Archive for the Film Category

Everyman Sings the Blues

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , on May 5, 2009 by Adam

Paul Rudd’s stock has been on the rise lately, and along with his current streak of critical and commercial success–see his roles in I Love You, Man, Role Models, and Knocked Up–has come the widespread use of the word Everyman to describe the affable actor. But as I watched Role Models (better than I was expecting) for the first time last night, it struck me that the common thread linking Rudd’s relatable characters consists of more than their humble sense of fashion or their involvement in fantasy baseball or their general sense of decency. Beyond all of that, they are men who suffer from depression, and whose ability to be cured of that disease has a subtle yet central role in the cathartic value of the films.

The self-deprecating good guy is a classic Hollywood trope. Our favorite comedians are generally people who lack a certain degree of self-confidence and frequently point out their own flaws. But unlike many of the films in which characters display that classic quality, Rudd’s works do not necessarily see any direct comedic benefits from his moments of self-loathing. When, in Knocked Up, Pete asks Ben, “Do you ever wonder how somebody could even like you?”, it is not akin to Woody Allen making a crack about his therapist. Or consider the scene in Role Models where Rudd’s Danny is confronted by his estranged girlfriend: “You hate yourself, but you still think you’re better than everyone else.” There is no punch-line here, no retort that brings comedic relief to that moment of dark fact-facing. Even going back to his first wide release, Clueless, we can see in Rudd’s characters a propensity for, well, sadness.

Of course, in each of these films, Rudd’s character must and does overcome his depressive bout, often due to a self-realization that involves taking full stock of his surroundings and acknowledging that there are people around who are, in fact, willing to love him. Central to the relatively new idea of Rudd as a romantic lead is that his characters, when we meet them, are generally embodiments of so much of the unhappiness that we feel at our worst moments. And, it must be said, the unhappiness comes off as very real. These are characters for whom, as Danny points out to a group of schoolchildren in Role Models, life has not gone as planned. They experience the kind of hopelessness and defeat that comes with feeling stuck in a world that is mundane and full of annoyances that add up to feel like a heavy weight. Because of this, they ignore or mishandle the relationships around them and must be forcibly reminded of why life is worth living.

I would not dare to say that this pattern has anything to do with Rudd’s own psychology. That kind of assumption is certainly better left at the door. What I do think it is important to acknowledge, though, is that the appeal of this actor, as mentioned earlier, goes beyond appearance and the nonchalance he brings to his roles. For whatever reason, the larger part of Rudd’s characters exhibit signs of true, unmistakable adulthood depression, the kind that often goes uncorrected and is confused for the normal emotional reaction to losing youth. And while I can’t speak for every viewer, I am willing to bet that, as adults, the majority of us have had to deal with similar feelings, ones that serve as a constant reminder of aging and the regrets we’ve built up over the years. The rare and wonderful thing about Rudd’s roles, though, is that these feelings are never accepted in the way that say, an Al Bundy’s cynical, punchy views on marriage might be. With the Apatow/Wain formula, comedy is allowed to be temporarily suspended in the face of serious issues–and be sure that depression, while less of an overt focal point, is just as much at the heart of these movies as unwanted pregnancies or mandatory community service. In the case of Rudd’s roles, mental instability is never the plot-driving issue, and therefore, it slips to the back of our minds as we witness the resolving of the more premise-driven problems. But there it is, right under our eyes–the gradual self-healing of a man who, at his lowest, resembles the part of ourselves from which we try our best to escape, the one that sees little value in an average day and does little to convince loved ones otherwise. When Rudd’s character, like a less melodramatic George Bailey, comes around to see the bright side of things, we may let out a sigh of relief and hope that the Everyman is an accurate reflection.

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Escape to Where We Escaped From

Posted in Film on April 13, 2009 by Adam

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New York City lives in the background of Greg Mottola’s Adventureland like a Sugar Candy Mountain that will make all the tortures of a suburban, post-collegiate summer worth enduring.

Yet, despite the freedom that looms 327 miles east of the characters’ hometown of Pittsburgh, Mottola cannot hide the fact that the film is, in many ways, a love letter to the very kind of place that so many young people spend so many years trying to escape. Often, it fits into the same realm of sometimes-everything-crazy-and-life-changing-that-happens-t0-you-happens-when-you-go-back-to-the-town-you’re-from that is inhabited by The Graduate and Garden State, but more than either of those films, Adventureland finds a charm in those moments when we feel stuck yet also, deep down, content.

What is it about the land of our youths that so often ends up drawing us back for for nostalgia-fueled artistic inspiration? For my money, there are a few things that drive artists to make the kind of hometown homage we have in Adventureland.  There is, of course, the occasional beauty of small-town dive bars and realness of Middle America, both of which have been touted in modern art, whether ironically or quite sincerely. But the most honest reason I can think of for this kind of revisiting is quite simple: these are the places we know better than any other. I spent eighteen years in Watertown, Connecticut, a length of time I can’t really imagine ever again spending in one place, and I know the ins and outs of that town far better than I ever could the city I moved to afterward. For many artists, I believe it is this sense of familiarity that makes the hometown legend one of the most appealing tales to spin. It is also what often makes the tales so appealing to the audience.

If the majority of Mottola’s film, with the same characters, had taken place in New York (obviously allowing forvast changes to the narrative), I don’t think there is any way it would have been such an enjoyable experience. To try to learn the true nature of a place as an adult is as difficult as trying to learn how to swim after adolescence. We are no longer as receptive to the kinds of raw data that a place has to offer: we cannot absorb all of a city’s signifiers as adults, because we already have a deep psychological connection to at least one other place, in addition to a prematurely formed idea about any place to which we move. But those hometowns, Mottola’s Pittsburgh, my Watertown, came to us at a time when we were more spongy than we will ever be. The dialects, the geography, the hierarchies, the infinite number of quirks and mysteries that reside in those places that reared us during those years–they are impossible to shake and they influence the way we tell stories more than we are likely to imagine. Luckily, for Mottola and for us, that unshakability often comes out in an honest and funny portrayal of the places that we always call “back home”.

A Child’s Gotham

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on March 9, 2009 by Adam

As NYMag mapped out New York’s most legendary comic book locales to celebrate The Watchmen and Gawker related the not-so-critically-acclaimed blockbuster back to the real NYC of 1985, it got me thinking about my own movie-induced childhood image of the city. While the real-life griminess shown in the Gawker post was the inspiration for Alan Moore’s original story, it was the youth-geared films of the 1980s  that informed my idea of NYC living. Now that I actually do live in New York, I can look back at most of the following (minus Batman, which I know, is not youth-geared; its inclusion is due to the face that I was allowed to watch it) as romanticized, somewhat watered-down visions of a city that, no matter how deep the economy dives, will never exist in such form again. That said, the Gotham in my very young mind was appealing enough to create a sense of magic that, while not often apparent to me now, I am sometimes reminded of and that serves as one of those pesky things that makes it hard to leave this godforsaken island.

Batman (1989, dir. Tim Burton)

Gotham City is sort of the pinnacle of oddly appealing dystopian New York in 1980s films. Batman wasn’t the first movie to showcase such lasting images as homeless people lighting trash fires, dark, rat-infested alleyways and ominously humongous building, but it may have been the finest.

Ghostbusters (1984, dir. Ivan Reitman)

Sure, it may not be as blatantly dark of an image of NYC as that of Batman, but the attention paid to Gothic architecture, supernatural terrorists and classic landmarks makes made this comedy classic one of the most interesting portrayals of Manhattan in the 1980s. The fact that the movie could hint at the scary underground of the city while simultaneously providing light-hearted escapism may have been its biggest strength.

Gremlins 2 (1990, dir. Joe Dante)

Make no mistake: Gremlins 2 is not very good. I would have liked to replace it with the first Gremlins on thislist, but it has occurred to me that the only scene from the original that takes place in NYC is the first one (which is a pretty awesome Chinatown scene).That said, this sequel also plays with the idea of an apocalyptic evil endangering the city’s streets, while also contrasting the grime of the previous decade with new Trumpian development.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990, dir. Steve Barron)

Along with Gremlins 2, this film’s 1990 release makes some of the grittiness slightly anachronistic, though not entirely. Regardless, the images of indoor spaces from this film may be more lasting in my mind than those outdoor ones of the others. Undergound dens strewn with pizza boxes, graffiti-filled arcade parlors, (presumably) coke-fueled news stations…this movie may, more than anything else, be responsible for my living in New York City right now.

Red Balloons

Posted in Film with tags , on January 27, 2009 by Adam

There are several narrative techniques that tend to alienate audiences all too quickly, and among them must certainly be counted all members of the reference family: self-, homage, allusion, etc. Whether it is because they go over one’s head or because they come off as overly pretentious, these tactics, especially in film, can be a kiss of death to the casual consumer.

Yet, when done properly, references can enhance a piece of art immensely, making the text richer and deeper while piquing the curiosity of some and giving a friendly nod to others. Hsiao-hsien Hou’s The Flight of the Red Balloon not only manages to do it properly, it manages to place itself in the same league as the works to which it pays tribute, and it does so with a joyful whimsicality and gentle restraint that move the viewer past voyeurism and into an unexpected place of personal familiarity.

The cinematic references span from, of course, Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic, The Red Balloon, to Tommy to Breathless, while making plenty of brief stops in between. More importantly, though, the movie pays homage to the art of filmmaking itself. By writing in a lead character who is a young art filmmaker, Hsiao-hsien decided to tread in murky meta waters, yet his film never gets bogged down by its within-a-film aspects. In fact, the scenes in which Song Fang, the aforementioned filmmaker character, records young Simon, the boy she has been hired to babysit, are some of the most honest and touching moments of adult/child interaction I have seen on film. The magic that emits naturally from her handheld camera, both when she is behind the lens and when Simon begins to take control, is a testament to the childlike sense of awe present in artistic self-discovery. While the eponymous red balloon does not take as central an on-screen role as in Lamorisse’s film, the camera, in addition to many other objects that make appearances in Simon and Song’s time together–pancakes, puppets, pinball machines–becomes enough of a vehicle of dreamy wonderment that the red orb’s greatest use in the film is that of a springboard into a discussion about modern film technology and editing trickery.

And while this kind of contemporary spin might sound as if it is doing Lamorisse’s objet d’art a disservice, Hsiao-hsien has actually managed, in moving away from the focus of The Red Balloon, to accomplish the very feat that Lamorisse did in 1956: to pay tribute to the joyous experience that is discovery. This time around, the discoveries are domesticated a bit, but we know that the real sense of wonder for Lamorisse’s Pascal was one of internal exploration anyway, and Simon keeps this intellectual curiosity very much alive. More importantly, Hsiao-hsien keeps alive the cinematic curiosity of Lamorisse and, with an unmistakable sense of love and admiration for the craft, honors the human passion for making–and watching–undefinable notions come alive on screen.