(Not so) Short shorts
Eros (Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh & Michelangelo Antonioni) [C+]
Almost needless to say, whoever thought these three would flow into another is either a perverse genius or a dolt. Wong Kar-Wai seems to be the conservative favorite, largely because autopilot Wong is hardly the dregs of cinema. Working with a Zalman King-level story, it feels secondhand, with Gong Li undermotivated, Chang Chen trying in vain to be Tony Leung’s lanky cousin, and even Chris Doyle turning in some muted colors. What frisson it has is due to Wong’s usual concerns, and his way with repressed bodies in contact. Soderbergh seems to be mocking the theme with Equilibrium, tossing off an arbitrarily pretzeled ditty meant solely to let Alan Arkin and Robert Downey Jr. do their respective things. (Passably amusing as it is, it bodes not well for his planned six-film, medium-redefining blitzkrieg.) Antonioni’s The Dangerous Thread of Things, lastly, is an embarrassment, possibly the worst film from a major director since Jack, and, the cherry on top, shot in English, which helps no one, let alone the terrible actors wrestling with terrible, transparently translated dialogue. Maybe he was joking.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton) [C+]
Conveniently enough, the ‘71 version didn’t cook till the kids wound up at the factory, while Burton’s cooks until that very point. Who’s game for a jarring paste-up job? Ace kiddie introductions, an inviting storybook feel, a warmth that doesn’t descend into grotesque sentimentality, no songs (for a time) -- basically, it feels like Burton (and, to an extent, Elfman) is back, until it doesn’t. The factory scenes are a dirge and Depp’s Wonka is never appropriately demented*. Michael Sicinski’s analysis of the source as an imperalist fantasia turns out to be eerily dead-on for this Dahl acolyte, though the film’s also interesting as the latest installment in the Spielberg-izing of this one-time punk. Sign #1: Though not as nagging a subtext as it was in Big Fish, it's all family-first, with this semi-recent father belaboring the point till there's no fun left. Sign #2: Just as you’re prepared to go home, Burton abruptly lights off from the source, inventing an unnecessary third act where a couple lines of dialogue would have served fine. It ain't a coincidence. And the less said about the dimestore Freudianism -- a move borrowed, irrationally, from Ron Howard’s Grinch -- the better. Bonus points for Missi Pyle, Deep Roy and Christopher Lee, whom I’d watch doing anything -- like, say, going through the insides of a Halloween bag while dressed as a dentist. Good job getting a Veruca Salt almost on par with the first, too.
The Island (Michael Bay) [C-]
Frankly, I’m getting a little sick of the old “Michael Bay is the arsenic of cinema” refrain, and the rub is I can’t wholly disagree. Will he be reappraised as an auteur thirty years hence? Are Cahiers du Cinema in fact crazy for him now? Comparisons to Brakhage, however half-jokingly, were lodged a couple years ago**, and that...sort of sounds right: if The Island reiterates nothing, it’s that he treats ideas and logic to the same cuisinart method he treats his fashion-ad images. Here, he plays mix-master to dystopian B-movie classics, cutting THX-1138 with Logan’s Run with Parts: The Clonus Horror to make the sole right-wing wouldbe-blockbuster of the season. (Though its stem cell propaganda -- essentially Dubya’s paranoid worst-case scenario, complete with the chief baddie sneering, “I can cure leukemia!” -- sits uneasily with a moment where the president is called an idiot. Talk about a flip-flop.) To call out all the lapses in rationality would be an insult to you, the reader. But, as loath as I am to admit, there are stray moments of invention/effectiveness, notably the nurse serenely stroking the pregnant clone’s leg before offing her and the sudden appearance of McGregor’s real-world, Scottish doppleganger, where the fine actor finally gets a chance to stop slumming. That’s more than you can say for Oliver Stone.
Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin) [B-]
Obviously, this should’ve been something else. The idea of a Cassavetes-style improv romp -- 90 minutes of Vaughn and Wilson ad-libbing at weddings -- sounds pretty good to me, and the opening twenty minutes manage to boil this hypothetical masterpiece into a plenty delirious extended montage. But for no discernible reason, it’s a two hour movie instead, with the final half hour a slog on the order of Cleopatra, only not as pretty looking. Till then, it’s alarming how watchable it is, especially given the blandness of the material. The set-up is a bald Meet the Parents regurgitation, only with no real anchor, but the actors -- Vaughn and Isla Fisher, particularly -- never feel reigned in, treating the ho-hum situations with true idiosyncratic gusto. If ever an outtake movie needed to be made, it’s for this one.
Promises of capsules to come (seriously): Saraband [B]; The Devil's Rejects [B+]; Memories of Murder [B+]
* That said, I was lucky enough to overhear more in-touch folks than I recounting a interview where Depp claimed he was going for a Carol Channing impersonation. Note the hair, the teeth.
** Mysterious Link Dept.: A link to an article -- lodged on some Slate/Salon-ish type zine, saying basically that Bay and Brakhage aren't too far apart (but deep down not really believing it) -- does exist. I just don't remember where. Unless I made it up.