Archive for August 2002

Ken Park

August 31, 2002

I was not, to put it mildly, a big fan of Larry Clark’s 1995 debut feature Kids. It smacked to me too much of conscious art-house outrage, and I ignored Clark’s subsequent films — Another Day in Paradise, Bully, and Teenage Caveman. Having now seen Ken Park, I wonder if I should go back and visit his other films. Ken Park continues Clark’s obsession with the seamy side of suburban teenage life — the stoners, the skaters, the casual sex. But this film holds together — as both a narrative and an artistic piece — far better than Kids (which, like this movie, was written by Harmony Korine). And with Ed Lachman on board as co-cinematographer and co-director, the movie has a luscious, professional sheen. You may be appalled by some of what you see in Ken Park, but aesthetically it’s not a handheld skank-fest — much of it is rather beautiful.

The eponymous character Ken Park is a freckled kid who performs an act of violence right after the opening credits. He’s not really referenced again till the end, when we find out what drove him to it. Most of the movie deals with kids who knew him: Shawn (James Bullard), who’s sleeping with his girlfriend’s hot mom; Peaches (Tiffany Limos), who lives with her devoutly Christian dad, a widower worshiping at the altar of his dead wife; Claude (Stephen Jasso), whose macho dad despises him; and Tate (James Ransone), a weirdo who lives with his grandparents and loudly berates them. Ken Park differs from Kids in that we see the parents as well as the kids — and, surprise, the parents are often drawn sympathetically even through their flaws.

If you’ve heard of Ken Park at all, it’s likely because of its content, which makes Kids look like Teletubbies. Explicit sex (and I mean explicit, like triple-X explicit), masturbation, and near-incest are all on the menu. For this reason, the film has had a terrible time finding a distributor in America, and it’s been banned outright in Australia. But if the far more pornographic Baise-Moi got a distributor here, so should Ken Park, which has more going for it than hardcore imagery and shock. Harmony Korine has always had an incongruous sweet side — sometimes I think that bothers people more than if he were just straight-up nihilistic — and it comes out here in an odd yet moving scene in which Tate, having just gotten into a shouting match with his grandfather over a game of Scrabble, goes outside and joins a group of friendly black girls in a game of jump-rope. Innocence is given its due here. Even the climax (no pun intended), in which three of the teenagers participate in a menage a trois, is handled with equal parts candor and tenderness. Here, finally, Clark takes the skankiness out of teen sex, making it into a romantic idyll.

Some of the events in the movie (Clark says much of it is based on actual happenings), I think, are designed more for aftermath effect. If you’re the pregnant wife of a man who got drunk last night and tried to fellate your teenage son, how do you act? Amanda Plummer, a fixture in indie movies, plays the scene with an emphasis on bewildered denial — the fact of what happened is simply too ugly for her to wrap her brain around. In a few words, she makes you understand why women like her “stand by and don’t do anything.” When Peaches’ dad catches her in a bit of bondage play with a naked boyfriend, what follows has a certain insane logic and cuts right to the chase — you can see it coming, but you don’t actually expect the movie to go there. Ken Park is more a study of adults in extremis than a scuzzy portrait of teen life; it has more in common with Todd Solondz’ Happiness than with Kids.

The movie — intentionally, I assume — leaves various plot threads dangling, much like life. Few of the stories have a neat cap, except the one that ends in murder. It’s more an excuse for moments that cut to the quick, like the early scene of a kid more or less beating a declaration of love out of his younger brother, or a scene in which one kid tells another that he should be grateful he has a dad, even if his dad’s an asshole. (It’s a testament to either Korine’s writing or the young actor’s improv skills that the sentiment doesn’t come off as preachy.) Ken Park is about people lost in a haze of contempt and despair, trying to wrest some love or relief out of the situation. It reached me where Kids missed me, and those who had similar feelings about Clark’s earlier work might want to give Ken Park a day in court — even if Australia won’t.

fear dot com

August 30, 2002

Those who haven’t seen half-naked women being tortured in a movie in a long time and have been pining for it might want to know about fear dot com. The rest of us can stay home and wonder why horror movies never fixate on bald, fat, ugly, half-naked guys being tortured (or is that just a naïve question?). fear dot com, a cheapjack foreign-shot film (Luxembourg and Montreal double for New York City) distributed by the formerly prestigious Warner Bros., is another one of those freak shows that pretend to denounce misogynistic crime while showing us as much of it as the R rating will allow. For reasons known only to him, Roger Ebert’s review praised the film’s visuals; gee, Roger, you mean the one of the woman being dissected alive, or the one of the woman drowning in a tub?

Stephen Dorff is a cop obsessed with the one that got away — Alistair Pratt, a.k.a. “The Doctor” (Stephen Rea), a maniac who has eluded capture for years. Dorff starts finding corpses that appear to be the victims of a crash-and-bleed-out virus; Natascha McElhone, as a public health official, gets called in and concludes that it isn’t a virus — not the physical kind, anyway. Each victim, you see, had visited a website called 48 hours before their death (kind of close to the premise of the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu, but never mind). This is connected in some way with “The Doctor” and his first victim, seen in visions as a spooky little girl with a white ball.

Ebert advised focusing on the imagery and disregarding the plot, but most of us go to a movie to be told a story, not to be flashed with shock cuts of repugnant violence. That’s neither horror nor good filmmaking — it’s peek-a-boo editing-table gimmickry, and you or I could do the same thing given the budget. Watching fear dot com is often like being splashed with sewage by a Super-Soaker. At its core is the tired device of the little girl trying to communicate with the living and get revenge on her murderer, which might be nice if we hadn’t seen it in The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes, to name two. The theme of voyeurism biting the voyeur in the throat (the victims are being punished for the sin of watching death) is as old as Euripides. Without anything original onscreen to speak of, there’s nothing to hold one’s attention but the squalid “innovation” of creative torture.

Unaccountably written by a woman (Josephine Coyle) and directed by William Malone, whose House on Haunted Hill remake was sort of fun, fear dot com has apparently picked its supporting cast to please genre fans; Jeffrey Combs (The Re-Animator) turns up as a jaded cop, Michael Sarrazin (Frankenstein: The True Story) is a drunken crackpot author of a book on Internet secrets, Nigel Terry (Excalibur) is McElhone’s ill-fated supervisor (he dies the way everyone else does, a victim of his worst fear), and, most promisingly, the great Udo Kier (Blood of Dracula) opens the film as a man amusingly named Polidori, who loses a human-vs.-subway-train match. Fans will have to content themselves with the mere presence of these cult icons, though, since Malone mainly sticks to Dorff and McElhone, both of whom have been better, and Stephen Rea, visibly bored playing a cyber-boogeyman who spouts psycho-visionary nonsense.

fear dot com annoyed me; I experienced it almost as a personal affront, because, to give Ebert his due, there is a certain twisted visual pizzazz at work here (as there was in The Cell, another grotesque favorite of Ebert’s — can this be the same man who crusaded against I Spit on Your Grave?). But it’s put in service of an inept plot that uses its teases of (female) flesh and blood to keep us interested, or — dare I say it — entertained. fear dot com is a rancid little slaughterhouse. At one point, “The Doctor” announces that he wants to make death look ugly so that it’ll be taken seriously, and no doubt the makers of fear dot com would use a similar line. And it would be just as self-serving and irrelevant.


August 23, 2002

S1M0NE has fallen victim to Box-Office Curse #17: People won’t go see movies about moviemaking. In this case, they’ve missed a compelling little fable from Andrew Niccol, whose artistic success, to these eyes, has been in inverse proportion to his box-office success: He wrote and directed 1997’s superb Gattaca, and wrote 1998’s overrated but lucrative The Truman Show (Peter Weir directed). S1M0NE is going the way of Gattaca‘s brief life in uncrowded theaters, and while it’s not on the level of Niccol’s debut, it’s entertaining and provocative enough.

The first mistake some critics have made is to assume that S1M0NE is intended as a satire of the Hollywood and media machines. I don’t think it is; the movie should really be called Viktor, after its protagonist Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), a pompous and flailing film director whose mega-starlet leading lady (Winona Ryder in an amusing, if ill-timed for her defense, performance) has walked out on his latest production due to “creative differences.” Growls Viktor, “Here’s the difference: I’m creative, you’re not.” The movie half-yearns for the days when directors, not stars, called the shots, though this yearning is placed in the mouth of Viktor, who overlooks the fact that in the old days studio heads called the shots and directors were as powerless and interchangeable as the stars.

Computer wingnut Elias Koteas delivers Viktor’s salvation on a platter (literally) — a disc containing programming to create a virtual actress. Yes, the technology is finally there, and only Viktor knows about it. After nine months he’s created the perfect actress, Simone (Rachel Roberts), and plugged her into the role originally filled by his former female lead. Everyone loves Simone; the movie is a massive critical and popular hit, soon joined by another Taransky/Simone epic, and Simone becomes the first actress in Oscar history to tie with herself for Best Actress.

S1M0NE isn’t about media manipulation, though Niccol shows us plenty of it. Two reporters (Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman) devote themselves to uncovering the truth about the never-seen-in-the-flesh Simone; studio head Elaine Christian (Catherine Keener), who’s also Viktor’s ex-wife, wants to meet the star who’s made her so much richer. Like any good program, Simone does exactly what Viktor tells her to do; she never malfunctions (except for some pixillation due to insufficient memory during a satellite interview), and everything is perfect. Too perfect. Pacino plays Viktor subtly as an artistic windbag who grows to resent his own creation’s stealing his thunder. Even his attempts to unmake her — there’s a pretty funny clip from I Am Pig, supposedly Simone’s “directorial debut” starring herself — just enhance her popularity.

“You have something I don’t have,” the computer geek tells Viktor: “an eye.” So does Niccol, whose cinematographer (the noted Edward Lachman) gives the movie the warm yet deceptive glaze of digital enchantment. Both Gattaca and S1M0NE look far more ravishing than their stories absolutely demand, especially since both movies unfold almost exclusively indoors. Niccol also comes up with a great moment of sad beauty: when Viktor second-guesses himself and pulls the plug on Simone, she disappears, literally bit by bit (or byte by byte), from his screen, a flurry of flesh-colored pixels, leaving her left eye to linger for a moment in mute, vaguely accusatory mid-stare before it, too, disappears. (The movie is certainly ocularly obsessed: the computer geek has an inoperable eye tumor, and at the end of his alleyway scene with Viktor we see stagehands in the background moving a large backdrop with an eye painted on it.)

On the surface, the movie appears to be another cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for, but under the surface we find a metaphor for fear of success on the wrong terms — selling out. Or, worse, getting the power to rise to your level of incompetence. We also see clips from Viktor’s movies, and they’re made to look gruesomely pretentious and melodramatic. Even the second one, based on a script he wrote nine years ago (“It’s close to my heart”), looks terrible even though you figure the studio wouldn’t have interfered to make it that way. By then, Viktor has enough clout to do what he wants — he made it that way.

That Viktor’s two banal Simone movies are insanely successful, and that Simone branches off into advertising and recording, are probably Niccol’s comments on what an increasingly numbed and uncritical public will accept as a diversion. But at the movie’s heart is an artist’s self-critique. Niccol could have told his three stories to date in novel form, blank verse, whatever; he chose to tell them in a medium that celebrates and rewards mediocrity more and more with each passing year. But if artists quit the medium in disgust, mediocrity wins. Like Viktor, Niccol knows how corrupt the game is, but he’s willing to stay in it anyway, and he plays honorably.

One Hour Photo

August 21, 2002

The very name carries a whiff of defeat and resignation: Sy Parrish — “Sy” is short for Seymour, cinema’s favorite shorthand for “loser” at least since Little Shop of Horrors. In the year’s most loudly heralded bit of stunt casting, Robin Williams, dialing himself down to 1 or 2, plays this bleached lost soul Sy, who works diligently at a photo center in a suburban mall. Sy’s surroundings have been drained of color, too, as if to match his pallor, or as if to suggest that the implacable sameness of retail long ago bled the life from his veins. Nothing pumps through Sy’s body now except need, envy, and, so we gradually gather, psychosis.

One Hour Photo is a slick piece of work, with a conscientiously clenched performance by Williams, but it left me cold and sickened in all the wrong ways. First-time writer-director Mark Romanek, yet another MTV refugee, seems to have taken the entirety of his film’s ideas from a Beatles song: He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. Isn’t he a bit like you and me? Well, no. Most of us do not fixate on a seemingly happy family to the extent of pasting photos of them all over the wall. (The image of Sy surveying his furtive collection recalls Robert De Niro playing to a cardboard audience in The King of Comedy — one of many films Romanek burgles — and it was scarier and funnier there.) Sy zeroes in on the presentable Nina (Connie Nielsen) and her darling son Jake (Dylan Smith), suffering the father of the family, Will (Michael Vartan), as a necessary irritant, but only up to a point.

It would be nice to report, as one of the ad blurbs does, that the movie does for photo developing what Psycho did for showers; certainly the premise — a wingnut stroking his gloved and trembling hands over images of you and yours — is an outsize advertisement for digital cameras. But Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon gave us a similarly employed killer 21 years ago; read by millions, and adapted twice for the big screen, the story didn’t frighten masses away from photo kiosks. The movie uses Sy as a watcher, an eternal outsider doomed to see, over and over again, what he cannot have — family happiness, the joy of companionship. Such a figure demands serious treatment (think what Kieslowski might’ve done with it), not the artsy audience-tweaking schlock this fundamentally is.

Any film that counts cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club) in its corner almost has to be eye candy, and One Hour Photo is; the contrast between the family’s warm, earth-colored furnishings and Sy’s bleak white ice cave of an apartment is so stark that you could conceivably watch the film with the sound off and still catch most of the meanings. But, unfortunately, the sound is on, and we get Sy in voice-over ruminating on the significance of photos: “Nobody takes a picture of something they want to forget.” So what does Sy want to forget? What brought him to this place in his existence? Romanek can’t be bothered with such stuff; he’s too eager to get to the climax, as it were, wherein Sy turns knife-wielding madman and terrorizes his prey into disgusting, intimate tableaux for his camera.

At times, Romanek seems scarcely different from Sy. His camera feasts on Sy’s emptiness and hardly finds time to endow Nina or Jake with personalities; they’re just nice wealthy people in danger. And therein lies One Hour Photo‘s real sickness: There’s an unacknowledged and diseased class resentment rattling around inside this psychothriller, and it bounces both ways. “You have a beautiful house,” Sy tells the wary Will, “if you don’t mind my saying so.” Never mind why a family well-off enough to have a flat widescreen TV wouldn’t have gotten a digital camera years ago. One Hour Photo comes close to saying that the upper class shouldn’t trust the smiling guy behind the retail counter. It also seems to say that if the Ninas and Wills of the world get a Sy on their case, they have it coming.

At the center of all this is Robin Williams, in the final panel of his twisted anti-Patch Adams triptych of 2002, giving himself dutifully to the role and to the director’s “vision.” Everyone seems amazed that Williams is playing a repressed psycho, as if he hadn’t already done that just a few months prior in Insomnia, in which we were not encouraged to feel, as the sensitive Jake does, that the psycho is sad and pitiable. Williams is amped to give a classic creepy performance, but once the script has him fondling a hunting knife it’s all over for him.

Romanek pushes the movie in a wrong, stupid direction, and it ends rather haplessly, with Sy suggesting that he knows something about Will that the police — and, up to this point, the audience — don’t know (or perhaps he’s referring to a trauma in his own past — one can’t be sure). Well, which is it? Is Sy a madman or a misguided guardian angel? We sit with the uncertainty of that when the lights go up, and it’s not a fine, unsettled uncertainty — it’s closer to the ruffled, violated feeling of having been manipulated for its own sake. One Hour Photo is calculated to send ’em out buzzing, but it’s the wrong kind of buzz.

Possession (2002)

August 16, 2002

It’s about an hour or more into Possession before it arrives — the devastating Gwyneth Crying Face, known to drive women, men, and even the occasional cat into sympathetic sniffles. I first saw the GCF in Seven, one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s early toe-dips in Hollywood, and marvelled at the young actress’s understanding that what makes an audience sob is not an actor who blubbers and expels snot all over the upholstery, but one who tries hellaciously not to cry. Gwyneth herein plays a clipped, cool British researcher who would sooner chew rusty bottle-caps than make a display of her emotions, so she gets to repress her tears at several points. I was cheered. Some want Vin Diesel snowboarding in front of an avalanche; give me Paltrow biting the insides of her lips and barely holding her anguish at bay.

There are other things to recommend Possession, too, though many critics, eager to remind themselves that they also read between screenings of Swimfan and Feardotcom, have already told you the film doesn’t hold a candle to A.S. Byatt’s intricate source novel. I wouldn’t know; I have yet to get around to the book. What I can report is that, at first glance, this seems an awfully sharp detour for director Neil LaBute, whose past work (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors) has dealt with the ways in which the nature of romance is red in tooth and claw. But LaBute has been gesturing towards other concerns — his Nurse Betty was downright sweet — and Possession, in his care, is an illustration of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Or, in English, love sucked just as much then as it does now.

Stubbly grad student Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart, testing the new waters of non-shitheadedness in a LaBute film) stumbles across a letter written by the 1859-era English poet he’s researching. The poet, one Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), appears to have drafted (but not sent) a love note to a woman not his wife. More enticing still, the woman might well be another poet of the day, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), long thought to be a lesbian, and claimed as same by like-minded readers for decades. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth), a LaMotte researcher as well as her descendant, scoffs at Roland’s theories, but her scoffing stops once more evidence is dusted off and brought to light. Her scoffing at the very existence of Roland stops, too, when the plot contrives for them to share a bed.

Possession is a dual-track exploration of romantic mores then and now. In both stories, we witness repression out of necessity: Ash can’t abandon his ailing wife; Christabel does have something going on with portraitist Blanche (Lena Headey); and Roland and Maud, modern anti-lovers to their very toes, are of course wary of handing their heart to someone new who might stomp on it. LaBute and his overqualified co-scripters (playwright David Henry Hwang and sometime Jane Campion collaborator Laura Jones) segue smoothly between centuries, perhaps giving a little more screen time to a pompous American professor (Trevor Eve) and his skunky Brit cohort (Toby Stephens) than is necessary; one doesn’t expect a movie like this to climax with a near-disinterment and fisticuffs, but, hey, even E.M. Forster arranged for a character to die by bookcase.

A film like this rides on the quality of the acting, and the Brits — Northam and Ehle — invest their forbidden love with centuries of fine repressed English tradition (I’m a pushover for stuff like that; I could watch and re-watch Remains of the Day for the remains of this year), more implosive than explosive. The very American Eckhart and the faux-Brit Paltrow (once again unfurling her perfectly presentable English accent) itch with modern impatience — they want to get to the bottom of their literary mystery, and you strongly suspect that at least part of their quest is sublimation for their growing attraction. They want proof that star-crossed love can work, and when they start uncovering evidence that things didn’t go so breezily for Ash and Christabel, Maud chokes up and wishes to back off. But LaBute doesn’t, and even the guaranteed tear-jerker he gives us at the end didn’t spoil my fun, though I of course wished he’d found some way to place Gwyneth on the scene, moved by the sight into giving us one last GCF. Still, we can’t have everything.

Blue Crush

August 16, 2002

I can recommend Blue Crush pretty much without irony for one thing: the surfing sequences. Mixing dizzying speed and the terrifying force of the waves, the footage — particularly during the climax, when surfers compete in the punishing Pipeline event — is about as electrifying as action scenes get. Director John Stockwell and his cinematographer David Hennings put the camera in the water, on top of the water, on the surfboard and inside the surfer’s viewpoint, and the camera feasts just as much on the radiant female surfers showing their stuff as it does on the seething white waves. Leni Riefenstahl might have made a movie like this (and, in her prime, starred in it too).

If you go to Blue Crush with no expectations other than kick-ass surfing and one hour and forty-four minutes of air conditioning, it’ll do the trick. But when the movie attempts to tell a story on land, you might want to bring along a flashlight and a magazine — perhaps the back issue of Outside in which Susan Orlean’s article “Surf Girls of Maui,” the loose basis for this film, was published. (Orlean has the surreal distinction this year of providing material for a surf-babe flick and a Spike Jonze movie in which Meryl Streep plays her.) Stockwell co-wrote the script with Lizzy Weiss, who came up with the time-honored plot following a Determined Yet Vulnerable Girl Who Must Overcome Fear to Realize Her Potential.

Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth) lives in Oahu with her rebellious kid sister Penny (Mika Boorem) and best friends Eden (Michelle Rodriguez) and Lena (Sanoe Lake). To make ends meet, the girls work as housekeepers at the local swanky hotel, until Anne Marie gets fired for objecting to a used condom left on the hotel-room floor by a visiting football player. She finds less to object to when she meets one of the other football players, Matt (Matthew Davis), who flashes $1,000 at her for surfing lessons; she promptly hops into bed with him, but as written (and played by the fresh-faced Bosworth), Anne Marie is clearly not meant to be taken as a whore, even if the more cynical members of the audience fail to see a difference.

Poor Anne Marie. Her mom up and left for Vegas with some no-account bum, her sister gives her grief, and Eden is always in her face to keep her mind on the upcoming Pipeline. Michelle Rodriguez is in the movie to be the tough-love voice of reason — the surfer who never had as much natural talent as our heroine and wants to see Anne Marie succeed where she herself failed. As the movie goes on, you begin to notice things like the way the blonde, pink Anne Marie is front and center, her dilemmas given the weight of Greek tragedy, while her non-white friends (including Lena, an amiable non-entity played by surfer and acting newcomer Sanoe Lake with more charisma, despite almost no material to work with, than her first-billed co-star ever shows) stay in the background for support. There are also two comic-relief African-American fatties who horse around and display their bellies every time the movie needs a laugh. Jar Jar Binks, move over. Leni Riefenstahl could’ve made this part of the film, too.

Those interested in the real world of female surfers might want to take a look at the 50-minute video also titled Blue Crush, released a few years ago; it featured a few of the real-life surf legends relegated to cameos here, like Keala Kennelly and Layne Beachley (who turns up as Anne Marie’s main competitor — she’s so laid-back and so supportive of her sisters of the surf that she actually helps Anne Marie catch a big wave). These women have the faces and bodies of real athletes, and you want to see more of them and less scenes like the one in which Matt takes Anne Marie to a posh dinner party and she overhears some snooty women ridiculing her dress. Blue Crush is about an hour of junk surrounded by dynamic surf action. But if that’s what you’re going to it to see, by all means go. Just don’t forget the magazine.

Blood Work

August 9, 2002

bloodwork_clintanjelicaThe period of Clint Eastwood’s career that began with Unforgiven ten years ago could accurately be called The Autumn Years. A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Absolute Power, True Crime, Space Cowboys — these are all about older men’s concerns: aging, paths not taken, the fragility of life. There certainly hasn’t been a Pink Cadillac or an Every Which Way But Loose in this bunch, not even the one movie (In the Line of Fire) Eastwood starred in but didn’t direct during that period. The brooding continues in Blood Work, probably Eastwood’s most successful and poignant Autumn work since Unforgiven. Who knew that the guy who shot punks and goofed around with chimps in the ’70s, and shot more punks and goofed around with Burt Reynolds in the ’80s, would become the most consistently serious-minded American director?

That’s not to say Blood Work is a foot-dragging exercise like Absolute Power, pulp shunning its own pulpiness. The story, adapted by Brian Helgeland from a Michael Connelly bestseller, twists and crackles with a certain sadistic logic. FBI agent Terry McCaleb (Eastwood), when we meet him, is being taunted by a serial killer, who likes to scrawl “Catch me” in blood on the wall, along with a numerical code nobody can crack. On his way out of the killer’s latest charnelhouse, McCaleb glimpses someone who may be the culprit; McCaleb gives chase and suffers a heart attack. Cut to two years later: McCaleb, with a transplanted heart beating uneasily in his scarred chest (he touches it constantly, as preoccupied with the raised line of flesh as a David Cronenberg hero), is in retirement. A woman approaches him on his boat — Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesus), the sister of the dead woman whose heart was donated to McCaleb. Graciella wants him to find her sister’s ski-masked killer, who shot her during a routine store robbery. Or so it seems.

Against the better judgment of his doctor (Anjelica Huston, tending to her stubborn patient with tender exasperation; there’s an interesting vibe here, since Eastwood once played Huston’s father in fictionalized form in White Hunter, Black Heart), McCaleb takes the case. He encounters resistance from two cops, the sarcastic Paul Rodriguez and the lackadaisical Dylan Walsh. He finds pleasure in reunion with higher-up Tina Lifford — they were once involved, we gather, and now team up to find the robber. He gets assistance from boat neighbor Jeff Daniels, an amiable slacker who drives McCaleb around for lack of a more exciting way to pass the day. And he finds tentative love with Graciella, who also has a little boy.

Blood Work balances text and subtext neatly. We genuinely fear for McCaleb, even when he walks a little too briskly; when he gets himself deeper into the case and faces off against people who can do considerable damage even to men half his age and twice the heart function, the movie is scary on a level that few Eastwood thrillers have been. There’s a weird nightmare scene, oddly never followed up on, in which McCaleb seems to see the murder from the point of view of the victim whose heart is in his chest; it may be in the movie simply because transplant patients do have such near-psychic experiences.

Smoothly assembled as always (by now, Eastwood’s team is a tight unit), and written with equal attention to plot and character (it’s probably Brian Helgeland’s most shapely script in that regard since L.A. Confidential), this is Eastwood’s sharpest filmmaking since the gig that won him an Oscar. And age (he’s 72 now) has done wonders for Eastwood’s acting. I hadn’t noticed before Blood Work how fragile and hoarse his voice is now — maybe he just accentuated it to play a heart patient, for whom every breath is precious and not to be expended on talk. He looks and sounds a little hardier at the end, and we feel he’ll be happy enough to go fishing and leave the violence of the world to younger hands. Eastwood may be leaving it behind, too; he may only have a few more Hollywood thrillers in him before he either retires or steps behind the camera permanently, until he directs while attached to an oxygen tank, just like the man he once played. As a director, he shows no signs of fatigue; let’s hope we have him around for a long autumn.

Full Frontal

August 2, 2002

After three consecutive movies that grossed over $100 million, not to mention the Best Director Oscar, Steven Soderbergh needs to be put in his place. That’s apparently the view of most critics, who did not spank him for the overrated Serious Drama Traffic or for the trifling star vehicle Ocean’s Eleven; he was still their golden boy then, but now, with Full Frontal, he has gone back to that … weird independent stuff. This is good news, say I; welcome back, Steve. The guy must’ve wanted to take a break from blockbusters and Oscar bait to make a little film just because he thought it should be made. I say he’s earned it.

This is one of those Chinese-box reality-within-reality projects that are easy to make fun of. Worse still, it’s a movie about movies, and there’s a movie within the movie, and a movie within the movie within the movie. There is also a play, The Sound and the Fuehrer, in which Richard Linklater regular Nicky Katt plays an irritable and contemporary-attitude Hitler (his cell phone rings; “Damn, it’s Goebbels; he thinks it’s a toy”). The play looks painfully bad; the movie within the movie looks like some dead-in-the-water romance in which movie star Francesca (played by movie star Julia Roberts) is playing a magazine reporter interviewing movie star Nicholas (Blair Underwood); when the reporter accompanies her subject to the set of his film, we see footage that looks even worse (though the fun is in spotting the director and co-star of this movie within the movie within the movie).

The “reality” in the movie is shot on mega-grainy digital video, the choice du jour of indie filmmakers who don’t have to shoot digital but do it anyway. We meet Carl (David Hyde Pierce) and Arthur (Enrico Colantoni), the co-authors of the play and the reporter/movie-star screenplay. Carl himself is a reporter, and some of his experiences find their way into the movie within the movie. Carl’s marriage to Lee (Catherine Keener), a hopelessly miserable human-resources manager who fires people all day, is on the skids; Lee’s sister Linda (Mary McCormack) is a massage therapist headed to Tucson to meet a guy she’s been seeing online. Everybody’s paths converge at a fortieth-birthday party in honor of Gus (David Duchovny), a film producer whose particular use for a plastic bag reverses all the positive publicity plastic bags got from American Beauty.

As you might surmise, none of this really goes anywhere. It’s an experiment, largely carried on the shoulders of its actors; Catherine Keener, who I expect to assume control of the planet any day now, adds another notch of greatness to her belt as the bewildered, strenuously unhappy Lee, and there are worse ways to spend your time than watching Nicky Katt in his Hitler mustache throwing hissy fits backstage about the actors playing his bodyguards. Too little seen lately, Mary McCormack brings her usual sanity to her role and to the movie, though even her character isn’t above lies and theft. At times, this comes close to being Soderbergh’s Neil LaBute movie — there is, as the crude old saying has it, no one to root for.

Full Frontal is nothing great or revolutionary; it’s a doodle movie, a sketchbook. I was held by the tinkering quality of it, though. Steven Soderbergh seems to get more excited about a project like this, which has no clearcut “point,” than about his recent run of story-driven, dependable-director movies. And it isn’t really all that self-indulgent; critics have heaped praise on films a lot more nebulous and pompous than this one (Magnolia, anyone?). I would hesitate to recommend Full Frontal to anyone who doesn’t share my patience with such experiments, but it’s there for those who do.