Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is unlike any other first time director’s film, but then it’s unlike any other film in existence, period.
The noted screenwriter of such modern day masterpieces as BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND now is presenting us with an epic construction in which art imitates life and life imitates art in such a spellbinding manner that they become entangled so that one isn’t sure if it’s art or life’s parts flailing on the screen in front of them.
Attempting to describe the plot may be futile, but I’ll still have a go – Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Cayden Cotard, a playwright in a loveless marriage to an aspiring abstract painter Adele (Catherine Keener). Keener leaves with their daughter to conquer the German art community forcing Hoffman to deal head on with his loneliness and various sicknesses yet he is still inspired with the aid of a large grant to mount what he calls “a massive theater piece.”
Tormented but not creatively constipated, Hoffman assembles a cast and crew in a large warehouse in Manhattan’s theater district to set about building a vast replica of the city outside. Every actor is given notes on their individual scenarios because as Hoffman relates: “None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”
Dealing with the women in his life alongside his literally towering ambitions is just as tangled as he clumsily courts Samantha Morton as an eager assistant, Michelle Williams as a devoted thespian, a self-help book plugging therapist (Hope Davis), and Diane Wiest as an actress who oddly takes over Hoffman’s role of a director not long after he tells her she is weirdly close to what he visualized for the character. “Glad to be weirdly close” she responds.
Tom Noonan, who can be seen in the background following Hoffman throughout the first half of the film, is hired though he has no acting or theater experience. His experience is in knowing everything there is to know about Hoffman including the address of his ex-wife and he even takes up with Morton. Morton has her own theatrical double in the form of Emily Watson who is neatly attired (and nearly indistinguishable) as a Morton clone.
Hoffman takes up with Watson, albeit briefly, but these relationship mechanics hardly define or dominate; they are restless and surprisingly realistic elements that wind in and out of this colossal collage. Though there are many funny moments, the tone is not intensely comical but there is the case of Morton’s house that is on fire and burns for years - echoing the successful surreal tangents of Kaufman’s earlier work.
As layered and multi-leveled as the mock city that Hoffman creates, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is a mind bogglingly beautiful film. It isn’t concerned with notions of time (years pass with no convenient “six months later” or “a year later” titles), there are no pat emotional resolutions, and there is no big climatic reveal of the massive production to provide a soothing finish. What it does provide is ideas – themes on top of themes with implications and allusions to ponder over for years.
At many pivotal points Hoffman, struck by revelation, states “I know how to do the play now” and he and the film take us one step further into the blurring of oblivion. Kaufman has already blown moviegoers synapses with his fantastical tangents but this time he goes places many accomplished film makers would never even think of venturing.
It’s extremely exhilarating that he’s discovered on a grand scale that there’s no need for films to have designated integrated dream sequences; the films themselves are dreams. For his first effort as director to be as incredibly challenging as it is powerfully pleasurable will certainly kick off an extraordinary career of craft.
As yet another troubling frustrating female in our desperate protagonist’s life, Jennifer Jason Leigh says: “It’s all about your artistic satisfaction”. She says it with an air of smug condescension but she’s right, though in the end SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is all about everybody’s artistic satisfaction as well.
I was tagged by Ibetolis from the great blog Film For The Soul to take part in the Alphabet Meme that has been going around started by Fletch at Blog Cabbins. The basic idea is pretty self explanatory but rules are below anyways.
Ais forABOUT SCHMIDT(Dir. Alexander Payne, 2002) Just watched it again a few days ago and still love every second. A career best for Jack Nicholson. Bis forBARFLY(Dir. Barbet Schroeder. 1987)
Nis forNETWORK(Dir. Sydney Lumet, 1976) “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it!” - Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) Guess I'm all about the powerful cameo speeches, huh?
Wis forWAKING LIFE(Dir. Richard Linklater, 2001)Xis forX-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE(Dir. Rob Bowman, 1998) Actually this is far from one of my favorite movies, but as X movies go I like it better than X-MEN and XXX.
Z is forZOOLANDER(Dir. Ben Stiller, 2001)
That's right. Take that ZELIG!
Now here are the rules for this “Alphabet Meme”:
1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet. 2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of a film's title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don't know of any films with those titles. 3.Return of the Jedi belongs under "R," not "S" as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Wars trilogy; all that followed start with "S." Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs under "R," not "I" as in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all films in the Lord Of The Rings series belong under "L" and all films in the Chronicles of Narnia series belong under "C," as that's what those filmmakers called their films from the start. In other words, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgement to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned. 4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under "T." 5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type "alphabet meme" into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google. 6. If you're selected, you have to then select 5 more people.
I liked but did not love CASINO ROYALE – the 007 reboot debut of the robust Daniel Craig but I was way in the minority, mind you. Folks who never cared for a James Bond movie before, and many who had never seen one before as well, fell head over heels for the intensity of the lead man, the non-stop action set pieces, and the emotional realism that many thought the series would never have.
Craig proved himself as a Bond with a difference; one that really bleeds with a powerful palpable anger bottled inside to form a fierce focus. He’s never in need of a gimmicky gadget to save him or a clever quip to break the tension. More BOURNE than Bond some critics claimed, but this was still a preferable approach to the dated fading status of the superspy.
Helmed by a different director (Marc Forster who has never directed an action film and man does it show) QUANTUM OF SOLACE picks up where CASINO ROYALE left off with Bond in revenge mode chasing down the killers of slain lover Vesper Lynd. His adventure begins with wretchedly cut and ferociously un-involving pre-credits car chase which unfortunately sets the standard for the entire episode.
We follow Bond, who is still into running and jumping from rooftop to rooftop, from one locale to the next- Haiti, Bolivia, Austria (you gotta have globe trotting) as he kills government traitors and fights to bring down the ginormous terrorist organization Quantum, which is the only connection to the odd title (yes, I know it’s taken from a Ian Fleming short story and that with Bond titles don’t matter).
That’s the best I can do with the plot or lack of it. Hard to make that a matter of much criticism when even the best Bond films have had thin narratives but when I didn’t care what the significance of a particular character was or what exactly was happening it’s hard to overlook.
Craig’s performance is the saving grace of this tangled tortured mess of a movie. He has perfected his unique take on the iconic character and has a scorching presence that often helps this material rise above its turgid trappings. It also helps that there’s a strong cast on the sidelines – the always appealing Judi Dench returns as M, Jeffrey Wright again plays Bond’s CIA ally Felix Leiter, and Olga Kurylenko does the best she can with her role as Bond’s requisite love interest Camille.
The elements of sex and humor that I found largely lacking in the previous film are also absent here but what’s worse is that this exercise is sadly sans both style and substance. QUANTUM OF SOLACE is a failed follow-up to what I realize much more than before was one of the strongest entries of the Bond canon. CASINO ROYALE didn’t just think outside the box, it ripped the box to shreds and discarded the remains to build its own new box. That the new box is already rotting and needs to be replaced is a shame, but we know James Bond has overcome bigger obstacles and will resiliently return regardless.
And now, for the bloggosphere geek record, and because I feel many of my fellow film bloggers and readers haven’t grown up with 007 like I have, here’s my favorite films featuring the original international man of mystery:
Film Babble Blog’s Top Ten Best Of Bond
1.FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE(Dir.Terence Young, 1963) Despite the heavily derived from Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST helicopter chase sequence, the fight scenes, and the now obligatory boat chase this is more of a straight thriller laced with romance than the expected high octane action ilk and that’s how I like Bond best. Sean Connery’s second performance as 007 captures him in suave stride as he romances a Russian agent (Daniela Bianchi) while battling SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). Filled with finesse from the first frame to the last and still as sharp today as Rosa Clebb’s poisoned shoe spike was back in the Kennedy Camelot era.
2.GOLDFINGER(Dir. Guy Hamilton, 1964) It’s close to a tie between this and #1; this being the fine tuning of a formula that served the series very well. A megalomaniac (Gert Fröbe) sets out to commit “the crime of the century” by literally going for the gold (Fort Knox) but Bond (Connery) foils his plans and gets Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) in the process (also literally). The theme song sung by Shirley Bassey (who later did the better than the movie theme for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) is as definitive as the film itself.
3.THE SPY WHO LOVED ME(Dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1977) There’s a bias here because this was the first one I saw as a kid at the theater but it’s certainly considered the best of the Roger Moore Bond movies (Moore himself agrees). It has one of the best Bond babes (Barbara Bach), one of the best Bond theme songs (Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better”), and one of the best Bond automobiles (a Lotus Esprit that can convert to a submarine car). It also has the infamous overlarge henchman “Jaws” (Richard Kiel) who was popular enough to be shamelessly trotted out again in the next movie.
4.DR. NO(Dir. Terence Young, 1962) Yep, like the first 3 Elvis Costello albums the first 3 Bond movies are essential IMHO. Connery assumes the role immediately and this has much evidence of the cold cunning killer that folks these days seem to think Craig created. The shot of Ursula Andress emerging from the water in a white cotton bikini with a knife holster is forever etched into my psyche and into film history. Fittingly the scene was recreated with Halle Berry in DIE ANOTHER DAY and to show the tables have been turned in terms of sexual objectification nowadays, Daniel Craig did the honors at the beach in CASINO ROYALE.
5.ON HER MAJESTY’S SERCRET SERVICE (Dir. Peter Hunt, 1969) Maybe an odd choice to some because it featured a Bond one-timer (George Lazenby - who I believe is Marge Simpson’s favorite Bond) but I think it’s crucial for several reasons, the most important being that this is the one he gets married in. Former model Lazenby may have been a horrible actor but he’s got a grand movie surrounding him with the elegant Diana Rigg (fresh from The Avengers) as his bride, Telly Savalas as the most energetic version of Bond’s arch enemy Blofeld to be found in the series, and the first and still best ski chase Bond’s ever been in.
6.FOR YOUR EYES ONLY(Dir. John Glen, 1981) This was a noble and successful attempt to get Bond back down to earth (again literally) after the sublimely stupid STAR WARS cash-in MOONRAKER. Roger Moore’s 5th outing as the secret agent was nicely plotted with a great McGuffin (ATAC - Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator, a thingie that looked like a big calculator) and a toned down sense of self satire, i.e. fewer one-liners. There is genuine drama involving yet another revenge scenario amongst the action sequences which include the expected ski-chases, underwater fights, and a mountain climbing climax which defines the word “gripping”.
7.GOLDENEYE(Dir. Martin Campbell, 1995) Honestly, though I thought he was well cast, I wasn’t a big fan of the Pierce Brosnan Bond films. I felt that it all had been done to death and that the series should retire. This film does address that with M (Judi Dench – the only linking cast member to the Craig Bonds) calling Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and a “relic of the cold war”. There is a streamlined effort present to preserve and re-invigorate the adventures of 007 and Brosnan here for his first of five films is well up to the task even if the formulaic packaging falters. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of fun to be had so it makes the grade.
8.THUNDERBALL(Dir. Terence Young, 1965) Err, make that the first 4 films! Michael G. Wilson, producer and screenwriter of many Bond movies, not long ago remarked “We always start out trying to make another FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and end up with another THUNDERBALL.”
As Bond blue-prints go though that’s a pretty good one to end up with. While it’s bogged down with too many underwater fights, THUNDERBALL has a great villain in Adolfo Celi as Emilio Largo (SPECTRE #2) and features Connery’s last best performance as Bond (he pretty much walked through 3 others after this including the weird remake NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN in 1983). I believe this makes the list again because of my love of it as a kid and my ironic fondness for the swinging theme by Tom Jones. Austin Powers took a lot of notes on this one.
9.THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS(Dir. John Glen, 1987) Maybe I’m just throwing a bone to everybody’s least favorite Bond Timothy Dalton or maybe I just have a thing for every actor’s first time in the role but this was a fair effort to move the franchise into a new more realistic direction after the parting of Roger Moore. Dalton, who was excellent as the moustache twirling villain in HOT FUZZ a few years back, brings his stage training to the part and while the standard cold war plot (itself a relic) holds no surprises there is considerable charm and a nice chemistry with Maryam d’Abo, definitely one of my favorite Bond women.
10.LIVE AND LET DIE(Dir. Guy Hamilton, 1973) Roger Moore’s first is again a favorite from my youth and one I always stop and watch when coming across it when flipping through the channels. It has the key elements – great theme song (by Paul McCartney and Wings), great action set-pieces (definitely the best boat chase of the canon), a great lovely lady (Jane Seymour), and a great edgy adversary (Yaphet Kotto).
Bond’s brush with Blaxploitation is only marred by the worst, and most embarrassing, deaths of a villain (or of anybody) of all the movies – don’t worry no Spoiler but you’ve been warned.
Whew! Well, that’s my best of Bond. If you are weary of going to see what is surely going to be #1 at the box office this weekend, you may consider catching up with one or two of the classics above.