I Am Legend (Lawrence, 2007)

Part bold character study, part mindless Hollywood action bonanza, I Am Legend doesn’t require prior knowledge of any past artistic incarnations to be successful as pure entertainment. No, neither Richard Matheson’s harrowing source material from the 1950’s nor the previous two film versions of I Am Legend look or sound anything like director Francis Lawrence’s epic disaster film, which rightly flaunts Will Smith (in a wonderful performance) as the end of the world hero hell bent on saving mankind from eternal damnation as vampires. The time is 2012 and Lawrence introduces a desolate, hollow New York City landscape, then Smith’s Robert Neville racing through the dense and quiet mise-en-scene in a glimmering red Mustang. Neville, a military scientist and lone survivor of a terrible outbreak three years prior, goes about his solitary daily life with only the companionship of his German Shepherd Sam. At night, he barricades himself from the Night Seekers, the infected populace which has taken over the Earth. We get glimpses of Neville’s family and the initial panic of the outbreak through flashbacks, but nothing resembling deep insight about why he’s survived (no hard science here) or his past responsibilities as the chief military officer in charge of the global quarantine. The mystery behind Neville’s plight makes the first half of I Am Legend a beautiful exercise in dramatic minimalism framed through spatial emptiness, giving the viewer just enough of his past trauma’s and fleeting shadowy glances of the blood thirsty vampires. Also, Smith’s interaction with his canine makes for some fascinating scenes of friendship and devotion amidst the most strenuous and self-defeating circumstances. But Lawrence and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman can’t resist taking the movie toward a life-affirming conclusion, singling out themes of faith and sacrifice which don’t feel half as honest as images of Neville and Sam playing ball or picking corn. I Am Legend has always been about the loneliness and regret Neville feels when faced with his own failures and those of the world around him, and the final third of this latest version plays it safe with these tense emotions. Sure, I Am Legend delivers the goods as a surface level adventure film, displaying a fine star presence and gripping apocalyptic set pieces, but somehow the familial demons which plague Neville and make him a fascinating character in the first place get left behind for schmaltzy hopes and retrograde sympathy. While the legend lives on, it does so seeped in sap.

Gremlins (Dante, 1984)

What an oddity. Gremlins functions as a compact blockbuster, built to impress a mass audience with special effects and shock value but also to challenge through a clever combination of horror, comedy, and social satire. Directed with punch by Joe Dante, the film is the brainchild of Hollywood’s brightest mainstream conductors, producer Steven Spielberg and writer Chris Columbus (who went on to direct countless tinsel town wonders like Adventures in Babysitting and Home Alone). While not as blatantly critical of current Western politics as some of Dante’s other pictures, Gremlins harbors a distinct distaste for consumer America’s obsession with greed and power and the mass influx of foreign goods via new media. Dante and Columbus’ supporting fodder speak volumes – a Bank manager folds under the pressure of a money grubbing wench, two drunken police officer’s wilt when faced with chaos, and a paranoid war vet’s visions come true in the form of little green men. It’s also hilarious the Gremlins themselves show more depth of character than the humans, a disturbing irony considering they run amok with a clear will toward our destruction. Dante thankfully never shies away from political jockeying when making films, and Gremlins proves strong ideas can co-exist with grandiose explosions and pulsating monsters.

September 11 (11’09”01) (Various, 2002)

11 films made by 11 directors from 11 different countries working with “complete artistic freedom” tackling contrasting experiences concerning the tragic event. A mouth full, but an admirable goal considering the circumstances. Amazingly, most of the films are a success, especially the three standouts – Samira Makhmalbaf’s opening breath of desert air about an Afghan school teacher attempting to relay the massive scope of the disaster to her students, Idrissa Ouedraogo’s charismatic comedy concerning a group of school boys who think they see Bin Laden in Burkino-Faso, and finally Mira Nair’s heartbreaking story of a Muslim mother whose son goes missing after the towers fall, only to watch the media and the F.B.I. call him a terrorist. Other directors like Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, and Amos Gitai also make an impact with vastly different points of view, using genre as a springboard for emblematic tensions ripe with drama. But there’s a stunning theme of displacement connecting each film, a relentless similarity running parallel to the tragedy unfolding in New York City. It’s not surprising that the American entry, directed to the cinematic edge by Sean Penn, tells of an elderly man (the great Ernest Borgnine) entrenched in darkness, whose sad revelation of loneliness only comes as the towers fall. Have American’s always been this isolationist? Possibly, but September 11 goes to great lengths to jar the viewer (no matter the country) from misjudgment and fear and toward something resembling global compassion.

Mr. Jealousy (Baumbach, 1997)

A fitting stepping stone between Baumbach’s lone masterpiece Kicking and Screaming and his later critical success The Squid and the Whale, Mr. Jealousy harbors both an obsession with post graduate malaise and a droll tone toward overcoming insecurities. But the story, which pits Eric Stoltz’s benignly jealous writer with Annabella Sciorra’s clumsy p.h.d. student, feels light on chemistry and in turn romantic weight. Baumbach uses an unseen narrator often to express motivation and context (a slippery slope in movies), and the results are mixed at best. While clever at times, this technique takes away the character’s voices, instilling the director’s overbearing influence on the fluffy proceedings. Mr. Jealousy feels like a Woody Allen impersonation without the creativity and punch, but it does produce countless laughs thanks to the witty writing and overall good performances. Baumbach’s best work is defined by his protagonist’s slow evolution from the gallows of hopeless self pity to the heights of life-affirming confidence, and Mr. Jealousy doesn’t quite reach far enough in either direction.

Paris, je t’aime (Various, 2007)

Like a fleeting whiff of pungent perfume, Paris, je t’aime reeks of sweetness and artificiality. This collection of short films (made by some of the better Western directors, but where’s the Asian or African representation?) about love in Paris attempts to construct a whimsical and elaborate connection between the perception of the city as a romantic mecca and the sometimes brutal reality of heartache which follows. But this omnibus struts out one forgettable story after another, surprising considering the talent on both sides of the camera. Stars like Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Gena Rowlands, and a host of other well known actors wander through Paris, je t’aime with aimless wonder, fronting wordy snippets of unrequited desire, brewing anger, and false pretenses. There’s something tiresome about the whole experience, especially when so many filmmakers like the Coen brothers, Gus van Sant, and Alfonso Cuaron are working far below expectations. In retrospect, while many of the shorts produce a ho-hum response, only two segments make an impact. One, a heartbreaking ode to chance and disappointment entitled “Place des Fetes” by director Oliver Schmitz, follows an African man’s attempt to get the attention of a young woman, which sets off a devastating chain of events. The second (which thankfully ends the film), a transcendent piece about a lovely middle-aged American woman traveling alone in Paris, charts a personal and evolving relationship with a new environment via voice over and mise-en-scene. Directed by the brilliant Alexander Payne, this sunny travelogue boasts a charm and warmth none of the other segments can claim. Ironically, Payne’s piece doesn’t deal with human affection as all the other’s do, but a romance with the entire city. While flimsy and candy coated as a whole, the few bright highlights of Paris, je t’aime prove that in the greatest love story’s, actions speak louder than words.

Garden State (Braff, 2004)

Like it’s enigmatic and irresistible heroine Sam (played with seamless candor by Natalie Portman), Garden State resonates a kindness and clarity rarely seen in our convoluted modern day Hollywood. Simply put, it’s refreshing, a high compliment considering the film is the writing and directing debut of a television actor, Scrubs star Zach Braff. After viewing this beautiful romance one can honestly smile at the prospects of love and honesty surviving a cruel world, or, at least the hope of such an experience. Garden State uses a seemingly simple character arc (Braff’s hero trumps his overly medicated life with a worthy dose of Portman’s charm) to explore what it means to communicate; with scorned parents, long lost friends, and past trauma’s that seem too vast to explore. Braff’s brilliant screenplay comes to life through the guidance of a slightly quirky and dead pan visual style and pitch perfect musical parallels ( a la Wes Anderson), but Garden State reaches masterpiece status with it’s moments of silence, painful glimpses into vibrant characters’ lives which enable a sense of humanity even during the most artificial scenes. And then there’s Natalie Portman, who’s Sam, for my money, is one of the great female performances of all time. Her mere presence unseats every character she comes in contact with, bringing out the honesty in each while keeping her own vulnerability close. Sam has a wisdom beyond her years, yet it never strays from her youthful exuberance for life. Like all the great movie characters out there, words can’t quite describe why Sam breaks through the screen and into your heart, but it’s wonderful knowing she’ll always be there to smile you through the pain.

Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)

The beginning of the Pixar reign of power might also be the company’s most joyous work to date. With all the success Disney has had riding this great animation branch, it’s easy to forget where it all started, and one look at John Lasseter’s great film reminds why this formula has been so successful. Toy Story takes us into a world unseen by humans, where toys like Woody the Cowboy and Buzz Lightyear live to serve their young master’s great imagination and each other’s curiosity about the unknown universe beyond the window sill. As an example of The Hero’s Journey it’s near perfect, an excellent tool for breaking down character motivation and development. But Toy Story speaks to a curiosity about life’s hidden pleasures, where toys can take on the attitude of their kind owner, simple environments can turn into vast universes, and friendship transcends size or shape. While it’s successor might be the better film, Toy Story remains a fantastic origin story for characters and themes that will always ring true for both kids and adults.