Archive for May 2005

Saving Face

May 27, 2005

storyAlice Wu’s Saving Face will ring a bell with anyone familiar with Ang Lee’s filmography — it’s got repression, forbidden sexuality, and the battle between tradition and changing mores. Still, this romantic comedy about two women in love — juxtaposed with the dilemma of a 48-year-old unmarried pregnant woman — is lighthearted and winning.

Workaholic surgeon Wil (Michelle Krusiec) finds herself sharing her apartment with her old-school mom (Joan Chen), who’s been disowned by her father after she becomes pregnant. It’s terrible timing, because Wil, a semi-closeted lesbian, is about to meet Vivian (Lynn Chen), a sexy teacher and aspiring ballerina. They hit it off nicely, though Vivian, like Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (Saving Face came out before that film, though Annie Proulx’ original story dates back to 1997), is frustrated with Wil’s hesitance to own her sexual identity. They never go out, never share public displays of affection, and Wil is always off cutting up some patient.

Krusiec and Lynn Chen have a warm, intimate rapport, especially in a genuinely erotic bedroom scene made all the hotter by the presence of laughter. Sex in movies, as directed (usually) by men, is grim, world-shattering, and almost always laughable. (Think of the mythical exertions in 300.) Gays (like John Cameron Mitchell in Shortbus) and women seem uninterested in depicting sex unless there’s some wit to be found, or some new way into the character. Physically, the women match up beautifully; emotionally they’re a bit rockier, but that’s part of the point.

Wu gets some mileage out of the clash of the old Chinese “biddies” and stern paternal figures with the young breed. At social functions, Wil is expected to dance with various men, one of whom rattles through tech stuff and the boringness of his day. Wil and the man literally go through the motions, mostly to parody what’s wanted of them. Wil’s mom belongs to this world, where older Chinese women gossip incessantly and the older men, left among themselves, aren’t much better. It’s all affectionately viewed, though the formula seems to be that the women do all the work and the suffering while the men have the luxury to demand that everyone bend to their will.

Saving Face is amiable and sometimes fresh, straddling the line between challenging the old morality and wanting to retain the familial comforts of ethnicity. At the end of the day, Wil can still go home to a world she knows, even if it exasperates her. Vivian seems to come from a more yuppified family, and we sense that she was pushed into greatness, whereas Wil possibly attained it in spite of her family. Wil speaks Cantonese fluently; Vivian hardly speaks it at all. Vivian is modern; Wil likes to think she’s modern but hasn’t escaped her upbringing. Vivian is art, Wil is science. Both deal with the body, though in one of the best scenes, Vivian tries to teach Wil how to fall without hurting herself and Wil is too clenched and uptight to move. The scene is the movie in microcosm: you have to let yourself fall, and risk pain, in order to get anywhere.

It’s an entertaining debut from a gay woman who used to be a Wil — designing software for Microsoft — and is now trying to be a Vivian. Let’s hope she doesn’t go the way of other lesbian filmmakers, going years between projects and then washing up on the shores of The L Word. Wu has abundant affection for her characters and a sharp eye for how they interact. These days, that’s far from nothing.

The Longest Yard (2005)

May 27, 2005

longest_yardLike its 31-year-old predecessor, which starred Burt Reynolds as a fallen football star turned jailbird who led a team of convicts against a team of guards, The Longest Yard is too sloppy and lazy to get angry — or excited — about. Adam Sandler is no one’s idea of a plausible star quarterback (at least Reynolds actually had a gridiron background), but it must’ve struck someone as a grand idea to cast him as Reynolds’ character, Paul Crewe, who gets sent up for three years after getting drunk, stealing his girlfriend’s car, and leading the police on a merry chase. As in the original, it’s important that Paul is incarcerated for nothing terribly heinous (he doesn’t run anyone over), just as it’s significant that we never learn why any of the other cons were thrown in prison. That way, we can safely root for the cons without the troubling knowledge that some of them may be, say, rapists or murderers or child molesters.

That didn’t matter so much in 1974, when The Longest Yard was conceived as more of an anti-establishment Vietnam-era comedy — a feature-length reiteration of the climactic football game in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. In the language of that day, even if you were a murdering scumbag you still, by definition, had the moral high ground over redneck guards and cruel wardens. The original film tried hard to be a hip jock-strap farce putting The Man in his place, but it was too crude to be anything but another rung in Burt Reynolds’ climb down from serious acting (Deliverance) to crowd-pleasing (Smokey and the Bandit and everything that followed). The new Longest Yard, though also released during an increasingly unpopular war, makes the original look like refined satire. The difference is partly in the leads: Reynolds, fresh from his famous Cosmopolitan spread, had a smug, self-regarding insouciance; Sandler, at 38, is still your grungy little brother with an egg-shaped head and no particular sexual identity. He was more credible, and funnier, in his earlier football comedy The Waterboy; he just isn’t angry or physical enough this time to rank The Longest Yard alongside fan-favorite Sandler sports movies like Happy Gilmore.

Director Peter Segal (who helmed Sandler’s last two hits, Anger Management and 50 First Dates) surrounds the star with some solid support. Chris Rock does his Chris Rock thing as “Caretaker,” who helps Paul whip the team into shape, but since his fate follows the original film’s plot, the movie stumbles into a tonal bummer it hasn’t laid any groundwork for and never recovers from. It’s fun to see Ed Lauter (who in 1974 played the sadistic-guard role here filled by a slumming William Fichtner) in a bit role, though I wish someone had found a place for big Richard Kiel, who was the original’s most fearsome convict (and also appeared in Happy Gilmore); the Kiel role is taken over by the 7’2″ Dalip Singh, whose speech is slurred but understandable, though the movie oddly subtitles his dialogue anyway. Almost visibly sighing with boredom, James Cromwell — fast becoming typecast as the Skinny Bad White Man — plays the hateful warden with no identifiable venom or even racism. And Burt Reynolds, looking flat-out terrible these days, grabs his paycheck and plays the old football legend who helps coach the team. At times you might catch him looking at Sandler and thinking that they don’t make bad-ass anti-heroes like they used to.

Occasionally amusing — mildly amusing — and never offensive (except when it drags out a quintet of flamingly gay convicts who dress in drag as cheerleaders), this is your typical empty summer comedy, positioned bravely as the Sith-slayer, though its release date is the only ballsy thing about it. People mythologize the ’70s as a golden decade, forgetting such surefire audience-pleasing schlock as the original Longest Yard, but comparing the 1974 movie with the 2005 remake yields the dispiriting insight that Hollywood can’t even make credible rabble-rousing junk any more. As for Adam Sandler, he’s already made his great sports comedy; I have a large soft spot for Happy Gilmore, which found roughhouse slob humor in golf, of all things. He’s getting a little long in the tooth for knockabout comedy, confirmed herein by how little gridiron action his Paul Crewe actually engages in. I don’t know that Sandler’s future lies in artsy misfires like Punch-Drunk Love or in family-friendly sitcoms like Spanglish. I do know that it doesn’t lie in remakes of films that were crappy to begin with.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

May 19, 2005

sith_wideweb__430x292And so it ends where it began. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is meant to close the loop, to explain how a once-virtuous and powerful Jedi Knight named Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) became the heavy-breathing, basso-profundo Darth Vader, destroyer of worlds. Does it? Structurally, it does practically nothing else; both rushed and overlong, the movie is as packed as were the theaters playing it during its opening weekend. Emotionally, though, George Lucas’ latest folly reads at zero. Anakin’s turn towards the Dark Side of the Force is supposed to be driven by fear and loathing, but since the character is so amateurishly written and played, he’s little but a cautionary stick figure. The effect, not only of this film but of the previous two, has been to rob one of cinema’s most iconic villains of his mystery.

Sith, like Lucas’ other effects-laden returns to the lucrative Star Wars well, is a pinwheel in frantic motion, except for the dialogue scenes, which stop everything dead. And those are the scenes meant to give this saga thematic weight and resonance, to create a plausible path from light to darkness for a young, impulsive hero terrified of losing his pregnant wife Padmé (Natalie Portman). It’s pretty clear that Anakin’s mind is being controlled by a two-faced agent of the Sith — the anti-Jedis who are seduced by the forcible aspect of the Force. That would explain some of Anakin’s behavior, but it works only on paper. Given a hundred years of cinema language with which to make us feel Anakin’s turn, to make us experience his dread and suffering, Lucas decides instead to play in the sandbox of the future. He gives us lots of twinkly CGI light shows, most of which are so cluttered and hyper-edited we don’t know where to look.

The story of Sith really should’ve been spread out over the previous two movies; we didn’t need to pick up Anakin as an insufferable little boy winning pod races. Most of the point of these three prequels is shoehorned into this last film, yet often Lucas even loses the basic thread. Time better spent fleshing out Anakin’s character is frittered away on gee-whiz fight scenes — Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) against the new character General Grievous, a clanking, wheezing precursor of Vader — and fan-pleasing excursions to the planet of the Wookiees, just so Lucas can bring Chewbacca back again. I’m not saying the movie needed to enter the brooding territory of Ingmar Bergman (though that might’ve been interesting); The Empire Strikes Back managed shifts in tone and consciousness without sacrificing popcorn thrills. Maybe Lucas needs all these fancy distractions so that he won’t have to look too closely at the Vader-as-Lucas subtext that, by this point in the saga, is all but unavoidable.

Fans will project 28 years of their own longings onto the finale, which pits Obi-Wan against his former apprentice Anakin on a planet seemingly made of lava. But even here, Lucas succumbs to effects addiction and robs the duel of any humanity. The sight of a lava-ravaged Anakin, flesh ruined and soul consumed by rage, may produce a slight frisson — you’re watching the birth of a monster. (One wonders, though, why Obi-Wan wouldn’t have simply mercy-killed him, rather than leaving him to die in agony — or, as it turns out, to be rescued and given the familiar black metal raiment of Vader.) But perhaps all of this should have remained in the imaginations of the fans, who probably wouldn’t have dreamed up such ghastly dialogue, or such annoyances as Jar Jar Binks (who, thankfully, is reduced to a two-shot, no-lines cameo here).

I couldn’t spot him, but Lucas is rumored to be in the movie himself, as a character named Baron Papanoida. Father of the nerds? Paranoid pap? It’s no small irony that a California geek who probably got stuffed into his share of lockers now commands the biggest franchise in the galaxy. Sith, which broke all kinds of box-office records, confirms his grip on the dreams of people worldwide. I suppose I can be forgiven for hoping that this final panel of the saga represents the release of Emperor Papanoida’s grip, and that we can return to movies that don’t have to be blockbusters, adventures that don’t have to be aggressively hectic, and fantasies that don’t have to be seemingly written for, and by, slow children.


May 13, 2005

At 42, the martial-arts master Jet Li is obviously looking for roles with which he can age gracefully. He may have found one in Unleashed, in which Li plays Danny, a man-child raised and trained by vicious Glasgow gangster Bart (Bob Hoskins) to turn into a whirlwind of carnage whenever Bart removes Danny’s metal collar. (The movie’s original title was Danny the Dog, which I sort of prefer.) For the first reel or so, we’re treated to some impressively percussive fights, and Jet Li drops the dead-cool persona I’ve seen in some of his other films. When Danny is uncollared, Li flies into action with an odd mix of sadness and rage — not rage at his opponents but at the life he’s been forced to accept.

Luc Besson wrote Unleashed, and it harks back to the films that made his name internationally as a director — La Femme Nikita (1990) and The Professional (1994). All three movies explore killers with souls — assassins who happen to be very good at what they do, but often wish they weren’t. Left to his own devices, Danny would be happier listening to music or reading picture books. He’s a gentle soul, not unlike an attack dog in his simple view of reality: If the collar comes off, that means someone is threatening the only father figure he has ever known, and that someone must be ground into the dirt. I was reminded of news stories about rottweilers or pit bulls who could have been raised in kindly homes to be mellow pets; instead they were bred to kill, and escaped and mauled the wrong quarry (usually a child).

Before Danny can be warped into a rabid dog who kills indiscriminately, though, fate cuts him some slack. He meets an amiable old blind piano tuner named Sam (Morgan Freeman), who invites Danny to peck out a few notes on some dusty keys. Later, on the run from Bart and his cronies, a wounded Danny shows up at Sam’s door. Sam takes him in — the whipped dog has found a better master, though Sam isn’t interested in being anyone’s master. Sam and his gawky stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon), a student pianist in Britain on a scholarship, teach Danny how to be human. It sounds significantly sappier than it is, just as the basic throughline of The Professional (hit man takes orphan girl under his wing) sounds rather moist until you see what Besson does with it.

Unleashed is pretty trim, with no extraneous characters or subplots; there are essentially only four people, and the actors — particularly veterans Freeman (he’s better in this than in Million Dollar Baby, I thought) and Hoskins (gleefully revisiting his Long Good Friday territory) — have room to breathe. Jet Li often has the aspect of a cowed dog here, most poignantly when Bart catches up with Danny and he’s forced to resume his role as killer for cash (a shady character has offered Bart big bucks to pit Danny against various combatants). Classical music humanizes him, just as it did with Gary Oldman’s otherwise slimy cop in The Professional (both movies take their cue from A Clockwork Orange in that respect — music hath charms, and all that). Because the writing and filmmaking (Louis Leterrier, who also filmed Besson’s earlier script The Transporter, directed) are focused on this hard-bitten parable without any excess flab, Danny’s transition from dog to man feels archetypal or mythical, not manipulative.

Far-fetched? Sure, but that never stopped Besson before. And Jet Li has finally made the anti-violence violent movie he’s reportedly always wanted to make — there’s a brilliant sequence in which Danny must fend off several brutal opponents without killing them, and it displays far more exciting ingenuity than if Danny just went in there and wiped everyone out. (The fights were designed by master choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping, adding yet another gem to his portfolio. The man may be crazy busy these days, but it sure hasn’t affected the integrity of his work.) Unleashed will belong on your shelf next to Nikita or The Professional if you’re a Besson fan, or next to Jet Li’s better Hong Kong films if you’re a Jet fan, or even next to Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa if you’re a Bob Hoskins fan.

Crash (2005)

May 6, 2005

In Los Angeles as seen in movies — well, the serious ones, anyway — everything seems to be about disconnection. It’s as if the writers and directors who live there want to impress the rest of the world with the dark side of such a legendarily lightheaded city. The latest multicharacter drama to pump up the tensions between the aristocracy and the groundlings (each represented by a variety of races), Paul Haggis’ Crash enters theaters with an unusually high level of candid rhetoric and an equal level of do-gooder impulse. The movie (not to be confused with David Cronenberg’s 1996 oddity) is often very fine, and a somber yet supple film like this, coming as it does near the beginning of Stupidity Season at the movies, may strike many critics as a revelation. But don’t let yourself get carried away by the raves: Crash is solid but no masterpiece.

There are rich white people (Brendan Fraser as a district attorney, Sandra Bullock as his perpetually angry wife) and rich black people (Terrence Howard as a director, Thandie Newton as his mercurial wife). There are white cops (racist Matt Dillon, good-hearted Ryan Phillippe) and black cops (troubled detective Don Cheadle, cheerfully cynical lieutenant Keith David). There are Latinos who look like trouble but aren’t (locksmith Michael Pena, festooned with scary tattoos but actually a devoted husband and dad) and blacks who don’t look like trouble but are (Larenz Tate and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as two carjackers). There is a hot-headed Iranian store owner (Shaun Toub) and his level-headed daughter (Bahar Soomekh). Crash sets all these people bouncing off each other during the course of one unusally cold Los Angeles day and watches the racial sparks fly, just as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing did on a sidewalk-melting day in New York.

The difference between Crash and other depressed L.A. films (Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon) is that it focuses entirely on race — its tensions, its stereotypes, its misunderstandings. Crash is a tighter film than any of those. Writer/director Haggis, who also wrote Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, somehow manages to get his characters doing and saying unconscionable things while still keeping us involved in their fates. Matt Dillon’s cop, who seems at first glance a racist pig, develops shadings that help us understand him, if not excuse him. Likewise, we understand why Terrence Howard’s bourgeois director, egged on by his wife’s withering disdain of his manhood, comes close to throwing everything away when his path crosses with two of the other characters, who don’t know or care that he had a traumatic run-in with Dillon the night before.

Crash relies a little too much on coincidence for my taste. It’s as if Haggis, seeing how disconnected the characters are, set out to connect them by force, and sometimes the people seem like pawns, or placards making instructive points (see, not all Iranians are bad-tempered; not all Latinos are hoodlums). Don Cheadle has the movie’s most complexly drawn role, a worn-down detective who can’t believe his ears when a white cop (William Fichtner) wants to cover up the fact that three black cops recently shot dead by a white cop may have been corrupt. In a similar plot thread, Ryan Phillippe’s young, idealistic cop wants to report Dillon’s racist behavior and is told by his black supervisor (Keith David) to shut up about it. The interesting stuff in Crash takes place between cops of various races and backgrounds (including Cheadle’s girlfriend Jennifer Esposito, a cop of mixed Latin heritage).

The rest of the movie sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. It may be bracing to hear Miss Congeniality snarl and drop an F-bomb, but Sandra Bullock’s character feels unresolved, as does Thandie Newton’s brittle victim of Dillon’s racism. (The women in the movie get short shrift; Crash concerns itself chiefly with male torments and dilemmas. The Iranian’s wife, for instance, is played by Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Marina Sirtis, though you’d never know it, since she’s cloaked in traditional head garb and has almost no lines.) The outcome of the conflict between the Iranian store-owner and the Latino locksmith feels awfully forced, and does nothing, by the way, to dispel the stereotype of Middle Eastern men as violently uncomprehending ranters. (It also raises the question of why his daughter was worried about whether his gun had been stolen if she herself selected the bullets in it. That’ll make more sense if you see the film.) Crash has just enough powerful and delicate moments to rank it among the best of the season, but consider its competition.