Friday, July 28, 2006

Two Ladies


Filmmaker Olivier Assayas' "Clean" is a powerfully understated masterpiece, evoking calibrated performances from Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte in a drama that could've fallen apart at any moment. Cheung plays a low level indie rock producer addicted to heroin. After the sudden overdose of her likewise mid-level rock star boyfriend (James Johnston), she's put in prison for possession and when she re-emerges, slowly attempts to piece her life back together, driven by the desire to make amends with her son who lives in Canada with his grandparents (Nolte). Assayas is a filmmaker who documents the mundane with fly-on-the-wall precision and Cheung carries the entire film, never straying far from the camera that seems perched on her beautiful shoulders. And though the plot mechanism seems like something just barely removed from a Lifetime channel entry (rehabilitation, child custody issues), the truth of "Clean" lies in the unexpected actions of Nolte, a man who understands the nobility of nuance acting. As grandfather and father, his quiet performance counteracts the energetic, nervy mannerisms of Cheung and their scenes together (especially the climactic one outside of a hotel) maximizes the falsity of so many other dramas dealing with the same issues. Assayas (a filmmaker of great authority at the young age of 42 with films such as "Irma Vep", "demonlover" and "Late August, Early September" under his belt) breathes vitality in every moment of "Clean". Just watch the ease with which he films Beatrice Dalle in a single take as she saunters around a pool table with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, or the care in which he rotates the camera lovingly around Cheung in the final studio recording scene- these scenes tempt me to compare Assayas with Godard in the 60's (something I never do). Both filmmakers are clearly imbued with the passion and vitality of femininity on screen, and their films reflect a calculated sense of time and place. With "Clean", the time is now and the place is the warm space of Maggie Cheung as she struggles to survive and redeem herself. Her redemption ranks as one of the more moving experiences in recent cinema.

Lady In the Water

Misunderstood? Poorly executed? Too fantastic to believe in these more hardened times of political corruption and Middle East turmoil? These are the slurs that could be thrown against M. Night Shyamalan's "bed time story" called "Lady In the Water". I don't think any of the above comments applies to his latest feature, a film that does require some suspension of disbelief in narrative, but winds through on such a moving and inventive note, that you have to give the director credit for slowly pushing his cinema away from the shock and awe of "The Sixth Sense" and migrating towards a more complex series of images and ideas. I think I'm one of the 5 people who thoroughly enjoyed Shyamalan's "The Village", a film so pointed in its political commentary of a society cutting itself off against the madness and instability of the modern world, that it could double as propaganda in less civilized times. "Lady In the Water" poses a different message- one of spiritual intervention and the need to forgive our past guilts and hang ups. Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti) is a superintendent in a sprawling apartment complex who begins to hear some one splashing in the pool one night. Upon inspection, he slips and falls into the pool, knocking himself unconscious. Upon waking, he sees a beautiful young girl (Dallas Bryce Howard) and the adventure begins. This is a film that requires that you believe in sea people known as 'narfs', giant grass dogs whose purpose is to kill the narfs and a giant eagle that will eventually come and try to save the narf. I'm not joking. All of this Grimm Fairy tale voodoo is presented in straight-forward fashion, and your degree of care about "Lady In the Water" depends on how much of the story you buy. I bought all of it. I respect Shyamalan for the numerous loopy ideas in play here. I admire him for slowing the tempo down a little, measuring certain scenes with a pace that gives cinematographer Christopher Doyle the opportunity to create some stirring images. And when the cathartic moment comes with Giamatti and Howard (in a scene that speaks on several levels about past and present)it's a tremendously bracing example of acting and emotion overtaking the flaws of the story. This is a film that will be called an artistic misfire (as audiences and critics alike are already doing) and that's a shame. It's too great for those shallow dismissals.

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