Films Seen August 2000

[NOTE: Films seen this month that are in the New York Film Festival will be addressed in my forthcoming roundup of same; State and Main, which I saw for a second time in August, will be reviewed come its commercial release in December, 'cause I'm way behind]

It All Starts Today (Bertrand Tavernier): B-

Too impassioned for its own good -- after a while, I felt guilty for sitting there and watching it, instead of walking out and fomenting a revolution. [TONY review]

Titanic Town (Roger Michell): B

A better-than-average Troubles story -- not nearly as sanctimonious and visually drab as that genre (if that's the right word) tends to be. [TONY review]

The Art of War (Christian Duguay): C-

Not much practical advice here re: the nature of international belligerence; enthusiasts of the fine art of plate-glass window smashing, however, will find much to admire. [TONY review]

Dr. T & the Women (Robert Altman): C+

Presumably Altman didn't set out to be horrifically misogynistic, so let's give him (and his screenwriter, Anne Rapp) the benefit of the doubt, and assume that this largely unfunny, estrogen-suffused comedy was intended as some kind of implicit critique of male privilege and paranoia. I'll be damned if I can ferret out any trace of such a theme buried beneath the film's catalogue of desperate and dizzy dames, however; Altman never suggests that we're intended to be seeing the film's women through Dr. T's blurred vision (his patients are behaving like harpies during the opening credits sequence, before we've even met our beleaguered hero), and there's no denying that most of the female characters are either pathetic (Farrah Fawcett's unhinged wife, Shelley Long's randy assistant, Laura Dern's dipsomaniacal belle), ineffectual (wispy ingenues Kate Hudson and Liv Tyler), or unreasonably demanding (the doctor's patients), whereas Gere remains a largely sympathetic victim throughout. Helen Hunt, meanwhile, seems to have been directed to suppress her usual warmth and tenderness and other-directedness, making Bree appear stereotypically masculine; the irony wasn't lost on me, but Bree's behavior is so stridently solipsistic that she comes across as someone you'd work overtime to avoid at a party, in common with virtually every vulva-possessing character onscreen. Even those who like the film seem to like it for disturbing reasons: Variety's Todd McCarthy refers admiringly to the fact that Gere's gynecologist, like many of Truffaut's protagonists, "regards women as 'saints' who 'should be treated as such,'" apparently unaware that this attitude is merely a marginally more benign form of sexism. (To be fair, McCarthy's discussion of the film's subtext is pretty vague -- one of the film's points, for instance, may be that treating women like saints drives them insane, though McCarthy never actually makes this observation -- so I may be mistaken in characterizing his remark as "admiring.") Intriguing, but a hopeless muddle; the bizarro-world ending virtually screams "Desperate But Not Serious." Unless you're an Altman completist, I'd recommend going with Dr. Terwilliker and his multiple digits instead.

Orfeu (Carlos Diegues): C

Okay, maybe Black Orpheus wasn't a very accurate representation of Brazil's favelas, but at least it wasn't totally inert. [TONY review]

Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire (Kevin Jordan): C

More like Smirking Fish & Goat on Prozac; harmless enough, I guess, but so blatantly a career move by sitcom-disposable talent that I found it incredibly depressing. [TONY review]

Yi Yi (A One and a Two...) (Edward Yang): B

Shouldn't a masterpiece exhibit a bit more, I dunno, pizzazz? This one reminds me a lot of Tokyo Story, a movie I admire immensely (and have seen twice to date) but can't quite bring myself to love: both are wise, moving, intelligent, beautifully acted, formally impeccable...and so relentlessly sedate that I inevitably find myself hoping for the introduction of some ridiculously contrived plot device that might shake their expertly drawn characters out of their stupor -- like, oh, a Biblical rain of frogs, let's say. Anderson's films suffer badly from his need to pitch every damn scene at the highest possible emotional tenor, but they also feature moments so electrifying that they sear themselves into your long-term memory; Yang, who demonstrated energy a-plenty in 1994's superior A Confucian Confusion, here resolutely avoids any hint of intensity, and the result is an undifferentiated mass of low-key excellence. (The one exception -- the only scene I can vividly recall a week and a half later -- is Min-Min's heartrending monologue about the emptiness of describing her day to her comatose mother; it's admittedly more theatrical than cinematic, but then I belong to the school of thought, pioneered by Welles among others, that cinema has much to learn from theater [and vice versa].) Plus, hate to say it, but certain formal strategies that once seemed daring and evocative are rapidly becoming arthouse clichés. "When a woman tries to break down her bathroom door in order to rescue her boyfriend from a suicide attempt, Yang only shows us one image: a static view of her living room, in which she rarely appears," notes Steve Erickson admiringly; I, on the other hand, am finding the ol' let's-put-the-camera-where-the-action's-not ploy increasingly affected, a kneejerk way of avoiding the appearance of sentimentality or melodrama. (When in doubt, move the camera back another ten feet.) Don't get me wrong: everybody should run out and see this movie the second it hits their metropolitan area; its three hours fairly zip by (especially considering how little is "happening" by Hollywood narrative standards) and there's much to treasure -- sharp performances (Issey Ogata manages to kick ass despite performing all of his scenes in English, a language he's clearly learned as an adult), telling compositions (Yang more than makes up for the keep-your-distance aesthetic with his masterful use of windows, repeatedly juxtaposing interior and exterior within a single shot), thematic richness (the multigenerational structure allowing Yang to examine the arc of a life from several different perspectives at once). If only it took a few more risks, burst out of its measured bubble once in a while, I might feel something stronger than placid admiration. [Opens 6 October 2000 in NYC.]

Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe): B-

Part of me wonders whether Crowe didn't ultimately settle on the title as a favor to his stars' publicists (opening grafs for feature profiles of Crudup and Hudson pretty much write themselves now), but its slightly forlorn quality also serves as an inadvertent apologia for a movie with much to recommend it but a great, gaping hole where its emotional core ought to be. (Almost an Angel, Almost Heroes, Almost You -- damn, that word is the kiss of death.) While complaints about the essential passivity of the director's teenaged alter ego aren't entirely without merit -- "Wow, neato!" pretty much encapsulates the kid's point of view for most of the picture, and the endless close-ups of his wide-eyed countenance do grow tiresome -- the real problem is Crowe's nostalgic reverence for alleged groupie extraordinaire Penny Lane (based on a real person, as the closing credits conspicuously note); despite a contrived third-act crisis and Hudson's herculean fleshing-out efforts, she never really registers as much more than a breathy, giggly bit of starfucking fluff. Imagine a version of Bull Durham -- another movie that's a mash note from its writer/director to his former profession -- in which the female lead is not Susan Sarandon's complex, individualistic Annie Savoy but Jenny Robertson's perky, bubbleheaded Millie (the team slut who winds up marrying one of the players), and you'll get a sense of what Almost Famous is missing: Annie's passion for baseball and the Bulls oozes from her pores (she cares more about the game than about Nuke or Crash, ultimately), whereas Penny's love for Stillwater's music is never dramatized -- merely asserted by the script. Equally frustrating is the film's oddly inconsistent tone: the scene where everybody starts blurting out long-buried secrets and uncomfortable truths (because they think their plane's about to crash) is played so broadly that it's like a ZAZ outtake, and other bits are irritatingly wink-wink-nudge-nudge (e.g., a reference to some proto-fax unit that can transmit data over the phone at a rate of "only" 18 minutes per page -- compare/contrast to Mike Leigh's deft handling of similar material in Topsy-Turvy.) And then there's Frances "did you say 'more'?" McDormand...but I've gone down that road several times before, so enough said, perhaps. Terrific stuff going on in the margins, though -- from the hilarious backstage bickering between guitarist Crudup and lead singer Jason Lee (looking very Ted Nugent); to Crowe's spot-on, semi-Proustian selection of recognizable-but-not-quite-obligatory classics of '70s rock; to the wealth of journalistic detail that informs virtually every shot (though the details about journalism itself are frequently preposterous; if I were Ben Fong-Torres, I'd sue for defamation of character, but it appears that the real Fong-Torres is just grateful for the recognition/publicity). Philip Seymour Hoffman's vivid portrayal of legendary critic Lester Bangs, on the other hand, is almost distractingly terrific; if we must have biopics, can't we have that one? Please? [Opens 15 September 2000 in NYC.]

George Washington (David Gordon Green): B+

Might as well just say what everybody else is gonna say, which is that George Washington is the movie that Gummo would have been had Harmony Korine demonstrated half as much interest in exploring other people's lives -- or even his own psyche -- as he did in establishing a reputation as some kind of nouveau-punk iconoclast. Working in a similarly dilapidated small-town location (somewhere in North Carolina, apparently, though it's never identified) and tapping a similar vein of squalid lyricism -- hell, even their faux-biopic titles seem to be futilely hailing the same off-duty cab -- Green wisely refrains from reducing his characters to sideshow attractions, creating instead a nuanced, diffuse portrait of a community in repressed turmoil, its inhabitants consumed by anxiety and lethargy in equal measure. Having accepted the film's apparent plotlessness early on, I became a bit wary when a Very Dramatic Event unexpectedly occurred (unexpectedly = I hadn't read a synopsis; the VDE in question is the film's sole marketable aspect, so don't expect to be equally uninformed), fearing that Green's expertly shambling, loose-limbed vibe might be replaced by rote in-over-our-heads shenanigans. But thankfully no -- the film just shambles onward, albeit now with the occasional nervous glance back over the shoulder. Beautifully directed throughout (cannily edited, too -- loved the bit where we cut away from and then back to the motorcycle dude's jaunty ride through town, especially when it turned out to have nothing to do with anything), with some scenes feeling so authentic that you'd swear they were shot on the sly, perhaps when the non-pro actors thought they were taking five. Others are a bit studied, maybe, but forgivably so; not for the world, for instance, would I have missed pre-adolescent Nasia's absurdly touching and solemn attempts at adult-speak. (You wouldn't think a line as prosaic as "I fell in love with another man" could bring down the house, but wait and see.) Granted, Green sometimes tries a bit too hard, veering into pretension (especially in his use of a Malickian voiceover narration -- though I should probably note that I think Malick himself gets a little hoity-toity with the VO in his latter two films); the final reel works overtime to sell the whole picture as a meditation on the nature of heroism, a belated thematic flourish for which I frankly was just not in the market. But nobody hereabouts casually shoots a comatose woman, or blithely ignores scuttling indoor roaches, or nonchalantly pimps his developmentally disabled relative, and I was pretty grateful to see an arty, beauty-amidst-the-muck mood piece that's actually set on planet Earth. [Opens 27 October 2000 in NYC]

Bless the Child (Chuck Russell): D

Any minute now, I expect the National Association for the Permanent Advancement of Lucifer's Minions (NAPALM) to protest its release, on the grounds that it portrays Satan-worshippers as complete fucking idiots. [TONY review]

The Original Kings of Comedy (Spike Lee): B

Really a glorified HBO special, not a movie, but hey -- funny is funny, you know what I mean? [TONY review]

You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan): B+

Can't be entirely objective about this one, as watching Mark Ruffalo's portrayal of a scruffy, self-righteous ne'er-do-well was like looking into a mirror that reflects a 10-year-old image. (As it happens, Ruffalo is almost exactly my age, which created a weird kind of cognitive dissonance -- it was as if I were seeing what my life would be like today had I continued on the same path.) Still, personal identification aside, this is potent stuff -- small-scale, to be sure, and more literary than cinematic (thankfully, Lonergan's mise-en-scène is merely undistinguished, not distractingly incompetent), but extremely perceptive about the synthesis of exasperated affection and lingering resentment that characterizes the relationship of many adult siblings. Each scene in which Ruffalo and Laura Linney -- both outstanding -- occupy the same room is invested with a palpable tension that's somehow both mundane and incredibly gripping; when they're apart, which is much of the time, Lonergan deftly sketches a portrait of contrasting modes of alienation, with reformed party girl Linney opting for a self-destructive liaison with her boss (Matthew Broderick makes a fine petty bureaucrat), while her brother methodically warps the troubled mind of her pre-adolescent son, deluding himself that his vindictive remarks and sadistic stunts are merely blunt, bracing honesty, as if he'd been appointed the official alarm clock/coffee-aroma merchant of upstate New York. I don't know from Lonergan's (acclaimed) stage plays, but he's got the stuff, no question -- creating a deceptively simple narrative, carefully organized without becoming schematic; conveying mucho with next to nada, dialogue-wise; strenuously avoiding the obvious and banal (a marriage proposal scene, coming out of nowhere, shot initially from a distance, begins with the line "I don't know what to say," which would be roughly the 25th line in most writers' versions). There are occasional and regrettable B-plussy glitches, mostly at the opening and close: I didn't much care for the film's brief, startling prologue, which puts more weight than necessary on a tragedy in the family's past (a brief allusion would have sufficed; opening the movie with it smacks of reductionism), and Ruffalo's given an uncharacteristically Aesopian monologue just before the closing credits that should have been cut and replaced by a single tentative gesture. Shame about the sap-happy title, too. But the curse of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize has been lifted at long last. [Opens December 2000 in NYC.]

Aimée & Jaguar (Max Färberböck): B-

Maria Schrader gets my vote for the best contemporary actress nobody's ever heard of; unfortunately, the picture never coherently connects its forbidden romance to its historical setting. [TONY review]