Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Top Ten Films of 2004

Merry Christmas to those who celebrated it, happy holidays to those who didn't, a pox on those who made a political Issue of it...and a prayer for those lost in the earthquake/tsunami that hit southeast Asia yesterday. That level of natural disaster is the kind of event for which there's really nothing to say - and everything to do. All good wishes to the people involved in the rescue and reparation efforts.

Seems frivolous to move from that to my movie ruminations, except that they've been ready for a while now - I just got back from out of town last night and didn't have time to post them earlier.

I saw "Ocean's Twelve" on Christmas, and enjoyed it well enough. It was as expected: stylish, witty, insubstantial, inferior to the first movie (which I loved); simultaneously overplotted and underplotted, but then the plot's not the point; self-indulgent and self-referential to a degree that would be intolerable if the movie weren't so light on its feet. That's Soderbergh's touch. The camaraderie of the cast helps, too, though they hardly ever come together as a whole for the better part of the movie - only in fragments and flashes - and for a significant chunk of time half of them are just sitting around and waiting for something to happen. Quite a contrast to the well-oiled perpetual motion machine of "Ocean's Eleven." Jury's still out on whether the contrast was deliberate. But it certainly ain't better.

And now, my annual top-ten list of movies, with a couple of caveats. First: I think this was a relatively weak year for the movies, or at least for Hollywood. Contrary to the usual pattern, the summer had a stronger slate than usual, while the fall was weaker, which averaged out to a lot of ok-to-good movies but very few great ones. Second - this is a sort of caveat to the caveat - I have not seen "Million Dollar Baby,” “The Aviator,” “Kinsey,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Maria Full of Grace,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “A Very Long Engagement,” or “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” not to mention scores of smaller and undoubtedly worthier films. I do intend to see the above-named movies at some point. However, I'm unlikely to do so before the end of 2004. That said, the best movie I actually *saw* in 2004 was, hands down, "City of God." But since it was released in the U.S. (and considered for awards) last year, I am not including it in this list.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Before Sunset
3. The Incredibles
4. Closer
5. Collateral
6. Infernal Affairs
7. Kill Bill 2
8. Fahrenheit 911
9. Hero
10. Garden State

Friday, December 17, 2004

The O.C. Report

Ok - yarmu-Claus notwithstanding - I think my favorite show is showing signs of sophomore slump.

Tonight's episode was like Seth's Chrismukkah: Presaged by high expectations, started off promisingly, ended up being very busy but oddly lacking in any real oomph. The "moment of truth" fell surprisingly flat. I just didn't buy Kirsten's reaction - neither her initial meltdown nor her sudden turnaround vis a vis Lindsay. (Seth, however, was charmingly and totally Seth in trying to win Lindsay over as a Cohen. Let's see, she would be his - aunt?) In real life...but then, when has "The O.C." ever been about real life? Also, I'm getting a bit tired of the whole Ryan and Lindsay dance already. "Ryan, I don't think we should see each other. Oh wait, I changed my mind." Rinse and repeat. Come on, we had enough of that with Marissa last year, and Marissa was much more spectacularly screwed up than Lindsay ever could be.

However, I'm confident the show will find its groove again. Looks like the writers are planning to inject an even heavier dose of melodrama into the new year. It appears from the previews that Jimmy and Julie continue hot and heavy, Julie bribes D.J. to stay away from Marissa, Marissa dallies in lesbianism (with Alex?!), an old flame of Sandy's shows up, and his marriage with Kirsten begins to show strain...But of all these plot threads, there's one more unbelievable than the rest:

That Sandy would forget his wedding anniversary. No, never!

Line of the week: "Oy, humbug."

No "Apprentice" report this week, since I only watched the final boardroom - which was faintly bizarre, to say the least - but I have to say I'm glad that Jennifer didn't win!

And finally, on a completely unrelated note: a happy 234th birthday to Beethoven. There are many brilliant composers and several great ones, but none so great as you.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

I Look "Daggers" at Thee, O Mine Rival


directed by Zhang Yimou
starring Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro

"House of Flying Daggers" begins like a ballet and ends like an opera. Good ballet. Bad opera. Against the backdrop of the late Tang dynasty, Zhang Ziyi plays Mei, a blind courtesan who may be one of the Flying Daggers, a secret resistance force the government is bent on smoking out and destroying. As per plan, a police agent, Jin (Kaneshiro), poses as a solo fighter interested in joining the Daggers, by springing Mei from jail and telling her, "Take me to your leader." So they head north, and Jin's captain, Leo (Lau), and government troops follow close behind. Everyone gets more than they bargained for when Leo can't keep the government soldiers from attacking Jin and Mei, and the fugitives start falling for each other. Many fights, twists, and turns insue, and, of course, a love triangle develops.

Visually, "Daggers" isn't nearly as dazzling as "Hero," Zhang Yimou's last foray into the wu xia genre. (Neither surpasses the director's even earlier gangster drama, "Shanghai Triad," which is still one of the most gorgeous films I've ever seen.) Despite the high production values and top-notch martial arts, the fight scenes aren't as effectively filmed as some I've seen - with two exceptions. There's an impressive "Echo Game" dance and swordfight in the beginning, and a spectacular sequence in a bamboo forest in the middle. Unfortunately, the ending drags out WAY too long, ultimately reaching a Wagnerian pitch of melodramatic absurdity that - like even the best performance of Wagner - may just have you shifting restlessly and wondering when the damn thing's going to be over.

On the plus side, Zhang shows more depth than I've seen in her previous work, and there's real heat between her and Kaneshiro. But she sparks with Lau, too, perhaps even more so. There's a scene early on when he's describing how she'll be tortured to give up the identity of her leader - and touching her at the same time - that's more disturbingly erotic than any of the torrid groping on the ground. It'll come back to haunt you when they meet again, lending a real touch of tragedy to all the bombast.

RATING: ** 1/2

Friday, December 10, 2004

The O.C. Report

I KNEW Lindsay was the love child!

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about, then you are advised to skip the rest of this entry.)

But first, credit where credit's due - namely, to my friend Amanda for accurately predicting that the illegit kiddie would be one of the new characters. I had jokingly tossed out the idea that it would be Luke (just to spice up the already borderline-incestuous family web with which all "O.C." watchers are by now familiar). I didn't think it would actually be one of the existing characters until Amanda reasonably sketched out the probabilities. But then, tonight, as soon as I got a good look at the mysterious Renee Wheeler and saw the red hair, it suddenly clicked. It had to be Lindsay. And so it was. Is. Can't wait for Kirsten's crack-up next week when she finds out...And Jimmy and Julie!! Next week's ep hasn't even happened yet and there's already a contender for line of the week: "Does this count as adultery?"

Otherwise, kind of a silly episode - just more of the same from last week. Old relationships giving way to new, with a few bumps along the way. However, I've decided I definitely like Summer and Seth better when they're bickering than when they're spooning. And I think Zach is adorable. Even - no, make that *especially* after punching Seth. Alex, though, looks about ten years older than Seth, though I imagine both actors are carrying on the grand "90210" tradition of mid-twenty-somethings playing high school kids...

So how many people raised their eyebrows when Ryan said, "I know something we can do that doesn't require any talking?" Come on, folks, get your minds out of the gutter...What really raised *my* eyebrows was Ryan telling Lindsay "I like you." I know his character's supposed to have changed, but that is so not Ryan. I guess Cohen must have rubbed off on him...

Loved Lindsay's "Freudian slippers." Wonder if they're actually available for purchase somewhere.

Line of the week: "...Or as I like to call them, the twin ambassadors of pain!"
-Seth, on his fists

So "The Apprentice" is now down to the final two. And it appears that Jennifer went to Princeton. I knew there had to be a reason why I didn't like her. By default, I'm going to have to root for Kelly. I like the people on his team better anyway, and I like that he picked Elizabeth first.

(Qualifier: I've met several people from Princeton who are totally cool and whom I've liked very much. But for every one of those, there's at least two Princetonians I find completely intolerable. It's an extraordinary peculiarity of that school.)

I also watched "E.R." for old time's sake - something I do every now and again. It's like dropping in on an old friend, though all the characters that used to keep me watching religiously have gone, except Carter. (Unless you count Susan and Jing-Mei, who left and came back.) I'm happy to report it's still a quality show. And once again I have to hand it to the writers for introducing a controversial issue and treating it both sensitively and intelligently. Last time it was a lesbian mother (Keri Weaver) fighting for custody of her child - against the large, protective Hispanic family of her deceased partner. This time it was euthanasia: Jing-Mei and her terminally ill father. I like that the writers don't stack the deck or impose judgment one way or the other - they just let the stories speak for themselves.

And once again, Carter's paired up with a love interest I do not like. Some things never change. No, I am not prejudiced (though I admit I used to be in love with Carter, and I will say Noah Wyle, whom I saw at a Human Rights Watch dinner recently, is a knockout in person). It's just a pattern I've observed throughout the history of the show. The only one I ever liked was Abby, and they weren't really well matched.

Wow, I just realized I watched three straight hours of television tonight. My only excuse is that I was at work until past 10 pm last night, and needed serious veg time tonight to make up for it.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Believe in true love? Dare you to look "Closer"


directed by Mike Nichols
starring Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen

Dan meets Alice. Dan falls for Alice. Alice falls for Dan. Dan meets Anna. Dan falls for Anna. Anna rejects Dan—because he’s still with Alice. Anna meets Larry. Larry falls for Anna. Anna dates Larry. Anna falls for Dan (who’s still with Alice). Anna and Dan start shagging. Anna marries Larry, but goes on shagging Dan. And oh, did I mention Dan was still with Alice?

And there you have it: the plot of “Closer.” (Well, the first half, anyway; far be it from me to give the rest of it away.) But the plot is the least significant part of what may well be one of the most exquisitely crafted movies of the year—not to mention one of the best acted and directed. It helps, of course, to have Mike Nichols (“The Graduate,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, HBO’s “Angels in America”) at the helm and a cast comprised of Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, and Clive Owen.

Romantics are likely to recoil from “Closer,” while cynics may dismiss it as far too pretty. Both are right, to a point. Based on the play by Patrick Marber, this is “Coupling” gone sour: the four characters fall in love (or think they do), then proceed to betray and manipulate each other without compunction, and inevitably tell each other all about it, down to the most painfully intimate details of their infidelities. Yet for all the raw emotion and graphic sexual dialogue on display, “Closer” is a coolly elegant movie, a translucent vessel that contains and decants the human cruelties and follies within.

Rarely does a stage play translate so smoothly to the screen: here, it didn’t even hit me that that there were only four speaking parts until long after the credits had rolled. However, there’s no mistaking the movie’s theatrical origins in the sharp rhythms of the dialogue, the neat symmetry of the pairings, and the parallel and criss-crossing plot lines, from the lighting of a cigarette to a hand raised impulsively to strike. At the same time, Nichols invests “Closer” with an unmistakably cinematic quality. Beautifully shot and backlit, it shifts seamlessly from the deep shadows and mood indigo of an aquarium or art gallery to the bright, open space of a photographer’s studio, and features stars who manage to look improbably luminous even when most haggard or heartsick.

For some, this high-gloss finish may be the movie’s weakness. In one scene, Alice (Portman), wandering through Anna’s gallery opening, stops to gaze at a huge black-and-white photograph of her own tearstained face. It is, in a word, gorgeous. Unmoved, she delivers a stinging critique of the artist for creating false beauty out of other people’s pain and sorrow without understanding anything about the emotions she captures. This criticism may be fairly directed at the film as a whole. But I think of it differently. “Closer” put me in mind of my favorite painter, Edward Hopper. What’s depicted is only surfaces—appropriate for a movie whose protagonists include a photographer, a dermatologist, and a stripper—leaving the viewer to fill in any inner depths. It shows scenes of apparent intimacy—between people who simultaneously seem locked in pools of isolation. The existence of any connection, the meaning of any apparent attempt to communicate, is again left to one’s subjective inference. That was Hopper’s particular genius: Is the woman in the picture sad, content, pensive? Is she aware of the man looking at her? Is the man even looking at her, or is he staring absently into space? It is equally true of “Closer.” What you get is what you see.

What I saw in “Closer” was the ephemerality of human connection, and the hunger to recapture that connection, or the illusion of connection, again and again. The selfishness of truth-seeking, masquerading as a desire for honesty. And the more primal struggle for dominance and sexual one-upmanship that seems to hearken back to the basic rules of mating. What I didn’t see was a history, a context, or a rich inner life to any of the characters, all of whom are admittedly, and probably deliberately, underwritten. Still, the actors miraculously succeed in breathing real life into them. Law underplays his natural charm as Dan, the fickle obituary writer, but Owen easily eclipses him as the wonderfully feral “Dr. Larry.” The women are dealt more opaque characters, and rise to the challenge. Portman conveys unexpected gravitas as Alice, the unlikely stripper. No, she doesn’t get naked, and no, it isn’t really creepy that she looks about fourteen: that she plays Alice as a waifish sprite works rather to her advantage. Her elusiveness is her secret strength, and allows her to deliver her most incisive lines when she seems most vulnerable.

But it’s Roberts as Anna who proves to be the movie’s quietest surprise. Far from attempting to ingratiate the audience, Julia-style, she smiles rarely, and when she does it’s as often ironic or uncertain as radiant—as in her first, wickedly funny encounter with Larry. Her character is elusive in a different way from Alice, and in some ways the least sympathetic of the quartet. Among them, she seems at once the least and most affected by love: least penetrated by its passions, yet most driven by its vagaries. Yet Roberts somehow grounds Anna’s faithlessness, makes her oddly convincing (and not wholly unsympathetic) by investing her with a reticence that has its own, enigmatic dignity. That reticence is the hallmark of “Closer” as a whole, and the reason it succeeds on its own terms. Like the best art, it both invites and resists analysis.

RATING: *** 1/4