Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Review: Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008)

There is a moment in the new Sam Mendes picture where it turns into a horror film.  It's a moment that you'll miss if your ears are not completely tuned in.  April (Kate Winslet) senses her husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), coming down for breakfast.  They have had countless verbally violent altercations throughout the film and their previous one was the most heated. April faces the counter and Frank waits, knowing that she will turn and face him eventually.  

She turns, and its one of those situations where if this were a horror film, April's eyes would be poked out.  Instead, she turns and glows more than she has in the film.  She says, "Good morning."

It's uncomfortable for the audience.  Winslet noticeably deepens her voice for this line.  Not out of character, just an attempt at gross sincerity.  It's the eeriest, hardest-hitting, and best line in the film.  This moment is actually a microcosm of the film.  April and Frank are coming out of a fight and reconcile for who knows how long - a week, two days, five minutes.

To say this is my kind of movie is an understatement.  I loved this film - a dialogue and character-driven picture featuring subtle cinematography and the simple yet completely absorbing score from Thomas Newman (a Sam Mendes regular).  Those in the know, are already aware that Mendes and Winslet are married with children.  Yes, this is Mendes' picture to own but for the viewer, Winslet absolutely carries the film.  She is becoming an actor you can't help but watch.  Remember how Ian McKellen lifted the material in "Gods and Monsters" (Bill Condon, 1998)?  That film, on a good day, probably scores no better than an average grade, but McKellen makes people care.  To be sure, "Revolutionary Road" is a far better film, but Winslet carries this picture in a similar way.  DiCaprio's work, while very good, can only come off slighted when directly compared to Winslet.  It's her film through and through.

There are many reasons the public will spend their money to see this film.  It has Oscar buzz in all the major categories.  Winslet and DiCaprio give great performances.  Auteur fanatics will flock to see Sam Mendes.  There may not be many Thomas Newman fans, but perhaps he could garner a few box office tickets.  However, being a child in the late 90s makes this perhaps the can't miss film of the last decade.

"Titanic" (James Cameron, 1997) majestically sailed into cinematic immortality with relatively two new and young actors: the same Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.  Winslet seems hardly unchanged, but DiCaprio has filled out - in a good way.  His face is fuller, leaving the boyish porcelain looks of E Deck behind.  He has grown into one of the most bankable stars in the business and pairing him with longtime friend Winslet cements the overwhelming appeal of "Revolutionary Road."  The setting of this film is interesting - the 50s.  It's almost as if Jack and Rose survived the Titanic, and carved out a charming life for themselves, almost.  Close enough, that it works.  Their love thrives on the doomed ocean liner.  Their love is nothing short of destructive when on solid and comfortable dry land.

The film's structure does raise an interesting question.  I must credit my viewing partner LP for recognizing this.  "Revolutionary Road" feels like many scenes strewn together artfully and with great impact.  There is flow and the audience is always left wanting more.  However, the characters come off as if they only exist in these scenes.  "I cannot imagine what these characters do when they are not onscreen."  On the surface, this seems like a detriment.  In general, audiences want characters that stick with them.  While I think I agree with LP, my love for this film is not diminished.

So, it here that I ask you fellow JOUSTERS to chime in.  First, do you agree with this assessment of "Revolutionary Road?"  Do you think a film NEEDS to create characters that can exist beyond the screen itself?  Does an audience need to imagine these people at the soda fountain? At the library?  Trimming the hedges?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

JOUST: The Unconventional Crime Solver

Linde and Charley have covered their bases rather thoroughly in this expose of crime solving-gone-public, but I need to chime in and throw a couple jabs. Once NBC proved Law and Order spin-offs could be just as successful as the original, and CBS followed with CSI and its franchise, there was no stopping the explosion of investigative television into every type of programming possible. And while I tend to agree with Ms. Murugan that unconventional crimesolver television is not quite a genre just yet, it is without a doubt a solid subgenre, or perhaps trope, of an established genre.

It is not a mystery that I myself am addicted to FOX's Bones that is not so unconventional as Veronica Mars or The Mentalist, but it does use scientists and artists in a fictional Smithsonian Institute, known on the show as the Jeffersonian Institute, to assist the FBI through an analysis of bones, bugs, dirt, chemicals, art renderings, and genius-level 'quantum leaps.' More than this, the show's characters lend to an on-going narrative of objective science versus subjective humanity.

Two shows that have yet to be mentioned in this discussion that have done well enough to give this convention some weight are CBS's Numb3rs and FOX's House. In the first, An FBI agent calls on his genius mathmatician brother to solve crimes through formulas, graphs, chalkboards, and math so difficult nobody can question it. Not the greatest show, although featuring David Krumholtz as math whiz Charlie Eppes and Peter MacNicol as his university colleague, Numb3rs is in its fifth season and sould be used by math teachers everywhere to answer the infamous question, "when will I ever need to know this?!"

House, the Emmy and Golden Globe nominated and winning program, is FOX's fantastic medical drama that I include in this crime solving programming because of the episode narrative structure: patient with mystery ailment comes to the ultimate doctor-meets-detective, Dr. House, along with his team of interns and doctors, who investigate not just the body, but the home, personal, interpersonal, and professional history of the patient to solve the case within the last ten minutes of the hour-long program.

While there is no crime per-se in House, the crime-solving structure on a medical program and the doctor as detective are great techniques that allowed the show to last so long. These, and of course, great writing and Hugh Laurie's incredible acting.

As an addict of these programs, I hope there is a future for the structure. With the success of The Mentalist, I am certainly not alone. But with the cancellation of Pushing Daisies, Veronica Mars, and a show you may not even know existed - New Amsterdam, from last season - about an immortal cop who uses his experiences from past ages to help solve contemporary crimes, there is a delicate balance of convention and unconventionality, style and narrative needed for theses shows to succeed.

ADDENDUM: Not included partly because it is not American and mostly becuase I forgot about it while writing this, The amazingly hilarious BBC program, Dr. Who, that combines science fiction and crime solving is one of the longest surviving unconventional crime solving programs and should get an American rip-off soon if it's not already in the works. Catch it on BBC-America for now, and fall in love with ridiculous special effects and over-the-top everything.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Review: The Spirit (Frank Miller, 2008)

The Spirit is not a good film. It's one of the worst of the year, or perhaps any year. In most throwaway films, I tend to be pretty generous: "It was like a roller coaster. Fun while you're on it, but no lasting effects." I can't even say that about The Spirit.

But I have a problem. I like Frank Miller. I like comic book movies. While I cannot recommend this film to just any member of the general public, I can highly recommend it to those studying comic book film adaptations. Fortunately for The Spirit, I fit into that category.

The story is ridiculous. I'll do my best. A man called The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) wants immortality. But to do this he needs the blood of Heracles which is located in a vase held by Sand Serif (Eva Mendes). The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) protects the Central City metropolis and therefore must fight against Octopus' scheme. This is the roughest of outlines.

The only reasons for liking The Spirit lie in its construction - literally, how the film is made. Films based on graphic storytelling (comics, graphic novels) have existed for awhile. Tim Burton's Batman is a great favorite of mine. But the construction of the film is traditional. In the end, it looks like a regular action movie, based on a comic book series.

Frank Miller has had two of his own graphic novels adapted to film: 300 and Sin City. Miller's directorial debut, The Spirit owes itself to these two films in terms of its visual style. Almost all scenes were filmed against a green screen. In a sense these films are more like animated films than live-action. I see this as new filmmaking aesthetic: "Comic book filmmaking." I am not familiar with the source material for The Spirit, but the stories for 300 and Sin City follow their source material quite closely in both story and visuals. Indeed, the films look like translations of page to the screen. This is the essence of what I call "comic book filmmaking." Translation versus adaptation - making the film look as much like the comic book as possible.

So, when I say The Spirit is bad film, you can believe me. Is the dialogue campy and wooden? Absolutely. Can I see these same words appearing in a speech bubble? Absolutely. The visuals look much like storyboards and indeed, Miller drew the storyboards for the film himself. Adaptations tend to send cinephiles into a frenzy. "They got rid of this character! Why!" They complain when things are added, subtracted or perhaps worse, diluted. At least with Sin City and 300, they are faithful to their material. My big assumption here is that The Spirit follows suit. My response to those clamoring for faithful adaptations: Be careful what you wish for!

In the end, what The Spirit makes is three of a kind - Sin City, 300 and The Spirit. What do you get with three of a kind? Trend!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

JOUST: The Unconventional Crime Solver on TV

This genre definitely is gaining some ground with The Mentalist (CBS), yet as the unfortunate cancellations of both Veronica Mars (CW) and Pushing Daisies (ABC) have shown, maybe this "genre" has its limits. Along the same lines of The Mentalist, Psych (USA) also deals with a highly observant Shawn Spencer that has to pretend to be psychic in order to make his deductions viable to the Santa Barbara Police Department. He then not only becomes the police's psychic consultant, but along with his best friend Burton "Gus" Guster, starts a psychically informed private investigation practice. 

If Simon Baker is a "hunk" in the "unconventional crime solver" world, let us not forget the formidable Tony Shalhoub as Monk. Though technically Monk was originally a member of the police force, his OCD brought on the by the traumatic murder of his wife, slowly led him to the position of a private investigator. Now here, the big difference between USA's Psych and Monk and CBS's The Mentalist, is comedy as opposed to drama. Though I have not fully gotten into The Mentalist, I love Psych, not as much for the crazy ways the mysteries are solved but for the 1980s and 1990s pop culture-filled banter of Shawn and Gus. Monk, on the other hand, though funny, is particularly brilliant in how he solves the crime. 

Among the cancelled shows, though Pushing Daisies features the unconventional crime solving team of Emerson Cod, Ned, Chuck, and Olive, the real pleasure in watching the show, especially in the latest episodes has been learning more about the characters' pasts, families, and romantic relationships.  Even though Veronica Mars is a teen-centered, surprisingly, as opposed to Pushing Daisies, the romantic entanglements, though definitely producing some girlish screams at the sight of Veronica and Logan (Again?! OMG!), really managed to make the cases interesting. Even the cases that were solved in one episode, proved to have enough twists and turns in the narrative to make her "unconventional crime solver" status prominent. Still, ultimately, the most interesting cases, which were usually carried through each season's arc, were the ones that led back to Veronica's past.

I think the emphasis on slowly revealing more about the investigator throughout a series is an interesting narrative trope to take note of. This trope is not exclusive to the purview of the "unconventional crime solver," as even the most generic police procedural shows, such as the CSI and Law & Order franchises, have over the years devoted more episodes that reveal the investigators' personal histories. At the heart of this preoccupation is a desire to dismantle or slowly reveal what is behind the facade of professionalism and objectivism, to find where someone's humanity rests. This is made strongly evident in Bones (FOX) and Life (NBC), which are both investigative procedural programs that are strongly invested in discovering more about their respective leading partners' pasts.

Though this narrative concern is by no means a genre, I think the concern with a humanity and a personal history behind one's training, efficiency, and knowledge, demonstrate why the "unconventional crime solver," is a popular character. Though I don't think this character can necessarily constitute a genre just yet, since the livelihood of some of the shows is questionable, I think ultimately what many crime shows seek to show is that we all have the potential to be brilliant and that behind every objective scientist or detective usually lies a rough love life and a damaged childhood.

Still, I have to give it up to Charley for noting a significant trend that might show more promise. After all, though Chuck (NBC) is more of a spy than a private investigator, he plays an unconventional James Bond, with his dorky good looks and his mind that now stores all the government's secrets. The show definitely shows promise as it has some great Unresolved Sexual Tension, which totally keeps me watching. 

In 2009, also look out for Castle (ABC), about Rick Castle, a crime writer like Temperance Brennan from Bones, who helps the NYPD. Tim Roth will also be on television as Dr. Cal Lightman in Lie to Me (FOX), who studies people's body languages and voices to solve crimes. NBC will also give the unconventional crime solver a go with The Listener about a young paramedic who tries to solve crimes using his secret ability to read people's minds. Maybe ABC, FOX, and NBC will have as good of luck with the genre as CBS and USA have, in any case I think William McLean is on to something that could very well be a genre with some sustenance.


TV: The Amateur/Unconventional Crime Solver

The CBS network is now famous for saturating the market with police procedurals. CSI is still running strong. I had no idea that NCIS does really well. Perhaps most surprising is the success of The Mentalist.

The Mentalist stars hunky Simon Baker from past films like L.A. Confidential and more recently, The Devil Wears Prada. He plays someone skilled in the art of...observation...huh? I'll explain. He has an uncanny ability to “read” people’s gestures and body language and uses this ability to solve crimes in California. The Mentalist is not a traditional police procedural in that solving the case requires unconventional means.

But this is not a new phenomena. Let’s take roll of previous television shows:

Veronica Mars featured an amateur crime solver, Kristen Bell herself. She may have solved crime or mysteries using typical P.I. tactics, but her status as high school senior makes her eligible for such a distinction.

A more recent show is the now late Pushing Daisies starring Lee Pace and his eyebrows. He also teams up with a P.I. to solve crimes. But his ability is different – he can revive the dead with a touch of a finger. However, he must touch them again within 60 seconds or someone else dies.

Now, how viable is such a genre? Veronica Mars and Pushing Daisies are both now defunct despite receiving high critical marks. The Mentalist appears to have solidified its place on network television and perhaps its success can spurn new series with similar narrative tropes.

I ask you fellow jousters, is this trend of the “amateur/unconventional crime solver” something to be on the lookout for? Why has it not worked before? Are there other shows that I overlooked? JOUST!