I’ve gone through a period of time where I saw a bunch of movies and read a bunch of books that were worth seeing, but weren’t really eventful or noteworthy enough to spur me to write about them at length. So I thought I’d, at least, give little scattershot capsules, just to keep my hand in, as it were.
There are two sensational books I hope to review eventually, but I want to reread them, and they’re both inches thick – ‘The Pritchett Century’, a collection of essays, travel writing and short stories by the singularly engaging and fascinating V.S. Pritchett, and ‘Little, Big’ by John Crowley, a seemingly bottomless rustic American novel of magical realist splendor that first attracted me because it’s one of Harold Bloom’s favorite novels. It’s unbelievably eloquent, dense and wonderful.
But movies today:
Zero Effect (1998) is a mid-nineties shaggy-dog thriller featuring the always reliable and workmanlike Bill Pullman as an independently wealthy Howard Hughes / Sherlock Holmes-ish recluse. He shuns most cases offered to him, using a sardonic Ben Stiller (there’s a stretch) as his agent to weed out the dross – the blackmail case Pullman (Daryl Zero) does choose to take on surprises even Stiller. How Zero engages, or avoids, the elements of the case and characters thereof (Ryan O’Neal, Kim Dickens) is pleasantly diverting, and worth the time, but it won’t really stick to your ribs or give you a lot to think about afterwards. First film from Jake Kasdan, Lawrence’s boy. It’s fun, it’s original, it has a following of sorts. Mildly recommended.
Indochine (1992) is a big French epic in the David Lean mold. Francis Ford Coppola tried to address French colonial history in Vietnam in the Aurore Clement scenes in ‘Apocalypse Now Redux’ (they were cut entirely in the original release). This is an impressive survey of the events as viewed through the life of a single rubber plantation, from the thirties through the fifties, run by the imperious but passionate Eliane Devries (Catherine Deneuve, parading her smarts and formidable acting chops – Americans don’t get the chance to see a lot of that, but she’s a pro). There’s romance in the triangle that develops between Eliane, the always impressive Vincent Perez (‘Queen Margot’ is a must-see), and Eliane’s adopted Indochinese daughter Camille. The French colonials practiced a socialist / capitalist business ethic, and how that world eroded at the onset of Chinese communism, for the employers and the ‘employed’, figures substantially as well. At 2-1/2 hours, it’s a little long, a little dry, but well worth seeing for a glimpse of international social history that Americans are generally unfamiliar with. And it’s gorgeous. Recommended.
Once (2006) is a small and involving film about an Irish musician, songwriter and busker, played by Irish musician, songwriter and busker Glen Hansard. Lots of well-shot eye-level Steadicam gives the early episodes a nice urban grittiness; you get a great sense of Dublin as a truly international melting pot of artists, hustlers, and working-class craftspeople. The friendship that develops between Hansard and Marketa Irglova is the main thrust of the film, and there’s a nice unrushed rhythm that accommodates their differences while making their affinity for each other entirely believable. Much less of a love story than the 2006 Oscar-baiting would lead you to believe, it’s still a deeply felt relationship that’s easy to identify with. Hansard’s music is terrific, and I’d wager most working musicians would find the studio recording episodes as realistic and fascinating as the average filmgoer is bound to. Geoff Minogue gives a so-good-you-don’t notice performance as the laconic studio engineer whose slowly-earned admiration for the music parallels our own. Highly recommended.
Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas) (2000) did pretty fair business on the art house circuit here years ago. It’s a terrific caper movie. The set-up is pretty standard, but smartly executed in the best genre tradition. A seasoned con man (Marcos, played by Ricardo Darin) spies an enterprising but awkward young hustler, and recruits him for an elaborate swindle involving the sale of a forged sheet of priceless stamps, which ends up taking place at the luxury hotel managed by Marcos’ no-nonsense sister Valeria. Is the beginner (Gaston Pauls) sacrificial dead meat, or will he somehow turn the tables? Is Valeria being used and abused by the cranky and arrogant Marcos, or does she have her own angle on the deal? Can Marcos pull this off in the face of incessant setbacks and deliver a fabulous payday to his associates, willing and unwilling? Fabian Belinsky directs his Argentinean thriller of constantly intertwining events with a great sense of rhythm and humor, while keeping the gravity and danger of the crime credible. The David Mamet comparisons are inevitable, but I don’t think Mamet’s films, admirable as they are, have as much of an undercurrent of malicious fun as this one does. Recommended.
Little Children (2006) joins the ongoing line of examinations of the soft white underbelly, the dark side, the unspoken existentialist whatever, of our attempts and (more often than not) failures to live, and live up to, The American Dream. The Kids, The House, The Suburbs, The Spouses, The Jobs, etc. It’s easy to point out the scenes that remind you of ‘Ice Storm’ here, ‘American Beauty’ there, ‘Far From Heaven’, ‘A Woman Under The Influence’ – you’ll find your own parallels, I’m sure. What sinks the movie, ultimately, is its inconsistency of tone – sometimes it’s a clever satire, sometimes a transplanted ‘Madame Bovary’, sometimes an actual horror movie, sometimes a not-very-original soap opera. But what’s compelling about it are the details – particular scenes, particular characters, a laugh-out-loud moment, a recoil-in-horror moment, a hot sweaty sex moment, the gamesmanship between spouses, between neighbors, between strangers trying to make a connection. Some scenes are truly unforgettable, truly brilliant, others mawkish failures of conception. The always interesting Todd Field (‘In The Bedroom’) brings real passion and inventiveness to the parts, but just can’t manage a cohesive whole from the scattershot great ideas. Don’t fault the performances, though – Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Hailey, Noah Emmerich, Phyllis Somerville, and Jane Adams are all superb, and I suspect Jennifer Connolly was given more to do than what actually made it past editing (it’s still over two hours…). Thomas Newman’s usual wonderful musical score figures as well. You’ll be glad you saw it, but you’ll be a little conflicted in passing along a recommendation.
Following (1998) was Christopher Nolan’s directorial debut, and lays some groundwork for the more ambitious and satisfying ‘Memento’. Jeremy Theobald has a somewhat sinister hobby of following strangers throughout the course of their day to vicariously learn about their lives, their tastes, and the other people and places in their lives. If discovered, he immediately disengages. He’s not one of those creeps, after all, is he? One of his subjects, Cobb, calls him out, and invites him along on a series of home invasions that whets his appetite for further exploration of his inclinations. He also starts a furtive relationship with an unnamed blonde woman whose association with Cobb pulls him even further into…what? Danger? Vicarious fun? Crime? Intrigue? Artfully shot in grainy black and white by Nolan, there’s a nice Guy Ritchie-like insouciance to the proceedings, and, at 70 minutes, the pace is addictively efficient. Like Fabian Belinsky, mentioned earlier, Nolan has a nice sense of how many twists are just enough. Recommended.
Curse Of The Golden Flower (2006) – Anyone who knows me knows I’m a complete junkie for lush Chinese epics like this. And nobody brings the pseudo-Shakespearean eye-candy goods like Zhang Yimou. This one is a feverish family saga from the Tang Dynasty (800-900 A.D.). Chow Yun Fat is Emperor Ping, who, now that his children are coming of age, has tired of his domineering, ambitious wife (Gong Li – gasp…), and has decided to slowly poison her out of his oh-so-imperious life. The sons, and potential successors, all have varying degrees of loyalty to emperor-father or empress-mother (who is fully aware that she’s being poisoned, and plans retribution), and these schemes and counterschemes are played out within a sumptuously extravagant and beautiful world. There’s a fair amount of action and spectacle, but, save for a few showcase scenes, there’s refreshingly little straight-up martial arts and wire work. It’s all about pageantry and passion. It can be tough going for western audiences – the film moves comparatively slowly, but it’s deep and rich, with a fair amount of other characters who are given ample time to develop within the larger story. It’s a tough call – I still think I liked ‘House Of Flying Daggers’ a little better – the opening ‘Peony Pavilion’ scenes may be among the most beautiful visuals ever committed to celluloid – but this film, as well, is like nothing else you’ll ever see Hollywood come up with. It’s ‘The Lion In Winter’ on purple microdot. Highly recommended.
Catch Me If You Can (2002) Look, let’s just stipulate that in terms of pure storytelling, Steven Spielberg is one of the greats. And this is a nice departure for him – his Stanley Donen homage, as it were. Well structured, well acted, funny and stylish, but Grown-Up, with a nice propulsive rhythm over a story that takes a number of years to tell. I’m similarly sold, as I’ve mentioned before, on Leonardo DiCaprio as a Real Live Actor. Genuinely experienced, genuinely talented, I’m falling into the agreeable habit of forgetting I’m watching him, and just following the character. But I have just a few issues. First, I suppose I see some wisdom in the strategy of just giving up on making any of it genuinely believable; Spielberg just focuses on the attitude and the audacity, which pays big dividends when Frank (DiCaprio) talks his way out of being busted by Tom Hanks for counterfeiting in a great early scene. But Spielberg owes Amy Adams big time for saving the otherwise completely slipshod hospital / dinner-with-the-folks episodes – Frank just isn’t remotely convincing in his doctor guise. Most other directors shouldn’t get away with narrative failures this big – twenty minutes of the film just treads water, but it looks and sounds great. My other complaint is it’s too damn long – nearly 2-1/2 hours. The problem is that Spielberg is so damned capable that whatever he decides he’s gonna shoot is probably going to work. So when an editor gets it at the end of shooting, he’s faced with the dilemma that, in Spielberg’s way, It All Works, one way or another. I’m not enough of a writer or an editor to volunteer suggestions on what could have gone, but some things just should have. There’s just enough of the great Christopher Walken, reliable as always, but we could have used a lot more Nathalie Baye and a few fewer flight attendants. Jennifer Garner nails her scene, but would anyone have missed it if it hadn’t been there at all? There’s a spectacularly entertaining 90 minute film here. I wish he’d made it. Offhandedly, begrudgingly recommended.