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A play within a play within a play: (l-r) Hoffman, Williams and Noonan in Synechdoche, New York.

Everyone Is Everyone

By John Brodeur

Synecdoche, New York

Directed 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 film.

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 emergency room.

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.

A Sleek Ride

Cadillac Records

Directed 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.

—Shawn Stone

Living in the Past

A Secret

Directed 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.

—Ann Morrow

Love’s Labour Lost

Ashes of Time Redux

Directed 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.

—Shawn Stone

 


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