a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Drill

Today: this. I wrote it. Please read it, if you want.

I would be remiss were I not to say that I too have caught Eagles Fever. Go Eagles.

Atoning for squandered time

By my count, there are about twenty 2004 releases I saw over the last month or so that I never wrote anything -- positively nothing -- about, simply assigning a grade and then letting you imagine what I though about them. (In the far-fetched case that that's what you're wont to do.) Taking a cue from this guy, I've since started to correct that. Warning: some blurbs degenerate into little else but random sentences, the third to last in particular.

Hero/House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, China)
Impossible, thanks to Weinstein, to play the compare-and-contrast game with Zhang’s two wuxia fantasias, but they’re in fact very close in the race. The first is a dazzling mood piece, with an obsession on color coding that would be asphyxiating were it not so balletic. The second is its B-movie offspring, exploding frequently into all-out delirium, then going overboard during the Duel in the Sun-ish finale where characters can mentally orchestrate abrupt weather changes. I’ve plumped for the former, mostly because I’m a sucker for Chris Doyle, but also because it’s the richer film. For one thing, Zhang’s too much of a political dilettante to churn out an unapologetic ode to fascism. My (perhaps daffy) theory goes that, being as this was the highest pricetag for a Mainland pic, he decided to subtly obfuscate the message -- thus, the mournful finale, the loose-end over who’s the titular character, and, most subtly of all, a shot where, after the (dreaded, infamous, loathed) emperor discusses his plans to do away with calligraphy, Jet Li (iconic and that’s about it) looks around nervously. As someone else noted, he at least shows the price of unity. (Furthermore, look how Daggers finds him back in the trenches.) What can be applied to both is how they seared my retinas more than a Stanley Donen retrospective, with major kudos going to Hero’s fight-in-the-autumn-leaves and Daggers’ green-filtered bamboo forest squabble. My mouth was never not agape in my opinion: that’s enough for me. Grade (respectively): A-/B+

Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau & Alan Mak)
Takes awhile to click into place (i.e., I had no clue where it was going for about 45 minutes), but becomes retroactively blistering towards the end, which I interpret as it always refusing to offer up pat observations. Still plenty absorbing -- tension rises naturally (in that adult-oriented way) while Tony Leung delivers another one of his soulful performances. (Andy Lau’s awesomely closed-off, too.) Watch Scorsese dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s with his Boston-set remake, although its ambiguous nature reminded me more of latter-day Eastwood. Guess you gotta have some of that technical panache with the Americanization, of course. Grade: B

Closer (Mike Nichols)
Relationships Are Evil Except When They're Not, Part Two (going by release dates): More nuanced than LaBute, but still a corrosively nasty algebraic equation about hell being dating other people. Basically plays like Les Affaires Dangereuses updated for the cyberfuck age and is more entertainingly mean-spirited than insightfully so: it’s so stage-bound in its structure and language that it’s impossible to take seriously, and the inclusion of Portman’s line as per Roberts’ photographs is too accurate to even be cheerfully meta-. Of the cast, only Portman feels too actorly; Jude’s underrated, Roberts even moreso though only Clive attacks with the appropriate relish. Best insult in awhile: “You writer!” See muse for the best, and funniest, reading I’ve yet encountered. Grade: B-

The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass)
Greengrass is apparently the man as far as immediacy goes: his sequences build organically, never feeling manufactured, he’s brilliant with crowds, and he knows when to get so close to an action scene that I can’t believe the film didn’t make theater patrons vomit en masse. (The one-on-one scene in the kitchen, in particular.) Supremacy largely eschews all the Euro- and Ludlum-porn of the original; this is a cold film, with the anxious elasticity of a stretched rubber band. Mostly fumbles whenever it tries to be anything more than what it is, though Joan Allen makes sure we know she’s never the baddie, applying the appropriate shading to her bureaucratic tool. Word of the film: death grip. Okay, Theo: the necrophiliac kissing scene is kinda stupid. Grade: B+

We Don’t Live Here Anymore (John Curran)
Relationships Are Evil Except When They're Not, Part One: As with Closer, far too much of an algebraic equation -- and with overly-familiar themes, to boot - to be taken seriously, but at least there’s some life here, with room to let Ruffalo, Dern, Watts, and Krause stretch out a bit. Everyone else has been rhapsodized over ad nauseum (or merely thrown hyperbolic adjectives at) the first three, but allow me to pipe up on Krause’s nimble turn. Saddled with the most remote (and by finale detestable) of the quartet, he uses his precious few minutes of screentime to paint a portrait of someone content with his soft but wicked temper, long coddled and grown used-to; just watch his nonchalant reaction when the college girl walks away from him post-flirtation, as though he lives in his own world where nothing he does can seriously affect him. (Compare him with his Nate on Six Feet Under, who’s always prone to screaming fits when something, anything rubs him the wrong way.) He’s why the ending, pat as it is, packs something of a wallop. Grade: B-

The Terminal (Steven Spielberg)
Starts off promising -- the airport as microcosm, playground -- then turns into a skipping record, unleashing the gooiest of Spielberg’s triumphalism and reducing Hanks to a funny-accented foreigner wielding a big, fat anticlimax of a secret. All the while, Stanley Tucci plays what has to be the least motivated baddie in the history of storytelling, Catherine Zeta-Jones is flat-out awful, and the dialogue includes doozies like “Compassion, Frank. That’s what this country was founded upon.” Might be best cherished as the point where Kumar Pallana grew from Wes Anderson’s goofy Indian regular to a big player; why couldnt the movie have been about him? Grade: C

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (Mike Hodges)
Hodge’s cold efficiency has always struck me as a little too schematic for my tastes, but this typically frigid but labyrinthine exercise yields more than another offering of deterministic vengeance. Apart from the nigh-trigonometric structure of his screenplay, baiting us with Clive’s mission then largely ignoring it for other storyliens, what really sinks in is how it strikes the death knell for the British underground. Taking Sexy Beast one step further, it sees it brought down by paranoia and homosexual panic, all of it jumpstarted by (of all things) a car salesman sick of Rhys-Meyers' smugness. Best section: new kingpin is tormented by his doorbell perpetually buzzing, you expect Clive (suitably barren) to be there waiting with silencer in tow, find that his guard has been tied up by a bunch of ruffians who now populate the organization’s ranks, giggling in their getaway car over the audacity of their latest prank. Grade: B

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson)
Proves Anderson’s not just a fey anal-retentive with a kickass record collection. So far, all his movies have initially felt messy and overextended, but future revisits reveal his snaky structure and thematic richness (as well as smooth out the speed bumps) -- like Kubrick, he likes to leave breadcrumbs for the audience to find the movie inside the movie. Easily his toughest so far, it blossoms in little lines, seemingly off-kilter moments: Murray walking away from his first meeting with Wilson (trying, and failing, to find a new role) to light up a smoke while “Life on Mars?” amplifies on the soundtrack; Murray, prostrate on the floor post-tumble, declaring he’s alone in the world while surrounded by his loyal crew; the transparently easy-guilt-trip line during Cate’s interview about the authenticity of Cassell’s death scene. Though “obsolescence” has been more or less officially declared its major theme, the need to emerge from the fake -- or, more appropriately, one’s own painstakingly designed, hermetic (and crumbling) world -- hits the hardest, with the most telling scene being the long track up through the Cinecittá-set boat. Baumbach’s a more subtly humorous co-writer than Wilson -- don’t tell me he’s not solely responsible for the gut-busting “cross the line” scene -- though it’s not quite the clean mesh of Rushmore and Kicking and Screaming I was hoping for. Originally, it felt like one of them “transitional films,” what with the abundance of handheld shots and long stretches of relative quietness (it’s all thanks to the Portuguese-sung Bowie reenactments). Now, I’m not so sure. Claims that it’s “Tannenbaums underwater” (to quote a respectable source) are not just unfair, they’re inaccurate. Best line (for some reason): Bud Cort, upon being asked by Goldblum about the presence of his capuccino maker, giving into the ramshackleness and exclaiming, “They fuckin’ stole it, man!” Grade: B (which, yes, seems low given the gushing; essentially the movie’s grown in my head and I need to see it again to validate my suspicions)

The Aviator (Martin Scorsese)
Or: 58 (Or So) Short Films About Howard Hughes. Would be enough that this Scorseez (written, with unprecedented lightness, by John Logan) delights in nixing all the conventional tropes of the biopic: no Horatio Algar angle, the powerful-triumphs/reserved-downtime equation switched, precious few exchanges on the order of “Gentlemen, I seek to build a big-ass metallic plane, bigger in the ass than anything that’s come before,” “That’s madness, Howard!” (people just giggle at his audacity then go do it) -- essentially no dramatic arc except the guy gets crazier. But while it never deigns to explore the darker regions, it’s gorgeously assembled -- no shock if it was supposed to run four hours; it plays like a series of random scenes and segments pasted together in the most visually and aurally pleasing ways possible. Inevitably runs out of steam, pretty much exactly once Cate’s Kate vacates the scene (and makes way for -- ack! urgh! blorp! -- Beckinsale as Ava), but rallies back for one more stab at prankster greatness, Hughes having done no more than fend off another pesky annoyance with trademark gusto. The Film Comment line assessing the opening scene of planes in the air (“a paradise of machinery unleashed”) is dead-solid-perfect, though I’ve grown a little weary of the Hollywood Tall Tales schtick purveyed by the likes of Bogdanovich for them to have much effect. (“And then Howard went up to Louis B. Mayer and asked for two more cameras. Louis balked, then asked him how many cameras he already had at his dispose. Howard said thirty-eight.”) To add to the pile: Cate’s amazing, pulling off the voice and mannerisms but adding layers Kate herself mostly kept private. Also, that New England lunch scene gets my vote for best editing -- visual and aural -- of the year. Grade: B

Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood)
Feel like I should elaborate at epic length on this one, probably with organization-friendly pointers. I’m so torn -- both sides are wrong, but the pro- side's right some of the time while the anti-'s are mostly wrong...if that makes even a lick of sense -- that the oncoming grade is more an average than a solid-hit. Preview: performances lived-in, focus admirably puny (except when they’re supposed to be in England, e.g.), ending morally ambiguous in the best way, never succumbing to histrionics like Mystic River...but there’s an ocean of nit-picks, the most major of which would be how The Twist, which, while (mostly) ably handled once it settles in, feels too much like “and then something really bad happened” than rising out of, oh, anything. (Kind of like sadistically kicking good people to the ground for no reason -- testing a sociological theorem, almost.) And the handling of Swank’s family all but ruins the humanistic vibe laid out everywhere else -- was it necessary to have them show up in fucking Disneyland shirts to prove their already cartoonish shallowness? To be continued. Grade: B-

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Martin Scorsese will have his revenge on Los Angeles

Inevitable thoughts on this year's Dewies:

Picks I would have made: Clint, Hilary, Annette, Kate, Cate, Clive, The Incredibles, House of Flying Daggers (for Cinematography), Before Sunrise, ESOTSM, Sideways (for script)
Hoodwinked (but not pejoratively so): Mike Leigh, Catalina Moreno Sandino, Alan Alda, Sophie Okonedo, Tupac Ressurection
Vehemently (or maybe not vehemently) opposed: Natalie Portman, The Passion of the Christ (for Cinematography), Super Size Me, The Story of the Weeping Camel, all of Film Editing except maybe Collateral, Hotel Rwanda (for script)

That's not too bad, is it? Three-fifths of the Best Actress collective I support, and I have little against everything else. Of course, this means I now have to slog through Finding Neverland, The Sea Inside, The Motorcycle Diaries (and to a less arm-twisting extent, Kinsey and Ray). And I simply cannot swallow that a group of people who are in any way technicians nominated the Film Editing lot, year in and year out the most arbitrary group of nominees on the roster. (Remember Good Will Hunting in 1997?) No ESOTSM, but fucking Neverland? (Again, haven't seen it. But no one speaks of its technical panache.)

No point going into the laundry list of pesky omissions, but Paul Giamatti's snub is...I'm speechless. Expectedly, there's some grumbling about a Sideways backlash, but it's not as though these guys sit around in dungeons and say things like, "Gentlemen, let us give Sideways everything but what it most deserves." More like the voters are sheep, which makes things more mysterious given that Giamatti is the glue of the film, and would make for a ripping good Babs interview. ("You once had the most embarrassing line in Planet of the Apes. How do you feel now?") I guess these surprises are inevtiable, but why of all people him?

Meanwhile, I'll go on pretending that Mark Wahlberg ever had a chance. (Surely the blame rests with the studios themselves, who chose not to remind voters of ESOTSM's countless four star reviews nor tried to push Huckabees' rabid originality upon -- at the very least -- the screenplay group.)

The Razzies also came out with their noms today. As usual, what a bunch of pussies. Catwoman? Alexander? George W. Bush? They don't care whose toes they step on!

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Mr. Frostybum Strikes Again

As though being the 2nd place runner for cinemaworld's equivalent of Robert Pollard (behind Takashi Miike, natch) weren't enough, the ever-prolific Michael Winterbottom has chosen as his next project an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. (With Steve Coogan!) For those not familiar with the multi-volumed doorstop, it's one of the earliest examples of postmodernism. In fact, quake in your chair as I tell you it hails from the 18th century. Which begs the question: is it delusional for Winterbottom (and erstwhile scribe Frank Cottrell Boyce) to think he can make anything of the book -- whose charms and attributes are purely literary -- if he attacks it in his usual plow-through fashion? Or is that the exact kind of attitude -- devil-may-care, wholly instinctual, not over-thinking anything -- the screamingly unfilmable novel requires if it absolutely has to be movie-ized? Discuss.

While I continue to wonder if the word "freedom" has lost all meaning thanks to Bush II, here's my crap in the Weekly this round:
* An A-List on a marathon of Davey and Goliath shorts. I want to thank the internet for providing clips of a show I haven't seen since 1983.
* In the "Who's this for exactly?" department: an article outlining some suggestions on how to become a drooling cineaste. Placed smack dab at the beginning of the succinct Education Supplement, it's very probably the least self-depricating piece I've ever written that had a personal backbone. It also used to be gobs more suffocatingly self-righteous.
* Continuing my January dumping grounds purgatory, a review of Are We There Yet?.
* A fairly meaty Repertory.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Touch and go

My stuff in the Weekly: Rep, which includes some sketchy words on the death penalty (in related news, Sister Helen was in town yesterday, and instead I went and failed at movie quizzo); and two reviews of wretched January fare (second and third down). I'd say more, but I'm not in the vein. Life is getting to me. It could stand to be torn down. I'll spare you the extended therapy session. Maybe it'll pass.

Meanwhile, I'm suffering aural stalemate. Recommend new music, if you will.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Hipsters are the piss of the world, or Armond White is a hypocritical dickweed

First things first (i.e., shameless promotion): only Rep in this round of the Weekly. If you can make it all the way through my endless evisceration of Garden State, you're more patient than I.

Though few cinegeeks needed the alert, Slate kickstarted its annual, Edelstein-run Movie Club yesterday. So far, Edelstein's a gracious host, Taylor's Taylor, Zacharek's Taylor-only-less-so, White has surely pissed off every cineaste not named Armond White, and Scott has, predicatably, come to the rescue. (His abrupt departure to tend to his son only amps up his cool factor.) The reverse circle jerk* around Dogville is more than a little irritating (Taylor's assertion that it has no aesthetics is loony, hinting that he's a kneejerk traditionalist), but its impact was quickly lessened by the arrival of White, who informed us that a) the Voice poll belies a dead culture; b) Before Sunset is beloved only by hipsters who, in between pissing on cinema, like to kick old ladies in the shin (sorry, Stephanie!); and c) he's monstrously insecure around anyone who fronts the NYT's film section. (Taylor wasn't loads better, admittedly: his "Paulette" rant is touchy to say the least.) If Edelstein wanted to up the tabloid factor over last year's cozy love-in, he's succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

[Sweeney bash removed as it was lame.]

* Sorry. This probably doesn't work.