Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dogville (2003)

Dogville’s theatrical, minimalist approach (reminiscent of the stage directions typically employed for performances of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town) is appropriate: a stage bare but for minor decorations and chalk outlines of the buildings, streets and other objects which the actors pantomime interaction with reflects the thematic overtones of exposing the corruption and bigotry that lurk behind closed doors and everyday surfaces. The audience and, more knowingly, the film’s all-seeing narrator (a wonderfully employed John Hurt), see through this everyday façade, and presenting it as a literal reality to which its occupants are seemingly blind to makes its frontal approach all the more poignant. Post-9/11 America continued to profess tolerance and acceptance of minorities and outsides, but the truth was more aggressive and unforgiving (and, much like the film, became more stated and frank as time progressed). Fear was exploited, both knowingly and inadvertently, to create hatred, and while Dogville quite obviously alludes to American culture in a number of ways, to classify it as nothing more than an anti-American tirade is, to quote directly from the film, “condescending.” In the end, the film paints its barbarous implications on all parties with equal viciousness.

On the run from gangsters but never completely open about why they were in pursuit of her in the first place, Grace (Nicole Kidman) stumbles upon the lowly town of Dogville, a decrepit community of scarcely two dozen nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Urged by the liberal minded writer-to-be Tom (Paul Bettany), Grace ultimately wins over the town despite their reservations and fears, offering her labor and heart as compensation for their protection. (progressively larger spoilers herein) The film (divided into nine acts, also alluding to its theatrical debts) begins to exhibit its undoubtedly allegorical nature when progressing circumstances see the town withdrawing from their initial support of Grace, who quite rapidly becomes demonized and, quite literally, enslaved by a town that doesn’t like its downfalls being pointed out so effortlessly. Grace stands in for the elite powers that think it just to forgive sinners by means of the former half of the nature vs. nurture argument, although her own patience and graciousness erodes when she realizes that she could never excuse herself had she committed the acts she herself had been forced to endure. Hatred and destruction are answered with hatred and destruction; Dogville condemns not just the shortsightedness of one nation under God gone awry, but all who cave in to violence, intolerance, and prurient interests in the face of hardships. The film is its own illustration, an extreme example framed as such to point out our frailties. If the end credits suggest anything, it is that even after the most heinous of actions, sympathy and redemption are still very much a possibility.

Miami Vice (2006)

Miami Vice is one of the great stylistic triumphs of recent years, a quality that is sure to earn it just as many – if not more – detractors than supporters. First things first: any relationship to the 80’s television series of the same name is as incidental as the shared names of conservative parents who have disowned their radical offspring. Names, locations and some slight nods aside, this Miami Vice is a being all its own, like a prolonged episode of Cops, under the influence, and incredibly in tune to the emotions and textures of its characters and their lives. While not unlike Heat’s existential deconstruction of the cops and robbers relationship, Miami Vice assumes a less epic stance, opted for a more fluid narrative that savors each moments rather than indulging in the trends of the crime genre that wore out their welcome long ago. Vice packs a wallop, albeit of the techno and rhythm type, the ethereal beauty of the nighttime Miami cityscape providing a stunning contrast to Farrell and Foxx’s silent, knowing gazes while the sights and sounds intertwine to create a sensual ambiance. More than anything, the film is aware of the performance-driven nature of its characters’ line of undercover work, their personal and professional duties often clashing both silently and violently. Mann’s aesthetic is certainly no travel brochure for the city, but it contains an almost alien beauty nonetheless. When the film finally rolls around to a big shoot-out, the technical approach has been so effectively stripped down that the gritty gunshots and ricochets – more like something out of an 80’s exploitation film, when gunshots still had personality – are more enthralling than any souped up Michael Bay film can ever hope to be.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lenny (1974)

Thankfully abandoning the traditional three-act structure that plagues so many entries of the biography genre (by means of stripping down the nuances and insights of its figure of interest so as to fit them into a tidy, crowd-pleasing form), Bob Fosse’s inquisitive Lenny never quite takes flight, although its continuous takeoff efforts are savory enough in their own right. Rather than packing the turbulent life of Lenny Bruce into traditional narrative form, Lenny opts for a pseudo documentary approach, recreating key moments of his life, interspersed amongst retrospective “interviews” conducted with the cast members (posing as their real-life counterparts) and Hoffman’s onstage performances as the deceased comic. Lenny Bruce’s onstage antics typically involved the use of language and sexual imagery (tame by today’s standards, but horrifically obscene at the time) as a means of satirizing and commenting on American society and culture, his aim being to enlighten his audience on the injustices of the world and the power of knowledge and honesty in writing such downfalls. His means to seeking the truth earned him equal doses of fame and followers as well as copious amounts of legal trouble (those inspired by him include George Carlin and Bill Hicks, among many others), his use of swear words often landing him in court for obscenity. In many ways, Lenny feels incomplete, never really pinpointing the deeper aspects of its characters’ motivations or beliefs, although it’s not for lack of trying, particularly on the part of Dustin Hoffman’s bravura performance. But, in regards to its celebrity figures’ boundary-pushing humor, the film certainly does justice in attempting to deconstruct it so wholeheartedly. Few scenes in the film work better than a handful of extended takes of Bruce’s comedy act, calmly observing his thoughts and words as they unfold like a carefully controlled torrent of pathos and insight up on the stage.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

In the Mood for Love (2000)

In the Mood for Love is a film of hallways, doors, mirrors and archways; these are the architectural structures that simultaneously make up and constrict our lives, and it is within this plethora of oppressive frameworks that its two main characters must vie for their right to exist as free beings of choice and emotion. They are Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), two neighbors who slowly realize that they’ve both been shunned by their spouses, who are routinely away at the same times, their betrayal always felt but never seen. The unfaithful remain permanently off-screen while the damaged seek comfort for their shared pain in the presence of one another. Vowing to not be like their adulterous partners, they bind emotionally but merely skirt around each other physically, their feelings like a boiling liquid vying to escape its enclosed container. Wong Kar-Wai isolates these characters from the rest of the world much in the way their emotions have them utterly unto themselves; any interaction with others is almost purely routine, their shared presence but lack of tangible connection making up the film’s ravishing soul. Mind you, however, the visual constructs made up by the film’s maze-like attentiveness to architectural detail is a far cry from the generic “broken mirrors” and “rails as prison bars” metaphors. The presence of these elements is both passive and completely saturating; take them away, and these characters would exist in but an empty space. Paired with the seductively tantalizing soundtrack, In the Mood for Love takes on the status as a poetic mosaic of sight, sound, and bodily language, both literally and figuratively timeless as it unfolds with an aching sense of restraint. I think it worth mentioning that the film's ravishing construct sent my body into alternating fits of chills, helpless aesthetic delirium, and absolute breathlessness. The unfulfilled desire is as tender and pulsating as life itself, and it’s ravishing, voluptuously artistic dance suggests the mounting ecstasy of sex freed from the clumsiness of the physical.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

It doesn’t take much experience to recognize the pitch-perfect lampooning of the modern biography genre on display in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which apes the clichés and conventions of its declared genre in the name of self-aware ridiculousness of the SNL brand. Unfortunately, this re-teaming of the creative minds behind Anchorman runs parallel to the material it mocks for its own good, failing to give Ferrell and company the free range necessary for them to get their improvised comedy kick up to full gear. Instead, it follows the beaten path with but the faintest shades of difference – a few tweaks and a character change, and this could be Ray or Walk the Line. Sure, that’s largely the point, but knowingly subversive imitation doesn’t last forever in the laughs department, and while Ferrell (largely channeling his hilarious George W. Bush impersonation) certainly makes the most of his part (a self-obsessed NASCAR driver whose celebrity and familial status is threatened by the emergence of an up-and-coming French driver), the film seems to forget that his funniest moments are often sporadic and unscripted: Talladega Nights restricts his skills by adhering them to a more stringent script. Some golden moments shine through, however: a frantic scene that slyly combines elements of both Murderball and Young Frankenstein provides possibly the biggest laughs, along with an uproariously sardonic take on the traditional "motivational speech," delivered to perfection by Junebug’s Amy Adams. If the handful of alternate takes provided during the end credits are any indication, this is a case where the blooper reel would be funnier than the actual movie.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Basic Instinct (1992)

Forget all the controversy and ballyhooing: Basic Instinct is, in the words of the late, great Bill Hicks, a piece of shit. Rigidly and unimaginatively conforming to the archetype standards of the thriller genre, Verhoeven tries to add some unique flair by masquerading the whole things as a titillating piece of porn, and unsuccessfully at that. Michael Douglas is Nick Curran, a cop with a checkered past who can’t resist the opportunity to again go in over his head, this time when sexy novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) is suspected of killing her boyfriend in the same manner as is described in a book she wrote years ago (two words: ice pick). Much bare skin and fucking ensues, but for all the tension and sense of danger the film tries to instill, its X-rated elements (trimmed down repeatedly to earn the necessary R rating, thus denying its viewers the prurient elements they crave, substituting them with a case of blue balls) are particularly sterile and tame (yes, even the infamous “crotch” shot). Sharon Stone is the only cast member who seems to recognize the impossibly cheesy overtones to the script, playing up her ice queen role as if it were the wet dream manifestation of itself. Everyone else, filmmakers included, fail to play with or subvert the clichés they’re adhering to – they just turn up the volume. Nothing in the film, however, is more enraging than the final shot: a half-assed fade to black segment bisects the scene so as to allow for easy editing, depending on which way test audiences prefer the film to conclude. Trash like this needs a healthy dose of self-awareness.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Army of Shadows (1969)

Finally receiving a long-overdue release in the United States, the French classic Army of Shadows is a near-masterpiece at exhibiting the corrosive nature of war and political oppression upon the human mind and soul. Following the efforts of a small resistance organization formed in France during the Nazi occupation of World War II, the film observes with a detached, ethereal sterility the crushing spiritual oppression of this time in history, particularly exhibited by these individuals who give everything and more to an idea that has very little chance of manifesting within their own lifetimes. A sense of unity exists between the persecuted, many of whom have come together from all walks of life to stand up against the monstrous evil of the Third Reich; the practices of war, however, see that even the most good-hearted of people must often perform the most heinous of deeds if they are to keep themselves and their beliefs alive. They operate silently, deliberately, and with the utmost patience; this is the political thriller stripped of its glamorous intellectual overtones. The film is reminiscent of The Battle of Algiers in its capturing the processes of these dedicated insurgents, although Army of Darkness emerges darker in that it doesn’t (and can’t) follow through to witness any sort of victory. The magnificent opening shot sees a line of Nazi troops march before the L’Arc de Triomphe, ultimately turning towards the camera and encroaching menacingly upon the viewer. The frame seems to exist as a constrictive force against these freedom fighters, the steady camerawork reinforcing the rigidity of society and their inability to alter it. While certainly not meant to instill a sense of optimism towards the chances of the righteous underdog, Army of Shadows portrays with staggering authenticity the degrading effects that often accompany a determination to fight the good fight.

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004)

The more customary theme of man vs. nature takes a backseat to man’s internal moral conflict with himself, here manifested in the long-running antagonistic relationship between those who illegally poach the Tibetan antelope and the volunteer citizens of the Kekexili region who regularly risk their lives in an effort to protect the endangered animals. Largely inspired by real events of the 1990’s, the National Geographic-produced film presents its events as unfolding realities, the location shootings and unflourished camerawork suggesting no overt morality plays or intended fables. Many lingering shots posit the lone humans against the depth of the unforgiving wilderness, much like the underrated Wolf Creek (but without the blisteringly hellish overtones of impending doom); Mountain Patrol’s sense of natural fear grows steadily out of its unglamorous approach to the material. The team of protectors, dubbed the Mountain Patrol, are a ragtag team who sacrifice happiness to do what needs to be done, often without adequate funding or equipment, and even more so at the expense of their own safety. Despite some moments of horrific mortal terror (made all the more effective by the straightforward presentation), Mountain Patrol’s most permeating quality is one of human perspective, establishing its human players, both “good” and “bad,” as significant beings even despite their relative role as but dust in the wind. Ultimately, the film is an ode to the great sacrifices that often accompany the will to do the right thing.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Size matters in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which recreates the swashbuckling adventures of its predecessor in excess but forgets to take the necessary breathers between for more natural, less contrived fun. Plot was almost besides the point to 2003’s surprise hit The Curse of the Black Pearl, which so joyously mined the cheeky antics of the resurrected pirate genre and melded them with Johnny Depp’s most delectable showcase of over-acting for the rare case of a truly worthwhile mega-blockbuster. That film's chief flaw was its plot-heavy, overindulgent running time, a lopsided two-and-a-half-hours that could have easily been sharpened into a leaner and more energetic form. Dead Man’s Chest repeats this error by piling on the set pieces and subplots beyond the point of necessity or worth; the CGI might be impressive, but with the focus on such generally rudimentary developments, there’s no chance for the visuals to instill a lasting sense of wonder. Depp’s savory performance is a perfect extension of his previous, Oscar-nominated turn, although his own eagerness seems dimmed by the extra narrative baggage being lugged around this time; at times, his frantic bodily language is reminiscent of Buster Keaton’s silent pantomime. Captain Jack must pay a long-standing debt with his soul to the aquatic villain Davy Jones, while engaged William and Elizabeth are arrested for aiding the outlaw Jack in the past. With a plot that piles on the icing whilst forgetting the cake as well as a cliffhanger ending that will lead directly into the third installment (to be titled At World’s End, one can’t help but think that the movie would have been better described with the subtitle Reloaded.

Running Scared (2006)

Holy bejesus, where to begin? More aptly titled Grand Theft Auto: The Motion Picture (and even that is an affront to said game series' sly social commentary and satire), Running Scared is the kind of film that knows no limits, although that description is probably more empowering than I intend it to be. The disposable plot concerns a mob underling trying to recover a gun used to whack a crooked cop before it falls into the wrong hands, or something like that – once the movie begins, there’s little point in trying to discern anything for yourself, as the makers are more content to ram it down your throat with all the class of a raging alcoholic (for the record, expect self-declaratory hookers, pedophiles and "mack daddy pimps" along the way). It’s hard to decide what’s more ridiculous: some of the absurd elements the film tries to pass off as serious (an abusive father whose fuel for anger is a childhood obsession with John Wayne) or its lambasting visual style, the inconsistency and obtuseness of which suggests a kid using Photoshop for the first time, randomly inserting whatever CGI enhancement or camera trick looks cool at the moment. With its nonexistent personalities, an inexplicable obsession with the word “fuck,” splintered scenes seemingly constructed entirely in the editing room, and a complete disregard for the audiences’ intelligence or imagination, Running Scared is quite possibly the worst new release I’ve endured in almost three years.

I'm almost ashamed to admit, however, that at the height of the film's preposterous climax, I experienced one of those rare feelings of incredible illumination, a profound sense of heightened awareness washing over my senses in a moment of dawning awareness. For a fleeting instant, I felt intimately connected with the inevitable moment of my own death, the finality of life's end, the uncertainty of existence beyond the realm of the flesh. This has happened before; during one of Before Sunset's exquisitely intimate conversations, I felt an immense peace deep within, knowing that life would one day end and that everything would somehow be okay afterwards. With Richard Linklater's masterpiece, it was the result of the connection between the viewer and the work, an intangible product of art that unveils previously unknown feelings and gives life itself added meaning. With Running Scared, on the other hand, I quickly realized that it was merely indicative that the film itself had caused a little bit of me to die inside.