Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Mark Herman, 2008)

Absolutely nothing differentiates Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas from any other conventional Holocaust film except for the fact that Herman's film, especially because its protagonists are innocent children caught in the middle of man-made tragedies, reeks of emotional blackmail. While Herman manages to keep the film's affairs told from a comfortable distance, more like a dark fable rather than a historical anecdote (which it is not, since the film is adapted from a novel by John Boyne, and the novel's very premise, about a Jewish kid living and working inside one of Nazi's concentration camps, is a near-impossibility since Jewish children never lasted in concentration camps as they are immediately killed by the Nazis), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does not graduate from merely reiterating the blatant absurdity of the Holocaust, only this time, without an ounce of subtlety.

That is precisely the biggest problem I have with Herman's Holocaust film. Other than depicting those turbulent times from perspective of an innocent kid (looking back though, Roberto Benigni's syrupy Life is Beautiful (1997), with its annoyingly clueless father Benigni wrote and portrayed, is the top offender in utilizing both innate and manufactured naivete to questionable acclaim from the Academy), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas hardly has anything new to contribute to the largely stagnant genre. To make matters worse, Herman handles the material with such unnecessary reverence, gathered from the overly tasteful cinematography and its ceremonial plotting, that it becomes unbelievably off-putting and quite ironically, rather tasteless, quite similar to being lectured on elementary morality with the intricate yet infuriating flourish of an overly eager kindergarten teacher.

Bruno (Asa Butterfield, pale and wide-eyed, like a wet hatchling), the film's juvenile protagonist who was plucked from the city with his older sister (Amber Beattie) and mother (Vera Farmiga) by his father (David Thewlis) who is a high ranking Nazi officer newly assigned to the countryside, becomes the audience's eyes and ears in the film. We follow Bruno when he, out of curiosity and boredom, sneaks from his new home to the nearby concentration camp, which he mistakes for a farm, where he befriends Shmuel (Jack Scanlon, whose exaggeratedly pitiful exterior elicits the same predatorial feel from an overly eager mendicant), a Jewish kid from inside the camp. Unfortunately, Bruno is such a feebly conceived character, a character that lazily and conveniently utilizes childhood as an excuse for absolute gullability and dumb curiosity, that following the narrative through his perspective becomes such a difficult chore because his character stretches the bounds of plausible human psychology for the purpose of arriving at its much-awaited glory note.

The film's glory note, a climactic sequence that pits the sad fate of Bruno and Shmuel and the desperate scramblings of Bruno's family, is hardly glorious at all. When the pandemonium, the onscreen suffocation, the dullness and drabness of the reality that Bruno has realized takes over the initial glossy and stately trappings of the film, the shift is so incomprehensibly sudden and forecful that it borders on being ridiculous and laughable. I understand that the finale only emphasizes the grandiose absurdities of the Holocaust, yet Herman's operatic finale, oddly reminiscent of such cult Nazi treats like Tinto Brass' Salon Kitty (1976) or Don Edmonds Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975) where shock substitutes for empathy, only backfires, especially in a way that it seems to be the only entertaining bit in the entire film.

The result I got then is rather confused: when Herman should have elicited empathy, or at least disbelief, shock, even anger, what I got, however, was a guilty moment of befuddled delight. If one needs a reminder of the atrocities of the Nazis without the pseudo-artistry and bluntness of a misguided craftsmen, Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1955) is what I recommend. It is only a third of the running time of Herman's overindulgent Holocaust film, but Resnais' meditative explorations of a real concentration camp is haunting and deep enough to leave a lasting dent in one's senses. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, being a tasteless redundancy, is just a waste of time.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008)

America is not limited to its great cities, those centers of modern civilization that supposedly gave birth to its expansive culture. The Statue of Liberty, symbol of the timeless American Dream, stands as entrance to one of America's greatest cities, welcoming ambitious dreamers from the rest of the world to a land that would serve as stage to their limitless endeavors. However, a great irony enshrouds this perpetuated migration to America: that upon a migrant's landing on American soil, he is immediately bamboozled into a matrix of mediocrity, with his dreams and ambitions frozen in the meantime as he struggles to graduate from the dehumanizing work-a-day world that the real America symbolizes. He is temporarily placated by facile pleasantries, packaged neatly into rows of pretty prefabricated homes that serve as nests to America's perfect families, or so we think. American suburbia happens to be one beautifully perpetuated lie that is slowly blossoming into a dreary nightmare.

Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road is not the first film to have tackled American suburbia as the dangerously engulfing illusion that it really is. Mendes' first film, American Beauty (1999), has earned accolades precisely for its supposedly fearless indictment of the American family for the vices that it tries too hard to repress. In fact, an entire genre has evolved from such cinematic discourse. Ang Lee, in The Ice Storm (1997), is more successful in fleshing out the dysfunctions of a suburban family amidst the worsening weather and the political climate. David Lynch, in Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-1991), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006), blurs reality to create suburban terrains, operating more like inescapable bad dreams than melodramas or satires.

In Revolutionary Road, Mendes tracks a the journey of the Wheelers, a seemingly ideal American couple, from being ambitious starry-eyed lovers to suffocated prisoners of a Pennsylvanian suburb. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) commutes daily to New York to a thankless job in a sales company where his father also worked for until the day he died. April (Kate Winslet), Frank's reliable housewife, consumes her day with motherly, wifely, and neighborly chores: keeping her two children safe as she maintains the house in a pleasant condition, more to please her nosey neighbors than herself. When it occurred to her that their plasticine suburban lifestyle has stripped them of the virtues that got them together in the first place, they decide to escape to Paris: for Frank to finally figure out what it is that he truly wants to do as April works for the family. The couple's ambition, however, is the opposite of everything that America stands for, and even before the dream nears its fruition, everything falls apart, forcing Frank and April's relationship to crumble as well.

Revolutionary Road, through its chronicling of an American couple's demise to what is essentially a ludicrously staged dead end, summarizes the scathing repercussions of the so-called American daydream, hypnotizing families into a system of monotony and order with the comforts of a boxed and pre-planned life. Mendes hams it up, making sure that all confrontations escalate to grandiose shouting matches, or all the encounters of the couple with John Givings (Michael Shannon), a mathematician-turned-psychiatric patient, are the film's sanest moments. Somehow, Mendes is successful in depicting a topsy-turvy environment, where romance, much more than a give-and-take scenario, partakes of a predatorial relationship, with husband and wife manipulating each other to arrive at an amicable end; and neighbors aren't what they seem to be, establishing relationships that are merely cover-ups for their insecurities, envy, and lust.

Mendes transforms the American landscape into a Darwinian arena, where because migration is rendered nugatory, only the strong survive. Contrary to Darwin's theory however, is that in Revolutionary Road, survival is hardly worth an entire lifetime spent struggling to realize the unrealizable American dream.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Watchmen (2009)

Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009)

Zack Snyder, visionary director of 300 (2007), once again proves himself a visionary with his latest film, the adaptation of Alan Moore's much-revered graphic novel Watchmen. Of course, the term "visionary" was used in the trailer of Watchmen as nothing more than a marketing tool: a single-worded invitation that means "if you want more of 300's arbitrary use of computer graphics and action sequences that are replete with hyperactive switches to slow motion and back, then spend your bucks on this flick." The term "visionary" is being used here with a sizable dose of sarcasm, for the truth of the matter is, Snyder, with three features under his belt, is no different from the thousands of MTV-educated movie-makers that are currently working in Hollywood's soulless assembly line; and blessed with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars and projects with already existing storyboards, he has been capriciously knighted by Hollywood's marketing executives with a title that is reserved to a handful of filmmakers.

If Snyder's Watchmen is assessed solely on ambition, then it is an indubitable masterpiece. After all, several directors have attempted to adapt Moore's graphic novel, all of which ending with the project being shelved and eventually forgotten. Director Terry Gilliam, who was once tasked to adapt the graphic novel in the late eighties, considers the material unfilmable, unless it was done as a five-part miniseries. Perhaps there is truth to Gilliam's observations. Moore's graphic novel, with its narrative and thematic complexities, simply cannot be condensed in a span of two hours or so (in fact, Snyder's adaptation is half an hour over the two-hour mark). Snyder, despite many failed attempts in the past, adamantly pushes forward and arrives at a final product that is comprehensible and pretty. Ambition, however, is never the barometer of quality. While Watchmen passes intelligibility (one can easily follow the story, as simply laid out by David Hayter and Alex Tse's screenplay), it ultimately fails to be anything more than an overbudgeted evidence of Hollywood whim and bullyism.

There is an obvious effort in realizing the alternate history that serves as setting to Moore's tale about costumed crime fighters who are struggling in the midst of an impending nuclear holocaust. The opening credits, a finely crafted montage set into motion by Bob Dylan's majestic The Times They Are a-Changin that traces the history of the Watchmen from its humble beginnings to the troubled band of superheroes that it is now, summarizes concisely the backstory that puts logic to the plot's internal grief and its alternate timeline. Snyder, however, betrays the opening's initial promise of visual succinctness when it thrusts the rest of the film in an over-indulgent exercise of revelry and spectacle.

Snyder fills each frame with special effects (whether it be a computer generated background, a completely animated Dr. Manhattan, action scenes in stylized slo-mo that calls attention to teeth flying, bones breaking, and bodies disintegrating, obviously for shock rather than anything else) that hardly mean anything but nevertheless sum up what Snyder's adaptation strives for: visual ingenuity which is actually a facade to what essentially is an empty core. Snyder is an aesthetic leech. He pilfers the artwork of greater and more pertinent visual artists as his own, utilizing Hollywood's unscrupulous mechanism and its almost unlimited bank account to establish himself as an expert in comic-to-film adaptations. In reality, it is a lack of artistic integrity that is often confused with faithfulness to the source material.

It is not apparent from Snyder's film that it is birthed from a trailblazing material, a graphic novel that revised superhero lore from one-dimensional do-gooders to damaged individuals who inconsistently balance their personal demons and the weight of our sinful world. Watchmen maintains the narrative, keeping intact the lack of trust Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) has with the rest of the world; the widening lack of interest Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) has with a humanity that is getting more and more distant; the complacency, a result of years of retirement and a distinct satisfaction of being normal, of Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson); the overripe cynicism, gathered from the decades of fighting bad guys, of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan); the misplaced zeal of Ozymandias (Matthew Goode); the confusion of Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). However, the manufactured feel and the commercial intent of Snyder's efforts drown whatever depth and integrity that remains.

In the end, neither ambition nor so-called faithfulness to the material can save Watchmen from being just another angsty superhero flick. Hollywood should have listened to Gilliam and we might have something better than this overstretched bombastic snore-fest that talks the talk, walks the walk, but never really gets anywhere.