#97 - Tales To Astonish

Dedicated To
Shel Dorf
1933 - 2009

Added 11/10/9

Howdy, folks. Welcome back to your Electric Theatre. Sorry for the long absence but I hope that Hell Plaza Oktoberfest III more than filled the void and that you enjoyed this year’s month-long detour of the damned. But there’s more to life than just zombies, vampires and unstoppable masked killers (crazy I know but true), so we now return you to your regularly scheduled program.


The Men Who Stare At Goats

This should be one of my favorite movies of 2009. It’s based on a terrific book by British journalist Jon Ronson, a funny, deeply weird read. It stars a veritable who’s who of some of my favorite actors working today. The trailer made me laugh out loud and got me as excited as I’ve been in a long time for a movie. Yes, all the elements are there to make The Men Who Stare At Goats a shoo-in for this year’s top ten. It’s not.

Ewan McGregor stars as Bob Wilton, a reporter who heads off to Iraq when the second Gulf War breaks out, searching for the story that will cement his reputation. He finds Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), an ex-soldier who served in a very strange unit. Under the command of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), these men were trained to flex their psychic abilities. Lyn claims to be re-activated and takes Bob along on his mission. So far, it sounds like the best movie the Coen brothers never made.

Indeed, The Men Who Stare At Goats would have benefited from the Coens’ touch or at least, a more stylish and confident director. Grant Heslov makes his feature directorial debut here. He shows promise but the timing seems off in some of the jokes, with odd dead-air patches that should have been trimmed. A bigger problem is McGregor’s character. Ewan McGregor would have been an ideal choice to play a role based on Jon Ronson. The character needs to be cynical but willing to believe, sharp-tongued and intelligent. Bob comes across as an emotionally fragile, wide-eyed naïf, ready to swallow anything without so much as a raised eyebrow. Not exactly the ideal choice to be our guide to this subculture of weirdos.

Parts of the movie are quite funny, such as an early scene between McGregor and ex-soldier Stephen Root, who claims to have psychically killed a hamster. Clooney is reliably charming and it’s always a treat to see him embrace his goofy side. Enough of the film works that you keep expecting it to pull together. Instead, it goes into a profoundly disappointing tailspin in the final act with a ludicrous finale that seems more like a rejected scene from Up The Academy. It’s juvenile, weirdly naïve and totally kills any good will you may have built up for the movie. In the end, The Men Who Stare At Goats feels a bit unfinished. There are laughs to be had but it feels weightless and utterly without resonance. It’s one of those rare movies that manages to amuse and disappoint at the same time. (* * ½)


Synecdoche, New York

There isn’t much arguing over the fact that Charlie Kaufman is one of the most interesting screenwriters working in film today. But when his directorial debut was released last year, the consensus seemed to be that as a director, Kaufman made an excellent writer. Sure, the movie had its supporters but there was nowhere near the level of “you’ve-gotta-see-this” buzz that accompanied Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. This mystifies me. Synecdoche, New York is dense, challenging, and difficult to warm up to. But it’s also fascinating, haunting and often lyrically beautiful.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (who should probably just legally change his name to The Great Philip Seymour Hoffman) stars as Caden Cotard, a theatre director whose life is falling to pieces. His marriage to artist Catherine Keener is on the rocks and his health is failing him in strange ways. He hits rock bottom when Keener takes off for Berlin, taking their daughter with him. Just when things can’t get worse, he receives word that he’s been awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. He wants to use the money to stage an elaborate original theatre piece, based on his own life. He casts actors to play real people in his life, then casts other actors to play the actors, and constructs a life-size stage, a brick-for-brick reproduction of New York itself in a warehouse.

That’s basically what happens in the movie but that isn’t really what the movie’s about. Quite honestly, I probably need to watch it another two or three times before I could even start telling you what I think it’s about. And even then, it would just be what I’m reading into it. You most likely would get something different. Kaufman’s film is full of symbols, metaphors and skewed time. Watching it is like soaking in a great abstract painting or listening to a complex piece of music. It takes some getting used to. For the first fifteen minutes or so, my brain kept trying to interpret things in a linear fashion. Around the time Samantha Morton buys a constantly burning house, I stopped trying to take things so literally. I found a movie of deep sadness, longing and regret, told in such a beautiful and poetic way that I couldn’t wait to explore it again.

Synecdoche, New York isn’t a movie for all tastes, to put it lightly. You may watch it and come away frustrated and nursing a headache. But I’ll bet you that you don’t forget about it. It sticks with you and you’ll turn it over and over in your head for some time after. Eventually, maybe in a week or a few months or even many years later, you’ll probably watch it again. This is simply great filmmaking. (* * * ½)

Thanks to Matt Rowe for this week’s Tales From The Queue recommendation! And yes, that would be MusicTAP Matt Rowe…friends and family are very much eligible for TFTQ. But you certainly don’t have to be. After a month’s absence, the TFTQ well is starting to run a wee bit dry. And while it’s in no danger of drying up any time soon, I humbly beseech you to send in your suggestions for TFTQ. Thanks to you, it works for all of us.

Your pal,