Monday, August 29, 2005

"2046": Where Romantics Go in Search of Lost Love


directed by Wong Kar-Wai
starring Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong, others

It’s too early to tell, of course, but among today’s major filmmakers, Wong Kar-Wai just may be the last true Romantic.

That may strike some as an odd conclusion to draw from his latest work. “2046,” after all, centers on a cad who plays callously with one woman’s heart while observing the anguished love lives of others who cross his path. But only a true believer in the power of love—soul-haunting, gut-wrenching love—could portray its wreckage with the kind of swooning lyricism that pervades every frame and shot of the film. As such, “2046” is the perfect follow-up to Wong’s “In the Mood for Love.”

Strictly speaking, it isn’t absolutely necessary to have seen “In the Mood for Love” to understand or appreciate “2046.” But the latter acquires infinitely greater meaning and resonance in the context of the former. (The two films are part of a loose trilogy that began with Wong’s “Days of Being Wild,” which I haven’t seen and therefore can’t comment on.) “In the Mood for Love” showed a polite, reserved young journalist, Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung), who lost the great love of his life (Maggie Cheung, seen here in a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss flashbacks). Now, sporting a pencil mustache and a lothario’s smile, Chow writes dirty novels by day, combs the clubs of 1960’s Hong Kong at night, and steadfastly refuses to open his heart to Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi, swimming through the movie in cheongsams even more extravagant than those from “In the Mood for Love”), the lovelorn call girl with whom he conducts a casual affair.

But it doesn’t take long to see that beneath the coolly impenetrable surface of his charm, Chow’s heart still bleeds for that which he’s lost. He takes room 2047 in a run-down hotel, the better to observe the comings and goings of Room 2046—because that room number carries a special significance from “In the Mood for Love.” Chow’s also writing a science fiction story called “2046,” about a train that goes to the year 2046, where people go to find lost memories. Not surprisingly, characters and events from his “real” life appear in his sci-fi narrative—most prominently, the daughter of his landlord (Hong Kong pop princess Faye Wong, who also starred in WKW’s “Chungking Express”), and her Japanese boyfriend (Takuya Kimura), who connect (or do they?) despite language barriers and her father’s vehement disapproval. Still less surprisingly, Chow projects his own experiences on to his depiction of the forbidden romance, lending it an extra layer of elegiac melancholy. In the end, both his external and internal narratives intertwine and fold in on each other, so that no part can be clearly separated out as truth or (meta)fiction. Inconsistencies in dates and factual statements should hardly raise an eyebrow: Chow is nothing if not the quintessential unreliable narrator.

Not that narrative coherency is, or ever has been, WKW’s strong suit. It’s old news by now that “2046” was shown in an unfinished state at last year’s Cannes, where it met with a decidedly cool reception, and this initial response seems to have colored some of the subsequent critical reaction to the final film. Well, it shouldn’t have. Plot is secondary to what really matters to this director, namely, creating a mood of exquisite languor and an atmosphere charged with limitless, inexpressible romantic possibilities (most, if not all, sadly unrealized).

And oh, what a mood he creates, aided by longtime collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle. His Hong Kong is a place of cramped, ill-lit quarters, low ceilings, and rickety walls, yet at the same time a realm of sumptuous glamour and barely-contained passion, embodied in the sinuous curves of female forms clad in those gorgeous, maddeningly tactile cheongsams. And no one has ever made a plume of cigarette smoke such a potent symbol of both the immediacy of sex and the elusiveness of love. (I did, however, get a bit tired of seeing one pearly tear rolling down a woman’s cheek, which appears to be WKW’s other favorite motif, at least in this movie.) In contrast, the sterile, minimalist glitter of Chow’s sci-fi 2046 (or rather, the express train to 2046, where the women in his life are reimagined as kabuki-esque androids) highlights the themes of deferral, substitution, and love denied or realized too late.

All that said, I’m still forced to admit that “2046” isn’t as good as “In the Mood for Love.” While it’s just as poetic and mesmerizingly beautiful to watch, it isn’t nearly as poignant. That’s because the movie’s primary source of heat and angst—Bai Ling’s unrequited love for Chow—fails to generate the same pangs as the love story that fueled “In the Mood for Love.” Personally, I think Zhang Ziyi is too lightweight an actress to carry this storyline (or maybe she just pales in comparison to Maggie Cheung), though to be fair, her co-star doesn’t help her out much. With her, he merely smiles and smiles as he’s breaking her heart, with a kind of cruel gentleness that makes even the most sympathetic viewer (ok, me) want to slap him. This flatness is probably deliberate, but the fact remains that Leung shows much more depth in his interactions with the other women in the movie—Wong, of course, but also Gong Li and Carina Lau. His fleeting moments with Li and Lau made me wish that the movie had spent more time on Chow’s relationships with them and less on Zhang’s brittle yet headstrong China-doll beauty.

Still, “2046”’s lack of a romantic center is in some sense a logical consequence of its predecessor. Where “In the Mood for Love” was the tale of a man and a woman, “2046” is the tale of several women and a man who’s already checked out and observing them from afar. Both films are worth watching, especially in tandem. Only one, however, shows the tragedy of love; the other, its tragic aftermath.

RATING: *** 1/4

Monday, August 22, 2005

"Junebug": On the Outside, Looking In


directed by Phil Morrison
starring Embeth Davidtz, Amy Adams, Alessandro Nivola, Benjamin McKenzie

At first glance and on paper, “Junebug” looks like a retread of well-worn ground: A young man returns home to the small South Carolina town he left years ago, accompanied by a posh wife who tries in vain to connect with his family and other locals. There’s a lot of room here for caricature and cliché, whether of the comedic or dramatic variety, and in other hands the movie could have been unwatchable—or at least utterly unmemorable. Mercifully, director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan have crafted a modest, intelligent little film that lingers in the mind much longer than you might expect.

Even among the numerous indie and arthouse features that have cropped up in the past month, “Junebug,” more than most, is the complete antithesis of the usual summer popcorn programming. Nothing happens, at least not on the surface. And unlike most movies, which lurch almost desperately from one conversation (or explosion) to the next, “Junebug” isn’t the least bit afraid of silence. In fact, the film is essentially one long stretch of silence, punctuated by brief intervals of dialogue and action (and in one lovely, totally un-ironic instance, a full-length hymn), rather than the other way around. It abounds in shots of static domestic interiors and leafy green exteriors, and snatches of social interactions where the dialogue seems to constitute little more than background to the overall scene.

There's very little back story, and most of what we learn about the principal characters is only through inference and occasional, almost incidental, comments. The returning native, George (Alessandro Nivola), virtually disappears as soon as he arrives, leaving his wife, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), to break the ice with the in-laws as best she can. Though she has a good heart and tries gamely, her overtures run repeatedly into invisible yet seemingly insurmountable barriers of wordless hostility. That is, at least, when it comes to George’s mother (Celia Weston), Peg, who barely conceals her disapproval of Madeleine beneath a thin veil of frosty politeness, and George’s younger brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie), who still lives with his parents, works a dead-end job, and appears to exist in a constant state of sullen rage. George’s father, Eugene (Scott Wilson), seems more kindly disposed towards his new daughter-in-law, but spends most of his hours doing carpentry in the basement and says a total of about fifteen words to her—or for that matter to anyone—over the course of the movie.

The only person who meets the visitor more than halfway is Johnny’s pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), who’s awestruck by Madeleine before she even arrives, and immediately buries her in a bewildering flood of friendly scatter-chatter about everything from meerkats to the nearest mall. Madeleine reciprocates some of Ashley’s warmth, but doesn’t ever understand or appreciate her sister-in-law any more than her other in-laws do her. Given a crucial chance to cross that divide, late in the movie, she forgoes it, sealing her fate as a permanent outsider. (Yet there’s a fleeting and very touching moment near the end in which she does connect—however briefly—with the silent Eugene.)

Adams made a big impression at Sundance, and it’s easy to see why. Initially so chipper and chatty as to be unnerving (and not a little grating), Ashley’s unblinking Stepford-wife quality gradually reveals hidden depths. When her soul is finally bared, it feels at once absolutely genuine and almost painfully poignant. But all the actors turn in exceptionally nuanced performances. Davidtz (who played the romantic rival in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Mansfield Park,” and Ralph Fiennes’s abused Jewish servant girl in “Schindler’s List”) is perfectly cast as the fish out of water, exuding an effortless cosmopolitanism that’s as natural to her character as breathing, as well as a refined yet palpable sexuality that threatens Madeleine’s in-laws more than her British inflections do. Weston and Wilson, both convincingly taciturn, convey worlds of difference in the respective qualities of their silence, and even McKenzie smoulders effectively as the brother with anger management issues (admittedly, having had plenty of practice on “The O.C.”). George, the fulcrum of the story, is by far the most thinly sketched of the major characters—probably a deliberate choice by the filmmakers. But when he’s onscreen, Nivola (an underutilized actor, last put to good use in “Laurel Canyon”), imbues him with an attractive combination of warmth, tenderness, and fundamental elusiveness that helps explain why the women in the movie adore him and why his brother resents him. Only one character sees the “real” George, and it may not be whom you expect.

“Junebug” isn’t perfect, by a long shot. It takes a while to find the right tone—the first third is far weaker than the rest, and does suffer a bit from George’s pointed absence. There’s also a lame subplot involving Madeleine, an art dealer in Chicago, trying to hunt down and sign up a local folk artist who’s one half the reason she and George came round to visit in the first place. She sees the man as an untutored, unspoiled genius in the wilderness; in reality he’s a wily and bigoted crank with an eye for the main chance, whose canvases evoke a bizarre cross-pollination of Grandma Moses and Hieronymous Bosch. (Surveying his latest, Madeleine tells the artist, with perfect gravity, “I like all the dogs and computers, and the scrotums.”) Morrison and Maclachlan are admirably careful not to peddle any crude red state/blue state stereotypes or city-slicker scenarios: the community we see feels like a real place, not an outlandish backwater out of “O Brother Where Art Thou.” But this backwoods-artist subplot is as close as the film gets to parody, and unfortunately serves as the only clearly dramatic device in the film.

In the end, though, the film is less about urban vs. rural than it is about rootlessness vs. roots. Madeleine, we find out, is a diplomat’s daughter who grew up in Japan; she met and married a man who apparently uprooted himself to seek his fortune in the wide world. But the roots are still there, and it takes only one visit home to reveal their depths. It’s this little slice of observation—nonjudgmental, slightly detached, yet strangely compassionate—that makes “Junebug,” in its own quiet way, a standout.


Monday, August 08, 2005

"The Aristocrats": And You Thought *Your* Family was Dysfunctional...


directed by Paul Provenza
starring comedy's finest...and foulest

“The Aristocrats” is literally a one-joke show. That said, the first thing you have to understand going into it is that it is a BAD joke. And I don’t mean “bad” as in dirty (though it’s that, too); I mean just plain bad. Any humor that can be wrested from it lies solely in the delivery and ingenuity of the person telling it. Which can be quite a lot, if the person is any good, as the movie shows in spades.

For those of you silently imploring me not to spoil the joke, relax. The joke is basically a blank canvas: the teller fills it in with creations of his or her own imagination. So while it always begins the same way and ends the same way, unlike most jokes (good ones), the punchline is not the point. The punchline is lame. Don’t worry if you don’t “get” it—there’s nothing to get. I think we’re supposed to be amused by the huge gap between the foulness of the act described and the excessive refinement implied by its title. (One variation of the joke is called “The Sophisticates.” Another inverts the joke so that the middle part is ridiculously dull and genteel, while the punchline is obscene.)

But that feeble irony is not why the joke’s survived, or why Paul Provenza and Penn Gillette decided to make a documentary about it. No, the reason “The Aristocrats” matters is that it is *the* joke virtually every stand-up comedian has heard or had to tell, usually in back rooms after the audience has gone home for the night. It’s the ultimate rite of passage for comics, the secret handshake that’s been passed down for more years than anyone can remember. It’s best compared, in some ways, to a jazz riff: the soloist makes it his or her own by adding personal embellishments—the sicker the better. Nothing is off limits, whether it be rape, incest, child molestation, bestiality, bodily functions, or (as is usually the case) some byzantine combination of all of the above. If joking about such things makes you ill, then let’s just say you are not the target audience for this movie. “The Aristocrats” is all about speaking the unspeakable, with a wink and a flourish. Put another way, it’s basically a license for comedians to let their ids run wild.

And do they ever. The film shows clips of seemingly hundreds of A-list comedians offering their individual takes on the joke. Not all of them actually tell it for the camera, but among the ones who do are George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah Silverman, Kevin Pollak (doing a wicked Christopher Walken impression), Paul Reiser (disappointingly tame), Eric Idle, Hank Azaria, Gilbert Gottfried, and Bob Saget. Yes, *that* Bob Saget. He tells one of the filthiest (and funniest) versions and then muses over the possibility of sending the tape to his former “Full House” costars. Some of the best renditions cross over into the territory of pure physical comedy—the most memorable being a mime who attracts the bemused attention of various passers-by with his highly, uh, evocative simulations. (In a similar spirit, Provenza and Gillette themselves, performing the joke with props, aren’t half bad.) But the most hilarious version, hands down, isn’t even by a “real” person. It’s “The Aristocrats” as brought to you by Cartman from “South Park.” In fact, Cartman’s may be the only version that comes close to producing the kind of shocked-into-laughter reaction that the joke, at its best, is supposed to elicit.

Those who don’t tell "The Aristocrats" talk about it or around it with ruminative smiles, including Drew Carey, Jon Stewart, Robin Williams (sort of), Bill Maher, and Phyllis Diller (who’s a hoot). But it’s these attempts at discourse that underscore the movie’s limitations. For “The Aristocrats” is, at bottom, the quintessential insider joke, and in the end, Provenza and Gillette can’t fully convey its mystique or explain why it occupies the place it does in the collective consciousness of comedians. They offer us a glimpse—but only that, a glimpse—into that consciousness before the window slides shut again.

The difficulty is exemplified in what should have been one of the movie’s defining moments: Gilbert Gottfried’s delivery of the joke at the Hugh Hefner Friars’ Roast in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. By all accounts, it was a hit, despite (or rather, because of) its extreme inappropriateness at a time of intense grief and fear. Yet in replaying Gottfried’s ballsy performance, the movie highlights not its cathartic effect on a broad audience, but rather the reaction from his fellow comedians, who immediately grasp a significance and talismanic charm that we outsiders can still only vaguely comprehend. We sense that it means so much more to Gottfried’s peers than it can ever mean to us. That is, perhaps, simply the way it is. But for a documentary that’s meant to deconstruct one of the most semiotically laden jokes still in circulation, “The Aristocrats” remains oddly opaque and fundamentally inscrutable.

RATING: ** 1/2

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Perfect Work Schedule...

...would, of course, involve no work at all! That being impossible, I wish we could do away with the whole custom of having to be in an office for 8+ hours straight from 9 am onward, with only a break for lunch (if that), during the best part of the daylight hours.

I mean, what is the point of such a schedule now that we can pretty much be reached anywhere, at any time, thanks to the miracle of wireless communications?

Of course, I acknowledge that for medical residents, large-firm lawyers, and I-bankers, the concept of "daylight hours" means nothing. Day, night, it's all the same: all work, all the time. That'll be me in about three months. But based on my own current work rhythms, my ideal weekday schedule would look something like this:

9 am: Wake up; breakfast, read the paper, make myself presentable
10:30 am-1 pm: Work
1-4 pm: Lunch, run errands or siesta
4-7:30 pm: Work (I find I'm often unexpectedly productive during these hours, usually because 1-4 pm has been such a wash)
7:30-10 pm: Dinner, relax, watch TV
10 pm-3 am (except on Fridays): Work, preferably from home

Hey, I can dream, can't I?