Films Seen 2001

Storytelling (Todd Solondz): D+

Once upon a time, there was a very bitter man who decided to take revenge upon those people who had dismissed or humiliated him. He did this by making glibly provocative motion pictures that depict the world as a horrible place dedicated to the callous abuse of lonely misfits. For some reason, these motion pictures were highly acclaimed, and the bitter man became a minor celebrity. But a few people did not care for the bitter man's substitution of bile for insight, and said so publicly, and this galled the bitter man. He decided to make a motion picture that would directly address the criticisms of these people. That way, any complaint about the content of the motion picture would be redundant and pointless, having already been made within the motion picture itself. How he did this was, he engaged in the same glib provocation as usual, but carefully positioned his jejune button-pushing within a facile interrogative framework purporting to explore the ways in which we transform our lives into narratives. The bitter man did not actually have anything to say about this heady subject, but he hoped that viewers would be so shocked by the spectacle of a white girl repeatedly screaming "nigger fuck me hard," or so distracted by the thematically dubious presence of American Movie's Mike Schank, that they would fail to notice the film's essential emptiness. But even if they thought the film shallow and misanthropic and whiny, it would be difficult for them to express this opinion without seeming to validate the bitter man's "satirical" presentation of those very criticisms. The bitter man was very clever and very bitter indeed.

Everybody's Famous (Dominique Deruddere): C

So this monkey and Harvey Weinstein walk into a bar. After a few shots, the conversation turns to Miramax's stable of Oscar-bait foreign flicks, which Harvey, three sheets to the wind, admits are methodically reverse-engineered from various classics of world cinema. "Name any movie, however bleak and despairing and caustic," boasts big man, "and I can turn it into a heartwarming crowdpleaser." The monkey, after pondering this challenge for several minutes between fistfuls of beer nuts, names Martin Scorsese's uncompromising exploration of fame and dementia, The King of Comedy. "No sweat," says Harvey, sweating profusely. "Take Rupert Pupkin, turn him from a colossally irritating force of nature into a lovable schlemiel motivated by paternal pride. He kidnaps a celebrity to commandeer 15 minutes for his daughter. And instead of dorky Jerry Lewis and -- watch the tail, pal -- dorky Jerry Lewis and scary Sandra Bernhard, make the kidnap victim a bubbly Britney Spears type and engineer a romance between her and the hunk who's guarding her. Tone down the cynicism, crank up the labored pathos, and voilà! Instant Oscar nomination!" And the monkey says, [punchline coming soon to a theater near you].

Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul): B-

More a fascinating idea for a movie than a fascinating movie per se -- though it gains momentum as it goes along, its subjects'/creators' imaginations growing more and more outré with each successive reel. Sort of an oddball combination of laid-back naturalism, avant-garde tomfoolery and summer-camp hijinks; I was reminded at times of both Chronicle of a Disappearance (which nobody saw, so I'm sure that's helpful) and Céline and Julie Go Boating, but most of the time it felt sui generis, albeit somewhat aimlessly so. Brevity's a plus (83 mins.), as are the thoroughly charming conclusion (loved the way the kids keep jostling each other in and out of frame) and a surprisingly affecting epilogue (surprising because on the surface it's completely content-free, a series of establishing shots long after the need to establish anything has ended). Still, it seems appropriate that Weerasethakul chose to forgo a proper director's credit, instead employing Mike Leigh's old pal "conceived by" -- the controlling intelligence that could have made this more than an intriguing experiment seems to be absent. Damn glad I saw it, though; check it out if by some miracle it comes to your town. [No distributor.]

The Crimson Rivers (Mathieu Kassovitz): C-

Kind of a relief, really, to discover that empty, incoherent serial-killer movies transcend national boundaries. Kassovitz expertly mimics the genre's post-Se7en conventions -- fetishistic shots of insects crawling over mutilated flesh; the villain's taunting clues and rote psychological backstory -- but the plot's not merely nonsensical but blatantly antisensical, actually negating previously established elements of sense upon contact. Take just for example the scene where Vincent Cassel's investigation leads him to a convent, where he hopes to interview a nun played by Dominique Sanda. (Note to self: "avec la participation exceptionnelle de" = "thanks for lending a touch of class to this drivel.") The Mother Superior -- or maybe it was just the nun nearest the door when he knocked; it wasn't entirely clear -- ominously informs Vince that while he can talk to the woman he seeks, he can't see her, and while he can listen, he can't approach her. For she has taken -- wait for it -- the Vow of Shadows. "None of us has seen her for years," adds Sister Exposition in a sepulchral whisper. "Cool," thought I, anticipating some major hokum. Whereupon Vince walks in, sits down about two feet from Sanda, who's plainly visible both to him and to us, and proceeds to have a perfectly ordinary conversation with her, as if the laborious Lecteresque buildup had never happened. What's the French word for Gyp!?

Nine Queens (Fabián Bielinsky): C+

House of Games redux, only minus Mamet's arrestingly off-kilter abstraction (naturalism's just the wrong choice for this genre) and absent even the vaguest hint of a theme lurking beneath the various plot machinations. Only two possibilities as to what's going on here, and one's so stupefyingly obvious that it's instantly dismissable; I had the basic scenario nailed within the first ten minutes. Still quite watchable if you like this sort of thing, though, and baby-faced Gastón Pauls makes a wonderful Lindsay Crouse (which is more than you could ever say for Ms. Crouse herself), alternately cunning and befuddled. [No distributor.]

The Pledge (Sean Penn): B-

Afraid I'm gonna have to object to this one on that-makes-no-damn-sense grounds -- which seems a shame, given Penn's atmospheric direction and Nicholson's towering performance (his best work since Prizzi's Honor, though I should note that I haven't seen The Crossing Guard). Dürrenmatt's subversion of the renegade-cop scenario is right up my alley, but the film's exploration of its protagonist's disintegrating psyche would have been far more potent minus the cheap irony; I'd rather not get into spoilers, but let's just say that I'd have preferred to discover no man behind that particular curtain. More damaging still are the many blatant narrative contrivances necessary to manufacture said irony, including the most implausibly scarlet herring in many a moon -- they might as well have digitally inserted clips of Peter Lorre skulking about in M (to which there's an explicit allusion at one point). Too many Woody Allen-style star cameos, too, although one of 'em confirmed a suspicion I've been harboring since seeing Animal Factory last fall: Mickey Rourke is back! A few more kick-ass bits like that one, dude, and I may finally forgive you for Wild Orchid.

The Road Home (Zhang Yimou): D+

Perhaps it's a testament to Zhang Ziyi's range that she's so teeth-grittingly convincing here as a simpering twit, but the fact remains that I spent the vast majority of this insipid ode to romantic devotion longing for Michelle Yeoh to show up and kick the living shit out of her. Watching it feels like attending the funeral of Zhang Yimou, Idiosyncratic Artist; his compositions are typically fine, but the ornery, sentiment-subverting tone that distinguished even so blatantly inspirational a drama as last year's Not One Less has been replaced in this instance by generic lyricism and twee...tweeness. See Zhang search endlessly for the hair clip her lover gave her before he left town to answer some deliberately vague political inquiry. See Zhang wait patiently for her lover in a snowstorm until she finally faints from the cold. See Zhang run and run and run and run and run over hill and dale and dale and hill, carrying a bowl of mushroom dumplings for the inexplicable man of her dreams. (A scene depicting the bowl's repair was of more interest to me than the central love affair -- at least there was a little suspense involved, given that the dude works without glue.) As I'm typing this, it suddenly occurs to me that Breaking the Waves featured a similarly simpleminded and lovelorn protagonist...but Von Trier's flick, whatever my ideological objections, tackled weighty matters like sex and manipulation and self-pity and freakin' divine redemption, whereas this is more like The Love Song of H.R. Pufnstuf. "Rated G," notes the press kit, but I strenuously object to the notion of this wad of bathos sharing a category with such disturbing pictures as Bambi and Pinocchio. It's got all the edge of a helium balloon, and it's just about that substantial.

The Gift (Sam Raimi): C

Damn, where'd I put that receipt? Massive disjunction here between Thornton & Epperson's gothic-schmaltz script and Raimi's plodding, lethargic direction; as in A Simple Plan, the latter's attempt at restraint feels more like somnambulism, only this time we also get hackneyed scare tactics like the ol' open-the-[something]-so-it-blocks-most-of-the-frame-and-then-a-moment-later-when-it-closes- THERE'S-SOMEONE-STANDING-RIGHT-THERE-OH-MY-GOD!! bit. "See The Ninth Gate," advises Skander, and I concur: Polanski's masterful handling of hokey, semi-asinine material (the script, I mean, not The Dumas Club, which I own but haven't yet read) demonstrates what The Gift might have been in more preternaturally assured hands. Blanchett stranded without a character (can someone explain to me how her little spurt of personal growth in the denouement is thematically related to...oh, anything?); Keanu busting his ass to little effect as usual (I've never felt more respect for a terrible actor); Katie Holmes' breasts revealed so gratuitously that it had to be a deliberate career move on her part (let's hear it for deliberate career moves). And oh yeah: What the hell is our heroine doing using Zener cards as if they were Tarot cards? Shouldn't somebody onscreen have at least cocked an eyebrow, by way of letting us know it wasn't a gaffe?

The Personals (Chen Kuo-fu): C+

Remember in Next Stop Wonderland when Hope Davis's mom submitted a personal ad on her daughter's behalf and there was this montage of Davis' first dates with the various dudes who responded and all of them turned out to be sleazy or tedious or neurotic or insensitive or otherwise totally and hilariously unsuitable and the entire sequence ran maybe six or seven snappy and insightful minutes instead of, like, closing in on two hours? That was great.