Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Given the amazing *cough* job I'm doing maintaining this blog, I've decided to switch gears and write for my old haunt Oscarwatch again. My first column was posted today. Do to technical difficulties, the article is no longer on the site, but you can read it here.

This is your brain; this is your brain on A Scanner Darkly

By Susan Thea Posnock

Richard Linklater's adaptation of A Scanner Darkly is both an exhilarating and frustrating film experience.

Exhilarating in that it is original, thought provoking and at times extremely funny; frustrating in that its muddled hallucinatory trip makes one feel a lot like the detective/junkie portrayed by the god of "whoa" himself, Keanu Reeves.

Perhaps that's the point and trying to comprehend each and every nuance of the Philip K. Dick novel-turned-film is futile. It isn't really about understanding; it's about feeling. Of course, as with the film’s fictional Substance D, there are only so many hits one can take before your brain starts to split off into competing factions:

Left Brain: When is this going to end? What the hell just happened?

Right Brain: If you want to understand it try reading the book. Besides, this is interesting and visually stimulating. Look at all the pretty colors!

Left Brain: It’s too long!

Right Brain: An hour and forty minutes isn’t that long. You sat through Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which was essentially a two and a half hour trailer for the third Pirates film. And not a very good trailer.

Left Brain: Good point.

Come to think of it, when I see the box office numbers for brainless summer entertainment I sometimes wonder if Hollywood executives aren’t already slipping moviegoers Substance D or the marketing equivalent. And this from someone who loved the first Pirates and appreciated it in large part because it wasn’t your typical heat wave blockbuster.

But I digress. Getting back to Scanner, there's enough to recommend it and hope that its highpoints—the trancelike live action turned animation, the performances, particularly train-wreck-actor Robert Downey Jr.—can get some attention during awards season.

Downey is a master of enlightened drug-fused locution, turning his reading of single words like “murdered” into a kind of poetry. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson reminds the viewer what a deft comedian he can be, though his range remains in the realm of dumb brick to stoner, Larry Flynt notwithstanding.

Then there’s Rory Cochrane, who is like some kind of junkie savant for Linklater. Back in Dazed and Confused he delivered many memorable lines, in particular one likening the dollar bill to marijuana. Here he doesn’t have a huge role, but a sequence in which he makes an important decision concerning a bottle of wine is one of my favorites. The moment is all about his character and doesn’t contribute to the overall story arc, yet it’s perfect.

And I guess that’s the crux of the matter. If I judged A Scanner Darkly as a whole, I’d call it a near miss. But its parts are worth a view. If Downey can get some traction and support, I think he’ll be remembered at the end of the year and into the Oscar season. As for the rest, it’s such a hard movie to categorize. From what I’ve read it can’t qualify for animated feature—and besides, that tends to be where Oscar throws the kiddy choices. But if it can qualify, I think it should be considered.

To view or not to view...

Glancing over the list of Oscarwatch's first half winners it appears United 93 is the film of the first half. I’m taking a wait-and-see approach because frankly, I’m not sure I’m emotionally ready to see this film…I welcome input from those of you who have. Particularly New Yorkers who were here on Sept. 11, 2001.

Mad Mel…

Will Mel Gibson’s new film Apocalypto garner Oscar attention, or has Mel been popping one too many little red Substance D pills?

But where are the pastels?

I’m all set for Miami Vice but I was a bit concerned by the lack of neon colors in the trailer. Will it update and honor the series it’s based on? One would hope so given its Michael Mann’s baby all grown up. I understand that if you’re not making a parody of Don Johnson’s white blazer you have to update it… but I’m also wary of another slick cop film. Please don’t be Bad Boys 3.

Finally, what’s in a name?

So obviously I can’t call this column “Diary of a Hobbit Fiend.” I’d briefly used “Diary of a Movie Fiend” in a failed column attempt back in 2003. (I wasn’t ready to write about movies again, still recovering from my Lord of the Rings hangover.) I’m ready now and I welcome suggestions. Filmgeek Gal? Film Fiend? Inquiring minds want to know…

Friday, July 14, 2006

Bright City Lights*

"It doesn't get any better than this."
- My friend Terry, just before we sat down for a screening of "City Lights" in our American Film Comedy class.

I could not love any movie more than I love "City Lights." It speaks to my heart, to my soul, to my loneliness, and to my fear of love more than anything else.
-Journal entry, December 15, 1996, 2 AM

Maybe that's what Chaplin had in mind-that all of us are blind, and afraid of being seen at the same time. But the only way to love-and be loved is to see past the barriers, and to let oneself be seen without them.
-Journal entry, January 7, 1997, 11:51 PM

"City Lights," is the most beautiful film ever made. When I say beauty, I don't mean that it has stunning visuals or superb effects. Its beauty is beneath the surface. Like the clownish tramp played by Charlie Chaplin, it is masked in humor. Only in the end are the lines in his pantomime face revealed.

When that happens, it is one of the most striking moments in cinema history.

But before we get to that point, writer/director Chaplin tells the tale of "A Tramp," who falls in love with a "Blind Flower Girl." She is poor, supporting herself and her grandmother by selling flowers on the street. Chaplin is able to help her out and fool her into thinking he's a wealthy gentleman.

What helps lift the film from schmaltzy love story to work of art is the care Chaplin put into the development of this simple plot. For instance, he struggled for a plausible way for the blind girl to believe Chaplin is rich. The scene that sets up her confusion is choreographed to perfection. Chaplin climbs through the backseat of a parked car, exiting near the girl. When she hears the door close, she asks him to purchase a flower. Enchanted by her beauty, he buys one from her. But as she is getting his change, the real owner of the car returns, shutting the door and making the girl believe Chaplin has gone off. When she calls out to him, Chaplin realizes her mistake and he backs off. Thus, she is fooled into thinking he's much more than a street tramp.

The ruse continues thanks to Chaplin's inebriated relationship with "An Eccentric Millionaire," portrayed by Harry Myers. The running theme of the film is that Chaplin's tramp is only accepted by other members of society if they are somehow "blinded" and cannot see who he really is.

In addition to the pathos of "City Lights," Chaplin presents some of the funniest sequences ever seen on film: the first meeting between Chaplin and the millionaire; their subsequent "night on the town"; and perhaps most memorable, a prizefight Chaplin competes in to win money for the girl.

Another interesting aspect of the film involves Virginia Cherrill, who stars as "Blind Flower Girl." Unlike the majority of his female co-stars, Chaplin was not romantically involved with Cherrill, and in fact they didn't get along. In the documentary "Unknown Chaplin" it tells how Chaplin became frustrated enough with Cherrill to consider replacing her with his lover at the time (and The Gold Rush co-star) Georgia Hale. Chaplin went so far as to film Hale in the film's final scene. But the actress, clearly in love with Chaplin, could not convey the complex emotions that the flower girl must feel in order to give the scene its poignancy. As it turns out, Cherrill was the ideal choice.

While I know some reject "City Lights" as overly sentimental, I think they have misread the film. Certainly it is on the surface, but to me the film is much deeper. And the emotions evoked by the final scene are more challenging. Chaplin is taking the Tramp, who was already a well-known (if not quite iconic) image when the film came out, and presenting him as more than just the caricature that audiences had come to know and love. It is the most "real" moment for the character-filled with ambiguity. Rather than sentimental, the ending strikes me more as revealing and even risky.

"City Lights" is a silent film in the sense that there is no "spoken" dialogue. But a beautiful score written by Chaplin compliments it, and as I wrote in my journal entry, it really does "speak" to the viewer. The language of film goes well beyond the dialogue spoken between actors. It is the expressions, the actions, and the looks. Few films demonstrate this connection between viewer and film in the way that "City Lights" does.

*This review originally ran on the web message board Moviola at ezboard.com.

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