Saturday, July 01, 2006

End of the Month Film Report: June 2006 Part I

I started off June watching more of Claire Denis and Alejandro Amenábar. Then I began catching up on popular culture items. This entry is longer than I originally intended, to quote Blaise Pascal, "I have only made this longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter."(1657) Doesn't that say so much about the work (or lack thereof) of editing?

1. Cría Cuervos (1976) Dir. Carlos Saura. One of Saura's films with his longtime paramour Geraldine Chaplin, Cría Cuervos details post-Franco life through the eyes of young Ana (Ana Torrent) who blames her father for her mother's death years earlier from cancer and herself for her father's death in the arms of the neighbor's wife. This was a crushingly oppressive film; repression is thick in the air of this middle-class military family. Young actress Ana Torrent is formidable, her endless old-soul eyes (the images here don't do them justice) both absorb everything around her and project sophisticated stores of emotions, as when she is telling her mute grandmother a revisionist story of the woman's life based on photos in her grandmother's wall. Torrent's face shifts into a grave expression, she wordless approaches her grandmother and then soberly asks her, "you want to die, don't you?" And the grandmother nods her assent. Eerie, Torrent was only ten years old. Chaplin plays Ana as an adult as well as Ana's mother, appearing mostly as an apparition that only Ana can see.

2. Tesis/Thesis (1996) Dir. Alejandro Amenábar. The precocious director's first feature film and the second collaboration with Spanish hearthrob, Eduardo Noriega who US audiences probably known from Amenábar's second feature, Abre los ojos (1997; remade as Vanilla Sky [2001] in the US with Tom Cruise replacing Noriega in the lead) and the Argentinian film Plata quemada/Burnt Money (2000) where he plays the slightly schizophrenic Angel, half of a pair of criminal gay lovers who in 1965 get involved in an ill-fated Buenos Aires bank robbery. Regarding Tesis, how is it that with few exceptions only non-US filmmakers comprehend the psychological thriller possibilities of academia? What have we got in the US: the original Candyman (1992) with Virginia Madsen as a graduate student looking into urban myths, of course that film was ostensibly a horror genre piece, but also explored issues of race, class, and miscegenation. Then there was Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) which admittedly takes place in a film school; it's like a young Hollywood film department forced to live in the Big Brother house without any legal or moral repercussions. Tesis features the adult Ana Torrent, and the depth of her gaze has unbelieveably increased since Cria and Spirit of the Beehive. She plays a student whose thesis is on violence in the family and media, and she searches out examples of extreme media violence lead to web of intrigue where of course she is put in harm's way and has to determine who is friend and foe. Also notable for an early appearance of Fele Martinez (also in Abre and more recently Almadovar's La mala educación), whom I love. It is suspenseful and enjoyable, quite well shot--some great low budget chase scenes--and evidences more humor than most of Amenábar's work, is an early manifestion of his interest in the themes of death and loss.

3. Beau Travail (1999) Dir. Claire Denis. Considered to be one of Denis's finest works. It is a powerfully sensual and poetic work. Cinematographer Agnes Goddard acheives absolute brilliance here in a film that primarily uses outdoor locations and is subject to the vagaries of available light. The narrative is based on Melville's Billy Budd, and is told through the voice over of Sergeant Galoup (Denis Levant), distracting to me as my French isn't strong enough for me to watch without subtitles. The visual strength of this film makes subtitles an impediment to full engagement. Denis' incarnation of Billy Budd is orphaned Legionnaire Gilles Sentain, and played by Gregoire Colin (Nenette et Boni), who has a gift for stillness, with a guileless intensity. The portrayals of the Legionnaire soldiers in the film are stunning for their pure physicality. The majority of the scenes are comprised of shots of the soldiers in under the Djibouti sun engaging in ritualistic paramilitary exercises in various states of dress and undress. The movements become increasingly balletic; their sheer repetition acheiving almost a trance quality where the energy is high but the mood is sober. We realize early on that Sergeant Galoup wants to be adored in the manner he feels the men love and are loyal to Sentain, a feeling he himself is struggling against. In one telling scene the Sergeant dances a masochistic-Fosse-influenced pas de deux with a wall of mirrors in an abandonned discotheque, exhibiting his ballistic (in every sense of the word) inner turmoil. There are some major distinctions from the Melville, beyond setting, which I won't enumerate here (I'm going to attempt to refrain from spoilers except when the film falls into the "I'll never get those two hours back" category). A beautiful film.

4. Underworld: Evolution (2006) Dir. Len Wiseman. Ah Vampires and Lycan (werewolves). I used to love the various mythologies of these tales as a kid. So of course I was curious about this story's mythology, and found the genderplay between vampire Kate Beckinsdale's death dealer (lychan killer), Selene, and Scott Speedman's unsuspecting human, Michael Corvin, in the original Underworld (2003) slightly fascinating. When Speedman gaves responses that subtly evoke a woman in peril in a way that didn't oppose his basic masculinity I thought: good choice! Speedman's character is a city dweller and like most people when the bullets go flying his muscles noticably tense and he tucks his head. When confronted by Selene his instinct is to run for his life, not bother to be suprised that a petit leather-clad woman could lift him up four feet in the air by his neck without breaking a sweat. Those are the moments I think that black folks talking in the theater has advanced the art of action/horror directing: sometimes a character, if we're supposed to identify with him/her should do what any person with some common sense would do: hit the pavement and run. Evolution begins where the original ended, and operates as both prequel and continuation. A choice allowing the return of Bill Nighy, who was so seductively evil as the vampire paterfamilis. There is the expected development of the relationship between Beckinsdale and Speedman with the gender power-fluidity still in play even as the latter has now realized his role in the centuries old fight between the lychan and vampires, some skillfull special effects, and a some beneficial supporting work by noted British actors Derek Jacobi and Steven Mackintosh (Different for Girls, Buddha of Suburbia; see him above with Beckinsdale and Speedman, note that Beckinsdale is centered in the frame and she's authoring the action). Unfortunately, Tony Curran's performance as the main villian, the mythology's original vampire, pales in comparison to that of Nighy, and Lychan leader Lucien (Michael Sheen, pictured right), in the original Underworld, save when Curran is in his hybrid make-up. The film also suffers from the absence of the complex villainy of Lucian and the ambiguous vampire Kraven (Shane Brolly). There's not a lot of story here it's mainly a long chase movie, but still a pretty and fun ride. Part 3, will they or won't they?

5. Romance (1999) Dir. Catherine Breillat (pictured left). This one was challenging viewing. I felt washed over by 98 minutes of female self-loathing emanating from lead character Marie (Caroline Ducey), one example "Paul is right, no one can love a face that is connected to a cunt." I hate to stereotype, but really no one can pair gendered self-loathing and sex like the French. It was truly wrenching to see such a raw portrayal of a woman's profound unease with her body. Admittedly there was a fair amount of male self-loathing as well from aforementioned boyfriend, Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), which presented itself as withdrawl of intimacy and sex from Marie who opts to explore her sexuality elsewhere. In one case a conquest (played by European porn star Rocco Siffredi) attempts to make love to her while she indifferently tells him how difficult it is for male porn actors to stay hard, and of her hate for men who penetrate her (besides the withholding boyfriend) in an ennui and angst-ridden drone that tested my patience, but apparently stoked her illicit lover's foreplay. This was a classic case of wondering why, if the filmmaker seemed to have so little affection for her characters, should I empathize with them. However, I by the film's conclusion it was clear that Breillat had deep feeling for her female protagonist who travels an arduous road to some semblance of self-value (with the help of an older lover who actually values her pleasure), ultimately liberating herself in a rather pointed manner. For an thoughtful take on Breillat's oevre see here.

6. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) Dir. Danny Leiner. Oh, like you never thought about seeing it? OK, maybe you didn't. But screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg have written a comedy that trots out all the stereotypes, pulls out their discomforting humor, and then flips them over and pokes at their sensitive underbellies which usually belong to the persons who have tried to gain power from the stereotypes in the first place. No one gets away unscathed here, over-acheiving Asian Americans, pot-heads, bombshells (who really do go to the bathroom like the rest of us), black men subject to a wide range of police harassment (e.g. from "reading while black" to "sleeping [in his own bed] while black") the difference between neurotics and nerds, to the complexities and contradictions of Pan-Asian solidarity, white trash racist suburban teens, young white boys working the affirmative action of the old white boy network. Kal Penn (easy-going Kumar) known for his roles in teen sex and romance comedies, and John Cho (uptight Harold) whose prior best role was dramatic work in Better Luck Tomorrow, have a great chemistry as young Odd-Couple best friends whose post-toking cravings have lead them on a life-postponing quest through suburban New Jersey to find the elusive White Castle. Hurwitz and Schlossberg are smart enough to wrap the cornucopia of melting-pot realities in a stoner road movie with two over-acheiving stoners--yep they're out there--who each experience a meaningful character arc and are changed by the story's end (the story within a frame format). As I was watching this movie and watching the featurettes with conversations with director Danny Leiner (Dude Where's My Car?) Cho and Penn, and Hurwitz and Schlossberg regarding the film's themes, my mind kept comparing the film to Paul Haggis' Crash. That might seem odd, but both films are operating around a similar set of themes except Harold and Kumar's umbrella of redemption only extends as far as the leads and a few of the characters who have been shown as impacted by institutional racism. Not everyone will get that the subversiveness of the movie is more than just the casting of two Asian leads, but it may plant a seed--and there will be a sequel (the first having proven the two actors to be bankable commodities). Plus Kal Pen is getting some adult roles, and will soon appear as the lead in director Mira Nair's latest, The Namesake (2006), based on the novel of the same name (2004) by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri.

7. Transamerica (2005) Dir. Duncan Tucker. A serious tour de force for Felicity Huffman but also for the young actor who plays her character's son, Toby. Paul Zeger is a poised, well-coiffed pretty boy in real life, and demonstrates an impressive transformation into an awkward mix of canny hustler and impetuous child. His character goes through a few arcs as does Huffman's which is unique, but both arcs--and their consequences--are wholly believable. I realized how rare it is to see a road movie featuring a female character who isn't someone being rescued, in other words a road movie where the woman drives, both the car and the film's plot. Of course by now everyone knows this story, and about the voice training, the prostheses, and Huffman's various nominations and awards. People haven' talked as much about the supporting performances. Graham Greene plays a cowboy who is a potential love interest for Bree, their courtship is brief and there is no physical contact with the exception of one moment when Greene holds Huffman's hand to help her from his truck, which heightens its romantic potential. Greene employs his usual dry humor to very sweet effect here. Fionnula Flanagan as Bree's overbearing mother is a revelation. Flanagan usually plays deeply wise characters, some with a world-weary edge. But here Flanagan plays a woman concerned with appearances who can't reconcile herself to the facts of her children's lives, or even her own choice as a young proper Catholic woman to marry a sensual Jewish man (played just below the radar by Burt Young), and who has obviously relied on Bree to be her chivalrous little spouse in way her rough-around-the-edges husband wasn't. Elizabeth Peña is incredibly generous as Bree's therapist. She gives a lot to a relatively small role, but I think Peña always brings that level of integrity to her work, which is why I so enjoy her.

8. Ash Wednsday (2002) Dir. Edward Burns. I think Edward Burns wants to be the Irish Barry Levinson, but with a New York City edge (his upcoming film, The Groomsmen, looks like an update of Levinson's Diner (1982), set in Irish NYC). In this installment he's reaching for Martin Scorsese but doesn't make that mark either. A solid cast but horrible score, and a story that should work but just drags. Elijah Wood is cast as the innocent younger son of an Irish mob thug and plays the role to the hilt, evidencing pollyanna tendencies that belie his character's supposed ticket-out high intelligence. Burns plays his street smart older brother who goes into the family business, sealing the wayward fate of his younger brother. I think the only Ed Burns film I've ever liked was the multiple-character Big Apple love letter Sidewalks of New York (2001), but that may have been because of the performances of Rosario Dawson and David Krumholtz. The rest of Burn's films have been B-grade work (here's a proposal: his investors bench him for bit, and give that $$$ to Kasi Lemmons, Julie Dash, Cauleen Smith and Rodney Evans), plus I think the only director to get a good performance out of Burns has been Steven Spielberg, unfortunate since Burns appears in all of his own films.

9. Shattered Glass (2003) Dir. Billy Ray. A truly creepy performance by Hayden Christensen as the ingratiating and duplicitous Stephen Glass, the young New Republic reporter who partially or wholly fabricated at least 27 out of the 41 stories he wrote for the magazine. This one was worth getting the DVD because youget to hear the commentary with director Ray and former New Republic editor Chuck Lane whom Peter Sarsgaard plays at a steady simmer beneath steely resolve. I know it is essentialist, but as I was watching this film I kept saying to myself "Glass would have never gotten over with that 'please like me!' behavior with a bunch of black folks." However given his skill at recruiting unwitting folks into his spiral of lies, he probably would have successfully adapted himself to the dynamic of whatever milieu he was in. Ray made the choice to unfurl the initial part of the story--Glass as Golden Boy--through Glass' p.o.v. which further complicates the notion of the "unreliable narrator," one gets the sense that had Glass been born in another time he would have written serial political and cultural satire for a leading newspaper, and been celebrated for his ability to draw the absurd in believable detail, or if he'd headed off to San Francisco he could have followed in the footsteps of Cindra Wilson and Armistead Maupin who were doing something similar between the 70s and 90s at the SF Chronicle. But if you're a pathological liar everyone knowing the truth doesn't feed the compulsion. The second part of the story, as Glass' lies begin to unravel along with the reputations of Lane, former editor the late Michael Kelly, and the New Republic itself, is told through the increasingly horrified, but resignedly so, view of Chuck Lane. A great study in the enigma that was and is Stephen Glass.


At 6:10 PM, Blogger Captain Oats said...

hey there, great blog, came across it thru some google searching.. anyways, im doing an interview with one of the writers of Harold and Kumar, and have opened up questions to the masses on my blog:

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