Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Directed by: Wes Anderson
2004, rated R
1 star

Films typically have a purpose. Usually there is some point the filmmaker is trying to get across, some driving force, even a moral, that the film attempts to convey to its audience. This overriding theme is what drives the plot, makes the film exciting and worth going to, or at least makes it enjoyable to watch. Without this crucial message, a film is meaningless, worthless. Filmmakers realize this, and as such, even the basest, crudest horror flick has at least some cheesy side story about romance, and how it can save everything. Wes Anderson, however, seems to be one director who has completely missed this tiny detail of purpose. His newest film, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is a 118 minute shapeless mass of pointlessness, which occasionally molds itself into the form of famous, recognizable faces.

The cast for Life Aquatic is similar to that for Anderson’s last film, the delightful, deadpan comedy The Royal Tenenbaums. Returning with their normally excellent talents are Bill Murray as the title lead of Steve Zissou, Anjelica Huston as Zissou’s haughty wife Eleanor, and Owen Wilson as Zissou’s secret son Ned Plimpton. Joining these Anderson veterans are Cate Blanchett as the pregnant and assertive reporter Jane, Willem Dafoe as the jealous German deckhand Klaus, and Jeff Goldblum as Zissou’s archrival, and Eleanor’s former love affair, Alistair Hennessey. After listing such an impressive cast, it would be customary to make a quick overview of the plot. Life Aquatic, however, doesn’t seem to have one. The characters wander aimlessly about the film, occasionally stumbling into short scenarios that seem like the beginnings of a story, but in reality are only ruses meant to trick the audience into thinking there might be a point to the film after all. The premise for the film is Steve Zissou’s zeal for wildlife, and more specifically marine, documentaries. With the helpful funding from the family of his wife, he travels the seas in search of adventure and aquatic discoveries, filming as he goes in a direct parody of the famous Jacque Cousteau. At the premier of his newest film he is confronted by his son Ned, born from a past affair. Zissou readily accepts this unexpected development, urges his son to change his name completely, and sets off on a mission to avenge his former colleague who had recently been digested by a mysterious new breed of killer shark. The firmly self-assured reporter Jane joins them on their voyage across the seas, setting the scene for some type of love affair.

Though this may seem like a promising beginning, the film slowly drowns in Anderson’s whirlpool of attempted stoicism. Each character seems trapped in a world where emotion doesn’t exist, and although they may speak words of passion or anger, any facial expression has been utterly forbidden. As such, they move stiffly across the screen, and their interactions with one another more resemble the interactions between skillfully crafted marionettes than real people. Judging from Anderson’s previous films (Rushmore in 1998, and The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001) this lack of any discernable emotion was probably a main goal. While in the other films it was amusingly fitting, in Life Aquatic it is carried out to a point of ridiculous tedium. Even the slightly more exciting action sequences—such as raiding the personal supplies of the rival Hennessey, or the sudden attack from pirates—the characters remain unfazed in their Botox-like ennui, successfully preventing every scene from rising to the point of climactic excitement.
In addition to these critical plot and acting flaws, the cinematography and special effects sink to new levels of pathetic. Anderson attempts the grainy look of an ancient documentary, but instead achieves only an appearance of poverty. The quality is so poor, it looks like the type of thing a teenager might make with inexpensive equipment, very little computer effects experience, and a budget of about $50. The fantastic creatures which Zissou discovers don’t even pretend to look real, and rather seem to be directly stolen from the mind of Salvador Dali.
While I typically enjoy a film that breaks the mold and strays from the common herd, Life Aquatic is just too far adrift to have any practical purpose as a film. The audience will leave the theater feeling empty and confused, and perhaps a little angry at just having been cheated out of a good $6. So if you like pain, or are suffering from insomnia, perhaps this would be a good film to see. If not, I would suggest something more enjoyable, like clipping your toenails or banging your head against a wall, repeatedly.

Life Aquatic official movie site

Monday, January 10, 2005

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Directed by Michel Gondry
2004, rated R
5 stars

Screen writer Charlie Kaufman has a knack for creating extremely strange, mind-bending, completely genuine and unique story lines, which of course make for strange, mind-bending, and sometimes utterly confusing films. His first two major hits, Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation, were equally bizarre and delightful. Being John Malkovich centered around John Cusack’s discovery of a doorway leading into the mind of John Malkovich. Adaptation told of the fantastically eccentric difficulties of writing a superior screen play. Kaufman’s newest brain child, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is just as unusual as these other two. Kaufman’s gift for the obscure, coupled with director Michel Gondry’s artistic aptitude, together create a stunning montage of emotions and images that leave the viewer astounded.

Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) has created a company called Lacuna Inc. which has formed a procedure in which certain memories can be erased from a person’s mind. This procedure, Dr. Howard assures his patients, is essentially harmless, and painless, and completely wipes a person’s memory of unpleasant events, or of people whom they would rather forget. Such is the case with Joel Barish, played by a surprisingly—but excellently—serious Jim Carry, and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). Clementine is impulsive and spontaneous—her wild personality reflected in the ever-changing vivid colors of her hair. Joel, on the other hand, is her complete opposite—cautious, organized, and safe. After a relationship of almost two years, Clementine decides that she has had enough, and decides to get Joel erased. When Joel discovers what she has done, he takes his revenge on her by having the same procedure performed on himself. Halfway through, however, he realizes that some of his memories of Clementine are too precious to lose. What follows is a frantic race through his labyrinthine psyche.

As the semi-comatose Joel attempts to evade the erasure of his memories, a whole subset of intrigues occurs on the surface. A whole world of subplots, involving the quirky staff of Patrick (a wide-eyed Elijah Wood), Stan (an excellent Mark Ruffalo) and Mary (a glossy-eyed Kirsten Dunst) evolves, providing ever increasing layers of interest to the entire story. These subplots give contrast, parallel, and foils to the main plot, adding insight into the complex and baffling nature of memory and love.

While the storyline may seem a little obscure, it is truly the work of a genius. Kaufman has managed to reform and retell the classic love story in new and astonishing ways, addressing the issues of true love and fate along the way. His reach into the nature of human consciousness is also quite astonishing and revealing. While this story stands out as completely unique, it is the astounding beauty of the cinematography that propels the film to even greater heights. Gondry’s artistic eye blends perfectly with Kaufman’s story, using unique camera angles and techniques to give dimension and feeling to Kaufman’s exquisite obscurity. As each memory crumbles and fades from Joel’s conscious, so too does the scenery, in a very real and literal sense. Buildings, cars, shops, and even faces become distorted, diminished, and deteriorate, falling to pieces around the characters, right before our very eyes.

As the characters race from memory to memory, working backwards in their relationship through the boredom and animosity of a stale relationship to the passion and innocence of a new love, the audience is drawn deeper and deeper into their emotions and lives. For audiences who have seen and enjoyed Kaufman’s previous films, Eternal Sunshine is bound to please. For those not accustomed to his particular brand of controlled confusion, this film is an excellent introduction. The film is, however, as beautifully made as it is named, and only slightly more mystifying.

Eternal Sunshine official movie site