Saturday, July 25, 2009


Elizabethtown came out in October of 2005, and I was the only person at my school who cared that it existed, and the only person (at the time) who fell for it. The past few years have been about coming to grips with this fact, and the fact that aside from Almost Famous, it’s actually my favorite Cameron Crowe film. Not that it’s as objectively “good” as, say, Say Anything or Jerry Maguire, or even Vanilla Sky, but I love it so much more than any of those, in spite of and sometimes for its faults

Re-reading my original review was sort of embarrassing, but this is a movie that’s sort of embarrassing to be a part of. And that's okay. People in this movie make bold, blatant declarations of love (in many forms), and whereas this year’s terrific Two Lovers was all too aware of how embarrassing those decisions are in retrospect (or even at the time), Elizabethtown is all about how good it can feel in the moment. It’s everything Cameron Crowe was working towards aesthetically in Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous – the purity of experiencing a truly transcendent moment.

In a recent liveblog between Kevin Lee and Vadim Rizov about this film, Rizov claimed Drew (Orlando Bloom) actually has no arc in the film, and while that’s sort of true, it’d be a stretch to say he doesn’t change at all. After all, Claire’s (Kirsten Dunst) entire goal in the story is to change Drew; it’s got to amount to something.

Claire’s mission is the very embodiment of a quote I’ve been coming back to a lot recently. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “you must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.” Drew’s life before Elizabethtown (the place and the film) was spent looking toward another land, until he found the eternity in each moment after two massive blows to the person he had constructed himself to be.

Now, granted, Elizabethtown is overflowing with these moments (some which may last hours, or even days), and it does seem like Crowe was trying to push the boundaries of just how happy one film could be. Crowe, the film, Claire, and eventually Drew are and become exactly who Patricia Graynamore was talking about when she told Joe that very few people in this world were truly awake, and they live in a state of constant, total amazement (Joe Versus the Volcano). And when I think about Elizabethtown I tend to care less about its occasionally overwrought dialogue and often stale performances, and come back to scenes like Drew and Claire’s all-night phone conversation, so evocative of the at once ethereal and fleeting nature of those encounters, or the tactile sensation of releasing ashes out a car window.

And say what you will about the rest, but while I find a lot to love about the film but very little to admire, it’s impossible not to applaud Crowe’s willingness to let the film be totally what it wants to be. It never winks at you or thinks less of its emotional core, as Garden State, the film so often referred to in conjunction with it, did. In describing the joy he takes in watching Monte Hellmen’s Two-Lane Blacktop, Richard Linklater said, “above all else…Two-Lane Blacktop goes all the way with its idea. And that’s a rare thing in this world: a completely honest movie.” Whatever feels cliché, schmaltzy, or cheesy about Elizabethtown, I believe Cameron Crowe believes fully in everything he lays out. And in a medium overcrowded with the ironic, the unoriginal, the audience-tested, the focus-grouped, and above all the so totally uninspired, I live for a completely honest movie like Elizabethtown.


Elizabethtown is availalbe on DVD with a serviceable, occasionally lovely transfer that nevertheless shows quite a few compression artifacts (some outdoor shots of Kirsten Dunst are especially wrenching) and an audio mix that can stand being cranked all the way up, as the film should be (let that music fill the room, man). The extras are a total disappointment, with absolutely nothing of any informative or educational value, suffering all the more for the absence of the always-great Cameron Crowe commentary track. Somewhere along the way, Crowe was convinced the film was a total misfire. Whether or not he believes that now, that’s his business, I don’t have to have his approval to love the film (as they say in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, what does he know, he’s only the writer); I just would have loved to hear more from him when he totally believed in it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Top 10 of 2009 (so far)

This is a pre-Harry Potter universe (I will see it, just haven't yet).

Summer Hours (in select theaters now)
Silent Light (DVD Sept 8)
The Hurt Locker (in theaters now)
Adventureland (DVD Aug 25)
Goodbye Solo (DVD Aug 25)
Moon (in select theaters now)
The Girlfriend Experience (DVD Sept 29)
The Hangover (in theaters now)
Away We Go (in select theaters now)
The Man From London (in select theaters and available OnDemand now)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Criticize THIS

The staggering opening shot of Carlos Reygadas' masterpiece, Silent Light, available on DVD September 8th.

I'll admit something - it doesn’t really bother me that the average viewer doesn’t consult the critics. It bothers a lot of film critics, but, as someone who's trying to develop into that role, it honestly doesn't bother me. It bothers me somewhat that almost no one I went to film school with considered movies that weren’t being advertised at them, and never went to a non-genre foreign film, but that’s only because they’re supposed to be interested in film itself. Too often people claim to love movies, but in reality stay very close to their comfort zone, and rarely actively seek the movies that are really worth watching. Which is why they end up complaining that “they don’t make them like they used to.” There are huge strides being made in film making, but how many people actually saw Silent Light or Youth Without Youth?

(A subject for future consideration - how many people had the opportunity? I had exactly one available night to catch a two-week run of Silent Light in Portland, OR. It never even came to Boston, a city otherwise rife with opportunity for the cinephile.)

What does bother me is the fact that, once someone has seen a movie like, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (or, as Jim Emerson has taken to calling it, Transformers: ROTFL) or Bruno, and has reached an opinion on it, that opinion will shield them against any sort of discussion you’d like to engage in about it. If we are to refrain from discussing religion and politics, as manners have taught us, shouldn’t we at least be allowed the cinema?

As is quite often the case, Jim Emerson gets to the bottom of it: “Critical thinking is not a value prized by our culture.”

Over the last week, I saw five films in new release: Two Lovers, Three Monkeys, The Hurt Locker, Bruno, and The Man From London (don't worry, I hit the multiplex quite a bit, too, it's just been an art house kind of week). Of those, the only one I would strongly recommend against somebody watching is Bruno, which, incidentally, just hit #1 at the box office last weekend (I felt okay knowing I paid for The Hurt Locker and snuck into Bruno). By the next night, I was in an apartment full of people who had seen Bruno, and I tried to point out the many ways in which it totally failed as a film (a totally uninteresting central character, a plot connected by only the thinnest of threads, a general feeling that most of what we were seeing was a lie). I was met with the typical response when it comes to criticizing a comedy: “Well, I laughed.” That may be the case, but it saddens me more than a little bit that the be-all and end-all of considering comedies is whether or not it makes us laugh. While that should certainly be a factor, it can’t be everything, but because audiences allow it to be, Bruno succeeds.

This is ultimately why I feel that film and television should be taught in middle school and college. English and Lit classes try to teach people critical thought, but by and large people do not have the capacity to consider literature seriously, because it’s been decades since literature was something the average person, much less children, engaged in for entertainment. We are raised on movies and television, and if we were required to ask ourselves why something entertained, engaged, or – God forbid – honestly moved us, things like Transformers: ROTFL or Bruno wouldn’t happen. We would come up empty.

Ebert insists (in a piece well worth reading) films like these happen, and people enjoy them, because they’re not sufficiently evolved; he believes people haven’t been exposed to many truly great films, and thus settle for the spectacle in front of them. This would be similar to how, in the early days of the cinema, a theater could put just about anything onscreen and people would go in droves for the sheer amazement of simply seeing a picture move (actually, now that I say that, I wonder if we as a people have actually devolved?).

I hope he’s right. In large part, I’ve seen that in myself over the years. As I’ve seen more and more films of varying intent and quality, it takes more creatively and less spectacularly to thrill me. But on the other hand, last year saw tremendous box office success with such films as WALL-E, The Dark Knight, and Iron Man. Obviously, the box office only indicates how well the marketing team did their job, but it does show people saw these films, so they must know movies can be at least that good. And if that doesn’t teach them, what more will it take?