Primer (2004)

Science fiction stories have often successfully led the audience to ask questions regarding their own humanity and character. Perhaps it is because the limits to the narrative are fewer, or because the genre fundamentally exists upon hypothetical scenarios; the most memorable science fiction writers allow us to identify with these characters placed in fantastical circumstances. That is the reason for the simultaneous sense of wonder and anxiety that so many science fiction movies purvey, either blatantly (can anyone say “Independence Day”) or very subtly.

“Primer,” famously shot and edited for $7,000 in the home of its writer/director Shane Carruth, as is out-of-your-face as can be, yet it packs a wallop that few other sci-fi films have been able to do in recent years. For the most part, however, the joy of the film is in the crescendo of suspense as the director pulls back the curtain on what initially appears to be nothing more than a deft portrait of grass-roots enterprise in its noble infancy to reveal a seemingly realistic story of the potential corrosiveness of the most disruptive (and time-honored) science-fiction premise in history. Carruth, who was majored in mathematics and worked as an engineer before deciding to veer into filmmaking, shows a commitment to realism that is a stark contrast to the material. This technique is what will draw you in unexpectedly; the absence of the polished effects and action that is almost standard in the recent canon of sci-fi films brings an unexpected depth and seriousness to the story.

“Primer” begins by showing us four friends working together in a garage, volleying tech jargon back and forth. The garage belongs to Aaron (Carruth), who along with his best friend out of the other three Abe (David Sullivan) has ambitions greater than his current company will allow him to achieve. In the process, Abe and Aaron stumble across an invention so vast and unthinkable that the first half of the movie successfully holds us in suspense as the nature of it is revealed to us in incrementally exciting scenes. This is by far the most fascinating part of the film, and it is also where Carruth is on his surest footing. The scenes have such a real texture to them; the dialogue is littered with scientific terminology, but remains surprising accessible to the non-geek and allows us to slowly realize what the two have at hand.

What follows is how both Abe and Aaron grapple with the rewards and ramifications of their discovery, and where Carruth delves into questions about the murkiness of human nature. The movie can succeed entirely without these developments; the exposition is really that fun to watch. Still, Carruth’s own ambitions in showing the corrupting nature of power add a nice narrative engine to the material, and the last thirty minutes are sure to have you pausing and rewinding multiple times to figure exactly what the hell is going on. The film is constructed and laid out so naturally and beautifully that once you are drawn into the story and identify with the characters, the complex madness of the ending are akin to a dizzying spike in altitude of which no fan of suspense and interesting ideas should deprive themselves.


Roger Dodger (2002)

Roger (Campbell Scott) is an obnoxious and self-centered bore, who fancies himself so charming and intelligent beyond reproach that he can get away with saying anything. He is also incredibly insecure about himself, and masks his lack of self-esteem with overflowing cockiness. It's a delicate balancing act, prone to easy disruption, which is what happens when Roger gets dumped by the older woman (Isabella Rossellini) he has been sleeping with, who just so happens to be the boss of the advertising agency in which he works.

Into the splintered psyche of Roger comes the teenage son of his sister, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), who tells his uncle that he is in town interviewing for colleges, and has a personal interest in learning how to meet and attract women. His mother has apparently told him that his uncle Roger is quite the ladies' man. We don't know if this is true or not, but we have seen the rejected Roger insult and offend two random women with his brand of acerbic analysis, so we definitely know he's not shy around the ladies.

Seeing his nephew as a way to prop up his floundering ego, Roger takes him on an odyssey through the streets of New York, imparting predator wisdom to his nephew's young receptive ears. At a singles bar, they pique the curiosity of two beautiful women (Elizabeth Berkeley and Jennifer Beals) who are surprised at the naivete of the younger male, so much so that Roger feels upstaged and sabotages the evening by embarrassing the entire party.

This is the hero of "Roger Dodger," a film by first-time director Dylan Kidd, who also penned the screenplay. Roger is someone who makes us squirm because he is so dismissive and hurtful to other people that he does it to himself in the face of rejection. As a advertising copywriter, he describes his job as instilling fear into the populace, making them question themselves and their own worth, so that they are convinced that they can salvage their value by purchasing the product his firm is helping to pitch. Roger has carried such an attitude into his real life, where he uses his words to make people feel unwanted and unimportant. With Nick, this strategy backfires onto his own self, and at the end he is face to face with his own failure.

The jewel of the film is Campbell Scott's portrayal of Roger. He makes Roger so dislikable that his own unhappiness is transparent through his behavior with his nephew. To make someone so vulnerable yet so distasteful is a testament to Scott's performance, and the wit-filled dialogue of Kidd. The ending is a bit clumsy, and some of the camera work is a little excessive, but the dialogue is sophisticated yet genuine, and we have a sincere desire to see both Roger and Nick find a peace within themselves, rather than manufacture a persona that is doomed to fail.

Election (1999)

I think a good satire has a soft spot for what it is satirizing. Christopher Guest, who helmed the wonderful "Waiting for Guffmann" and even better "Best in Show," refused to call his work "mockumentaries," which is the term by which his films were often referred. He believed that the term "mock" was an unfair description of satire, because he was not making fun of his subjects, but joining them and bringing their spirit to the screen. If the films themselves are funny, it is not because the subjects are worthy of ridicule, but it is because the subjects take themselves more seriously than the audience does.

"Election" is one of my favorite films of all time, because writer/director Alexander Payne creates a satire here that pokes fun, but in such an assuredly loving manner that the entire audience shares the same soft spot for the film's characters. We laugh at them not because they represent broad caricatures or cartoonish representations of traditionally funny stereotypes, but because in almost all the scenes, they seem as real as can possibly be. The humor in this satire, like Guest's films, stems from watching the subjects take themselves seriously, but we believe in the sincerity and genuine feeling with which they conduct their actions or speak their words. It is not an easy trick to pull off.

The film stars Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, the culmination of every ruthless, amibitious overachiever that all of us who ever attended a public high school remember. She is running unopposed for the position of president of her school's student body because, in her mind and in the minds of the rest of her classmates, it is the next logical step in a high school career that has included every possible resume-bloater available. Tracy isn't disliked, but she is alienated by her own determination and sense of self-destiny.

Standing in her way is Mr. Jim McAllister, a popular and veteran teacher of history and civics, played by Matthew Broderick. Behind his smiles and voice-over claims of unfettered happiness, the sight of Tracy Flick barreling down the road of success greatly irks him. He recruits the "most popular kid in school" Paul Metzler, played by Chris Klein in his first ever acting role, to run against Tracy in the school election, hoping to topple what he believes an evil force that threatens humanity beyond the borders of Carver High School.

It is the seriousness with which this set of protagonist and antagonist (which character is which depends entirely upon which side you choose) take this school election that makes up the wonderful satirical tapestry of this film. Payne then proceeds to decorate it with snippets of mundane, mid-western suburban life (the film is set in a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska) that, contrasted with the hilarious surfacings of taboo but clearly extant elements (student-teacher affairs, infidelity, teenage raunchiness), make for a delightfully skewed satire that makes small jabs at familiar stereotypes without denying that they exist for a reason. Payne realizes that sometimes truth can be funnier on its own than when it is ridiculed.

One of my favorite moments in film is when Tracy first sees Paul Metzler's campaign table across the cafeteria. The camera zooms to her face and the soundtrack blares a harsh, strident banshee war cry. As the voices shriek behind her, we see the obsessive fury overtake her as her face changes into battle-mode. Witherspoon plays her go-getter role with the perfectionist touch of her character. She sees only greatness for herself, and everyone else in her life is either a stepping stone or an impediment. To be able to convey this without ever uttering a line that would hint at this is a remarkable feat. Klein also does the naive Paul character justice. In a painfully sweet scene, he walks into the voting booth and is suddenly conflicted about which name he should mark down for president. He just doesn't feel right voting for himself.

Because the angst and torment and ambition and tragedy all orbit around a high school election, the unraveling of the lives of some of the characters becomes more funny than sad. Tracy's obsessive behavior is only matched by Mr. McAllister's growing obsession with repressing his obsessions, until everything melts down in a climax that seems all too real with a following epilogue that is all too perfect. Who knew that the forces of good versus evil could place the balance of humanity in one high school election? Wait, does it sound like we're taking it too seriously? Well, I guess the film hits us right in the soft spot.


Charlotte Sometimes (2002)

"Charlotte Sometimes" is a surprising and unique romance that is perfectly suited for carrying the flag of independent video features. In 2002 the film was awarded the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, which is given to the best film made under $500,000. It's writer and director, Eric Byler, had been developing this story since the middle of the last decade, and his work and vision have resulted in a sparse, muted film that reveals insights into its characters slowly, but very surely.

The film stars Michael Idemoto as Michael, owner of his own garage who lives alone and rents out the house's extension to a beautiful young woman named Lori (Eugenia Yuan). At night, while he's reading or shuffling around, trying to ease his loneliness, he hears Lori and her boyfriend having rigorous sex. Sometimes he escapes to the watering hole nearby, but other times he pauses and listens. In one early scene, he puts his hand up against the wall that separates the two neighbors, and lingers there for a minute. Without saying a word, we see that he is in love with Lori.

"Charlotte Sometimes" is full of these scenes that communicate the characters' emotions without ever having them tell us. Michael is in pain, though he denies it, and it is not eased with the frequent visits from Lori after her boyfriend has gone to sleep. She often spends the night with Michael, watching TV and exhibiting a platonic, yet naively cruel love for her neighbor/landlord.

One day, she visits him at work and offers to set her up with a girl that she knows. He rejects her offer, telling her "I'm not afraid to be alone." Michael is shy and almost too reserved; he hardly speaks in this film, but Idemoto has enough character in his face to reveal his longing without uttering a word. That night, he meets a stranger at the bar. They take a walk, and soon they are back at his house, with sex as a possibility. The woman is named Darcy (Jacqueline Kim), and later we learn that she may be more than simply a stranger. She is mysterious and sexual and bewildering, telling Michael "Men don't want me. They just think they do." What's a guy supposed to do with that?

Byler uses the digital video medium well, giving his a film a "fly-on-the-wall" sense that is perfect for the grainy footage shot from strange angles; it's as if we're peeking from behind corners to watch Michael, Darcy, Lori and her boyfriend Justin (Matt Westmoreland) engage in relationship roulette. As the film nears its end, everyone is forced to confront what plagues them and be as honest as possible. Characters get hurt and do the hurting, and oftentimes the loneliest people are the ones who do most of the talking.

"Charlotte Sometimes" is challenging because it doesn't deliberately try to appeal to us, but instead requires us to see the simple beauty in every day characters. The pacing of the film is slow, but Byler leaves enough of the mundane details of these lives in here that we forgive the slowness in favor of the authenticity.

By the way, all the characters in the film are Asian-American, and though race is largely incidental to the narrative, many of the reviews I've read have lauded the film as in the spirit of Yasujiro Ozu, Ang Lee, and Wong Kar-Wai. When I see such things, I cannot help but feel annoyed; why does a film about Asians have to inevitably be compared to films by other Asians? Byler is a talented artist who echoes the visual skill of another rising filmmaker, David Gordon Green ("George Washington"), and the mysterious explorations of both simple and complicated relationships of Atom Egoyan ("Exotica").


My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

I'll say it straight out: "My Neighbor Totoro" is one of the best children's movies of all time. It is much more than that, though, and its spirit and tenderness had me smiling through most of the film. It was made by the Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki, whose later film "The Princess Mononoke" is one of the most creative films I have ever seen, period.

The story is about two sisters who move to the countryside with their father. Their mother is ill and is in the hospital a town away. The older sister Satsuki is friendly and loving of her younger sister, Mei, who is not old enough for school but wants to tag along with Satsuki anyway. Both are excited about moving into their new house in the country, and are even more delighted when they are convinced that their house is haunted.

Now, haunted is not a bad thing in this film, and in most of Miyazaki's work ghosts and spirits rarely hold evil intentions. Soon after moving in, Mei comes across a pair of little totoros, furry and adorable forest spirits who scamper away from the humans. After chasing them through a large tree trunk, she falls onto the belly of another Totoro, this one huge, who is napping and can't be bothered by the little human girl.

When Mei tells her father and her sister about the Totoro, neither of them disbelieve her, which would not have been the case with standard American animation. The one distinguishing feature of "Totoro" is that there are no villains: no impatient parents, schoolyard bullies, or nosy neighbors. In fact, athough there is some tension regarding her well-being, the mother's illness is not even central to the plot. The film is about the imagination of the two children and the magic in this world, and how the two can be intertwined to help sustain the love that people have for each other.

The huge Totoro is one of Miyazaki's cutest creations, the scene when he suddenly appears next to the girls as they wait for their father to come home is warm and induces long-lasting smiles. Satsuki offers the Totoro an extra umbrella; up to that point, the large creature had been using a small leaf to shield his huge body from the rain. The Totoro is just as innocent as his two new friends; his reaction to the raindrops tapping on top of his umbrella is a classic.

Miyazaki has only recently begun to use computers to augment his animation, and "Totoro," which was made in 1988 and is completely hand-drawn, is a sparkling combination of watercolor backgrounds with cute animation. Not only is the film great to look at, but its themes of family, nature, and the wonder of youth and innocence are sure to touch anyone who is still going through, or still remember, their childhood. This is not a film to be missed.

City of God (2002)

Now this is filmmaking for the 21st century. "City of God" is crammed full of energy, vitality, color, and a restless but devoted enthusiasm to its story and characters. This is the debut feature film for Fernando Meirelles, a successful director of commercials in Brazil. Commercial and music video directors have proven themselves masters of visual technique, but they are trained to capture and maintain the interest of the audience for short bursts at a time. Meirelles, along with co-director Katia Lund, manage to use virtuoso camerawork and editing to bring the film alive, rather than allow technique to overwhelm the story. I can't imagine anyone straying focus from this film for one second.

The City of God is an impoverished ghetto on the outskirts of Rio De Janiero. The film chronicles nearly two decades of development, introducing the City of God as a dumping ground by the government for poor migrants. At the end of the film, the area has become an autonomous war zone, with an intricate system of laws and rules dictated by the drug gangs that rule the town's inhabitants. We follow the story through the guidance of Rocket, who as a child watches his brother form a pioneer gang called the Tender Trio, who make a clumsy living by robbing gasoline trucks when not playing soccer in the dirt streets. Tagging along with the teenagers is Li'l Dice, who is small and disrespected, but a born bloodthirsty hood. It is Li'l Dice who comes up with the idea to rob the patrons of a local motel. When he is cast aside by the Tender Trio, the little boy portends his own future by upsetting the older boys' plans in a manic fashion.

Li'l Dice grows up to become Li'l Ze, the fearsome gang leader who wipes out his rivals in the City of God with swift ease. Along with his partner, the affable Benny, the hood that everyone likes, he instills a structure of law and rule that had been previously absent in the neglected neighborhood. Rocket, through a combination of his own passiveness and ineptitude, never quite gives himself in to the life of crime, although it is clear that in the City of God, there is often very little choice to turn to drug dealing and violence. Rocket is immersed in the world, losing his girl to Benny and his brother to Li'l Ze, but handcuffed to do anything about it; these are the guys that decide who lives and dies in his home.

The film is stacked with characters with colorful names that go along with their personalities. There are many humorous situations, as when Benny chases down another boy in a tense scene, only to ask him to go clothes-shopping for him. Meirelles never forgets the City of God, however, and adds horrifying moments that remind the audience of the frightening jungle of crime in which these characters live. One particularly disturbing scene has Li'l Ze initiating a new member by forcing him to choose between two cowering young children to kill. This, after asking a tearful boy, no older than 8 years old, whether he wants to be shot in the hand or in the foot.

Films that have such sobering subject matter can often impress with a minimum of cinematic flair; since the content is so dramatic in and of itself (see my review of "The Magdalene Sisters"). By using almost every trick in the book (split screens, non-linear narrative, jump cuts, flashbacks, flashforwards, stop-action), Meirelles' film goes beyond the realm of good presentation to fantastic movie-making. The film is visually great to look at, often very funny, and gives us characters in whom we involved ourselves. The terrible cycle of violence and crime is always in the foreground, however, and at the end of the film, when we see actual documentary footage of some of the characters we previously thought were fictionalized, we remember that people are still fighting wars in places like the City of God to this very day, and despite all the color and the characters and the visuals, the drama still comes from knowing that very fact.


American Splendor (2003)

The makers of "American Splendor," Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, do a brave thing: they put the character of Harvey Pekar, the protagonist, right alongside with the real-life Harvey Pekar. In fact, they go so far as to have the real Pekar narrate the movie about his own life, and at one point during the narration even comments "The guy playing me doesn't even look like me." The fact that the filmmakers are willing to break the illusion of reality that most other films strive for is a testament to the innovative storytelling in this sparkling film.

Pekar was a file clerk in Cleveland who began to write comic books about his own mundane life. He was fortunate to befriend Robert Crumb, the famed underground comic-book artist, who underwrote Pekar's artist by drawing the comic, ironically entitled "American Splendor." Later, Pekar became a frequent guest on the Letterman show. His marginal celebrity, however, never resulted in life-changing success. At the end of the film, we see the real-life Pekar and his friends celebrating his retirement…from the sale file-clerk position in Cleveland he held all his life.

The true beauty of the juxtaposition of real-life Pekar and movie Pekar, played with grumpy conviction by Paul Giamatti, is that it reveals the element of the "American Splendor" comic that its fans must have found the most appealing: brutal verisimilitude. The story is fascinating because, well, it's simply true. We know this because it's up there on screen. Giamatti's performance is so strange, and Hope Davis adds a unique stabilizing presence as Pekar's third wife, Joyce Brabner. Their lives are so uniquely "out there" that the movie works as a quirk-piece, except we so often cut to the real Pekar and the real Brabner, and we see that these characterizations aren't embellishments at all.

Berman and Pulcini, who adapted the film from Pekar's comic books and his collaboration with Brabner called "Our Cancer Year," use visuals that meet the creative bar set by Pekar's own life. They let Pekar roam free with his narrative, layering it over episodes of Pekar's life that have Giamatti convincing the audience that, yes, Pekar is a person that would actually do this or say that. The filmmakers also reach into their bag of tricks and incorporate comic book stills and animation as the film's chorus. We therefore are able to see the real Pekar, Giamatti's Pekar, and the Pekar's incarnation into the comic book world that made him famous.

I love it when a film has to remind me that it's a film, because it means that I've become so completely engrossed with the story portrayed on screen. Pekar, Brabner, and his cast of co-workers and friends that do the landscape of "American Splendor" the comic book also illuminate onscreen. This is one of the most creative and unique films I have seen in a long time.


Owning Mahowny (2003)

Richard Kwietniowski's "Owning Mahowny" is an unfiltered, unglazed portrait of the very un-sexy life of a compulsive gambler. It is based on the true story of Dan Mawhony, a banking executive who swindled his own bank out of millions of dollars to fund his gambling addiction.

Mahowny is played with precision by the brilliantly unglamorous Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who has made a career out of portraying sad-sack losers and characters uncomfortable in their own skin. In Dan Mahowny, he has created a picture of a loser who not does not acknowledge his serious problem, but doesn't really care if others think he's a loser. He only cares about the thrill of betting, and through the process alienates his fiancé Belinda (Minnie Driver), throws himself into a life of criminal embezzlement, and even begins to scare his bookie, who at the beginning of the film refuses to take Mahowny's bets.

The film works because it doesn't focus on the pursuit of Mahowny by Canadian law enforcement; it doesn't care too much about his repentance. Instead, it's a study of the mechanisms of the gambling addict. Their behavior is a pattern that is noticed by the slick Victor Foss, owner of the Atlantic City casino that is Mahowny's second home in the film. Foss is intrigued by the appearance of this high-stakes gambler, who shuns the perks and luxuries showered upon him by the casino and chooses instead to grind away on the casino floor, expressionless and unmoving. Foss is a true predator. He's seen all kinds of gamblers, but when he realizes that in Mahowny, he has a pure gambling addict who lives to win money just so he can lose it again, he laughs with glee, like the experience big-game fisherman who has just caught a prize trout.

Hoffman is one of the best character actors today, and his performance is ripe with textured subtlety. When winning, Mahowny is calm and cheerful, but still focused. When losing, his panic and disappointment ooze from his pores instead of leap from his stomach, which is how a regular gambler might react to losing thousands of dollars in one sitting. In one particularly resonant scene, Mawhowny hands over a chunk of his blackjack winnings, most likely his initial stake, to his friend and tells him not to give it back to him at all costs. Of course, we see this fail, when Mahowny returns and demands the money back. This is a familiar ritual with gambling addicts; they futilely put in controls to limit their losses, only to give in to the rush and look for ways to continue playing at all costs.

A film like this is interesting because it is a tragedy that gives us no villains to root against and no heroes to root for. Like Belinda, we hope that Mahowny can free himself from his addiction, but know all too well that he won't be able to, and watch with morbid fascination as he continues to spiral downwards. The film is worth watching for Hoffman's controlled performance and the sadistic voyeurism we share with Foss while watching a man succumb to his demons without putting up much of a fight.