August 2006


For the last few years, I’ve resisted the idea of starting my own blog. Even as everyone I knew around me (especially film folk) was starting one, I was content to sit back and let The Phantom Tollbooth archive my stuff. The main reason was that I just didn’t think the world needed another blog. What good was it going to do to add my little voice to the cacophony? I also had dreams of starting a larger web site with a bunch of friends, one that would be more collaborative and less hermetic. But the reality of that project dawned on me last summer, when several of us tried to get one off the ground but failed in the face of busy schedules and differing visions.

The realization that a web site was more likely to arise organically out of something that already exists provoked me to think more seriously about starting a blog. Add in a number of friends who encouraged me to get off my duff and start one, as well as the professional realization that a blog was becoming a necessary calling card in the culture sphere, and I finally admitted I couldn’t resist the onslaught anymore. So I decided on a name, found a decent host, and prepared to start my blog. Last January.

Yes, I’ve actually been paying for blog space for the past eight months. Months in which I thought a lot about my blog and did precious little about it. I’m not sure how other bloggers felt when they began, but starting has been strangely intimidating. I want this to be a reflection of who I am, and that’s a pretentious, arrogant know-it-all who wants to stand out in the midst of all the noise. But actually creating a blog that would do that–well, the reality pales in comparison to my own vision.

At Darren Hughes’s off-handed recommendation, I decided to use WordPress as my blogware. The advantage is that WordPress is customizable; if I get sophisticated enough, I can make this look more like a real website and less like, uh, a blog. The huge downside is that the learning curve is fairly steep, especially for someone like me who’s done almost no web coding. CSS? Isn’t that an acronym for some non-profit organization?

It hasn’t helped that so many of my good friends have beautifully-designed and -written blogs, ones that make me want to weep with envy (look to the side to see a sampling). I check out the blogs of Darren and Girish and others, and I’m overwhelmed by what I know I can’t do.

What’s changed this summer? Well, I finally swallowed my pride and acknowledged that the blog doesn’t have to be perfect, that I can launch something that’s only a faint glimmer of what I eventually hope to publish. It’s helped that I’ve had a lot more time since I moved in early July. Also, I knew I wanted to have the blog ready to go before I headed to the Toronto Film Festival. Doug Cummings, Mike Hertenstein, and Darren have been great about hosting my musings from Toronto in past years, but I want to have my own place this time around

So, here it is. As I suspect is true for most blogs, this one will be a work in progress. Initially, it’ll be a place to post whatever film reviews I’ve written and interviews I’ve conducted (look for both new stuff and archived material I particularly like). Over time, I hope to expand beyond film and write about politics and religion as well as personal reflections. Some friends have suggested I be specific and focus on movies, but I think the blog should be as wide-ranging and expansive as I care for it to be. If I want to post a random interview with a colleague, so be it. If I want to write about my memories of cutting down the Christmas tree with my family, I’ll bore you with that, too. But to be fair to those who are coming to the blog specifically for my cinema-related thoughts, I’ll warn you if a particular essay goes off in a wildly different direction.

My plan over the next several days is to start putting up reviews from the last several months (three examples follow below). Then next week (hopefully Monday or Tuesday) I’ll post about my Toronto lineup. And then this will be the place for my Toronto reactions. I made a point of getting wi-fi in the hotel room, so I should be able to post pretty much every day from Sept. 8-17. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Ok, enough of my ramblings. Finally, I want to offer a number of thank yous to people who have helped and encouraged me in getting this off the ground. The design is modified from a theme created by Patricia Muller. Thanks to Neil Robinson, Joe Carey, Mike H, Jeffrey Overstreet, Mike Leary, and Dahlia Hanin for their steady encouragement and gentle proddings. To Darren, Doug, and Girish for inspiring me with their fantastic blogs. To Rob Davis for lots of helpful feedback. To Mike Stemle for getting me over the coding hump. To Shari and Linda for their long-time support at the Phantom Tollbooth. And to David Stirling, who helped me crop the photo at the top of this page (it’s the Chicago skyline as seen from my apartment on a particularly stunning summer evening).

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When the history of the Bush, Jr. presidency is written thirty years from now, Guantanamo will be its defining place. It will be the symbol of terror-stoked fear and presidential power run amok. The stories will eventually come out–from prisoners finally released and Marines whose consciences finally crack–of what was done for the cause of “freedom.” Children will ask their parents how we allowed it to happen, how we as Americans could permit torture and worse to be committed in our name. And many of us will reply that we just didn’t know, that we weren’t aware of what was truly happening. But that’ll be a lie. We know. We’ve known since we saw the Abu Ghraib pictures. If that was taking place in Iraq with its relatively insignificant prisoners, it doesn’t take any imagination to know that much worse was happening behind the secret gates at Guantanamo Bay. And those inferences have been confirmed by statements from the Department of Defense and CIA arguing that almost anything is fair game in the “War on Terror.” No, we know. We’ve just chosen to look away.

The Road to Guantanamo is an attempt to force us to watch. It’s based on the true story of a trio of British young men who were rounded up in Afghanistan and then sent to the Guantanamo Bay prison for more than two years. They were finally released in March ’04 when the military basically admitted that it had no reason to keep the three and released them to the U.K.

Directed by Michael Winterbottom (Tristram Shandy), the movie chronicles how the three came to be in Afghanistan in the first place and their horrific saga after taken prisoner. Winterbottom re-creates their story, using unknown actors and locations in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as a replica of the Guantanamo prison. He uses the same hand-held digital video style he utilized in “In This World” to invoke the feel of immediacy. The three men also talk directly to the camera, in the manner of a talking-head documentary, which lends even more authenticity to their story.

I wish I could say that The Road to Guantanamo is a great film. After all, it won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. That prize, though, is almost certainly a reward for the movie’s politics. The film itself is Michael Winterbottom’s weakest. Though the story is compelling to be sure and the editing (by Winterbottom and co-director Mat Whitecross) is sharp and well-paced, the film is deeply frustrating.

For one, the account of events doesn’t quite add up. The tale begins with one of the men heading to Pakistan in late September 2001 to get married. His two friends (three at first but one later disappears) follow along, but they don’t join him in Islamabad. Instead, they go to Karachi, and he decides to join them there. To save money, they stay in a mosque, where the imam preaches a particularly virulent anti-American, pro-Taliban message. Intrigued by the sermons, the three decide to head to Afghanistan “to see for themselves and to help out.”

Now I know that young men can be impulsive, but what about the marriage, and who in their right mind would head into a war zone “to see for themselves”? The three take a van to Kandahar. But finding that unfulfilling, they head to Kabul. There they stay for two-and-a-half weeks, though it’s not clear what they do there. And then somehow, though they want to go back to Pakistan, they wind up on a Taliban truck to Kunduz, the center of the fighting at the time between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. And that’s where they’re captured.

Though the movie’s sympathies (and ours) are clearly with these three relatively happy-go-lucky men, you don’t have to be particularly cynical to acknowledge that their story might sound fishy, that it could’ve raise red flags with Army and CIA interrogators, that the young men might be hiding something. That becomes even more conceivable when we find out that at least one and maybe all three had affiliations with the notorious Central Mosque in Birmingham, England, at which the martyrdom video of one of the World Trade Center bombers was openly sold.

Now, I appreciate the movie’s honesty in how it tells its story, but that honesty doesn’t extend to truly explaining the motivations of the three. We’re never quite sure of what actually happened before they were captured in Kunduz. Furthermore, because those events take up the entire first half of the movie, there’s a strange cloud that hangs over the story–can I believe what I’m seeing? And because Road to Guantanamo is, at its core, a piece of agitprop, an attempt to influence the debate and confront people with the effects of their leaders’ policies, it’s a serious failing that the movie undermines its own argument.

Of course, these inconsistencies are not an excuse for what was later done to the men. And Road to Guantanamo is most powerful when it portrays the incredibly awful conditions at the prison: the forced isolation, the beatings, the utilization of sleep deprivation, stress positions, and other devices of interrogation. In one terrifying sequence, Winterbottom integrates loud music, a chained prisoner, and a strobe light to belie Rumsfeld’s assertions that these conditions don’t qualify as torture. If the movie had concentrated solely on what happened (and continues to happen) at Guantanamo and the legal morass that envelops the place, the movie would’ve been a spectacular achievement. But I fear that its first half will allow any skeptic to write off the whole thing.

Still, the movie is well worth seeing for anyone who hasn’t read the striking articles by Seymour Hersh and others in The New Yorker, for anyone who is tired of our sanitized and impotent media, for anyone who’s decided it’s time to stop looking away. As I write this today, the Supreme Court has rejected Bush’s claim to try the prisoners in military court, to which the Defense Dept. has responded that it still has the right to hold suspects indefinitely and without charge. And apparently to torture and do almost whatever it wants in the name of freedom and liberty and the American way.

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The Sundance Film Festival is an unusual event. While Robert Redford started it as a small festival devoted to fostering American independent cinema, the huge success of early discoveries like Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Reservoir Dogs helped make Sundance a much bigger attraction. Suddenly, the Harvey Weinsteins of the world realized there was money to be made, and they started descending on Park City, Utah in the dead of winter, hoping to find the next indie blockbuster. If you think about it, “indie blockbuster” should be an oxymoron, but a lot has changed in 15 years, and now studio executives routinely show up at Sundance ready to bid $2, $5, or even $8 million dollars on a small-budget film.

Or maybe $10.5 million. That was where the bidding finally stopped for this year’s fest fave Little Miss Sunshine, as studios practically fell over themselves in an attempt to land the movie that had all of Park City laughing. I try to avoid all that inside scuttlebutt, as it seems irrelevant to a movie’s quality, but I have to admit it’s sometimes hard to ignore the hype that blows out of Park City. Fortunately, this time around the film lives up to the hype.

Little Miss Sunshine is a sharp, hilarious portrait of a family struggling to come to terms with itself. Richard and Sheryl (Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette) are a loving couple doing their best to live the American dream. Richard has come up with a nine-step program for success, and he’s hoping to land a big book contract any day. But success hasn’t quite caught on at home. Richard’s dad (in a gloriously filthy performance from Alan Arkin) has come to live with them after being thrown out of his retirement home. And at the beginning of the film, Sheryl goes to pick up her brother Frank (Steve Carell), who’s being released from the hospital after trying to commit suicide.

The immediate family is struggling as well. Inspired by Nietzsche, their teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) hasn’t spoken a word in nine months, relying instead on a small notebook and a pen he clicks with ferocious intent. Only seven-year-old Olive (the exquisitely precocious Abigail Breslin) seems above all the difficulties, as she practices a dance routine for an upcoming beauty pageant.

It’s a different beauty pageant, however, that sets everything in motion. Olive learns, to her screaming delight, that her second place in a previous contest has entitled her to compete in the next stage of the Little Miss Sunshine competition. All she has to do is travel from Albuquerque to California. The only way to get her there, though, is for the entire family to pile into their old VW bus and take a road trip.

This being a road trip movie, it goes without saying that difficulties ensue. The VW breaks down, one family member is left behind, and other family members start getting a bit too honest with each other. The amazing thing about Little Miss Sunshine is that these familiar tropes are as fresh as a daisy in Michael Arndt’s script.

What’s especially impressive is how true to life this all rings. In an early scene, the family scurries around the kitchen, fussing with each other as they try to get dinner on the table, and it reminded me of my own childhood years. There are also the inevitable family disagreements and irritations, as three generations struggle to coalesce. Soon, we realize that the hustle and bustle is a way of avoiding the awful silences, the moments when people are afraid of what they might say or hear.

But the movie isn’t some disillusioned attack on the suburban family. Instead, it achieves what few comedies can–a balance of tone. The slapsticky moments give way to scenes of genuine pathos, the stinging satire is offset by the warm camaraderie. The characters snap at each other as relatives do and get underneath each other’s skin, but there’s also a deep undercurrent of affection.

None of this would be possible without the fantastic cast. Every performance hits the right note. Dano and Breslin are wonderful as the children, with Dano’s Dwayne the stoic teenager and Breslin the enthusiastic sister. Carell brings the deadpan delivery he honed on “The Daily Show” and uses it to give life to the post-suicidal Frank. And can I just say how great it is to see Alan Arkin in a meaty, funny role? Kinnear often gets stuck playing the repressed everyman, but he has such great chemistry with Collette and the other family members. We believe this guy is trying to bring the family together, even though his methods sometimes have the opposite effect. So when a cop approaches the vehicle and Greg Kinnear blurts out “Everyone pretend to be normal,” it’s a hilarious line because the family is trying so hard to be normal when that’s an impossible task. What family is normal, and who would want to be a part of that family?

The movie isn’t perfect (few are). At times, the gags veer a little too close to National Lampoon’s Vacation (there’s even a dead body in the bus at one point), and the portrait of child beauty pageants is horrifying. But Little Miss Sunshine builds up so much good will that I easily overlooked those mis-steps. And when the VW bus finally drove off into the metaphorical sunset, I let out a little sigh. I hadn’t enjoyed a comedy that much in a long time.

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A split screen format–where a screen is divided into two and sometimes more rectangles, with different action occurring in each–is much more common in music videos and commercials than feature length films. Director Mike Figgis used a four-square split screen in his 2000 movie Timecode, as he showed what was happening in four different places at the same time. The Bolivian film Sexual Dependency divided its Cinemascope widescreen into two parts, though the rationale was never clear to me. And Peter Greenaway has dabbled with multiple screens in a couple of his films.

But if you’ve seen any of those films, you’ll know why its use is limited. It’s hard to watch for any length of time. Paying attention to two completely different things on the screen is challenging, and the filmmakers also have the difficult task of deciding how to integrate sound into the multiple visuals.

Conversations with Other Women is the first split-screen film I’ve seen that really works [the above photo is not an example of the split-screen used in the film]. It’s the story of a man (Aaron Eckhart) and a woman (Helena Bonham Carter) who meet at a wedding reception. She’s a bridesmaid, though she seems older than everyone else in the party. He’s a suave-looking man on the prowl. He notices her fidgeting and trying to find a place to smoke, and he decides to make his move.

The split-screen approach allows us to see both characters at the same time, noticing how he reacts to her and her to him. My friend Garth found it all a bit disorienting at first, but you get used to it, and the benefits are significant. For starters, the movie is, for all intents and purposes, a long conversation. By showing the woman and man in separate screens, we can watch both aspects of the conversation, the one who’s talking and the one who’s listening and reacting.

This is a great vehicle for Eckhart and Carter, who remind us of why they’re two of the best actors working today. Eckhart brings the same charm and guile to this role that he did in his star-making turn in Thank You for Smoking. But as the film goes on, his suave demeanor turns out to be the facade of a needy man desperate for affection. Carter hasn’t had a role this meaty since Wings of the Dove, and she nails it as a woman who’s both flattered by the attention and wise enough to know that a one-night stand can’t possibly be the right choice.

As the movie continues past the initial conversation, we realize that these two aren’t strangers at all. They were lovers in much younger days, and that recognition brings a depth to their relationship. And it’s here where director Hans Canosa’s decision to use a split screen really pays off. For instead of focusing just on Eckhart and Carter, he sometimes uses half of the screen to portray the two in that early relationship (played by Erik Eidem and Nora Zehetner).

Initially, these scenes are just visual accompaniment to the stories Eckhart and Carter are remembering in their dialogue. But as that conversation moves to Carter’s hotel room, the scenes of the young couple become a counterpoint to what the older couple are doing, and that contrast provides a much richer subtext to the narrative. As Eckhart and Carter talk about sex in their current lives, the other side of the screen shows their younger care-free sexual shenanigans. The themes of first love and love lost are familiar ones to most movie audiences, but by combining the two, Canosa and screenwriter Gabrielle Levin add an emotional depth that’s often missing in romantic dramas.

The movie is also served well by its decision to focus on just one evening. That allows the story to develop naturally. The lead-up to the possible sexual encounter is convincing because of the time it takes and the way the conversation builds rather than lurches. The dialogue also has a sophistication about it that’s reminiscent of classic Hollywood days, though part of that might be due to Eckhart and Carter’s exquisite line readings. Yet, because of the split screen, we also have a connection to a much earlier time and the emotions it brings.

My friend Garth often complains that they don’t make movies for people older than 25 anymore. That may be mostly true, but Conversations with Other Women is a strong alternative to the summer’s blockbuster fare.