CINELATION | Movie Reviews by Christopher Beaubien
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Movie Review:
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)

by Christopher Beaubien • November 11, 2008 • 2 Comments

The Life Stages of Caden Cotard

Oh God, I feel alone. I feel so utterly alone having connected and clicked with a film that many people will reject. This being the directorial debut of the incomparable screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann: Sï-nêk’dõ-kë, Nyöo Yáwrk. For me, Synecdoche, New York is a tough sell — an unconventional film that I treasure where recommendation demands caution. It’s where I stand with Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996), Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping (1987) and Robert Altman’s Three Women (1977). These films fly in the face of all the formulaic and commercial creeds of how a movie should work and gives pause for how many ways it could work best. A first impression might grimace, conclude “it’s weird” and close the investigation — that’s their right; however, Synecdoche, New York deserves better and an appreciative audience. The film works, not despite, but because of its extraordinary structure and function being mysterious, opaque, labyrinthine, yet emotional, accessible, and fully-formed.

What I love most about Charlie Kaufman’s exercises in the celluloid medium is how they exceed expectations throughout his most unorthodox and dizzying narratives. Throughout, there is apt teasing and suspense over where this story could go when driven by such a visionary. By the end, I feel as if he has exhausted every possibility from his premises with an attentive heart. Such as when the pitiable Craig Schwartz whose puppets of himself and Maxine, a distant female co-worker, kiss for the first time in Being John Malkovich (1999). Or when Joel Barish frantically races away from his evaporating memories with his ex-girlfriend Clementine at hand, trying to save her in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Or how about when in Adaptation (2002), New Yorker writer Susan Orlean is struck by the awesome poetry of John Laroche, a toothless orchid thief, musing about the “little dance” between wasps and orchids — “How, when you spot your flower, you can’t let anything get in your way.”

In Synecdoche, New York, our hero tries to find meaning in his very existence by resurrecting an evolving metropolis in a gigantic sound-stage where a flock of birds fly off many miles down the structure. The seminal replica of Manhattan is a theatre set for an untitled play about its director and all of the people in his life. Since the play reflects life, so the play must reflect itself like a microcosm that expands, refracts, grows and deepens. It is a comic-tragic, universal illustration of a life that tries to manage its surrounding citizens in roles (wife, daughter, mistress, 2nd wife, etc.) the participant tries to contain. Of course, everyone else is the lead in their own story, so management of the play of one’s life becomes discombobulated.

Enter the world of theatre director Caden Cotard played with great nerve and without vanity by Philip Seymore Hoffman. At age forty, he is burdened with anxiety, bad health, failed relationships, and occasionally distracted by lofty goals that feed his great ego which barely hides his low self-esteem. Like an addict, he mercilessly prods, analyzes and compresses his failures; denying himself a much wanted recovery by purging himself deeper into a sea of emotional toxin. What hurts most is that he tries so hard to preserve what little he has left. While a doctor sews stitches into his forehead after a freak accident with an exploding sink faucet, Caden sheepishly remarks, “I’d rather there not be a scar.”

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Movie Review:
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)

by Christopher Beaubien • November 08, 2008 • 2 Comments

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Rare, Bloody and Tender

First, I would like to single out a scene that is pivotal to the overall success of Let the Right One In. Oskar, a twelve-year-old Swedish boy (Kåre Hedebrant), whose parents are separated, is visiting his father (Henrik Dahl) over the weekend. Late in the night, the two are having a blast playing tic-tac-toe. They are interrupted by a visitor whose presence subtly changes the course for the rest of the evening. The last grim exchange between the father and son expresses so much hurt and understanding about the how and why. It doesn’t need to be explained. It is simply felt. This scene sounds like it belongs in a serious drama. It is, but Let the Right One In is also a vampire movie – as sophisticated and thoughtful a horror film as you are likely to find.

This film, like so few can, redeems the horror genre. So many cynical filmmakers belittle their horror films because they don’t believe the genre is worthy. You can browse shelves of horror titles and find only one success out of thirty failures. Thankfully, Let the Right One In joins the ranks of great vampire films like Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), both of the 1922 (dir. F.W. Murnau) and 1979 (dir. Werner Herzog) versions of Nosferatu, and its cunning companion Shadow of the Vampire (2000) by E. Elias Merhige. Let the Right One In is the real thing. Set in Sweden – 1982, it uses vampire logic in an environment as cold, cruel and recognizable to our own. There are moments of invention such as what happens when a vampire trespasses property where an invitation has not been given. Here, vampires get burned when touched by sunlight – they don’t (*shudder*) sparkle.

ltroi5Living next door to Oskar is Eli (Lina Leandersson), a young vampire who looks like a twelve-year-old girl, but it is more complicated than that. There is an alarming shot of her behind a door that’s ajar — you know the one. She is sheltered by an older deviant (Per Ragner) who appears to be under a spell as he fetches her blood from victims he kills and drains. She would have been better off sending the Ice Truck Killer to perform this task. Upon further reflection, this character may be a possible outlook into the future of what Oskar will become when he reaches adulthood.

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Movie Review: HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (2008)

by Christopher Beaubien • October 23, 2008 • 6 Comments

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Driven Conversations About One Thing

Pauline ‘Poppy’ Cross, the title character of Mike Leigh’s winning comedy Happy-Go-Lucky, is a litmus test like determining whether a glass is half-full or half-empty. Is it so unreal for someone to be so good and so strong? In a world that seems to be over-populated with a bunch of sorry-sacks all too eager to pop the bubbles of others, the outcry is deafening. It is rare how a movie directly tells you who you really are. Some audience members will find her infallible sunniness grating, perhaps worthy of envy. Others will want invite her over to their house for drinks and laughs once the movie is over. I am in the latter category. It is important to first understand how and why you feel the way you do about Poppy. She is the key to how successfully the film will bypass all of your qualms and barriers guarding your heart. You may well find yourself grinning from ear to ear. I did.

What Mike Leigh most enjoys is playing with our perceptions of people. We are wired to make assumptions by the initial impressions of our casual acquaintances and strangers who enter our field of vision. Sometimes our hunches are right (to each his own) and most times we are mistaken. Notice what Leigh shows us about Poppy. She has a sense of humour. She’s earnestly social. She goes clubbing with her friends all-night on Saturdays. She’s not afraid to look silly. At the point she is making bird masks with paperbags and colourful felts and feathers, Leigh is practically goading us to see her as a “bimbo”, while giving those who are onto Leigh’s game just enough leeway to hold their verdicts. How this plays out reveals the real themes of Happy-Go-Lucky. What do we really know about one enough? How do we learn to see people for who they are? What makes a good teacher?

Character actress Sally Hawkins has a great challenge playing a woman who looks happy, is happy, and remains complex and wise. Some viewers may argue she deceives them with her depth. There is a prejudice against a smile; anyone who smiles appears shallow and light-minded. Deep thinkers are usually pictured as angst-ridden, haunted, and in great pain. It is a mistake to assume Poppy is a bubbly fool. A mistake that her sullen driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsen), a Bizarro to her Super(girl), makes throughout. He can’t believe she is an elementary school teacher. He can’t stand how she wears those high-heeled boots while driving. Her insistent joking actually counterattacks his punishing personality. At one point he tells her, “You celebrate chaos!”

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Movie Review: MAN ON WIRE (2008)

by Christopher Beaubien • August 13, 2008 • Start the Discussion!

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Watch His Step!

Watching a great movie that clicks in all of the right places assures me that there is harmony in the universe. It is like marveling at a perfectly symmetrical design like the Eiffel Tower or a spider web. Life is really random chaos with no point. It is a relief that our human intellect stubbornly seeks and finds safety, reason and occasional serendipity in the face of an abyss. Without a sound mind, sanity is lost. To perform well, the struggle between genius and madness is universal. The endeavor of Philippe Petit is one of the most memorable…and balanced.

The documentary Man on Wire recounts a French tightrope walker’s obsession to tread while suspended between the void of the World Trade Center Towers 1,368 feet from the ground. That’s the height of 228 six-foot men. Having trained for most of his life to perform this feat, he masterminded a plot with an adventurous team of experts and thrill-seekers to infiltrate the towers’ rooftops to get the wire across them. The illegal operation was as dangerous and complex as a robbing a heavily guarded infrastructure like in Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1954) or, if you haven’t seen that one, Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven. My only complaint about the break-in was that they didn’t pack a video camera to film the spectacle from such an awesome perspective view.

The scenes of the controversial incursion are narrated by the present interviewees while documented footage and dramatically staged footage bring us intimately to experience it. The black-and-white footage (always timeless) is integrated so well that documentary and the fictional realization become seamless. The director James Marsh has made an exceptional thriller and a visual poem about great dreamers whose vision threaten to capsize them unless they rise to act upon their desires.

This is a superb follow-up to Marsh’s 2006 directorial debut titled The King, a chilling docudrama about an estranged son (Gael Garcí­a Bernal) who goes to depraved lengths to integrate himself into the new family of his born-again father (William Hurt – “How does that feel?”). The King was between Julia Kwan’s Eve and the Firehorse and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition on my Best Films of 2006 list. This year, Marsh is almost neck-to-neck with magician/filmmaker Errol Morris who too has made another invaluable documentary called Standard Operating Procedure. CONTINUE READING ►

Movie Review: XXY (2008)

by Christopher Beaubien • August 08, 2008 • Start the Discussion!

What Is There Between Him and Her and/or Him?

Adolescence is a trial no matter what gender one is. The conflict can be so crippling that it damages and ultimately defines one as an adult. There have been many films, some good, about experiencing teenage angst and the need to break free or remain grounded. Either way can produce regret later in life. This film XXY has tread new ground by presenting a teenager whose entire identity, both internally and anatomically, is unusual to a majority of people. Funnily enough, the uniqueness of this case makes the experience all the more universal. The teenager is named Alex and is fifteen years old. Alex has a choice this summer that boggles one’s mind toward fantasy. The choice is whether Alex should resume the rest of life as male or female.

Alex is a hermaphrodite. Alex looks like a teenage girl but possesses the make-up of a boy that he/she has deluded with pills of estrogen. Alex is cared for by her parents Kraken (brilliantly played by Ricardo Darí­­n) and Suli (Valeria Bertuccelli) who live, for their child’s sake, in a wooden turquoise cabin near the seaside in Uruguay after moving from Argentina. Her father works as an oceanographer who possesses a protectiveness, even for the wounded sea turtles he studies. The key for observing this challenging and brave film is by possessing the empathy that Kraken has. He is quiet, smart, unobtrusive, and lashes out only when someone endangers his child. Rarely has a father been portrayed on film with such loveliness.

There is an astonishing sequence late at night where Kraken seeks out a frank older man who presents pictures of himself as a child — pictures of girl! Kraken listens calmly and curiously to the difficult experiences of this struggling hermaphrodite. He is so involved with understanding his “daughter” that he is simply removed from prejudice: “Making her afraid of her body is the worst thing you can do to a child”. This character was so easy for me to gravitate towards. CONTINUE READING ►