Earth and Heaven Not many Hollywood movies listen to their characters as closely as Anywhere But Here, a moving story of the prickly relationship between an eccentric, deluded mother and her withdrawn, brooding teenage daughter making a new life for themselves in Los Angeles. The film gives its characters room to breathe and live. The big dramatic moments coexist with smaller, stranger ones, and although its lovely, forlorn Southern California vistas put the drama of working-class domestic life in perspective, director Wayne Wang is also attentive to the specifics of daily life?bustling public school hallways, bowls of cereal gone soggy, the pale brightness of shabby apartments at dawn.
The story begins with Adele August (Susan Sarandon) and daughter Ann (Natalie Portman) on the road from their small town in Wisconsin to the bright lights of Los Angeles. Despite the ill-advised voiceover, which lifts overly descriptive prosaic lines straight from Mona Simpson's book ("My mother made an amazing amount of noise when she ate, as if she was trying to taste the entire world"), you can sense right away that this isn't going to be a typical road-trip movie or a typical sentimental mother-daughter movie. The body language of Adele and Ann is too real for that. They're sitting two feet apart in the car, but they're each in their own little worlds: Adele, an ageless adolescent with an unnervingly consistent can-do attitude, is singing along with a tune on the radio and trying to convince her daughter that this relocation is a good thing. Ann isn't buying it, but what raises the scene above the level of standard adolescent sullenness is the suggestion that the relocation is only part of the reason Ann is so dour. Mostly she's dour because she's 14, self-aware and convinced nobody else can possibly understand what she's going through?least of all her mother.
The mother-daughter relationship is an elaborate skein of empathy, strategic silence, needling and lies. Ann's father ran out on the family when Ann was very young; the closeness of this mother and daughter is partly a defense mechanism; they need each other in the here and now?despite the ever-widening personality gulf that separates them?because they've always needed each other and can't imagine life without the other.
Adele is an inveterate, gleeful liar who is obsessed with the lives of the rich and famous. They move into a dumpy apartment in the lowest-rent section of Beverly Hills and spend the better part of a year there without proper beds or furniture. Yet Adele drags Ann along on house-shopping trips and insists that when money troubles are getting them down, an expensive meal and a night on the town will cheer them up. "My father always said, if you've only got a dime left, spend it to get your shoes shined," Adele declares.
Ann's reaction to the latter line is exactly right?a wordless look of numb disdain. (Portman's reactions to Sarandon's chipper cluelessness are always exactly right; one of the most intuitively honest young actresses in movies, she somehow manages to express the audience's point of view toward Adele?affection plus exasperation?without editorializing or breaking character.) Where Adele lives in a dream?makes herself live in a dream, because reality is too depressing?Ann sees the truth, or at least part of the truth.
But does she really? Though Ann is the heroine of Anywhere But Here and claims the narration, the film doesn't make her right and Adele wrong. Each woman has weaknesses and blind spots; Ann's are mostly due to her age, while Adele's are rooted in buried disappointment over a lifetime of chances not taken. She's living vicariously through her daughter. She keeps encouraging her to go on auditions and study acting even though Ann's not interested; it's really Adele who wishes she were an actress. The film astutely senses that all family relationships involve a degree of performance?of misdirection, strategic silence, strategic cruelty, showmanship. The roles of mother and daughter are exactly that: roles. At some point, hopefully, Adele and Ann will stop acting for each other before their relationship is irrevocably harmed.
Veteran screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who adapted Simpson's same-named novel, eschews easy sentimentality; the dialogue is blunt and precisely chosen, neither unrealistically on-the-nose nor fake-documentary banal. It lets the characters communicate their feelings without knowing they're doing it. And Wang?one of the finest directors of actors in movies?employs exactly the right look, tone and style for this material. He and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, find a visual style that expresses the intense emotions of his heroines without veering into hyperreality or shameless melodrama. It's a widescreen movie?an unusual choice for an intimate mother-daughter drama?but the width of the frame is used strategically. It validates the characters' feelings and suggests a largeness of emotion, yet it doesn't imply that Ann and Adele's story is earth-shatteringly important, or even unique. In other words, the style keeps the story in perspective without diminishing the characters.
Deakins shot many of the interior scenes with a remote-controlled camera, which lets the actor maneuver freely in tight spaces without having to trip over equipment or a crew. The more intense scenes?Ann's impulsive seduction of a classmate; her late-night, heart-to-heart talk with a favorite male cousin (Shawn Hatosy) who's come to visit; Adele surreptitiously watching Ann's audition monologue, which cruelly caricatures some of Adele's quirks?have a startling aliveness. The style says we aren't seeing a fake melodramatic spectacle staged for the cameras; we're seeing concise, heightened dramatic fragments from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. We're invited eavesdroppers. Anywhere But Here rarely violates its own stylistic integrity?only in the audition scene, which struck me as too contrived and movie-ish. And there are a couple of dramatic confrontations that, while wrenching and real, aren't adequately prepared for (I'm thinking of the ugly argument right after a funeral, during which the blowup of an uncle we really haven't met before takes center stage). But for most of its running time, Anywhere But Here couples emotional directness and crowd-pleasing drama and humor without pandering to the audience.
Will the critics and the film industry take notice? Somehow I doubt it. Some of the most interesting Hollywood movies of recent years have revolved around women, and the concerns of women, and with few exceptions they've been treated condescendingly by the media as "chick flicks"?as if the emotional lives and life anxieties of half the population were less important, less valid, than tales of war, crime and free-floating male anxiety.
The Joy Luck Club, another Wang film, was a box office success that packed an amazing amount of drama, emotion and artistry (the flashbacks to rural China had the austere purity and boldness of a silent movie) into a fairly short running time. Yet it was largely dismissed by critics as a four-hanky special, something for girlfriends to bond over during a Saturday matinee. Little Women and How to Make an American Quilt?two similarly dense, concise, lovely and crowd-pleasing movies, movies that I never get tired of watching?were greeted with similar dismissiveness. I find this astonishing. These aren't films on little subjects; they're about love and friendship, marriage and divorce, birth and death. It doesn't get any bigger than that.
It's also worth noting that so-called "women's movies"?a dismissive label if there ever was one?are the only American films being made at the Hollywood level that routinely address the specifics of family and community life. Even most indie films?supposedly "artistic" alternatives to Hollywood phoniness, directed largely by men and supported largely by male critics?rarely bother to delve into that area of life, preferring instead to fixate on sensationalism, genre noodling, cartoon violence, gutter perversity and cutesy, postcollegiate navel-gazing. In this generally trivial movie landscape, Anywhere But Here is a beacon of excellence?an accessible, honest movie about mothers and daughters made at a very high level of craft and honesty. It deserves support from critics and respect from viewers?male and female. I hope it gets both.
Dogma directed by Kevin Smith I was rooting for Dogma; I root for the artistic success of any movie that dares to be different. On the surface, writer-director Kevin Smith's latest certainly qualifies. But it's an incoherent, draggy movie, and the gap between the script's provocative ideas and gags and the director's ability to dramatize them is as wide as the Red Sea.
If you read entertainment coverage with any regularity, you already know that it's a comic-epic, a satire on the state of modern Catholicism that also expresses staunch belief in the necessity of faith and the existence of God. Smith, who describes himself as a practicing Catholic, has ambition to spare. I can't remember the last loopy comedy on religious themes that also demanded to be taken seriously as a statement of faith. (Monty Python's Life of Brian doesn't really count, since the Pythons, like the creators of South Park, don't have religious bones in their bodies: they view religion mostly as a ludicrous and hypocritical spectacle?something that gets in the way of real-world morality rather than embodying it.)
Smith's premise is both silly and ingenious, like something a stoned seminary student might cook up at 4 a.m. instead of studying for his final exams. In New Jersey, a cardinal (George Carlin) is using the rededication of a church to launch his new public relations campaign for Catholicism, complete with a winking, friendly Christ who gives onlookers a reassuring thumbs-up sign. The cardinal hopes to lure lapsed Catholics back into the fold by promising that anyone who enters the rededicated church and embraces the newer, more forgiving brand of Catholicism will be wiped clean of sin.
A couple of fallen angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who've been banished to Earth for plotting against God, see the rededication as a physical and theological backdoor entrance to Heaven; they believe that by posing as humans and sneaking into the church, they can be wiped clean of sin, at which point they will be able to sneak into heaven, thus proving that God is fallible and negating human existence.
Smith's hero is a lapsed Catholic named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) who works at an abortion clinic. The angel Metatron (Alan Rickman) appears before her and tells her that she has been picked as the human who will foil the fallen angels' scheme. She goes on an odyssey from her home in Illinois to her home state of New Jersey; along the way, she's joined by recurring Smith creations Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) as well as the heretofore-unknown 13th apostle, Rufus (Chris Rock), who was cut out of the Gospels because he was black.
I admire the crazed, aggressively naive boldness of Smith's ideas. His typically dense, monologue-heavy screenplay jumps from pop-culture minutiae to relationship talk to honest confessions of emotional distress, always returning to issues of modern and ancient Catholicism. There's talk of plenary indulgences, the origins of heaven and hell, the concepts of sin and redemption and the church's complicity in the Holocaust and the slave trade. Smith is a smart, oddball comic writer, and he takes faith seriously and has done his homework?a rare combination of qualities for a young American filmmaker.
But Smith has trouble shaping the material; too much of it rarely rises above the revue-sketch level, and it lacks the animating spark of fury and bewilderment that characterizes similarly themed material by the Pythons and Carlin. And even at its most entertaining and engrossing, none of the scenes could be called "dramatic," in the sense of conveying ideas visually and emotionally. Mostly the characters don't really talk to each other; they just wait for their turn to declaim. And Smith's laid-back skill at directing punk-screwball acting seems to have deserted him. During some extended monologues, the actors who aren't speaking look stranded; they don't know what to do with their faces and hands?always a problem in a monologue-heavy movie?and they're reduced to shrugging in disbelief and rolling their eyes like performers in a student film or a cable access show.
Nor can Smith find a way to reconcile his dense, intelligent rhetorical flights of fancy with his penchant for gross-out humor (exemplified by a vengeful golem made entirely of human shit) and ineptly staged slapstick (Silent Bob tossing a couple of baddies off a train, then homaging Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade by declaring, "No ticket").
After the quantum leap of Chasing Amy?a sweet, strange film that infused the John Hughes romantic formula with unexpected tenderness and pain?this seems more a step back than forward. Sure, Smith's canvas is bigger, his concerns more urgent and literally cosmic, and the financial stakes higher; he worked with a real budget this time, and Miramax was so scared by the potential for controversy that they auctioned off the movie to Lions Gate.
But size doesn't matter; what matters is artistry, and that quality is conspicuously lacking here. Dogma looks shockingly bland for a film of such ambition. It's as if Smith literally doesn't care what it looks like as long as the camera is recording the actors saying his words. (David Mamet has the same problem.) The film is shot in widescreen by Robert Yeoman, one of the great cinematographers of the past two decades (he shot Rampage, Drugstore Cowboy and Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, to name just four beautiful but stylistically distinct films), but his work on this film suggests he's never shot a feature film before. It can't possibly be Yeoman's fault; when a cinematographer of such versatility and vision makes such an indifferently photographed film?with little attention to expressive lighting, strategic camera movement or even the dynamic arrangement of actors in the frame?there can only be one conclusion: he is giving the director exactly what the director wanted, and what the director wanted was blandness. There are some potentially startling images here, including the massacre of innocents by dark angels who hover in the sky like kites, but Smith seems oblivious to their possibilities. He shoots images of suburban boredom and apocalyptic horror the same way, as if the camera were no more than a recording device.
The no-frills, nail-the-camera-down-and-let-the-actors-act technique worked okay in Smith's last three movies, which were verbose comedies set in enclosed spaces. But for a film whose concerns are literally cosmic, it's self-defeating. While watching Dogma, I kept thinking about how much better it would have been if it had been directed by an expert fantasist and engaged dramatic storyteller?someone like Terry Gilliam or Peter Jackson. Even the Pythons, working as a group with a budget of about 10 shillings per film, made movies that looked better than Dogma?movies where what was onscreen visualized the writer's ideas instead of simply providing the actors with a platform to talk. Looking back on his four movies, Smith's learning curve as a writer and a budding artist is gratifyingly steep, but his learning curve as a director is nearly flat. He can do better than this; it's the only way to be taken seriously and last beyond the cultural moment. He has been quoted as saying, "My style is that I have no style." That's not an explanation anymore; it's an excuse. And it won't do.
Framed Train of Life, a French-Belgian-Romanian-Dutch black comedy about the attempts of Jewish shtetl inhabitants to avoid extinction in the Holocaust, would not be possible without the success of Life Is Beautiful. But it lacks the Benigni film's fairytale simplicity, which means that its mix of comic exaggeration and escapism grate and offend rather than provoke and amuse. The plot has the town's inhabitants, led by holy fool Schlomo (Lionel Abelanski), buying a train and deporting themselves not to a concentration camp but to Palestine. Some of the inhabitants dress as Nazis, and there are predictable (albeit amusing) gags about how playacting can cross over into reality. And while the film looks great, with its widescreen, deep-focus compositions, and has a surging forward momentum, the images of Jewish peasants are gross and stereotypical; Fiddler on the Roof is a model of sensitivity in comparison, and at least it had songs. The final revelation is meant to throw the previous two hours' worth of excitement and crazed comedy into mournful relief, but it just makes you wonder why you wasted your time.