Other than, I guess “Transformers”, I had a pretty low key weekend at the box office. It seems the Indie section of the studios thought it smart to release some of these films under the radar of the biggest over exposed blockbuster of the year. They figure anyone with any real film sensibilities would run screaming from the giant robots and into the arms of, say, “Joshua”.
Delving into the realms of parental paranoia Joshua creates an interesting psychological vortex. It’s not so much that the boy of the title feels unloved or forgotten about, but that he feels he shouldn’t be loved “just because”. And the film plays and toys with that idea, creating one solid layer on top of another, until we have a nice lasagna of psychology to chew on afterward. Is it enough for a parent to just “love” their children? Does little Joshua really hate his baby sister? At what point does Joshua start to turn for the worse? These are questions the writer/director doesn’t feel are necessary to answer or maybe they don’t need to be. The fact that there are unanswered questions or plot holes in the end isn’t what hurts this movie. The movie falters because it doesn’t know how much of one thing it wants to be.
There are two sides to Joshua: the psychological drama that has the underpinnings of an Ingmar Bergman drama. It is complex and rich in character disintegration. You very believably watch as Sam Rockwell slowly untethers throughout the course of the film while Joshua gains the upper hand. Maybe slow is the wrong word, deliberate is a better choice. And that’s just the problem here, everything feels almost too deliberated, and that circles back around to the film not paying off in all of it’s aspects.
There have been movies that have crossed genres to great success, Mulholland Drive being a great example. But then there are those movies in which the genre is used only to achieve a desired effect at certain times, like the Nicole Kidman drama Birth. Mulholland was a thriller and psychological drama and in the end both genres paid off, and it gave a reason when one of the genres took precedence whereas Birth pretended to fall into the horror film genre and built itself as a ghost story only to throw away that nonsense in the end. I left Birth frustrated because the ghost story aspect wasn’t necessary. I felt this way about Joshua. There are many elements throughout that are certainly creepy and chilling, and that are played up for full thriller effect, ala The Omen, but in the end the thriller aspect is merely a device that’s never fully used. The film builds tension, ramps it up, then lets it go, builds to a climax then never presents one. And it’s not just the story that does this, it’s everything from the music to the angles the director uses. He wants us to feel the environment of the thriller then acts like he’s above it. So if he’s above it. If he really feels he has something to say without it why does he use the thriller genre in the first place? It’s effective for awhile, but then creates frustration because he leaves it behind in favor of the psychology. I don’t need a chase scene or someone to wield a knife, I just don’t want to be led to believe by a movie that it’s going to happen when there’s no reason to make someone feel that way in the first place. What it comes down to is a director not trusting his audience to be affected by a film that doesn’t use conventions. Not to say this film isn’t interesting or doesn’t have merit, it does both. It just could have been a lot more interesting without the pandering. There’s a point in the film in which, as an audience member I started to wonder if anything was actually going to happen that wasn’t expected and I never felt it did. All tease and no touch.
On the other hand “Rescue Dawn” pays off in every aspect it touches upon. Human drama – check! Adventure film – check! I’ve only gotten to know Werner Herzog’s films in the last four years (they skip over him in film school, more than likely because his strongest piece of advice to students is to make a film any way you can…even if it means stealing a camera from said school!) and he has quickly become one of my favorite directors. The man is brilliant. If you don’t believe me watch his Aguirre: the Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo. But why would anyone believe me when I’ve enjoyed almost every blockbuster that’s come out this year. Well, there are those movies you enjoy and then there are those movies in which something more is going on under the surface. I am glad to report that Rescue Dawn is also both of these. A large part of that is due to Herzog’s brilliant casting. Christian Bale plays the title character from Herzog’s own documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. And Bale encapsulates Dieter, stands tall in his boots and brings a vitality and presence to the screen better than any actor has in, well, a couple years anyway. You wonder why Brando got bored of playing characters when there were still characters like this to play. Bale plays Dieter as such a hardcase optimist that nothing can take away his optimism in the worst conditions and nothing can destroy his strong need to survive. Not “Charlie” (war story – check!) and certainly not the other POWs and though real conflict arises from both places, the true villain is the jungle that surrounds the camp. The jungle is familiar stomping ground for Herzog; a place which he is continuously drawn back to. It’s a place that in his documentary My Best Fiend he refers to as hell and chaotic; there is no order there, he says, only death..his voice intoning that every living thing within strangles the thing next to it merely to survive. It’s the jungle that drives the people inside the camp into madness. The idea of leaving their prison and entering another prison is frightening to many of them; one hell to another. In most of Herzog’s jungle films he parallels the madness of the characters with the madness of the jungle and many times they end up just as lost in themselves as they are in the wilderness. We’re treated to many splendid visuals as the characters try to overcome the jungle; Bale and Steve Zahn (giving the second best performance of the year – next to Bale’s) force their way out of a mound of vines and branches like a baby forces it’s way out of the womb, a waterfall pummels a makeshift raft. Maybe this is why Herzog has such an affinity for Dieter. Dieter didn’t allow even the jungle to drive him mad, he almost becomes one with it in a calm and solemn sort of way; his face peeking out from branches, eyes cold and distant. At times you can imagine Herzog slogging through the jungle and telling his DP to quick grab this shot!
Another device that Herzog uses to great effect is silence, just as David Seltzer (the writer of the original The Omen – seems like a lot of these are going to connect) did back in 1986 when his almost forgotten masterpiece “Lucas” appeared; a time when the F-bomb could be used in a PG-13 movie without a gunshot covering it up and when the annoying fat kid wasn’t so annoying and was actually funny. There are a lot of ways I could begin to speak about this wonderful high school drama concerning first love. One way could be to say that it puts almost all of John Hughes’ high school comedies to shame. I hate it when people refer to The Breakfast Club as being the quintessential high school movie. I went to a lot of different schools and I never ran into such a bevy of “types” that were presented in The Breakfast Club. And the people who say that they did know, I usually say that they only wanted to know because that’s how every other movie treated high school…there was the nerd, the hardcore chick, this and that and blah blah blah. Lucas’ take is much more simple and far more real. There’s the outcasts, the jocks and the girls, and not all the jocks are bad. Instead of treating the characters like types, they were treated like real people first. And a genuine reminder of what high school was like is created. It’s simplicity. I was that kid, I was Lucas. Going after the wrong girls…I still do.
Another way I could begin to discourse on Lucas is to make you understand how I came to have such an affinity for red heads…it’s all due to Kelli Green, who plays Maggie, the wrong girl for Lucas, and who also played Andy in The Goonies. Watching Lucas I felt that old crush come back and it was due to her that I finally remembered seeing this movie when I was really young. Or I could start this conversation up by commenting that Charlie Sheen gives one of his best performances, as does Cory Haim…and we also see Jeremy Piven (who hasn’t aged in years) and Winona Ryder give great first career performances. And what happened to Kerri Green, who isn’t only beautiful, but talented! Even when they have nothing to say, which happens often in the awkward world of crushes and high school love and that this film captures beautifully, they give the most vulnerable performances of their careers. Or I could mention how nice it was to see a high school movie with actors that actually looked like they could be high schoolers and not 25 year olds playing 18. Or I could say simply that with all the movies out this summer that remind me of my childhood, this one comes the closest. And since it was a midnight showing with an old scratchy print, it added that much more authenticity. Maybe the one thing I could have done without in this film, is the slow clap in the end, but even here it seems more deserved than in other films (as a side note a less rosy ending was originally shot, but the studios preferred going back, shooting and using this one.)
And then a film that makes me glad I’m an adult, or I might have missed or not understand a lot of the things that make this movie as brilliant as it is. “Ratatouille”, created by Brad Bird (also creator of The Incredibles,) is a sumptuous and exhilarating concoction of characters and dilemmas. Probably some of the most exciting original characters to grace the screen this year (unlike, oh say, Penguins…oh but wait, this time…on surf boards!). He also doesn’t feel the need to fill his film with a gluttony of pop culture references like every other animated kids movie feels like it needs to these days. And thank God there are still people like Brad Bird willing to create original characters and build original story lines. It’s so strange saying the word original in a year in which there seems to be nothing but Ratatouille that is original. And thank God there are still studios like Pixar willing to back someone like Bird. It’s really very difficult to write about a film that’s practically perfect in every sense of the word, without giving away some of the joy and it is a complete joy to watch. One of my favorite sequences takes place as Remy, the lead rat who desires to be a chef, first enters the the kitchen and it’s a moving whirlwind of energy, all your senses are heightened as he’s whipped and swung around this chaotic environment closely defying death from one moment to the next. Every beat, every movement is planned with such grace and precision, that the chaos just as the jungle in Dawn is a beauty to behold. And when the young garbage boy Linguini sees Remy fixing the soup he just brutalized, one of the zaniest friendships I’ve ever seen is created. And no one should miss the climactic moment concerning a food critic that rivals the moment when the Grinch’s heart grows. It brought a tear to my eye…really beautiful film making going on here. This kitchen is just as much a hell as Herzog could have imagined and just as much a heaven as any film goer and child could love. No one should miss the opportunity to see Ratatouille.
“Not everyone is an artist, but an artist can come from anywhere.”
In some ways I hate seeing amazing films like Ratatouille and Rescue Dawn, because all they do is remind me of the really big flaws in the movies I just want to go enjoy (your Spider-Mans, Pirates and Transformers.) I certainly do hope that these two films are nominated for best picture at the end of the year, and the two nominated for director, and screenplays (since one is original and one adapted – they won’t be fighting for it) among other awards. So, yes, skip whatever you’re doing tomorrow and go out and see one of these two tremendous achievements. Then go see Live Free or Die Hard.