Yes, I'm back in "business," such as it is. True, I'm temporarily without air conditioning in the middle of a New York July, and most of my belongings are still crammed helter-skelter into cardboard boxes, and my cats are only now beginning to emerge from the deepest recesses of the closet, where they've been cowering in terror since I uprooted them from the only home they'd ever known...but I think I'm finally in a position to tackle the sixteen (16) films currently crowded into my on-deck circle. For a while, I considered continuing in my usual fashion, reviewing 2-6 films per week, and gradually working the older titles into my "IN BRIEF" sections; upon reflection, however, it seems both wiser and easier just to knuckle down and deal with 'em all at once. I've divided them into eight convenient pairs, to make the process a bit easier for me, and I intend to be briefer than usual (we'll see).
In the tradition of "it ain't the meat, it's the motion," I have long offered the cinematic maxim "it ain't the idea, it's the execution." Still, I have to admit that Face/Off, John Woo's welcome return to form, is structured around a premise so delightfully crazed that it would have taken either great determination or complete incompetence to truly fuck it up. The scene in which detective Sean Archer, wearing master criminal Castor Troy's face, first encounters Troy sporting his own mug would likely have sent chills down my spine no matter who had been cast; with Nicolas Cage, my nominee for the greatest screen actor alive now that Stewart and Mitchum are dead, in the role of first-Troy-then-Archer, the moment is so unbearably poignant and electric that I thought I might pass out. (No disrespect intended, for once, towards John Travolta, whose performance as first-Archer-then-Troy is perhaps his best ever -- if nothing else, he does a mean Cage impression.) Face/Off is largely an actor's exercise -- the gun battles are surprisingly run-of-the-mill, given Woo's Hong Kong pedigree -- but as such it offers more excitement and giddy pleasure than any Hollywood release since last year's The Frighteners (whoops -- did I just trash my credibility?). I still can't believe, for example, that I was the only person at my screening who laughed uproariously when Archer-as-Troy grabbed one of Troy's henchmen by the forearms and, searching for an affectionate epithet along the lines of "you old rascal you," blurted out a friendly "you ...drug dealer!" The movie is jam-packed with similar frissons (it does sometimes require some mental effort to remember who you're looking at, which for me was part of the fun), and I had such a fine time overall that I was reluctantly willing to overlook its lame, ridiculously sunny conclusion (especially galling because the film momentarily looks as if it's heading somewhere a lot darker, with Archer trapped permanently inside the physiognomy of the man who killed his son). A couple of months back, I suggested that Breakdown was the summer's best blockbuster. I was wrong. It's only July -- here's hoping I'm wrong again.
Village, Pretty Flame
More than two years after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Emir Kusturica's sprawling, gargantuan Underground has finally arrived in New York City, trailing runner-up Ulysses' Gaze by about six months. Now that I've seen them both, I have mixed feelings about the results (the same mixed feelings that cinéastes in almost every other industrialized nation experienced two revolutions around the sun ago, I might add). To be sure, Kusturica's robust, vigorous, and darkly comic survey of half a century of Yugoslavian history through the eyes of two boisterous rogues is far superior to Angelopoulos' ponderous literary rambling; on the other hand, Underground's competition that year included Land and Freedom, which frankly wuz robbed. No matter. Underground begins in gloriously frenetic fashion, with an extended shot of a brass band running full-tilt-boogie across a war-torn landscape for no apparent reason, playing a tune so maddeningly catchy that I'm still humming it to myself over a week later. If you were feeling drowsy when you sat down, trust me, you're wide awake now...and Kusturica doesn't let go of your lapels for the next three hours. The movie is divided into three asymmetrical parts, with the first set during World War II, the second during the Cold War, and the comparatively short third during the present day (more or less). The most compelling of these, by far, is the middle one, which features a bold allegorical conceit in which Marko (Kusturica regular Miki Manojlovic, fast becoming one of my favorite European actors) neglects to tell his pal Blackie (Lazar Ristovski), and a host of others who are hiding in a basement bunker, that WWII is in fact over, instead using them as unwitting tools in his own rise to industrial power by selling the weapons that they manufacture in their effort to defeat Germans who'd left town decades previously. This is absurd, of course (and it gets still more ludicrous: Blackie, frustrated after years of waiting, surfaces for a reconnaissance mission and immediately stumbles upon a film crew making a movie about his own exploits during the war, with predictably disastrous results), but that's beside the point. As an outrageous fable, it works, largely because Kusturica and his cast run roughshod over any potential objections. (I exclude accusations that the film is objectionably pro-Serbian, the basis for which remains a mystery to me, perhaps because I don't speak Serbo-Croatian.) Despite its length, Underground rarely provides any opportunity for you to catch your breath, which is paradoxically both its greatest strength and its primary weakness. It is, in a word, wearying...and the final section, which desperately needs to provide a contemporary context for everything we've endured -- or some kind of context, at any rate -- falls totally flat, apart from a terrific final shot. Like The English Patient, it's a movie that aims so conspicuously for greatness that it's all the more disappointing when it doesn't quite get there. Nevertheless, not to be missed.
The Bread and the Vase
The West's perception of Iranian cinema -- to the extent that the West even has a perception of Iranian cinema -- is dominated by the towering figure of Abbas Kiarostami, whose most recent film, The Taste of Cherry, won this year's Palme d'Or (in a tie with Shohei Imamura's The Eel). Rivaling him in skill, however, and far surpassing him in popularity in their native country, is Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a former religious fanatic who came to his senses after a stint in jail and gradually evolved into a world-class filmmaker. Gabbeh, the first of his dozen or so films to find an American distributor, is not, in my opinion, the ideal introduction to his work...but that may be because I'm a prose man at heart, and Gabbeh is the most openly poetic of the five Makhmalbaf features I've seen to date. Impressionistic, allusive, and compact, it's undeniably gorgeous but also borderline incomprehensible; I was reminded of Paradjanov's classic The Color of Pomegranates, another rapturous testament to the power of pure cinema that utterly baffled me. The narrative defies description, at least in a review as brief as this one: basically, there's this rug, the gabbeh of the title, which turns into this young woman, who proceeds to relate her life story to the old couple who had been washing her back when she was still a hunk of fabric, though in fact she still is the gabbeh, in the sense that...no, it's pointless, especially since it's closing in on a year since I actually saw the film (at the 1996 New York Film Festival). There are many memorable moments -- I particularly enjoyed a sequence in which a man explains the concept of color to a group of schoolchildren by plucking objects of appropriate hues from the sky (this despite the slight impediment of his technically being indoors, mind you) -- but moments, ultimately, they remained. I never became involved in the gabbeh's story, a fairly trite tale of forbidden love, and the picture felt too long to me at a piddling 75 minutes. I'm happy that it got picked up, as it certainly deserves to be seen, but I'm also irritated that a far more impressive Makhmalbaf film languishes in distribution limbo...
After two consecutive ambitious misfires (or so I'm told -- I stayed away from Pocahontas after the trailer made me break out in hives), Disney's animation division has returned to its bread-and-butter: simple, frenetic, pop-culture-savvy fun, fortified with two or three superfluous homilies and morals (most prominently, in this case, the insipid "Go the distance"). Shout "blasphemer!" to the heavens if you must, but I enjoyed Hercules more than I have any of their animated features since Beauty and the Beast six years ago -- certainly a great deal more than I did Aladdin, the last one directed by the team of Musker & Clements (who'd previously helmed the first-rate Great Mouse Detective, which predates the alleged Disney renaissance by several years, but which I nonetheless perversely prefer to any of the subsequent "classics"). Naturally, they've altered the source material almost beyond recognition -- we're talking about a guy who in the original legend goes berserk one day and slaughters his entire family, you may recall -- but that's far less problematic here than it was in last year's expurgated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which Hugo's gloomy cynicism and Disney's relentless optimism seemed perpetually at war. Hercules appropriates the character's great strength and one or two of his labors, but that's about it; the rest is a standard quest-for-self tale, depicted in a pleasing angular style designed by Gerald Scarfe, who himself animated portions of Pink Floyd The Wall a decade and a half ago. True, the title character is a thundering bore, but then nobody was gonna mistake Steve Reeves' rendition for Sidney Falco, either -- there isn't really a whole lot you can do with Musclehead, when you get right down to it. Besides, James Woods, as huckster Hades, and Susan Egan, providing ingénue Meg(ara) with more personality than Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Nala, and Esmerelda combined (Hawks would've loved her), more than compensate for the Hercster's drippiness and Danny DeVito's tired grouch routine. Disney has always fared better with zippy one-liners and grandiose set pieces than with sentiment, and Hercules is, happily, chockablock with the former and burdened with less than usual of the latter. It's a romp, and a fine one. Now if they can just can the moralizing and cheap orphan-related pathos, maybe they can come up with something as inspired as the average Freakazoid! episode.
If you value fiercely independent filmmaking -- intelligent, personal, character-driven, uninfluenced by market considerations -- it's impossible not to respect and admire Victor Nunez, whose Florida-based oeuvre is a testament to his patience, tenacity and scruples. If you value excellent filmmaking, however, it's impossible not to wish that Nunez would find a talented screenwriter with whom he could collaborate in future. Ulee's Gold, like his previous feature, Ruby in Paradise, is a carefully crafted, beautifully acted, quietly passionate film intermittently crippled by atrocious dialogue ("You're almost a good man, Ulee Jackson, but you try too hard") and hamhanded literary tropes (Ulee is short for Ulysses; his wife's name was Penelope; he has to save a woman named Helen...deliver me from freshman comp). Fortunately, the quiet, reflective moments outnumber the dramatic ones by a ratio of about 3:1; there are numerous scenes depicting the mundane tasks Ulee performs as a beekeeper, for example, and these induced in me a trance-like fascination with the uncomplicated beauty of manual labor (when said labor is being performed by someone other than myself, of course), which I usually slip into only while watching documentaries. In many ways, I wish the film had been a documentary -- I was much more interested in the details of Ulee's profession than I was in those of Nunez's plot, which is often disappointingly routine: Ulee's jailbird son hid a bundle o' cash in a nearby swamp, and now his dangerous but unfailingly polite cohorts want their cut; their presence forces Ulee out of the shell he's been inhabiting since his wife died. (That the hoods invariably call Ulee "Mr. Jackson," even when they're threatening him and his loved ones, is the only element of the heist angle that seems truly inspired.) Nor was I terribly impressed by Peter Fonda's celebrated laconic performance; it may well be his best ever (I've only seen him here and in Easy Rider, which ain't my favorite film, man, and that's like an understatement, man, okay, man?), but I still maintain that it ranks several notches below his father's worst. Granted, his weathered face photographs well, but he still sounds false to me eight sentences out of ten -- I swear I can actually hear him trying to remember what his next line is each time he speaks. He's only infrequently required to deliver any of Nunez's stilted dialogue, so he's reasonably effective as Ulee, but I don't understand what all of the fuss is about. Which tidily sums up my feelings about the movie itself, actually. Memo to Nunez: to the best of my knowledge, nobody's attempted a silent feature since Charles Lane's Sidewalk Stories back in '89. Run it up the flagpole; I, for one, will salute.
Shall We Dance?
Chinese cinema desperately needs to head in some new direction -- the last five or six films I've seen from the mainland all seem to meld together into one unmemorable lump of picturesque period hokiness. Temptress Moon, which was shot by Wong Kar-wai's regular cinematographer, Chris Doyle, is visually ravishing, like just about every other recent Chinese movie, but that's the only level on which it works. Everything else -- performances, dramatic pacing, narrative logic -- is readily sacrificed...assuming, that is, that Chen Kaige (whose last film, Farewell My Concubine, also underwhelmed me) ever cared about anything besides his superb compositions in the first place. The main characters, played by the preposterously beautiful Gong Li and Leslie Cheung, are impenetrable masks of alternating lust and grief; the story, which as I recall (it's been nine months since I saw the film; I should really quit waiting for the theatrical release before writing the review) has something to do with gigolo Cheung being hired to seduce and rob childhood sweetheart Gong, is somehow both pedestrian and impossible to follow. Miramax, ever prepared to make whatever alterations are necessary to achieve Miramaximum accessibility, have attempted to render the latter a bit more comprehensible, via the addition of an explanatory prologue and their requisite trimming (have they ever released a foreign-language film at the same length in which it was seen in its native country?), but I frankly can't figure out what attracted them to it in the first place, apart from their previous relationship with Chen. A major feeling of déjà vu permeates the whole affair, to the point where I felt like substituting the film's generically poetic (and essentially meaningless) title on the marquee with the words Automatic Pilot. (Okay, so there was no marquee at the New York Film Festival, where I saw Temptress Moon. A good line is a good line, so just back off.) It's high time for the Fifth Generation to stop making stately, exquisite period melodramas and turn their attention to other times and other genres. They might want to think about peeking over at the work being done in their brand-new territory, for starters. Doyle could probably make the introductions.
East Side Story
How much you'll enjoy Carlos Saura's performance film ("documentary" seems inappropriate, somehow) Flamenco more or less depends upon how much you enjoy, well, flamenco. 'Cause flamenco, mi amigo, is what you're gonna get, and plenty of it, and there ain't nothin' else on this particular menu. No portentous narration, no talking heads, no historical or cultural context, no scratchy archival footage, no comparisons to other notable Spanish dance forms, no rampaging prehistoric carnivores, no death-defying speedboat chase scenes (thank christ) -- just a lot of folks stompin' and clappin' and warblin' their fool heads off. Saura employs a fairly elaborate lighting schema, with colors gradually shifting as the film progresses, but that's the extent of the picture's cinematic invention. This is the kind of movie that's impervious to criticism, unless the critic in question is so well versed in the form that he or she can comment upon the skill of the performers (which I, needless to say, am not); I can only report that I adored the music, found many of the dances thrilling, and was ready to go home about forty minutes before the closing credits actually rolled. However, I would not for the world have missed my favorite subtitle of the year: at the beginning of each new number, the song's title is superimposed onscreen (the lyrics are not otherwise translated), and alongside the usual paeans to lost love and family was the breathtakingly fabulous "The Kitten Is Scratching Me." The man singing this one struck me as unusually passionate; as someone who lives with two rambunctious felines, I felt his pain.
When the Cat's Away
Waco: The Rules of Engagement
About a year or so ago, I saw an unusual film entitled Lumière and Company, which consisted in large part of minute-long shorts made by contemporary directors using a reconstructed camera from the late nineteenth century. This project (which hasn't been released commercially, but which I'm told is available on video) involved some world-class names -- Lynch, Kiarostami, Zhang Yimou, Rivette, Wenders, Greenaway -- and of the forty or so directors who participated, there were only a handful of whom I had not previously heard. Among these unknowns was a fellow named Cédric Klapisch, who suddenly descended upon Manhattan almost exactly twelve months later with his two most recent pictures -- one of which opened the Walter Reade Theater's annual festival of new French films, the other of which opened the even more prestigious New Directors/New Films. The former, Un air de famille, about which I've rhapsodized previously, inexplicably still has no distributor; but the latter, When the Cat's Away, had been picked up before the fest began by Sony Pictures Classics. I think it's the lesser of the two, myself, and I'm not even convinced that it's the more commercial, but at the very least it confirms that Klapisch is no one-hit wonder. Virtually plotless, it's the discursive tale of a lonely young makeup artist named Chloé (Garance Clavel, superb), whose only companions are her rather obnoxious gay roommate (Olivier Py, suitably aloof) and her beloved black cat, Gris-Gris (Arapimou, cute enough but no match for my own Aquitaine and Brittany, who somehow missed the casting call). While on vacation -- the depiction of which is one of the best sight gags of the year -- she leaves Gris-Gris in the care of Madame Renée (Renée Le Calm, playing herself), an elderly woman who works part-time as a catsitter. When Chloé returns, she finds that Gris-Gris has vanished; her quest to find the missing feline, as you might have already guessed, places her in contact with a host of people of whose existence she had previously been not-so-blissfully unaware. Simultaneously a multifaceted character study and a portrait of a city in turmoil, When the Cat's Away is never less than thoroughly engaging, yet it ultimately feels rather slight, more a terrific idea for a movie than a terrific movie per se. It was reportedly originally conceived by Klapisch as a short, which doesn't surprise me in the least; while I enjoyed the improvisatory feel, I was also acutely aware from time to time that not a whole lot was technically happening onscreen, however fine the performances and keenly observed the milieu. Still, it's a fun, energetic, perceptive mood piece -- scattershot but confidently so -- and I was as patient with it as I would be with a dear friend who had overstayed his or her welcome by half an hour or so on an evening when I was eager to get to bed. Yawning on occasion, perhaps, but alert and alive all the same.
And on that cheery note, I am, at long last, outta here. Regular weekly (or at least bi-weekly) columns will now resume. I appreciate your patience.