GRAVITY, TRANSCENDENCE, AND THRILLS
-Now is probably as good a time as any to rave about the very-shortly-to-be-released 21 Grams. My capsule review for Just Out:
“Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros) has set up this wrenching drama of loss, despair, serendipitous coincidence and cruel fate in a shaky-handheld, grainy, hyper-realist style, so that the whole thing hangs on the ragged emotion expressed in the actors' faces. Thankfully, those countenances belong to Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro, and Naomi Watts (whose performance could snag her the Oscar nod that the Academy neglected to give her for Mulholland Drive), and the result is one of the very best movies of the year.”
To expound further: Any problems the film has are merely to do with the plot, “merely” meaning that, as Andrew Sarris said, “It’s not ‘what,’ it’s ‘how.’” The “what”- the content, the plot, the story- of 21 Grams is undoubtedly a little too contrived and centered around too-perfect coincidence to be what could honestly be called breathtaking. What is breathtaking is the style, restraint, and astuteness brought to the material by the director and the performers; these elements completely override any silliness in the progression of events itself, a silliness revealed only upon the sort of reflection that the film doesn’t allow to happen until after it’s already worked its wonders. It’s a suspension of disbelief you don’t sense until it’s too late, until the film already has hold of you. It is a remarkable movie; I give it my next-to-highest recommendation.
-I’ve never seen Tokyo Story before; the only film by Ozu I’ve seen is Good Morning, a singular, inventive, and quite good comedy which nevertheless is hardly exemplary of Ozu’s style or body of work. I have, however, seen quite a number of films by Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer, both of whom I’m much more familiar with than I am with Ozu, and both of whose work I connect with Ozu’s via Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, which Tokyo Story nudged me over the edge into purchasing (at Cinema Books, one of the few Seattle offerings I find unique and worthwhile).
Tokyo Story does, indeed, recall Bresson’s austere, meticulous visuals, systematic asceticism, simple yet vast reverence for human subjects and a need to foreground them against their environment as a way for us to get to not the “point” of the people and their situation, but to the “soul” of it, to something elemental and usually hidden by the mechanisms of drama.
As Ozu’s camera elegantly and with extreme restraint (the film consists almost exclusively of medium shot compositions, with virtually no camera movement), details them for us, the everyday intergenerational travails of an extended family- an elderly, rural father and mother visit their grown, urban children, the children unconsciously neglect them, the parents forebear, with the mother’s eventual death forcing things into a sort of sharp, tender relief for the adult siblings- expose a sacred, as distinct from religious, element in daily human existence. The effect is sobering but delicate; there’s not a trace of heaviness.
-The films Jean-Pierre Melville is known for deal exclusively in tough guys who don’t talk and whose claustrophobic lives are predestined to end tragically; he’s like a Samuel Fuller without all the cigar-chomping, entertaining blather (but with the way-too-intellectual epigraph, this one from Buddha). Not that Le Cercle Rouge isn’t entertaining; in fact, beyond the fact that it most certainly is entertaining, I think you could get away with calling it a masterpiece. The plot is exceedingly simple: A just ex-con (Alain Delon), whose lover now belongs to a rival gangster, cares little enough for his own life or so-called freedom to get involved in a heist even before his actual release (he finds out about it from his prison guard). Meanwhile, a man on his way to the slammer rides a train through the French countryside while handcuffed to a worldly yet optimistic police officer, but makes a daring escape through the window. The two meet up and, along with a detoxing ex-cop who lives alone in a bare room with sickly green jail-bar wallpaper and the withdrawal spiders, snakes, lizards, and rats that come out of the closet (believe me, I was a human shudder by the time that particular little scene was over), carry off their heist. The heist has holes, though, and the police officer “wins” by finally busting up their little ring, but what he loses because of the way things go down- fair, law-abiding faith- is gone for good.
Melville’s film has a smooth, steely beauty; the simple, familiar plot is not so much drawn out as stretched and dissected to reveal its existential implications. As nearly always, the visual style is what truly tells the lion’s share of the story, and what we see here comprises a sort of symmetrical realism that is the visual equivalent of an iron fist in a velvet glove.
-The Fassbinder gorge continued with Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven. It’s hardly a famous work, but it’s a really fine effort- better than Merchant of Four Seasons or Chinese Roulette, as good as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Mother Kusters (Brigitte Mira) is an old woman whose husband dies rather ignobly when, after he learns that he and his coworkers will be laid off, kills his boss, then himself. Mother Kusters and her grown children barely have time to acknowledge the news before the vultures- the media, the Communists and, eventually, anarchists who believe Father Kusters’s act made him and his family one of them- begin circling, and the needs of their own harried, desperate lives kick in. The story is, as to be expected from Fassbinder, one of overall futility and defeat, either of the external or the self-inflicted variety. Still, the character of Mother Kusters, if not the smartest, brightest, or most aware of Fassbinder’s human creations, is certainly, in her way, among the wisest, simplest, and most honest, the one with the least mixed sympathetic qualities.
-Brian de Palma’s The Fury. It’s de Palma revving himself up for prime Dressed to Kill/Blow Out mode; this one, released in 1978, came between Carrie and those, but it’s jokier than Carrie; its main flaw is that, being a transitional work, the joke doesn’t quite go far enough, and it doesn’t permeate every hilariously lascivious frame, so we’re left with more dud, lackluster stretches than you get with his best.
It’s basically another Carrie- a thriller about a telekinetic teen (or teens, in this case) who don’t quite fit in, adapted from a popular not-quite-literary novel. This one also has another de Palma favorite- governmental rottenness, manifest as a manipulative CIA agent played by John Cassavetes. What happens is pulpy and complicated: Kirk Douglas, a good CIA agent, is left for dead as the bad CIA (Cassavetes and his cronies) take the son to be exploited, programmed, and deployed as a cold war weapon.
Meanwhile, a Catholic schoolgirl (Amy Irving) in Chicago is discovering, terrifyingly, her own powers, which lead her into the dangerous mess of a plot.
Irving is stunning; maybe if she’d had a little less integrity and stayed with Steven Spielberg, she could’ve been a truly major star. That’s okay; I prefer her with the integrity, and she’s completely in sync with de Palma’s trash-wallowing vision (every time I see a de Palma film, I’m amazed at how little credit he gets for Quentin Tarantino’s joke-revisionist cinematic historicism; he is apparently Tarantino’s favorite filmmaker, after all). Some of the visuals are, of course, amazing: The explosive finale is sort of famous in some circles, I suppose, not nearly so much for its actual content as for its final-cymbal-clash tonal clue: Its purpose is to reveal to the viewer, in one elaborate and climactic 10-second swoop, the real, rotten tempo to which every preceding frame has danced.
The film is not entirely successful, but the degree to which it is, not to mention the audacity of even trying some of the things de Palma does here, is still quite impressive. It also has what is possibly the best John Williams score I’ve ever heard (I generally find his stuff much too bombastic, even for the bombastic kind of movie he tends to score).
-Gus van Sant’s Elephant. It goes without saying that it’s better than Finding Forrester, of course (I’m ashamed to admit I’ve not yet seen Gerry). It’s a small film, and I mean that in the best sense of the word: It deals perceptively with the minutiae, capturing the meandering fabric of everyday life, in addition to what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil” (in the form of a Columbine-like shooting spree), which is the part of the film sure to be given the most attention. The camera work is beautiful, and it would be impossible to tell that the actors are nonprofessionals if that fact wasn’t being announced from every street corner.
Up until the ending, it’s just a point-by-point mapping of a day in the life of a high school, with its regular (suffering, each in their own way) kids trying to figure out who they are and going through some of the pain and some of the joy of that. It’s the idea of this- the dignity of humanity, the petty but huge miseries of adolescence, the struggle to find an identity or cope with your disappointing family or be embarrassed about your pubescent body- being taken away that’s truly devastating. There’s a metaphysical aspect to it all which from the most superficial social-criticism point of judgment might even seem inappropriate. There is no comfort here for anyone who’s had events like the ones depicted rip a gash in their lives; there are no solutions on hand, only acute observation, and the film does exemplify what observational cinema can be at its finest. Van Sant never tips his hand; there is no melodramatic bullying, no exaggerated poetic-license crystallization of teenage pain. We’re left to decide for ourselves what might cause the kind of cold-blooded violence depicted, and to contemplate the vast and imperceptible sway of everyday mundaneness, which is something we don’t usually feel the need to question... at least not until violence breaks its placid surface.
-Shampoo. This film has never seemed too appealing to me, for some reason, but from the moment I made the Hal Ashby directorial connection, I’ve been raring to give it a go. It’s a funny, sad, and very expository movie about its time (Election Day, 1968) and place (Beverly Hills as epicenter of sunshine-drenched upper-class L.A. hedonism).
Warren Beatty is George, a shameless gigolo, but the kind with a heart of gold (i.e., he’s just a greedy little big-eyed- as opposed to wide-eyed- boy who hasn’t grown up yet, no harm intended). He’s also a hairdresser, which makes for a nice gigolo disguise; the guys he’s cuckolding don’t have their masculinity threatened and are easily fooled, and the women (all George’s paramours are also salon clients) are readily accessible and readily attracted to someone whose hands feel good in their hair (and who wields his blow dryer the way Dirty Harry does a gun- like a potent phallic symbol). The women in George’s life- Julie Christie as a vulnerable social climber who is also the mistress of a prominent Republican businessman and Nixon booster, Goldie Hawn as a successful actress - all support his dream of opening his own shop; unfortunately, and this is the most painful thing conveyed, however macrocosmically, in the entire film- it really does take more than love to make the world go ‘round.
The film has its funny moments, but it wasn’t the slapstick bedroom farce that I expected. In its own peculiar, subtle way, it’s a very political film, and a very sad one. Beatty’s character is innocent but unwise and uncertain; everyone else in the picture has an agenda and, much as they may feel for him physically or emotionally, they can’t be there for him when he really needs them (which, we realize as the picture draws to its bittersweet close, he has done his best to do for them). They are all of them living in the shadow of Nixon; as in The Big Lebowski, another slyly political L.A. movie, you can feel the creators of the film mourning the bitter fact that “the ‘bums’ lost,” yet somehow managing to laugh through their tears.
For all its surprising depth and interesting detours, my favorite thing about Shampoo was its geographic-emotional astuteness. As Beatty races on his motorbike from one tryst to the next, you realize how literally far away these resilient heartbreak-sufferers of Beverly Hills are from one another.
-Jane Campion’s In the Cut. I know I must respect the right of an artist to grow, and I realize that hoeing the same row can lead to stagnation worse than any creative miss, but oh, how I wish she could once again display the perception she brought to Sweetie and An Angel at my Table.
In the Cut is a feminist tract and a murder-mystery thriller, but its head is in some strange, vague place where either timidity or indecision reigns. Whichever it is, this film suffers badly from lack of identity or purpose.
Meg Ryan- let’s just say the performance is neither awful nor a revelation and just leave it at that- is a New York City schoolteacher who worries about her unhappy, heartsick half-sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her own empty bed. The teacher flirts with a gritty ‘n gruff New York City cop (Mark Ruffalo), whom she met when he questioned her about the grisly murder of a woman whose body was dumped outside of her apartment building.
Because Campion seems to think she’s cleverly couching her radical (they're not) polemics in a riveting (it’s not) thriller, nothing makes any sense or really works on any emotional level. Ryan and Leigh reminisce about their mother’s courtship fable. Then, in nightmarish, intriguing but badly done black-and-white flashbacks, the old-fashioned romantic ideals and gender roles are revealed to us- surprise!- to be flawed and maybe dangerous.
The rest of the film is shot in a murky, neon-lit, handheld, sub-Law and Order style that works when the colors and mood also connect, which is maybe a third of the time. Since the film can only hope to work on mood and atmosphere, these picky little details become crucial, and Campion drops the ball again and again; particularly grating is her choice of music, consisting of horrible soft-rock radio hits which she apparently believes to have deep thematic connections with the action of the scene.
Campion’s last film, Holy Smoke!, was a mess, but at least there was something going on; there were more than a few worthwhile patches. With In the Cut, Jane Campion disappoints us by transforming herself from a self-appointed iconoclast with a fresh, cockeyed take on things into an indie-film poseur with all the visual and aural adventurousness (but little of the humor or earthiness) of the Oprah demographic.
-My musical epiphany of the year: Seeing The Thrills live in concert exactly a week ago today, at Seattle’s Crocodile Cafe.
The show was rousing. The fact that the band was able to make me actually clap along to “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far)” was indicative of how special the circumstances were; believe me, I never clap along. Other highlights: A truncated version of “Hollywood Kids,” a truly achy-breaky (eat your heart out, Billy Ray Cyrus) “’Til the Tide Creeps In,” and an encore of “Don’t Steal Our Sun” that way out-rocked the album rendition. Conspicuously absent: “Deckchairs and Cigarettes,” which is one of maybe three top favorites of mine from the album.
Two new songs were performed: “Spit on Your Idols” (which singer Conor Deasy announced as being more well-understood if you’re Irish; perhaps something to do with the Irish being the pushed-around Native Americans of the UK?) and “Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?” (total shades of Debbie Burton and Bette Davis’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” or perhaps that film itself; at any rate, undoubtedly something to do with child stardom gone flat or wrong). Both were fast, catchy numbers. Unfortunately, I can’t relate any lyrics to the new stuff here; the one downside of the show was the bad (or too-low) sound on the vocals.
On the bright side, I was at the very front and knew all the songs from the album, so I could just watch Deasy jump around, dance a little, and sing his heart out; I didn’t have to care too much about what was coming through the speakers. At certain points, this adorable, stylishly scruffy young man took out a harmonica and placed it against his lips, making it sing a countermelody to the swelling, soaring guitars and keyboards. I think I would’ve liked to have been that harmonica.
-As a diehard Belle and Sebastian fan, this feels like blasphemy, but I have to say it: As albums, both the new Strokes and the recent Raveonettes long-players (Room on Fire and The Chain Gang of Love, respectively) are better than the slightly disappointing Dear Catastrophe Waitress. I’ve revisited Waitress a number of times since its release, and some of it has grown on me: The title tune, “Piazza, New York Catcher,” “If She Wants Me,” “Wrapped Up in Books,” and particularly “Lord Anthony” are as good as anything they’ve done, while “Stay Loose” is even a progression of sorts. The rest ranges from all right to blah.
Room on Fire, conversely, is engaging all the way through. It’s just a few tiny steps forward from Is This It, but it can be seen as a progression of sorts if you count perfecting a very specific sound and structure as a progression. There’s actually nothing here as immediately appealing as Is This It’s “Someday,” but each song unearths nugget after nugget (an apt description, I think, given that The Strokes’ “garage” appeal lives right next door to Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilations) of catchy, inspired melodicism. Julian Casablancas’s lyrics are as jumbly and nondescript as ever, but there’s noticeably more vocal passion here than on the last album. My standouts: “Automatic Stop,” “You Talk Way Too Much” (but I’m always a sucker for anything with that “Be My Baby” opening drum pattern), “Between Love and Hate,” “The End Has No End,” and “I Can’t Win.”
The Raveonettes is the most (happily) surprising of the bunch. This album is a huge advancement from their enjoyable but one-dimensional debut EP, Whip it On; it’s like a return to the glory days of the Jesus and Mary Chain and The Primitives (Those snarling, feedback-gorging guitars! Those spot-on Spector/Beach Boys melodies!), but they have their own cartoon-sex twist on it. That’s not to say there’s no emotion among the jokes; “Remember” and “Love Can Destroy” are beautiful ballads. In fact, the album is almost perfectly programmed for both cohesiveness and variation; one song seems to naturally follow another. There are great little touches, like the harmonized “hoo-hooo” backup vocals in “Little Animals,” which also has a fantastic “I Will Follow Him” breakdown in the middle. It’s sad but true that we’re always more impressed when we weren’t expecting something to approach perfection than when our old standbys give us the greatness we’re used to, but that’s the case with this record.
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