It may sound silly to fault a movie like 300 for ''perfectionism,'' considering that the goal on its petite mind is nothing loftier than to reach into the psyches of its fanboy fan base and offer their militaristic and sexual anxieties a well-lubricated man-fondling. And even if 300 had been made the old-fashioned low-tech way, it would have been just as gory and dim-witted. But at least it wouldn't have been sterile, a sad fate for a movie built on testosterone.
Any director striving to get his movie exactly right has my sympathy — abandon that objective too hastily, and you land in hell, where every screen shows Wild Hogs. But some otherwise good filmmakers are succumbing to the delusion that perfection is actually achievable as long as they control everything themselves, and the result is movies that don't feel perfect — just overcontrolled. The work of David Fincher, the meticulous sadist behind Fight Club and Seven, has usually left me impressed and unmoved; every bruise and dripping wound is rendered with exactitude, and each camera move is choreographed to the millimeter, but the films seem oxygen-deprived, hermetically sealed. His new movie Zodiac is a thrilling leap beyond his earlier work, partly because it dives into a subject very close to the director's heart: the madness- inducing frustration of trying to get something right for years...and still not being able to do it. Zodiac offers the exciting spectacle of a filmmaker leaving his and his audience's comfort zone. And yet, in some ways Fincher, who insisted on 50 takes of some scenes, remains his own worst enemy. There are sequences in which his skilled cast — Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, even the untamably anarchic Robert Downey Jr. — look even more wiped out than they need to. A director who demands 50 takes either doesn't know how to get what he wants or can't open himself to what other people bring to the table; he's too stuck on his own fixed vision to let any air in.
Fincher isn't alone. I can still remember each follicle of Hugh Jackman's stubble and every shaft of poignant light on Rachel Weisz's sickbed in Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, but his schematically pictorial movie felt as lively as a ship in a bottle, with no unplanned humanity to sully the visuals. Why make a movie about the untidy agony of losing a spouse if you're going to art-direct every emotion in it? And I can't really recall much about Christopher Nolan's The Prestige other than its scene-by-scene flourishes; it's a magic trick that ends by making itself disappear. If the post-human digital environment of George Lucas' last Star Wars films is the model for 300, then the refrigerated, do-it-my-way-or-else solipsism of late-period Stanley Kubrick may be its more ambitious equivalent — the gold standard to which Fincher, Nolan, and Aronofsky aspire. Given their immense talents, I wish they'd pick a different role model. Kubrick's greatness is irrefutable, but movies, and moviegoers, would benefit if a few more of our best directors longed to be Robert Altman or Sidney Lumet, to name just two of the smart, prolific, pessimistic humanists whose movies teem with noisy life, with grace notes that can still surprise you because, once upon a time, they surprised the directors. Film (and digital video) is still a collaborative medium. And when a director's closest collaborator is his computer, who can be surprised when the results feel as forgettable as a game of solitaire?