Archive for the ‘tspdt’ category

Million Dollar Baby

December 15, 2004

Over the past few years, I’ve said a few times that Clint Eastwood is in the Autumnal stage of his career — the period wherein his movies have started coming to grips with old age, loss, death. Million Dollar Baby, which a lot of people are convinced is his masterpiece, may be Eastwood’s most Autumnal work yet: gritty, dark, melancholy, on speaking terms with failure and regret. By now, Eastwood and his longstanding tight unit of collaborators are incapable of making a slipshod movie; this one is, as usual with Clint, measured and solid and expertly acted. But it left me cold nonetheless. Eastwood is attempting something major here, but the script isn’t complex enough to support it, and nobody here really does anything he or she hasn’t done before.

Consider the heroine, Maggie Fitzgerald, a poor but plucky Southern gal played by Hilary Swank at her pluckiest. Maggie, at 31, wants to be a boxer. She may not have the moves yet, but she has Heart, and, as a century of sports movies will tell you, Heart is all you need. Maggie comes from bona fide White Trash, characterized here with possibly the most blatant set of caricatures in any Eastwood-directed film since Sudden Impact. But Maggie herself is Good and Pure, with scarcely a flicker of ambition or greed clouding her path. She just wants to Be Someone. She just wants to Fight.

Eastwood, as creaky “cut man” and gym owner Frankie Dunn, just wants to Be Left Alone. Yes, Clint is the Irascible Old Coot Who Won’t Give Our Heroine a Chance. But Maggie keeps coming to the gym, and before long, Frankie’s old friend and gym janitor Scrap (Morgan Freeman) starts sneaking her lessons after hours. Oh, what a challenging role this is for Morgan Freeman, who gets to Be Wise and Keep His Own Counsel and Narrate the Movie. Scrap is an old softy, and, it turns out, so is Frankie, who eventually consents to train Maggie.

There is a Training Montage. There are Decisive Boxing Matches, most of which Maggie wins in the first round. There is Foreshadowing: Frankie has a thing about not taking risks with his fighters, because of Scrap’s own Sad Backstory involving the loss of sight in his right eye. There is even a Villain, in the person of dirty-fighting former prostitute Billie “The Blue Bear” (Lucia Rijker), this movie’s Mr. T to Maggie’s Rocky. Billie has a nasty habit of sucker-punching her opponents even after they’ve fallen to the canvas. We know, unless this is our first movie, that Maggie and Billie are due for a clash of the titans.

What we may not foresee is the Plot Twist, of which much has been made. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it. It certainly kicks Million Dollar Baby off its expected track, turning the movie into a lugubrious meditation on Life and the Meaning of Same. A priest is consulted. The movie’s already dark lighting scheme goes all the way into shadow. Eastwood holds melodrama at arm’s length with his usual leathery reserve, but it lurks in the movie’s corners. Maggie’s family is brought on for more jeering, accompanied by a Sleazy Lawyer. Eastwood may be trying for archetypes here, the way he did in Unforgiven, but in that movie (which I consider his true masterpiece) he dug around inside the archetypes, casting off the mythological cobwebs that had gathered around them. This movie replaces that with lazy screenwriting (based on stories by F.X. Toole, which I haven’t read); it’s as if scripter Paul Haggis took a hard left turn towards catastrophe because he didn’t know any other way to avoid a clichéd finale, but he just trades one cliché for another.

Million Dollar Baby is certainly a somber enough piece of work to explain all the accolades and awards. But, to paraphrase Frankie, somber ain’t enough. This is Eastwood’s weakest work in years, perhaps because it yokes itself to a hot-button theme instead of a story that resonates. I also think the movie might’ve been more touching with a cast of unknowns: The reason we were able to buy Sylvester Stallone as a broken-down, below-poverty-level contender in the first Rocky is that, at the time, that wasn’t far from his reality. Stallone also managed to write a denouement (if we forget about the sequels up until Rocky Balboa) in which failure and realism co-existed with triumph and a dream fulfilled. Here, we have rich Hollywood actors shuffling around in the gloom of expensively grimy sets, pretending they live there, and at the end, the characters have to pretend to make a hard choice, though, when you think about it later, the script leaves them no other choice.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

December 17, 2003

Last December, summing up my experiences to date in Middle-earth, I wrote that the first Lord of the Rings installment (The Fellowship of the Ring) had interested and entertained me, and The Two Towers had hooked me. The final chapter, I’m afraid, has lost me. The Return of the King is far from a turkey — for what it is, it’s as exquisitely crafted as its predecessors. Peter Jackson deserves respect and recognition (from the Academy or otherwise) just for having mounted this formidable project. But I suppose the problem, for me, in this finale must go back to the old wizard himself, J.R.R. Tolkien. This road goes ever on and on, and Tolkien liked it that way. Jackson, straining for fidelity, dramatizes a lot of stuff that feels like padding.

What can you say about an epic in which the biggest conflagrations, we’re repeatedly told, are just distractions to keep the eye of Sauron off of a hobbit? You may say, Wow, some distractions — Jackson rounds up what look like millions of combatants, on foot or astride horses or elephant-like beasts or winged nasties (sorry, I don’t care enough to look up the critters’ actual names), bashing each other for the better part of 90 minutes (with a good amount of cross-cutting to less testosteronal happenings). It’s safe to say the big screen hasn’t seen gigantism on this level since the glory days of Fritz Lang (who had to gather his masses without the aid of computers). But there’s just too damn much of it, as there’s too much of most everything else here. A lot of it is just hacking and slashing on a mammoth scale, which is still just hacking and slashing. If you’re happy with that sort of thing, ROTK has a ton of that sort of thing.

While all that’s going on, the weary hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Samwise (Sean Astin), accompanied by the duplicitous and conflicted Gollum (voice and modeling by Andy Serkis, who also plays the pre-Gollumized hobbit Smeagol in a prologue), trek up the hazardous face of Mount Doom, where they must dispose of the One Ring. Poor Samwise must fend off the ring-greedy Gollum while looking after Master Frodo; very little doubt is allowed to cloud his pure, stainless love for the frail ringbearer. Do we ever feel they’ll give up or be defeated? Is this the final three hours of a nine-hour cycle? Quest narratives like this are too predetermined to fool you for even a moment. The whole gargantuan thing is meant to test the fortitude of the heroes, the weakness of the villains, and the bladders of the audience.

Back in the fray, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) gets some supernatural warriors on his side with some fancy rhetoric and, mostly, his comically long (Jackson pans up the blade in priapic awe), newly reforged sword that proves he’s the top dog. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) sneaks into battle with Eowyn (Miranda Otto), while his buddy Pippin (Billy Boyd) hangs out with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and discusses the meaning of death. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) has exactly one crowd-pleasing moment, when he takes down one of those elephant things, but otherwise recedes into the background, a cipher firing arrows. The only actor who moved me was John Noble (who looks like a dissipated Terry Gilliam) as the mad Denethor, who has already lost one son (Boromir, in the first film) in battle and now thinks he has lost the other. Noble’s performance pushes against the heroic constraints of the epic; he’s allowed to be flawed, mad, human.

After much warfare (during which even the thrill of seeing men plucked up or batted aside, complete with their horses, by giant adversaries loses its novelty) and much pain and anguish on the path up Mount Doom, the journey reaches its end. The movie, however, continues forward for another twenty minutes or so, with reunions and marriage and tearful farewells and, for all we know, in the eventual extended edition on DVD, a dance number or two. The Return of the King reminded me why I got bored with Dungeons & Dragons after about age fourteen. When all was said and done, I was ready to re-enter the real world, go home to my DVD player, and pop in something raw, gritty, and short.

Kill Bill Vol. 1

October 10, 2003

Forget what you’ve heard, the good and the bad: Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill – Vol. 1, the geek master’s first movie in six years, neither reinvents the cinematic wheel nor reveals its author at a low point. It’s not a great movie — not the great movie Pulp Fiction was — but it’s great fun. Tarantino has assembled an adoring remix of everything he’s ever loved in movies on the theme of revenge: some spaghetti Westerns here (ever seen 1967’s God Forgives, I Don’t? You can bet QT has), some Asian standards there, mixed in with Truffaut (whose The Bride Wore Black informs Kill Bill more than a little, though Tarantino has denied seeing it; I doubt this) and nasty X-rated Swedish exploitation (They Call Her One-Eye, an influence on the heroine and one of her betrayers). I would’ve loved to have seen it all in one mammoth, glorious, three-hour-plus gulp (Miramax, imitating the heroine at the House of Blue Leaves, cleaved the film into two parts); as it is, Vol. 2 can’t get here fast enough.

Trembling and bloodied, Uma Thurman’s Bride (known by no other name in this volume; her real name is bleeped three times) chokes out four last words before Bill (David Carradine), the eponymous focus of her vengeance, blows her brains out. Well, almost. That’s the first shot of the movie, and we learn that the bullet knocked her into a four-year coma. She escapes an aborted bedside murder attempt by Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah, cold and mean as a knife here), one of Bill’s minions. “Don’t you ever wake up,” Elle snarls, but eventually the Bride does snap out of it; you know this is an exploitation picture because she has to kill two loutish rapists within five minutes of her resurrection. Willing her coma-stiffened legs to function, the Bride takes off, Death List in hand, and sets about her course of action: slashing through each of her former cohorts on Bill’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad — including Elle, the domesticized Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), and the fearsome O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) — before tracking down Bill.

Thurman spends most of her screen time seething with scarcely repressed homicidal rage, though she’s got a cheerier moment here when she poses as a bubbly American tourist who just happens to have stumbled into the sushi bar of retired-and-in-hiding master swordsman Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba, whose name Tarantino can now cross off his list of Movie Gods I Want to Put in My Movies). Hanzo fashions the Bride a sword sharp enough, one imagines, to slice the thoughts of air molecules. It slices, all right; in the designed-to-be-legendary Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves, it drenches the floor, ceiling, and walls in hissing, gushing arterial spray as the Bride carves her way through O-Ren’s cadre of assassins (the Crazy 88s) as though they were soft ice cream.

Kill Bill is a temple of worship — a devout hymn of praise to crap cinema (which isn’t always crappy). Tarantino, a generous filmmaker if ever there was one, pelts us with stylistic jabs as well as flying body parts. O-Ren’s origin story, for instance, is told as a spectacularly gory anime cartoon, and that’s pretty much what you’re watching all along. The movie, though, retains Tarantino’s preference for long breezes of rhetoric (though shortened somewhat and honed to a point here — most of the wordiness here is on the part of those hoping to avoid the Bride’s wrath) as well as quiet, still moments. Tarantino, who’s seen everything and knows how it works, isn’t trying to subvert anything this time out. His goal, it’s clear, is to make the ultimate revenge movie with the ultimate sword battle scene.

The latter might well occur in Vol. 1, but never fear, more impressive stuff is on tap for Vol. 2 (from what I remember of the script, which, like many, I’ve read online). Tarantino ends this first part with a line from Bill obviously intended to get people to come back for the second part (effectively giving away a surprise that had originally been saved for the saga’s last act), but it’s hardly necessary. You want to see what happens next with the Bride — not whether she gets her revenge, but how, and what toll it may take on enemies and innocents alike. I’ll miss Lucy Liu as O-Ren, smugly cocooned in her stature and acumen, and Chiaki Kuriyama as O-Ren’s psychotic bodyguard Go-Go Yubari; but we have more Daryl Hannah coming up, and more Michael Madsen (barely glimpsed here) as Budd, the team’s only male Viper; and we’ll get to meet Bill and see for ourselves whether we — and the Bride — still want him dead.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

December 18, 2002

Even though I was lost through some of it, I liked The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers better than its predecessor, The Fellowship of the Ring. As the middle section of what is really one long story (or one long nine-hour movie), it doesn’t bother setting anything up — it assumes you’ve seen the first one — and just plunges in. Whereas Fellowship gave us the sunlit complacency of the Shire darkening into grim duty, Two Towers begins on a note of near-disaster — a dream of the standoff between the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the fearsome Balrog — and mostly keeps its jaws clenched in readiness for hopeless battle. The theme of this Act Two is good warriors standing tall in the face of odds that could hardly suck worse.

If that sounds like a downer, it isn’t; Peter Jackson, delivering the second of his three Christmas gifts to J.R.R. Tolkien fans worldwide, comes most alive during the scenes of peril and evil, of which there are enough here for a year’s worth of movies. One could conceivably enjoy The Two Towers knowing very little of its conflicts or interspecies politics; it can be processed as pure cinema, and forget about the plotlines, which in any event are unavoidably way stations to The Return of the King. We do spend a great deal of the movie watching characters prepare for things that won’t happen in the movie; even the big-bang sequence, the battle at Helm’s Deep, is but a minor skirmish in the grand scheme of things.

A good deal of the dawdling is fun. The fearful comic-relief hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) find themselves hanging on a massive walking and talking tree — an Ent, really, a sort of plant elemental that watches over the green. These Ents talk slowly and arrive at decisions even more slowly; Jackson seems to be tweaking the ponderousness of most epics. Meanwhile, the human warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) tries to get the woefully unprepared kingdom of Rohan ready for legions of merciless Uruk-hai sent by the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee); and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), bearer of Tolkien’s mystical McGuffin the One Ring, and his loyal friend Samwise (Sean Astin) slouch towards Mordor to dispose of the thing, accompanied by the wretched Gollum.

Most of the hype surrounding Two Towers has centered on Helm’s Deep and Gollum. Of the two — and the battle is one of the best of its kind in film history, a symphony of bloodlust and hopes dashed and restored — I prefer the little creature who used to be called Smeagol before the Ring stole his mind and soul. As you’ve heard, Gollum is played in voice and gesture by Andy Serkis, and fleshed out digitally by Jackson’s computer wizards. You’ll always be aware that Gollum isn’t literally “real,” but in his pathetically addled way he’s more real than anyone else in the movie. Jackson seems to have studied Jar Jar Binks and learned from George Lucas’s mistake.

Two Towers may play narratively as a downer, but Jackson is too spirited a director to get bogged down: Characters are always reminding each other to keep hope alive in the midst of dread and panic. Hope is there, too, in the raw beauty Jackson finds everywhere, whether in battle or in a poetically downbeat episode at Rivendell with a weeping Arwen (Liv Tyler). Jackson hasn’t disdained his horror-movie roots, either: no director could be happier among the Orcs and Uruk-hai, and he has the diabolical wit to end this second entry on a note of demented enthusiasm that functions as a chilling cliffhanger. Fellowship interested and entertained me; this one hooked me.

Y Tu Mama Tambien

March 29, 2002

In the sex comedy Y Tu Mamá También, which has dominated the Mexican box office, two teenage boys facing the dusk of their high-school lives find themselves on a road trip with an attractive older woman. One of the boys, Julio (Gael García Bernal), comes from a much humbler background than the other, Tenoch (Diego Luna), whose family is ostentatiously wealthy; yet they have a lot in common, starting with a teenager’s devotion to raunchiness. With each other, they brag about what they do in bed with their girlfriends; the reality, as we see it in the film’s opening minutes, is a bit more flailing and abrupt. Their travelling companion is Luisa Cortés (Maribel Verdú), the wife of a pompous and pathetic writer. Perhaps close to thirty, she’s missed out on a lot of fun. For her own reasons, she takes the boys up on their offer to tag along for a weekend ride to a beach.

Y Tu Mamá También is a return to roots by the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, who came to America in the ’90s to direct such neo-classical eye candy as A Little Princess and Great Expectations. The new movie is considerably franker and rougher-edged; the MPAA, in its infinitesimal wisdom, refused to let the film slide with an R rating, thus depriving the American Julios and Tenoches in the audience of seeing a truthful but warmly composed reflection of themselves. (It’s permissible, of course, for teenagers to enter the MPAA-approved sex-equals-slaughterhouse world of Jason X.) As with all movies the MPAA apparently considers too explicit, Y Tu Mamá También is not too explicit — merely honest and unblinking. The sex scenes are generally played more for frantic comedy than for eroticism, which of course makes them more erotic.

Julio and Tenoch throw a bunch of junk into Julio’s borrowed car and scoop up Luisa at her antiseptic apartment. Something about the noisy squalor of the car, and the noisy enthusiasm of the boys, seems to unlock Luisa; something else does, too. Before the trip, we see her sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, and though I won’t reveal why, you can probably guess why; doctors are never mentioned in movies unless the very fact of them portends something grim. In any event, during the course of the journey, Luisa — whose husband has called her with the drunken, sobbing news that he’s just cheated on her — singles out the boys for sexual play, first Tenoch in her motel room, then Julio in the back seat of his car, then both at once at the end of a tequila-flavored night.

Many articles have bundled Y Tu Mamá También together with 2000’s ferocious triptych of love, Amores Perros, partly because of the angle that there’s something new and exciting going on in Latino cinema, partly because both films share an actor, the amiable and soulful Gael García Bernal. I don’t think Y Tu Mamá También is nearly as richly textured or as provocative as Amores Perros, but the comparison is bankrupt anyway; Y Tu Mamá También is to Amores Perros as, say, American Pie is to Pulp Fiction — both fine entertainments, but one generally seeks only to amuse, whereas the other is a fuller, denser package.

At times, Y Tu Mamá También tries to be deeper than it needs to be. At regular intervals, a narrator interrupts the proceedings to inform us in dispassionate voiceover about facts and events irrelevant to the action. The irrelevance says “art”; it’s a comment on mundane life marching on around the realized sex fantasy of the boys (and of the woman). And Luisa’s character arc is a little too “Seize the day” for my taste; the revelation of her secret shames and humbles the boys, who were only out for a fun getaway. Foreign films (the overpraised Amélie is another recent example) are threatening to become as glibly life-affirming as any American Chicken Soup for the Soul fable financed by Miramax in search of Oscars. Still, Y Tu Mamá También offers a shot of wise, freshly etched character comedy in a time when it’s desperately needed. Once again, a foreign director shows Hollywood what Hollywood should always be doing but has presumably forgotten how.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

December 19, 2001

All right, everyone can relax now — and I mean that both ways: the first of the three Lord of the Rings movies has emerged triumphant, but it’s not going to alter the course of mankind (it’s just a movie, folks). The wildly ambitious (and, fortunately, just as wildly talented) New Zealand director Peter Jackson has delivered what everyone should have been delivering for years: a good story well-told, a massive adventure painted in strokes bold and subtle on a vast canvas. I expected no less from him, though I come to The Fellowship of the Ring as a Jackson fan, not so much a J.R.R. Tolkien devotee (I last read the books, oh, twenty years ago), and this wouldn’t be my favorite Jackson film — second or third, maybe.

Given his biggest piggy bank ever and almost three hours in which to sprawl, Jackson still has to speed through the book. Invariably, when he does dawdle, he dawdles over fairly uninteresting stuff; no matter how much golden light he throws onto the Elves, for instance, they’re still pretty dull and can’t compete with the forces of evil for sheer cinematic power (the Rivendell footage tends toward the blandly idyllic at times). Jackson’s at his best here working with dark colors — the corrupt wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), who’s building an army of half-man, half-Orc creatures; the truly frightening Ringwraiths, who bring a shiver of dread into the movie every time they ride in on their black and shrieking horses; the various monster-movie obstacles, including a giant troll and the much-beloved-by-Tolkien-fans beastie the Balrog, with its ferocious whip of flame. Not to mention the chief Big Bad — Sauron, whose tainted Ring sets the plot in motion.

Pitted against all this evil are a motley crew of four hobbits, a wizard, an Elf, a dwarf, and a couple of regular guys. (No girls allowed in this Fellowship, though Jackson — to the disgruntlement of many purists — has given Liv Tyler’s Elf character Arwen a slightly more active role than in the book.) Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who has inherited the aforementioned Ring from his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm), must take it to Mount Doom and destroy it; the wise and mighty wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has advised Frodo never to wear the Ring — its corruptive power is too great — but of course on several occasions it finds its way onto his finger. It’s a proactive ring — it can even adjust itself to fit any finger.

There’s unfortunately some rushing of things that shouldn’t be rushed, even at almost three hours. The confrontations between Gandalf and Saruman (yes, I realize they weren’t in the book) feel a bit too Matrix-y — yeah, they’re wizards, but they’re also old, and should they really be able to be flung all over a vast room without breaking a hip? The Balrog gets more build-up than actual screen time; at times, the movie has the same thin, one-damn-thing-after-another tone as Harry Potter, which also tried to pack too much into a reasonable sitting time. But Jackson’s storytelling economy also serves him well here; when Bilbo gives Frodo his sword Sting (which glows blue when Orcs are near) and magical chain mail, we’re fondly reminded of Bilbo’s own adventure, which he’s busily recording in his book There and Back Again (Tolkien renamed it The Hobbit, of course). In the same scene, Bilbo shows us a flash of ring-addiction that’s chilling for being so sudden — Ian Holm, making a deep impression despite scant screen time, gives us an invaluable sense of how dangerous the Ring really is.

In addition to Holm, the film is immaculately cast. Elijah Wood is as much the ideal Frodo — wide-eyed, sincere, frightened yet determined — as Ian McKellen is the textbook Gandalf — wise, wry, sometimes self-satirical (as when Gandalf, in his first scene, tries hard to be stern with Frodo and can’t quite keep a straight face). It’s a good thing Jackson populates the Good with so many vibrant actors, because his Evil — with the exception of Christopher Lee’s Saruman, who occasionally bears an eerie, obviously unintentional likeness to Osama bin Laden — hardly has a human face. Evil in this movie snorts and writhes in shadows, or hisses to itself in demented supplication to the Ring (what little we see of the mutated Gollum in Fellowship is mitigated by what we hear — Andy Serkis deserves kudos for making that famous “my precioussss” vibrate with menace and madness).

As the first act in a trilogy, Fellowship is all set-up and quest. It inevitably suffers from reverse been-there-done-that; Jackson is competing not only with fan devotion to the books, but with all the Tolkien rip-offs and knock-offs of the last fifty years, including a quarter-century of role-playing games. I grew bored with Dungeons & Dragons by age 14 or so, so it’s a testament to Jackson’s skill that I was with the film throughout, given that it often plays like a D & D game writ large. The proceedings are a bit more solemn than usual from the previously prankish Jackson, though he still manages to sneak in some humor: the bumbling hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan); the very tall Gandalf’s trouble adjusting to the very small Bilbo’s hobbit-hole; the perpetually snoopy Samwise (Sean Astin); a dwarf one-liner that, I’m certain, did not come from the books; the burping, blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from the director himself, who, Hitchcock-like, has found his way into all his films except his puppet satire Meet the Feebles.

Jackson also, it must be said, conjures the most potent major-motion-picture magic in years. The landscapes get a tad too pictorial in the tradition of bad ’70s folk-album covers, but when Gandalf breaks out his enchanted fireworks for Bilbo’s 111th birthday party, you feel that this is what dazzlement was always meant to be, and that what we know as fireworks today are just a weak dilution of the age of sorcery. When the swords and arrows come out, as they frequently do, so does Jackson’s love of hack-and-slash; the fearless human men of the Fellowship, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the conflicted Boromir (Sean Bean), speed into the fight with full-blooded battle lust — the spectacle is all the more thrilling for packing an emotional charge. Fellowship is a big one, with two more to come; if some part of me isn’t all the way into the story Jackson has chosen, I’ll still definitely be back to see what else he does with it.

Moulin Rouge

June 1, 2001

What to do with a movie like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge? It demands to be taken on its own glitzy, stylized terms. It has been described as the love-it-or-hate-it movie of the season — much like last year’s equally bold (and far superior) musical Dancer in the Dark — but I didn’t love it or hate it; mostly I just stared at it in a trance of indifference, trying to stay awake. If you enjoyed Luhrmann’s other two shimmering pop artifacts — Strictly Ballroom and especially Romeo + Juliet — chances are you’ll fall in love with Moulin Rouge. If you like your films with a little less pizzazz and a little more substance, you’d do well to sit out this dance.

Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce have constructed Moulin Rouge (which has nothing in particular to do with the 1952 John Huston film, except that it features Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, played a bit too avidly by John Leguizamo) not as a musical, exactly, but as a riff on The Musical. As in Pearl Harbor, everything in it is appropriated from somewhere else. For instance, here you have Christian (Ewan McGregor), a sensitive writer who loses his heart to dynamic courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman). In a few ways, this could be called an uncredited remake of Cabaret, only without the troublesome Nazi milieu, except that it swipes from so many other sources that, ha-ha, no single creator has enough grounds for a lawsuit.

The “plot” is wafer-thin: Christian and Satine, who are working on some sort of show called Spectacular Spectacular, are frustrated in their affair by the attentions of a sneering duke (Richard Roxburgh) who wants Satine to himself. Rather stupidly, Christian and Satine craft their show as a veiled parallel to their own situation; also rather stupidly, the Duke takes forever to see the parallel even when someone in his presence, describing Christian’s fictitious counterpart, slips and says “starving writer” instead of “starving sitar player.”

It’s probably no use to attack Moulin Rouge on logical grounds. Luhrmann thinks in terms of fragments, moments, visual opportunities. Working with the boldly painting cinematographer Donald McAlpine, who has a rich sense of color and an unerring sense for how to frame an interesting composition, Luhrmann sabotages McAlpine’s work, more often than not, by being too restless in the editing room. I often say of editing-happy directors, “If you don’t like a shot, wait two seconds and it’ll change”; here it’s more like “If you like a shot, don’t get too attached to it, because in two seconds it’ll change.”

Christian and Satine often serenade each other, using snippets of modern-day rock love ballads, which I guess is supposed to make this turn-of-the-century romantic fable more relevant to the teenagers of the turn of this century. I almost never felt that the pop songs (including Elton John, the Beatles, David Bowie, and many others) worked for the movie, and in one case — when a group of men break into the chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — I found it embarrassing. Kidman and McGregor aren’t really singers; they sell their crooning more on attitude than on skill, and that goes for their overall performances, too. McGregor has the right look — brilliant eyes, brilliant teeth — for a big-movie-musical leading man, and Kidman is breathtaking in her many costume changes, but when they have to be still and communicate with each other it’s amateur hour (and, I hasten to add, they haven’t been amateurish elsewhere). They simply have no chemistry.

I wish I could support Moulin Rouge, because it’s certainly not timid (except, perhaps, for the choice of soundtrack tunes slavishly geared to teens) and there’s nothing else out there remotely like it. It’s the sort of overstuffed extravaganza that, if it works for you, really works for you, and if it doesn’t, really doesn’t. Talent and, yes, vision have gone into this project. Baz Luhrmann isn’t a hack; you feel he believes passionately in what he puts on the screen (much like Paul Thomas Anderson, another virtuoso who swings for the fence and misses), and some of the movie’s enraptured lack of irony is refreshing. Luhrmann is straining to achieve something new, original, different. He should’ve started with the script.


March 16, 2001

As you may have heard by now, the acclaimed thriller Memento is the story of a man with no short-term memory, told entirely backward. The man, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), wants to find out who raped and murdered his wife; the same “incident” that made him a widower also gave him head trauma that left him unable to “form new memories” — he can remember everything up to the event, but everything after that eludes his grasp, to the point where he has turned his whole body into a tattooed Post-It note of reminders (“John G. raped and murdered my wife,” reads one message written on his chest — backwards, so that he can read it in the mirror every time he shaves, which he also has to remind himself to do).

Would Memento be as effective if told forward instead of backward? Of course not. The brilliance of Memento is not in its story but in how it tells the story. When a scene begins, we are as disoriented as Leonard; sometimes he ends up talking to someone we haven’t seen before, and he doesn’t ever remember meeting, yet they act as if they’ve known him for a while. The scene then ends — please try to stay with me here — with the beginning of the previous scene. This is nowhere near as frustrating for the viewer as it sounds; instead, it’s transfixing and does an ingenious job of putting us inside Leonard’s fractured perception. Sometimes you get so involved in a scene that you forget you’ve already seen how it’s going to end.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan, whose first film was a black-and-white noir (1998’s Following) little seen in America, turns up the volume of the usual noir paranoia to 11: not only can’t you trust anyone, you can’t remember why you can’t trust anyone. Yet the film is cool, contemplative, a puzzle movie in which you see the finished puzzle right up front and then watch as it disassembles itself. I could tell you who the killer of Leonard’s wife is, or seems to be, since the movie opens with Leonard getting his revenge, or seeming to; yet treachery complicates Leonard’s mission (as if it weren’t complicated enough), so when we hear a revelation at the end of the film (the movie’s chronological beginning) — a revelation that Leonard, at the movie’s beginning/story’s end, has long forgotten — we don’t know if it’s on the level or not. All I’ll say is that it’s been a while since I’ve seen a twist ending like this that works on about 17 different levels aside from turning the plot on its head.

The newly blonde, slightly stubbly Guy Pearce, looking like a more precisely chiselled Brad Pitt, underplays Leonard throughout; he’s a hero in a daze, often unconsciously funny, as when he tells the same story over and over, to the bemusement of acquaintances who’ve heard it over and over. Given the challenge of embodying a man who forgets whatever happened ten minutes ago, Pearce has to begin anew in every scene, a blank slate with vague impressions of quiet anguish. His best moment here comes when Leonard hires a prostitute for an experiment baffling to her but, to us, funny at first and then undeniably saddening.

The only other two major roles in Memento are filled by Carrie-Anne Moss, as a mysterious bartender named Natalie, and Joe Pantoliano, as a mysterious figure (criminal? cop?) named Teddy. The Matrix connection is probably no coincidence: Leonard is living in a sort of matrix himself, a shadow world in which everything is a shadow. Not long after it opened, Memento had risen to #44 on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 Movies list, voted on by registered users, making it the youngest film in the top 50. There’s a reason for that. The movie will almost surely madden some and fascinate others (some may feel both ways); if given a proper push, this could become the most talked-about cinematic Rubik’s Cube since The Usual Suspects. Yet Christopher Nolan never strikes you as a hot-shot getting high on his own narrative cleverness. Memento leaves you with an existential chill. If you see the film, ask yourself how you feel about Leonard’s final decision (or, I should say, the decision he makes before the end credits): whether it’s understandable, whether it’s justifiable, and above all, whether it really makes any damn difference.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

December 8, 2000

As a child, Ang Lee devoured the popular, time-honored wuxia novels of China — fiction combining themes of loyalty, honor, and chivalry with lots of page-turning swordplay and adventure. Hong Kong action cinema has been decidedly wuxia-influenced, which may be why native or Western fans of Hong Kong “flying swordsmen” movies may walk away from Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – his tribute to the books and movies that fed his childhood imagination — a little underwhelmed, as opposed to many American critics, who seem overwhelmed. The movie is good, sometimes very good, but I suspect it’s a masterpiece only for those who haven’t seen all the earlier masterpieces that equal or surpass it.

I’m glad Crouching Tiger is here, though. For one thing, it’s going to introduce a lot of people who wouldn’t have seen Hard Boiled or Supercop to the undeniable star power of Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh (both of whom have been ill-served in their forays into Yankee films). And if you’ve seen these giants in other films, you can’t help but get buzzed watching them act together for the first time, doing what they do best, and seeing it all on the massive wide screen, immaculately shot by Peter Pau, and not dubbed into hamfisted English. It’s a good way to ease newbies into the charms of Chow and Yeoh, and the gravity-defying stuntwork of Yuen Wo-Ping (The Matrix) — Hong Kong Cinema 101.

The story is simple and classical, based (by screenwriters Wang Hui-Ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo Jung) on a wuxia novel by Wang Du Lu. Master Li Mu Bai (Chow), a retired warrior, pays a visit to a nobleman friend to give him a sword — not just any sword, but a sword that can apparently cut through anything, and has earned itself the name “Green Destiny.” Mu Bai wants to leave his sword behind along with his violent past. But then the sword is stolen, and Mu Bai joins forces with old friend and unrequited love Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) to get it back. Western minds may see Freudian meaning in this quest, but the code of this movie holds that the sword simply belongs to the man to whom it was given. Further, Mu Bai believes the thief is the legendary Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), who killed his master.

A seeming subplot character who takes center stage for a while is Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), a bored teenager due to be married to a (probably) boring nobleman. Jen looks at the exciting Shu Lien and wants the warrior woman’s freedom of movement, the lethal skills that might set her equal to men (or superior to them). She flashes back to an intoxicating time spent with a “barbarian” known as Dark Cloud (Chang Chen) — it’s good to see that teenage girls’ fantasies are so consistent as to cross cultural and temporal barriers.

The high-flying action sequences have gotten a lot of ink, but again, if you’ve seen earlier works like John Woo’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1978) or Ronny Yu’s The Bride with White Hair (1993), there’s not a lot here to boggle your eyes or mind. If you haven’t, well, have fun. Some of the soaring and jumping bits are impressive; some are a little too obviously wire work. At the very least, it’s refreshing to sit in an American theater and watch action sequences that strive for lyrical beauty more than routine button-pushing excitement; and it is, as always, a deep pleasure when the camera simply stands back and lets Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh show their stuff (capably matched by young Zhang Ziyi, who’s already gotten nibbles from Hollywood). Ang Lee has done a smooth and sincere job here, bringing a sample of Hong Kong magic to art-house patrons accustomed to the likes of Billy Elliot, but don’t go to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon expecting a cross between Gone with the Wind and The Seven Samurai. It’s well-done, and I suppose that’s going to have to be good enough.

Requiem for a Dream

November 3, 2000

Movie critics have little or no power, but they like to feel they do; one way they get their power fix is to anoint a director the Chosen One every couple of years. The last Chosen One was Paul Thomas Anderson, who made the gripping little debut Hard Eight and then followed it with the critics’ darling Boogie Nights. This year’s Chosen One was Darren Aronofsky, who made the gripping little debut Pi and has now followed it with the critics’ darling Requiem for a Dream. Both, I must report, are overrated cases of sophomore slump and been-there-rented-that.

Requiem for a Dream is based on a 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., whose work has been translated to the screen once before, in 1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Having seen both films, I suspect Selby has a thing for drab, dribbling narratives about grungy, desperate losers; he also has a thing for women being sexually humiliated before an appreciative audience of horndogs, since both films end with such a scene. It could be that Selby’s style, in print, has mitigating wit and flavor that keep the material from tottering into modish masochism. On film, what we see is human wreckage marching to the grim beat of their own predetermined ruin. Whether the director is Last Exit‘s gloomy, hyperserious Uli Edel or the gloomy, hyperactive Aronofsky, Selby’s material needs humor — something it lacks onscreen, as yet.

The script, credited to Selby and Aronofsky, focuses on four cases of despair and burnout: lonely widow Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), whose devotion to a garish TV infomercial seems her only connection to life; her son Harry (Jared Leto), a young heroin addict; Harry’s friend and drug partner Tyrone (Marlon Wayans); and Harry’s girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), whose parents, of course, gave her lots of money but no love. That’s more than enough misery for one movie, and Aronofsky, fracturing the narrative with clever tricks, does everything but run the film backwards and upside down to dislocate us, play with us, and keep our interest.

Unfortunately, he fails on the last count. Aronofsky strains to get an impressionistic drug experience — the highs, the lows, the anxiety over scoring the next fix — onto the screen. We may sit and think “That’s an innovative way to suggest inner chaos,” but we don’t feel it. And, frankly, a movie about a guy freaking out on a math equation (Pi) is more interesting than a movie about people freaking out on drugs, because we’ve seen Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to name just two recent drug films, and many others in the past. If anything, Aronofsky’s doomy, freaky, humorless style defeats his own purpose: It re-animates the dark romance of dissolution — it makes addiction look cool.

Ellen Burstyn almost rescues the movie. Sara, trying to lose weight in time to appear on her beloved TV show, gets hooked on uppers and downers prescribed by a rather inattentive doctor; she loses pounds, all right, and also her mind. Her story arc is tragic and moving, a sharply painful odyssey whose artistry and compassion mostly earn the pain it causes us (I could’ve done without her drug trip involving a killer fridge, though). Burstyn keeps us completely with her all the way through Sara’s bottoming-out; it’s a ferocious and courageous performance from an actress who’s never much cared about glamour (she doesn’t make addiction look cool).

By contrast, the other three actors are glamorous — and hollow. Marlon Wayans keeps his energy level up as Tyrone, but he’s bouncing off the blank wall known as Jared Leto, the most inexpressive pretty boy to slouch through movies since Christopher Lambert. Leto is pretty much a dud, and since the film centers on his character, it suffers badly as a result. And the male critics waiting for Jennifer Connelly to wake up and give the performance that will justify their laughable drooling over her (she is easy on the eyes, but so is a screensaver) will have to keep waiting, probably forever; Connelly is a dud, too. Requiem for a Dream is worth seeing for Ellen Burstyn and her unflinching descent into hell, but try not to think about how much better she is than the rest of the cast — or the movie she’s in.


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