Sunday, April 02, 2006

Sweeten, enhance, beautify!

THE INTRUDER (2004, Claire Denis, seen in theatre)- in a way, the film Denis has been building toward for years, in which her tendency elliptical narration becomes borderline incoherent, and the filmmaking is so rapturous that it hardly matters. THE INTRUDER is on the surface a globe-spanning odyssey of an elderly loner (Michel Subor), who journeys to Korea to receive a black-market heart transplant, then to the South Pacific to search for a long-lost son. However, it is also a study of a series of different sorts of intruders- e.g. the new heart "intrudes" on Subor’s body, he’s constantly tailed by an enigmatic figure (played by Katia Golubeva) who intrudes on his life, and he himself is out of place after taking up residence in Tahiti. Denis’ tendency toward narrative digression borders on maddening (what exactly is going on with Beatrice Dalle as "The Queen of the Northern Hemisphere"?), but this seems to be Denis’ desired reaction, resulting from her lack of a desire to distinguish the film’s "literal" aspects from the flights of fancy. As always, Denis is peerless at tapping into the physical possibilities of her actors- Subor’s weathered old-school masculinity (reminiscent of a Gallic, alternate-universe Hemingway), Golubeva’s enigmatic Slavic-ness, Dalle’s feral nature, Gregoire Colin’s poker-faced boyishness, and so on. And of course Agnes Godard’s cinematography is peerless- the seemingly a-propos-of-nothing christening of a ship becomes a kind of holy moment here, and Denis and Godard lavish the same attention on the South Pacific scenes as they did on Djibouti in BEAU TRAVAIL, turning it from a picture-postcard paradise into a real, tangible place. I doubt I’ll be able to tap into the film’s mysteries without at least a few more viewings, but even on the first viewing, THE INTRUDER’s power as a cinematic experience is undeniable. Rating: ***1/2.

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA (2005, Rob Marshall, seen on DVD)- as it turns out, casting non-Japanese actresses in many of the key roles was the right choice for this movie, since it makes almost no effort to illuminate Japanese culture. The film is nothing if not visually handsome, but instead of making beauty integral to the style and tone of the film (a la Terrence Malick), MEMOIRS comes of as nothing so much as a fashion spread, showcasing exotic "Oriental" clothes and accessories, like a vintage magazine piece geared to the woman "with a taste for the exotic." As a result, the film's idea of what a geisha is feels muddled, and none of its contradictions are explored. For example, why insist throughout the story that geisha aren't sexual playthings and then show men bidding to take the virginity of young Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi)? Conundrums like this might support a more in-depth look at the geisha lifestyle, but are unremarked upon by the film. The decision to make the film in English proves disastrous for the actors as well, since of the principal performers only the ever-awesome Koji Yakusho seems to be fully aware of what his dialogue means. It also helps that he’s the only one who speaks in straightforward language, while those around him seem to be reading fortune cookies ("savor this moment; tonight the lights all burn for you"). Above all, the film is predicated on the idea that Zhang Ziyi’s Sayuri is the most desirable and sought-after beauty around, but frankly I didn’t buy it- not only does she lack the presence to carry the story, but has always struck me as being rather vanilla, particularly when she’s playing a scene with the incomparably more incandescent and talented Gong Li, who essays the role of the conniving Hatsumono. Given the production values, this would make a good DVD for electronics stores to demonstrate the color and picture quality of their new HD TV models, but as a movie it’s a snooze. To quote an old college instructor of mine, "Asians are people. Rugs and interior decorating is Oriental." As the characters in MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA feel less like people than furniture and mannequins, I have no problem calling the film Oriental. Rating: *.

FIND ME GUILTY (2006, Sidney Lumet, seen in theatre)- unlike fellow TV-director-turned-filmmaker John Frankenheimer, Lumet never came into a style of his own, and many of his films are so indifferently directed that the best one can say about him is that he stayed out of the way of the story. Thankfully, that’s the case here as well- I say "thankfully" because the story is good enough that it doesn’t need tricked up. Vin Diesel finally makes good on his hype from half a dozen years ago, turning in a loose and funny performance as Jackie DiNorscio, a mob functionary who defends himself in court. The trial portrayed in the film was the longest in U.S. history, and out of necessity the script glosses over most of it, largely boiling it down to Jackie’s big moments, making it feel like Jackie was primarily responsible for the outcome. However, there is still plenty of room for some rich supporting character work, especially from the great Peter Dinklage as another defense attorney. I especially liked how Dinklage (and the film) turn the unavoidable issue of his height into part of the character’s mystique- he’s not just the lawyer who has to stand on a podium to address the court, he’s the lawyer who has a guy working for him whose job it is to set up his podium. Not great filmmaking but pretty entertaining, as well as providing a fascinating examination of how a film can build audience sympathies with seemingly unsympathetic characters. Rating **1/2.

Well, I’m running a little short on time now, so I’ll breeze through the rest…

DUMA (2005, Carroll Ballard, seen in theatre)- Ballad is certainly in his element directing films about animals, and this story of a boy and his cheetah is no exception. There’s too much talking about the importance of finding a home (I would have preferred if the parallels between the boy’s coming of age and the cheetah adjusting to the wild had been keep subtextual), but the nature photography is as good as expected, and Eamonn Walker once again proves himself an estimable character actor. Rating: **1/2.

ELLIE PARKER (2005, Scott Coffey, seen in theatre)- Naomi Watts is the show here in the title role, an aspiring actress whose life is an endless string of auditions, parties, and above all driving around L.A. between auditions and parties. The film itself is deliberately slight, and the DIY style (how odd to see DV that doesn’t attempt to look like film these days) is right for it, taking the tarnish off the Hollywood lifestyle to follow a person for whom that dream has long since lost its lustre. Some of the film’s attempts at oddball humor fall flat (like the director as a man who sleeps with Ellie to test whether he’s gay), but there are also spot-on scenes as well (the horror-show audition with "the new producers," the meeting with an agent played by Chevy Chase), and an out-of-nowhere scene of beauty in which Ellie discovers a tree-lined street where the lilacs are abloom. Full disclosure department: I recently got rejected by every single film school I applied to, so it’s hard for me to be objective about this film since I empathized too much with the protagonist’s plight. I’m not sure that this is much of a movie, but I certainly felt Ellie’s pain. Ask me how I feel about this film in a few years. (Provisional) Rating: **1/2.

YOUR STUDIO AND YOU (1995, Trey Parker, , short film downloaded off the Internet)- hilarious. See for yourself (warning: LONG download). Stallone has never been better!

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