Synecdoche, New York

There are so many flaky layers to Synecdoche, New York, so many events and incidents in this zigzagging, perambulating portrait of the artist as pretentious, possibly delusional, man-hurtling-towards-death that a mere recounting of the plot would be pointless. But a brief synopsis: Caden Cotard, a Schenectady, New York theatre director, stages a novel interpretation of Death of a Salesman to great acclaim. His wife, a painter of impossibly tiny miniatures, leaves him and finds fame and fortune in Berlin. He wins a McArthur "genius" grant and decides to stage a monumental play, something "big and true and tough," to leave his mark on the world, to justify his own sense of self-importance (or is it merely self-absorption?). All of which is utterly beside the point.

What you need to know is this:
Synecdoche, New York is the first film directed by Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote it. Kaufman is the author of other complex, eccentric films such as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so you wouldn't expect Synecdoche, New York to be, say, a James Bond film (although a Charlie Kaufman 007 movie might be kinda cool in an impossibly weird and fantastic way that would make me really want to see it). Kaufman's work is about, in a nutshell, the mind -- which is an impossibly beautiful, complex, sometimes nutty thing, just like his movies. Synecdoche, New York is also about, among other things, time, love, life and death, and about how in the midst of life we are in death, etc., (you know, the really BIG stuff), and delusions (of grandeur, of immortality, of mortality, of decay), (look up Cotard delusion), (Kaufman's films are the sort to require multiple parenthetical asides, in lieu of footnotes), (Synecdoche, New York is a film that is itself like a series of parenthetical asides, many of them sneakily inserted so that you just barely notice them and have to make a vague mental note to go look something up later, like "Cotard delusion"), (I have 13 pages of vaguely specific notes from watching this movie, whereas the average movie results in two or three pages).

And what else? The film feels oddly longer than it is, although later, you'll wonder how so many ideas and incidents were crammed into so little time, which works perfectly with the way in which it is about a life that sometimes feels longer than it is, and sometimes far too short for what all gets done, or must get done.
Synecdoche, New York follows Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for about 40 years, more or less. He is a man obsessed with all the little things (eruptions, boils, fluids) that happen to and come out of his body (and they must mean something awful and big and nasty is brewing, all these oozing effluents). He's a guy who sweats the little stuff to the point that he hasn't the attention left to notice the big stuff. The big stuff, narrowly defined, is what he wants -- big recognition, big ideas, to produce a masterpiece. In a massive warehouse, he catalogs all manner of human experience and indignity, with his own life, and the lives of his actors (Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Emily Watson), and his one true love (Samantha Morton) folding into, enmeshing, entangling, intermingling, becoming the lives of the characters in the play he can't name (Simulacrum, maybe) and can't finish. The real and the ideal, life and art, all mixed together like the multiplying and self-reflecting shards of a shattered mirror.

It's not an easy film, and Kaufman keeps dropping mental bread crumbs all over the place, little bits of ideas that you have to pick up and pocket and sort out later. The sorting-out-later is the most gratifying part of Kaufman's films, but it's the part that is probably the most alienating aspect of his work too, at least for those who, having digested their popcorn, want their movie work to be done. Kaufman works on big, serious themes, but he's also seriously, smartly funny, and all those little mental notes that keep falling out of his screenplays, all the dictionary words and visual gags and puns, they just fall like confetti all over
Synecdoche, New York.

I fear that none of this will make you want to see the film, so I make this blatant appeal to narcissism: the synecdoche in
Synecdoche, New York is that Cotard, the part, the man, is the everyman who represents us all, with our own obsessions over the insignificant parts of ourselves and our lives, the pimples and excess hairs, the hair loss and excess pounds. Who doesn't want to see a movie about him/herself? Cotard's tragedy is everyone's tragedy -- the triumph of the narrow, the inane, the trivial, over the significant, the beautiful, the glorious. Yeah, it's a hard sell. But how about this? Kaufman is a masterful artificer, but his greatest skill is that out of his utterly surreal inventions, truth and reality emerge, and out of the ugliness and effluence, awkward beauty always breaks through.


Quantum of Solace (2008)

It can safely be said that I don't really know what I want from James Bond. Having grown up with the jokey, hokey Roger Moore version, I was okay with the slightly less comedic but suaver Pierce Brosnan Bond. I like the new, leaner, meaner Daniel Craig Bond quite a lot, although he may have gone a bit too far over to the dark and brooding side. Can we have a little levity and suavity back, or is it all about exercising that license to kill now?
Quantum of Solace breaks with another Bond tradition -- it's not a standalone film, but an actual sequel to the previous film, Casino Royale (2006), which rebooted the Bond franchise (now on film number 22!) with the rougher, tougher new Bond. Quantum of Solace begins with a pretty nifty car chase -- over swervy mountain roads and through narrow, traffic-choked tunnels -- picking up exactly where the last film left off. Bond is pissed off, believing that he has been betrayed by Vesper Lynd, the woman he loved, for whom he is also grieving, since she recently met an untimely end. Bond's MI6 boss M (Judi Dench) is worried that 007 might be too motivated by revenge to do his job with objectivity, whatever that means in this context. When the bodies start piling up like cord wood, she worries even more. It's a bit amusing that she continues to express surprise and outrage at Bond's homicidal tendencies, given how consistently he finds it necessary and/or convenient to kill people.
The title, which means, I suppose, something like "measure of comfort," but is meant to sound more gadgety and high tech -- because you wouldn't want Bond just settling down by the fire with a mug of hot cocoa and The Carpenters Greatest Hits would you? -- says very little about the plot of the movie, but does imply that this is a revenge story more than anything else. There is a multinational syndicate of evil called Quantum, and there's a villain named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) who is plotting to overthrow the government of Bolivia in order to plunder its precious resources. He's cleverly disguised as an eco-philanthropist, so it's very handy that his name is Greene. He's in cahoots with General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio), the murderous would-be beneficiary of the incipient Bolivian coup. The Bond girl (there's always a Bond girl -- or two, as the case may be) is Camille (Olga Kurylenko) who, for her own vengeful reasons, wants Medrano dead, which means she's involved with Greene and, eventually, with Bond. The other Bond girl here is a cutie pie named Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton), who serves as the sexual plaything du jour, since 007 and Camille are not particularly lusty for each other, but are rather consumed with their mutual and interconnected lust for revenge. The new Bond has mostly replaced sex with violence, which is definitely a break with the old Bond, who always found time for both in his busy schedule.
The plot is fairly complicated (and never quite explains exactly who those Quantum folks are or exactly what they're up to), and has Bond hopping from Italy to Spain to Haiti to London to Bolivia to Russia. Racking up the frequent flier miles seems to be the primary activity of movie spies these days. MI6 should look into developing an eco-friendly hybrid personal aircraft that serves as its own flotation device. They'll want to avoid hydrogen fuel cells, since
Quantum of Solace pretty much confirms that said fuel cells are highly flammable and extremely likely to blow up when James Bond is around. 007 tangos once again with Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), and with CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), both from the previous movie. Quantum of Solace also features skeevy, amoral Americans, and (of all things) Canadian spies. I suppose they have spies in Canada, although they are woefully neglected in the world of movie spydom. At any rate, the Canadian spy is extremely polite, which is to be expected.
There are vehicular chases of all kinds in
Quantum of Solace -- on land, sea, and air, by foot, by car and motorbike, by motorbike *onto* boats, and through walls of flame and showers of bullets. Vehicular-jacking and mayhem aside, gadget-wise, this is a fairly disappointing Bond, with nothing new to report on the spy tech front. Director Marc Forster has taken a page from the Paul Greengrass book on *Bourne*, and filled Quantum of Solace with pretty much continuous, fast-paced action and lots of brutal combat, and with a quick, relentless, and cat-like 007 leaping across rooftops and padding nimbly along ledges. Indeed, 007 now has more in common with the robotically combative yet brooding Jason Bourne than with prior iterations of Bond. He's clever, but not very witty, and rather short on charm. Craig's Bond is more coarse than cool, but also more soulful than suave -- a more emotionally complex 007 is a good thing, although Quantum of Solace is a grim and mirthless bit of business that pretty much starts and ends with grief and rage. That quantum of solace is a tiny measure indeed. Which is just to say that Bond could lighten up a little, to distinguish himself from the rest of the new millennium spy pack, which is pretty much all-brooding, all the time.


Soul Men (2008)

There's a fair bit of
Soul Men that's completely familiar: two grumpy old men grouse and grumble at each other during an eventful cross-country road trip where they encounter flat tires, sexy senior ladies, and thugs. Something heartwarming happens. Viagra happens. The money runs out. There are brushes with the law.

The familiarity of the plot elements aside, there's a lot of pleasure to be had in the profane company of Floyd Henderson (the late Bernie Mac, in his last movie role) and Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson), two foul-mouthed, has-been back-up singers once known as the Real Deal. When their former frontman Marcus Hooks (John Legend) dies, Floyd and Louis are reunited for a tribute performance. Floyd, bored out of his mind since being dumped in a retirement community by his nephew, is desperate to get back on stage. Louis, who has fallen on hard times, is content to stay in the hole he's dug for himself. They're an odd couple, and they've got a week to get from L.A. to the Apollo Theater, so they climb into Floyd's sweet ride, a vintage lime green Cadillac Eldorado ragtop, and head for New York.

Soul Men is a loose and ambling, sharp-tongued comedy starring two performers with a well-known capacity to invest blue dialogue with nuance, meaning, emotion, soul, and even poetry. Since Floyd and Louis share a mutual and justified animus for each other, there's a lot of yelling and swearing in Soul Men, and the volatile duo demonstrate that there's a kind of music in a targeted and well-articulated string of F bombs. The plot -- which supplies a number of stock characters, including a pudgy, nerdy white fanboy (Adam Herschman) and a dopey, cowardly rapper (Affion Crockett) -- is merely a vehicle for allowing Jackson and Mac to loosen up and let fly, which is precisely what they do, and which is also the primary reason the movie is as enjoyable as it is. Much of the dialogue comes across as off the cuff and obscenity-enhanced, as if director Malcolm D. Lee just turned the cameras on and let them roll in case anything happened. It happened.

Floyd and Louis don't just talk -- they also sing (and it is clearly, obviously Mac and Jackson singing). They may swear better than they sing, but one of the other delights of
Soul Men is the movie's celebration and good-natured ribbing of musical idioms, and its meticulous ear (and eye) for the good, the bad, and the silly of 60s and 70s R&B. The Real Deal were Pips-like backup singers who danced and cooed and snapped their fingers in synch. As Floyd and Louis make their way across America, they hone their R&B musical stylings in an assortment of dives (where they can also pick up a free meal), wearing an assortment of matching suits. The retro-soul music of the movie sounds and feels completely authentic, even when it's being played by the house band in a country western bar. (The late Isaac Hayes also appears in Soul Men, adding more period authenticity to the movie, but also enhancing its bittersweetness.) Floyd and Louis are decidedly out of synch when they reunite, and the movie is primarily about how they get their groove back. It is lucky for Soul Men that its performers can lay down a groove so well themselves.


Changeling (2008)

As a director, Clint Eastwood is pretty dependable. His directing style is elegantly understated and unobtrusive. Eastwood has shown a partiality for thematically interesting, morally ambiguous movies that revolve around characters rather than action and special effects. His movies also tend to be Oscar bait -- in the last five years he's directed Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima, all of them justifiably heaped with praise and awards. Changeling, on the other hand, tends toward Oscar-baiting, with loud, emotional, explosive performances and larger-than-life (though based on a true story) melodrama. There's a plodding deliberateness to Changeling, in the way it moves through the plot, in the odd way that the period costumes and sets are so noticeable, and in Eastwood's surprisingly obtrusive musical score.

There are really two movies here, and the transition from one to the other is handled a bit clumsily. In March 1928, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother in Los Angeles, comes home from her job as a telephone operator to find her 9 year old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) missing. Anxiety turns to desperation when the police tell her that, as a matter of policy, they don't investigate missing children until they've been gone for 24 hours. Five months later, her son is finally returned to her, from Illinois, to great fanfare and publicity. A corrupt police department under attack for abusing its power has the chance to look heroic. Only the boy returned to Christine isn't her son, or so she says.

Police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) is condescending, unsympathetic, and unbelieving. He treats Christine at first as an hysterical woman, and when her insistence that the boy is not her son becomes dangerously inconvenient for Jones, he smears her in the press and has her tossed into a snake pit of a mental hospital, where she finds other inconvenient women (among them Amy Ryan, playing one of those heart-of-gold hookers) have been sequestered, tranquilized (and worse) as well. Everywhere she turns, Christine is at the mercy of arrogant, sadistic, and self-serving authorities -- police, doctors, psychiatrists -- who all insist, with a cruel authoritarianism, that they are necessarily right because they simply can't be wrong. Her sole ally is a crusading Presbyterian minister named Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who enlists a high-powered attorney (Geoff Pierson) to her cause.

What happens to Christine is outrageous and dramatic, and the film catalogs her bureaucratic nightmare with an accumulating sense of horror. By the time she's tossed into the insane asylum, with its sinister, hatchet-faced nurses and doctors, and its howling, mad-eyed inmates, the figurative horror movie becomes a literal horror movie. And then it turns even more obviously in that direction with the story of what might have really happened to Walter. That part of the tale comes to light when the only honest cop in the LAPD, Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), investigates the case of a runaway Canadian boy and discovers an isolated chicken farm where very bad things have happened. And
Changeling starts to unravel at this point, about two-thirds into the film, moving clunkily and without focus from one scene to the next as it tries to get all the historical pieces to fit together, and to merge the story of a sinister, violent, morally bankrupt police department and the story of a whingeing, psychopathic killer. It is, in fact, an astonishing story, but what makes it thus in reality -- including the far-reaching implications of Christine's ongoing fight for truth, justice, and the American way -- also makes it unwieldy as a movie.

The emotional tone of
Changeling, coupled with the overacting by almost everyone involved, strains credulity. Jolie's role requires her to howl and cry and throw things, to experience grief and terror and rage, but also to appear thoroughly rational and certain of her own certainty. This is a tall order, of course, and requires much shifting of emotional gears for the actress, which creates the appearance of really strenuous (and maybe good) acting, although it feels more like an exercise in emotional range. Christine flips from crusader to suffering mother and back again (and again), but the script by journalist J. Michael Straczynski doesn't provide a center -- there's no filling to this character sandwich, which leaves Jolie to supply the ham, so to speak. The lack of nuance and depth in Christine's character and the exaggerated melodramatic mood of Changeling requires much bluster and excess on the part of the other actors, notably Donovan, who does a lot of fist-pounding and finger-pointing and yelling. This is surprising because it is unlike the even-keeled Eastwood -- he typically brings an unstrenuous naturalism and realism to his movies that tends to guard against dramatic excess, even when the story is itself wrenching (as it often is). It's also surprising because there is a really compelling story of evil and justice at the heart of Changeling, in the tale of the aggrieved and grieving mother and the lost son. There's potential here too for an ambiguous and devastating mystery story, and for a while, it almost looked like Changeling (as the title suggests) might be a weird and interesting tale of uncertainty and identity, although the movie dismisses that possibility pretty quickly. In the end, Changeling feels familiar and clumsily predictable, and worst of all, it becomes a true story that just doesn't ring true.