Archive for September 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

September 29, 2007

Enlightenment will elude you when you’re looking for it, and find you when you’re not. That’s a possible theme of The Darjeeling Limited, the new exercise in melancholia from Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums). The movie unfolds in the same precisely compartmentalized place as Anderson’s other films — in his head, really. Disappointed people slouch in the dead center of symmetrical compositions while the soundtrack ushers in mournful French singers or Kinks B-sides. It’s a remarkably consistent universe, and Anderson — happily for his fans, unhappily for his detractors — shows no signs of wanting to leave it. Or does he?

Head and face swathed in bandages from a suicide attempt (an unintended tabloid irony), Owen Wilson’s Francis Whitman has called his younger brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) to join him in India for a train trip. They haven’t spoken since their father’s funeral a year ago, and Francis, who issues commands in the passive-aggressive form of suggestions (“Can we agree on that?” is his familiar refrain; “No” is not an optional response), seems to think only a ride on the Darjeeling Limited will clear their heads and bring them together. That, and frequent touristy stops to sample Indian rituals and make themselves feel spiritually connected.

Unfortunately for Francis’ well-laid plans (his laminated itineraries recalling Dignan’s “75-year plan” in Anderson and Wilson’s debut Bottle Rocket), this is a Wes Anderson film, where disconnection prevails. This is the second Anderson movie in a row (after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) in which people are shoehorned together on transportation while never feeling more isolated. Jack, nursing his hurt over his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman, who appears in the film’s short prelude Hotel Chevalier), throws himself into a fling with comely stewardess Rita (Amara Karan). Peter wears his father’s prescription glasses even though they give him headaches. All three brothers dose themselves out of unhappiness with various Indian anodynes.

The Darjeeling Limited has the rambling, random quality of life; India is an unpredictable place where real pain coexists with deep pleasure, and the brothers Whitman (one vowel away from “Whiteman”) do their best to laminate it and impose their will on it. The folly of this is neatly encapsulated in an anecdote when Peter buys a cobra, which escapes its skull-and-crossbones box. You can’t put India in a box, and for the first time, Anderson’s tight rectangular compositions seem insufficient to take it all in. The movie finds Anderson straining to peel away his mannerisms and respond to a world outside the ones he usually so meticulously designs. (The train is fictional, but is similar to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.) Written by Anderson along with Schwartzman and his cousin Roman Coppola, the script drifts into tragedy, from which the brothers seem to learn nothing because they treat it as something to be learned from — again, imposing design on chaos — rather than something real to be responded to honestly. Only during a late-inning encounter in which nothing much happens do the brothers seem to get the true point of their journey.

Much like Jack, who compulsively puts Peter Sarstedt on his iPod to woo the objects of his desire and writes transparently autobiographical stories (“The characters are fictional,” he keeps protesting), Anderson has wanted to forge clean, crisp art out of the slop and hysteria of emotional life. The Darjeeling Limited — preceded as it is by Hotel Chevalier, perhaps his most rigidly formalist work ever — seems to point towards a brave new world for Anderson. The characters inhabit that same Anderson headspace I talked about earlier (the movie’s title doesn’t just refer to the train), but by the end they’ve cast that off along with the burdens of their past. It’s a beautiful film.5

The Jane Austen Book Club

September 21, 2007

The group of six in The Jane Austen Book Club tend to see Austen’s work through the prism of whatever’s going on in their lives at the moment. We could be cynical and call this narcissism, or we could be generous and say it’s a tribute to Austen’s wisdom and staying power. I choose to be generous, because the movie is, too. It’s adapted from a 2004 novel by Karen Joy Fowler, who started out as a science-fiction writer, and one of her characters here speaks passionately in defense of sci-fi as a genre that can be as wise about human nature as Austen was. Not Transformers, of course. In a way, though, a movie about (mostly) fortyish women discussing literature and their own feelings is more bizarre in the context of mainstream Hollywood than Decepticons are.

The film sometimes feels like a TV movie, partly due to rookie director Robin Swicord’s network-style blocking, partly due to the cast of prime-time-drama favorites: Kathy Baker (Northern Exposure), Amy Brenneman (NYPD Blue, Judging Amy), Maria Bello (ER), Jimmy Smits (L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), even Marc Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Then there are visiting Brits Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) and Hugh Dancy (recuperating nicely from Basic Instinct 2 and Blood and Chocolate). It’s a good, homey cast, and nobody really gets a Big Scene — it’s likable ensemble work, with Bello and Blunt the standouts as, respectively, a contented single mourning the recent death of her dog and a brittle French teacher who’s falling out of love with busy husband Blucas.

Baker, the group’s den mother, starts the Jane Austen book club to distract various women of her acquaintance from their discontents. Brenneman, for instance, is reeling because her husband (Smits) has just dumped her for another woman; she joins the club along with her lesbian daughter (Maggie Grace), who flits from relationship to relationship. The group needs a sixth member, and find one in Grigg (Dancy), a tech-support guy who bonded with his dad over paperback space operas and never got over it. He, it turns out, has much to contribute to the discussions and to the romantic drama in the group, wherein Bello, trying to fix him up with Brenneman, winds up falling for him herself.

The Jane Austen Book Club is a cozy, tasteful affair about the problems of the well-to-do — there’s no literate minimum-wage worker in the club, though maybe the token inclusion of one would be more insulting than the absence of one. Then again, Austen herself focused on the moneyed, the better to gently pick at their social mores. Fowler and Swicord don’t really do that, perhaps due more to the 21st-century American setting than to their own frailties (and really, who could outdo Austen on the politics of love?). The book and movie are intended as a love letter to Jane and an attempt at an Austenesque social circle baffled by the heart’s stirrings. Every month, the five women and one man retreat to a nicely appointed household, pass the wine around, and dissect one of the books — though, in practice, they may as well be discussing James Patterson, since the talk always turns back to themselves.

Swicord knows how to write women (she adapted Little Women and Memoirs of a Geisha), and she’s fair enough to flesh out the male characters so that the man-bashing is kept to a minimum. (Smits’ character, for example, doesn’t dump his wife for a younger woman — which she finds even more hurtful and inexplicable, since his leaving for a woman half his age would be vile but at least more readily understood.) The film probably won’t send anyone hastening to the bookstore for an Austen omnibus, and should probably be taken as the cute minor literary offshoot it is, but it does satisfy a certain thirst for conversation for its own sake at the movies. It’s the sort of middlebrow ensemble piece that used to open every week, instead of inching into theaters on a slow platform release as The Jane Austen Book Club is doing, as if it were as odd and inaccessible as Inland Empire or Mad Cowgirl. Again, in today’s context, it probably is. 4

Eastern Promises

September 14, 2007

At first glance, it may seem out of character for director David Cronenberg — master of twisted body-consciousness films like The Fly, Dead Ringers and Crash — to take a tour of the Russian underworld of London in his new film Eastern Promises. But it doesn’t take long for this supposedly “conventional” Cronenberg outing to announce its place in his portfolio. It begins with blood and slime, the primordial fluids of life and death, and coasts for the next 90 minutes on our unease. Though the remaining violence is sparingly parcelled out, we know we’re in a universe where live flesh has ink or a price on it, and dead flesh is subject to rude post-mortem depredations in the freezer of a restaurant.

Part of the plot’s motor (via the tight script by Steven Knight, author of Dirty Pretty Things) emerges into the film coated in both fluids — a baby born to a teenage Russian ex-pat prostitute who died in childbirth. (The film’s title refers to the way she and others like her are lured to London by the mob with promises of big things, then put to work in the sex trade.) Anna (Naomi Watts), a doctor at Trafalgar Hospital, delivers the baby and finds the girl’s diary, which contains sensitive information about various players in the local vory v zakone (“thieves-in-law”) outfit. This includes avuncular mob boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his impetuous, not-as-closeted-as-he-thinks son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).

In another film, Anna would be the lead character, spending perhaps five episodes of a BBC miniseries to get to the bottom of the Russian decay. Cronenberg, however, pretty much dismisses her as a necessary plot agitator — the sand in this oyster — and focuses on Kirill’s sardonic driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). In their previous film together, 2005’s A History of Violence, Cronenberg and Mortensen explored the nightside of a kind man with a dark, grisly past. Here it’s almost the reverse, as the outwardly unfeeling Nikolai develops shadings of compassion. The two movies are bookend pieces, and Mortensen makes Nikolai even more disturbing when traces of humanity sneak through his contemptuous façade — when Nikolai tells Anna “You belong in there, with nice people,” he may be thinking how dangerous it is to be so naïve about life’s underbelly, and how comforting it must be. He wouldn’t know.

As in all Cronenberg films, God (or the devil) is in the details — the way, for instance, Semyon brings out a cake for a woman’s 100th birthday party, and she pays him and the cake no mind, focusing on the accordion player — she’s not fooled by Semyon’s charm, she knows what he is. Eastern Promises is an inquiry into various kinds of scars; the whole business with the tattoos, which Russian thugs get in prison to denote where they stand in the food chain, was added to the script by Cronenberg and Mortensen, and a turning point comes when Nikolai receives his coveted star tattoos on his chest, signifying total loyalty to the vory v zakone. Long live the new flesh. The most celebrated and notorious scene, of course, involves the attempted removal of Nikolai’s tattoos by two Chechen assassins while Nikolai is clad only in a towel, and soon not even that. Leave it to Cronenberg to redefine the fight scene, so often glossed over in routine action flicks, but here lingered over to emphasize the grasping pain and effort of hand-to-hand combat.

Like Elias Koteas’ character in Crash (“Prophecy is ragged and dirty,” he said to his own tattooist, “so make it ragged and dirty”), Nikolai is an illustrated man whose body is a guidebook to a dangerous subculture. A development near the end makes him perhaps too readable, but Mortensen finishes his role here exactly as he did in A History of Violence, sitting at a dinner table and contemplating his life of brutality and what comes next. Here, though, Nikolai has rejected the trappings of civilization — a woman, a baby — to spend more time in the shadows with shadowy men. Eastern Promises completes a trilogy begun with Cronenberg’s underseen Spider, a trilogy dealing with family shattered by secret horrors. It is Cronenberg firing on all cylinders, probing the imperfect human machine underneath the fleshy surface, meticulously detailing his findings.

Across the Universe

September 14, 2007

As I get older I have less time and patience for the same old Hollywood stuff and more hunger for experimentation and strangeness. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Anyway, Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is like a cold tall glass of pink lemonade in the midst of a serious drought of movie originality. I drank it down and immediately wanted seconds. The movie will be torture for some but an orgy for the like-minded, and if you would rather do anything else than watch a fanciful dramatization of thirty-odd Beatles songs, feel free to do so. This lavish labor of love constantly walks a slender thread between masterpiece and folly, but when all is said and done, it confirms, for me, Taymor’s status as a master, after her dazzling Titus and Frida.

Joe Cocker appears as three different raffish characters, Salma Hayek plays five nurses at once, Bono (looking amusingly like Robin Williams) drops in to tune in and drop out for a spacey version of “I Am the Walrus.” Across the Universe feels like a ‘60s party where anything can happen, though it avoids the cameo-in-every-scene foolishness of 1978’s oafish Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film. Everything that didn’t work in that notorious turkey works gorgeously here, starting with the simple boy-meets-girl story enacted by Liverpudlian welder/artist Jude (Jim Sturgess) and rich girl turned anti-war activist Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Jude comes to America in search of his father, finds him, and proceeds to forget him, concentrating on partying with new friend Max (Joe Anderson) and falling in love with Max’s sister Lucy.

Julie Taymor isn’t afraid of grand passions. She has a winsome young lesbian, named Prudence (T.V. Carpio), crooning a lonely “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” while staring at a cheerleader from afar. She puts Jimi and Janis together, as personified by hard-driving singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs, whose hair-raising Joplin yowls steal the movie) and guitar-crunching JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy). On some level the movie is the late ‘60s in a Cuisinart, right down to Max getting shipped off to Vietnam (after submitting to a surreal and homoerotic Army induction in which he and his fellow soldiers are divided into body parts). But Taymor believes in love and art, which in the movie’s universe transcend all.

This is an alternate world where nobody’s heard of the Beatles, yet the characters express their deepest emotions through Beatles music when simple words just won’t do. The movie begins in pre-Beatles Invasion America, with the Fab Four’s early bubblegum tunes, and proceeds according to the band’s journey, ending up with a rooftop concert that recalls the Beatles’ final public performance atop Apple Records. The movie, like the music, is fairly apolitical despite its anti-war stance; its sympathy is with Jim, an artist who sees the increasingly radicalized Lucy growing away from him. The cast — especially Jim Sturgess, a cross between Ewan MacGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal, with a voice that evokes Paul McCartney — performs with warmth and dedication, doing justice to the music and its emotional source. It isn’t a pop-cultural clutterfest like Moulin Rouge; by sticking to the Beatles it allows itself a unity of theme and tone while also dabbling in the eclectic sights and sounds of the era.

Your response to Across the Universe depends largely on your response to the Beatles. If you find them twee and precious, the fathers of a thousand sensitive emo bands, you should do your blood pressure a favor and avoid the film. But if you feel that the Beatles were the perfect sound at the right time, either pulling the world into psychedelia or accompanying it there on a parallel path, you’ll receive the movie as a joyful celebration of a time when it seemed all you did need was love.

Both chaotically colorful and meticulously composed, much like the Beatles from Rubber Soul onward, Across the Universe is an elegy for a time past and a timeless ode to the pleasures and pains of youth. The relevant comparison here is not to Sgt. Pepper the movie, but to Sgt. Pepper the album.

The Brave One

September 14, 2007

Some have asked why Jodie Foster and Neil Jordan, director of such modern classics as Mona Lisa and The Crying Game, would stoop to make a “vigilante flick” like The Brave One. Well, why not? Neither of them is a stranger to pulp (has everyone forgotten Silence of the Lambs and Interview with the Vampire?); it’s what you do with the pulp. As it happens, Foster and Jordan have collaborated on a 9/11 requiem — a meditation on what happens when violence splinters your trust in a city you love. It’s an open wound of a film, yearning for healing that comes hard-won, if at all. Foster’s character takes the easy route, though it proves to be not quite so easy.

Erica Bain (Foster) hosts a New York radio show filled with sounds of the city, blanketed by her literary musings. She’s about to get married to David (Naveen Andrews), a doctor. This upper-class liberal couple go for an evening walk with their dog and end up facing the liberal’s worst guilty nightmare — a group of Hispanic punks who seem to embody every hostile ethnic stereotype. The ordeal ends with David dead, the dog abducted, and Erica in the hospital. (Is she raped? We assume so, though the movie never comes right out and tells us.) Once she gets out, she can’t sleep, and no longer feels safe in the city that once gave up its secrets to her microphone. So she gets a gun, and many chances to use it soon present themselves.

I don’t think The Brave One is saying, or trying to say, anything about the politics or morality of what Erica does. For Foster, it’s another part of her ongoing project to take a scenario nobody blinks at if it involves a guy (Kevin Bacon’s Death Sentence, which opened three weeks ago, was greeted with yawns) and see what happens if it involves a woman. Erica’s hands don’t shake when she kills, but her system rebels in other ways; after the first shooting (a homicidally abusive husband in a convenience store, played by horror director Larry Fessenden) Erica gets a taste for it, though she doesn’t enjoy it. She does, however, enjoy talking to Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) under the pretense of interviewing him for her show; they end up discussing how it feels to be powerless and powerful. It doesn’t escape us that a woman and a black man are talking about power and its corruptive and comforting aspects.

Neil Jordan has never been one to take violence lightly, and neither has Foster. The Brave One obscures the carnage, denying us the action-movie kicks “vigilante flicks” are usually known for. It also doesn’t point up the ugliness of Erica’s actions, but we see enough of that in Foster’s eyes. She makes Erica hollower inside with each killing, and further away from the secure, happy New Yorker she used to be. By the time Erica goes after someone who hasn’t threatened her first (but who is, conveniently, a scumbag), her M.O. has crossed the line from self-defense to assassination. The Brave One is an odd and unresolved experience, coming down neither for nor against vigilante justice. Its emphasis lies on Erica’s transformation.

The script gets gimmicky in the final third, with a minor character having a change of heart and messaging Erica not only a crucial address but incriminating evidence. This isn’t a realistic film, and neither, really, was Taxi Driver, the high-water mark of this sort of movie. It’s as much about the unfocused feelings of vengeful rage many Americans had after 9/11 as about a woman going on a killing spree. Shooting a couple of subway thugs who had nothing to do with killing your boyfriend might make you feel better in the short term but won’t make you any safer in the long term. The Brave One is a why-are-we-in-Iraq fable in disguise, just as earlier high-toned pulp films like Deliverance were why-are-we-in-Vietnam essays in the form of an action movie. It says that revenge scratches an itch but doesn’t know when to stop scratching.

Shoot ‘Em Up

September 7, 2007

Christmas came early. Shoot ‘Em Up, mark my words, will become an eagerly-passed-around cult hit on DVD, where its fans can watch the hilariously unlikely stuntwork and gunplay over and over again, and skip-search past the boring stuff. Not that there’s much to skip-search past, since writer-director Michael Davis has already done it for us. It’s a floridly nihilistic death comedy, but it’s also a satire of one, and no matter what level you approach it on — at face value as a Saturday-night action burp, or as a Saturday-night action burp between quotation marks — it works. It worked for me, anyway. I cackled happily throughout.

A man known only as Mr. Smith helps a pursued woman deliver her baby while returning the gunfire of her pursuers. He gets stuck with the baby. The bad guys want the baby. The man takes the baby to a hooker he knows, who conveniently specializes in wet-nurse fetishes. Many people die. Many more people die. Some people live, but we don’t see them in the movie. Clive Owen is the man — yes, in the “Clive Owen is the man” sense, too — Monica Bellucci is the hooker, and Paul Giamatti, who usually plays mousy losers, is the chief hit-man after the baby. Magnificent casting all around: each actor benefits from iconic shorthand. You don’t have to be told that Owen’s character is a gruff tough guy who still has some decency in him, or that Bellucci has as much heart as kink in her soul, or that Giamatti will surreptitiously fondle a dead woman’s breast between phone calls from his wife.

One other reason the casting is inspired: all three actors have played comic-book characters — Owen’s Dwight in Sin City, Giamatti’s Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, Bellucci’s whoever-she-was in the Matrix films, which were essentially comic books writ large. If your film-geekiness and comics-geekiness overlap, watching a Frank Miller hero face off against Harvey Pekar rings a lot of satirical bells, though, as always, I wonder how much more fun the movie might’ve been had the roles been reversed. But why complain? Owen and Giamatti were born to play these guys, and Shoot ‘Em Up feels as if they showed up on the set every morning full of ideas about how to funk up their usual personae. Owen is always chomping carrots, linking him with Bugs Bunny in this Looney Tunes universe (as I’m far from the first to point out), while Giamatti, bald and sporting ugly facial hair, is both Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam.

Shoot ‘Em Up (its very title as in-your-face, it-is-what-it-is as Snakes on a Plane) has racked up a lot of comparisons to the concussive cinema of John Woo, though it isn’t really playing the same game. Woo’s films are serious explorations of honor and loyalty; this film just wants to fling metal and splatter anatomy. The baby stops crying whenever heavy-metal music plays, giving Davis a reason to ladle lots of it onto the soundtrack. It’s a jock’s kegger party thrown by the chess club — it gets its blast from the precision and planning that go into the staging. Shoot ‘Em Up contains several ridiculous sequences, all freshly-minted classics, in which physics are bent, exploited, and flat-out flushed down the toilet. The gunfight thousands of feet in mid-air will go down as some sort of gleefully wanton masterpiece of action-figure logic.

At one point, Giamatti holds up two birthday cards, a sweet one with balloons and one with a bikinied babe, and wonders which would be more appropriate for his eight-year-old son. Shoot ‘em Up has a similar tension between innocence and sleaziness (Giamatti touching the dead woman’s breast has the air of a dorky little boy getting away with something naughty), just like Bellucci’s boudoir full of baby bottles and decked out with cribs for men who want to be babies. That brief bit with Giamatti and the birthday cards doesn’t advance the plot any, so I’m thinking that’s the theme of the flick right there: choose between balloons or boobs, between infantilism of two different kinds. Shoot ‘Em Up lays them both out for us to see and laugh at, though it also can’t quite choose, either, which makes this one of the most honest films to roll out of a studio in recent years as well as one of the most scabrously entertaining.