Monday, March 30, 2009

Sophie's Choice

Sophie's Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982) (home) Sophie's Choice holds a prominent place in my memory, as the novel was always laying around the house when I was a child, and I often heard my mother express her admiration of the film. I finally sat down with the movie the other week, and was left in awe for days following - I believe that Sophie's Choice could be close to being a perfect film.

Sophie's Choice tells the stories of Stingo (a VERY young Peter McNichol), an ambitious southerner recently moved to New York to follow his dream of becoming a great author, and two eccentric housemates who befriend him: Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep), a polish immigrant and survivor of Auschwitz, and Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline), a flamboyant provocateur who slowly loses his sanity as the narrative unfolds.

The real core of the film, however, is Sophie's experiences under the Nazi occupation of Poland in WWII, as told in flashbacks that punctuate the modern drama. This slow and measured retelling of her past life adds depths to the wisp of a character that Sophie is in modern New York - indeed, the modern Sophie is almost numb, bringing nothing to the table but ethereal beauty and a channel for Nathan's eccentric fancies and brutal tempers.

It is in her recollections that we learn what stripped Sophie to this vapour of a person, leaving her less than half a spirit in need of someone else's passion, someone else's desire, someone else's joie de vivre to animate her. And these recollections lead ultimately to the single choice that made her what she is today - and that shocked me to silence and stillness.

Beauty to be Told
One would think that the story of a shell of a woman recounting her memories of the holocaust and living vicariously through a madman would be pretty depressing fare, but this is far from the case. Sophie's Choice bubbles with simple joys of the moment as Stingo, Sophie, and Nathan indulge their every imaginative whim on the wings of childlike spirits mixed with copious quantities of wine.

This childlike innocence imbues Sophie because it is all that her wartime experiences left her with, Nathan because of his madness, and Stingo because he is but a child, first venturing out into the world to test a dream that has yet to be seriously challenged. The innocence also innoculates the story, serving as antidote to the pain and suffering recounted in its backstory.

A compelling, emotionally mature story, characters that you want to be real, and Meryl Streep - beautiful beyond compare - are engaging and affecting. Viewing Sophie's Choice is an incredibly intimate experience that touches you somewhere deep inside and glows and grows inside you long after the credits have rolled.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Charlie Bartlett

Underestimated, Overlooked
Charlie Bartlett (Jon Poll, 2008) (home) Critics don't make movie decisions for me, but a good one can help me narrow my options. Thus, when Bob Mondello of National Public Radio listed Charlie Bartlett as one of the Neglected Films of 2008 Still Worth Watching, I paid attention and was rewarded.

Starring Robert Downey Junior and Anton Yelchin, who seems to have played bit parts on every major TV drama but is only now moving into film, Charlie Bartlett tells the story of a super-rich youth who has been kicked out of every private school available for running entrepreneurial scams that unnecessarily line his pockets and - more importantly - give him a thrill.

When his over-medicated and far-from-nurturing mother finally reaches her last straw, Charlie is dispatched to public school - wisely eschewing the limo in favor of the bus, but seemingly oblivious to the equally voluble statement made by his crested dinner jacket.

What follows is a mix of standard high-school movie plots following an arc from bullied and ridiculed outsider/geek to beloved school hero/rebel dating the Principal's attractive daughter and prescribing psycho-active medications to fellow students in ad hoc therapy sessions held "confession style" in adjacent bathroom stalls.


You see, Charlie Bartlett is strictly American Pie in many senses - but it is the really funny and good-natured 1999 original, well-baked pie rather than the numerous half-baked sequel pies that followed. However, in the place of American Pie's single-minded obsession with all jokes adolescent and sexual, Charlie Barlett is also a refreshing and funny take on standard fish-out-of-water fare - a feat accomplished largely by Yelchin's strong performance, as he really captures and conveys the "I don't know who I am" feeling that being a teenager is all about.

What Charlie Bartlett ends up being is absolutely hilarious and heart-warming. We care about Charlie because we never resent his riches, we understand his motives, we see that the adults around him have little more idea of who they are than he does, and we never fail to appreciate that he is ultimately a good guy who will make the right decisions.

No Coins Please
To shift frames of reference a little, what Charlie Bartlett reminded me of most was the work of young-adult Canadian lit author Gordon Korman. Those who read Korman in their younger days will recognize a bit of Artie Shaw from one of my favorites, No Coins Please.

Charlie Bartlett, like much of Korman's earlier work (not having read his later outings), is a variety of pure, innocent pleasure that leaves you smiling and feeling good about the world without the "I just ate too much sugar" sick-to-the-stomach hangover that feel-good films can induce - Charlie Bartlett has an edge, and it should not be overlooked.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I first read the graphic novel of Watchmen in the early 90s, when a large part of my life revolved around comic books. I came to funny books a little late in life, and it was publications like Watchmen that sucked me in - it, and series like Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, were being written for a more mature audience that would understand how the complexity of Bruce Wayne's life as the Batman could lead him to face challenges such as an addiction to performance enhancing drugs and would appreciate what that pollutant of the body could do to his mind.

These were not the perky shenanigans of Archie, Jughead, and the crew - after all, Betty and/or Veronica never got pregnant, Reggie was not the deadbeat father of a legion, and I do not recall Moose being imprisoned for assault.

The worlds that drew me into the comicverse were dark, moody explorations of conflicted characters who inhabited gritty realities in which right and wrong were divided by a murky and ill-defined line. Morality was relative at best. And they were illustrated in matching style, depicting worlds of shadows and fear that needed heroes - and heroes that were often uncertain whether they could or should meet this need.

From the Page to the Screen
The movies that have been made from these comic books have rarely captured this murky atmosphere or cared to delve into the twisted minds of the heroes/villains that inhabit them. There are exceptions, of course, in the form of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman and the franchise's two most recent outing, Batman Begins, based on Frank Miller's seminal "Year 1" (Batman 404-407), and the weaker but more politically/socially pointed The Dark Knight.

Other good adaptations abound, I am sure, but the Batman franchise sticks out in my mind because it is the comic book series that was nearest and dearest to my heart.

Perhaps needless to say, I had been anticipating the film version of Watchmen for some time, hoping against hope that I could add it to this list.

Who Watches the Watchmen
Watchmen (Zack Snider, 2009) (IMAX) A lot of fans of the graphic novel are watching Watchmen, that's who, and I think that for them - like myself - it is a rewarding experience. The movie is faithful to the graphic novel to the point of recreating exact panels from the pages (something that the better Batman movies have also benefited from, if in a less methodical manner), even to the point of limiting camera pans so as to frame each scene as if it were a cell on a page.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that Watchmen is faithful to the mood and ambiance of the alternative reality against which the narrative unfolds: a 1980s America where Nixon is serving his 5th term, there are rumours that an actor named Reagan may run for office, the world sits precariously on the brink of thermo-nuclear war, and costumed heroes have been outlawed.

It is a gritty, dismal reality in which signs of riches or privilege come off as brassy and cheap - tarnished by an aura of corruption and sleaze. Rorschach, the one hero who remains active, is our window into this world, and surely his twisted internal darkness lends to the oppressive feeling that imbues the setting.

Most of these heroes - which is one of the most intriguing aspect of the story for me - are regular men and women who have faded back into more-or-less regular lives. These are human beings that rose above their all-to-human weaknesses - fears and traumas - to become something more than mere man - like the Batman, they do not have superpowers, but via dedication and determination overcame their demons and kept themselves physically up to the challenge of fighting evil.

The only exception to this is Dr. Manhattan, a man who was turned iridescent blue and gained the power to manipulate matter at the atomic level through the standard scientific-experiment-gone-wrong. Interestingly, Dr. Manhattan is as tortured a character as any of his less superhuman compatriots, and spends much of the movie musing on whether or not he is still human and what - if anything - is his tie to the planet earth and the human race that he was born into.

I don't want to get into the minutiae of the story, as I do not want to risk spoilers for any who have not seen the film/read the book - also, the story itself is so complex and multi-textured that I feel a quick synopsis would quickly swell to fill the available space (which is how much exactly on the interweb?). However, I do want to emphasize that this is a story - and film - of questions.
  • Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
  • Are vigilantes and their personal crusades a ray of light in the darkness or a menace to society?
  • Can large for-profit corporations work for the common weal, or does their very nature render all such efforts self-serving?
Thus, I highly recommend that Watchmen neophytes sit down with the newly reprinted graphic novel and enjoy the delicious pleasure of reading a comic book when you obviously have "better" things to do ;) For the reaction of a first time reader, head over to Bookphilia to check out Dreamqueen's thoughts.

This recommendation brings to light the key problem with Watchmen. I really enjoyed the film, loving the already oft-alluded to ambiance of the reality presented. However, seeing as the original comic tale spans generations, continents, and even planets, it is a tall order to reproduce it faithfully on the screen. I am certain that many newcomers to the story are left more than slightly bewildered by the amount of information that they are called upon to synthesize - indeed, at the two-hour point of this almost-three-hour saga we are still learning back story that is essential to understanding the movie.

Thus, the main weakness of this film is its fidelity, its unwillingness to compromise on the smallest detail of the story - not that I care to imagine what would have been left out if the director had had to choose.

High Fidelity
Which raises an interesting issue that dogs many a film adapted from a novel: how much artistic license can be taken with the source material? Bad choices seem to greatly outweigh good in this area, with the original Harry Potter coming to mind as a stilted, slow, overly pedantic retelling of the facts of the book that did not offer anything new on screen.

At the other end of the spectrum sits a film like About a Boy. I just finished reading the book last night, and was shocked at how different the ending of the brilliant film is from that of the book - but how appropriate and true to the spirit of the story the film version is.

Watchmen is at the Harry Potter end of the spectrum for fidelity, but achieves the superhero feat of simultaneously occupying the About a Boy end for the initiated among its viewers. Read the graphic novel and I guarantee a good read - but I can't guarantee the same enjoyment of the film, I can only share my enjoyment of it.