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

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Spilling my 40 for Tom DeLay

In honor of the indictment, I offer you my review of Thumbsucker and Rep.

I also want to thank this guy for ruining my life with this. Really.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

In Her Shoes (Curtis Hanson) [B-]

So, like, the last ten minutes of this movie were shot in my then-neighborhood. Surreal stuff. Anyway. It might seem strange to decode this mostly harmless and even moderately affecting chicklit adaptation along auteuristical lines, as Curtis Hanson seems to be spending his career trying to decimate the theory piece by piece. Having earned his laurels for what was essentially a job well done, he’s since made a freewheeling Chabon adaptation/Michael Douglas show-off piece, an Eminem vanity project, and now an all-out, unembarrassed chick flick. In other words, he’s used his newfound artisitic freedom and name recognition to continue being a studio workhorse. (Only he’s the boss.) And yet he’s not a Michael Curtiz. His films don’t live and die by the material, and yet he’s never fully involved with them; he mostly gets out of their way, but he also brings along a certain well-honed craft. I’m pretty sure he was never totally committed to, among other things, the arbitrary machinations of Jennifer Weiner’s plot, and yet he clearly believes in the emotions running under them, particularly those involving some very real feelings of inadequacy. (Cameron’s dyslexia -- in one of the film’s many refrains from spoon-feeding, a problem not explicity mentioned till over an hour in -- was the closest I came to a blubbering mess.) In fact, most of what Hanson does is find the nuances in a readymade tearjerker -- or not give said nuances the old Hollywood spit and polish. (I.e., never read the book, but audience members nodded their heads, smiled, and said loudly enough, “That was a good adaptation.” Which, come to think of it, I never hear, or think.) Diaz, as the party girl sister, is in fact pretty unappealing -- boringly self-possessed and prone to the kind of self-pity that only somewhat encourages empathy and almost never sympathy. Toni Collette, as the sensible (and apparently “fat”) sister, has a snobbish streak but also a hard-earned bullshit detector -- or at least Collette knows how to give her litany of harsh-truth lines a fresh spin. Everything is set up for a well-meaning but distasteful revenge fantasy (guess which sister is Weiner), with Diaz sent through the ringer on her way to self-actualization, selflessness, maturity, etc., et al. And the film does this, but in what has to be the least painful way possible while still delivering the goods. Weiner’s tale introduces some serious issues, some of which it can’t quite handle (notably mental illness and suicide). But neither does it make a meal of them, preferring to hint at traumatic issues while acknowleding that they simply affect the protagonists in ways they would rather not deal with. (Note Shirley MacLaine’s line about pictures of loved ones only encouraging questions.) It should also be noted that Hanson is hardly the slacker: dig how Collette looks completely different from scene-to-scene, as at home in glasses as contacts, as comfortable as a day-off slob as she is in spiffed-up work clothes. The film is by no means a Clean, but it’s not too far off, working a surprisingly effective balancing act even while it leaves you wishing it could’ve been a bit braver and had even less pop-pysch bullshit. It’s a damning-with-faint-praise kind of deal: this is the best adaptation such dicey material could ever hope for. Good job, Hanson. I mean, shit, man, you got me to write a mini-dissertation on a fucking chicklit movie.

(Note to Philadelphians: this movie, in part, is an advertisement for the Jamaican Jerk Hut. Note to location scouters: leave the Art Museum steps alone already.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

More from the queue

Needless to say, these four blurbs are riddled with SPOILERS...

The Ring Two (Hideo Nakata) [C+]
This represents my first encounter with Nakata-the-director and I have to agree with others that Dude totally has no game. This is a shame, not only since it makes Gore Verbinski look like some kind of auteur, but also because, at least here, he traffics in some truly effed-up ideas, even considering his genre of choice. I won’t mince words: I was sincerely rooting for this film, and my excitement over where it was headed lasted a lot longer than it wound up deserving (yes, even past the CGI deer swarm sequence). Ditching the tape hook (and, thus, the whole viral subtext) in the second reel was a ballsy move, but I wasn’t prepared, even after skimming reviews during its release, for how far Nakata would take the parental guilt theme. Watts (who so doesn’t work the curls) is basically your classic recovering errant parent, trying to coax the Osmentian mien out of her son, as well as smooth over the guilt she accrued after turning both of them into potential murderers-by-proxy in the seriously unnverving final minute of the first (American) film. By the time her actions have earned her understandable accusations of being an abusive parent, Nakata has already scored some major how’d-they-smuggle-this-into-googooplexes kudos, and he ain’t done by a long shot. So why does this movie still not work? Because Nakata works at around 80% thematics, 20% actual thrills - it’s increasingly difficult to dig where he’s going when what’s on screen is often retarded, dull and, by the end, incoherent.

Tropical Malady Take 2 (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) [A-]
Obviously, this was going to be different when viewed on celluloid, but less predictable was how my readings were basically the inverse of what you’d expect. Viewing one, on a badly compressed DVD on my TV, was an enveloping experience, with me grooving on the ambiance and mood. Number two, in a theater with surround sound, had my brain racing. I stand by my claim that it doesn’t need to be deciphered, so humor me while I try to do so anyway: the two halves are, as it were, one story. In the first half, Keng and Tong revel in the first flickers of love, and we end with the former riding away high on making a connection with someone - a familiar feeling memorably portrayed with a repeat of the corny radio hit from the film’s opening. (We also see Tong -- or someone who’s naked in the middle of nowhere, in any case -- at the beginning. Symmetry?) But in the second half, we witness Keng’s inevitable feelings of dread, projected onto a malicious tiger he’s trying to hunt down. His wild misinterpretation of these events are so pronounced, Weerasethakul has to go to piece of folklore to support it. Basically, he’s afraid to make the next move, as a relationship, to him, involves a complete and total devouring of his personality -- “my spirit, my flesh, my memories,” as he puts it. This is love viewed as a paranoid fantasia, a rebuttal to the first half’s ode to being swept up, or at least the rude awakening of same. Feel free to read the film as an ode to coming out of the closet if you wish.

The Conformist Take 3 (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci) [A-]
I briefly want to comment on the hideous American dub VHS version that, to this day, is still the only copy of Bertolucci’s mid-stride masterstroke available to North Americans. Up until this afternoon, this was the only version I had seen, and it’s a far different film than the original (but, okay, still dubbed) version currently making the rounds throughout the U.S. However, this has nothing to do with the quality of the print (which is quite blah, really -- Paramount is seriously slacking in the preservation department). It’s in the performances. In the American VHS version, Jean-Louis Trintignant comes off as tacitrun, closed-off, his performance a series of reined-in poses. His wife, meanwhile, comes off as the twittiest character to ever grace a screen. None of this is so in the version I saw today. This is, pointedly, because of the voice dubbing. Trintingnant’s English-language voice is emotionless and his wife’s is shrill, loud and essentially stupid. But the Italian voices are a lot more nuanced and, consequently, this completely changes how one views their performances, and the film as well. Color me surprised that Trintingant’s performance, when interpreted differently on the soundtrack, is far more comic, far more aloof -- it’s a layered performance, and it gives greater emotional heft to the final stretch when he completely shuts down. So my memories of a broodfest turn out to be wrong: The Conformist has more in common with his earlier, better films than his subsequent, international-master ones. I also noticed that you can see the blue gel on the windows in the dancehall sequence fluttering in the wind, creating seams in one of the more memorable subtle pictoral choices in cinema.

The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles) [B]
If nothing else, it’s ambitious. In a marked departure from City of God, (90% style, 10% social tract), Meirelles tries to mark an equal balance between thrills, message, and brooding romance. (Rachel Weisz is quite fetching, by the way, though she has nothing on the eerily similar character Jennifer Connelly played in Waking the Dead.) And not just that! It’s a shotgun marriage between veddy British passiveness and topical urgency. The thing is, it almost succeeds. Fiennes’ major flaw, after all, is that he’s too classically British, and the film gains its pull not from the mystery -- too arbitrary, too redundant, too clearly a red herring -- but from his attempts to morph into a man of action. The thing that makes this less glib than that sounds is that Fiennes is rather inept at this personality switch. He fucks up all the way, most chiefly in a scene that would otherwise be a cheap screenwriter’s contrivance. Towards the beginning, Fiennes informs Weisz of his belief that it’s pointless for someone (rather than an agency or collective or somesuch) to save just one person, when you’re inevitably flooded with exponentially more cries for help, which you of course can’t handle. But when, towards the end, he tries to do the opposite, the kid gets away, the noble intention a failure. The film is filled with moments like that, Meirelles often taking a Guaranteed Killer Moment and then subverting it so that it has a different effect. Another one, even better: when Fiennes sees Weisz’s mutilated corpse, Fiennes keeps all the emotion inside. Any director would eschew gratuitous shots of her body, choosing to hold on a close-up of Fiennes for a long, long while. (“When will he break? Will he ever?!”) But Meirelles dips his (natch: handheld) camera down underneath the gurney, followed by someone keeling over and vomiting. This physically disgusted person turns out not to be Fiennes (of course), but rather erstwhile chum Danny Huston. Which reminds me: Danny Huston rules, shaky Brit accent aside.

Monday, September 19, 2005

A triumverate of noble losers

Lord of War (Andrew Niccol) [C+]
Once again, Niccol’s better as an idea man than a screenwriter; I’d say he should stick to farming out his high concept plots, but we all know how that turned out. In a career of crushing disappointments, this has to be the biggie. (The Truman Show’s second half is too indifferent to all-out derail the film.) Bracingly funny, mercilessly outraged, bottomlessly nihilistic...these are words the film constantly summons up. But even moreso than Gattaca, Lord of War is two straight hours of Niccol threatening to take right turn, being almost there, spying the gold that lies riiiiiiight around the corner...then swerving back to the least interesting trajectory possible. Niccol seems to be under the impression that he’s perverting moldy conventions (here, the rise-and-fall set-up, complete with tedious subplot about a trophy wife), but his films are too clearly smart to surrender to pure genre. Here, he’s mostly in tune with a global system that, through a combination of greed and incompetence, turns opportunists into merchants of illegal goods. All the pieces are in place, and yet Niccol never connects the dots, leaving what's left of his argument to a jarring trail of just-FYI end notes, when, if Niccol were a better writer, they would have all come across in the (funny, scathing, nihilistic) film. So why the relatively high grade? Because I’m too much of a wuss to diss a film that so often hits the mark, or at least goes places few studio products dare tread. (It’s almost not worth mentioning Three Kings at this juncture.) There are great moments aplenty, particularly a race-against-time to re-paint the name of a cargo ship mere minutes before a sudden visit by the feds. And Nic Cage (back yet again) smooths over any and...well, most self-importance with his dry performance. Jared Leto and Ethan Hawke aren’t bad either -- two one-time pretty boys from the greasy-hair-and-goatee mid-’90s inexplicably turning into unpredictable quasi-Method heads. But it says a lot about the film that they’re both on salvage duty, Leto playing a hoary cliché, Hawke monkeying around with no character at all. Bridget Moynahan hits 30-70 this time -- not bad for an actress I previously assumed was a robot.

Spanglish (James L. Brooks) [C]
I like Edelstein’s reading of this cross-cultural Dramerdy as a “hang out” movie -- for the first time since Broadcast News, Brooks drops the sitcom shtick and fully commits himself to diving into a specific set of characters. Unfortunately, his thoughts aren’t that interesting, his takes on racial politics more like L.A.-big-whig thought bubbles (though not, thankfully, as glib as that of Mr. Paul Haggis). Worth seeing, half-surprisingly, for Adam Sandler’s ego-free, wildly aloof turn, but Téa Leoni’s attempt to shade in her monster of a character is an unwatchable if noble failure. Why no subtitles on the Spanish-talk, dude.

Kinsey (Bill Condon) [C+]
Reminiscent, of course, of Alexander & Karaszweski’s once-touted streak, though Condon is even farther out there. There are Horatio Alger moments aplenty in this semi-middlebrow-ization of Proc, but, seemingly by design, they never add up, the film refusing to build to any real endpoint. It’s not about the man finding love amongst icy science, a topic Condon gets out of the way in the first 45 minutes (then shoots down cold in the final minutes). It’s not much about prudes-vs.-non-prudes, either, as Tim Curry gets next to little screentime and the Lithgow story is all but forgotten after the (inventive) flashback opening two reels. It’s not really about anything, in fact, except that brief period where the obsessive researcher and the cultural climate suddenly collide, turning him into a name before his topic-of-choice melds into the zeitgeist -- the creator rightfully winding up a distant second to that which he introduced. (The finale is a keeper: it's back to work for these two, and, even better, there's nary a set of post-film comments.) It’s pretty sad when a sub-genre has to strip itself of most of its tropes to not be totally annoying, but them’s the breaks for our steadfast enemy, the biopic.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Shameless plugs, still more ID crap, and TIFFing (i.e., mostly links)

* A review, written under great duress*, of the finally-arriving Tropical Malady and Rep this time around, folks. The latter features a breathless paean to early Cronenberg, whose latest -- the allegedly rad A History of Violence -- I'm gonna have to see next Friday like a regular schnook. On tap for next week's column: mini retrospectives of Serbian doc-head Goran Radovanovic, Peter Watkins, and David Lynch, who'll be returning to the city that so fractured his little mind.

* Still more ID crap: the embarrassment of pro-evolution riches flying around lately has been a dastardly way for me to feed into a particular obsession. Furthermore, after The Onion's lead, they're now getting funny. The Daily Show has dedicated the whole week to covering the divide, though so far they've been disappointingly...well, not even-handed, exactly. (The debate, remember, is over whether they are scientific equals.) But it seems like they've been uncharacteristically blowing an easy kill, as well as nixing a rarified opportunity to deflate the junk science in front of a wider audience than most anti-IDers could ever acquire. Sigh. Maybe they're saving it for the final show. Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, in a review of Chris Mooney's new book The Republican War on Science, threw his hat in the ring, in turn alerting readers to the NCSE's brilliant retort: a list of pro-Darwin scientists titled Project Steve. Also, better late than never to send you Christopher Hitchens' way, who lends his impassioned, straight-and-narrow worldview to the particularly pungent non-science. If all this isn't enough to sate you, then you can additionally pick up the latest Skeptic Magazine, which contains no fewer than four (4) impassioned, rationalized take-downs, including ten full pages devoted to the startling quackery of William A. Dembski. (Update: Holy shit! Dembski popped up on an otherwise useless panel discussion on The Daily Show! Dude: drop the false analogy wherein Mount Rushmore is equal to anything natural.)

* Choose your blogging Toronto International Film Festival goer! Mike D'Angelo, as ever, is terribly reliable. However, it seems that Jeremy "I Don't Sleep" Heilman gets the Most Prolific trophy, with full, multi-paragraphed rantings popping up throughout the day. The Onion A.V. tag team of Scott Tobias and Noel Murray have hardly been slouches, though, tossing off insightful entries at a fair clip. If you're out for more than simple advance notes on the season's biggies, head over to Michael Sicinski, who tends to spring for more avant-garde/un-distributable/short-form titles, even if he's been understandably lax on capsulizing them up. And, as always, there's Roger.

* Consider: a badly compressed DVD, a skipping player, and a train ride writing session unfairly aborted by a combination dead battery and the train's electrical problems. Must re-teach my onetime-luddite self to write longhand.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Read me, Seymour! (sorry)

No, really. I'm sorry.

Anyway, PW stuff this week: reviews (fourth and sixth ones) of the Conformist reissue and the alarmingly pretty good Transporter 2. Also, the last (I believe) skimpy ass Rep, featuring a capsule on what's left of Tarantino's My Best Friend's Birthday.

In a weird turn of events, my top three favorite movies of the year so far are all playing in Philly. Go figure.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Let's Get Lost

[Full, probably pointless disclosure: yes, I was one of those impatient scoundrels who took full advantage of this here ever so global village and bought myself a Hong Kong disc of Wong Kar-Wai’s breathlessly anticipated/debated new film, 2046. Moreover, I did not hide it somewhere -- say, in a safe deposit box, the key to which had been handed to a medium with explicit instructions not to let me viddy it until after I checked it out in a movie house. No, sir, I watched it. I may be weak. I may deserve the lashings given to many, many others (check the comments, specifically md'a). To which I say: bite me.]

[No, no, that’s hardly sufficient. This isn’t either: at least I didn’t go back to watch it numerous times, unlocking its mysteries before viewing it on projected celluloid. I waited a full six months -- almost to the day, in fact -- when it finally found its way to Philly. By this point, what I saw was a dim memory of what I had seen before -- almost an entirely different film. Might as well end the brackets now.]

Okay. So, when I first saw 2046, I was pretty much otherwise occupied. Not distracted, per se -- just mostly in a state of slack-jawed astonishment. (As md’a -- whom I’ll stop referencing from here on out -- is wont to say, my dick was never not hard in my opinion.) Composition for composition, In the Mood For Love may have its semi-sequel beat. But where that film was jagged and elliptical -- hardly demerits, mind -- 2046 is smooth: a front-to-end block of different moods that flow seamlessly into one another. To put it lightly, it’s very, very pretty, and, while it was all of a piece (and not at all like the Cannes cut, presmuably), the film ultimately felt curiously lackluster. The tale of a love-’em-and-leave-’em dickhead nursing a broken heart -- be it Tony Leung’s character from ITMFL or not -- simply felt like one of those Apologies For the Bastard Who’s Really Sad As It Turns Out -- a colleague of Husbands, Roger Dodger, Igby Goes Down, et al. It’s clearly awesome, but it’s also not quite, I thought. Let me give it another chance, obviously, in conditions that don’t require watching it while lying in bed.

I’m still not ready to bequeath masterpiece status upon it, but many of my reservations have since been tossed on the heap. Assuming Tony Leung’s character here is the one from 2046 -- and it’s never made perfectly clear that that’s so; “I once loved a woman who left”, glimpses of Maggie Cheung, and the bit about blowing your secrets into a dug hole in a tree are the chief carry-overs -- Wong has dreamt up the worst possible punishment for his (non-)actions. At first, it may seem cheap: the brokenhearted turning into the breaker-of-hearts. But whatever. However, assuming it’s not, the film still manages to make our anti-hero worthy of sympathy. What’s amazing is he does it by not employing any of the usual or even expected ways. Like

1) Only a couple times do we see Leung explicitly make mention of this personal tragedy lodged in his past. We rarely even see him brood, or at least it’s never explained that he’s brooding over anything in particular. In essence, he refuses to let us in, but, as many humans do, is damaged enough to drop coy allusions to why that is: “I once loved a woman, but she left”; “Parts of my life found their way into [my sci-fi story set in the year 2046, where the nostalgic can spend the rest of their lives in the past, with their memories].” Only once does he open up about it, but Wong doesn’t let us hear it, instead having him narrate about how he opened up about it, the usual dam-opening, grandstanding monologue sliced down to an offhand anecdote. Wong does everything he can to make this a film about interiors.

2) Instead, we get to see him purely through action. And oblique action at that. He latches onto Gong Li’s haunted gambler, chiefly because she’s named Su Li Zhen -- a typically eccentric mode of Wong classification (see also: the expiration dates on pineapple cans in Chungking Express). But he feels nothing for Zhang Ziyi’s* adoring prostitute, to whom he refuses to get close, even going so far as to pay her -- at a discount, of course -- for their bonking sessions. He’s jilted by one and leaves the other, respectively. So, does that mean he’s just Afraid Of Getting Burned Again? Hot on the trail for indirect revenge against the female species? Yes, but that’s not the end of it. Because

3) He only cracks that devilish, smugly superior grin in public -- and then only at opportune times. Not that he goes into his room and cries about it afterward. (See 1).) But if inaction is as vital as action, then the implication seems to be that rather than let the guilt run though him, he’s trying to push it out of his mind completely. The women in his life disappear, from view and from mention, when their time with him is up. They don’t even drift in and out. Only Maggie Cheung pulls the drifting duties, and she’s the one we know the least about -- assuming, again, this isn’t a sequel to ITMFL. And if we assume that, then 2046 is only showing us that which doesn’t matter to Leung.

4) As I can tell you, there’s no better way to guard yourself against heartbreak, be they from would-be lovers or one-time friends (or both), than by endlessly distracting yourself with things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Though we rarely see it for certain, Leung surrounds himself with one-night stands, journalistic assignments, and stories, be they his semi-autobiographical sci-fi yarns or the martial arts stories about which he cares only a few iotas. (His transcribing scene with Faye Wong produces one of the film’s sole all-out howlers, by the way.) That way, you don’t have time to focus on the emptiness of the life you’ve built for yourself. Keep on moving, like the shark mentioned in Annie Hall. Only during Christmas, and only when Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song” is playing, will you ever feel the pangs of loneliness -- though, as Leung says, this is sorta by design.

5) About the title, which so perplexed Anthony Lane (good one, boyo). Yes, it means many things. It’s one of Wong’s aforementioned eccentric obsessions. It’s the room Cheung and Leung went to in ITMFL. It’s the future. It’s the year Hong Kong’s immunity from the mainland will expire. It’s a symbol of Leung’s stranglehold on the past, the prison he has willingly locked himself inside. But they all tie together. Just as Hong Kong has another four decades of semi-independence left, Leung has willingly let himself be unstuck in time, pointedly avoiding mention of current events even as he plays journalist. The title is everything to Leung, the only things he cares about. Everything else in the world is there to distract him from it.

As you can tell, it's a difficult film to unpack. Honestly, I gave it the old college try. But you might notice that I haven’t yet delved into the look, the flow, the endless melancholy. That’s right. There’s more to it than only mood.

Still, it’s near-inarguable that this is one handsome piece of filmmaking -- one of the great solid blocks of consistency since past Wongs, von Sternberg and The Conformist (which has more in common with 2046 than you’d at first think). Less repeating himself than refining his style for his most oblique portrait yet, Wong brings all his power to bear on the film, even while introducing new elements. Narration, abandoned by ITMFL, is back. For the first time, he shoots in cinemascope, forcing us to view Leung’s world as we would through a slit in a letterbox (heh), with all the usual intruding walls and off-kilter perspectives we come to expect from Wong, Christopher Doyle, and his revolving door cast of guest d.p.s. But more importantly, this is his longest film yet. The film’s still elliptical, but the length gives Wong a chance to stretch out. It’s downright bizarre to hear claims that the film’s confusing; when the film skips to Leung’s futuristic stories, it’s preceded by “I was writing a novel about the future.” (Waaah? Where are we?!) The roominess makes it easier to get lost in Leung and Wong’s world, to relish the mood and the details. Consequently, we are constantly distracted from what really aches Leung, even while Wong’s filmmaking simultaneously reminds us of the pain he refuses to address. It’s a sad film about someone who’s doing his best not to be sad.

[Note: I realized this post was, perhaps needless to say, a touch on the incoherent side, hardly justifying its epic, 1500-word length. However, I realized this over twelve hours after posting it. So up it remains, and I promise I'll re-write/-work/-jigger this thing, or at least give another shot at trying to convey...whatever it was I was trying to say. I believe it's best to be honest in this case.]

* Nuts to this Western reordering of her name.