Saturday, March 25, 2006

Wolf Man in Paradise, and more!

INSIDE MAN (2006, Spike Lee, seen in theatre)- this heist movie finds Spike at his most playful in years, clearly enjoying manipulating the genre mechanism for his own enjoyment, and it's infectious. Despite the fact that it's about a bank robbery-turned-hostage situation, the film makes no bones about the fact that there's something else afoot- flash-forward scenes of NYPD detectives/verbal sparring partners Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) interrogating suspects and former hostages are interwoven throughout, dispelling any suspense as to their fates- but somehow the gambit works, mostly because it clues us in to the idea that we're supposed to be concerned more with the underlying reasons behind the robbery rather than the outcome. Also, rare for a film of this sort, the cops are more engaging than the crooks- Clive Owen's thief spends most of the film with a mask over his face, and generally plays his usual cool customer, while Washington, Ejiofor and company get to engage in fun, loose banter while sifting through the clues and sorting out the problems. Questions abound in retrospect- the age of the Christopher Plummer character seems something of a stretch, and there's the matter of some documents which for some reason weren't disposed of years ago- but in the moment it's a good time. Also, Bollywood music rules, especially when you don't expect to hear it. Rating: **1/2.

PARADISE NOW (2005, Hany Abu-Assad, seen on DVD)- pretty much the most middle-of-the-road movie one could expect about suicide bombers, and that's the problem- an issue this heated shouldn't go down as easily as it does here. For one thing, it's extremely polished filmmaking, with handsome widescreen photography and smooth camerawork that's often all too noticeable (particularly the PT Anderson-style gliding dolly shots)- I'm not asking for scruffy, grim'n'gritty handheld all the time, but a less conventional style might have made the film more impactful. Limiting the time frame to the final days before the central friends/bombers were set to strike was a nice touch, although surprisingly little comes from this- like a more expository ELEPHANT, PARADISE NOW doesn't really explore its characters in depth, aside from relating a formative incident in the family life of Said that led to his militance. There are a few good moments in the film, mostly involving the temporary disappearance of Said during an aborted mission, but surprisingly little insight into the situation. In the end, not so much a botch as a missed opportunity to really say something about an important contemporary issue. Rating: *1/2.

WOLF CREEK (2004, Greg McLean, seen on DVD) [SPOILERS!!!!]- one of the best horror films of recent years, largely because it drops nearly all the bullshit trappings of the genre in favor of more primal scares. As in the original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, the protagonists of WOLF CREEK find themselves in the middle of nowhere, although unlike that film they do encounter someone who seems friendly and helpful. They more or less make smart decisions throughout- sticking together when they're lost, making conversation with and volunteering to pay the genial guy who inspects their broken-down car- but unlike most horror films, which punish the characters for being stupid, boorish, mean, or promiscuous, the evil here is inescapable. Mick is a truly nasty piece of work, and his cruelty is all the more frightening for coming seemingly out of nowhere- one minute he's shooting the bull with you by the campfire, the next you awaken in a garage, bound and gagged. It's this bleak worldview that really distinguishes the film from others of its ilk. Charges of misogyny are probably warranted- the film lingers much more on the fates of the girls than it does on the lone guy, for one thing- but the impact of the film is undeniable. This is hardly your garden-variety splatter-film escapism, and I'm guessing that the nihilism had as much to do with, say, Ebert's zero-star review of the film as anything else. To which I say, yeah, it's bleak and unpleasant, but what did you expect? That's what it was going for, and it did its job. Whether that's a worthy goal is up to you, I suppose. Rating: ***.


- Happy Birthday Elton John. I don't usually cover celeb birthdays, but since I've been listening to his stuff a lot lately I felt compelled to chime in next time. Before his Disney/Broadway/"Candle in the Wind '97" phase, he was a damn fine performer, with half a dozen great albums under his belt. My favorite? Hard to say, although I've probably listened to CAPTAIN FANTASTIC AND THE BROWN DIRT COWBOY most frequently (that's probably the one with the best listen-through potential, although MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER is damn good too). So what about you guys? Any favorites?

- New Pet Peeve dept.: credit card companies make millions of dollars from people per year, if not more. Don't you think they could afford to pay for postage on their envelopes? Come on, it's not like you're a nonprofit organization. That's just cheap, guys.

- I'm not longer in last place in my NCAA tourney bracket! Woohoo! I don't follow sports in general, but I like to enter contests like this, and this year I flipped a coin to pick winners (aside from the highest seeds, which I predicted automatically in the first few rounds). I've got Villanova winning, and they're still in the tourney, so that's something, right?

- I'm already ready to be let down by SNAKES ON A PLANE. I mean, there's no way it could be as awesome as it sounds. That said, the hype is getting a tad out of hand.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

"You put your head through the arm hole."

V FOR VENDETTA (2005, James McTeigue, seen in theatre)- while McTeigue is credited as director, writer/producers the Wachowski Brothers have their fingerprints all over this- self-important speeches, androgynous women, and a message of rebellion against a repressive regime all speak to this. The end result is somewhat better than the last two MATRIX movies, but it suffers from many of those films' flaws, most of all an inability to present the brothers' ideas through action (the first had its share of soliloquies too, but the Big Ideas somehow went down easier when Morpheus expounded upon them in the middle of a martial arts demonstration). Portman is OK (she still lacks the star presence necessary to carry a movie), and Weaving does well considering his face is hidden throughout, but it's all so Heavy, due less to the ideas than the seriousness with which the film takes itself in order to sell the ridiculousness. There are a few welcome lighter bits for the audience- namely, the Stephen Fry scenes- and the flashback interlude featuring Natasha Wightman as a now-dead prisoner connect emotionally in a way the rest of the story can't manage. Rating: **.

TURTLES CAN FLY (2004, Bahman Ghobadi, seen on DVD)- had a bad feeling about this from the pre-credits sequence, in which a sullen young girl stands on the edge of a cliff as wailing tribal music plays in the background, but surprisingly this movie turned out to be half-awesome. The awesome half involves one of the more engaging characters to grace the screen of late- a Kurdish teenager called Satellite, who has carved out a fairly comfortable existence in his small village through ingenuity and a strong capitalist instinct (he marshals a team of kids to disarm a bunch of land mines then sells or trades them in town). Satellite's character arc could have supported a movie on its own, which is why it's a shame that the girl on the cliff plays a fairly major role in the movie, as Ghobadi follows her, her armless brother, and a small boy whose identity is only revealed later. When the American troops arrive, I wasn't much interested in the TV-friendly plight of the girl and her family- I wanted to see how Satellite dealt with the change. Too bad Ghobadi didn't trust the Western audience to care without wallowing in miserablism. Rating: **1/2.

THREE... EXTREMES (2005, Fruit Chan/Chan-wook Park/Takashi Miike, seen on DVD)- if I'm not mistaken, the American cut of the film shifts around the order of the shorts, with Miike's "Box" moved to the end, and I've gotta say that this was a wise choice. First off, Chan's "Dumplings," a "Monkey's Paw"-style horror story with a pretty gross twist. This short's a one-trick pony, the whole point being that we're supposed to be repulsed by what the heroine eats in order to stay young, and frankly that repulsion doesn't make for a very interesting movie. On to Park's "Cut," which finds him working again in the elegant, convoluted violence mode of LADY VENGEANCE- the film looks great, but it tries much too hard to shock. The same could not be said of the Miike, easily the best of the lot. The first twenty minutes are as tightly controlled as the opening reels of AUDITION, and when the story takes a macabre turn, it's shocking without feeling exploitative, and the dreamlike imagery in the film is fascinating. Also, the female lead is pretty smokin'. I think part of the problem with these omnibus films is that the producers largely hire directors who make features, so that when they have to scale back the running time, the stories are either gimmicky (Chan) or play like rejected feature ideas (Park). Only Miike, who is as prolific as anyone in the world nowadays, makes a film that feels like it's supposed to be as long as it is. Rating: ** (Chan: *; Park: *1/2; Miike: ***).

A NEW LEAF (1971, Elaine May, seen on *ugh* video)- hadn't seen this since college, and the viewing was of course occasioned by the May article in this month's FILM COMMENT. I'm happy to say that this film is as hilarious as I'd remembered, if not more so. The direction of the film is endearingly rough-edged as most of the best 70s comedies were, and I appreciated that May eases us into the hilarious Henry-Henrietta relationship, taking almost half an hour to establish Henry the aging cad spendthrift before putting Henrietta in his path. Walter Matthau should be the worst possible choice to play Henry, but he somehow sells it, and May is priceless as Henrietta, hilariously inept but so guileless she's completely endearing from the first dropped teacup. Plenty of great comic bits (the title of this post somehow makes for a classic one, somehow sustained over also two minutes), but also warm without ever becoming cutesy or soppily sentimental. Someone put this out on DVD in my opinion. Rating: ***1/2.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Funeral tango

Last week my aunt Nancy passed away. I've been lucky in my life not to have had to attend too many funerals, but ever since we found out that Nancy had cancer a year or so ago, we knew this day would come. Yet it didn't affect me the way it did others, mainly because I never knew her all that well. When I was little, I'd see her at Christmas and Thanksgiving, and at the grandparents' birthdays, but that was about it. And when I did see her, she was always very quiet, listening intently to others but rarely saying much. So it came as a surprise today during the memorial service to hear that those who were closest to her remember her as being lively and passionate, especially about politics. And I thought, somewhat annoyed, "where was this Aunt Nancy? I would've liked to have known her."

Nancy was my aunt on my dad's side, through marriage to my uncle Tom. This side of the family has never been all the close-knit, perhaps because there are so many of them (my dad's one of seven, and there are a whole mess of grandkids too) and they're fairly dispersed. So while my parents and I keep in contact with everyone on that side, we only see a few of them with any regularity, and Nancy and Tom weren't one of these few. By the time I went off to college, I rarely attended family functions, mostly due to other commitments and the feeling I got that missing them wouldn't be that big a deal (plus my grandmother has a whole mess of cats, and I'm allergic). But now I wonder if maybe I should have made more time for this side of the family- whereas some people relate better to kids (my grandpa is great with kids, but has a harder time with adults), others are more interesting when you've grown up. I think that Nancy fit into the latter group, and now it's too late for me to get to know her.

I attended today's service and expressed my condolences to her loved ones. They were taking it pretty well under the circumstances, and I'm grateful I haven't yet had to deal with a loss like this. Still, the whole occasion gave me pause, since as I hardly knew Nancy, I hardly felt a sense of loss. And this seemed wrong to me. I realize that we can't go around mourning everyone who passes away, but she was family, and she was never enough a part of my life for me to miss her now that she's gone. I felt a little out of place, truth be told. I suppose I'm lucky, that I'm far enough removed from the loss that I can be philosophical about it, and that my thoughts may yet spur me to connect on a more significant level with my family before I lose them too. I do know this- if I ever lose someone who's truly close, I fear that it will hit me hard.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Double Dose of Documentary

DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY (2005, Michel Gondry)- How many times can a critic, even a nonpro like me, get away with saying "this movie is awesome because I was smiling/laughing/tingling with delight from beginning to end"? I guess I ought to come up with better reasoning than this, especially so soon after TRISTRAM SHANDY. So... ah, OK. This actually deals with the idea of community more uniquely than any film (documentary or otherwise) since WOODSTOCK. There are many different communities represented here- the Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Chappelle's hometown, "the black community", and so on. But just as important is the artists who are spotlighted by the show- these guys (and ladies) have known each other for years, as Aamir "?uestlove" Thompson points out when he relates stories of open-mike nights years ago where the Roots would be the backup band for Mos Def, Common, Erykah Badu, and other artists who are playing the Block Party. And Chappelle, putting on his dream concert, makes a genial master of ceremonies for the film as well- he's a fan of the acts as well as a friend, and he also cares deeply for his fans and wants to do right by them (one senses that his uneasiness with the Comedy Central deal was rooted in this). Despite his status as a comedy superstar, he comes off as generous as well, not just with the musical acts, but also in his interaction with regular folks on the street- he gives them the spotlight, as when "Mr. T" comes up onstage for a "battle", or when a waiter shares his "N**** on the Side" rap with him. Most of all, BLOCK PARTY is a film about an event, a "happening" (as they used to say), and while most filmmakers would have been content to put it all in chronological order, Gondry and his editors cut between the show and the preparations for it, to excellent effect. Sometimes it's something so simple as cutting from Chappelle telling a joke to the crowd to him rehearsing the joke with the musicians; other times it's more complicated, like when he sits down and playing Thelonius Monk's "Round About Midnight" on a thrift-store piano (a surprising moment), and then the music continues under footage of the Central State (Ohio! Woohoo!) marching band boarding the buses up to New York for the show. In short, I expected great music, I expected to laugh. But I didn't expect the film to be this warm, and on top of all the rest, that's an achievement. Besides, with all the other preparations and performances that must've taken place, this will make for an awesome DVD. Rating: ***1/2.

THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL (2003, Judy Irving)- On the other hand, I was expecting this to be genial, but the truth is that even at 83 minutes it feels padded out. In truth, Mark Bittner's not interesting enough to sustain a movie this long, and aside from the wild parrots he's all it's got. The parrots are pretty cool, I guess- Mingus certainly is a feisty little fella- and watching them climb and flying and preen and peck at each other is cool up to a point, but I couldn't shake the feeling that while this could have made a pretty good half-hour special on Animal Planet, it's just not enough to be a movie. Rating: *1/2.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Six movie pileup

TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY (2005, Michael Winterbottom, seen in theatre)- I can't really go into too much detail about why this movie was as awesome as it was, other than I was laughing pretty much the entire duration. It's less ADAPTATION than DAY FOR NIGHT, albeit much more overtly comedic, as it dissects the perils of making a film by taking its cue from an impossible project- an adaptation of an acclaimed, nearly impossible-to-adapt book that almost no one involved seems to have actually read. The result is meta as all getout- a film-within-a-film, Jeremy Northam and Ian Hart as "Mark" Winterbottom and a Frank Cottrell Boyce surrogate, lots of clever allusions that are well-deployed (lest the film come off as SHREK for the arthouse set). Also, more priceless bits than you can shake the proverbial stick at- "Tuscan sunset", men in wigs futzing around while a woman gives birth, "a womb with a view", LANCELOT DU LAC, the Gillian Anderson bits (has it really been six years since THE HOUSE OF MIRTH?), watching the dailies, the black page, and everything involving Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's actorly bickering and jockeying, up to and including the final credits. Rating: ***1/2 ("Because it's funny. Isn't that enough?").

THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (2005, Tommy Lee Jones, seen in theatre)- feels more like late John Huston than Peckinpah, actually- the story of a man who goes on a seemingly mad quest to honor another's memory. Would be better, methinks, without the screenplay's chronological noodling (can Guillermo Arriaga even write in chronological order?), which distracts from the simplicity of the narrative. However, much of this is cleared up by the second half, which concentrates almost entirely on Jones' mission, with only a handful of cutaways to his pursuers. Moment out of time: Jones sitting alone in a bar in Mexico, waiting for a telephone call, while a girl plays an out of tune piano in the background and everyone goes about their business- not sure why this scene in particular affected me, but it did. Rating: **1/2.

NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD (2006, Jonathan Demme, seen in theatre)- half the battle is that I like Neil Young, and since this is the gentle, country-inflected solo Young rather than the more acidic Crazy Horse-backed Young, this is obviously a Movie For Me. And Demme, to his credit, stays out of the way- after all the musicians get a little introduction, it's all about the concert footage. As in STOP MAKING SENSE, the audience is largely incidental to the film, not seen and only heard while applauding. Demme gets a lot of mileage from closeups of various band members, and especially Young himself, whose facial expressions are at times heartrending. Young being Young, there's none of the bombast typical in most stage performances, leaving us with the man, the band, and the music. And sometimes not even the band, as when he stands alone in a spotlight and sings "The Needle and the Damage Done" or in the final number, which is filmed with Young on a bare stage, sitting down, wearing a pair of dorky-looking specs and playing to an empty Ryman Auditorium. Rating: ***.

NINE LIVES (2005, Rodrigo Garcia, seen on DVD)- much better than I was expecting, to be honest, since so often films like this come off as acting exercises, but here Garcia foregrounds the stories, a set of small-scale character vignettes. With a cast like this (Holly Hunter, Sissy Spacek, Glenn Close, etc.), you expect solid acting, but none of the performances are showoff-y, which works in the film's favor. One of the big surprises was that, despite the usually hit-and-miss nature of the stories in films of this sort, there are no real letdowns in the bunch, and a few of the scenes are excellent ("Diana," starring Robin Wright Penn and Jason Isaacs, has justifiably gotten most of the press, but I also have a soft spot for "Samantha," with Amanda Seyfried as a girl who resists the idea of going away to school because she wants to care for her dying dad). In the final segment, the film takes a surprising narrative leap away from the more grounded stories that preceded it, and in my opinion it works, although I can see why some might believe otherwise. Certainly worth your time. Rating: ***.

THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (1962, Robert Bresson, seen on Turner Classic Movies)- I don't usually watch television, but I felt like I could make an exception for one of Bresson's rarest, showing in a one-time engagement on TCM. And oh man, was it worth it- pretty much what you'd expect from a Bresson Jeanne d'Arc story, but in a good way- his trademark austerity actually helps to underline the dehuminizing nature of Joan's trials and incarceration. Surprising, how much character complexity comes through despite the fact that Bresson stuck to trial transcripts- we see a young woman who is strong but frightened, illuminated by faith and steadfast and unquestioning of it, tempted though she may be with the thought of saving her life. The only other Joan of Arc film with this much depth is Rivette's, and that is nearly four times as long and covers most of her adult life- Dreyer's, towering achievement though it may be, isn't a character study, as character complexity wasn't silent cinema's strong point. I have no idea when I'll get to see this again, but this certainly deserves mention as an important part of Bresson's filmography. As for me, the only "canonical" Bresson I have yet to see is FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER- anybody know where I can find it? Rating: ***1/2.

THE LADY OF MUSASHINO (1951, Kenji Mizoguchi, seen on DVD)- this starts fairly leisurely for such a short film (84 minutes), but as the film transpires it begins to build in power. The theme of the film is the limitations of women in Japanese society, and that the story is set immediately after World War II is crucial, since at that time Japan was struggling to catch up with the rest of the world. The protagonist, however, insists on living as a traditional woman- remaining devoted to an unworthy husband, rebuffing the advances of a cousin who loves her, and living beyond reproach. Meanwhile, others take advantage- another cousin asks her to mortgage her property so that he may take out a loan, her husband cheats and eventually runs off with her mooching cousin's wife, and so on- but she can't bring herself to abandon her old ways, denying herself love and happiness and eventually poisoning herself to save her family legacy. The idea of the old town of Musashino as a metaphor for the dying traditions comes off less heavyhanded that it would in less assured hands, and sets up a beautiful final shot- a pan across rural Musashino to reveal a modern city just over the hill. Rating: ***1/2.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Life is precious. And God. And the Bible.

Silly me, I thought the gay marriage issue was dead. Guess not- I received a telephone message while I was at the gym today asking me to sign a petition requesting that Congress approve an anti-gay-marriage amendment. Naturally, I deleted the message, but it has pissed me off most of the afternoon. I wonder how much of this renewed effort by the right wingers has to do with the fact that the Intelligent Design push has stalled out, leaving them without a cause to whine about.

This issue has been kind of talked out, so I won't say too much. Personally, I don't mind gay marriage any more than I mind straight marriage. I say any two people can marry (or, failing that, commit to a lifelong relationship) provided that both are mindful and accepting of the commitment they're making to each other. Hell, I've known a pair of women who have been together nearly forty years. How their love is somehow less legit than a couple of people who hook up in Vegas and go to a wedding chapel is beyond me.

Which brings me to the laughable idea of the "sancitity of marriage." Give me a fucking break, people. From what I can tell, straight people have been destroying the sancitity of marriage for years. Spousal and child abuse, rising divorce rates, adultery, no-fault divorce laws, the aforementioned Vegas wedding chapels- what do these things have to do with two men holding hands in the park? Not a goddamn thing. But morality is UNDER ATTACK!!!!, say the thumpers, and since Americans love a quick fix, homosexuals are a convenient scapegoat. Better we go after a not-very-popular subculture than deal with problems that are closer at hand.

More so than the CRASH victory, I'd have to say that the real issue here is deep-seated homophobia. Now, some of the more reasonable-sounding fundies might not admit it, but they're hiding behind the Word of God in order to air out their own prejudices. And the "slippery slope" argument is ridiculous- how does gay marriage lead to such things as bestiality? It's a long stretch to connect a loving relationship between two fully-aware members of the same sex and a one-sided one between a person and a far-less-cognizant animal.

What really bugs me about this whole thing is that the self-appointed moral arbiters of society use their discomfort with homosexuality as an excuse to deny them certain rights the rest of us have. How exactly does it affect you if two people love each other, even if they are of the same sex? Lest we forget that previous generations weren't comfortable with minorities and women having the right to vote either- but that's legal now, isn't it?

That the government takes any of this seriously is troubling. Hell, we're spending hundreds of billions on a war that has no forseeable end, and the job situation hasn't improved one bit, but hell, I can live with my relatives getting shipped off to Iraq and having my hours at work scaled back, just as long as them homos don't get married, right? For most reasonable people, gay marriage isn't that important to them- they're not necessarily for it or against it, and they don't think about it that much because it doesn't affect them like some of the more important issues do. But you know how it works- it ain't how much you're hurting, but rather how loud you cry.

Also, some tiny reviews:

JARHEAD (2005, Sam Mendes)- some compelling ideas at work here, with a few good performances (Sarsgaard in particular) and impressive effects sequences involving the burning oil wells (the best we could have hoped for, outside of simply using footage from Herzog's LESSONS OF DARKNESS). Still, not all that interesting as a whole, as the soldiers' realization of their own obsolescence doesn't make for particularly good drama. Rating: **.

WHERE THE TRUTH LIES (2005, Atom Egoyan)- a step in the right direction after Egoyan's overly serious, needlessly convoluted ARARAT, here the director manages to class up the tabloid-fodder source material- it never becomes art per se, but it's more than the throwaway it could have been, which is a credit to Egoyan's filmmaking chops. Colin Firth seems ecstatic to play a role other than the stern-yet-sensitive Brit that's become his stock in trade, and this comes through in the performance. Rating: **1/2.

RUNNING SCARED (2006, Wayne Kramer)- I'll certainly take this over Kramer's last film, THE COOLER. This hallucinatory gangland fairy tale is definitely unhinged (never more so than in the scene with the child-molesting couple), but it's also highly watchable, although my stomach for movies like this (and DOMINO, which is better than this) is stronger than most other people's, so take my assessment with a grain of salt. The film lacks a strong narrative through-line to make it seem like something more than one-damn-thing-after-another, and while Paul Walker had to welcome the chance to play vulgar and scruffy, the jury's still out on his acting. Rating: **1/2.

Monday, March 06, 2006

CRASH wins. We lose.

It actually happened- the upset-happy hypesters have gotten their way. Sometimes there's a tendency in the entertainment press to turn the Oscars into two-horse races, if for no other reason than to drum up interest- did anybody really think Clooney wouldn't be getting that statuette? But this time around, it actually happened- the underdog vanquished the champ. The question of the day is- why?

Was it the much-ballyhooed homophobia of the voters that caused the BROKEBACK defeat? Was it that CRASH was set in Los Angeles? Were the voters just sick of hearing about BROKEBACK? Did they (heaven forbid) just like CRASH more? I'm not sure. But there's another possibility that hasn't been mentioned much, and this dawned on me last night, during the "issue movies" montage, when I first began considering the possibility of a CRASH victory. The voters thought that CRASH was a more Important movie.

Now I realize that most of the winners lately haven't skewed this way- most of the winners from the past decade have been large-scale entertainments, and the others were melodramatic. But Hollywood, as many presenters reminded us last night, has had some hard times lately. With box office down and more potential moviegoers taking their entertainment dollar elsewhere, movies don't matter to people like they used to. So voters began thinking about how future generations would regard their picks- as Clooney stated, Hollywood prides itself on being progressive and ahead of the curve when it comes to important issues. The nominees this year were unusually heavy on issues-heavy fare- homosexuality, terrorism, freedom of speech and the press, and racism carried the day. And more than the other nominees, CRASH wore its issues on its sleeve, the kind of socially concerned work that deserves to be honored, in their eyes.

BROKEBACK, on the other hand, treaded lightly in this department. Yes, its heroes were the victims of an intolerant era, which wouldn't allow them to love they way they could have, but it didn't preach. Much like last year's winner, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, it was about telling a story first and foremost, and any issues it raised were kept as subtext. That both BABY and BROKEBACK got the more vocal righties in an uproar due to their storylines is a subject for another time.

The only competition that CRASH had in the preachiness sweepstakes was GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. But whereas Clooney's film was safely in the past, CRASH oh-so-boldly took place in the present. And yes, CRASH took place in Los Angeles, which was probably not lost on Hollywood voters. So CRASH, in spite of having characters foam about in elaborate speeches about racial issues on the streets of a big city (rather than keeping their damn traps shut at least until they closed the car doors), was interpreted by many as "reflective of the way we live now." The film became a sleeper hit this past summer. The phrase "CRASH moment" briefly entered the vernacular. Oprah, that eternal arbiter of pop-cultural significance, even invoked the film after she was denied after-hours entrance to an upscale Paris boutique to buy a $3000 purse for Tina Turner. I mean, we've all been there, right?

To my recollection, there was never any uproar over the film like there was over BROKEBACK. Maybe because CRASH comforted us with the idea that, deep down, we all have prejudices, but we need to learn to live together despite them. Awwwwwww, ain't that nice? But does being provoked then salved excuse the manipulative dramaturgy and jaw-droppingly shameless scenes given us by writer-director-Scots delicacy Paul Haggis? Obviously, to many, it does. Though not to me, and certainly not to this guy. But my opinions on the film itself aren't the issue here. It's not about who I would've picked, but why CRASH won. And I can't help but feel like a lot of voters forgot that the category was called Best Picture. BEST, as in most good, not most socially-concerned or most Important.

In one of his acceptance speeches last night, Paul Haggis quoted Brecht, saying that art should not be a mirror to society, but a hammer. That he considers his art a hammer goes a long way toward explaining how unsubtle CRASH is.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Youthful and Serene

THE BEST OF YOUTH (2003, Marco Tullio Giordana)- I can't help but feel like many of the accolades for this film have a lot to do with the fact that it's six hours long and doesn't ever really get boring. And yeah, that's certainly an achievement, but in the end this is a film I admired much more than I enjoyed. Some of the more mainstream critics have celebrated the novelistic feel of the film (it takes place over forty years, for one thing), but storytelling is kind of low on my list of important factors to enjoy a film. I think that viewing the long version of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA just last weekend kind of throws this film into perspective- whereas Leone's work is endlessly cinematic, Tullio Giordana's direction is fairly prosaic, and subservient to the screenplay, which feels like a fastidiously faithful adaptation of a never-published novel. I was pretty enthusiastic after the first hour, which establishes the primary players in the film in a relaxed way, but once the brothers Carati are separated, it's off to the races. The narrative caroms from major event to major event in an attempt to follow the characters over four decades, but there are precious few character vignettes that help us really understand them (nothing on par with, say, the scene with young Patsy and the pastry in ...AMERICA). There are some elements that did register strongly with me (the Giorgia storyline, the New Year's Eve sequence), but just as many that weren't as effective as they might have been (in particular Giulia's Red Brigade experience, which was hurt by the presence of Sonia Bergamasco, easily the film's least expressive performer, as Giulia). I can see why this was a sensation in Italy- many of the country's major events from the past half-century come into play here- but some of this may get lost in translation for American viewers. But I have a feeling that my tempered reaction to the film had less to do with historical context than the uninspired nature of the film itself. Rating: **1/2.

SERENITY (2005, Joss Whedon, seen on DVD)- I'm a newcomer to the "Firefly" universe, but I certainly see the challenge Whedon faced bringing it to the big screen- how to satisfy the intensely fanatical (and vocal) followers of the original series while making it palatable for newcomers? For about an hour, I was totally into the film, which in its first half is chock full of storytelling verve (no fewer than three reveals in the first ten minutes) and sassy, engaging characters (you can't manufacture the kind of chemistry the cast has attained). Alas, once that first hour has passed, the film devolves into a more straight-faced kind of space opera, in which the scrappy rebels discover that they need to fight after all. Frankly, I missed the more irreverent tone in the opening reels (something which no doubt distinguished the series), and although the second half of the film isn't badly done, it's just a tad disappointing in light of what has come before. Still, I'm certainly intrigued (the series is going in the ol'Netflix queue), and the acting is quite good all around- Nathan Fillion makes a charismatic antihero, Adam Baldwin gets most of the good punchlines, and Jewel Staite is the most successful at delivering Whedon's sometimes convoluted dialogue ("goin' on a year now I ain't had nothin' twist my nethers weren't run on batteries!"). And casting Chiwetel Ejiofor as the icy baddie was a pretty genius move, as the film perks up whenever he's onscreen. Rating: **1/2.