Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sex, fruit and starshine: The proxemics of The Wayward Cloud

(Written for the Unspoken Cinema blogathon.)

There's been a lot of sex in certain strains of contemplative cinema over the past few years. The carnal acts in these films can be expressions of tension and barely-buried resentment (Twentynine Palms), longings for an idyllic existence (Battle in Heaven) or signifiers of crushing mundanity (Sangre), but rarely do they scan simply as sex. Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud is similarly festooned with symbolic fucking; however, the physicality of the sex, its definition as a human process, carries just as much importance as its metaphorical resonance. Tsai's main aesthetic project with this film is a consideration of personal space, and the couplings and uncouplings of his characters bear that out.

The signature shot in The Wayward Cloud points the way towards this. The first shot in the film is an extended long shot of both sides of a curving tunnel, with the screen bisected by the curve's apex; two women walk through the tunnel, passing each other with little acknowledgment of the other. This framing gets three reprises during the course of the film: in Shiang-chyi's apartment when she (Chen Shiang-chyi) offers Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) a watermelon juice, in a similar hallway with Hsiao-kang hanging from the ceiling on the left side, and in the film's dark climax.

Each reprise shows the opening-up of the territorial bubble. The first shot shows two strangers with minimal contact; the second shot involves two interested parties who have reunited after a long separation and involves a modicum of tentative interaction; the third shows a couple becoming comfortable with each other's presence; the fourth and final iteration involves violations/breaches of comfort (both the couple's and otherwise). The film, then, is structured as a progression from isolation to trust of another in regards to personal space to misuse of said trust. Loneliness in the world of Tsai is painful, but not as painful as letting someone get too close. Note also that the film, which starts with a hazy long shot, ends with as uncomfortable a close-up as has ever been filmed.

There's a lot of spatial discomfort in The Wayward Cloud. Tsai's always been a fine purveyor of the wide-open-spaces style of contemplative filmmaking, but with Cloud he occasionally casts his eye on enclosed, cramped places. There's an early scene, shot from overhead, where a porn actress is riding a crowded elevator and suddenly becomes overcome by an ant attack. As she tears her clothes off, a couple (conspicuously male) fellow riders jump forward, a little too eager to help her with her dilemma. The scene cuts away before she can really respond, but it's implied that she has no problem with what amounts to a group grope.

The same actress turns up in at least one of the various scenes involving porno shoots in an anonymous bathroom, actor and actress crammed into a bathtub, director and cameraman hovering right above them. (I'm not even going to get into the disturbingly tight close-up that occurs during a bit where an actress takes a money shot - Tsai, among other things, uses the mechanics of pornography to criticize it, making this the becalmed yin to the blistering, angry yang of A Hole in My Heart.) The unspoken message is that, by allowing everyday violations as such, you open yourself to bigger ones like that which occurs during the climax of Cloud.

But it's not always so cut-and-dried; at times, Tsai uses enclosure to suggest comfort (Hsiao-kang swimming in the small water tank) or emotional closeness. Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi making their first intimate contact in a small back room that can only be described as a porno wing falls under the latter rubric; compare this scene, shot at a medium-close-up range, with the myriad pornographic scenes, which are generally depicted in disinterested medium shots. There's also something to be said for the gulf between something like the aforementioned watermelon-juice scene, where its characters are separate in the frame but growing close in the heart, with the first sex scene, where, despite the physical proximity, contains no feeling or even any actual contact for its first stages (a watermelon is humorously used in proxy). The phsyical and emotional aspects are therefore characterized as related but separate, occasionally even working at cross purposes; Tsai, in essence, is using his carefully-considered mise-en-scene to reflect the emotions (or lack thereof) of his characters.

It's not a rare thing to pull this gambit, but it is rare to do this and then push it into disturbing places, thus exploding our reactions. The last sequence once again sees our hero and heroine divided, both spatially by a wall and emotionally by Hsiao-kang's occupation... but this time, there's a cutout window in the wall. Shiang-chyi, at first repulsed, then tries to use this window to cross the chasm between the two; when Hsiao-kang responds in an unexpected way, bursting the metaphorical barrier, the end result is devastating. It's a bigger violation of space and respect than what immediately precedes it and thus far more troublesome (though one of the most disturbing things for me about the finale is indeed how we know nothing of the Japanese porn actress). Yet, there's also a certain ambiguity in it - much like the climax to The River (a film of which Cloud could be the mirror image), Tsai is at bottom allowing his characters an unmistakable connection. It's just that the connection is so deeply screwed-up. Tsai, though, refuses to look away. He holds that close-up, violating our personal space in a sense. But then, that's kind of the point, isn't it?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)

Wistful yet strong-willed, this concert documentary captures much of what Neil Young has given us and what keeps him going to this day. Whether you're looking at his noisier, more ragged work or his spare acoustic stuff, there's always the spark of propulsion that keeps the works moving. That's much what we get here, and that's really all that's needed. Flashier direction would overwhelm the fragility of the acoustic work, but Jonathan Demme knows well enough to observe, nothing more than that. Also, it's interesting to note the introspective tone here and how it ties in with Young's spiking interest in aging and death, this having been filmed shortly after his aneurysm surgery. His defiant strength is impressive, but it's the points when we see the cracks in the facade that leave marks; in particular, there's a bit where Young mists up while talking about his late father that damn near sent me to tears myself. I admit to zoning out a bit here and there (I prefer Young's electric work, to be honest), and some of the topical references in the new material are jarring ("I'll always remember what Chris Rock said"?); still, I think Neil puts it best when he says, "Things have changed, but the spirit's still here, and that's a beautiful thing." Amen, brother. (I have to ask, though, why get Emmylou Harris on stage just to relegate her to backing vocals for the majority of the film? Isn't that, like, a union violation or something?)

Grade: B
Fuego (1969)

When a film opens with a lesbian makeout session, you're either in for something special or an experience akin to spastic colon; fortunately, this loopy Argentinean sexploitationer hews closer to the former. Isabel Sarli, a veritable Venus in furs, leads the proceedings as insatiable sex addict Laura, and while I can't bespeak to the totality of her acting talent (dubbing naturally tends to wreck any consideration of vocal delivery), she does has a formidable physicality to her. By that, I don't just mean her body's smokin' (though it is... damn, is it ever) - I mean that just by watching her, studying her movements, you can believe that this a woman caught in the throes of a sexual addiction that tortures and hounds her unto death. The opening half-hour or so is the film's best, as director/male lead/Sarli spouse Armando Bo exhibits a fair amount of flair behind the camera - he approximates the frenzied state of Sarli via abrupt jump cuts and tosses in a nutty scene where he and Sarli hump in the middle of a snowbank (presumably to literally cool down Laura's raging ardor). Once Bo's character Carlos slips a ring on Laura's finger despite the big blazing warning signs, the film loses its edge for a while; it does rally later for a bizarre gynecological exam, a jaunt to New York City (where everything is still dubbed) and a surprisingly fucked-up melodrama climax. That last shot of Sarli, arms out like Christ and white sleeves billowing in the wind, is about as close to genuine goddamn art as you're ever likely to find in these grindhouse specials. This shot, though demonstrates something important. This wasn't a knock-it-out job - this was made by people who cared enough to put themselves into the job; that's why, despite the fact that it practically oozes tawdriness and was obviously made on the cheap, Fuego leaves an impression. (Okay, okay, Ms. Sarli's breasts didn't hurt either.) Also worth seeing for: The overripe theme song. "FUEGO!"

Grade: B-
Railroaded! (1946)

Deliciously blackhearted film noir from Anthony Mann talks tough, walks tough and acts tough. That's probably because it IS tough - it's the kind of film where everyone, even the good guys, are playing an angle and trust is a major issue. ("He doesn't trust anyone." "He trusts me.") It starts with a jewel heist, then it proceeds on to a frameup. Said frameup causes a cascade of crosses and double-crosses, many of them perpetuated by characters (i.e. Rosie) on the side of good. When main villain Duke snarls "Listen, you, I know what I'm doin'," there's no reason to doubt him, but there's also no reason to doubt that his opponents have already anticipated his next moves; he, in turn, has thought out their next moves. The soul of the film belongs to Duke; as he loses the thread and starts to get desperate, the film seems increasingly frantic as well, so that by the end the nervous tension he exudes threatens to split the celluloid in two. It's noir as a chess game, and it's pretty fun to watch, if only to wait for the checkmate moves (i.e. hard-boiled cop Mickey's fakeout drive-away).

Great Moments in Dialogue:

DUKE: "Women should be struck regularly, like gongs. That's from Oscar Wilde."
CLARA: "Give it back to him!"

Grade: B+
Comanche Station (1960)

The last of the Boetticher/Scott Westerns is also the purest expression of the Boetticher ethos, in which an imperfect hero struggles to do right in a cruel and untrustworthy world. This is also probably the most tightly constructed film in this fine collaborative series aside from Seven Men from Now, starting from the wonderfully tense wordless negotiation that opens the film down to the twist at the end, which ties into the idea of maintaining decency even in the face of helplessness. The only thing that keeps this from being the crown jewel of the series is the fact that, for once, Randolph Scott is more or less impeccable - the other films I've seen in the series have him play a deeply ambiguous hero, but here he's one step away from Dudley Do-Right despite his character flaws (prickliness, pride). The brunt of the ambiguity here is given to the young outlaw Dobie, who wants out of the bad life even as he profits from it - "Sure hope I amount to something," he says in a moment of reflection - and it's a given that this is going to get him into danger at some point in the narrative. This, then, means that the final showdown is a little more stock-issue than I would prefer... but still. Other than that, this is a pretty great little film. (Also, it's worth noting that it does something old-school Westerns rarely do: At a critical standoff, the villain actually gets a shot off first, meaning the hero only survives by dumb luck. I'm a bit tickled by that.)

Grade: B+

Friday, January 19, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

Somehow both uniquely cinematic and literary to a fault, Tom Tykwer's new film is attempting to fill a lot of roles at once. It's trying to be an admirable distillation of Patrick Süskind's famed novel (generally considered unadaptable), plus it also wants to find a cinematically appropriate way to designate scents, plus it has to be the film that gets Tykwer's career on track again (did anyone even bother to see Heaven?), and on top of those requirements it also has to be a ripping good yarn, good enough to span two hours and twenty minutes. I'll be damned if it doesn't fill the bill of all those with grace and aplomb. Tykwer nails the eerie, arch tone of Süskind's prose easily - the film often comes off like an off-kilter black comedy - with an assist from John Hurt doing voiceover duty to fill in some of the less cinematic passages. Meanwhile, flash edits and careful, atmospheric cinematography bring off exactly the scent-inspiring effect that Tykwer wants; we may not smell the thing in itself, but thanks to the well-chosen imagery we can understand and create in our minds the sought-after odors. And the story, ah the story... the story moves at a brisk pace, allowing for a wealth of detail without becoming bogged down in stasis. Nothing, though, quite prepares the active mind for the fearless way the film flings itself into the void as a finale. Berserk is a fine way to describe the climax of Perfume, hallucinatory and transgressive in its blinkered inspiration as it is, and it's all pretty fucking thrilling. It's a strong period piece/half-nutters comedy prior to its final fifteen minutes; after that, it's impossible to ignore or forget. Pasolini would be proud.

Grade: A-
Hard Candy (2006)

On the evidence here, director David Slade and writer Brian Nelson are the kind of fellows who fancy themselves smarter than they really are. Hard Candy, as phony and manipulative an example of revenge porn as I've yet seen, is stuffed to bursting with first-level thinking and blatant deck-stacking. For a while, I thought that might be part of the film's strategy - the reactions towards the characters are too easy, too obvious to be anything but a smokescreen hiding later rug-pulling plot twists, went my logic. But no, what you see is what you get, as neither Nelson nor Slade attempt to inject anything resembling ambiguity or uncertainty into the situation they've concocted. But then, why am I expecting intelligence from a film that has Patrick Wilson decrying "that phony music video crap" right before a montage that's been edited and art-directed within an inch of its life just like a phony music video? The impressive visual look recalls Powell & Pressburger, but the substance of the film suggests a cut-rate Peeping Tom minus any of the complicated qualities that made Powell's disquieting classic so special. Instead, what Nelson & Slade have given us is a cheap and nasty button-pusher that implicitly praises the audience for their ability to be revulsed by all those nasty pedophiles without having to actually say anything about Internet kiddie smut and how it has, in essence, led us to a culture of entrapment. I know the idea of a sympathy-for-the-devil film about a kiddie raper sounds crass, but what's really crass is how the people who made this are exploiting a very real problem for the sole purpose of attracting attention to themselves. So fuck them.

Grade: D
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Arthur Penn's famed revolutionary cinematic object remains today a fresh and vital film even as its influence can be seen in everything from Badlands to Natural Born Killers. I think the reason it works as well as it does, even as others in its wake have copped (and, in the case of Badlands, even improved upon) its methods is that it perfectly nails down and stays true to the tonal complexity hinted at in its infamous tagline ("They're young, they're in love... they kill people.") The screenplay never loses sight of the fact that, at heart, these are just two young goofy kids getting off on their notoriety. So there's a certain amount of youth-group romanticism present here. Penn and company, though, aren't afraid to explode their own mythologizing; saddling Warren Beatty's handsome, charmingly klutzy Clyde with impotence plays havoc with the pretty-boy perception of him, and creating graphic violence at odds with the insouciant road-movie business gets intelligent people thinking about who it is we're sympathizing with. Like many a great work of art, it lures us in with seductive allure (i.e. Faye Dunaway at her sexiest doing obscene things to a Coke bottle) then smacks you full in the face. Bonnie and Clyde may have been pretty, but they ain't pretty no more.

Grade: A-
Germany Year Zero (1948)

Sober, clear-eyed film about a young boy (played by Edmund Meschke) doing what he can to can to keep his family from starving amidst the rubble of post-war Germany. Early on, a character claims, "I don't believe in others helping out," and the spirit of every-man-for-himself permeates the day-to-day existence portrayed by Roberto Rossellini. Everyone's suspicious (Edmund's ex-soldier brother refuses to register for civil benefits, pleading "What if it's a trap for stupid people?"), everyone's desperate (single cigarettes become an important commodity) and everyone's trying to find a hustle that will allow them to eat for a couple days before someone else finds it. Through all this, Edmund wanders, too young to be a man but too old to be a child; as the film creeps forward, pragmatism and cruelty (on the part of Edmund and others) start to be indistinguishable. Rossellini shoots all this with an observational eye; his devotion to spartan neorealism makes the hardships faced by its characters ache all that much more. The inevitable ending, when it arrives, feels like a path of lesser resistance, and the insistent musical score jars against the presumed non-artifice of the mise-en-scene, but overall this is striking stuff.

Grade: B

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Inland Empire (2006)

There is no way, no bloody way, that David Lynch's new id-dump can be parsed on one viewing. There's just too much going on. A lot of it sums up and restates a lot of themes he's been fond of for much of his career -- there's a lot of Mulholland Drive in the DNA of Inland Empire, with Laura Dern's Nikki Grace a funhouse mirror image of Naomi Watts's Betty Elms, and traces of Blue Velvet, Eraserhead and Lost Highway can be teased out as well -- but per the usual Lynch manages to assemble these elements so that they still feel like a distinct work rather than a greatest-hits compilation. If anything, this is Lynch at his purest, which makes it both satisfying and exasperating, not to mention really difficult to understand. The much-maligned DV photography works within its limits; while I do wish that Lynch had stuck with film, the indistinct fuzziness of digital video seems to fit thematically with Lynch's concept of a world where identity and even perception itself is blurry. The narrative, such as it is, is as ouroborian as Lynch has ever been, with a film-within-a-film swallowed up by the true-life narrative upon which it's based, then that being swallowed by the dream-lives upon which the true-life narrative intrudes, only to have the whole deal revealed as self-devouring artifice. (It's somehow even more confusing than it sounds.) Mesmerizing and aggravating in about equal measure (the Greek chorus of whores is either the best or worst idea Lynch has ever had, and I can't tell if the conversation between the street people near the end is jaw-dropping in a good or bad way), this is nonetheless a singular work from an artistic master. There's also Laura Dern's hell-for-leather performance, which is amazing work in its own right. So verdict: It's pretty good, but come back to me when I've seen it again. It has the potential to be a mindblower.

Grade: B
Headspace (2006)

Not to be cruel, but the people who made this movie are retarded. They had an interesting premise about a man whose mysterious increase in intelligence coincides with a series of bizarre deaths, and they ignored it almost completely in favor of a dumbass monster-on-the-loose film. I've been trying to be nicer in my reviews lately, but seeing this level of squandered promise just ticks me off. There are many strange and fascinating places this premise could have explored, but instead it's all downhill after the opening sequence in which Larry Fessenden blasts a huge hole through Sean Young's head. If you want to make a monster movie, people, just make a damn unpretentious monster movie. There's no need to complicate things. Leave the chess obsession and the endless speeches and the childhood trauma nonsense to another film, m'kay?

Grade: C-
Volver (2006)

You know what? I've seen four Almodóvar films now, and I don't think my sensibilities are simpatico with his. When he tries for camp, it strikes me as too studied and self-conciously "outrageous" (compare the flopsweat perversity of What Have I Done to Deserve This? with any random film from the transgressive period of John Waters, for whom camp seems to exude constantly, and tell me which works better); paradoxically, though, that sense of flamboyance delivers a gummy flatness to his late-career attempts at working sincere. So it goes with Volver, an airy trifle that knows the words to the neo-noir trappings it affects like window dressing but not the music. There's no weight to anything here -- it's all just incidence without emotion, and I get the feeling that, were it not for Penélope Cruz's ferocious commitment in the lead, the whole enterprise would float away without making any impression. Is there something here I'm missing? Is there really more to this than trite "love yo' mama" sentiment, something that might transform this cotton-candy cinematic object into the beguiling bit of lovely that critical opinion would have it be? Is there anything -- anything at all -- within Volver that I can't get from watching a random hour of the Lifetime Network? Please, help me out. I'm all ears.

Grade: C
Cars (2006)

Pixar's first dud. I guess it was bound to happen, but it doesn't make it all right. I'll say that Cars is certainly gorgeous. The top-flight animation is consistently a wonder to behold, with every landscape and character detail rendered as pleasingly as possible. But you know what? Visual grandeur will only go so far when you're making children's entertainment, and if there's not a story worth telling you might as well step away from the computer and pick up a paintbrush. The story is standard We-Should-Slow-Down-and-Appreciate-Life stuff, and it appears that the boys at Pixar were so obsessed with the look of the film that they forgot to make the plot interesting. (Also, there's a rather cynical irony in that message being transferred by a film as frenetic and flashy as this one.) Too, the film's sense of humor leans towards the cheap & corny, as if clumsy puns and down-home hick hyucks are proper stand-ins for the gentle quietude of small-town life. So, yes, it looks nice, but where's the soul? Where's the wonder? Where's the sense that actual fucking human beings were involved in creating this rather than just a massive bank of computers? Metal and chrome, however shiny, are no substitute for a beating heart.

Grade: C-
The Queen (2006)

For ready-made award bait, this ain't so bad. It derives its strength mainly from the tumultuous interplay between Queen Elizabeth II and PM Tony Blair, and while Helen Mirren's been gathering accolades and awards by the barrel (deservedly so), it's Michael Sheen as Blair that proves to be the linchpin of the film for me. Forever poised between respect and incredulity, Sheen lets us sympathize with Blair's unenviable position while also serving as our gateway into the film's world. He's our gee-shucks audience surrogate, and he acquits himself admirably. (It probably helps that this isn't the first time Sheen has essayed Blair -- he, director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan previously collaborated on The Deal.) The uneven screenplay is the major weakness here. In its best parts, it depicts the royalty and the changing world from which they're insulated with even-handedness, droll humor and a sharp forthrightness; in its worst parts, it either lets James Cromwell peevishly natter on about tradition or infuses way too much clumsy symbolism into a giant buck. (The scene where Mirren comes face to face with the animal is on my shortlist of the year's dumbest scenes.) But this is a performance-driven film, and in that it's a success.

Grade: B-

Friday, January 12, 2007

Edmond (2006)

You couldn't ask for a better adaptation job than the one that's been bestowed upon David Mamet's deeply misanthropic one-act play. Stuart Gordon's direction is crisp and careful, and his handling of the actors assures that the staccato rhythms of Mamet's work will emerge without sounding forced. Too, the actors are all fantastic; William H. Macy gives a barnburner of a turn as the title character, who descends into a concrete Hades after a prophecy from a fortune-teller screws his head the wrong way 'round, but the entire cast (mostly Mamet regulars) does right by the words. So there's no fault in the translation; the flaws in Edmond, then, must be attributed to the work itself. It's an interesting work, with much to say about the concept of manhood and monetary transaction as a form of trust which too often is betrayed (note how often Macy asks, "Is this true?" right before ponying up/being conned out of/being beat up for money). It's also pretty transparent in its desire to attract attention to the then-neophyte author, with its race-baiting politics and shocking acts of violence goosing the proceedings at regular intervals. Also, the final section of this is ill-advised, serving as it does to provide credence to Edmond's diseased worldview. If it had ended with a cut to black after the last conversation between Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon, I'd forgive it its flaws as part of the grand framework, an unsparing portrait of modern malaise expressed as denied salvation and frustrated connections. But it keeps going into bizarre juvenalia territory that I'd always figured was too cheap for Mamet. It's still a fine film, raw and wiry and electric, and a grand showcase for the rarely-explored darker side of one of America's finest actors. But the growing pains of new artistry are still evident after all these years.

Grade: B-

Monday, January 08, 2007

Deja Vu (2006)

Too clever by a third. This, the latest Bruckheimer/Scott product, is a reasonably compelling tale undone by its overindulgence of its supernatural elements. As long as it sticks to its (admittedly loony) premise wherein an intrepid band of investigators and techno-geeks, led by Denzel Washington as his most steadfastly authoritative in the face of the unbelieveable, use a super-secret Wayback Space Camera to scan the past and catch a terrorist/murderer, it's really quite a good time. The screenplay by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio has a lot of fun with the parallels between three-days-prior and now, with the most exciting and inventive scene being a car chase spanning both time windows, and Tony Scott uses his natural tendencies towards sensory overload for good instead of evil this time around, tamping down the ferret-on-crack editing and camerawork just enough so that we can make out what's happening onscreen while pushing the story quick enough that we don't ask questions. There's a goodly amount of humor, too, and the food-for-thought crowd can have fun with the idea that Denzel and Co. are analogous to a typical moviegoing crowd, destined to watch the lives and acts of others without being able to intervene in a meaningful way. It's a shame, then, that the minute Denzel changes that by using himself as a time-tripping guinea pig in order to save a woman caught in the crossfire (so to speak), the film falls apart. I can believe a lot of things in films. I can, with enough silly pseudo-scientific explanation, believe in a secret Wayback Space Camera. I cannot believe, however, that the timeline in this film makes any sense at all. There are aspects of the plot (i.e. Denzel's fingerprints showing up in a place where they feasibly shouldn't) that are so obviously temporal paradoxes that they border on retarded. It's like Marsilii and Rossio lost track of their own premise. There's suspension of disbelief and there's outright cheating, and the last half-hour of Deja Vu is bloated with the latter. In other words: This movie would be great if it weren't for the fucking time travel. Also: Is Jim Caviezel's puzzling dedication to essaying creepy loners a self-inflicted punishment for daring to play Jesus or what?

Grade: C+
Feast (2006)

Ugly winged things show up in the middle of Texas and eat everything in this Project Greenlight winner-turned-unpretentious gore flick. Mostly crap, as you would expect from a film that was essentially made by committee in public, but every now and then it'll do something (like the scene where the little boy leaves the closet or the unexpected outcome of the attempted vehicle commandeering) that provokes a guffaw and a spike in interest; shame it's not actually as funny as it thinks it is, though. On the evidence here, John Gulager could be a fine director some day if he can cure himself of the addiction to shaky-cam. In particular, the makeup effects looked like they may have been excellent, I don't know -- they're nigh-well indistinguishable through the low light levels and smeary whip-pans. So yes, it's crap, but ya know what? There's a time and a place for appreciating nearly every film, and this one was made for getting tipsy on beer at 2 AM, all the better to enjoy things like former noveau-Emmanuelle Krista Allen shoving her whole fist down the gullet of a hungry mutant.

Grade: C
Turistas (2006)

Wan would-be gut-cruncher about a bunch of unlucky tourists in Brazil might as well be titled O Hospedaria, given how closely it hews to the template blazed by Hostel. Director John Stockwell pushes his blandly pretty cast through the paces with all the gumption and energy of a narcoleptic with a hangover; his muse only springs to life during the underwater photography sequences, maybe because he could pretend he was still making Blue Crush. There's something to be said about the fact that even an unambitious timewaster like this gives its villain a perverted social conscience and a patina of class resentment as his motivation (the Vietnam-era grindhouse/horror film refuses to die!), but beyond that Turistas is a blood-soaked marshmallow, offering nothing but quick-to-fade empty calories to less-discerning horror fans. (Even then, said fans might be cheesed at the noticeable dearth of violence and death -- this is the Natural Light to Eli Roth's Pabst Blue Ribbon.) If this were a food item, it would be one of those blue-and-white cans of unidentified edibles that populated Repo Man.

Grade: C

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Casino Royale (2006)

Martin Campbell's pretty good at this ground-level no-frills action stuff, isn't he though? This, the best Bond film since Campbell's previous crack at the superspy (Goldeneye), is (as probably everyone knows by now) an attempt to bring the series back to basics; as much as I enjoyed the ridiculous hyperbolic insanity of the Brosnan Bonds, the move was a wise one. Daniel Craig, despite the negative vibes broadcast by certain parties, turns out to be a natural for this version of Bond -- he nails the awkwardness, cocksureness and hustling improvisation that comes with James, newly outfitted with 007 status, being thrust into life-or-death situations for the first time, yet he also exudes an air of sleek menace and quick-to-adapt intelligence. Simply put, he looks like the kind of guy who could make good use of a license to kill. His extraordinary (and oft-displayed) physical condition mirrors the condition of the film; all the bloat and fat of the last couple Bonds has been pared away, leaving behind a lean and muscular thrill machine. Campbell keeps the film moving at a taut clip (efficiency is the watchword here), and though he eventually succumbs to the temptation of shaky-cam action lensing (the final battle in the crumbling Venetian building is spatially disorienting, to say the least), he also keeps the film's energy from flagging. Then there's Eva Green, who not only provides sumptuous eye candy but demonstrates (here, of all films) that her acting chops have improved significantly since her stilted turn in The Dreamers. This should be an object lesson to Hollywood action filmmakers about how to create an exciting spectacle without resorting to hopeless excess, but I doubt the lesson will stick. Still, we'll always have Montenegro.

Grade: B+

Thursday, January 04, 2007

God's Angry Man (1980)

[Requested by Tom Sutpen.]

The Werner Herzog documentaries I've seen tend to be mesmerizing on the strength of their astonishing visuals and Herzog's recontextualization of such. So it's kind of odd to see one that's mesmerizing simply because of the man being profiled. There's very little Herzogian intrusion in God's Angry Man, but there doesn't need to be -- Dr. Gene Scott is an extraordinary enough man in his own right. He's a televangelist, but he's a breed apart from the phony cash-grabbing sincerity of Swaggart, Bakker and Co.; one of the most compelling things about Scott is that he comes off as a genuine believer. (At one point, he sits in silence, refusing to speak until donations start to pour in, then violently erupts with, "It has nothing to do with money at this point!" It says a lot that I believed him.) He's a fascinating, contradictory figure: ferocious when on camera and low-key when off, steadfast in his belief and devotion to his audience yet exhausted by the same and longing to break free from the constraints of expectations. It's this last point that proves to be the emotional fulcrum of the film, as well as the one that launches Scott into the pantheon of quintessential Herzog figures -- here we have a man who opens a sermon with, "When I yell, I want to be heard," who stubbornly battles with the FCC in the face of overwhelming odds, who berates his audience for donating money after a tantrum with the line, "Why didn't you do it because you love God?"... and secretly, all he wants is to live in peace. It's this striving for something beyond oneself, the urge to transcend one's circumstances, that slides Scott in with Walter Steiner and Timothy Treadwell and Dieter Dengler as subjects worthy of a Herzog study. He may be "too good to be really bad and too bad to be really good," but that just makes him a man. This is what Herzog's silent, empathetic gaze captures, and it sparkles for all to see.

Grade: A-
The Mirror (1975)

[Requested by Jeff Duncanson. Sorry about this, Jeff.]

"Words can't express emotions. They're too inert."

Andrei Tarkovsky's ravishing memory piece, ironically, has proved elusive to my memory. (Having seen it two months ago isn't helping.) I remember enjoying the film. If I try, I can recall specific images -- the main character's mother standing by a window; a farmhouse on fire; a bird on a head; the recurring image of people turning their heads away from the camera; a pulsing spot on a man's head; a man with a suitcase crossing a field. Somehow, this vague and fragmentary recall seems approriate, as the film itself is a freeform collection of incidents and images that, strung together, add up to a life. It's a film about memory: about how what we remember (and what we choose to forget) can shape our life, about how we can recall the sins of our forebears even as we repeat them (note that the main character leaves his wife just as his father did), about how certain things can recur -- or seem to recur -- in our lives, about how we try to frame our own lives in relation to the goings-on in the larger world (the rise of Communism haunts Tarkovsky's narrative). It's its strengths as a ruminatory work that make it so damn difficult to pin down and properly evaluate, at least after a first viewing. I know there's more to say about this than what I've already said, and I know I can't say it right now. I also know that I'm going to have to rewatch this and see where that gets me. I say that like that's a bad thing.

"Everything will be all right."

Grade: B