Counting Down the Zeroes: Closer (2004)

“Have you ever seen a human heart? It’s like a fist wrapped in blood!”

Love can be a brutal weapon. A fist wrapped in blood. Never has that been more evident than in 2004’s Closer, directed by Mike Nichols of The Graduate fame, based on the play by Patrick Marber. It is a four person play of two men and two women, couples which will seduce, toy with, and betray each other and the only true heart will be the one who’s never told the truth about themselves.
We begin when a young American woman named Alice, played by Natalie Portman, is hit by a taxi in London; she looks left instead of right. An office worker named Dan- Jude Law- helps get her back on her feet, and when she opens her eyes she says, “Hello stranger,” and we note the instant chemistry. He takes her to the hospital; they hit it off. He writes obituaries for a newspaper, but wants to be a novelist. She’s an intriguing young beauty, disarming, he tells her; she becomes his muse, and a year later is publishing a book inspired by her life as a stripper. We learn this when he goes to photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) to get his mug shot for the dust jacket.
Alice is a girl, and Anna is a woman, confident, statuesque. Dan is immediately captured by her as she clicks away with her Leica. A fellow artist; an established one, as opposed to aspiring young Dan. He kisses her, but she rebuffs him, once she knows he’s in a relationship. He persists, interrupted when Alice comes upstairs to use “the loo”- her affectation of Britishisms is an amusing conceit- and Anna asks to take her picture alone, recognizing her natural beauty. She’s heard their flirtations, and Anna takes a photo of her sadness that eventually ends up at her photo exhibition later. Alice decides not to tell Dan what she overheard, but he never forgets Anna.

If you have any doubts as to Ms. Portman’s acting abilities, I suggest you see this film. She exudes a wisdom belying her age, and we know Alice knows more than her years imply, whether through instinct or experience. Jude Law’s Dan is a little less mysterious; he’s the artist who idealizes love, and would rather be the one doing the desiring in a relationship. He’s also a bit of a prankster. One night he’s in an internet chat room (looks like AOL Instant Messenger) pretending to be a woman, teasing a doctor who’s up late on his shift, named Larry (Clive Owen). They have a hilarious cybersex exchange, and Dan plays a cruel trick that backfires on him: he masquerades as Anna, and tells him to meet him at the London Aquarium.
Larry is the gruff opposite of neat, pretty Dan; Clive Owen wears a perpetual five o’clock shadow, paired with his bushy eyebrows, knobby knuckles and slightly hunched posture make him seem like he crawled out of a Cro-Magnon cave and into a doctor’s white coat. He’s a man ruled by animal appetites, but he’s sharp enough to know how to turn a prank into Cupid’s arrow. His befuddlement and honest apologies after his vulgar come-ons to Anna endear him to her, and they become a couple. We meet them again at Anna’s exhibition, where a huge photo of Alice’s crying face fills a wall. While Dan and Anna meet to discuss their work, Larry recognizes Alice from her photo and asks her what she thinks.

“It’s a lie. It’s a bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully, and… all the glittering assholes who appreciate art say it’s beautiful ’cause that’s what they wanna see. But the people in the photos are sad, and alone… But the pictures make the world seem beautiful, so… the exhibition is reassuring which makes it a lie, and everyone loves a big fat lie.”

Oddly enough, you’d think Larry and Alice would hit it off immediately for they’re both cynics. At one point he calls himself “a clinical observer of the human carnival,” and he’s the source of the opening quote about the human heart. He holds no illusions, but is not made of stone. “You don’t know the first thing about love, because you don’t understand compromise.” And the compromise he’ll make to get what he wants, and to get revenge, is the bloody heart of this story. For while he and Alice are chatting, Dan and Anna are as well.

Once Anna and Dan are together, Alice and Larry are torn apart. Alice disappears into her own past, but Larry refuses to give up on Anna. When she asks him for a divorce, as an observer of the “human carnival,” he accuses her of doing this because she doesn’t think she deserves to be happy. I’m not a big fan of Julia Roberts, but here she is quite brilliant; Anna is a carefully built façade of strength hiding internalized self-loathing from abuse in previous relationships. “Did you get dressed because you thought I was going to hit you?” “I’ve been hit before.” “Not by me!” Patrick Marber’s screenplay based on his own play has such depths written between the lines. She wears weakness as a shield, using her past to deflect judgment for her actions. And Larry admits an infidelity with a prostitute just before her own announcement, because he senses it coming. Does he do it to get the first punch in, or because he knows she’s leaving him for another man, and wants to dwarf his own indiscretion alongside hers?
Like the more recent Doubt, Closer is crafted to initiate discussion. Is Larry’s infidelity somehow less criminal because he doesn’t cheat with his heart? It’s the stereotypical male excuse. Larry is a self-described “caveman,” and we notice that his weakness is sexual, while Dan “falls in love” when he cheats. After the break-ups, Larry finds Alice working in a strip club, as he tries to clobber the pain away with sex. Wearing a pink wig, little else, and using the name Janie Jones from the Clash song, he tries to reconnect with her. She’s steeled herself against her loss better than he has, despite her breakdown to Dan. The movie is perhaps most famous for this scene, not only for Ms. Portman’s state of undress, but for the brutally frank dialogue. She prowls around him in the private room like a pink tigress, as he stuffs pound notes into her garter, not asking her to reveal her body, but “something true.” Her response:

“Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off—but it’s better if you do.”
It’s a line from film noir, and the irony is that she’s most truthful here with Larry than with anyone else. He begs her to sleep with him, feigning pain and playing into her desire to be desired; but we’ll learn, he is also marking his territory, and setting up his cruel revenge on Dan “for deceiving me so exquisitely.” Because Anna needs to see him, to finalize their divorce. And as an astute observer of the human carnival, Larry knows how to get her back. He plays to her pity, and to his own caveman image: “You’d be my whore. And in return I will pay you with your liberty.” Leaving his mark on her, knowing that she’ll tell Dan, who won’t be able to accept it. In a line used in the trailer but not the film, he says, “You women don’t understand the territory, because you are the territory.”
Clive Owen’s portrayal of Larry is perfect, and he resembles Paul Newman in the role. A bit of Hud, surely. In the play, he had the role of the younger man Dan, versus Ciarán Hinds as the older, wiser man. Here he claims to understand love because he accepts compromise, but his idea of love is proprietary. Does he want Anna back because he loves her, because he knows he can hold her together when she’s weak, or because she was taken from him? Dan says, “You love her like a dog loves its owner,” but perhaps he loves her like a dog loves a bone. And while Larry says he’s forgiven her, and that “without forgiveness we’re savages,” we know what he’s done to Dan, and get the feeling Anna will be paying for her infidelities for the rest of her life. I’d always sided with Larry in early viewings, but the better I get to know him, the more I see him as a darker shade of gray than I did originally. But he does appeal to even young Dan, who apes some of his words when he goes back to Alice.
In the end, Dan is left with nothing except the revelation of his lover’s secret, and Alice is again crossing the street to Damien Rice’s “The Blower’s Daughter,” which tells of infatuation and loathing, only hinting at what went goes on in between; the film is similar, skipping a year between scenes, giving us only the crucial moments that send these relationships spinning off on a new axis. The moments they meet, the moments that set them into crumbling. In the background is always music from Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte, which also dealt with couples swapping partners. Here it sets a bittersweet mood, as Nichols works angles and close-ups, and his D.P. Stephen Goldblatt- more famous for action films, but also for the inventive Joe vs. the Volcano– maps the geography of the four human faces with incredible detail. Patrick Marber would also go on to adapt the excellent Notes on a Scandal, and director Mike Nichols easily makes his best movie since Mrs. Robinson flashed some thigh. Clive Owen and Natalie Portman would be nominated for Oscars, and win Golden Globes. It would be shoved aside by Million Dollar Baby of all things, but I think in the years to come, this will be better remembered.
Oh, and if you’re interested in lurid screencaps of Natalie in this movie, you’ll have to go to her Hump Day page.

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Death to Smoochy

My sister and I have very different taste in movies. For example, she loves the **** Movie ‘spoofs,’ and I would rather insert live porcupines up my rectum than watch Meet the Spartans. But sometimes she introduces me to magic, like The Forbidden Zone, so I know better to ignore her recommendations. Besides, she’s one of the 3 people who read this blog, and I heartily believe in pandering to my audience.
Death to Smoochy is that rare dark comedy out of Hollywood; producers rarely have the balls to be mean enough to make a good cruel comedy, and while it was reviled by critics, I think it is underrated. I’m not a big fan of Robin Williams, but Ed Norton is amazing as Smoochy the Rhino, the kid show TV star he plays eerily like Steve from Blues Clues with a country accent. This came along at the end of the Barney hate era and probably felt a little old, but that’s not what it’s about, so the backlash was misdirected.
Robin Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, a creepy kid show star who dances and sings in a white sequin suit surrounded by munchkins- but he’s gotten too big. He gets caught taking payola to let kids be on camera and loses it all, and execs Marion Stokes (Jon Stewart, in a rare film role) and Nora (Catherine Keener from The 40-Year Old Virgin) need a new star. Nora finds a guy named Sheldon (Norton) dressed in a gamy rhino suit playing acoustic guitar in a Coney Island dive to support the local drug rehab clinic. And a star is born!
Smoochy gets a new suit and skyrockets to stardom, while Rainbow Randolph seethes in misery, blaming the rhino for all his problems. Now this could be your typical revenge farce, but director Danny DeVito makes it about the commercialism of children’s television as well. Much of this works, but it’s just not cruel enough. We see Smoochy get shot in the opening, but they pull a switcheroo on us. Robin Williams is surprisingly good as the obsessed Rudolph, but the movie doesn’t live up to his intensity.
It’s not really a shock that children’s TV is all about money; my generation grew up watching shows that were really just toy commercials, and the Transformers franchise continues to pull in the dough. The ending lacks punch, and is too pat. The good guys aren’t supposed to win so handily in a dark comedy; it’s got to hurt. That’s not to say this underappreciated movie doesn’t have plenty going for it. It’s sort of The Cable Guy for Williams; he needed to shrug off the smarm he collected from Patch Adams, and making a bunch of phallic cookies to sabotage Smoochy’s show, and then apoplectically bursting in to yell “IT’S A COCK!” when the rhino says it’s a rocketship, is just the thing.
There’s also a punchy boxer named Spinner Dunnwho loves Smoochy, and he’s played just right by Michael Rispoli, right on the edge of discomfort. Catherine Keener is enjoyable as the exec whose heart of stone is melted. But anyone who’s been forced to sit through children’s television will enjoy the broad satire of the genre. Danny DeVito knows how to do dark comedy, like Throw Momma from the Train and The War of the Roses, but he got a little soft here. But seeing Ed Norton play a silly folk singer in a rhino suit, and Robin Williams losing it makes for some good entertainment.

Rating: Worthy

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Counting Down the Zeroes: Spirited Away

This post is part of Film for the Soul‘s excellent Counting Down the Zeroes project, reviewing the great films of the past decade.

One more thing to thank Pixar for is helping get Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli some respect in the States. I’ve been a fan since I saw Nausicaa presented at a science fiction convention in the early ’90s; back then was only available on a bootleg VHS with subtitles created by American fans who learned Japanese. Later I saw Princess Mononoke at an Asian Cultural Center in Minneapolis, dubbed for American release. So I thought it was wonderful when in 2003 he won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature with Spirited Away.

Princess Mononoke was the general American public’s introduction to Miyazaki, and it is practically an action film, with a war between nature and a village of gunmakers; it’s an easy sell. Spirited Away is a disturbing fairy tale about a young girl kidnapped and enslaved by a witch. Instead of an action film we get an Alice in Wonderland set in a strange fairy tale world sprung from Miyazaki’s imagination, melding all sorts of folklore.
It is the tale of Chihiro, a young girl who is moving to a new town with her parents. She is angry at leaving home, and sits petulantly in the back of the car. Her father takes a deep forest road, and they come upon an abandoned amusement park. As they explore, her parents find a room laden with delicious food, and begin eating ravenously. Chihiro senses that something is off, and does not eat; she comes upon a boy named Haku, who warns her to leave with her parents, but it is too late. Her parents have begun turning into pigs, and there is no return. They have entered the land of spirits, and cannot escape.
Rather disturbing, isn’t it? No more than a fairy tale, and that’s what this is. Chihiro follows Haku, who wants to protect her, but soon she is in the thrall of the witch Yubaba, a wizened old woman of bizarre proportions. Her parents are soon in Yubaba’s pigsty and Chihiro must find a way to free them and escape; her only choice is to work for the witch, at her bath house, where all the spirits come to get clean. From there on, we follow the naive yet plucky Chihiro as she works off her debt in the spirit world, making friends and learning the secrets of Haku and Yubaba.
The world is one of mystery and wonder, rooted in mundane work life. Another worker named Lin takes her under her wing- she’s one of the few humans there- and teaches her the ropes. They toil together scrubbing the baths, which are visited by frog men, dragons and “stink spirits.” Some are the spirits of rivers and trees, in other guises; others are pure mystery, such as a cloaked, silent figure in Noh mask who seems a little too friendly and generous. Chihiro learns that Haku is also bound to Yubaba, and hopes to free him as well someday.
The story is slowly paced, but there is always something fantastic going on. The characters are full and believable, whether they are witches or drudges. And as always, the beautiful animation of Studio Ghibli is the backdrop. We see oriental dragons have dogfights in the sky against swarms of paper birds cutting them to ribbons; a spidery man with a dozen gangly limbs operating a coal furnace fed by a tiny army of dust motes; and parades of all kinds of spirits and fantastic creatures as they walk across the bridge to town.
The world has the same grip that the creations of Jim Henson and Terry Gilliam, and it’s not all fun and games. Yubaba takes Chihiro’s name as collateral, and renames her “Sen,” as it capturing her soul. A ravenous spirit begins luring the bath house workers with gold nuggets and swallowing them whole. And Yubaba’s minions include a trio of bouncing, grunting, bearded disembodied heads and a beastly enormous baby she dotes over. We get a real sense of danger for little Sen, no matter how resourceful she is.
Spirited Away is more than a coming of age folk tale about a spoiled child forced to grow up in a strange world. In part, the bath house is a token from old Japanese culture, “the good old days.” In 2001 when this was made, Japan was undergoing its own economic crisis, and a yearning for the simplicity of old abounded. The familiar Miyazaki nods to nature are subtle, but there; we see a polluted river spirit fly free, once it is freed of the garbage weighing it down. The punishment for the gluttonous parents is obvious; we have grown fat and need to tighten our belts. So in some ways, it is just as poignant for America now as it was for Japan eight years ago.
But lessons aside, this is a great story; at just over two hours, it never drags or feels indulgent. It envelops you, like a good fantasy should. There are mistakes and redemption; people of compassion and greed, selfish vampires, gluttons and the reward of earnest hard work, pride in doing the right thing, and forgiveness for trespasses. We dive deep into a strange yet familiar world, and meet fantastic and interesting characters. We even see someone eat a dried lizard, who makes it look so tasty you wish you could have a nibble.
Spirited Away is the perfect marriage of the more energetic Princess Mononoke and the children’s fairy tale of My Neighbor Totoro, that can be enjoyed by everybody. And while Ghibli has made better films- Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are truly great movies- this is a favorite, and one of the great animated films. You can watch it subtitled, or with the excellent English dub that was released by Disney in 2003. When you see the wonder of WALL-E, know that it stands on Chihiro’s little shoulders.

Counting Down the Zeroes

Ibe over at Film for the Soul has embarked on an ambitious project: chronicling the best movies of naughty noughties. He’s got an archival blog up at Counting Down the Zeroes to keep track of them all, and really- we all like to talk about the good ol’ days, but the Oh-Oh’s were a pretty decent decade for movies, if you ask me. I signed up to review Spirited Away for 2001, and I’ll probably review Mean Girls for 2004. If you love movies, Film for the Soul is worth checking out, and you’ll get a steady diet of excellent movie reviews on the Counting Down the Zeroes blog as well.