Archive for August 2003

Wheel of Time

August 29, 2003

Even if you don’t count the Dalai Lama (and you should), there are two amazing people in Werner Herzog’s documentary Wheel of Time. One is a monk who made a 3,000-mile pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, the place in India where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. The monk travelled by foot, prostrating all the way. All told, it took him three and a half years. Three and a half years, y’all. The other amazing person is a Tibetan Buddhist who has recently been released from prison after 37 years. Every time he spoke the words “Free Tibet,” more years were tacked onto his sentence.

Herzog’s becalmed yet electrifying film is about the Kalachakra rituals of 2002, wherein Buddhist monks are initiated. The first takes place in India, where hundreds of thousands of the faithful gather. Herzog’s main theme is obsession, and his camera certainly catches the devotional aspects of the many rituals — the prayers, the mass feeding, and especially the painstaking creation of a sand mandala which will eventually be scattered, signifying the impermanence of physical things. The Dalai Lama is too ill to participate in many of these proceedings, though he does turn up and promise to engage in another Kalachakra in Austria later that year.

Everywhere you look in the frame there are astonishing faces; one is reminded of why Eisenstein went overboard in Mexico, shooting reams of footage. But Herzog keeps Wheel of Time to a trim 80 minutes, holding the camera on various meditating pilgrims just long enough to let us share in their serenity. The mandala sequences (the creation is duplicated in Austria) are jaw-dropping, showing an ancient craft requiring almost inhuman intricacy and patience. You may feel a little pang of regret when you see the Dalai Lama wipe out the mandala as per the ritual, but that’s just your Western attachment talking. The beauty of the mandala is to be appreciated all the more for being impermanent. The same goes for life.

We also spend time with pilgrims who trek around the base of Mount Kalish for three days, a trip that is said to erase the bad karma of one’s current life and pave the way for good future lives. Thankfully, Herzog doesn’t try to pull a boat up Mount Kalish, but we realize that his Fitzcarraldo madness and the rigor of monks who set out to do 100,000 prostrations over six weeks come from the same impulse to transcend the mundane and touch the divine.

Herzog, you’ll recall, is the guy who not too long ago was actually shot while giving an interview and shrugged it off (“It was not a significant bullet”). One look in his eyes and you know he’s not like you or anyone else. (The same could absolutely be said of his longtime star Klaus Kinski, which explains why they hated/loved/needed each other.) In Wheel of Time you look in the eyes of the Dalai Lama, or the monk who prostrated his way across 3,000 miles or the Tibetan who kept insisting on freedom in the face of imprisonment forever, and they’re not anything like you either. Their serenity and capacity for joy, even after their lifelong struggles and hardship, shame the rest of us who agonize over such small, small things. This is yet another Herzog trip into the extreme. Forget Jackass and skateboard stunts — this is the real thing. The Dalai Lama takes his unlikely yet oddly fitting place next to Kinski, Timothy Treadwell, Dieter Dengler, and all the other fascinating species in the Herzog menagerie.

Marci X

August 22, 2003

Marci X is the kind of terrible movie I’m almost glad I’ve seen, because this decade probably won’t bring a worse movie than this. Lisa Kudrow must also be glad that it’s finally come out (after something like two years on the shelf), so that she can deal with it and move on with her life; she may have been dreading the film’s inevitable release the way a failing student dreads a report card. Marci X ties with Almost Heroes as the worst movie featuring a Friends cast member, and the saddest part is that Kudrow is the best actor on the show (rent The Opposite of Sex if you don’t believe me). This is an entirely laughless comedy written by, of all people, Paul Rudnick (In & Out, the Addams Family movies), who usually knows what’s funny; he sure as hell forgot while writing this one.

Kudrow is Marci Feld, a Jewish-American Princess whose dad (director Richard Benjamin) owns a rap label that’s just put out a raunchy, “controversial” new album by the smooth gangsta rapper Dr. S (Damon Wayans). A conservative senator (Christine Baranski) condemns the album, which features such gentle ditties as “The Power in My Pants.” The resultant hubbub hospitalizes Marci’s father with a bad case of stress; Marci takes over and tries to convince Dr. S to apologize or at least clean up his image. Combative at first, the white Jewish darling and the black playa learn to respect each other and even fall in love.

Rudnick approaches this story as a farce ungrounded in any reality known on Earth. The narrative beats in which Marci and Dr. S warm to each other are completely fake — ironic for a movie that keeps talking about “being real.” When Dr. S forces Marci to rap in front of a hostile club audience, she stumbles at first but then improvises a hip-hop number called “The Power in My Purse,” and everyone in the house goes nuts over it. I don’t think so. When Cameron Diaz did this sort of thing in Charlie’s Angels, giggling through her geeky white dance moves on Soul Train, we bought it because we, as well as the primarily black people in the club, got caught up in her sincere joy at being up there. No such luck with Kudrow, who looks faintly embarrassed.

The movie shows affection for pampered Jewish women — Marci’s three debutante friends (Jane Krakowski, Veanne Cox and Sherie Rene Scott) are mildly amusing, a sort of Huey, Dewey and Louie Greek chorus supporting Marci. But Rudnick doesn’t have the same instinct for hip-hop culture — he seems to base his satire on stuff he’s seen on entertainment TV shows. A sequence lampooning the P. Diddy/J.Lo gunplay-in-the-club incident falls flat, and most of the black characters are cartoons seen from the outside (whereas the cartoonish Jews at least come from Rudnick’s own firsthand observation, one assumes — look at his long-running “Libby Gelman-Waxner” columns in Premiere magazine, for instance). Marci X is too airheaded to be truly racist; it’s just clueless.

An interesting comedy could’ve been made about the unlikely parallels between the baubles of rich Jews and the bling-bling hip-hop culture, and there is a quick scene in which Marci and Dr. S rather bitchily compare furs and jewelry. That bit shows Rudnick in his element — a generous satirist commenting on surfaces — but the rest of the movie feels like padding; even a meant-to-be-wicked sequence recasting a boy band (here called Boys R Us) as wholesome gay boys misses the mark. (Rudnick, who’s gay, must’ve been wanting to parody crypto-queer boy bands for ages and finally saw his chance here, but couldn’t he have made it funnier?) As for Kudrow, she’ll bounce back from this, if she remembers to stay away from “high-concept” comedies.

Freddy Vs. Jason

August 15, 2003

Freddy Vs. Jason is the ultimate high-concept millennial junk, but that’s what’s good about it. This long-awaited showdown between two ’80s slasher-movie icons — Jason Voorhees, of the Friday the 13th series, and Freddy Krueger, of the Nightmare on Elm Street saga (it never occurred to me before, but the killers both have Eurotrash names) — is just about perfect for what it is.

Generally bad acting: check.
Imaginative killings: check.
Gratuitous nudity: check.
Bad dialogue and nonsensical plot: check and check.

If you grew up loving the guilty-pleasure horror movies of the ’80s, Freddy Vs. Jason will feel like home to you. I have a massive soft spot for such movies, and to fans like me, this is like Ali vs. Foreman.

In Freddy’s old stomping grounds, the township has banded together to make sure everyone forgets his reign of dream-terror; fear gives him power, and years of neglect have weakened him. Freddy hits upon the idea of bringing Jason back from the dead so he can control the hulking hockey-masked psycho and send him to Elm Street. Once Jason gets there, he warms up by dropping in on a post-coital idiot and literally folding him in half. The survivors of Jason’s first attack — including Monica Keena, Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child, and Katharine Isabelle (of the excellent Canadian werewolf film Ginger Snaps) — figure out pretty quickly that they’re in a Freddy Vs. Jason movie, especially when Freddy begins gaining strength and dominating their dreams.

As a horror fan, I have misgivings about Kane Hodder (who wore the hockey mask in the last few Friday the 13th films, including Jason X) being bumped aside here in favor of Ken Kirzinger; in truth, though, Jason requires little aside from heavy-footed stalking and machete-wielding. Nobody else, however, could or should play Freddy except Robert Englund, and he weighs in with his usual gleefully sadistic leering; Englund takes such pleasure in Freddy’s antics that he makes the razor-fingered killer almost lovable (he wasn’t always, though; look at the original Nightmare again and you may be surprised at how straight — and ugly — Englund plays it).

The kids, with the exception of the always-welcome Katharine Isabelle (who brings something fresh and ironic to her tomboyish, chain-smoking character), are more or less psycho fodder. The writers could’ve had more fun with the formula, which demands that the virginal girl prevail; Monica Keena’s Lori is as dull as most of the other heroic virgins in these films. Compare her with the strapping Heather Langenkamp or Adrienne King (from the original Nightmare and Friday, respectively); are young actors not getting enough protein these days? Isabelle is the only performer who shows a future beyond horror, as Johnny Depp and Kevin Bacon showed in their roles in the first Nightmare and Friday. Then again, the movie is called Freddy Vs. Jason, not Scared Kids Trying Not to Go to Sleep.

The whole movie is just preparation for the main event, in which Freddy and Jason square off, first in Jason’s dreamworld (where Freddy has the upper hand), then in the real world of Camp Crystal Lake (where Freddy is physically weaker). Director Ronny Yu, whose previous films include the inventive Bride of Chucky and The Bride with White Hair, gives the fans what they paid to see and then some; the horror icons fling each other around, hack and slash without restraint, lop off limbs that regenerate as in a video game. Watching this stuff, I was about as completely satisfied as I’ve ever been at the movies. The movie will win no awards and impress few critics who didn’t grow up in the ’70s and ’80s, and some of the expository material is flat-footed and awful, but this is Freddy Vs. Jason, man. It’s a cleverly wrapped gift to me and every horror fan like me, and I feel nothing but affection for it.

Passionada

August 15, 2003

Celia Amonte (Sofia Milos), the part-time fadista in the romance Passionada, stands in front of a clunky old microphone in a seafood restaurant and pours out her mourning in song. Her husband, a New Bedford fisherman, was lost at sea eight years ago, and she still pines for him. Though we don’t really sense anything special between them in flashbacks aside from the usual clichéd frisking about on the beach, we believe in the full-bodied intensity of emotion in her voice (actually the voice of renowned fadista Mísia). Fado music, a sort of Portuguese version of blues music, speaks of unquenchable longing, a fate of resigned sorrow. The sound of it puts the rest of this rather thin movie to shame.

Is this an independent film? The distinction becomes less clear every year. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the indie success of the new century, was at heart so comforting that no one was very surprised when it became a sitcom. Passionada, perhaps being groomed as this year’s Greek Wedding, could be the pilot episode for a TV comedy-drama about Celia, her spunky motorcycle-riding daughter Vicky (Emmy Rossum), her sage old mother-in-law (Lupe Ontiveros), and the dubious love of Celia’s life, card-counter Charles Beck (Jason Isaacs), who falls hard for Celia’s singing and passes himself off as a rich fish-processing magnate to woo her.

Jason Isaacs, a last-minute replacement for another actor, is obviously relieved to cast off his usual skunky roles (The Patriot, Peter Pan) and test the uncharted waters of a romantic lead. He’s quite winning when babbling charming nonsense to Celia, who seems to regard Charles with disdain. I don’t know whether Sofia Milos is built for romance, though — at least not with the material she has to work with here (by screenwriter brothers Jim and Steve Jermanok). Mostly she exudes an imperious sense of proud inaccessibility bordering on arrogance: Impatiently, we may urge her to stop clinging to her dead husband’s bones and crack a smile every so often. Unfortunately, the script, by way of matchmaker Vicky and the wise mother-in-law, tells her that, too. Passionada becomes yet another seize-the-day odd-couple fable.

The movie was filmed in and around the heavily Portuguese city of New Bedford, and cinematographer Claudio Rocha brings out the rich hues of dusk and the lurid colors of the Feast, but the milieu feels generically “ethnic” and only marginally Portuguese. The most intriguing characters in the film, of whom we learn almost nothing, are Charles’ rich friends with a shady past of scamming, played by Seymour Cassel and Theresa Russell (both in superb form). When Celia sees Charles in a car with the Russell character, she assumes the worst and dumps him, and Russell goes to Celia to talk things out; it’s typical of the movie that there’s a fade-out and we don’t hear what’s said between the two.

Passionada originally ended with Charles getting his ass flattened by some Russian thugs (in connection with his gambling, I guess) and going into a coma while Celia frets over the possibility of yet another lost love. The ending was radically reworked into the cutesy, happy denouement we get now, which throws off the story’s structure (why the ominous scene of Charles getting nailed at a casino for card-counting — which sets us up to expect that it’ll be his eventual downfall — if there’s now no follow-through?) and goes against the soul of fado. This once might have been a bluesy, bitter movie about love’s ephemeral pains and bliss. What it is now is a by-the-numbers opposites-attract romance in which every dramatic beat and life lesson comes on schedule. As for passion, Tobey Maguire showed more of it towards Seabiscuit.

American Splendor

August 15, 2003

Those of us who’ve been reading American Splendor for the past few decades (I’ve been a fan for about fifteen years) may consider Harvey Pekar a friend even if we’ve never met him. Pekar, who until recent years was a file clerk at a Cleveland VA hospital (he’s retired now), wrote the autobiographical American Splendor comic book as an alternative to the unrealistic, power-fantasy domination of superhero comics; the artists who have given flesh to his stories over the years range from the underground-comix godhead R. Crumb (a friend of Pekar’s from way back) to relative whippersnappers like Alison Bechdel (Dykes to Watch Out For) and Chester Brown (I Never Liked You).

Pekar’s style is usually anecdotal — he’s like a street-corner stand-up comedian regaling you about this nutty guy he knows or this weird shit that happened to him. He makes entire stories out of losing his glasses or making lemonade. He also, with the help of wife Joyce Brabner and artist Frank Stack, turned his early-’90s ordeal with cancer (not his last bout with it, sadly) into the spiky, unflattering, and almost unbearably real graphic novel Our Cancer Year. Pekar had turned his laser-like focus on mundane, everyday events for so long that when he used the same technique on the daily grind of chemo and sweating out test results, the result was devastating.

The movie American Splendor limits Pekar’s cancer to the last act or so, and sweeps through it mainly in a montage of panels drawn from Our Cancer Year. In effect, the graphic novel is literally adapted to film — there it is, Pekar’s words and Frank Stack’s art, right there on the screen. American Splendor is a highly unconventional movie that, given its source material, could hardly have been told any other way. There have been so many different Harveys over the years, as depicted by myriad cartoonists and even portrayed in stage adaptations of the comic, that it makes sense for the movie to offer us at least four more Harveys. There’s the real Harvey, filmed as he records his narration for the film, and seeming pragmatically disinterested in the script. There’s a version of Harvey as a boy, in a brilliant device (little Harvey on Halloween, dressed as himself, trick-or-treating alongside various kids dressed as superheroes) that establishes his stubborn resistance to doing whatever everyone else is doing to get the goodies. There’s a scene re-enacting one of the stage productions of American Splendor, with Donal Logue and Molly Shannon amusingly miscast as Harvey and Joyce. And in the audience watching this stage adaptation is Paul Giamatti, who plays the “movie” version of Harvey.

It works like a charm. The movie is as unclassifiable as the comic — neither documentary nor biopic, or maybe both; in any case, its own ornery critter. Giamatti-as-Harvey shleps from event to event, remaining the same prickly persona whether interacting with nerdy coworker Toby (Judah Friedlander) or with nerdy talk-show host David Letterman. (Pekar and Andy Kaufman have more than just Letterman notoriety in common, I’ve always thought.) Coming off of his third marriage, which failed in part because of a vocal nodule that prevented him from talking to his new wife, Harvey approaches a fourth possibility — comics fan and writer Joyce Brabner, played here by Hope Davis in exactly the role that suits her odd, neurotic rhythms best — with equal parts hope and trepidation. He does just about everything he can to deromanticize himself for Joyce upon their first meeting; Joyce isn’t into romance either, and thus begins a union that will last for the better part of two decades and counting.

Harvey and Joyce are not the usual beautiful people falling in love beautifully. By movie standards they are quite an unconventional couple; by the yardstick of our own experience they’re refreshingly credible. Hope Davis enters the movie belatedly, bringing much-needed friction with her; Giamatti plays various levels of exasperation off of her. Their first kiss is an awkward disaster, and they pick and kvetch at each other once they’re married, but because of all this (not despite it all) we believe in their love. An artist herself, Joyce uses her creativity to help Harvey’s writing career, such as when she whips up a Harvey Pekar doll for Harvey to use as a promo while appearing on Letterman. The movie doesn’t really have time to get into their shared politics — “strident leftist,” as described by Harvey — though it touches on them a little.

Giamatti doesn’t quite attempt a Pekar impersonation (hilariously, Pekar’s narration plays over Giamatti slumping down the street: “He don’t look anything like me, but whatever”), which would have been disastrous in a movie where we often see the real thing. He gets the pugnacious-intellectual soul of Harvey as seen in the comics, as if he’d internalized all the stories and carved everything off of himself that wasn’t Harvey. (A thinning hairpiece and a stooping walk is about all he does physically to suggest Pekar, yet he looks entirely different here than he has in any other role I’ve seen him in.) Most of the movie is deadpan comedy, linking itself tonally with other indie-comix films like Crumb and Ghost World. But when the narrative takes its turn towards cancer, Giamatti and Davis have a nicely subdued moment on the steps outside the doctor’s office — “Who’ll take care of you if I’m gone?” he nearly sobs — and an equally fine moment when the phone rings with good news and the mood is less exultant than just a quiet sigh of relief.

Events are necessarily foreshortened in the film — this might’ve been even better as a 10-episode cable series (HBO Films produced it) — and the late-inning introduction of Harvey and Joyce’s adopted daughter Danielle feels a little tacked on, if only because that story seems to demand its own movie. Still, I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this entertainingly fractured multi-portrait. After seeing the movie, I went back and read some of the early issues of American Splendor, in which the younger Harvey is alone and bitter and afraid of dying alone and obscure. I had to smile, remembering the final images of the movie, with Harvey beaming and surrounded by family and friends, up there on the big screen. It’s the one part of the movie that doesn’t quite hew to the hard-scrabble, pessimistic, resigned-to-a-flunky-life tone of the comics, but it has my full permission to do so.

Le Divorce

August 8, 2003

“They have no savoir-vivre,” says a French woman about the two American heroines of Le Divorce — ironic, given that we’ve watched a fair amount of bad manners from French men. I think what the woman means is that American women who get involved with French guys have no idea what they’re getting into — even if they think they do — and when the inevitable happens, they react like … well, Americans.

At the start of Le Divorce, Isabel (Kate Hudson) arrives in Paris to visit her older sister Roxy (Naomi Watts), a poet who’s married to French artist Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud) and expecting their second child. Isabel hardly has time to say hi to Charles-Henri before he’s out the door, zooming off in the very taxi she arrived in. He’s leaving Roxy for some (married) Russian woman. Roxy covers for him (“He’s going to the country”), but can’t keep it from Isabel for long.

Le Divorce, advertised as a comedy, is more of a semi-serious study of two sisters and two families. Kate Hudson, in probably the best role she’s had in a while, provides the bubbles in this champagne; Naomi Watts, tense and thickening with child, grounds the movie in heartache. When Isabel takes up with a married politician (Thierry Lhermitte) who’s also a member of Charles-Henri’s clan, it’s as if she’s acting out revenge on her sister’s behalf; she goes into the affair almost ironically, enacting the clichéd tryst with a married Frenchman, but she’s not prepared for the feelings she develops towards him. She’s also not prepared for Matthew Modine, who stomps into the picture on a wave of jealousy as the husband of the Russian woman Charles-Henri is seeing. The French women observe all this and sigh and shrug. Americans — they know nothing of love. C’est la vie.

Director James Ivory frames the story (from a Diane Johnson novel) as a mixture of fluff and inquiry. We probably spend too much time on a subplot involving a La Tour painting, though it allows for welcome, relaxed comic relief from Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing as the sisters’ parents, as well as the underused Bebe Neuwirth as a museum buyer with her eye on the art (her auction competitor is Stephen Fry — nice to see him, too). Isabel takes a position assisting an American writer, who turns out to be Glenn Close looking elegant in long gray hair and, in one scene, blue-tinted little spectacles. Close’s character takes one look at the pricey red Kelly purse Isabel is sporting and knows who gave it to her; she got one too, some years back.

The movie is least successful when it tips from semi-serious to too-serious. A suicide attempt is jarring and makes us look askance at the character afterward, and it’s too easily recovered from and forgotten. A climactic bit in which the furious Modine stalks Isabel all the way up the Eiffel Tower feels like an outtake from a tepid Hitchcock homage. But, this being a Paris-set movie, there’s always something to look at, and Hudson and Watts, though perhaps cast a bit too on-the-nose (Kate gets to be frisky and cute, Naomi does her torment-held-barely-in-check thing as becomingly as usual), add some flavor and texture to the soap opera. They may lack savoir-vivre, but they bring some American feux d’artifice to the party.

The Magdalene Sisters

August 1, 2003

Any movie denounced by the Vatican probably has at least that going for it, but The Magdalene Sisters — which sheds light on a particularly shameful part of the Catholic Church’s history — has much more to recommend it than simple irreverence. Until fairly recently, the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland ran the Magdalene Asylums, essentially slave-labor prisons for “wayward” girls. To qualify as wayward, you might have a child out of wedlock, or be raped by your cousin and watch your family turn its back on you, or simply be seen talking to boys too much at the orphanage. Those are the “sins” committed by the three lead characters: Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), the rape victim; Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), the orphan; and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), who not only loses her newborn son but, upon arrival at Magdalene, her name. (There’s already a Rose there, so she’s called by her communion name Patricia.)

Miramax is selling this as a triumph-of-the-human-spirit wedge of cheese, but it’s a much tougher piece of work than that. Writer/director Peter Mullan, an actor making his second feature (he appears here as the viciously unforgiving father of a girl who has attempted escape), delivers a sobering drama with drab gray colors and symmetrical compositions right out of a Kubrick film; this is The Shawshank Redemption without the inspirational muck that always mars that film for me. There’s very little redemption here, only suffering, humiliation, and the desperate need for escape. The prisoners here, after all, have done nothing much wrong except being female. To color even slightly outside the line of good-girlhood is to invite expulsion from the family and a hard cot at the asylum.

The Magdalene girls are required to work long hours every day of the year; the three protagonists toil in the laundry. As punishment for various infractions, the girls are beaten or have their heads shaved or, ultimately, are sent to a real asylum to be doped into submission. Even when the nuns who run the show are trying to have a little fun, there’s the spectre of sadism, as in the bizarre scene where a group of the girls stand naked while two nuns bestow “awards” for the biggest breasts, hairiest bush, etc. And you definitely don’t want to get on the bad side of Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), a corrupt harridan who relishes the torment of her charges and justifies it all as the necessary penance of sinners.

Our heroines are not always heroic. Bernadette, for instance, is a sullen and rather callous girl who’s probably had the hardest life of the three. She has a late-inning scene with an elderly asylum co-worker that might force some viewers to break their identification with her; but we see that kindness doesn’t come easily to Bernadette, who may see her harshness as a hostile act of mercy. Another inmate, the psychologically fragile Crispina (Eileen Walsh in the film’s standout performance), goes steadily downhill after the aforementioned humiliating “awards ceremony.” Crispina’s arc is the film’s most helplessly tragic, sealing the movie with the most haunting image of desolation this year. She, too, is realistically drawn as an unstable and childish girl who isn’t equipped to survive the rigors of Magdalene (which include sexual abuse by a priest).

The Magdalene Sisters gives one of its heroines an almost absurdly matter-of-fact release from bondage, as if to say that all it takes is one person on the outside (preferably male) to redeem you and rescue you, and heaven help the rest of the girls who don’t have one. The other two make such a loud botch of their eventual escape that, oddly, it feels credible — more so than a carefully planned Hollywood escape would have been. We get the feeling that Sister Bridget just watches them go, thinking to herself, Good riddance. The movie ends happily for these three, but the movie is set in the mid-’60s, and a title at the end informs us that the Magdalene Asylums were in business until 1996, detaining more than 30,000 women before their last door was closed. This is a riveting piece of drama about a forgotten slice of history, no matter what the esteemed movie critics at the Vatican say about it.


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