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.

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