Indie State: Mira Nair's Vanity Fair, Zach Braff's Garden State, Jon Heder's Napoleon Dynamite, and Mario Van Peeble's Baadasssss!

 

"Please tell me when Legally Blonde 2 is over."

Thackeray Dackeray-Do: Mira Nair's Vanity Fair

If you would like to begin in grasping my complete retardedness, think about this: I was sitting through Mira Nair's Vanity Fair with a lot going on in my mind. This is quite a story, I thought. Here's this girl who schemes her way through the social structure of early 19th-century London only to find the same despicable and horrific people at every level. The poor are vile and the rich are hateful. Nair must have simply stolen the entire Robert Altman play book even down to the use of chandeliers. This is so Altman-esque, I screamed. And then I realized that Vanity Fair was based upon William Makepeace Thackery's novel. He died in 1863, more than a full century before Altman even had a film released in a movie theater. Did I skip British Lit 101 in college? Yeah, quite a bit. With Altman's class conflict fiction as my only source of reference, I do have some inkling of what Vanity Fair should be about. This should be about the ultimate lesson learned of its anti-heroine Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) as she explored the country side and urban landscape of Britain during the Napoleonic era. The film is full of interesting characters that develop a patchwork regarding the nasty treatment she receives from both the lower and upper class, and the nasty treatment she gives back in return. However, director Nair chooses to slant the story in a different way. Instead of focusing on the class distinction and this taints Sharp's ambition, Nair sees the film more along ethnic lines. The director seizes upon Thackery's flourishes towards "British India" and creates an adaptation where British society is dismissed as a nasty caste system not because it distinguishes between those with education or wealth but because there is no spirituality to the system. In fact, there is so much contempt for the Empire that Nair sets up several moments during the war story where the audience is implicitly asked to root for Napoleon's forces. I'm not saying this isn't a fair argument to make coming from an Indian director making a film about its former Motherland. But when all of this is added to Thackery's clear anti-Jane Austen agenda, the story loses balance and purpose. See Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth and The Four Feathers for better examples. Indeed, Nair portrays the Asian colony is an ethereal after-life which immediately lends soul and direction to any character wishing to go there. This may seem like I am stretching, but this occurs so often in character development through Vanity Fair that it seems obvious.

The film would be a loss if it weren't for the performances. Witherspoon - in an incredible return to form - understands the irony of a character that uses musical talents and a grasp of French to rise from the penniless streets to the gold-laden palaces. Another stand out is Rhys Ifans' Dobbins, the soldier unlucky in love. Ifans is normally reduced to playing the whacked-out stooge in films like Notting Hill and The Replacements. Here, he is poised and tragic. It's a good counterpoint to Nair's broad strokes regarding the British military. Gabrielle Byrne shows up as Satan...or as The Marquess of Stenye who's supposed to represent Satan. And Bob Hoskins certainly seems to be having fun as the obligatory English dandy. In the end, this adaptation of Vanity Fair should tell us something: If a film looks like Altman, it may be Thackery. And if it's Thackery, it still could be the platform for an ill-defined purpose. Let the buyer beware.

 

The Pitch:

1 Gosford Park

Plus

1 Monsoon Wedding

Equals

2 Vanity Fair

 

"Did Dick Cheney just Say al-Queda will Attack if Kerry is elected?"

The Doctor is In: Zach Braff's Garden State

Zach Braff is an actor you might recognize. He's on the NBC sitcom Scrubs and the episodes I've caught are mildly amusing and show that Braff has some real potential. (The fact that Scrubs is mildly amusing makes it better than anything I've seen on network TV in years.) Braff is from Orange County, New Jersey whose father is a professional (attorney) and he has some issues with his family life according to some interviews he's done. Braff has also triple-threatened on the new film Garden State. In the film that he also wrote and directed, Braff plays Andrew. Andrew is a actor that people in the film recognize. He appeared in a TV movie as a retarded quarterback. People found the performance amusing and felt that Andrew had real potential. Andrew is from Orange County, New Jersey whose father is a professional (doctor) and he has some issues with his family life according to the script. Yes, Garden State introduces Braff to the world of Woody Allen's Self-Medicated Auteur-ism for Neurotic Actors. This is a film that re-treads several cliches from this type of film (overbearing parents, quirky romances) and mixes them with eccentric flourishes that range from the charming and funny to the obvious and painfully stupid. Andrew's career is in a little worse shape than Braff's own. After the TV movie, he works at a Japanese restaurant. Upon learning of his mother's death, he flies back to New Jersey for the funeral. There, he dodges his father (Ian Holm), gets high with his friend Mark (Peter Saarsgard), and Meets Cute with Sam (Natalie Portman) at the local hospital's waiting room. Andrew, as it turns out, has a problem from an over medication thanks to his dad prescribing all of his pills. He gets headaches constantly and this story is the first way he connects to Sam. Throughout the three days he spends with Mark and Sam, we learn about a tragic event between Andrew and his Mom that ended up defining both their lives for the worst. I won't reveal what it is, but Braff's script uses the incident to strike the mood of the film. Garden State is about what makes us run from home. It's about reconciling and it's about the courage to accept where we came from. This is where the film strikes a chord. Braff lets this tragedy linger from the half-way mark to the end of the film and it makes the audience go back and think about his attitude and mood in a completely different way. Couple that with how Braff connects Andrew's revelation with similar developments with Sam and Mark. The script, as well as the actors, display an amazing level of complication for a story that's been told time and time again.

This does not mean Garden State fails to fall back on the stereotypes laid out in the past. The confrontation between Andrew and his father feels like a forced therapy session for Braff. And the climax of the film - which takes place near the edge of a purported bottomless pit - is filled with so much obvious and groan-inducing symbolism that you almost forget how stupid and Lynchian it really is.And the quirky elements of the background - a masturbating dog, the wacky foreign-exchange student that lives with Sam's family - is relatively amusing but adds nothing the overall production. And Braff makes the typical first-time director mistake of trying to be artistic without weight. Braff crams Garden State with images of steaming swimming pools and antiseptic airports with the force of a Sofia Coppola. But these images also don't add anything. They are not cues the emotional feelings of the characters. They just look cool. In time, Braff should find a project that allows him to honestly showcase his great storytelling skills and his ability to work with a great cast. He just needs to get over himself and his neuroses a little bit.

 

The Pitch:

2 Woody Allen

Plus

1 Clerks

Equals

3 Garden State

Getting the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass: Mario Van Peebles's Baadasssss!

I don't pretend to know much about the blax-ploitation movement in cinema. I know the genre developed in the early 1970's when most filmmakers were embracing the elements of European cinema that portrayed realistic sex and violence and experimented with technique. The films were more geared towards a thinking person's audience and began to explicitly comment upon society's ills. Blax-ploitation essentially used this new attitude and put the camera on black America. And the first film in this genre out of the gate was Melvin Van Peeble's 1971 Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. A film about a rebel on the run after attacking two white police officers, the film capitalized off its "X" rating ("Rated by an all-white jury", read the tagline) and grossed $15 million when that was a lot of money for a film to make. The success inspired generations of black filmmakers, including Melvin's son Mario. Mario has always been ht-or-miss for me. When I watched his 1991 film New Jack City in junior high, I remember being struck by its rather frank and sometimes glorified look at inner-city crime. (Keep in mind that I am a white kid from Southwest Missouri.) He has done nothing significant since then until Baadasssss! This film succeeds wildly at two things most film fail miserably at: 1. Van Peebles has effectively made a movie about a movie that is entertaining and enlightening. Any film about ART generally recognizes that the art at the subject of their film is important. Why else would they be making a film about it? But the story very rarely answers the important Why? Question. Why was this important? Van Peebles does. He paints Melvin as a rebel molded by the humiliation he felt by watching black stereotypes in the films of his youth. He saw distortions of reality. The white children around him saw an excuse to point and laugh. With Sweetback, Melvin is shown creating a character and a story that takes a real black man discouraged by the direction of the Civil Rights movement and places him in a distorted view of America. An America slowly being defined by cinematic images like John Wayne and the bikers from Easy Rider. One of the best scenes I've ever watched in one of these movies is the script-writing montage, where Melvin paces and writes around a hotel room as images from MLK's speech at the DC Mall to Birth of a Nation swirl around the room. The script that results turns into an ambitious project that displays Melvin Van Peebles' obsession not only to make this film, but to have an impact on the culture.

And this obsession is where the film also succeeds when most films in this genre do not. This is a film from a filmaker about his own family. These normally can get pretty tedious and overly sentimental. Melvin is viewed in this film not as a flawed but praise-worthy character but as a driven bastard unflinching about what gets in his way and how to achieve his goals. He does not care about the lack of money, nor the shock of his agent (Saul Rubnick), nor the pain it causes his family. He openly cheats on his wife, he mocks the traditions taught by his own father (Ossie Davis) and exploits his own children. In shooting Sweetback, Melvin casts a 13-year-old Mario (Khleo Thomas) as a young Sweetback in a scene where he must lose his virginity to an older woman. The cast is aghast. Young Mario is freaked out. And Melvin doesn't care about anything except getting the shot. So think about this for a moment: Mario is playing his father Melvin as he exploits a younger version of Mario. Surreal is generally an overused term but it applies here. And Mario Van Peebles never blinks. It's almost as though he wanted to make a film about his father that was as unsympathetic and tough as..his father. And it works. By filming this part of his childhood as an exploitation film, Mario seems to artistically unleash some demons that work to the benefit of his own movie. This could have been excessive or indulgent, but this spirit of his father and the work he created are well-served by this portrait. And the film doesn't forget to entertain. David Alan Grier scores high marks as producer Clyde Houston, a porn producer who acts slightly above the proceedings yet seems so tantalized by them at the same time. And cameos from Adam West as an amorous financier and Paul Rodriguez as one of the film's crew members act as added bonuses of amusement as well as providing the "What are they doing here"? factors. In the end, Baadasssss! is a historical document about this necessary point in history and it is a testament to the raging spirit of a deeply flawed man with a vision. After watching Melvin lose his eyesight during the editing and going in the hole financially numerous, I became inspired. Baadasssss! is not only about the passion of making movies, but it's a movie to get impassioned about. What a miracle.

The Pitch:

2 Edward D. Wood Junior

Plus

2 Hollywood Shuffle

Equals

4 Baadasssss!

Look out, Pedro! I think I see 3rd District Candidate Chris Kobach over there!

It's Like a Todd Solondz Film...for Kids!: Jon Heder's Napoleon Dynamite

I know Napoleon Dynamite is the Sweetheart Indie Hit of 2004 and that audiences have fallen for it in a big way. But frankly, it's an unfunny, drifting work that borders on the inhumane and ranks as the worst film I've seen all year. As a matter of fact, Dynamite is just as nasty and condescending as a Todd Solondz film if Solondz took out all the demeaning and obscene dialogue, edited out all of the sexual material that openly mocked the film's characters, and aimed it for the Nickelodeon crowd. The fact that such a film would only be five minutes long is beyond the point. This is a film that exaggerates stereotypes (nerdy white kids, blacks, Hispanics), decorates the background with the worst in Retro nostalgia (psychidelic TrapperKeepers, acid-washed jeans), and then expects the combination to keep audience members rolling in the aisles. And from all reports, that what audience members are doing. But the laughs come from the worst part of our responses. Dynamite and its co-writer/director Jared Hess ask us not to laugh with the characters and their situations but laugh at them. Take Napoleon himself. As played by Jon Heder, he is an open-mouthed, closed-eyed anti-social who is belittled for his Goodwill clothing and for the loud wheeze he lets loose after every proclamation. I can't tell if he's exacerbated or has lung cancer. This distinction wouldn't matter to the filmmakers who don't so much create Napoleon as a legitimate character but as a template for embarrassingly "funny" bouts of public humiliation. During a class presentation, he presents a story about Japanese scientists trying to blow up the Loch Ness monster. This story has no connection to anything else in the film so it exists to make Napoleon look stupid and to subject him to ridicule. He teaches himself how to dance and ends up performing during the climatic school assembly. (As we know, school assemblies are always climatic in these type of films.) The music is lame, his dance style is spastic, and he claims to go out of his way not to get attention from his classmates. So why does he do it? Because it makes him look stupid and will subject him to ridicule. And so on and so on. Napoleon Dynamite kind of rolls in this pattern because there's no real plot to speak of. Mainly, Napoleon tries to help his new friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) get elected to Class President. Pedro must beat Summer (Haylie "Yes My Sister is Hilary" Duff) who threatens that a vote for her opponent is a vote for "illiteracy and chimichangas in the lunch room." Wow, good one Napoleon Dynamite! The racism sprinkled through the film seems like a non-issue since its setting of Preston, Idaho is supposed to represent this bland, honkey wasteland that -save for cell phones - has not escaped the late 1970's. I'm sure there's nothing in Idaho this bad, but the rules of independent cinema dictate every non-urban setting must be depressing yet quirky.

The rest of the film revolves around the equally pathetic family members of Napoleon. Kip (Aaron Ruell) is Napoleon's older, dorkier brother who runs up Grandma's dial-up time by talking in chat-rooms for hours. He meets a black woman from Detroit named Lafawnduh (or that's how he spells it anyway) who comes out to visit and ends up transforming this nerd into an Eminem-type hipster in the course of a weekend. So Kip not only plays two white stereotypes, but he delivers the valuable lesson that its okay to change your personality in order to hook up with a hot chick. There's also Rico (Jon Gries), the boy's uncle who seems to be stuck in 1982 when he played high-school football. His laments on the past and his inability to move on present the film with its best chance to develop a redeemable character. Rico succumbs to the same fate, existing primarily to get beat up by Dietrich Bader. Bader plays Rex, who teaches a martial art he calls "Rex-Quan Do". He wears parachute pants designed like the American flag and takes on Rico for trying to sell Mrs. Rex some household ornaments. Yes, Napoleon Dynamite is the type of film that thinks it can hire an actor like Bader, put him in silly pants, and this will on its own strike comedic gold. Defenders of Napoleon Dynamite will attest that claims of laziness are merely part of the film's lackadaisical charm. Fine. But this still does not answer the charge of a mean spirit. Hess has claimed that the film is not mean-spirited because Napoleon is not mean-spirited. He's a free-wheeling innocent. This is very true. But the film holds him out for so much contempt that the fact that Napoleon never gets mean only adds to his continued embarrassments. Hess, in essence, plays the Solondz card by saying that he doesn't judge the character personally so neither can the film. Unfortunately, Napoleon Dynamite speaks for itself and develops not a story or not a character. The film simply develops a big target for the audience to aim their own insecurities. The film doesn't want its characters in on the joke because the characters are the jokes. That way, both the filmaker and the audience are absolved of any guilt and can laugh without recourse. Despite all of my insecurities, this audience member isn't willing to go along with the independent film version of a wedgie. Sad. Pathetic. Unbelievable.

The Pitch:

1/2 Happiness

Plus

1/2 Lizzie Maguire

Equals

1 Napoleon Dynamite