Monday, December 25, 2006

Rocky Balboa (2006)

If you’ve read my reviews, or know me in person, you know I’m the kind of person who’s unnecessarily negative about sentimental entertainment. I’d be a cynic, if I wasn’t the kind of person who claims to be one. What I really am is a thwarted idealist who makes fun of movies that most people enjoy.

So when I watched Rocky Balboa the other day, many mockable elements presented themselves to me. And I found myself unable to grasp at any of them. This movie is so innocent, so like its title character, that I refuse to find fault. I was never an adolescent boy, so I missed that essential “Rocky” period, but after this movie I went right back and watched the original. And loved it too.

The (hopefully) final installment in the series finds Rocky alone, his wife dead and his son somewhat estranged. He runs his restaurant, takes care of the people he can, and yearns for some of the fire of his youth. His physicality, despite pushing 60, is not yet spent. Into this mid-life testosterone fog comes the ESPN computer simulation which claims that Rocky Balboa, at his height, would have trounced current heavyweight champ Mason Dixon. You can guess the rest, but it never gets super cheesy, even though you can pick out the lines that should be.

It’s hard to describe why these movies, at least the first and last of the series, work for me where so many Hollywood offerings fall flat. There’s just as much talk of the heart here, just as much underdog pathos, but Rocky makes it believable. It’s clear that Stallone, who wrote and (less successfully) directed this movie, loves these characters and that love comes through so honestly that it makes me love them, too. There are no bad guys in Rocky’s world, and no losers. The important thing about Rocky is that though it’s about the triumph of the underdog, the underdog doesn’t actually have to win. He just has to keep fighting. I’m not saying I’m ready to go be a boxer or my life has been changed in any other way, but I’m more than willing to buy into this guy for a few hours at a time. Very little about uncomplicated feel-goodiness makes me happy, but Rocky Balboa restores my faith in something nice also being fun. Like That Thing You Do, the Rocky movies have a sort of good-natured innocence, despite the sometimes unsavory motives involved, at which I cannot laugh. Read more!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Candy (2006)

Once I saw a movie that taught me that substance abuse was bad, because even when one person starts out pretty social about his addictions, his partner is likely to get drawn in over her head to a point where she can't stop and some latent crazy manifests itself. Then I saw it again, but with prettier people and heroin instead of alcohol. I guess we haven't learned our lesson, have we?

The thing about Days of Wine and Roses is that it was a melodramatic piece about a couple suffering from alcoholism but one of them was Jack Lemmon. So the whole movie you could marvel at him playing a drama. Watching Candy is pretty much the same experience, but grosser, and you can't be amazed that Heath Ledger is greasily attractive or in an inappropriate and doomed relationship. Its sole purpose seems to be to chronicle the senseless descent of a cute couple into squalor, dead babies and bad skin. With good actors like Geoffery Rush along for the ride.

It's quite likely that all these people read the script and said, “Hey, I can send a good message about drugs and do that playing-a-druggie thing,” which is understandably attractive. There is certainly a chance, here, to explore why certain people fall into certain traps, but other than a belated rant from our heroine about how she's been “clenching her fists” for no apparent reason since she was six years old, we have no idea why these people know each other or why they do drugs. So unless the message is simply DON'T DO DRUGS EVER OR YOU WILL END UP LIKE THEM, they've failed to convey anything deeper. And don't we already know drugs are bad?

The film is not without its nice moments. Candy herself is lovely, Heath is intelligible again (I didn't understand a word he said in Brokeback Mountain), and there are some really great cinematic moments. The beginning is probably the best, with some fantastic footage of one of those spinny rides where the floor drops out and you're squished against the wall. It's very pretty, but it's also a METAPHOR, so try to figure that one out.

Overall, it's somewhat prettily done and no one grossly missteps. But it's also pointless in the sense that nothing is revealed and the audience seems meant to derive cathartic enjoyment from the couple's trials. I can see no other rationale for it, much like pretty much everything on daytime television. But this has cuter people. Read more!

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Science of Sleep (2006)

Michel Gondry has finally made a movie that integrates music video with feature film. I don't mean that negatively; only that up until now, Gondry has wedged the absurdist, dream-like sensibilities he explored on MTV into films that had absurdist plots and were written by Charlie Kaufman to include strange, dream-like alternate realities. With Science of Sleep, the dream merges with reality without the clumsy explanation of some metaphysical breakdown required. I'm not entirely certain, by the end, what we're supposed to take away from the film, but it's a lovely exploration of a certain kind of love affair that exists too much, perhaps, in dreams.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane, a Mexican in France at the behest of his French mother but struggling with both his purpose there and the language. As a result, he frequently resorts to English, and it's lucky for us that the other characters all speak it, too. Garcia Bernal's English is great, and the play between the three languages is one of the pleasures of the light script (written by Gondry as well). Soon after arriving at his mother's empty flat, Stephanie moves in next door. Stephanie's friend Zoe helpfully points out that not only do they have the same name, but S&S are totally alike! For some reason, Stephane doesn't correct the girls' misapprehension that he's friends with the piano movers and does not reveal that he is, in fact, the son of the feared landlady. Thus begins a strange tale of a young man-boy who doesn't seem able to articulate what he wants or even figure out whether he's got it. Stephane never seems to know whether he is dreaming or not, and has wild fantasies that sometimes merge into reality without his knowledge. My slight discomfort with the film comes from not knowing whether we are supposed to find Stephane charmingly whimsical or think he should get some help. I think both are true, but I wondered sometimes what the film's position was.

Because Stephane definitely has a problem. His fantasies are amusing and creative and lead to fantastical inventions in his life and relationships. But the conflict between him and the object of his affection seems to be that he doesn't realize which actions are real and which aren't. He does things he later thinks were dreams. In one instance he stands the girl up because he... thinks she stood him up? For no reason? I don't even know.

Then again, this is a character I have met in real life. Stephane isn't unrealistic in his contradictions. But he is kind of a jerk sometimes. Garcia Bernal does fantastically with him, demonstrating yet again his versatility despite being very pretty. The other actors navigate the ups and downs of the script and language with charm and energy. Gondry fills Stephane's thoughts and dreams with fantastical figures made of cardboard, yarn and stop-motion techniques, some of which may look familiar from, say, a Foo Fighters video. And despite a suspicious poster in the theater which advised, “Close your eyes, Open your heart,” it's not a sappy romantic comedy where two crazy people find acceptance in each other's tenuous hold on reality, contrary to all considerations about how they might actually get on in the real world. The issue of Stephane's behavior is left open. In a fantastic world of imagination, there's a true story here about shy, creative people and how they relate to the world. It raises questions rather than conforms to romantic cliches; and in defying expectations somewhat raises my own in terms of how, and what kind of, difficult relationships are dealt with in the movies. Read more!