I intended to take a couple months off, not go to many new releases (really... typically how bad is January and February?) and catch up on some other things I've been putting off, such as concentrating on work and knock out a few books on the shelf. Then I go and catch 5 films in a couple weeks. I guess that's the movie fanatic in me that I'll never shake. It's a nice problem to have, though.
James Gray's "Two Lovers" is an abrupt change-of-pace from his three previous films that deal in the communal ties of family and loyalty within the milieu of New York crime and political corruption. But it's a very nice change-of-pace, and one that continues to cement my appreciation for Gray's sharp eye and ear. Brooklyn man Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), lives with his parents after some hints of emotional problems and finds himself involved with two very different women- straight laced, traditional Jewish girl Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) and fast-and-free wild blond girl Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow in a great performance). Like a good auterist, all the common themes of his previous films are present and the narrative is loose and observational, working in delicate moments of family interaction that give his work a dramatic weight (such as one terrifically unexpected scene between mother and son). In this emo-love story, Gray gives ponderous authority to every phone call and turns the image of a woman walking down an alley into a nightmarish mixture of angst and shadowy anxiety. It's nice to see Gray flip the script and stretch out in unexpected ways. A very good film.
Steven Soderbergh's "Che" is an intellectualized look at revolutionary 'guerrilla' Che Guevara both in scope and visual schematics. Foregoing any close-up shots and documenting everything in medium or long shot- which seems to be a conscious choice given the film's demanding attention to Che and his political ideals of Communism and group unity- "Che" attempts to overload us with mundane details in both parts. And that's the problem with the film. Part One, which deals with Che's partnership and fighting in Cuba alongside Fidel Castro, is certainly the more striking of the two films. There's an immediacy to the violence that's shocking, positioning the camera in just the right spot to allow the viewer to understand the logistics of the action (something that is sorely missing in most of today's cut-a-second action moments). It'd be invigorating to see what Soderbergh could do with a full on World War 2 film. But, Part One is undercut by a general lack of motivation. Where did Che get such strong feelings for revolution? He obviously cares about his position as a doctor and healing people... what made him turn against that profession and become the de facto case for guerrilla violence? In his attempt to drain the emotions out of the story, Soderbergh has crafted a tale that leaves one scratching their heads. Part Two, in my opinion, suffers even more in abstract ideology than Part One. Now attempting to transpose his successful coup in Bolivia years later, the film dissects Che's mission as an inverted mirror. Everything that went right in Cuba shatters to pieces in Bolivia. Weak morale, sickness, undisciplined soldiers- it all comes unhinged before our eyes as Soderbergh furiously maps out every detail of this group. We see the soldiers talk about strategy... we observe them walk from village to village... we get glimpses of the inner turmoil amongst the soldiers... and there are obscure references to USA (i.e. CIA) support. As a case in tedious deconstruction of a guerrilla movement, I suppose Soderbergh achieved what he was after. To me, Part Two wears out its welcome long before history runs it course- simply because the purpose and motivation inherently absent in Part One comes home to roost in Part Two. Why should I care about any of this? I commend Soderbergh for his efforts, but it's hard to take this dry (and largely sanitized) version of a warmonger seriously.
I'm A Cyborg, But That's Ok
I really, really love Chan Wook Park. And even the masters lapse into an occasional mis-step. "I'm a Cyborg, But That's Ok" is just that. Visually impeccable (full of carefully orchestrated lateral pans, jumbled action bouncing around all edges of the frame, and a peppermint visual strategy at times), Park's latest puts us inside a mental institution with a girl (Su-jeong Lim) who falls in love with fellow patient Rain (Park ll-sun). Being locked inside this setting with these characters who pace around, scream, talk to vending machines and harbor fantastic visions that don't exist has its moments of whimsicality, but it soon turns maddening. The girl, who believes she's a cyborg sent to Earth as a warrior, gets some visual mileage as she imagines herself running rampant through the hospital and Park is obviously having fun after the dread and doom of his Vengeance trilogy, yet I never connected with the film' smorgasbord pop imagery or shrill characters. Major disappointment.
And the surprise of my early movie-going year has to be Tom Tykwer's "The International". Smart in most instances and stylish enough to put most recent thrillers to shame, it's also a timely affair that raises the idea of one shadow bank rising up to support and engender violence around the world. It doesn't always work (see my next review) but foreign directors often bring a fresh eye to the true and tried genre film, and German Tykwer certainly does that here, patiently allowing scenes to play out before cutting and staging one expertly imagined shoot-out in the Guggenheim museum. And everything else, including the plot and acting by Clive Owen, Naomi Watts and Armin Mueller-Stahl, are first rate. Pretty much anyone who reads this blog understands my penchant for 70's thrillers, and "The International" mixes just the right touch of subtle intrigue and tense mise-en-scene to fully announce itself as a throwback to those great pieces of cinema. Also, the manner in which Tykwer continually dwarfs the actors against architecture strikes at the heart of something much deeper than the plot. It's a nice aesthetic that mimics the film's sinister underbelly of corporate control and Illuminati-like conspiracy theories.
Pierre Morel's "Taken" starts off badly and never really recovers. For the first 30 minutes, Luc Besson's script is seemingly tone-deaf, culling some mythical Britney Spears-like atmosphere in which a twenty-something actress plays a 17 year old girl who wears dresses and sneakers and goes crazy for a pony as a birthday present. Then we get the pop-singer with a heart of gold attacked by a stalker with a knife backstage, saved by bad-ass Liam Neeson to show-off what the film spends the next 100 minutes elaborating upon. Instead of serving as character building, these horribly contrived scenes are alienating. Then "Taken" subjects us to numerous eye-racking fights and car crashes edited within an inch of their life, whizzing by without a sense of space or movement. It's fun to see Liam Neeson kick ass and take names, but little else.