Archive for August 2004

Hero

August 27, 2004

heroZhang Yimou’s Hero shares with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon an artist’s-eye view of essentially pulpy material. The basic plot — a nameless warrior (Jet Li) favors a king with accounts of his prowess in battle — could have been (and probably has been) a springboard for any number of fast, cheesy martial-arts flicks emphasizing ass-kicking over substance. But Yimou, like Ang Lee before him, attends to the story’s deeper themes and draws out its rich potential as both cinema and poetry.

“Presented” in its Miramax release by Quentin Tarantino, who knows eye-popping Asian filmmaking when he sees it, Hero is the kind of movie in which the nameless protagonist, preparing to cross his sword with the spear of the legendary Sky (Donnie Yen), drops a few yen into an old koto master’s basket and asks him to play some more music. In another film, the point would be the warrior’s absolute cool in the face of combat. Here, it’s just part of the overall tapestry of beauty. What keeps Hero from lapsing into artsy solemnity is that the hushed and meditative views of nature are organic to the virtuoso action scenes.

The aforementioned Sky is one of three adversaries who have been threatening the life of the king (Chen Daoming) for a decade; the others are the calligrapher/assassin couple Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). The warrior has apparently vanquished them, earning the right to sit within twenty paces of the rather paranoid king. The story’s structure is odd by modern standards — all the action unfolds in flashbacks — yet will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Eastern literature, where men often sit around and tell stories. Hero is indebted on some level to Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon, which told the same story from four different viewpoints. The king, who is perhaps wise to be paranoid, suspects that there’s more to the story than the warrior lets on.

Hero is better experienced than discussed — and better seen two or more times. I saw it on an import DVD a month or so before its American release, and it’s a more ravishing and visceral movie the second time around, when you know the film’s tangle of loyalties and plots. Christopher Doyle’s sumptuous photography joins forces with the soothing music by Tan Dun (who also scored Crouching Tiger) to create a landscape of triumph and tragedy. In this heightened atmosphere, it’s perfectly acceptable when the warrior and Broken Sword skim lightly across a lake, sinking their swords into the water to keep themselves aloft, or when Flying Snow faces off against Broken Sword’s protegé Moon (Zhang Ziyi) in a forest dominated by yellow leaves that become weapons and, later, indicators of defeat. Hero is a classic tall tale, a fable told around the fire.

Jet Li certainly has presence as a martial-arts master, but when the camera moves in for a close-up, not a lot is going on; his impassive face looks like nothing so much as Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween, and he has a rather unfortunate speaking voice. He has been cast as the film’s stoic death-dealer, though, and most of the heavy-duty emoting is placed in the able hands of the actors Yimou has surrounded Li with. Cheung and Leung make fine godlike starcrossed lovers, and Zhang Ziyi, as in Crouching Tiger, is a vivid hellcat driven more by passion than by strategy. What, if anything, does the warrior feel about his mission? We’re given a backstory, which feels a bit rote, as if required by the classical plot. Hero, an eminently Chinese story, concerns itself more with mastery and honor than with the unpredictable urges of a few fallible humans. It deals most often in wordless poetry — lovers joined forever by steel; the mood-setting color scheme of each version of the tale — and lets us fill in the rest.

Exorcist: The Beginning

August 20, 2004

Going back to visit Father Merrin, the grim-faced priest played by Max von Sydow in 1973’s The Exorcist, in his younger days must have sounded like a good idea for a prequel. We would get to see the genesis of Merrin’s wary familiarity with Pazuzu, the troublesome demon who occupied Linda Blair and made pea-soup sales drop worldwide. The result as seen in theaters (I’ll explain that odd qualification in a minute) is like a slow-moving installment of the Mummy or Tomb Raider series, with the fortyish Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) poking around ancient ruins, stumbling across spooky sculptures, and encountering the most blatantly fake hyenas in the admittedly small history of fake movie hyenas.

Most of the movie feels nothing like an Exorcist film. There was an earlier version of this movie, directed by the brooding Paul Schrader, who delivered a cut reportedly short on action; Warner cast Schrader’s entire movie aside and hired Renny Harlin to start from scratch. Harlin can direct fun junk — I enjoyed The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea as well as his Nightmare on Elm Street chapter. But Exorcist: The Beginning is simply junk — ponderous junk. Straining for depth, it gives us a Merrin who has fallen from faith because of what he endured at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. Since Merrin here comes off as a bleary-eyed Indiana Jones, his Holocaust flashback scenes play as if Steven Spielberg had gone mad and edited bits of Schindler’s List into Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Merrin is hired by a saturnine Frenchman (Ben Cross, apparently having learned nothing from his own bad religious horror film, The Unholy) to explore an old church apparently buried out in the African desert. Weird things are happening around the dig: the aforementioned hyenas, plus diggers who have seizures and a clock whose pendulum stops when Merrin is in the room, just like in the original film. Do we learn anything new about the demon Pazuzu here? Not really; the plot redefines “convoluted,” involving a Vatican cover-up (these new religious-schlock movies are nothing without Vatican cover-ups) and a presumably possessed African boy.

I’ve yet to catch the Schrader version (Dominion) on DVD, but I’d guess it’s more thoughtful than the Harlin version and less dependent on cheap scares attended by loud stings on the soundtrack. William Friedkin’s original film got some mileage out of cheap shock cuts, too, but he knew how to distribute them sparingly, sprinkling them across an otherwise neutral and naturalistic narrative. Here, the movie is always groaning or rumbling ominously, never establishing any normality that the demon’s presence can violate. It’s like a feature-length remake of the Iraq prologue in the original, which was a provocative and haunting bit of filmmaking before we even knew what was going on or what connection it had to demonic activity. But, unlike that prologue, this film has no mystery. It turns out, too, that Father Merrin himself is a character best left shadowy. Poor Stellan Skarsgård tries hard to reproduce von Sydow’s wheezy gravitas, but he’s stuck enacting the script’s psychotherapy.

Eventually, this Exorcist gets around to some exorcism — first in a laughable African ritual which involves leeches (where do they find leeches out there in the desert? At the local tackle shop?), then in an extended action finale in which Merrin faces off against a possessed person with the ability to leap from wall to wall and bend into computer-generated pretzels (“Bring back the fake hyenas,” I almost said at this point). If Pazuzu can give a person the power to do all this (not to mention crucifying people upside down and other fun hobbies), how come he couldn’t do all that for Linda Blair, who was confined to her bed by a few knotted sheets? The climax comes off like the end of a particularly lame Buffy season finale, with bodies thrown all around and Merrin literally stopping the demon in its speedy tracks with a well-aimed cross. Lest you think that Merrin is not a man of intellect, he’s also armed with a book of exorcist stuff, or, according to the cover, “Roman Rituals, Reserved Blessings, Etc.” I adore the “Etc.” Exorcism rituals, recipes, baseball stats, etc.

Open Water

August 6, 2004

About the only thing holding Open Water back from being an indisputable masterpiece is the fact that it’s a 79-minute movie. It almost needs to be an experience — a thrill ride at a theme park, say, in which we are marooned in darkness and among hungry animals for 24 hours. If any movie could’ve benefited from being a real-time Andy Warhol experiment that runs for eight hours, Open Water might just be it. As it is — an abbreviated yet often harrowing fable of the utter insignificance of man and his digital trappings — the film is some kind of boiled-down classic, a survival piece that goes Cast Away one better, lacking even the comforting stability of land.

You’ve probably heard the synopsis: A yuppie couple, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), go scuba-diving on vacation and are left behind by the boat. Left behind — those words, even more than the curious sharks and the nonchalantly stinging jellyfish, turn our blood to ice. It’s been said that even those who live thousands of miles away from the ocean were terrified by Jaws, because (so the theory goes) we evolved into land-walkers in order to get away from those aquatic things with teeth, and we still carry a primal fear of sea predators in our cells. Add to this the childhood fear of being abandoned — forgotten, disregarded, as if we never existed. Open Water is no novelty film like The Blair Witch Project; the film’s director, Chris Kentis, resents the perhaps inevitable comparisons, and rightly so. Open Water does, and does brilliantly and economically, everything Blair Witch fumbled.

Like many horror films, this is not a nice one. Blame for the affluent white couple’s lamentable situation, if you felt like nitpicking the film’s stereotypes, could be distributed evenly among a squeamish Asian woman who can’t handle the dive, the pushy Jew who borrows her mask so he can dive, and the careless black guide who gets the head count wrong. Ultimately, though, the blame falls on Susan and Daniel for presuming to be masters of their domain, even when hopelessly out of their element. Marooned at sea, the couple respond with eminent realism: disbelief followed by dismay followed by despair. This is not an environment that these two, formerly ensconced in a universe of laptops and cell phones, can hope to master, much less survive. Open Water will send control freaks into paroxysms of anxiety: The miles of ocean beneath you and around you don’t care who you are. You are a molecule, you are driftwood, you are amusement for sharks.

The acting at the very beginning is somewhat blank, I assume by design. Susan and Daniel are your typical eternally distracted drones, digitally attached to their jobs. Susan in particular is plagued by calls from the office, even when readying for departure; how much she would give to have an annoying cell phone a day or so later. The yuppies yearn for a temporary escape from civilization, and get it with a vengeance. Daniel at one point lets out the essential yuppie howl at the injustice of his fate: not “Why us?”, not “God, help us!”, but “We paid to do this!” In context the line is horrifyingly funny, trumping by far the various outbursts of frustration in Blair Witch.

As the movie proceeds, the characters are stripped down to their basics, and Ryan and Travis do a heroic job of submitting to the unforgiving elements. These whitebread breadwinners are reduced to their skins and nerve endings, buffeted about by weather, casually bumped by sharks who seem to regard our protagonists as too inconsequential to bother eating — just yet. Far from being a minimalist rewrite of Jaws, Open Water taps into the current fear of being impersonally destroyed by unseen forces that don’t care if we live or die. It also touches our experiences in other, less direct ways: Susan and Daniel could just as well be sitting in a hospital’s waiting room, dreading bad news.

Sooner or later we all face the cold knowledge that the universe doesn’t really take notice of us, that the bodies we worry about so much are subject to invasion by cancer, heart disease, or any number of other things that don’t care how well our jobs are going or what our dreams are. Open Water does what all classic horror does: it makes us stare death in the face and recognize the face as our own.

Collateral

August 6, 2004

collateralVincent (Tom Cruise) is a well-dressed man with a scruff of gray beard and short gray hair. By his looks and demeanor, he could be a hip, scornful corporate attorney, but if we’ve seen the ads we know he’s not. Vincent climbs into the cab of Max (Jamie Foxx), who has been hacking for twelve years but still entertains the fantasy of owning a limo service. Collateral, perhaps Michael Mann’s best film since Manhunter, is about the collision between a soulful dreamer and a soulless man of action. Vincent, whose line of work as an assassin is revealed soon enough, taunts Max about his unrealized dreams. Maybe he’s trying to get Max to show some spark, some will to live, or maybe he’s trying to justify killing a witness to murder whose life isn’t going anywhere.

Like most of Mann’s films, Collateral has cool to burn: Vincent is like a sleek gray bullet ricocheting around the streets of L.A., killing with neither malice nor reflection. He has a job to do; he does it. The casting of Tom Cruise, Hollywood’s number-one Type A personality, in the role of a callous sociopath is a stroke of malign wit. At several points in the movie, Vincent bowls over all obstacles — people, furniture — to get to his prey, and Cruise makes you believe in Vincent’s unholy focus. Putting him up against Jamie Foxx’s resigned cabbie, who keeps his vehicle spotless but persists in thinking of his job as a temporary gig, allows for a strange and subtle dynamic. Collateral is less a dead-cool thriller than a bluesy, melancholy character study.

Stuart Beattie’s script defines the men by their tastes and values. Max listens to old-school soul; Vincent prefers improvisational jazz, but if there’s a less improvisational character in movies than Vincent, I’d like to hear about it. “He likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun,” sang Kurt Cobain, “but he don’t know what it means.” Nor does he care; Vincent goes with the moment insofar as he doesn’t waste time on the past, but every move he makes seems utterly mapped out. This feels right for a professional killer, and Vincent’s yearning for unstructured music humanizes him somewhat, shows us a pocket of his life where he feels loose. The movie pauses so that a jazz-club owner can regale Vincent and Max with an anecdote about the surly Miles Davis, and it’s one of the few times Cruise permits himself his famous smile.

Collateral is neatly cast, even in walk-through roles filled by Jason Statham or Javier Bardem, and Beattie writes some teasing dialogue between Max and a comely fare played by Jada Pinkett Smith. We know she’ll turn up again at some point in the movie, but we don’t know how, and her re-entry feels a bit movie-ish. Then again, so does the whole story, which lingers on moods and tensions but almost skims over the action sequences, as if Mann agreed with Vincent that they were necessary tasks that should be handled without fuss. Mann seems to have outgrown the empty posturing of films like Heat; he gives us iconic characters here, but then burrows inside them.

I don’t think Collateral is the masterpiece a lot of critics are selling it as — it’s a little too smitten with its own L.A. mood. Still, it’s a welcome change-of-pace dramatic thriller, in which the formerly too-emphatic director hints at depth rather than insisting on it. The movie goes down smooth and easy, and should make a star out of Jamie Foxx, the true anchor of the film. Cruise gets to be a violently proficient bad-ass, but Foxx has the harder role, a decent man who speaks and acts in defense of humanity. He does it without piety; his Max just wants to get through the day without incident, and thinks everyone else should, too. Vincent has a colder view of the universe and where he fits into it, and his fate is as appropriate as it is haunting. You get the sense that he finally knows exactly what it means.


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