Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Elizabethtown (2005)

Directed By: Cameron Crowe
Written By: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Paul Schneider, and Alec Baldwin
Synopsis: A failed young exec on the verge of killing himself returns to Elizabethtown, KY, to take care of the details of his estranged father's funeral.

Most reviews of Elizabethtown so far have dealt with its relation to Cameron Crowe: after all, if there's any modern-day director who defines the auteur theory, Crowe is it, and Elizabethtown is no exception. But the unlikely facts of the matter are that this review may end up being mostly about Orlando Bloom.

I've reviewed Bloom's work before: the troubled and mediocre Kingdom of Heaven, the abhorrent Ned Kelly. And I'm no stranger to putting the man in a box, he's spent most of his short career on one-note performances. Outside of Cruise, he's bashed more than any man in Hollywood. But the honest fact is that Bloom delivers a performance in Elizabethtown of the most sublime, subtle power.

Oh, snicker if you must. But I was paying pretty close attention on this one, and I'll stand by that statement. Let me try to convince you:

Elizabethtown is a complete mess. There's no way around it. Even those who truly loved the movie (I have a pretty fond impression myself) have to admit that it is, in many ways, a trainwreck of a movie. It's a structural wasteland, based, as far as I could tell, on some private, four-act structure that Crowe invented just for this picture. The music is turned up loud and often, usually at the expense of dialogue, story, and, indeed, logical sense.

But through it all, there is Bloom, creating space for himself as Crowe's whirlwind love letter to family, Ketucky, and timelessly rootsy pop tunes spins out of control. As each scene crashes around him, Bloom does what great actors do: he acts as if he believes so much what he's doing that the viewer can't help believe, too. It's tough to imagine, but Bloom is carrying, truly carrying, a picture.

In one extended sequence, as Elizabethtown's omnipresent voiceover wanders through some off-subject background info, Bloom stares curiously at his father's casket. He wanders around the casket, brow furrowed, and there's no narrative reason for us to care, or even wonder at his thoughts. But we do, simply because, somewhere in that strange, awkward, effeminate delivery, Bloom made me buy it, he sold me that he's a troubled man with deep pain floating just below the surface. It's something terrible and suicide-worthy, we feel, but nothing a little Tom Petty couldn't fix. Bloom's character is mostly an empty nothing of a person, but somehow I became convinced perhaps this is a guy with a story that deserved to be told.

Oh, yes, the story. I always forget. Elizabethtown is the tale of Drew Baylor, a young business exec at a monstrous shoe corporation whose brilliant career-making shoe design manages to lose his company a billion dollars. Frustrated and angry in that self-righteous way leading men always are at the beginning of cheerful romantic comedies, he builds an unbelievably appalling suicide machine out of an exercise bike and is on the verge of killing himself when the phone rings (this is the first, and only, plot point in Elizabethtown). His father has died on a trip to meet family in Kentucky, and the family needs him to go to Elizabethtown to take care of the details. Baylor goes because, hey, families stick together, and he can totally commit suicide whenever, so there's no rush.

On the way, he meets an amazingly cheerful flight attendant (Dunst), and the strange and estranged extended Baylor family (Schneider, Bruce McGill, plus a lot of pleasant chubby people), a collection of cheerfully redneck Kentucky down-home boys.* It's at this point that the pop music really starts rolling.

I'll lay my cards on the table at this point: I love Cameron Crowe. Diss Vanilla Sky all you want, I'll stand behind it forever - not to mention the '70's-nostalgia perfection of Almost Famous. But the first hour and a half of Elizabethtown almost feels like someone's been imitating Crowe. It's got all the elements there: the music, the trip-down-memory-lane vibe, the solid acting - but it's too heavy-handed. There's no frothy dialogue, no memorable lines, few standout performances. It's jumpy and awkward and not fully fleshed-out. It's all just sort of... mediocre.

But, in the same way that Bloom's performance slowly grows and and grows, so does Crowe's film. It just gets there in an awkward way - though, to me, a particularly funny one, because in my mind, Crowe has made a textbook student film. I can just see him sitting in some Hollywood office, talking to his producer: "okay, so I had this idea where I see Orlando Bloom drinking Ale-8, and Susan Sarandon dancing through the spotlight, and Kirsten Dunst smiling a lot, so I wrote this story around it, but I don't want it to follow a typical 'three-act' structure. See, it's about this guy, and he's all torn up, he's gonna commit suicide, but then he meets this girl, who just comes up to him from nowhere and she's amazing, and his life starts to turns around - and then he goes to meet his family, and they're all crazy, but you really like them, and the story never really resolves itself, but there's great music, and a great vibe, and at the end everyone just feels good." And since his producer is Tom Cruise, he gets the green light.

I pitch that same idea every week to my professors, and they always give the thumbs down. I'm beginning to see why. But the fact is that by the time the credits are rolling, Crowe has made it work. The pop music that was so frustrating and overbearing throughout suddenly seems to pull the images together. The story finds narrative flow. You start to care about the characters. And suddenly, without any idea why, you're happy. Elton John is pounding through "My Father's Gun" again, and you're watching Kentucky fences fly by, and Dunst is still smiling her heart out, and Bloom is now wandering through America's heartland talking to his father's ashes in the passenger seat, and yet... it just all seems right. Kudos, Cameron. I don't know how you did it.

Breakdown: Lessee here, Cameron, you get two stars for getting such an excellent performance out of Bloom, two stars for a fantastic soundtrack, and one for beautifully evocative cinematography. Since I completely sympathize with all of your mistakes on the film, we'll only take off half a star for having no structure whatsoever, and half a star for trying to jam too much music into the flick. We'll follow that up with another half-star off for disappointing subplots featuring Paul Schneider and Susan Sarandon, among others, and another half-star for occasionally resorting to pointless slapstick. We'll let that cover it - keep in mind I didn't mention dialogue, Cameron, you're getting off easy. Three Stars.

* Most reviewers have discounted the realism of the peppy Kentucky family as mere blue-state opinioning on red-state values, which simply reveals these reviewers as hapless blue-staters. They may, indeed, have "their finger on the pulse of the nation," but have probably never sat in a Waffle House at three in the morning, ordered steak and grits, and put Conway Twitty's "Red Necking, Love Making Night" on the jukebox (not that I'm condoning such behavior). I'm not claiming to be a native, but to someone who dearly loves the people of the Bluegrass State, Crowe makes Baylor's family feel like home.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Directed By: George Clooney
Written By: George Clooney and Grant Heslov
Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise, and Frank Langella
Synopsis: CBS reporter Edward Murrow takes it to red-scare leader Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hijinks do not ensue. Instead, everyone gets so depressed and mopey that they have to be shown in black-and-white.

To say that Clooney's directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, lacked subtlety is... a bit... understated. Quite a bit of an understated, actually. One reviewer referred to it as "a movie dressed up in a camouflage shirt and pink polka-dotted pants in the middle of a surprise summer snowstorm." Colorful imagery, that. I don't think I could have come up with that myself.

I bring this up because Clooney's second picture is so much the antithesis to this. Good Night, and Good Luck bristles with tension, but the tone and style of the picture is, well, understated. Quite a bit understated, actually.

Inspired by the simplicity of Jean-Luc Godard's films (most notably, Breathless - Clooney wanted to use the same lenses so badly that when they didn't fit, he tried to scotch tape them to the camera), Clooney's film is sparse, subdued. He couldn't be any more deliberate. For almost every shot in the film, he let his actors pick out where they wanted to be, then moved the camera around to film them. It's a smart choice - in a story of such slow, careful change, the audience constantly feels like a fly on the wall, observing action that flows organically around the camera. In an utter rarity in recent filmmaking, every piece of the film's style - from its European cinematography to its silky 1950's black-and-white styling to its modern sensibilities - enhances the story.

Oh, right, the story. I forgot. Good Night is the true-to-life tale of how famed journalist Edward R. Murrow (it's okay, I hadn't heard of him either) turned the tables on red-scare ringleader Senator Joe McCarthy through a series of accusatory pieces on the mildly-groundbreaking CBS news show See It Now.

I wasn't particularly familiar with the story before seeing the film (alright, fine, I didn't know a damn thing about it), but Clooney's got newsman in his blood and his script - co-written with Grant Heslov, another actor-cum-writer - lays the facts out with a surprising journalistic clarity. In fact, Clooney's might even be too careful in covering all his bases: afraid that any deviation would let the press cut his film to ribbons, Clooney triple-checks his facts, leaning on actual recorded dialogue or stock footage whenever possible.* Most surprisingly, rather than having someone play McCarthy, he only uses what footage of the senator is available. It's simultaneously refreshing and a cheap filmmaking crutch for the story to lean on.

Still, I'm all for it. Clooney dearly wants his film to change a viewer's perspective, and I find Good Night's earnestness deeply endearing. Each actor's performance is entrancingly personal and natural - particularly Strathairn, who gives Murrow a subtle humanity covered over by a steely public persona. It's one of the many little-noted performances this year (along with Damian Lewis in Keane) that probably won't scare up any Best Actor buzz this spring, but really should.

The problem with Good Night, though, is that the message of the film is that once upon a time, newsmen gave a damn - but those days are gone now. The film bookends with clips of Strathairn performing Murrow's landmark keynote address at the Radio and Television News Directors Convention (Not to toot my intellectual horn, but I had actually heard about this speech. Admittedly, I'd heard about it in the promotional articles for Good Night, and Good Luck) about how news reporting was being replaced by mere entertainment, and the time has come for television journalists to stand up and use the medium for good. "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire," Murrow notes. "But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

I agree. I do. I truly believe that if television reporting does nothing more than keep the viewer occupied for a moment, if it inspires nothing more than water-cooler talk, then it's wasted breath. And Lord knows I'm tired of: "Big news today in the Middle East - we'll keep you updated on the events as they unfold. But first - Kelly Ripa!"

But I'm not convinced that modern-day journalists have truly lost their belief in the power of the press. Consider the general reaction to Katrina: in the wake of tragedy, the press sprang into action faster than essentially every government office, and spent the next two weeks holding the government's feet to the fire on their lackadasical response. Admittedly, they didn't show a whole lot of disgression in understanding exactly whose feet should be held to which fire ("Hey, Benedict XVI! How could you just stand by and let the U.S. government develop no emergency flooding strategy?"), but no one's arguing that they didn't feel strongly about the issue. As a field reporter for the Daily Show gently lampooned: "I've been in New Orleans for six hours now and I still haven't gotten to publicly berate an official." I think Clooney can rest easy in that regard.

Furthermore, Clooney falls prey to one of the classic blunders (the most famous of which being never, ever give Michael Bay a camera): in striving to drive home a blistering lesson, he becomes the very evil he's fighting. Yes, entertainment shouldn't trump true news reporting in the hearts of television producers - but if that's the case, shouldn't Good Night hold the same tone? Instead, Clooney seems perfectly willing to deviate from his story in order to work in some comic relief: Murrow's interview with Liberace, a highlight of the film, helps loosen up a story becoming too wound up in its own careful pacing and weighty pauses; in the same way, modern newscasting breaks up the fiery crashes and confusing foreign policy with speculation on whether Paris has stolen Mary-Kate's boy toy. Watching Murrow try to hold on to his deadpan interview style across from the most flamboyant of all subjects humanizes his character, just as entertainment news helps humanize a medium that flourishes on destruction and pain.

I'm not saying that Clooney is wrong. I just feel that if you're so willing to film something in black-and-white, you better be ready to deal with the fact that it might be a gray area.

Rating: Lessee here - one star for Strathairn's performance and one for everyone else's, one star for making something as anachronistic as black-and-white movie, one star for making history interesting without adding any homosexuality (in case Oliver Stone ever reads this), minus one star for writing a movie that occasionally borders on propaganda but plus half a star for actually having the balls to make it. Comes out to three and half stars out of five.

There's a good deal of argument in regards to how much Clooney really did stick to the facts. I have an argument here that disseminates (a blogger's favorite word, probably used incorrectly here) an entirely different story about the legend of Edward R. Murrow. It's just as slanted towards conservative thinking as Clooney's is in the opposite direction, but if you watch the film and read the article, you'll find they agree on a number of things:
1. Communism is at least a little bad.
2. McCarthy is not cool. Neither is McCarthyism. Smoking, however, might be cool. Keep that in mind, kids.
3. It's bad to take away people's constitutional rights, even if you really, really want to.

Of course, if you already agree on these things, you don't have to watch the movie or read the article, and you've saved yourself from Saturday night of political debate that can now safely spent snacking. Good job.