Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Holiday Shuffle: Too Many Movies, Too Little Time

It's been a while since I've written about any movies I've seen, but believe me, it's not for lack of movies I want to see! It's not even December and I'm already feeling the holiday overload of films that have either been recently released or are upcoming in the near future and are clamoring for my attention. The only one I managed to check off over the Thanksgiving holidays was "Margot at the Wedding" (my friend's preference rather than mine: I was pushing for either "Enchanted" or "No Country for Old Men"), which I found frankly underwhelming and distinctly inferior to last year's "The Squid and the Whale." When I tried to convince my parents to toddle forth to a movie theater, they ended up convincing me to stay home and watch "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" instead...I'm actually glad they did, since they've had it on VHS forever but (I'm ashamed to admit) I've never actually watched it all the way through. My recent attendance at the AFI's Tribute to Catherine Deneuve rekindled my interest in doing so, despite my vague childhood impressions of "Cherbourg" as a sappy, candy-colored musical. Well, it's certainly as candy-colored as I remembered, but it's in fact much less dewy-eyed and a lot more delicately nuanced than I was expecting...In fact, I'm contemplating doing a separate blog post on the film, though I doubt I'll have much to add that hasn't been said by legions of critics.

But anyway, this means I'm behind on the movies I want to see, and more are coming. Currently on my ever-expanding wish list:

"No Country for Old Men"
"I'm Not There"
"The Savages"
"Starting Out in the Evening" (saw it at Sundance, but want to see it again: PEOPLE, PLEASE GO SEE THIS MOVIE, DON'T LET IT GET LOST IN THE HOLIDAY SHUFFLE!)
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
"The Golden Compass"
"Diva" (Beineix's ubercool New-New Wave masterpiece is being briefly rereleased in theaters in selected cities, I think in honor of its 25th anniversary. It's also being released on a new Criterion DVD.)

I have fond hopes of seeing ALL of these and commenting on them before Christmas, but there is that little thing called work, that may intrude. Nonetheless, I will do my best. This is truly the best and worst time of year for movie lovers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Wars at Home: Opening the hidden cultures of "Persepolis" and "Lust, Caution"

I had the pleasure of viewing not one but two excellent movies this past weekend. Because one of them hasn’t been commercially released yet and the other is probably close to the end of its theatrical run, writing a formal review of either at this point seems like a somewhat useless exercise. So instead I’ll offer some of my initial, unfiltered thoughts on both films, in the hope that they’ll encourage any of you who have access to them to see them at your earliest opportunity.

The first was the animated film “Persepolis,” which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and which I saw at this year’s AFI Fest in L.A., in conjunction with a special tribute to Catherine Deneuve (who did the voice-over for one of the characters in “Persepolis”). It was something of a battle to get tickets: I ended up waiting over an hour in the rush line, and nearly got drawn into an ugly altercation with an older woman standing behind me who took extreme umbrage at the fact that I was joined by two friends who arrived later than she did. Never mind, of course, that there were plenty of people in front of us who were doing exactly the same thing, that she had been unsuccessful in her efforts to get the AFI volunteer staff to dislodge any of them, and that WE WERE ALL CLEARLY GOING TO BE (AND ULTIMATELY WERE) ADMITTED. The friend who arrived last received the brunt of the woman’s abuse, which began with a "fuck off!" and only went downhill from there. I’m sorry to say her comments eventually took on a racial cast, but I’m glad to report that my friend was sufficiently roused to give as good as she got (and more) even if she did counter racism with a bit of age-ism. (“Wrinkly hag” was one of her parting volleys, as I recall.) It helped that the AFI volunteers and the rest of the people in line were as unsympathetic to the woman as we were: to quote a gentleman just behind all of us, “That lady’s a nut!”

Fortunately, the event was well worth the fight to get in. The tribute part was interesting as such things go, mixing clips of Deneuve’s films with a live conversation between the lady herself and L.A. Times film critic Ken Turan. Deneuve was a class act, still elegant at 60-odd, in marked contrast to our acquaintance (probably about the same age) from the rush line. As for the movie, it was an absolute treat to watch. For those of you thinking “cartoon—meh,” let me hasten to assure you that this isn’t like any cartoon you’ve ever seen. It’s not a Disney movie, nor a superhero comic, nor a Frank Miller saga, nor yet is it in the vein of Miyazaki’s dream fables, though in sensibility it may be closest to the latter. Based on a popular graphic novel series by Iranian expat Marjane Satrapi and jointly directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, it recounts, in a tidy 95 minutes, Satrapi’s childhood growing up in a liberal family during the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, her adolescent years as a student in Vienna, and her return to Iran as a young adult, before her final farewell to her motherland. Deneuve voices Marjane’s mother, and Deneuve’s own daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, voices Marjane as a teenager and young woman. The film is in French, with English subtitles, though an English-dubbed version is in the works. (See the subtitled version if you can, though I’m biased against dubbing in general.)

“Persepolis” is a remarkably fresh, frequently funny, and always-incisive sketch of a particular culture during a particular historical period that most outsiders have little knowledge of, and it captures what it was like to live in such a time and place (times and places, to be exact) through small details, both comic and traumatic, that were obviously seared into Satrapi’s memory. At the same time, Satrapi’s coming-of-age narrative—her childhood games, her relationship with her family, her first loves, her feeling like an outsider at the awkward age—have a wryly poignant quality that’s no less appealing for being so familiar. Above all, the film displays a delightfully droll wit, conveyed through the writing but even more through the (mostly) black-and-white animation, which manages to be at once economical, even minimalist, and beautifully expressive. The only bad thing about “Persepolis” is that it most likely won’t play widely in the United States; it’s currently slated for limited release during the Christmas holidays. Still, there’s always hope, especially since it’s apparently been short-listed for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and could very well give “Ratatouille” a run for its money.

The second film I saw this weekend was Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival only to premiere to lackluster reviews in the United States. It’s relatively rare that I am in complete disagreement with the majority of the critics I read, but this is one of those times. The film’s primary claim to fame (or notoriety) is its extremely explicit sex scenes, which earned the dread NC-17 rating from the MPAA after Lee refused to make the requested cuts. The American critical consensus seems to be that the sex scenes are the only interesting part of an otherwise inert, over-long, and painfully dull movie. Frankly, I’m not sure what movie they were all watching, but it wasn’t the same one I saw. Yes, it’s long, clocking in at over 2 1/2 hrs, but never once did I find it less than fully engrossing—and I have an absurdly short attention span.

Like “Persepolis,” (though totally unlike it in other ways), “Lust, Caution” is a portrait of a very historically specific time period—in this case, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during WWII, which is bound to have more resonance with those of Chinese extraction, and perhaps other Asians, than others—and is arguably somewhat less attuned than “Persepolis” to Western sensibilities, since 99% of its drama and emotion takes place beneath the outward interactions and dialogue. Adapted from a short story by Eileen Chang, it centers on the long-running attempt of a group of student actors-turned-revolutionaries (we’re talking nationalists, not communists) to infiltrate the household of a running-dog official named Yee (Tony Leung) and assassinate him. At the crux of the plot is a girl named Wong (newcomer Tang Wei) who poses as Mrs. Mak, the fictional wife of a Hong Kong businessman, in order to seduce Yee and betray him to his death. Ultimately, she achieves the former; it’s the latter goal that proves trickier, for a number of reasons.

On the surface, “Lust, Caution” has a smoothly aestheticized period feel, dwelling with sensuous languor on such details as the glossy fabric of a cheongsam, the wash of ivory tiles (the movie really made me wish I knew the rules of mahjongg), and the mark of lipstick on a coffee cup. And yet, almost every moment from the time Wong and Yee first come into contact is laden with almost unbearable tension, as we attempt to read what’s really going on beneath the murmurs of polite conversation and the glances carefully exchanged or avoided. At no moment are we truly sure, though we may guess, whether Yee is on to “Mrs. Mak”; whether he’s falling for her; whether she’s falling for him; whether or how much Yee’s wife (Joan Chen) suspects; whether anyone is being watched; when and on which side the shoe will drop with respect to Yee’s ultimate assassination. This near-constant undercurrent of fear, or anticipation, or both, periodically rises to the surface and explodes in scenes of shocking violence, both sexual and otherwise, that Lee films with appropriately desperate urgency.

As is often the case with Lee, however, the best moments are the quietly intimate ones. There are few directors who can coax more exquisite performances from his actors (“Sense and Sensibility” and “Brokeback Mountain” are two superb examples), and “Lust, Caution” may be his most accomplished effort to date in this regard. Tang Wei makes an impressive screen debut as the conflicted Wong. At first she seems not quite beautiful or sophisticated enough for her role as seductress, but gradually, as you see her develop from a naive, self-effacing young student to a more experienced, though no less vulnerable, woman, you appreciate why her Wong succeeds where other, more highly trained agents failed. Still more impressive is the more seasoned Leung, who’s got quite possibly the most expressive face of any Asian actor living today: at critical moments in “Lust, Caution,” you can see it open up and reflect pain, melancholy, and shock, without giving away the ultimate mystery of Yee’s motives and character.

Some might complain that Lee spends too much time setting up Wong’s introduction to her revolutionary comrades, which begins with their production of a cringe-inducing “patriotic” drama that brings the crowd to its feet shouting “China will not fall!” But I think this part is important in showing how the historical context could move such clueless kids to bite off way, way more than they should have ever tried to chew. Lee adeptly shows their stunning innocence—which would be funny if it weren’t, at the same time, so heartbreaking—without needlessly caricaturing them. Even the initially one-dimensional character of Kuang (Wang Lee-Hom), the group’s passionately idealistic leader, gradually deepens enough to make him, too, no less than Wong or Yee, another player tragically trapped partly by history, but also by his own self-fulfilling sense of fate. There’s more than one potential love story going on here, and in some ways it’s the one that could, possibly should, have happened, but never did, that’s the most poignant. “Lust, Caution” is a film filled with unspoken might-have-beens, that Lee knows just how much to signal without overplaying his hand. And it’s the beauty of those might-have-beens, and the thoughts and questions they leave in the mind, that linger longest after the credits roll away.

GRADES: “Persepolis” A-; “Lust, Caution” A-


My one regret of the weekend is that I didn’t make more of an effort to attend the AFI's Tribute to Laura Linney, which was on Friday. If I could have gotten tickets in advance, nothing would have stopped me from going. But the prospect of another rush-line situation with no guarantee of admission didn’t seem to justify slogging through Friday afternoon traffic from Century City to Hollywood (an easy 45 min. to an hour, right there, even though the actual driving distance is less than 7 miles) to get there by 5:30. Still, they apparently let in all 75 people in the wait line. And I would have been able to render homage to la Linney in person, albeit from a distance.

Forgive me, Lady Linney, I’m still your faithful disciple, and will see “The Savages” when it opens in theaters!

A Long, Cold Winter in L.A...

...I'm referring, of course, to the WGA strike, not the weather. I don't have particularly strong views on the strike way or the other, though I think this editorial is the best piece I've read on the subject, and the best answer to the non-argument "the writers only produce crap anyway, and they're grossly overpaid for it, what makes them think they're entitled to more?"

My problem with the latter view, by the way, is first of all, that it's irrelevant to the dispute at issue: even assuming the writers only produce crap, it's still the necessary foundation for the crappy end-product for which the studios, not the writers, are reaping huge profits, and please don't tell me you think the studio heads deserve to fatten their bank accounts more than the writers do. Second, as Herskovitz somewhat more obliquely points out, more often than not it's the studios' meddling that turns the writers' material into the crap you see. No good piece of writing goes unpunished.

All that said, there's no denying that the writers are going to go through several circles of hell long before their strike has any real impact on the studios. And the worst is that they'll take with them many workers whose livelihood depends one way or another on the health of the industry. The ripple effect may take some time to sink in, but it's already being felt in certain quarters.

Meanwhile, the chill seems to be spreading eastward, as the stagehands on Broadway also went on strike...Of this strike I have even less knowledge, but there's sure to be regular and reliable coverage from ModFab, which already has a list of shows that are currently closed as a result of the strike.

Something is rotten in the state of entertainment.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Two Sides of the "American" Dream


directed by Ridley Scott
starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe
smaller parts for Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruby Dee, Armand Assante, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Carla Gugino, John Ortiz, RZA, Idris Elba, others

If you haven’t seen “American Gangster” yet, my first advice to you is not to read any reviews of the film until after you have. Trust me, you’ll be doing yourself a favor.

I say this even though I’m far from being rabidly anti-spoiler. To me, the only true spoilers are those that give away a plot twist or a solution to a mystery; otherwise, I personally seek out as much advance information as possible on any film that piques my interest. And I firmly believe that reading a broad range of reviews can be invaluable in shaping one’s expectations without affecting one’s personal enjoyment of a movie.

Unfortunately, sometimes there’s a peculiar convergence among the critics such that in addition to making similar general comments about a film, which is tolerable, they all pinpoint and describe the same damn scenes, which is much less so. (Example: “Sideways,” for which every single review I read not only went gaga for Miles’ heartfelt speech on the pinot noir grape but offered almost exactly the same exegesis of its subtext.) Big deal, you might say with a shrug: most people don’t read half a dozen reviews prior to seeing a movie. Fair enough. But even in just one review, this kind of detailing is still joy-sapping, not to mention intensely annoying, when the scenes in question either serve as crucial turns in the plot or are intended to deliver a sharp jolt. So it is with "American Gangster," and for this reason I will refrain from discussing any individual scenes in this movie.

“American Gangster” chronicles the career of 1970’s Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas and the persistent efforts of a New Jersey cop, Richie Roberts, to track and pin him with all the force of the law. Add in Hollywood heavyweights Ridley Scott as director and Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as Frank and Richie, respectively, and you’ve got one of the most hotly anticipated prestige pictures of the year.

Does it deliver on expectations? More or less. It doesn’t disappoint, but it also fails to dazzle, or to introduce anything we haven’t seen before in countless post-“Godfather” gangster and cop movies, from “Serpico” and “The French Connection” to “Scarface” and Michael Mann’s “Heat.” There’s no doubt Frank Lucas’ story is a fascinating one, rife with all the tensions raised by a poor black man from the Deep South coming to New York and besting the Mafia at their own game. Yet as scripted by Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” “Gangs of New York,” and the stinker no one saw, “All the King’s Men,” which he also directed), the film flags these social and racial undercurrents without really exploring either their roots or their broader impact.

It also doesn’t quite succeed in teasing out who Frank Lucas was, despite the high star wattage Denzel brings to one of his rare bad-guy roles. Denzel plays Frank as a cool customer, a well-spoken man in well-tailored suits, with the streamlined look of a corporate honcho (which, of course, was essentially what he was) and the studiously polite manners of a gentleman—except, on occasion, when he draws from a deep inner well of sadism or suppressed rage. Even or perhaps especially in those moments, he remains fundamentally opaque. It may be that this was a deliberate choice. But it places the viewer at a remove from the character, despite the shocking impact of certain scenes (or at least, they should have been shocking but weren’t, thanks to the critics!) that reveal the enormity of what he was capable of doing, without hesitation or compunction, in the course of conducting his business. The distance isn’t bridged by the contrasting glimpses of Lucas as a generous family man, which seem intended to suggest that he was building off the Mafia model of the family-run empire, but also that he may have been motivated by genuine love and familial loyalty. That may be, yet you don’t really get that vibe from Denzel, even in his most intimate moments. His interactions with his wife (Lymari Nadal), even in the courtship phase, are especially chilly and unrevealing.

Crowe’s Richie is on the surface easier to read and understand, even if, in a rather obvious inversion of Frank’s double life, he poses the enigma of the straight-arrow cop who can’t keep to anything resembling a straight path in his personal life. His marriage is disintegrating, because he’s wedded to his job rather than to his marriage vows, which he’s evidently broken numerous times. Every word addressed to him by his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Carla Gugino) is laced with resentment; he barely sees his young son and is in danger of losing all custody rights; and his living quarters and personal grooming are a perpetual disaster. All he has to cling to is his inflexible professional integrity, which makes him one of the most disliked members of his own department. Crowe convincingly embodies the mixture of tenacity and haplessness that mark this ragged crusader, as much through his dogged pursuit of a law degree on the side as through his quest to figure out who’s behind the recent influx of premium heroin that’s hit the streets. But here again, the movie does little probing into why Richie wants to be a lawyer (is it only for the elevated social status? Or for something else?) or how that desire comports with his fierce dedication to his day-job. The movie seems interested primarily in juxtaposing his trajectory with Frank’s, up to and just a little beyond their intersection. The contrast is striking enough, but not particularly illuminating of either character.

That “American Gangster” gives us something less than a full connection to these two complicated characters might be less of an issue if the film weren’t so obviously focused on them at the expense of the many supporting players. We see, among others, Josh Brolin as a slick, crooked New York cop who harasses both Frank and Richie, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Frank’s younger brother and Number Two man, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Nicky Barnes, Frank’s flashier rival, yet none of them is on screen long enough to register much more than a passing presence. John Ortiz fares better in an equally brief role as Richie’s ill-fated partner. However, the one person who really takes our eyes off of the Denzel-Russell show is the wonderful Ruby Dee, who plays Frank’s mother. Initially she comes across as a simple, sweet old lady who’s just happy to have a son who’s so good to her, only to reveal later that just because she hasn’t been asking Frank any questions doesn’t mean she hasn’t figured out some answers he hasn’t.

The other major player in “American Gangster,” of course, is Ridley Scott, and like his two stars, he meets expectations without exceeding them. He meticulously evokes the New York underbelly of yesteryear, against the turbulent political backdrop of the Vietnam War, interspersed with somewhat more generic scenes set in southeast Asia, the originating source of the hash that Frank markets so effectively. Apart from glimpses of the drug magnates’ obscene wealth, the movie’s narrative and visual turf is a landscape of poverty, grime, and corruption so deep-rooted that only someone like Richie would undertake the Sisyphean task of eradicating it. But because it’s Ridley Scott directing, there’s something perversely beautiful about the squalor depicted, notwithstanding the movie’s fixation with smack-laden needles penetrating scarred flesh.

In other respects, Scott generally refrains from glamorizing the allure of being at the top of a criminal chain: the other drug lords who openly flaunt their wealth look like tacky showmen next to Frank. However, Frank’s self-restraint ultimately leaves us with no understanding of the draw for him of the life he chose. It doesn’t feel like a compulsion, like it does with Richie; it feels like a considered decision. “American Gangster” could have been a greater film if it had tried to offer more insight into the motivating thoughts and emotions behind that decision. As it is, it’s merely watchable: it engages, but it doesn’t transport.