Sunday, May 29, 2011

Incredible Sunshine of Charlie Kaufman's Mind

Screen-writer Charlie Kaufman won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the 2004 film ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. It was his third nomination in a short time span. Rarely has such an original voice been heard in Hollywood films. Kaufman's first nominated film was 1999'S BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, a trippy comedy about a dweeb (John Cusack)who discovers a wormhole into the brain of one of our finest but perhaps oddest actors. Along for the wild ride are Cameron Diaz, the hilarious Catherine Keener, and Malkovich playing himself to the hilt. The film, like most of Kaufman's work, has the feeling of Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND, where a character is swept into wild adventures beyond his control. A bizzare, laughable concept becomes one of the most delightful comedies in the last twenty years.

ADAPTATION, 2002, is another strange concept. Based on Susan Orlean's book THE ORCHID THIEF, the film stars Nicolas Cage as screen writer Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald. Charlie has hit a writer's block in trying to adapt Orlean's book to the screen, and his brother, a hack writer, jumps into the breach. Donald interviews Susan (played with wild comic gusto by Meryl Streep), but doesn't quite believe her story. So the brothers follow her to the Florida swamp where the orchid thief(Chris Cooper, hysterical) lives. What follows is one of the most hilarious and suspenseful endings a movie could have, and it owes much to the real Kaufman's witty imagination and the actors who play it straight making ADAPTATION a heady comic mix.

It is difficult to choose which of the three original films by Kaufman that I like best, but ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND seems to have more pathos, heart, and internal logic than the others. It tells the story of Joel(Jim Carrey in a wonderfully expressive performance), a repressed, lonely young man, who meets an unstable free spirit Clementine, played by Kate Winslet. After a final clash, Clem goes to a memory cleaning office and has all her memories of Josh erased. As Josh realizes what she has done, he decides it's too painful to live with her memories, and he follows suit. Naturally, things go awry, and Kaufman's ingenious plotting, director Michel Gondry's swift and unlinear cutting, and the performances of a delicious cast (Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kristin Dunst, and Mark Ruffalo) make it that much more fun. Though the sci-fi or fantasy elements are fun, at heart it is the love story between two lonely people that is the glue that makes ETERNAL SUNSHINE a major work.

Here is the source of the title:

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd.

From Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard,' in which the only saving grace of a doomed love affair is fading memory.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Winning Horse and Two Marriages on the Edge

Making movies based on historical events is tricky enough, but filming a suspenseful history story is really difficult, especially when it's a well-known sports event. Last year's SECRETARIAT is no exception. We already know that Big Red was the wonder horse who won the Grand Slam of racing back in 1972 and holds incredible records. This film tackles these challenges by sharing the focus with believable characters played by fine actors. Chief among these are Diane Lane as Penney Chenery, who takes over her father's horse farm after her mother's death and his being incapacitated, naturally against incredible odds (her family is in Denver, not, Virginia; she's a woman in a man's world; the farm is in serious financial trouble). Lane brings a caring warmth to the part that eventually turns to grit as she proves she can deal with the best of the men in the racing business. As her eccentric trainer, John Malkovich adds humor and grace to the proceedings. All the stereotypes of the sports film are here: impossible goals and odds, swelling music, gorgeous dawn and dusk shots of Virginia and Kentucky blue grass, a boatload of typical sidekicks. Plus, a gospel version of "Oh, Happy Day" keys up when inspiration is called for. Somehow it all works beautifully. SECRETARIAT is even better than SEABISCUIT, which attempted to be a story of national unity and personal redemption, filmed with such "importance" that it was hard to relate to. This is one horse who goes the distance.

Another more recent dvd edition is the Oscar-nominated BLUE VALENTINE, a somber and achingly sad examination of a couple falling apart. Acted with unspairing and often painfully real power by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, the film freely moves in time to show the highs and lows of the couple's relationship. He is a high school drop-out who moves furniture and she a pre-med student when they meet. By the time they break up, they have a loving daughter, she has a career, and he is the same boy he was when they met. Gosling has a great ability to exhibit natural charm, incendiary fury, and heartfelt regret. And Phillips never makes a false emotional note. If you can take this one, it's worth it. A suitable companion piece is the emotional drama RABBIT HOLE starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Wiest. It is a stark portrayal of a marriage on the edge after the accidental death of their four year old son. All of the actors bring strong conviction to their roles, and an intelligent script and smart direction make this worth watching. CAUTION: Don't watch these two together!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Weddings and such

The hoopla has faded and the happy pair has flown off to nestle in obscurity before Kate really becomes the target of cameras again. Some spent last week sneering at the pomp and ceremony and citing the many crises that have befallen the world this year. An article in UTNE Magazine dismissed the royal wedding as the pinnacle of anglophilia and pointed out the myriad tacky souvenirs flooding the market as well as the stained history of the current royal family.

But such carping does little to deflate one of the loveliest days I have ever seen on television. We fortunately chose the PBS coverage (via BBC) and let the dvr work while we slept. At nine we toasted our English muffins and brewed our coffee (sorry, no tea for breakfast) and settled down with a neighbor to wallow in everything royal--the luxury limos, thousands of fluttering union jacks, bad hats (Fergie's daughters!!), Camilla actually looking happy, trees growing in Westminster Abbey, and Kate and William! And did we mention her dress? No, but everybody else did, and even Joan Rivers and the Fashion Police loved it.

Yes, lowly peons and high-placed nobles alike, most of us reveled in the royalty. So, to the block for anglophobes everywhere!