Tuesday, February 28, 2006

"Three Burials" is two too many; "Tsotsi" cries an unbeloved country


directed by Tommy Lee Jones
starring Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Dwight Yoakam, others

It’s never a good sign when the title of a movie proves to be more interesting than the movie itself.

That’s not as dismissive as it sounds. “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is a mouthful, no doubt about it. Yet it has an oddly familiar cadence, like that of some hallowed, slightly dusty, slightly obscure legend passed down through generations of oral storytelling—akin to, say, “The Head of Joaquin Murieta.” And the film seems bent on both exploiting and debunking that vaguely mythic quality. Scripted by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros” and “21 Grams”), it’s a study in alienation, as manifested in its meanest and dreariest forms. At the same time, it’s a spiritual quest and a full-on odyssey, complete with perilous passes, a blind seer, a healer, and a homecoming—all filtered through an ironic postmodern sensibility.

The narrative is fragmented and disarranged, per Arriaga’s usual, but not particularly hard to follow. The title character (Julio Cedillo) is a Mexican who crosses the border into Texas in search of work, where rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) takes him under his wing. One day, Melquiades is accidentally shot and killed by a young punk border patrol officer (Barry Pepper) afflicted with poor impulse control and even poorer people skills. The incident is hushed up, largely through the efforts of the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam, looking suitably weaselly). Persistent Pete, however, doggedly sniffs out the truth and forces the punk killer to deal with the consequences of his trigger-happy finger. This involves exhuming the dead body from its makeshift grave and lugging it back across the border to bury in Melquiades’ home town, all because of a promise Pete made to his friend—one of those “if I die” promises that only happen in the movies. The punk, needless to say, is extremely unhappy to be dragged along this painful slog of a road-trip with a rotting corpse as one third of the company (though Pete finds creative ways of keeping the body from totally disintegrating). Alas, he has no choice. Neither, it seems, do we.

Not that the film is completely devoid of interest. The corpse jokes are sporadically amusing, and Jones exhibits a rare eye for the bleak culture of the Mexican-American border. Cinematographer Chris Menges brings out a harsh poetry in the dry brush and barren hills of the landscape, set in sharp relief against the even starker desolation of the town inhabited by the main characters. Even the town seems to be channeling the spirit of Edward Hopper, as the camera dwells for long beats on blank-faced individuals in a cafe or a motel or a sterile home: trapped in pools of isolation, they remain strangers to each other, even when shown in the most intimate settings and postures possible.

Pete’s friendship with Melquiades is no exception to that rule, which may be the movie’s main problem. Fundamentally, I just didn’t buy into the bond between them, notwithstanding brief flashbacks of the time they spent together working, talking, and shooting the shit. It could very well be that Pete’s near-pathological single-minded devotion to his friend’s last wish reflects not so much the depth of their relationship as some quality engrained in his character—but we don’t see very much of his character, either. At moments he shows glimmers of a deep-seated loneliness or weariness, but not enough to convince us that he’s in the grip of anything other than the movie’s narrative requirements, which frankly don’t suit him. Tommy Lee Jones, let’s face it, has always been the coolest kid in the room, largely because nothing seems able to faze him. His usual air of dry amusement seems muted here, and without it he seems vaguely lost. While this again may be deliberate, it doesn’t do much to anchor our sympathies. In the end, we may feel more of a connection with poor Barry Pepper’s character, certifiable asshole though he is, in the sense that he’s left at the end of a long, meandering journey wondering "what the hell was that all about?”


Also saw:


directed by Gavin Hood
starring Presley Chwanayagae, Mothusi Mogano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Kenneth Nkosi, Terry Pheto

“Tsotsi” is South African streetspeak for “thug,” and its simplicity suits the film that bears the same name. Based on a novel by postcolonial writer Athol Fugard, the movie recounts the redemption of a boy-man known only as Tsotsi, who at the outset, despite his youth, seems to be an unregenerate, possibly psychopathic criminal. One night, he brutally carjacks a Mercedes only to discover a baby in the backseat. Something moves him to take the baby with him and attempt (very ineptly) to look after it, and that process—as the movie makes very clear—shines a light on his soul.

If that sounds cloying, it’s also fairly descriptive of the film’s sensibility. Not that “Tsotsi,” on its surface, looks especially sentimental. Like “The Three Burials,” it evokes with uncanny vividness a particular, specific cultural space: here, the slums of Soweto, where children sleep in stacks of empty oil drums before moving up to the tin sheds of a shantytown dominated by thugs, gangsters, and AIDS. It also showcases a rising star in newcomer Presley Chweneyagae, who displays amazing mobility of expression as the conflicted Tsotsi, his eyes shifting in a matter of seconds from murderous to childlike. But the psychology behind those eyes is presented in far too facile and formulaic a manner—never more so than when Tsotsi recruits a lovely young single mother (Terry Pheto) to nurse the baby at gunpoint. Flashbacks to Tsotsi’s childhood hammer home the parental issues that lie just beneath his veneer of cruelty, and make his salvation feel far too overdetermined. The moral arc of “Tsotsi” bears some resemblance to that staple of high school English classes, Cry, the Beloved Country, yet somehow fails to achieve the same level of emotional catharsis that that old war-horse still delivers. Still, as debuts go—not just for young Presley, but also for the director, Gavin Hood—it’s a fine effort, and may be the beginning of a couple of careers worth watching.


Friday, February 24, 2006

Silver is the color of valor

Well, the best part of the Winter Olympics - figure skating, of course - has officially concluded, and I'm still mulling over the fact that the two most impressive performances I saw began with skaters taking disastrous falls. In both cases, they went on to win the silver medal. And in both cases, I know I'm going to remember them long after I've forgotten the skaters that went on to win the gold.

Some wiseguys may snark that that's just proof that figure skating isn't a real sport. To those misguided souls, I have only this to say: Have you seen a figure skating championship recently? Have you seen this year's Olympics? Have you seen the kind of stunts these men and women are expected to pull off while gliding on a blade of medal no thicker than your finger?

And stunts is the operative word. More and more, over the past twenty years (or longer), figure skating has been turning into something of a stunt show; in ten more, it may be an X-treme sport-like event, up there with the half-pipe and the aerials and all those other events I can't remember. But this was perhaps the first Olympics where I actually found myself thinking, "They're doing too many jumps" and wondering when everyone had started doing more triples than doubles. And rubbing my eyes repeatedly throughout the various competitions as I realized that a pair was trying to land a throw quadruple jump, a woman was trying to land a quadruple jump, and that quads had become de rigueur for the men, rather than that thing that only Kurt Browning could land (and not at the Olympics). The new scoring system seems likely to reinforce that trend rather than curb it.

So it goes; after all, the motto isn't "faster, higher, stronger" for nothing. Still, I miss the days when skating was, arguably, less of a sport and closer to an art. I'm not that old, but the figure skating gold medalist I remember most vividly was Katarina Witt, in Sarajevo in 1984 and then again in Calgary in 1988. I don't recall if she even did a triple jump. Yet she skated with the kind of grace, flair, and personality that made her performances ones for the ages. (Granted, it also helped that she was stunningly beautiful.)

Which brings me back, somewhat elliptically, to 2006. Yes, Shizuko Arikawa deserved the gold, no question about it, and yes, Sasha Cohen fell on her ass. Word off the rink has always been that Sasha always chokes under pressure, she can't keep it together in the long program, she doesn't have what it takes. I thought so, too. What struck me, however, and what I found immeasurably moving about her long program, was how well she did keep it together after she knew she'd lost. Not only did she skate cleanly after flubbing her first two jumps, she skated with more beauty and expressiveness than anyone else that night. She has the best sense of music and line of just about any skater out there, and she didn't let go of it for a second, even after her dream of victory - and redemption - had crumbled to pieces. That took real courage, and it earned her the silver medal. The only thing I've seen to beat it at these games was that other surprise silver medal story - the Chinese pairs skater who crashed onto her knees after an insanely dangerous throw (that damned quadruple), but then went on to skate a near-flawless program - including more throws.

I admire a "clutch" athlete as much as anyone else - being clutch is what distinguishes the winners from the rest. But it takes a different kind of spirit to be able to pick yourself up after you've fallen, after all hope is gone, and deliver the goods when victory is no longer possible. It's the kind of spirit that you really only get to see in figure skating.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Felicity does America


directed and written by Duncan Tucker
starring Felicity Huffman, Elizabeth Peña, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan

A woman playing a woman? Where’s the trick in that?
–Ned Kynaston, “Stage Beauty”

William Macy must be so proud.

No doubt about it, this is Felicity Huffman’s moment in the sun. Better known for her Emmy-winning role on “Desperate Housewives,” come Oscar night she just may snatch the little golden guy from right under Reese Witherspoon’s pointy little chin, thanks to her gender-bending turn in “Transamerica.” Certainly, her performance is the main, if not the only, reason the film’s attracted any attention at all, and deservedly so.

Huffman stars as Bree Osbourne, né Stanley Osbourne, a transsexual residing in Los Angeles who has just one final operation left to become a fully anatomically correct woman. Barely a week before this momentous event, Bree learns for the first time that she has a teenage son she fathered when she was still Stanley. The son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), is a hustler and possible drug dealer currently holed up in a juvenile penitentiary in New York. With considerable reluctance, and only at the prodding of her therapist (Elizabeth Peña), Bree goes to bail him out, posing as the do-good representative of an unidentified church. Even then, the therapist refuses to sign off on Bree’s operation until she’s come clean with Toby and made her peace with this episode from her past. Since Toby’s dream is to become a porn star (hey, at least he knows where his best chances lie), Bree agrees to drive them both cross-country back to L.A.

Contrived? Definitely. But “Transamerica” wears its contrivances with easy unconcern, and settles comfortably into the familiar rhythms of the road trip movie. Bree and Toby meet the usual collection of Characters with a capital “C” throughout the course of their journey, from a New Age vegan hitchhiker to a courtly Indian rancher who sports a cowboy hat and takes a shine to Bree. And, in due course, there’s the requisite odd-couple bonding between our two travelers, despite the fact that Bree stubbornly refuses to tell Toby who she really is. Zegers is rather appealing as the archetypal troubled youth and lost son: for all the jaded air, cocaine addiction, and signs that he may be going through some sexual confusion of his own (which does make for a couple of *extremely* uncomfortable moments with Bree), he conveys a scruffy innocence and capacity for affection that eventually stirs a latent parental instinct in the woman who spends most of the movie telling people (with perfect truth) she’s not his mother.

It goes without saying, however, that Huffman is the one to watch here. Initially her performance—the husky, faux-alto pitch of her voice, the prim, fastidious, slightly awkward precision of her speech, gestures, and dress (her wardrobe looks like a cross between Laura Ashley and a Jackie Kennedy knockoff line)—seems almost impossibly mannered, even for a woman playing a man playing a woman through careful study and mimicry. I also couldn’t help wondering if it was really necessary to make Huffman, who’s quite attractive in a hard-edged way, look like Tony Curtis from “Some Like it Hot.” Nevertheless, as the movie progresses, we begin to see that the mannerisms make the (wo)man. Bree isn’t overdoing the femininity because she’s “stealth” or because she doesn’t want Toby to discover her identity; the womanly woman, the lady of culture and cultured pearls, is exactly the person she wants to be. In a very real sense, she was born not only in the wrong body but about half a century too late. And Huffman evokes, with remarkable sensitivity, this heartfelt desire not for assimilation but for self-actualization.

A fair number of critics have groused that apart from Huffman’s performance, “Transamerica” is thin on substance or originality, and that writer/director Duncan Tucker offers little in the way of fresh or cutting insight into transsexuality or its discontents. To which I’m tempted to respond: so what? So it isn’t edgy, subject matter notwithstanding, but it doesn’t have any pretensions to be, either. “Transamerica” is a pleasant, slightly lazy film, peppered with plenty of comic moments, some poignant ones, and one or two queasy ones that tend to center on Toby’s search for identity rather than Bree’s. Towards the end, the movie goes somewhat off the rails by introducing us to Bree’s family: drawn broadly for comic relief and some not-so-subtle social commentary, they end up little more than caricatures who look like they just stepped out of a John Waters movie. But up till that point, Tucker deserves more credit than he’s received for rendering Bree’s sexual identity issues at once alien and oddly familiar. (In a way, he’s only doing on a smaller canvas what Ang Lee did with homosexuality in “Brokeback Mountain”: making the Other accessible and recognizable without wholly diluting its otherness.) There’s a very funny interlude in the middle of “Transamerica,” in which Bree unwittingly ushers Toby into a living room full of transsexuals. She soon makes excuses to leave, petrified that being seen with “all those ersatz women,” as she calls them, will blow her cover. Toby, however, is unfazed. “I liked them,” he says simply, and a bit grumpily, as they depart. “Transamerica” gently pushes us towards the same attitude, and there’s no shame in that.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

"New World" sings, even if Pocahontas doesn't


directed and written by Terrence Malick
starring Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer

Terrence Malick’s “The New World” is hypnotic, in every sense of the word. Any viewer may be easily transfixed by its mesmerizing beauty—or bored senseless by its slow, meandering, dreamlike pace, its meditative silence punctuated only by pensive voice-overs, snatches of otherworldly music (courtesy of Wagner, Mozart, and James Horner), and brief intervals of dialogue. Put another way, those who go see this film because it’s by the famously non-prolific Malick (his last directorial effort was 1998’s “The Thin Red Line”) are by far the most likely to enjoy it, while those looking for a hot action-romance starring Colin Farrell are guaranteed to be the most disappointed bunch of moviegoers since the idiots who went to see “Solaris” because of George Clooney’s ass. As for those who take the children expecting a live-action version of Disney’s “Pocahontas,” well, they deserve exactly the reaction they’re likely to get: restless, squirmy (or, if they’re lucky, sleepy) kids.

“The New World” is nothing if not cinematic, but it feels more like a poem than a movie. Although it’s based on the Pocahontas story, set against the backdrop of the early years of the Jamestown colony, Malick clearly isn’t interested in historical accuracy so much as the genesis of myth—specifically, the myth of the founders and their first encounter with virgin America. The Indian princess (played by newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher, cousin to Jewel) is a pointed metaphor for the virgin land, while her two British lovers, John Smith (Farrell) and John Rolfe (Christian Bale) present two different faces, or phases, of colonialism.

The subjugation of the new world isn’t portrayed as a rape, exactly, though there’s a deliberate violence in the film’s depiction of the colonists’ early efforts to shape the land to their will, from the first bite of an axe into a tree to a clearing full of stumps that wears the desolate, faintly obscene air of a scene of carnage. Malick also draws an unsparing visual contrast, by juxtaposition, of the magnificent bodies and idyllic forest glades occupied by the “naturals,” as they’re dubbed early on (later to give way to “savages”), with the clunky, confining armor of the colonists and the squalid, festering hole that is the Jamestown stockade in its early years. But the most obvious stand-in for the imposition of “civilization” on the wilderness—the life and loves of Pocahontas—is presented with considerably more ambivalence.

Kilcher has the face of a South American idol brought to life, and a rare presence that belies her youth: though she was less than fifteen during filming, you’d hardly guess it from her amazing poise or the timeless quality of her beauty. It’s no wonder that Smith idealizes this luminous underaged creature in his moony voice-overs, or that their romance has an oddly chaste yet charged feel. Farrell, for his part, effectively conveys the haunted eyes and inner conflict of a man capable of betraying and abandoning his love. He tries instead to put her from him, to evade the reminder of his culpability, but it is already too late. By the time Smith exits his dream-girl’s life, seemingly forever, she has become a captive of the society he helped bring: she's even started to wear its clothes, from corsets to buckled shoes, which never cease to look stiff and unnatural on her. (Though why on her and not on the European ladies raises an interesting question about cultural conditioning.)

It’s at this point, however, that “The New World” takes a subtle turn, as Englishman number two, John Rolfe, enters the scene. A planter rather than a soldier, Rolfe belongs to the second wave of colonists, who bear the burden of cultivating rather than despoiling. He cultivates and courts Pocahontas, now christened Rebecca, with the gravity of a man wise enough not to presume too much too quickly, and radiates a solidity and permanence that the adventurer never did. Perhaps it’s just the weight of history, but it feels inevitable that, in due course, she marries and begets a son by him, even though her heart still pines after her first love. Towards the end of the film, America’s first official interracial couple journeys to England so that young Mrs. Rolfe may be presented at court. Still attired in those ridiculous English clothes, Pocahontas finds herself feted and treated as a kind of seventeenth-century celebrity—or, depending on your perspective, a traveling circus exhibit, along with the natives who also accompany her.

Which is it? At court, she is seen examining a beautiful caged bird that looks only slightly less out of place than herself. But Malick is far too canny a filmmaker to settle for such a facile equation, and Pocahontas ultimately comes across less as a spoil or prisoner of colonialism than as a peculiar hybrid of Old World and New. Shortly thereafter, she is shown running through a perfect English garden with her child, looking radiantly happy. And that child remains the final symbol of “The New World,” the true hybrid of outsider and native, the cross-pollination of conqueror and conquered. Some may feel that concluding on this note elides the violence and treachery that compelled such a union and continued notwithstanding it. In fact, most of the film is devoted to showing the devastating effects of this clash, albeit with a certain aestheticized detachment that sometimes borders on emotional hollowness. In any case, the ending is hardly rosy: despite her seeming contentment and acceptance of her fate, Pocahontas dies tragically young. What she leaves behind is not harmony or peace, but a myth of origin—the origin of America, in all its tainted, pied beauty.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

And We're Off...Early Oscar Observations

I find it especially quaint this year that Oscar nominations should be announced on the same day that Bush gives his State of the Union address. It's like Hollywood was saying an especially loud F U to the Prez and his constituency...Gay cowboys, pimps, prancing queers, transgendered mothers (or was it fathers), blistering critiques of U.S. foreign policy and oil dependency (though hey, apparently Bush didn't need to see "Syriana" to figure out we're too dependent on oil), thinly veiled attacks on timorous journalism...you name it, we got it.

Not that I buy into the whole myth that those liberal Hollywooders are forcing their liberal views on the good American folk, or that that's why the box office has been so woozy this year. (It's the big-budget formula movies that are underperforming and hurting the profits, not the Brokebacks or the Good Nights, which have been recouping their smaller budgets just fine, thank you.) And what's funny is that "Brokeback Mountain" may be revolutionary in its subject matter, but aesthetically it's a straight shot down the middle, and as such, clearly the front-runner for Best Picture.

Anyway, as usual, not too many surprises. I'm glad that "Munich" made it to the final cut (though it'll likely go home empty-handed come March 5), that George Clooney came up aces as well, and that Amy Adams, Terrence Howard and Matt Dillon got what by all accounts are well-deserved acting nominations (I haven't seen "Hustle & Flow" or "Crash," though Adams was wonderful in "Junebug"). Slightly surprised that Keira Knightley got a nod for best actress - though it confirms that I should always trust Entertainment Weekly's predictions - and slightly miffed that Joan Allen didn't get it for "The Upside of Anger."

My biggest "what the hell": William Hurt for Best Supporting Actor? He's already won one or two critics' awards, as I remember, for "History of Violence," but all I can say is that his performance was one of the hammiest things I've ever seen, and pretty much embodied the movie at its most strained. I just don't get it. If anyone from that movie should have been nominated, it was Maria Bello - or Viggo Mortensen.

Early predictions, subject to change: "Brokeback" should sail to easy Best Picture victory, and Ang Lee will probably cop the director award, too. Original screenplay will go to either "Crash" or "Good Night, and Good Luck" - I narrowly favor the latter, mainly because the Academy loves Clooney as much as the Fox News crew hate him, and his chances are slim in the other races. Adapted screenplay will go to "Brokeback." All four actors' races will be tight. On best actor, I've changed my mind and decided that this is Philip Seymour Hoffman's year, though Heath Ledger should still give him a run for his money. For best actress, it'll be a photo finish between Reese Witherspoon and Felicity Huffman (who's having the year of her life, bless her), but I'm going with Reese for now. For best supporting actor, Paul Giamatti and Jake Gyllenhaal will probably end up in a dead heat: Giamatti will get sympathy votes for being ignored the last couple of years, but Gyllenhaal should pick up steam as we get closer to Oscar night. And for best supporting actress, the most wide open of the four, it'll likely come down to either Rachel Weisz (who's been doing unexpectedly well in awards recently - which I'm glad of) or Michelle Williams, though any of the others could pull off an upset.

Predix will be updated closer to press time. Stay tuned...