Monthly Archives: July 2004

Garden State (2004)

Zack Braff is best known to most as the lead doc on NBC’’s hilarious Scrubs. He has razor-sharp comic timing, a goofy charisma, and a deft gift for physical comedy. So who knew that behind those bushy eyebrows and bushier hair was an aspiring writer/director? Furthermore, who would have known that there was such a talented writer/director? Garden State, Braff’’s ode to his home, boasts a big name cast, deafening buzz, and perhaps, the first great steps outward for a new Hollywood voice.

Andrew “Large” Largeman (Braff) is an out-of-work actor living in an anti-depressant haze in LA. He heads back to his old stomping grounds in New Jersey when he learns that his mother has recently died. Andrew has to reface his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm), the source of his guilt and prescribed numbness. He has forgotten his lithium for his trip, and the consequences allow Andrew to begin to awaken as a human being once more. He meets old friends, including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who now digs graves for a living and robs them when he can. He parties at the mansion of a friend made rich by the invention of “silent Velcro.” Things really get moving when Andrew meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a free spirit who has trouble telling the truth and staying still. Their budding relationship coalesces with Andrew’s re-connection to friends, family, and the joys life can offer.

Braff has a natural director’s eye for visuals and how to properly use them to convey his character’s feelings. A scene where Andrew wears a shirt and blends into the wall is a perfect visual note on the character’s sleep-walk through life. Braff’’s writing is also familiar but satisfyingly unusual, like a repackaging of old stories told with a confident voice. His characters are interesting and memorable, but don’t feel uselessly quirky, unlike the creations of other first time indie writers. The melancholy coming-out of Andrew from disconnected schlub to post-pharmaceutical hero really grabs the audience and gives them a rooting point. At times, though, it seems as though Braff may be caught up trying to craft a movie that speaks to a generation, and some will see Garden State as a generation’’s voice of a yearning to feel connected.

Braff deserves a medal for finally coaxing out the actress in Portman. She herself has looked like an overly medicated, numb being in several of her recent films (Star Wars prequels, I’m looking in your direction), but with her plucky, whimsical role in Garden State, Portman proves that her career’s acting apex wasn’’t in 1994’’s The Professional, when she was 12. Her winsome performance gives Garden State its spark, and the sincere romance between Sam and Andrew gives it its heart.

Sarsgaard is fast becoming one of the best young character actors out there. After solid efforts in Boys Don’’t Cry and Shattered Glass, he shines as a course but affectionate grave robber that serves as Andrew’s motivational elbow-in-the-ribs. Only the great Holm seems to disappoint with a rare stilted and vacant performance. This can be mostly blamed on Braff’’s underdevelopment of the father role. Even Method Man pops up in a very amusing cameo.

The humor in Garden State truly blossoms. There are several outrageous moments and wonderfully peculiar characters, but their interaction and friction are what provide the biggest laughs. So while Braff may shoehorn in a frisky seeing-eye canine, a knight of the breakfast table, and a keeper of an ark, the audience gets its real chuckles from the characters and not the bizarre scenarios. Garden State has several wonderfully hilarious moments, and its sharp sense of humor directly attributes to its high entertainment value. The film also has some insightful looks at family life, guilt, romance, human connection, and acceptance. Garden State can cut close like a surgeon but it’s the surprisingly elegant tenderness that will resonate most with a crowd.

Braff’’s film has a careful selection of low-key, highly emotional tunes by artists like The Shins, Coldplay, Zero 7, and Paul Simon. The closing song, the airy “Let Go” by Frou Frou, has been a staple on my play list after I heard it used in the commercials.

Garden State is not a flawless first entry for Braff. It really is more a string of amusing anecdotes than an actual plot. The film’’s aloof charm seems to be intended to cover over the cracks in its narrative. Braff’’s film never ceases to be amusing, and it does have a warm likeability to it; nevertheless, it also loses some of its visual and emotional insights by the second half. Braff spends too much time on less essential moments, like the all-day trip by Mark that ends in a heavy-handed metaphor with an abyss. The emotional confrontation between father and son feels more like a baby step than a climax. Braff’’s characters also talk in a manner that less resembles reality and more resembles snappy, glib movie dialogue. It’’s still fun and often funny, but the characters speak more like they’’ve been saving up witty one-liners just for the occasion.

Garden State is a movie that’s richly comic, sweetly post-adolescent, and defiantly different. Braff reveals himself to be a talent both behind the camera and in front of it, and possesses an every-man quality of humility, observation, and warmth that could soon shoot him to Hollywood’’s A-list. His film will speak to many, and its message about experiencing life’s pleasures and pains, as long as you are experiencing life, is uplifting enough that you may leave the theater floating on air. Garden State is a breezy, heartwarming look at New York’’s armpit and the spirited inhabitants that call it home. Braff delivers a blast of fresh air during the summer blahs.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Door in the Floor (2004)

John Irving is one of the most accomplished and popular fiction writers of our times. His pulpy, unconventional, and compassionate novels have translated into many films with varying degrees of quality (World According to Garp, good; Cider House Rules, okay; Simon Birch, dreadful). The Door in the Floor is an adaptation of his novel, A Widow for One Year, but it only adapts the first third of the novel. This time around will the absence of quantity directly shape the quality of an Irving adaptation?

The plot for The Door in the Floor almost sounds like something you’’d see late at night on Cinemax. Eddie (Jon Foster) is a teenager learning what it takes to be a writer. He becomes an assistant to Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), a giant in the world of children’s literature but a playboy at home. Eddie spends the summer at Ted’’s quaint cottage and is instantly smitten with Ted’’s estranged wife, Marion (Kim Basinger). Their’s has been a loveless marriage ever since a tragic accident killed their two sons. Both are handling the grief in their own ways. Ted has become bitter and takes his anger out on his manipulation of other women, notably a neighbor (Mimi Rogers) who poses nude for his paintings. Marion has become insular and turns into a stone whenever the accident is mentioned.

Eddie tires of his glorified chauffeuring duties for Ted and his mistress. He spends his lonely days fantasizing about Marion, including masturbating to the image of her clothes. When Marion accidentally stumbles into this embarrassing situation, she not only calmly apologizes but lays out additional pairs of clothing for Eddie to get his kink. This opens the door for Eddie to engage his fantasy, and embark on a deflowering tryst with Marion. Ted’’s reaction isn’’t one of anger or resentment but more of a “job well done.” It is around this time when we realize that Eddie looks remarkably like her two lost sons.

The film’’s best moments are not the colorless, tepid tryst between Eddie and Marion, or the broader comic moments with Ted’s assault on tact; oh no, the best moments are when anyone onscreen shares time with Ruth (Elle Fanning), Ted and Marion’s precocious 4-year-old daughter. She’’s a tad demanding, like insisting to know where every picture of her family remains, but comes across as adorable without stepping over into cloying. Her interaction with Bridges is wonderful, her wide-eyed questioning is sweet, and her acting is much more authentic than her sister, the more seasoned Dakota Fanning (Man on Fire). Hopefully the Fanning family has learned some do’s and don’ts from the Culkin family.

Bridges’ performance is amazing. He bares more than just his backside in this film. The role of Ted is very meaty, and Bridges’ is the perfect actor to sink his teeth right into it. Bridges is alarmingly coy, blending a disarmingly comic roly-poly ability, as well as a brooding, stinging anger barely masked by ego and affability. I cannot imagine anyone else stepping into Ted’’s shoes and delivering a better performance. Bridges’’ tortured and droll work may be Oscar material.

Basinger’’s performance is equally amazing. Amazingly bad, that is. Her character is supposed to be shattered by the loss of her sons, but Basinger plays the role so heavily intoxicated by grief that Marion becomes nothing more than a walking ghost. She’’s so zombie-like for the entire film, that her performance could be rivaled by a coma patient. For some reason unbeknownst to me, ever since winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1997, Basinger has yet to follow with a really good performance.

The Door in the Floor is Jon Foster’’s real big break as a young actor. His previous roles amount to little, including Kevin Costner’’s son in 13 Days and the vitally integral Gas Station Cashier in Terminator 3. Some awkwardness is apparent in his rise to larger material, but Foster’s apprehension serves his character best, like a dinner scene between him and Marion where he tells a bad joke to break the ice. Foster’’s performance is a bit bland, but that’’s because his character is more of a transparent adolescent fantasy.

Poor Mimi Rogers, a.k.a. Mrs. Tom Cruise Number One. She’’s a capable actress, and a fine-looking woman, but she’’s been given such a small one-note character that it seems almost exploitative that such a well-known actress spends the majority of her time with her robe around her ankles. A late scene involving her violent hysteria at being dumped by Ted and it is meant to be comic but it seems more like a fizzy tantrum. All this and she gets the dubious notoriety of having a drawing of the most sensitive part of her anatomy projected in glorious widescreen.

By now an audience is more or less used to Irving’s mix of slapstick and grief, of pathos and situational humor. The Door in the Floor follows this tried-and-true recipe and provides a healthy amount of entertainment for an audience. It can effectively make an audience laugh and supply knots in their throat at separate turns; however, in the harsh light of day, if you strip away at The Door in the Floor you’’ll find that most every character is self-involved, curt, closed off, and just plain unlikable. Ted is a jerk. Marion is a zombie, and not so great a mother. Eddie is bland. The only real character worthy of empathy is Ruth.

Now, movies don’t necessarily all have to have likable characters, and in fact some of the most interesting and memorable characters are unlikable, but for a family melodrama it’s important to feel for their grief instead of feeling their grief. If you can’t feel for the characters then you’re just watching without any baited interest. Many films can make you feel bad by watching someone on hard times, but it’s a true accomplishment if you feel the character’s personal pains (and somehow the films of Lars von Trier accomplish both). There’s little investment beyond the surface level of amusement. So, The Door in the Floor is amusing,but it struggles to be anything beyond because of the limitations of its characters. For some, a movie that provides surface-level amusement from polished actors is good enough, and in some instances I’d agree.

Director Tod Williams (The Adventures of Sebastian Cole) also served as the adapter of Irving’s dense work. Williams knows a thing or two about family melodrama and the denial of guilt, and he keeps the pacing brisk and the laughs at an even pace. Williams’’ best decisions are on the small visual notes he hangs on, like a stunning, visually alluring final image. The story is a bit uneven in tone, thanks to Irving’’s eccentric source, but Williams saves his narrative whammy for the very end, and Bridges brilliantly delivers the backstory we’’ve been holding our breath for.

The Door in the Floor is a solid, if surface-level enterprise in the exploration of guilt and mourning in a family setting. Bridges gives an amazing and memorable performance that helps make you forget about the rest of the film’s somewhat lackluster acting. Fans of Irving’’s works will likely be taken back in pleasure, and fans of adult melodrama will not likely walk out disappointed. The Door in the Floor has glimpses of something more but settles for being a well-acted, nondescript affair.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Before Sunset (2004)

Richard Linklater knows a thing or two about the poetry of language. Few can write conversations better than him, and with Before Sunset, the sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise, we witness an entire film built around one couple’s conversation. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke return as older, wiser versions of their Sunrise characters. They stroll around the avenues of Paris chatting away so casually, so beautifully that it’s like birds chirping. Linklater and his actors have forged a romance through a romance of language, and an audience can’t help but be smitten. Before Sunset will not be for everyone because it is as advertised: 80 minutes of people talking uninterrupted (it put a friend of mine to sleep when we watched it), but for those people that enjoy sumptuous conversation, Before Sunset will cast a spell on you.

Nate’s Grade: A

I, Robot (2004)

No doubt about it, Will Smith is the best hope our planet has in the face of adversity. He’s taken down aliens three times, foiled one conspiracy, stopped the South from rising again, and the man still finds the time to help Matt Damon with his golf swing. I fear we almost may be taking Smith’s world-saving exploits for granted. Smith’s newest chance to save the world arrives in I, Robot. Can Big Willie save the world yet again, or has he punched his time card one too many times?

In 2035, man has a new class of immigrants to do all the menial tasks no one wants to do – robots that look like crash test dummies. U.S. Robotics (USR) wants to push their new fall line of robots and make sure every happy home has a happy robot. Del Spooner (Will Smith) is a detective wary of our robotic friends. His colleagues laugh at his paranoia, remarking that no robot has ever committed a crime. This is thanks to the three laws hard-wired into every robot: 1) A robot cannot harm a human being, 2) A robot must obey a human beings order as long as it does not conflict with Law #1, and 3) A robot can do whatever to survive as long as this does not conflict with the other laws.

This sounds great, except the robot creator (James Cromwell, always there if you need an old guy role) has apparently plummeted to his death from his USR office and the circumstances involving his demise are dubious at best. Spooner works alongside a robot technician/shrink (Bridget Moynahan) to find out more about what exactly is going on within USR and its suspicious CEO (the always shady Bruce Greenwood). Spooner discovers that a robot, who wishes to go by the name of Sonny, may have sent his creator to his death and may also be the first step toward uncovering the truth behind a grim conspiracy.

Smith has never really been a great actor but he is likable and charming enough, so that gets him through the day. The problem is that when he’s saving the world in summer blockbusters he has a tendency to go into Will Smith Mode, which plays out like he’s on auto-pilot. His stares, awkward mannerisms and “aw shucks” humor seem to be the same in every film. This isn’’t to say that Smith cannot be a capable actor, but it seems that when a movie’s budget goes over a certain amount he resorts to playing Will Smith: World Saver and not so much a character of real value.

The other actors are more so playing vague archetypes than they are anything else. Greenwood is the sneaky, oily executive; Moynahan is the cold scientist learning how to be human once more; the invaluable Chi McBride is the no-nonsense police chief who rolls his eyes at Spooner’s crazy theories; and Shia LeBeof actually shows up for all of three minutes playing some kind of juvenile delinquent that is wholly unnecessary to the film.

The movie’’s greatest accomplishment is the character of Sonny, modeled after a physical performance by actor Alan Tudyk. Sonny’s calm line readings, bursts of emotion, and questions on humanity make him a character the audience connects with, especially with the detached nature of Smith and Moynahan’’s acting. Bet you never would have guessed this is from the same guy who played Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball.

I, Robot isn’’t exactly going to establish new ground in the world of science fiction. It’s mostly a detective story with some twinges of sci-fi philosophy. As a detective story it adheres to the laws of detective movies, like how NO ONE ever believes the hero on his hypothetical assumptions and paranoia, which will of course always be right, and how the hero can only solve the case after he is thrown off it and gives up his badge. For two thirds of I, Robot we get an amiable, if average, detective story set in the future. Then we get a slightly incoherent final act where robots go all-out crazy.

Director Alex Proyas takes a step back from the grim, noir-ish worlds he worked with so effectively in The Crow and Dark City, and presents a cleaner and more sterilized world. His technical elements, like cinematography and musical score, are still well above par for the summer blockbuster. Proyas is a gifted visual tactician that knows how to wow an audience.

The sleek production design, fancy special effects, and strong visionary directing help lift an average story. Some of the story elements may not all work -like Spooner’’s flimsy reason he hates all robots, and Moynahan’’s character being very cold because she works around robots (get it? get it?)- but the professionalism of the people behind the scenes help make a rather exciting and occasionally thoughtful movie. Sonny’’s questions about life and death as he’s near termination are a nice addition to add something more to a summer blockbuster than explosions and car chases. Of course I, Robot also has some exciting car chases and action sequences. Certainly other, better sci-fi movies have dealt with these issues much deeper, and I, Robot seems to only skim the surface of intellectual debate, but at least it’s something (though this sounds really defeatist).

Bearing little resemblance to Asimov’s collection of short stories, I, Robot is more a stream-lined sci-fi action flick, but it’s still a satisfying and stylishly entertaining diversion. Sci-fi fans may grumble at the notion of transforming a complex novel into a watered down action film, but I, Robot is a crowd pleaser that delivers the thrills when it needs to. If Will Smith keeps up this world saving pace he may get a little haggard and start turning into Danny Glover’’s Lethal Weapon character: “I’’m getting too old for this aliens/robots/other aliens/more aliens/giant mechanical spiders shit.” Well, at least Smith’’s good at it.

Nate’s Grade: B

%d bloggers like this: