To both its credit and detriment, Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There is an utter cinematic manifestation of its subject—elusive and surreal, yet strangely calculated and manipulative.
The film's structure is nearly as abstruse as a free-associating Dylan lyric: Six actors, each cast under a different pseudonym (Cate Blanchett, for example, is an actor named Jude Quinn), portray distinct stages of the singer-songwriter's life. The first chronological bookend to this narrative is a character called "Woody" (Marcus Carl Franklin), an 11-year-old black boy who rides the rails and, like Dylan, spends his early singing career emulating the musical stylings of Dust Bowl folk idol Woody Guthrie. At the other end of the line, there's "Billy" (Richard Gere), an older, self-imposed recluse patterned loosely upon Dylan's country songs and his retreat from the modern world.
Confused yet? Director Haynes has a high-art reputation, but his films usually bear the distinct influences of others, from Velvet Goldmine (based on David Bowie's alter ego Ziggy Stardust and sharing the narrative structure of Citizen Kane) to the Douglas Sirk-inspired Far From Heaven. Haynes' new film, with its Hydra-headed Dylan, is an echo of Todd Solondz's Palindromes, but he also employs a menagerie of styles to represent each chapter of his story. For example, a rather tepid faux-documentary tells the tale of Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), representing Dylan during his early-1960s protest period, while Gere's Billy tableau is drawn from Sam Peckinpah's 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, in which Dylan appeared and wrote the score.
The two strongest segments reveal the most emotionally accessible Dylan and, not coincidentally, the film's two best performances. Heath Ledger plays Robbie, a countercultural film actor embroiled in a tumultuous relationship with Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a stand-in for Dylan's real-life marriage to Sara Lowndes. More James Dean than Dylan, Ledger's complex, brooding interpretation is framed within the backdrop of a French-cinema romance, with references to Godard and Truffaut.
The most captivating chapter, however, is unquestionably Haynes' nod to Dylan's mid-1960s struggles with fame and his folk persona, filmed in black and white as a Fellini-esque pastiche. Under the moniker of Jude Quinn, Blanchett offers a version of Dylan that is both ethereal and childlike in its mischievousness, sparring with the press (embodied by Bruce Greenwood's Mr. Jones, the notorious object of "Ballad of a Thin Man") and carousing with figures reminiscent of Andy Warhol, The Beatles, Allen Ginsberg and Edie Sedgwick.
The overarching spirit of I'm Not There is in its enigmatic portrait of an enigma. Still, it's worth noting that Dylan's hipster indifference to celebrity has now been punctured by two officially sanctioned motion pictures this decade (the previous being 2003's woeful Masked and Anonymous) that promote and capitalize on Dylan's iconography. Ultimately, Dylan has always been what he claims to be—a master songwriter and storyteller—and what he will not admit to being—a brilliant, strategic self-marketer. During this holiday season, you can log on to www.bobdylan.com and purchase Dylan-embossed hats, shirts, plush robes, coffee mugs and $20 teddy bears. The times might be a-changin', but some things never do. —Neil Morris
I'm Not There opens Wednesday at Varsity.
In Bruno Bettelheim's classic analysis of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, he suggests that the lack of description and characterization in fairy tales is a way of allowing the reader to relate themselves to the characters. The recent barrage of self-aware, deconstructionist fairy tale films (three Shreks, Happily N'Ever After and several dozen straight-to-DVD numbers) have all suffered from the problem of fleshing out the two-dimensional characters of fairy stories while maintaining this sense of reliability.
The live-action/animated Disney film Enchanted has the opposite of this problem. The story concerns a fairy tale princess (Amy Adams) who is exiled to the real world of NYC by her future mother-in-law (a barely used Susan Sarandon). The script, credited to Bill Kelly, squeezes most of its jokes from the conflict between this quotidian reality and Adams' cartoon-colored worldview. The unintended irony, however, is that the real-world characters are so underdeveloped that Adams' Giselle, intended as a parody of the traditional Disney heroine, is the only character with multiple dimensions.
Indeed, the film is at its strongest when it lets Giselle's fairy-tale reality run rampant over the real world, such as a couple of musical numbers showing what it would really be like if animals helped clean the house or everyone around you broke into song. Much of the film revolves around whether Giselle will fall for the single-dad divorce lawyer who doesn't believe in happily ever after (Patrick Dempsey) or the slightly dense fairy tale prince who ... well, he's played by James Marsden, who's been the other guy in The Notebook, three X-Men films and Superman Returns, so do the math.
This film seems to have been genetically engineered for 12-year-old girls, and it will doubtlessly play well for the family crowd. Indeed, there's nothing overly bad about the film, it just misses a lot of opportunities for comedy. The opening sequence, animated in the style of a classic Disney cartoon (i.e. the kind they don't actually make anymore), doesn't do much beyond a few on-point references to the original Snow White, and the real-world version of New York City is so whitewashed that it's almost as unrealistic as the cartoon world. There's a bit of witty casting by having Idina Menzel (the Witch from Broadway's Wicked) as Dempsey's girlfriend, but there's no character there.
In today's endlessly cynical, self-referential world, the idea of a romantic, escapist fantasy holds a particular appeal. Enchanted has its charms, particularly Adams' energetic performance, but it doesn't really explore the possibilities of its premise. You're better off watching The Princess Bride again for a modern fairy tale that's truly enchanting. —Zack Smith
Enchanted opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle.
Depending on what you're looking for, The Mist might be one of the best films of the year or one of the worst. What is certain is that, as an indictment of fractured humanity and—all together now—post-9/11 paranoia, writer-director Frank Darabont's third adaptation of a Stephen King story (after The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) comes about three or four years past the point of relevance.
A strange fog envelopes a small Maine village and carries with it sinister, blood-thirsty creatures. A band of townsfolk, led by movie-poster artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane), barricade themselves inside a local supermarket to escape the grisly invaders. However, the group's preconceived prejudices and distrust disintegrate into social fragmentation and a slow devolution into anarchy, wherein the dangers within the store become almost as perilous as those outside it.
The influences at work here are voluminous, from H.F. Arnold's short story "Night Wire" to King's own Marvel Comic series The Dark Tower. An ad poster in Drayton's studio for John Carpenter's The Thing suggests an obvious nod to Carpenter's The Fog. The store-bound infighting evokes an extended version of the diner scene in Hitchcock's The Birds, even down to the ascension and influence of the local religious zealot (Marcia Gay Harden, in full-blown crazy mode).
While tautly constructed and full of thought-provoking potential, The Mist's presentation is too stagy and lurching, the performances too leaden and the dialogue too predictable. The most depressing ending in recent memory sends you away with a jolt but hardly expands on the film's underdeveloped themes. —Neil Morris
The Mist opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle.