Sunday, July 30, 2006
Written and Directed by Richard Linklater
Three men drive down an American highway on a mission. They are driving to a neighbouring city and they plan on partying it up on the way, while they’re there and all the way home again. Their drug of choice is Substance D, what will be the most popular drug seven years from now, when A SCANNER DARKLY takes place. While speeding along, the car breaks down. What ensues is a hilarious journey into the far depths of drug-induced paranoia. They debate whether this car trouble was pre-meditated, whether their home is simultaneously being ransacked by the same people who sabotaged their car … whether one of them actually anticipated this entire series of events and left the door unlocked and an invitation to enter taped to the front of it. Their plans have been ruined but what they don’t realize is that there was nothing special about this occasion as getting messed up is pretty much what they do every day. As ridiculous as this sequence is, it is also completely useless. It is one in a long string of pointless scenes that are told in a disjointed fashion to give character to what is otherwise a flat and uninteresting film.
A SCANNER DARKLY is director Richard Linklater’s second film to implement an animation technique called rotoscoping, where loosely flowing animation is laid over filmed live-action sequences. The results are mesmerizing and hypnotic. It is also a technique that is capable of accomplishing what most directors have struggled with for years. It creates the illusion that Keanu Reeves can actually act. Joining Reeves in this animated parallel universe are Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder. Reeves plays an undercover narcotics agent named Bob Arctor, who can’t seem to differentiate between his personas. The drugs have blurred his existence to the point that he can’t quite grasp whether the images of a wife and family that he has in his mind are a memory or just an image. As his confusion grows, so does his addiction. The results make it difficult to ascertain what life Arctor is actually leading. Shortly before the film ends, Linklater reveals an element that explains all the jarring elements encountered along the way. Suddenly, the story becomes clear and it is seen as nothing more than a straightforward nark story. The explanation may solidify the arch but it doesn’t appease any frustration one might have, having spent so long trying to make sense of what one thought was something different.
Substance D keeps Linklater’s characters detached from each other and themselves. Although the majority of the characters are addicts without a history, Arctor fell into drugs as a reaction to the perfection he thought he had achieved in his life. Adapting author Philip K. Dick’s autobiographical account of how he fell into drugs, Linklater reinforces how people spend so much time walking blindly towards the achievements they always felt would make their life significant and full. The rejection of that comfort through drug usage ultimately leads to a much larger sense of discomfort. It makes the idea of getting close to someone in a sober, authentic context unthinkable and frightening. Finally, Arctor has run away from intimacy and finds himself wanting to have that again but not being capable of having it because his world no longer makes any sense.
The beauty of A SCANNER DARKLY is in its aesthetic. Remove that and I doubt the film would be watchable. Linklater’s previous attempt at this style, WAKING LIFE, was infinitely more successful because the technique lends to the psychedelic dreamscape setting and existentialist-themed conversations. Here, the technique is a life preserver for a bunch of drowning druggies.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Written by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris
Directed by Bryan Singer
A distant planet explodes, announcing the arrival. It is followed swiftly by large retro/electro credits flying directly towards the audience while a familiar score reemerges after twenty years. Superman has returned. From the very start, director Bryan Singer infuses his interpretation with an energy that reverberates respect and admiration for the legend that is Superman. Care is being taken and a calculated effort is being made not to disparage a character that is beloved by so many, Singer included. At a two and half hour running time, SUPERMAN flies by (not faster than a speeding bullet but fast enough). Not noticing the time ordinarily signifies an enjoyable event but here it serves better as a mask to hide the multitude of strange decisions that make the mighty SUPERMAN RETURNS weak and exposed.
Like any revival of a lucrative movie franchise, the script for SUPERMAN RETURNS went through many hands before it ended up in those of Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, past Singer collaborators (X-MEN 2). Despite the amount of care being given to this project, the script choices, above all else, are responsible for occasionally killing the illusion. The jarring plot points fall into two categories, bizarre and irresponsible. The bizarre is best exemplified in a scene meant to show that Superman has started cleaning up the streets of the world again. After saving many situations from ruin around the world, Superman, played by the impeccably smooth-skinned Brandon Routh, finds himself back in Metropolis, where he is about to foil a bank robbery. The robber has positioned himself on the top of the bank with a rapid-fire machine gun so large that it requires an immense stand to prop itself upon. I am first unclear how the robber felt his mission would go so wrong that it made sense to bring such a monstrosity. Mind you, the building does end up surrounded by police officers so I guess it was good he planned ahead. However, when Superman has the gun turned on him, each bullet is deflected because, and I’m sure had I done any research before going I would have known that Superman is completely indestructible. You can even shoot him in the eye and he’ll get you anyway. He’s that frickin’ awesome. And I know this because Singer just spent a good ten minutes shoving it in my face. Fear not, I gave nothing of the story away as the scene serves no purpose in the larger picture.
Superman stands for truth, justice and all that is good and noble. So why does he have no issue putting the moves on Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), a woman in a long term relationship with a six-year-old child? My brother would argue that nowhere does it say that Superman stands for loyalty but I’m fairly positive he’s supposed to be comparatively selfless. Whereas it makes perfect logistical sense for Lois to have moved on after Superman disappeared six years prior without a word (although, judging from the age of her son, she moved on pretty quickly), it makes for a very poor example of a couple to hope for. Lois’s boyfriend, Richard White (James Marsden working with Singer for the first time with his eyes open), is a good man. Sure, he’s a little jealous of Superman but he’s a good father and a supporting boyfriend and c’mon, how could you not be jealous of Superman? So why should an audience want for Lois not to be with Richard but with Superman instead? Singer expects his audience to root for Lois and Superman because of their iconic status instead of showing us something tangible between them to build on. Their constant flirting paints Lois as a confused woman who settled for the sake of her child, taints Superman as a guy who despite all his heroics is really out for himself, and leads me to wonder if the next Superman movie will begin with Superman helping Lois tell her son who his real father is. Never mind that Lois’ son, Jason kills a bad guy at one point and no one even thinks to see if the kid might be a little upset or if he understands the severity of what he’s done. That’s a whole other level of irresponsibility that I don’t have time for.
Superman is everything that everyone wishes they could be. He changes the world; he saves people’s lives; he is indestructible and inherently good without having to try. What Singer forgets more than anything is that he is also Clark Kent. Clark is not meant to stand out, he is not meant to save the world. However, he does exist. In SUPERMAN RETURNS, Clark is more the myth that Superman is. At no point, do we see any aspect of Clark, the real-life ego of this superhero, manifest himself in Superman. Superman embodies the best of what we all can be but if he is entirely disconnected from the person he really is, then he is not a better version of himself but rather an entirely different version that is trying to be someone he’s not.
Saturday, July 08, 2006
Written and Directed by
John Lasseter and Joe Ranft
The crowd is uproarious. The stadium is practically shaking. Two checkered flags are waved and they’re off … to a sad and unfortunately slow start. I say “unfortunate” because I am speaking of Pixar Animation Studio’s seventh feature, CARS, and the Pixar name usually ensures sophistication, wit and insight in addition to awe-inspiring, revolutionary animation. Further to that, it usually means a darn good time but CARS drags its wheels, leading me to think Pixar might be due for a good tune-up. The problem is not with the quality of the animation, which bursts out straight away in the opening sequence. We are introduced to Lightning McQueen (voiced by the ever laid back, Owen Wilson), a spunky red sports car with a lot of scattered energy to burn and not enough experience or patience to see things through to the finish. He cruises past the rest of his competitors as he races for the Piston Cup, the highest achievement in race-car driving. The arena lights blare down on to the track and into our eyes as the cheers from the stands erupt to deafening new heights. Everything is as it should be but for one jarring detail. The patrons that fill the stands are other cars. Yes, people go to watch other people race against each other but this is a world inhabited by nothing but cars. It’s like “Planet of the Cars” and directors John Lasseter and the late Joe Ranft do very little to ground this reality. And yes, it’s an animated film but I couldn’t get past wondering how the cars managed to build the stadium and all the roads leading up to in the first place.
While on his way to another race in another town, Lightning gets lost and ends up arrested, or in this case impounded, in a middle-of-nowhere town after accidentally tearing up their road. He is sentenced to repairing the road before he can leave. Here he meets an expectedly colourful group of cars that run through a gamut of stereotypes, from the hippie minibus to the military standard hard-ass to the pimp-my-ride 59 Chevy. I have never seen the folks at Pixar deliver such one-dimensional three-dimensional characters. There is no good reason that these cars would inhabit the same town and so why would we even be there? The only resident that seems like he belongs there is a tow-truck by the name of Mater (as in to-mater). Voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, Mater is the dimwitted naïf who unknowingly bestows wisdom upon others. He is hilarious without realizing and is the most believable element of this film.
The clichés don’t stop at the characters either. The moral foundation of CARS focuses on being in too much of a hurry to get nowhere in particular. Upon being forced to slow down, Lightning learns that there is more to life than winning races and scoring cool sponsorships. When you aren’t speeding down the highway, you can see the cars around you and maybe even become their friend or fall in love. Lightning brings some much needed life to this dreary waste of a town and the inhabitants show him a thing or two about loyalty and the simpler pleasures that come from standing still. A good chunk of this lesson comes from Lightning’s love interest, Sally (a coy Bonnie Hunt), a car who studied law and climbed the corporate ladder before she realized she had no idea who she was. Ordinarily, I would find these themes engaging but cars are built for speed, not for taking the time to smell the motor oil.
The beauty of a Pixar film is best exhibited in their 1998 offering, A BUG’S LIFE. The ants and circus bugs that make up the majority of the characters have personality that more than makes up for the lack of time to develop them all. More importantly, the bug world is believable because it co-exists with a human world, bringing light to a universe that we ignorant humans don’t even know is right beneath our feet. Even the entirely unreal monsters of MONSTERS INC have doorways that lead to an earthly plain. CARS had an inherently huge obstacle to get past from the start line but instead of pushing harder, Lasseter and Ranft left CARS on cruise control. The result is more a casual Sunday drive then a high speed race – enjoyable and pleasant but lacking purpose and drive.