Blu-ray Review: Daydream Nation (2010)

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Similar to the way that accidentally recording over the second of three titles on a VHS tape can erase the end of the first film and the beginning of the third so an action flick transforms into a comedy and then a thriller, filmmaker Michael Goldbach builds a coming-of-age drama on the foundation of a horror movie before a love story emerges in his directorial debut.

While summing up the bizarre events that occurred during the year “that nearly everything happened” to Daydream Nation’s self-proclaimed “moodiest girl in the world," Caroline Wexler (Kat Dennings), the high school senior foreshadows the insanity that will follow with the warning that “for awhile craziness was in the air… [and] we were all just breathing it in.”

Cinematically speaking of course, overly articulate sharp-witted seventeen-year-old lasses with a flair for the dramatic are a dime-a-dozen in art-house fare.

But once we discover that Caroline’s precancerous widowed sad-sack father made the voluntarily decision to pull up big city stakes and relocate them to a “backwoods hick town” where a serial killer is actively targeting victims in the girl’s demographic of “pretty young things,” airborne insanity seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation to account for Caroline’s odd situation.

However, in accordance of their youth and despite the ominous signs on the side of the road reminding them to travel in pairs, when it comes to the students of Hargrove High, fear of boredom usurps fear of the unidentified villain in the white suit, inspiring Daydream’s teens to either drug themselves into distraction or give into the temporary insanity completely.

From gamely seducing her lonely lit teacher (Josh Lucas) to falling for a troubled burnout (Reece Thompson) who believes he’s “the unluckiest person alive,” Caroline gives both pastimes a try in Goldbach’s increasingly off-the-wall foray into indie madness.

Yet regardless of how many wrong turns she takes along the way, Caroline – and by extension the film overall – never veers too far off course in a journey of self-discovery.

Ambitiously taking quirky dysfunction – which has long been the bread and butter of indie filmmaking – to daring new levels considering not only Daydream’s gender and age reversal of student/teacher affair but the deadly undercurrent of the film as well, in the end we’re left with a flawed, fragmented yet fascinating work that’s as awkward as it is impressive.

But as much as I admire the artistic intent to play it straight rather than attempt to lighten the darkly sardonic material with American Beauty inspired satire, there’s just way too much daydreaming going on in Daydream Nation.

As such, it’s hindered by an inconsistency in tone and structure caused by the fusion of everyday high school clich├ęs with hot button issues.

For as creatively freeing as it is to ignore the rules of any (and every) given genre incorporated in Daydream’s succinct 98 minute running time, because every character arrives with their own baggage including yet another ensemble of supporting cast members and at least two compelling subplots to have easily doubled the film’s length, we can’t help but feel shortchanged by the final collision of events.

A promising debut from the festival circuit that’s bursting with potential -- predicting great things to come for its unfailingly likable lead and its visionary writer/director -- Daydream Nation is perhaps best experienced as an indie companion piece to Easy A, starring Dennings’ House Bunny co-star Emma Stone as yet another whip-smart lass, navigating high school with her own compass.

 Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

DVD Review: Farewell (2009)

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AKA: L'affaire Farewell

The practice of invoking artistic license is as accepted as it is expected in movies loosely based on true events whether it's with the addition of an invented love story to changes the genre of It Could Happen to You to a romantic comedy or relying on a college transfer to heighten the impact of a final victory at the end of The Great Debaters in an Ivy League setting.

From reconstructing the timeline to deliver the most cinematically interesting version of events to blending composite identities to form precisely the right main character to center the film on a la Made in Dagenham, filmmakers translate fact into dramatic fiction, using historical events as inspirational building-blocks in the hopes of crafting a more palatable tale for audiences around the globe.

Of course, it’s easier than ever to sleuth out creative liberties from factual certainties in the information age.

Yet nonetheless, whenever I watch a movie derived from real life, I can’t help but question how much of what I’m watching is actually true and likewise whether the fabricated material helped or hindered the historical retelling overall.

Frequently onscreen we’re treated to far more dramatic interpretations of events with greater obstacles, manufactured action and thrills, and an urgent subplot that focuses on a personal relationship in their lives in an attempt to both magnify the character(s)’s struggle to achieve their goal and compete with the sensory overload of most mainstream motion pictures.

While obviously any attempt to break the mold and take the audience by surprise is welcome, unfortunately for French director Christian Carion, the decision to remove the thrills and tension that were already present in this true life spy drama backfired in his disappointingly underwhelming attempt at an early ‘80s era Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Russian Falcon and the Snowman.

And given the enormous potential of journalist turned documentarian Serguei Kostine’s heavily researched work of nonfiction, Carion had all the makings of a cinematic masterpiece… if only he’d remained loyal to it.

Simply put, when your source material is this good, you have absolutely no business making a movie that plays extremely fast and loose with the facts because not only are you not going to top it, Farewell is of such international importance that it begs to be adapted faithfully.

On the surface however, the basic premise is the same. Farewell gives us the CliffsNotes chronicle of a stupefying saga of epic proportions centering on high-ranking KGB officer Vladimir Vetrov, who turned nearly four thousand pages of top-secret documents over to French intelligence in one of the most complicated and furthest reaching cases of international espionage that helped end the Cold War and topple the Iron Curtain before Vetrov’s hubris toppled him as well.

Instead of focusing specifically on the treasonous KGB operative who helped bring down Mother Russia for idealistic reasons only to get away with it (!) before he led to his own avoidable downfall in a series of bizarre events, a fictional character steps in for Vetrov.

In a confusing and sloppily edited beginning, we jump right into the spy game along with the two main characters – in a sense meeting them at the same time they meet each other – wherein we learn that Moscow-based French engineer Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet) will become the unlikely governmental go-between for the film’s Vetrov composite Sergei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica).

Admittedly, this technique of getting to know everyone on the same level and at the same moment can be supremely effective – particularly in conversational romantic dramadies such as Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset wherein dialogue dictates character.

But it's a disastrous move for a spy movie as we never feel fully enveloped in the plot or connected to our main characters to the extent that the filmmaker desires given the family squabbles and interpersonal drama that follows.

Though we’re riveted by the naturalistic performances of filmmakers Kusturica (Underground, Arizona Dream) and Canet (Tell No One) and I understand the intent of creating a fake anti-hero in this post 9/11 era of WikiLeaks, everything about the way the events unfold feels lazily unspecific and maddeningly vague.

Fixated on the bigger picture and how the lessons of the past tie in today, in Farewell Carion uses a device that’s more wooden than Fred Ward’s performance as President Reagan to drive a point home in a roundabout way rather than through traditional storytelling.

Illustrating the importance of symbolism and subtext through a conversation about the same thing, Farewell brings us to Film School 101 with the guest lecturer Ronald Reagan as throughout the film, the president repeatedly screens the eponymous sequence of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance while relishing in the symbolism.

It’s an odd decision to say the least and awareness of this fact pulls us right out of the film. And as we watch Reagan indulge his inner film geek onscreen, we wonder what he would've said offscreen about this scene in particular, considering that we’re never told the name, rank, or position of his favorite movie buddy and foreign policy confidant... which in a spy picture should probably carry more narrative weight than an observation about Liberty Valance.

Farewell landed in theaters last year alongside Angelina Jolie’s sleeper summer stunner Salt as proof that when it comes to the multiplex, it takes all spies. But with the release of 2010's strongest spy tale Fair Game, Bourne Identity helmer Doug Liman reminded us to accept no imitations as in the world of onscreen espionage, facts reign supreme. 

Related Reviews:
Christian Carion's The Girl from Paris
Emir Kusturica's Arizona Dream
Guillaume Canet's Tell No One
Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters
Phillip Noyce's Salt

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Topsy-Turvy (1999)

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Related Release:

Since looks can always be deceiving, we’re frequently reminded to never judge a book by its cover or take something at face value without first taking it with a grain of salt. Yet in addition to possessing a small kernel of truth, another reason why idioms are so popular is because there’s one for any given occasion and every single justification.

Therefore, when it comes to bewitching first impressions and questions of truth and beauty, The Criterion Collection reminds us that there are exceptions to every rule.

For as admired as the staggering cinematic releases are for what’s on the inside – in the form of history’s greatest motion pictures – Criterion discs are also cherished for their appearance on the outside the dazzling boxes, even spawning an online community of fan-made fake images where artistically inclined individuals upload their own photo imitations of Criterion’s museum quality covers.

Thus in addition to preserving, restoring and showcasing the globe’s most influential, auspicious and groundbreaking titles, the creative presentation of each new Criterion addition bridges the film world with the art world, bringing devotees works of art in works of art.

And the high-level of imagination on display in the collection’s cover art is especially apparent with the debut Criterion release of British filmmaker Mike Leigh’s Oscar winning Gilbert and Sullivan Mikado era biopic, Topsy-Turvy.

By honoring the country and culture that inspired the duo’s most acclaimed opera in a Japanese nineteenth-century woodblock print-style Joge-e or “two-way” illustration depicting one man from one angle and the other vice versa, Criterion simultaneously pays homage to the titular topsy-turvydom technique on display in Gilbert’s whimsical “two-way,” “up-and-down” Joge-e-like librettos wherein one thing magically transforms into something different altogether.

And with this frame of reference in mind, you can very well judge the film by artist Yuko Shimizu’s sublime cover since instead of composing a traditional period piece, Leigh used an artistic medium to chronicle the artistic process, making a work that was less concerned with biopic rigors and more focused on “what we do… [and] what we all go through” to create art.

In its initial release, Topsy-Turvy seemed to mark a bold departure from Leigh’s modern-minded daring art-house house fodder (Naked and Secrets & Lies).

However, after being given the opportunity to revisit both the director’s first foray into costume drama as well as his sole flirtation with cinematic biographical portraiture more than a decade after I first screened it (on VHS, no less), I now feel that despite the fact that it concerns different lives lived long ago, it’s one of Mike Leigh’s most personal endeavors.

Had the movie been helmed by a more timid director, it's safe to assume that they may have adhered to a classic cookie cutter approach. Yet Leigh visibly welcomed the chance to depict onscreen the offscreen filmmaking technique for which he is most well-known -- celebrating his love of imaginative discovery and passion for the artistic process as a joyful yet time-intensive collaboration -- which he uses to construct each and every one of his movies.

And amazingly, by staying stylistically, structurally and compositionally true to his roots, Leigh didn’t even let the demands of a biopic get in the way of his improvisational workshop technique wherein the director and his talented ensemble cast spend months in pre-production putting the film together piece-by-piece before Leigh even translates it into screenplay format.

In fact, the actors were so committed to authenticity that in the six-month workshop period, the cast soaked up period language training to be able to believably incorporate their research into improvisation in character.

Always an actor-friendly filmmaker, Topsy-Turvy finds Leigh at the height of his Altmanesque powers, taking a McCabe-like delight in his desire “to subvert the chocolate box subject” of period movies through the “combination of realism [and] some kind of heightened eccentricity” to, as film critic Amy Taubin surmised “take what in Britain is referred to as Heritage culture and give it a decidedly non-Heritage treatment.”

While fortunately it isn’t as crass as Altman’s glamour-less western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the revisionist influence is subtly on display from his decision to break free for a moment from the fittingly male-centric work that had previously focused on Gilbert and Sullivan in order to give us a glimpse into the lives of three women in their orbit in the concluding act.

Likewise, Leigh’s penchant for realism and dedication to the nature of art pays off extremely well since while admittedly, Topsy is steeped in the facts surrounding the inception and production of The Mikado, on a broader level, through our vicarious journey with Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sullivan (Allan Corduner), Leigh poses bigger queries about the industry of creativity.

As such, Topsy-Turvy remains incredibly timely – much more so than most backstage trifles – for examining the timeless battle between art and commerce with regard to how much emphasis should be on the money in show business to the industry-wide tendency to self-medicate to the toll that the personal lives of all involved take when at war with the artistic muse.

However, because it takes slightly longer than necessary to get going once we move backstage at the Savoy Theatre, the 160 minute film could’ve certainly benefited from another week in the editing room. Yet despite the fact that Topsy-Turvy occasionally loses some of its overall focus by dwelling on petty squabbles and conflicts among the supporting cast, overall it’s a masterfully executed production.

Arriving on Criterion Collection disc along with the separate, related debut of the 1939 film The Mikado, Topsy-Turvy’s stunning Blu-ray release is heightened by superlative technical specs on the lush high-definition transfer which was supervised by cinematographer Dick Pope.

Featuring filmmaker commentary, footage from its ‘99 debut, and a Leigh directed short written by and starring Jim Broadbent, this release of Topsy-Turvy -- complete with one of the collection’s most beguiling images in recent memory -- reminds you that every now and then you can judge something by its cover or take it on one of its two face values because Criterion remains the exception to every rule.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.