Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Films Big and Small


Even though it was a direct-to-video release, garnering little mainstream theater time except for a few screenings at various "Frightfests" around the festival circuit, Christopher Smith's "Creep" is a film that rivals the reckless abandon of sanity that infests Rob Zombie's "House of 1,000 Corpses". Starring "Run Lola Run" sprinter Franka Potente, she plays Kay, a woman who is en route to (possibly) meet George Clooney at a party. After falling asleep and missing the last metro train on the London underground, she awakes to find herself locked in the massive subway system where something is slowly hunting her. Never mind the plot. Holes abound and the acting is uniformly average, but the film hits such a note of savage intensity that it spirals into an unbelievably demented story of torture and scientific experiments run amuck beneath the concrete. This is not for the squeamish. "Creep" is a horror film that deserves its place on the midnight circuit festivals. It deserves long standing and newfound support on video. And director Christopher Smith certainly has the visual chops for bigger and better things. The atmosphere is photographically ripe- full of green fluorescents and ominous blacks. The editing is sharp, creating unusually genuine scares from quick cuts and Smith's knack for utilizing the darkness around the edges of the screen. And Potente delivers on the heroine in peril character, having fun running around in ripped stockings, being the bait for men both monstrous and normal. And through all the sickening plot twists, "Creep" maintains a sense of humor that, ultimately, collides into a finale that subtly resonates a social conscience.


Steven Speilberg's "Munich" is a thrilling, tightly constructed drama that finally delivers on his promise of intellectual cinema without the falter of maudlin sentiment in the final third act. So much of Speilberg's oeuvre in the last five years (with the exception of "Minority Report" in 2002) grips you so wonderfully in the beginning with high expectations of kinetic ideas and energy, then gradually unravels as emotions and forced happy endings take place. With "Munich", that does not happen. The final five minutes of this film are as devoid of optimism as the first five. Avner (Eric Bana) is spiritually and psychologically bankrupt. There are no clear winners. And like so many other films this year, "Munich" is a film about repressed violence slowly re-incarnating itself in various other forms. A masterpiece.

Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man" continues his long progression of documentary oddities- films that portray marginal figures in society butted against social and political impasses. This time, the subject is Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent 13 seasons in the Alaskan wildlife living and befriending grizzly bears. That is, until they ate him. Treadwell is an ingratiating character, and Herzog presents him in many forms and fashions; allowing him to spit virulent slanders towards the Parks department one minute then crying over the carcass of a dead fox the next. On the right afternoon, "Grizzly Man" could easily pass as a broad comedy (especially when a coroner and one of Treadwell's female friends woodenly act out the trading of his personal belongings, and the same coroner later tells his improvised vision of what he thought really happened with wide-eyed wonderment) and Herzog's holier-than-thou voice over lends the tale even more comedic credence. It's not that I'm being unfair to the film. Perhaps Herzog wants us to take things lightly due to the exaggerated premise of the film. If this were meant as pure drama, the film wouldn't be as fascinating.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Oil and more


Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan as a bustling and diligently plotted mosaic of oil moguls, CIA operatives, lawyers and Middle Eastern pawns, "Syriana" is an energetic and exhaustive effort that ranks as one of the most exhilarating films of the year. Much like his previous screenwriting effort, "Traffic", Gaghan juggles time, space and a myriad of characters as they rotate and bounce around the solidifying idea of securing (and profiting from) the world's precious oil expenditures in the Middle East. Much has been made of "Syriana's" complex structure and obfuscated motives of the film's dozen or so main characters. Honestly, that's part of the film's greatness. I found it alluring to connect the dots between Jeffrey Wright's judicial turn as a lawyer (working for who knows) and the Sheik brothers (Alexander Siddig), people connected with most of the film's economic matters. Even more promising is the storyline that follows Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) as an energy consultant who finds himself inadvertently allied with the Sheik after his son is killed in an accident at the Sheik's palace. If that doesn't satisfy, you have George Clooney portraying a CIA operative who performs shadow missions in the Middle East and soon finds himself closed off and hung out to dry by the very people who sent him on his cloak-and-dagger assignments. His arch is the most defined in the film, ultimately transforming him into the film's patriotic conscience…. and the closest thing to the film's hero. Clearly, Clooney's role is there to appease the action starved fanatics who might stroll into the film expecting an old fashioned intrigue 'actioner', but even his performance and the arch of his character is interesting. Plus he gets to spout off nice snippets of dialogue such as "Guilty until investigated? Has the ring of being written as it's said." Another of the film's plotlines traces the progression of a young Islamic man (Mazhar Munir) from despondent, unemployed worker to suicide bomber fairly quickly (which has always been Gaghan's shortcoming as a screenwriter… paraphrasing his characters' lifestyle choices in a very clipped fashion) but actor Munir makes the most of it, effectively capturing the futility of one's dead-end status as well as the confusion that faith and obligation lend to that futility. Not completely successful in storytelling- two scenes involving William Hurt beg the question that there was more left on the cutting room floor- Gaghan straddles the uneasy line between entertainment and political commentary, but it's still a fascinating film that generates genuine tension in mood, sound, editing and ideas. I loved it.


Reaching back into the faults (jeez, is 2003 really that far back?), I finally tracked down a copy of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Doppelganger". Beginning as a creepy psychological horror and ending up closer to an Abbott and Costello comedy, the film stars Koji Yakusho ("Shall We Dance?", "The Eel") as a scientist who begins to see his (evil?) double. From the outset, Yakusho is working on a robotic breakthrough that will give paralyzed people the ability to telepathically control the 'arms' and 'fingers' of this robot so they can crack an egg or light a cigarette. When his project hits a stone wall, he begins to see himself in public places. Is this his imagination or has he really met his double? Kurosawa doesn't waste time in establishing the dual nature of his character. Everything is played with a straight face. Yakusho eventually accepts his double and begins to live with it, allowing the double to, literally, wreck his career and force him to hit the road with an assistant and the sister of a man who died after coming in contact with his double early in the film. Of course, Yakusho's double is everything he isn't in real life (please, no mentions of "Fight Club" are warranted.) The title of the film is a mask not only for its central plot, but for the film's overall schematic. Wildly erratic in tone, Kuroawa has made two films here; one plagued by eerie, slow moving pans in the beginning and the second full of humor and casual violence as it winds towards a completely absurdist finale. This is a world where, when the unwanted double shows up towards the end of the film, Yakusho's assistant gently picks up a hammer and utters "you want me to get rid of him?" This is certainly the funniest of Kurosawa's films, adeptly wavering between genre and mood with the precision and countenance of a master filmmaker.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

DVD mania

Happy Endings

Even though "The Opposite of Sex" was a smart, cynical comedy, nothing could prepare one for the sustained enjoyment and precise characterizations conjured up in "Happy Endings", the third film from writer-director Don Roos. Taking its cue from the sprawling multi-character pieces of Altman and P.T. Anderson (and yes, it's set in Los Angeles where a series of interconnected people zig-zag through life, love and guilt), don't let this discredit the originality and warmth of Roos' script. It's a post-modern sprawling, multi-character piece, where the audience is privy to the action on the screen as well occasionally being littered with text on the side of the image that explains a moment in the scene or gives us a glimpse into the character's future. This sounds glib, or perhaps even artificial. I mean, really, do we need a film to be so self-reflexive that we are burdened with image and text? Has Godard maneuvered into mainstream Hollywood that quickly? But it works… and it works well. It's not an artificial gimmick because Roos builds enough emotion around his characters that we desire to know more than the film's 128 minute running time allows. Perhaps the most moving example of this is a scene in which Maggie Gyllenhaal (as sexy and confident as ever) is lying in bed with her new found lover (a charismatic and terrifically cast Tom Arnold!). The image moves to a small box in the corner of the screen as their tryst continues and the text reads "He will have sex with just 2 more women after Jude. In the last week of his life, a nurse will remind him of Jude and she will think his smiles are for her." I can't think of any recent film that elaborated so succinctly (and poetically) on the invisible tangents that are ignored in most films. Ninety-nine percent of all films don't care what happens to its characters once they supply the necessary narrative drive. And to that point, we usually don't care either. But Roos has an affinity for his creations. He wants them to continue on outside of the linear script and he gives each one of them a past, present and future, whether it's shown on screen or not. "Happy Endings" is a remarkably touching film, formidably cast with a host of actors- Lisa Kudrow, Steve Coogan, Laura Dern, the aforementioned Gyllenhaal and Arnold, Jason Ritter and Jesse Bradford all give stand out performances. There isn’t a single wasted moment or feeling elicited from "Happy Endings". It's one of the very best films of the year. How in the hell did everyone miss it?

My Voyage To Italy

Martin Scorsese's "My Voyage To Italy" is probably the closest we'll ever come to an autobiographical screen representation of the director's magnificent career. Couple this with "A Personal Journey Through American Movies", and you have eight hours of documented images that seared a deep impression on the filmmaker in his formative years. Culling images from the films of Rossellini, Fellini, De Sica and Antonioni, Scorsese compulsively works his way through the narratives and subversive feelings of many of the Italian neo-realism masterpieces. It's not hard to glean where a majority of Scorsese's cinematic tropes have come from. Watching him explain the obvious joys of Federico Fellini's "I, Vitelloni", one quickly understands where the wrestling of faith, flesh and community in "Mean Streets" comes from. And even deeper than that, he gives us glimpses at a single camera move within the same Fellini masterpiece that, basically, shaped and defined every tracking shot Scorsese himself ever attempted. I can think of any other straight forward "documentary" that would give us quite as much insight into the creative mind of a working artist with as much sincerity and eloquence as Scorsese does in "My Voyage To Italy".

9 Songs

Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs" charts the romance of an amorous couple in between concert footage of 9 songs (get it). And when I say amorous, I should say pornographic. Winterbottom's cast (male Kirean O' Brien and female Margo Stilley) bare it all for the camera. Ejaculation, full frontal nudity, oral sex and penetration….and did I mention drugs and rock and roll? I'm sure that's the point of Winterbottom's erotic exercise, but what impresses most are the small moments between his lead actors. During the sex scenes, they have the magnetisism of a true pornographic couple, which is to say it's non-existent. But when Winterbottom frames them out of bed, eating dinner, talking shit to each other, or teasing with little dances, their personalities arise and we sorta care about the arch of their relationship. I never thought I'd say this, but "9 Songs" would've work better without the hardcore sex.

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

Chan Wookpark's "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance" does live up to the hype that I've been hearing about for two long years now. Not quite as emotionally gripping or uncomfortably perverse as "Oldboy", there's still an aura of brilliance that hovers throughout this first film in Park's revenge trilogy. Played out in a precise rhythm of cuts and sounds, the film tracks the ultimately violent decisions an unemployed deaf/mute factory worker makes in the hopes of gaining an organ transplant for his dying sister. Enlisting the aid of his revolutionary-minded girlfriend, they decide to kidnap the factory manager's daughter and blackmail him. Of course, tragedy strikes and the four main characters are forced to stumble through a series of bloody confrontations. I have to admit, even though the film is not as strong in its emotional connection to its characters as Park's "Oldboy", "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance" is a strong visual masterpiece, relying on wordless stretches of images that cast a hallucinatory haze over the film. Certain narrative plot points are skipped outright (such as the entire kidnapping), and Park edits the film in a manner that culminates in an amazingly poignant finale. Chan Wook Park is one of the best directors working today and his oeuvre is yet another reason why Korean cinema contains some of the most vibrant and revelatory moments in international film.