play within a play within a play: (l-r) Hoffman, Williams
and Noonan in Synechdoche, New York.
by Charlie Kaufman
With Synecdoche, New York, Char lie Kaufman has delivered
the very kind of masterwork that its own protagonist seems
unable to fully realize for himself. So broad in scope, so
deeply layered is this film, that the viewer might feel compelled
to take it in three or four times to grasp its many intricacies.
They’ll also want to see it again because it’s just an incredible
Kaufman, the mind behind such fantastically weird, inside-out
character deconstructions as Being John Malkovich,
Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless
Mind, wrote and directed this time, and his vision plays
out brilliantly. It’s a miserable film, really: a two-hour
meditation on the inevitability of death and the meaning of
our choices during life. It’s existential, it’s cerebral:
It’s Kaufman-esque. It’s solipsistic, but really no more so
than any Kaufman script. And while it might take a day or
two to digest fully, once it does you may find yourself reconsidering
your own actions. As a “priest” points out at the end of the
film, every move we make pulls “a million little strings”
on everything and everyone else. It’s hopeful, if you want
it to be.
In Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard, Kaufman has found
the ideal leading man to carry forth his gray vision (gray,
because it’s half darkness and half light), and an excellent
ensemble cast fleshes out this story of one man’s recombination
of his own life. At the film’s outset, Cotard is moping through
a typical morning in his Schenectady, New York, home, where
he lives with wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and 4-year-old
daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). He complains that he doesn’t
feel well; he sees death in everything, senses it coming for
him. Within minutes of the film’s opening, he’s in a hospital
But that’s just stage-setting. Cotard is a community theater
director; he’s staging an adaptation of Death of a Salesman
that uses young actors in the main roles. It’s his little
artistic statement. That play’s main character’s youthfully
misguided sense of self, versus the long-term realities of
the universe, could be seen as a minor underlying theme for
the film; the idea that life is merely an instant in the grand
scheme of time resonates throughout.
Cotard’s body begins to fight itself—he struggles with a series
of minor ailments, a string of doctor appointments. Before
long, Adele has gone off to Berlin, where her career as a
painter is taking off, and she takes Olive with her—as well
as her friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). And Cotard’s sulk
deepens. He finds interest from box-office secretary Hazel
(Samantha Morton), but is unable to do anything about his
feelings; his distraction over his broken first marriage dooms
a second, to actress Claire (Michelle Williams); he’s drawn
to his therapist (Hope Davis), but finds she is more interested
in peddling her new book.
One day he finds himself the winner of a MacArthur fellowship,
the so-called “genius grant,” and he sets off to New York
City to create a “massive theater piece” in a gigantic warehouse—one
big enough to hold the entire contents of his life. He builds
set upon set, until an entire, expansive replica of the city
is contained within the warehouse walls.
As Cotard grows more ill, and goes more inside his own mind,
Kaufman masterfully mucks with the time-space continuum. Identity
is blurred to the point where we don’t know who, or what,
is real—who is a character, or even who Cotard is. He casts
actors to play people in his life, more actors are cast to
play other actors; eventually they’re playing themselves—sort
of. Actors change roles; women play men, and vice versa. (Dianne
Wiest’s third-act appearance, in which she becomes Cotard,
is just lovely.) Time passes—or does it? For much of the film
Cotard does not appear to grow older, though life around him
ages, changes, dies. At one point, a cast member says “It’s
been 17 years,” but maybe it’s only 10 minutes. Who’s alive
and who’s dead? Is any of this really happening? (Look up
Cotard syndrome if you really want to get neck-deep in this.)
Kaufman favors set-pieces over the visual gimmicks his past
directors have employed, and it gives this film’s fractured
narrative a bit of realism, even when nothing seems to add
up. But nothing is more real than the film’s bleak, dreamlike
final moments, in which Cotard wanders through the now-empty
warehouse-metropolis, guided by a narrator in his earpiece.
“I know how to do this play now,” he says, as he has several
times before. But he can’t change what’s already happened.
The narrator instructs him one last time: “Die.” You don’t
get a guide for living life; you just have to pull the strings
and see what happens next.
by Darnell Martin
You might say that Cadillac Re- cords is a conventional
musical biopic, and you’d be right. But this version of the
Chess Records story is a damn fine traditional biopic,
telling a story as fascinating and relevant as any other.
If Motown, Atlantic and Stax were incubators of the soulful
side of R&B, Chess gave the world straight Mississippi
blues electrified into rock & roll. Leonard Chess (Adrien
Brody, appropriately inscrutable and manipulative) was a white
Jewish kid in the early 1950s who, for reasons unclear, lived
and worked on an African-American neighborhood of Chicago.
He owned a bar, which, after he met and heard Muddy Waters
(Jeffrey Wright), mysteriously burned, providing the seed
money for the label that bore his name. Was he in love with
the music? Maybe. He knew what was good, and, more importantly
what would sell, and wasn’t afraid to allow his artists to
innovate on the spot.
The title comes from Chess musicians’ nickname for the label;
Leonard Chess gave all his recording stars Cadillacs. (An
honest accounting of royalties and regular payments, not so
much.) And director Darnell Martin fetishizes those steel-and-chrome
beauties of the era; if the action takes place outdoors, then
you can be sure a gleaming, gorgeous Caddy will soon roll
into the frame. It’s great eye candy, but makes a point: The
music made by Chess artists’ was as strong , stylish and hard-edged
as one of Detroit’s classic cars.
This is the kind of music flick where the actors do all the
singing. In contrast with, say Walk the Line, in Cadillac
Records this is a good thing. Jeffrey Wright (of course)
steals the pic with his performance as Waters, but his singing
is convincing, too. Eamonn Walker is a fearsome Howlin’ Wolf;
Cedric the Entertainer is ingratiating as narrator Willie
Dixon; Beyoncé is a powerhouse as Etta James; Columbus Short
is electric as the volatile Little Walter; and Mos Def is
a terrific Chuck Berry.
The screenplay takes a neutral position on the exploited artist
vs. evil corporate overlord issue; it does point out that
Leonard Chess made it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
before most of his artists, however. There is also an attempt
to relate “traditional” Southern racial norms to the way Chess
was managed, but doesn’t push the point. What the film does
brilliantly, however, is celebrate the music that really is
the heart of rock & roll.
in the Past
by Claude Miller
Adapted from Phillipe Grimberg’s autobiographical novel, A
Secret is centered on François (Quentin Dubuis), a sickly,
bookish teenager who barely seems to be related to his glamorous
parents, Tania (Cécile De France), a former model and competitive
swimmer, and Maxime (Patrick Bruel), a ruggedly attractive
gymnast. Though the family is Jewish, François is baptized
and raised as a gentile. He receives health treatments from
his parents’ longtime friend (Julie Depardieu), who decides
that Francois needs to know about their past. Directed by
Claude Miller, the film is told in evocative, resounding flashbacks
that shift in time from the Nazi occupation of France to years
later. As a child, François (Valentin Vigourt) reads a fairy
tale (a line of which inspires the novel’s title) and dreams
that he has an older brother.
Starting with his father’s wedding day, when Maxime first
meets Tania—the very image of an Aryan dream girl—A Secret
intriguingly discloses the family’s history. Maxime’s bride
is Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier), Tania’s sister-in-law. The extended
family’s idyllic, middle-class life as assimilated Jews (beautifully
re-created by cinematographer Gérard de Battista) gradually
disintegrates under the occupation, and not all of them survive
the Holocaust. These revelations affect the teenage François:
To his father’s surprise, he beats up a classmate who teases
him during a school presentation of wartime newsreels. Eventually,
François learns of a fateful intersection of passion and racism.
This harrowing scene is directed with quiet intensity, like
many of the film’s most telling moments—as when Maxime becomes
uncharacteristically sorrowful after François throws a stuffed
dog out his bedroom window. The film’s subdued power is also
due to the nuances of the diversely compelling lead actresses
(all three received Cesar nominations). Though much of A
Secret is familiar from other Holocaust films, Miller’s
delicate emphasis on the domestic makes it memorable.
of Time Redux
by Wong Kar Wai
The “redux” tag is usually added to films reissued after the
director adds bits that the original distributor cut (as with
the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple), or when the director
has the itch and the opportunity to tinker with his original
cut (as with Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). In
the case of Wong Kar Wai’s first independent production, the
reason is simpler: The 1992 film was in immediate need of
restoration. The lab storing the negative abruptly closed;
the negative was in pieces.
Given the opportunity to tweak, the filmmaker tweaked. Still,
the restored Ashes of Time isn’t substantially different
from the original version. The “redux” label, however, allows
the film much wider distribution on the second time around.
If the American director Frank Borzage was the cinema’s great
poet of the power of romantic love, then Hong Kong’s Wong
is the poet of romantic love lost, or missed. He’s honed this
vision to heartbreaking effect in films like In the Mood
for Love and 2046, but it’s right here at the beginning.
The circular story is based on characters from a martial-arts
story by Louis Cha. It’s a little like La Ronde: Every
unhappy, unfulfilled character is connected to another in
a daisy chain of romantic misery.
The cast is made up of actors familiar from his later films:
Leslie Cheung, droll as a hit man turned assassination broker;
Brigitte Lin, alternately fierce and spent as a split personality;
Jacky Cheung, amusing as an uncouth killer with a doting wife;
Tony Leung as a typically laconic blind swordsman; and Maggie
Cheung, emotionally precise as a woman who errs in haste and
reflects on this mistake for the rest of her life.
But the end effect is not depressing. This is partly because
of the haunted (and haunting) images and desaturated color
scheme: The desert where most of the action takes place is
as roiling and fluid as the ocean, and Wong cuts to ocean
shots from time to time as if to underline this.
The ocean shots also turn out to be the point-of-view of the
last character we meet in the film. Wong doesn’t waste a frame.
The other reason that his cinema of sadness isn’t a total
bummer is that the characters figure out where they went wrong.
These aren’t exactly life lessons, but it does give his stories
a kind of catharsis. And that’s more than enough.